What's in a Word?

Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel

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A winsome word for ‘lazy’

By Debra Dobbins
Thursday, June 12, 2014

My English-teacher heart skipped a beat this morning as I read on page D1 Rachel Sauer's delightful advice on Respecting the Language. In my humble opinion, she showed quite exquisite editorial taste by putting caps on those two words.  As I've noted before, working with others who truly care about words is my chief pleasure here.

Sauer's feature even merited some space in the Sentinel's “skybox” — the words and graphics that appear at the very top of page one. The words above, including “lackadaisical,” were copied from that spot.

In modern usage “lackadaisical” has taken on the meanings of “lazy” or “indifferent.” Webster's notes that it can also mean “listless” or “languid.”

On hot summer days and nights I often veg out on my back porch or at outdoor concerts. If that means I am lackadaisical, then so be it. I just view such sloth as being indifferent to chores that can, indeed must, wait for another day, preferably one that's cold and rainy.

This five-syllable word appears to have evolved from a two-syllable word: alack. That was an interjection to express regret, and its first-known use was in the 15th century, according to merriam-webster.com.

Later the word expanded to “alackaday” and then to “lackadaisy.” From that noun form came the adjective “lackadaisical.”

Illustration special to the Sentinel


Coining the word ‘budget’

By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Several years ago my ex and I took our son Dylan to lunch. Our mission that day was to discuss with him how to better manage his finances.

I had created and printed out a yearly budget, month by month, with numerous line items covering everything from an estimated cost of Christmas presents to the cost of his cell phone. I told him that part of budgeting was to reduce outlays for items wherever possible and that I felt his monthly cell phone fee was too expensive. I suggested switching to a cheaper phone.

He listened politely, but I could tell he wasn't sold on the idea. Our food arrived, and the conversation drifted to other topics. Midway through the meal I asked my ex if he'd seen a YouTube video of a former boss of ours christening a ship in Amsterdam. Dave replied that he had yet to view it.

Dylan seized the opportunity. He asked for her name and in under a minute pulled the video up on his phone and handed it to his dad. Dylan then turned to me and smiled but wisely said nothing. I could, however, read his mental ticker tape: “See, this phone does come in handy.”

About a year later I also succumbed to the lure of modern technology and bought a smartphone. Now I consider it an indispensable tool. To defray its monthly fee, though, I've cut services from my landline.

With those anecdotes in mind, I have to agree with American author Mason Cooley, quoted by Sol Steinmetz in Semantic Antics. In his book City Aphorisms (1994), Cooley writes, “A budget takes the fun out of money.”

Indeed. With so many wonderful gizmos available these days, sticking to a budget is no small feat. Most people, though, would agree it's an important responsibility for individuals, families, businesses, cities, states and nations. (If you can stomach major sticker shock, see the top left-hand corner of every Sunday's op ed page to see just how badly the U.S. has blown its budget.)

Great Britain's Sir Robert Walpole is credited with introducing the term “budget” in 1733 to describe national funds coming in and then going out in a certain span of time, according to Steinmetz. As chancellor of the exchequer, Walpole “presented his annual estimate of the revenue and expenditure projected for the coming year. He was then said to have 'opened the budget.'”

Walpole used the expression, Steinmetz goes on to explain, as an extension of the original meaning of the word, which came into English from French in the 1430s. At that time, the word “meant a pouch, a bag, a satchel, a wallet, usually made of leather. Budget was borrowed from Middle French bougette 'small bag, wallet,' diminutive of bouge 'leather bag or pouch.'”

Steinmetz also notes that it was not until the 1900s that “budget” was further expanded to mean a financial plan by individuals and families, and not just nations.

I'm pleased to report that Number One (and only) Son is getting a better handle on his finances. Now if I can just get him to add one essential line item, Mom's Daily Extravagant Gift, he will have truly mastered the art of budgeting.

Sir Robert Walpole
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Illustration special to the Sentinel

Comme Sisyphe by Honoré Daumier (displayed in the Brooklyn Museum)
Photo of lithograph on newsprint courtesy of Wikipedia



Invaders deserve credit for romances

By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Coupling the concepts of "romantic" and "old" does actually seem appropriate, since the word "romantic" goes back to ancient times.

By the fifth century the Roman Empire was in serious decline. Recognizing the empire's weakened state, leaders of Germanic tribes, according to Isaac Asimov in Words from History, “invaded the western provinces ... and established themselves in Spain, Italy, and Gaul (France).”

Asimov writes that the new rulers of these occupied territories largely gave up their own language in favor of Latin, but did introduce linguistic corruptions and that hybrid languages evolved. “A whole series of 'Romance' languages (stemming from the Latin tongue of the Romans) was developed, the most important being Spanish, French and Italian.”

This wave of Germanic invasions took place roughly during the start of the Middle Ages. During this time, Asimov further explains, Latin was kept as the language of scholarship, while the Romance languages were used for more unsophisticated tales of “knights, dragons, miracles, and incredible adventures.” Many poorly educated people could not read Latin, he adds, but they could manage to read books in the Romance languages.

“Because [the books] were written in the Romance languages (French, particularly),” Asimov also notes, “they were 'romances.'” Since a common theme in such books was the relationships of couples, he concludes, “'romantic' has come to be used, in particular, for matters of love and courtship.”

Illustration special to the Sentinel


Meeting of minds, hearts

By Debra Dobbins
Monday, June 9, 2014

Well! As always, the wife is right. The correct word is “agreement.”

Earl's mistake is understandable, though. It's easy to mix up suffixes, which are word parts tacked onto the end of root words. Perhaps he was thinking of “accordance,” which is close in meaning to “agreement.”

“Agreement” comes “Old French agrement, noun of action from agreer 'to please,'” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. “Agree,” the dictionary explains, goes back to two Latin words: “ad- 'to' [and] gratum 'pleasing.'” I like to think of an agreement simply as a meeting of minds.

“Accordance” also goes back to Latin, the dictionary also notes. It came from accordare, which is to “'make agree,' literally 'be of one heart, bring heart to heart,' from Latin ad- 'to' … cor … 'heart.'” The root cor still shows up in French, such as: Oui, je suis d'accord avec vous. (Yes, I am in agreement with you.)

Judging by his body language in the final panel, Earl seems peeved and Opal's probably also annoyed. Both, however, will likely find it within their minds and hearts to forgive each other.

Despite frequent spats, they seem to conduct their married life in accordance with some common-sense advice given by “Duck Dynasty's” Si Robertson:

"What I tell young couples that are getting married is: you're going to have quarrels, and on some things, you're just going to have to agree to disagree. And when you go to bed at night, kiss each other and tell each other that you love each other. Don't go to bed mad. Life is too short. Keep it simple."
           Source: brainyquote.com

Illustration special to the Sentinel

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia


Party word sports party hat

By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The word “fete” illustrates why using print dictionaries still has some advantages over using online dictionaries.

Having waded through three semesters of college French, I know that English speakers borrowed this word from the French. (That happened in 1754, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.) As a noun, it means an elaborate party given to honor someone, and it can also be used as a verb. (Example: The high-school graduates were feted by their families and friends.) Early this morning I looked the word up in Webster's anyway to glean more information on its history. More on that soon.

As I peruse a dictionary, I generally check out words before and after the actual word I am looking up. This morning I saw fête champêtre right under “fete.” The term was unfamiliar, but upon reading its definition, I decided it's a good one to apply to Grand Valley life. More on that soon, too.

After arriving at work, I Googled “fete” and came up with a long list of search items with only that word. With a “mayfly” attention span these days and limited time to blog, I may never have discovered fête champêtre had I just relied on an electronic search.

According to Webster's, “fete” comes from the Old French word feste. In the actual French word, there is a circumflex, a diacritical mark, over the first e: fête. That makes sense, because that particular diacritical mark in French indicates that at one time an “s” followed the “e.” (No surprise, then, that in Spanish the word for a male student is estudiant, but in French it is étudiant. Both words come from the Latin word studens.)

The website vocabulary.com notes that putting a circumflex over the first “e” in fête is “especially easy to remember, because this accent looks almost like a party hat.”

A silly party hat such as the one to the left, however, probably would not have been found at a fête champêtre at the French court in the 1800s.

“While the term is derived from the French expression for a 'pastoral festival' or 'country feast' and in theory was a simple form of entertainment, in practice (especially in the 18th century), a fête champêtre was often a very elegant form of entertainment involving on occasions whole orchestras hidden in trees, with guests sometimes in fancy dress. Thus the simplicity of the event was often contrived,” according to Wikipedia.

I'd like to think that we here in the Grand Valley come closer to the original meaning of fête champêtre when we turn out for all of our spring/summer/fall outdoor festivals. No one feels obligated to dress extravagantly and our talented GJSO musicians don't lurk in trees, but many of us do seem to think that imbibing, dining and/or listening to music in the great outdoors are fine ways to enjoy the many balmy days and nights we are blessed with this time of year.

From riverfront concerts starting in the late spring to feasts in the field during August and September, the Grand Valley offers a smorgasbord of pastoral festivities. Neither black ties nor silly party hats are ever required, and the accent is always on having fun.

"Spring is nature's way of saying, 'Let's party!'"

   Robin Williams
   Source: Brainyquotes.com

“The Village Fete” by Peter Paul Rubens
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Illustrations special to the Sentinel

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