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AWADmail Issue 546

A Weekly Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Tidbits about Words and Language

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

The Evolution of English Words and Phrases Since 1520
MIT Technology Review

How the Internet is Changing Language
BBC News

Vocabulary Declines, With Unspeakable Results
The Wall Street Journal

From: Anu Garg (words at wordsmith.org)
Subject: Dispatches from India - part 1

A Big Fat Indian Wedding

Earlier this month I made a short trip to India to attend a wedding. A wedding is a raucous, joyous, and chaotic family affair anywhere, but you have to visit India to appreciate what that really means. A typical Indian wedding means invitations to all relatives, no matter how distant. And everyone has a specific role in the wedding, in one or more ceremonies. The groom's brother's wife, for example, is designated to applying kajal (kohl) in his eyes.

In the past, an Indian wedding used to be a week-long affair, but the constraints of modern life have squeezed it to only two days. They involve separate events at the groom's and bride's places. The main event involves the groom's going to the bride's place in a procession. He is on horseback or in a buggy, accompanied by an outrageously loud band with a dozen instruments, a big generator on wheels to light the procession, and the wedding party in their finest.

The wedding is often an occasion to flaunt wealth, with some putting on events costing millions. For instance, some of the wedding dinners include dozens of dishes, breads, condiments, and desserts. The one I attended included Italian, Chinese, and Thai fare, besides Indian.

India is known for its contrast of wealth and poverty and nowhere is it more visible than at a wedding. While the members of a wedding procession may be in expensive suits and dresses, just a foot or two away from all that finery is a line of children in rags carrying heavy lamps on their heads. These lamps are hooked up to a large portable generator to light the wedding procession. Among these kids I saw one who couldn't be older than ten with a lamp on his tiny head. This procession was thankfully short -- only half an hour -- but some can last up to two hours. I have never before felt such a strange mix of emotions. Joy at the palpable festivity that signifies the union of two people starting a new life together and deep pain to see kids who should be sleeping to be rested for school the next day, instead walking in the cold night with soul-destroying burdens. Just so they'd have a few slices of dry bread to eat the next day.

A few paragraphs cannot do justice to an Indian wedding, but there's a moment that I can never forget. Of all the ceremonies in an Indian wedding, my favorite is the one called taking balaya (taking away troubles). When the groom and the bride visit his mother's home for the first time after marriage, she welcomes them at the front door. Using the end part of her long sari, she waves it over the heads of the newlyweds, making the motion from them to her and in the process, pulling to herself whatever evil may be in store for them in their new life. For the jaded wedding attendees it's yet another ritual in a seemingly unending sequence of ceremonies, but I found it bringing tears to my eyes. I could see it was not a mere ritual for the mother. When she quietly wished to attract evil from the newlyweds over herself, she meant every inch of it.

See India travel reports: part 2, part 3.

Read more travel reports: Scandinavia | Mumbai | London

From: Rudy Rosenberg Sr (RRosenbergSr accuratechemical.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--princox
Def: A conceited person

I thought that was pronounced "Trump". Does he subscribe to Wordsmith?

Rudy Rosenberg Sr., Westbury, New York

From: Beth Taylor (taylortribe1987 comcast.net)
Subject: nincompoop
Def: A silly or stupid person.

I had to laugh when I heard this word, because it brought up all sorts of memories of my childhood. For some reason my parents used it a lot, which is surprising, because we grew up in a very conservative home. That's why my brother and I always were shocked, because the word actually had "poop" in it! Shocking to us as children, coming from a reverend and his wife!

Beth Taylor, Spokane, Washington

From: Paul Foley (pfoley4 woh.rr.com)
Subject: nincompoop

When I was drafted into the army during the Korean "conflict", there was another word coined to describe questionable corporals through master sergeants -- non-compoop -- a noncommissioned nincompoop, of which there were many.

Paul Foley, Tipp City, Ohio

From: Tom Houston (thouston us.ibm.com)
Subject: Etymology of nincompoop

You'll get lots of similar feedback, but "nincompoop" parodies the grim Latin phrase "non compus mentis" (1607) meaning "not of sound mind". The words "compus mentis" ("being of sound mind") were obligatory in the opening sentence of typical "last will and testament" legal documents -- but without the "non". "Nincompoop" has endured for four centuries because it sounds silly, unlike some references to mortality. I wonder if lexicographers who classify this as "Origin unknown" are only pretending to be nincompoops?

Tom Houston, San Francisco, California

I did. Many readers offered the Latin origin and in that they have good company with the great Lexicographer Samuel Johnson. They wondered why the origin was listed as unknown when it's so clearly from Latin "non compos mentis". The first two syllables of the word nincompoop do appear close to the Latin term.

However, the earliest documented use of the word from 1673 has the spelling Nicompoop. This is where we run into trouble with our Latin conjecture. Various other origins have been proposed, from French or Dutch, but in the absence of definitive evidence of its origin the best course is to admit ignorance and say: We don't know (yet).
-Anu Garg

From: Maureen Verhaeren (mverhaeren gmail.com)
Subject: Nincompoop

This word reminded me of some of my favorite insults from Bugs Bunny: "What a gulla-bull. What a nin-cow-poop ... What a maroon!"

Maureen Verhaeren, Beaver, Utah

From: Rudy Rosenberg Sr (RRosenbergSr accuratechemical.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--malingerer

In the French world, a malingerer is usually referred to as someone who "pulls the carrot" and suffers of carotite aiguë (acute carrotitis) a condition known to every professor and later to many bosses when student and employee (usually the same person, just a bit older) fails to show up for work.

Carotite aiguë seldom improves through age -- as one grows older one does not always get smarter. Acute carrotitis stings far better than a malingerer.

Rudy Rosenberg Sr., Westbury, New York

From: Elizabeth Buchen (esbuchen gmail.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--malingerer
Def: One who feigns illness in order to avoid work.

In medicine, malingering describes feigning illness for any reason (not just to avoid work).

Elizabeth Buchen, MD, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Email of the Week (Courtesy Old's Cool -- Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!)

From: William C. Lamb (william.lamb pseg.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--curmudgeon
Def: An ill-tempered, stubborn person, usually an old man.

How can one use the word curmudgeon without mentioning Andy Rooney He is probably the most famous curmudgeon of all. His picture should be next to the definition in the dictionary.

I found myself in agreement with his opinions and editorials 99% of the time. I guess I'm becoming one myself!

William C. Lamb, Hancocks Bridge, New Jersey

From: Anna Lawson (wordsmith fastmail.fm)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--curmudgeon

I have a particular fondness for the word curmudgeon, stemming partly from its presence on high school achievement tests decades ago (when it applied exclusively to old men). Largely, though, my affection for it is simply because I am one. I am not a man, however, so to refer to myself I use curmudgienne, a word a couple of friends and I cooked up so we could have equal status with crabby old men. Crabby old women, unite!

Anna Lawson, Bellingham, Washington

From: Hugh Rawson (hugh.rawson.bk.56 aya.yale.edu)
Subject: curmudgeon

"Curmudgeon" is of additional interest for a famous (among dictionary makers) mistaken etymology. Samuel Johnson had apparently mislaid a slip of paper with his source's name on it when he prepared his great dictionary (1755), suggesting that the word arose as a faulty way "of pronouncing 'coeur mechant', Fr. an unknown correspondent." The French translates as "evil heart" but Johnson's note led John Ash to stumble badly when preparing his dictionary (1775). Following too closely in Johnson's footsteps, Ash derived the term from "coeur" meaning "unknown" plus "mechant" meaning "correspondent". This may be why, with this horrible example before them, lexicographers today pass the word silently by, labeling its origin "obscure" or "unknown".

Hugh Rawson, Roxbury, Connecticut

The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest men of past centuries. -Rene Descartes, philosopher and mathematician (1596-1650)

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