Monday, October 26, 2009

Now THAT'S Etymology

I've never found word origins very interesting. Every once in a while, I'll wonder how we ended up with a word like "shampoo," so I'll look it up to see that it comes from a Hindi word meaning "to massage."

But for the most part, in those moments when I'm feeling both intellectually curious and energetic enough to do something about it, I'd much rather learn about chemistry or geology or modern French or credit default swaps than the points A, B, and C that one of our words passed through. (It probably has to do with my aversion to history and linear time in general.)

Today, however, I make an exception. It's a passage I came across in "The Omnivore's Dilemma" in a chapter about corn.

"The shelled cobs were burned for heat and stacked by the privy as a rough substitute for toilet paper. (Hence the American slang term "corn hole.")

Now that's etymology.

Bookmark and Share


. said...

Hi June...quelle coincidence, I'm reading "The Omnivore's Dilemma" right now. I'm sure the Great Cornholio would be very excited to learn where his name came from.

So today I was driving to work on Lake Street in Minneapolis when my eye was drawn to the bumper sticker on the car next to me. I kid you not, it said "Grammar snobs are great big meanies" with the illustration from the bookcover. You evidently have a huge fan in the Twin Cities!

And thirdly: My book is finally finished! You can read more about it on my blog, if you're interested.


June Casagrande said...

Wow. That is a coincidence that you're reading Omnivore. Are you loving it? I've only been reading it for a few days, but I'm already boring Ted to death with how fascinating the subject matter is (through chapter 3 at least) and how astonishingly well the writer handles it. The man makes nitrogen downright riveting. I'm very impressed.

On another subject: a major laugh on my end with the Cornholio reference. Well done.

I thought you had finished the book back when you were trying out query letters. Glad to hear it's done! It seems that the ones that take longer but the writer sticks with them come out better and do better. So congratulations!!

Thanks for sharing that you saw a Grammar Snobs bumper sticker. It's nice to know I'm still relevant to someone, somewhere.

Hope you're enjoying life up there. I had no idea what a gorgeous area it was until I visited briefly a few years ago. If it weren't for the cold (which a Florida girl like me can't handle), it would be on my move-there-someday list.

Keep me posted on the book!

- J

Anonymous said...


I'm curious if you know when the slash (/) symbol seemed to come into vogue for writing? A guy where my wife works uses it so much, she calls him "The Slasher."

I want/need to know!

Curt (Pith of a Salesman)

June Casagrande said...

Hi, Curt.

You know, that may be the most baffling question I've ever been asked.

It's not just that I don't know, it's that I don't know how to begin finding out. I tried searching a major newspaper database -- just to compare its uses for two different years within that paper. But the engine won't allow punctuation marks as search terms.

My best guess is that no one has ever bothered to document its use. But I don't even know how to verify my guess!


- June

LL Blackwell said...

I love etymology! But for the exact reasons of the corn hole thing. I wish every word had that good of a story to go with it. I'm always disappointed when all I get is the Hindi word meaning "to massage." Although there was one time when we (English teachers) were bored at some lame training and began to wonder why the plural of goose is geese, but moose doesn't get the same treatment. Turns out moose is Native American or something and goose, well, isn't. Still, I wish the dictionary explained that the word moose comes from the tribe's history of luring moose to them by mooing. Something like that. Oh well.

June Casagrande said...

Well, that does touch on some stuff about our language that I find fascinating. The whole through-thought-though-tough thing that has to do with English's melting pot roots.

Still, I suppose that I don't like etymology for the same reason I don't like crime shows like CSI. I don't care that the ballistics people saw little grooves in wounds that led them to the murder weapon. I want to know who dunnit and why -- but not the tedious details that revealed who dunnit.

Have you ever heard of a book called "Biting the Wax Tadpole"? I have a feeling you'd love it. It's by this woman whose knowledge of foreign languages is just jaw-dropping (Elizabeth Little, I believe).

The title is a reference to some literally translated Coca-Cola advertisment in China.

The whole book is just her ruminations on stuff she finds fascinating about different languages. It's a great read. (Altough, it made me really jealous because I wished I knew as much about foreign languages as Little does.)

Just FYI.

Adrian Morgan said...

Etymology ... I'm not mad about it, but I do enjoy reading Charles Hodgson's Podictionary blog. If that doesn't make etymology interesting, nothing does.

My father is a geologist, and I have to say that I would much rather learn about geology than, say, credit default swaps.

June Casagrande said...

Ooh! Thanks for the link to Podictionary. Looks very interesting. I'm gonna try to remember to listen/read.

I'm jealous your dad's a geologist. I was raised by the kind of people you see on "Cops" and "My Name Is Earl."

(In case they don't broadcast those shows down under, suffice it to say "not educated.")

LL Blackwell said...

Oh, I do believe I've heard of Biting the Wax Tadpole! Thanks for reminding me about it, since I have yet to get around to reading it.

I agree with the CSI thing, which is why I only took one linguistics class in college. Cursory knowledge was enough to content me. Wish I knew that more languages, though!

Anonymous said...


reminds me of this

June Casagrande said...

Gallagher: "Why should i be serious about the language if the language isn't serious enough to make sense?"

As someone who opposes seriousness in all its forms, I really like that.

Thanks for sharing that link!


Bookmark and Share