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AWADmail Issue 289

January 13, 2008

A Weekly Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Other Interesting Tidbits about Words and Languages


From: Anu Garg (words at wordsmith.org)
Subject: Interesting stories from the net

Arabic Lessons:
The New York Times

Take a Literary Tour of Unique U.S. Bookstores:
Seattle Times

And here are two reviews and excerpts from my recently-released book: The Olympian, Seattle Times.


From: Anu Garg (words at wordsmith.org)
Subject: 2008 calendar for Wordsmith Chat

Wordsmith Chats are online events where you can chat with invited guests and ask questions on topics related to words, languages, etc.

We'll kick off the 2008 season of Wordsmith Chat with the following authors.

Charlotte Brewer, author of "Treasure-House of the Language: The Living OED"
Chat topic: The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
Sat, Jan 19, 12 noon Pacific (GMT -8)

Seth Lerer, author of "Inventing English"
Chat topic: The Journey of the English Language
Wed, Feb 6th, 7pm Pacific

Ben Yagoda, author of "When you catch an adjective, kill it"
Chat topic: Friend Me, Pimp My Ride, and Signage: Or, the Ever-Changing Parts of Speech
Mon, Feb 25, 6pm Pacific

Michael Erard, author of "Um...: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean"
Chat topic: Verbal Blunders and What They Mean
Mon, Mar 17th, 6pm Pacific


From: Jeb Raitt (jbrmm266 aol.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--mare's nest

My father, an avid fisherman, used that term to describe the mess that occurs when a fishing line gets tangled in a reel as a result of any number of mishaps.

    Mer's nest? (French mer: sea)
    -Anu Garg


From: Dennis Butler (jbutler uabmc.edu)
Subject: Mare's nest

I wonder if there is not another sense to the term. I work in sleep disorders and a nightmare has nothing to do with horses. If I recall correctly, that use of the term "mare" derives from older German and connotes a devil so nightmares are really night devils. A devil's nest makes a good interpretation as well.


From: Tisha Havens (thavens insurancetechnologies.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--dog's letter

The rumor going around back in my playground days was that R is the dog's letter because the shape of the R suggests a rear view of a dog "lifting its leg".


From: John Ascenzi (ascenzi email.chop.edu)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--dog's letter

Perhaps we can also refer to R as the pirate's letter. Think "Arrrhh."


From: Sarju Shah (sarju.shah ct.gov)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--dog's letter

There are also dog letters.


From: Emanuela Ughi (emanuela.ughi gmail.com)
Subject: sheep's eyes and other animals

The term sheep's eyes reminds me the analogous Italian "occhi di triglia" = mullet's eyes. It has the same meaning, but I have no idea of the reason!


From: Alison Huettner (pondalorum aol.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--donkey's years

I read a story somewhere about a woman who wanted to buy a donkey for her children. She found a place that sold donkeys, and negotiations on a price were almost complete when she happened to ask how long donkeys live. "About 30 years," was the answer. The woman gulped, reconsidered, and asked, "Um... can you sell me a really OLD donkey?"


From: Jane Wells (dockriver yahoo.ca)
Subject: donkey's years - or ears?

I first heard this word while temping in London, where I worked with a number of East End women. I never saw it written, just heard people say things like "Oh, I haven't seen him in donkey's." I understood the full expression to be "donkey's ears" and that it was Cockney rhyming slang, examples of which are: donkey's ears - years; plates of meat - feet; rabbit and pork - talk (pork and talk actually rhyme in a cockney accent). The whole phrase is never used, you just say the first word, as in "Listen to me rabbitting on", to mean talking a lot. My father's favourite was "on your tod" which means "on your own" and came from a reference to a once-famous jockey "Tod Sloane- all alone".


From: Doruk Salanci (doruksal gmail.com)
Subject: feedback: donkey's years

Hello from Ankara! The phrase "donkey's years", has a similar term in the Turkish language that goes as "esek sudan gelinceye/dönene dek/kadar". Here, "esek" is "donkey", "su" is "water", "gel-" is for "to come", "dön-" is for "to return" and "dek/kadar" stands for "till/until". Thus, the Turkish phrase may be translated into English as "till the donkey comes/returns from the water", of course, "water" standing for a water source to satisfy thirst or bathing needs.


From: Carsten Kruse (c-kruse t-online.de)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--donkey's years

Funny enough, I read "donkey's ears" at first before I realised it's "donkey's years". This shouldn't happen to a native since this misreading is based upon my confusing it with the German term "Eselsohren = Donkey's ears" which stands for "dog-eared" in German.


From: James D Brown (jdbrown hawaii.rr.com)
Subject: cat's paw

The third usage of cat's paw is well known to sailboaters. Turbulent downdrafts leave discontinuous little rippled patches on the water that can look like the tracks of a gigantic invisible cat walking on the water. They are common downwind of cliffs or tall obstacles. I used to sail at West Point, where the winds often come off the palisades and can be viewed from them as the footfalls of a slightly tipsy cat.


From: Marc Beschler (hfarmer juno.com)
Subject: cat's paw

Just a guess, but given my own cats' habit of occasionally pawing the surface of their water dishes, it could spring from observance of such a habit and the resulting resemblance to the effect the wind creates.


From: Paul Hamilton (satyr77 att.net)
subject: cat's paw

I'm a contractor and certified cat magnet. Wherever I go, customers' cats or neighborhood strays will happen along to supervise, obtain scratchings, or just hang out.

A very handy tool which I bought many years ago when learning framing carpentry was a cat's paw which is used to remove a nail.

In this case, it's not someone but something used as a tool by another.


From: John Burbidge (burbidge centurytel.net)
Subject: Cat's paw

Growing up in Western Australia, I was familiar with a wildflower called the Cat's Paw. Not quite as spectacular as the larger and better-known Kangaroo Paw, it nevertheless was a welcome sight each spring with its orangey-red hues. Its botanical name is Anigozanthos humilis in the family Amaryllidaceae. Here is a link I found to a picture of the plant.


From: Gordon Walker (gordonwalker roadrunner.com)
Subject: Cat's paw

Wasn't there a replacement shoe heel called Cat's Paw? That was back in the Great Depression when one resoled and reheeled one's own shoes. That is back when the devil was a boy.


From: Pamela Capraru (pam1988 sympatico.ca)
Subject: Cat's paw

I've collected a common seashell in Florida known as a cat's paw or kitten's paw, Plicatula gibbosa, which looks just how it sounds.


From: Reiko Umeda (umeda daido-it.ac.jp)
Subject: Japanese equivalent to Tailor's wife

In Japanese, we have Kouya no Shirobakama (The white clothes of a dyer: Kouya or Konya, Kon: navy-blue, Ya: shop, no: of, Shiro: white, hakama: old days' pants), which could be translated into "The tailor's wife is worst clad" or "The shoemaker's children go barefoot."

It's amazing that we have similar expressions in different cultures, isn't it?


If a homological adjective is one that is true of itself, e.g., "polysyllabic", and a heterological adjective is one which is not true of itself, e.g., "bisyllabic", then what about "heterological?" Is it heterological or not? -Grelling's Paradox

This week's theme Whose what? (animal edition)

This week's words
mare's nest
dog's letter
sheep's eyes
donkey's years
cat's paw

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