What's in a Word?
Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel
By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Syndicated cartoonist Paresh Nath relies on a common idiomatic expression in English to make his point about the latest Wikileaks revelations. To let the cat out of the bag means to divulge a secret.
The expression is widespread, but its origins are murky. Some researchers say it may have started in the marketplaces of the Middle Ages during times when meat was in short supply. Shoppers were warned not buy a cat in a bag or sack. The rumor was that an unscrupulous seller might substitute a cat for a pig to an unwitting buyer. A buyer who did not check the bag would take home something inedible.
Other historians, though, think that people in the Middle Ages surely could not have been that gullible. A cat’s anatomy, after all, is different than that of a pig, and the two animals certainly make different sounds. Perhaps shoppers who were both blind and deaf could have been tricked this way, but not the average person.
Another theory comes from the practice of keeping a “cat o’ nine tails” in a bag aboard a sailing ship. Some historians say it was used to punish disobedient sailors in the British Royal Navy; other historians claim that slaves, not sailors, were punished with it.
At any rate, a “cat o’ nine tails” was a whip composed of three ropes. Each rope had three smaller ones braided into it. When the braids came loose, the unfortunate soul at the receiving end of the whip would endure the pain of nine ropes.
If sailors knew they risked a flogging for planning a mutiny, they would want to keep their mutiny plans secret. So, if the secret and its holders were revealed, the next step would be “letting the cat out of the bag.” Perhaps over time, some historians claim, the phrase went from meaning punishment to revealing a secret.
Other historians discount this theory, though, because other references to a “cat in the bag” came before the nautical reference. Still others say claim that the origin was simpler and just relied on common sense. If a cat is let out of a bag, it will go wherever it wants, rather like a secret once someone discloses it.
I learned much of this information by checking out the sources below. For more details on this phrase, go to:
The cartoon’s creator, by the way, is Paresh Nath, the chief cartoonist for India's National Herald. Cagle Cartoons syndicates his work in the United States. His cartoon is a reminder that millions of people worldwide have learned English well enough to understand its idioms, or phrases that mean something different than their literal meanings.
To read the full story on the release of sensitive files, check out the front page of today’s print edition or e-edition of The Daily Sentinel.
By Debra Dobbins
Monday, November 29, 2010
I was especially interested in the Student of the Week section today, because it features Sarah Ferrieri, a former literacy student of mine. The name Sarah comes from the Hebrew, Sara, which means princess.
Despite the meaning of her first name, Sarah Ferrieri never expected to be treated like royalty when she was an eighth-grader at West Middle School. Quite the contrary. Every day, she rolled up her sleeves and tried to learn as much as she could. She always went above and beyond her teachers’ expectations for her schoolwork and for her behavior.
Sarah Ferrieri has a bright future ahead—one of her own making. If she is ever treated like royalty, she will have earned every second of it.
As promised Friday, here are some more words that end in “ee”: lessee, trustee, escapee, refugee, retiree, employee, trainee, referee, absentee and addressee.
Sarah Ferrieri, Palisade High School senior
By Debra Dobbins
Friday, November 26, 2010
The Frank and Earnest cartoon today has fun with the name of a famous American. The Battle of Appomattox was one of the last Civil War battles; it was fought April 9, 1865. The general on the winning side was Ulysses S. Grant, the commander of the Union forces. He would become the 18th president of the United States.
A grant is something that is given, such as "property, a tract of land, an exclusive right or power, money from a fund, etc.,” according to Webster’s. Teachers, for example, often write proposals for grant money from charitable foundations.
Grant may also be used as a verb. For instance, a genie might say “I’ll grant your wish.” Here, the genie is a grantor, someone who makes the grant. (See blog of Oct. 12 for other words with the “or” suffix.)
The person receiving the grant is the grantee. Can you think of other people who are described in words that end with the “ee” suffix? Check Monday’s blog for some answers.
In the meantime, as promised Wednesday, here are some synonyms for diminutive: little, small, miniature, miniscule, minute, petite, teeny, tiny, teeny-weeny, teensy-weensy and wee.
By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
If the words in this headline are unfamiliar, reading the subhead helps us guess their meaning:
Using the context clues in the subhead, we can infer (logically guess) that diminutive dynamos are small but powerful football players. We can test our inference by reading the story. Sure enough, it provides details on Danny Woodhead, not quite 5-foot-8, and Darren Sproles, 5-foot-6, whose outstanding performances make them dynamite in small packages for their teams. (Check out the print edition or e-edition for the entire story.)
Dynamos, or powerful people, dominate other fields, too. For example, many people consider Bill Gates a dynamo in the computer world, Bruce Springstein a dynamo in the music world and Hillary Clinton a dynamo in the diplomatic world.
A dynamo also means “a generator that produces direct current with the use of a commutator,” according to Wikipedia. Webster's says that the word stems from the Greek word dynamis, which means power.
How many other synonyms for diminutive can you think of? Check Friday’s blog for a few more.
By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Giving someone the cold shoulder means to snub him or turn away from him. In this case, Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf froze out head coach Brad Childress by firing him. Was Wilf’s decision cold-hearted? You may read the story in our print edition or e-edition and decide for yourself.
Through the centuries folks have claimed that this phrase came from the practice of giving an unwanted visitor the cold shoulder of mutton, rather than freshly cooked, hot meat given to guests enjoying a warmer welcome. According to several sources, though, this explanation may simply stem from folk tales. Scholars who like to delve into the history of words cannot find much proof that such cold cuts really existed.
What is documented is the use of the phrase by Sir Walter Scott, a Scottish playwright, poet and historic novelist. According to Wikipedia, the phrase first showed up in Scott’s The Antiquary, a gothic novel written in 1816. Here’s a quote from page 69:
"Ye may mind that the Countess’s dislike did na gang farther at first than just shewing o’ the cauld shouther—at least it wasna seen fartha; but at the lang run it brak out into such downright violence that Miss Neville was even fain to seek refuge at Knockwinnock castle with Sir Arthur's leddy, wha (God sain her) was then wi' the living."
Wikipedia says that Scott again used the phrase both in a later novel and in a letter he sent to an editor. Scott’s spelling of “cold shoulder” did not survive over time, but the meaning of his phrase did.
Some people contend that “cold shoulder” is a cliché, an expression that is overused. (See yesterday’s blog entry.) I say we retain it to help us remember how to drop a hint in our modern, over-connected world. Who knows? If some of our Facebook “friends” appear on our doorsteps someday, we may have to feed them.
Sir Walter Scott
From Project Gutenberg's The Modern Scottish Minstrel, Volume I
Illustration courtesy of Wikipedia
Cliches I hate
Cute as a button (The vast majority of buttons cannot be called cute.)
Slept like a log (Logs may rest on the ground, but they don’t sleep.)
Thinking outside of the box (It’s used so much that it now reflects thinking inside the box.)
Cliches I love
Cat got your tongue (Sorry, but the phrase brings up a Jules Feiffer kind of image for me.)
Knee-high to a grasshopper (Maybe this one’s overused because folks such as I love its whimsy.)
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. (I’ll concede that the grammar is bad, but the advice is wise. I would add: Don’t buy the latest version and toss the first one into a landfill.)