TNQDE: The Jig is Up

Request time! I’m very excited by this. One of my high school / Facebook friends wrote: “May I log a request? I have no idea why ‘the jig is up.’ Do we put the jig up when it’s stormy, or when the winds die down? And either way, how does [this] square with its common usage?”


Intuitively, I was utterly flummoxed, in part because my understanding of nautical terms comes from a close reading of Moby Dick in high school which, brace yourselves friends, was more than a decade ago. Yikes. A quick consultation with the dictionary offered little help in answering the storm connections, until I realized that “jig” is in no way a nautical term. The best I can figure is that my friend was thinking of “jib.” I haven’t hunted down what you do with the jib, though, because it wouldn’t give us the origin of the phrase “the jig is up.” Sorry, RW, you’re on your own for the nautical research end of that question.

I didn’t get much by way of a concrete answer from the dictionary, but adding what I gleaned there to the puzzle of answers provided by Google and the collective wisdom of the internet (such as it is), I propose this explanation, which I will modify if and when I get a chance to pop over to the library to wade through the OED.

I suspect that “jig” originally was simply the name of a type of dance. Names are not meaningless, of course, and the OED may reveal that “jig” was originally an old Gaelic word for “random dancing” or “bounce” or “hop up and down like a bunny.” You can see what we think when we’re asked to dance a jig:

“To jig” means “to dance in an up and down fashion.” Ish. That jerking, up-down motion also gives name to a type of fishing lure and a machine used in mining. The reasons I suggest that the dance is the source of the name is that the other two jigs are fairly modern inventions, relative to the tradition of jigging in dance, though it’s quite probable that the dance itself was named for the same motion. Sorting out causality is not possible with the tools on my personal bookshelf.

I do think the dance, however, is responsible for the word that takes a bow in “the jig is up.” In several internet sources of questionable validity, I found suggestions that dancers would pop onto the stage during Elizabethan theater when the villain’s plot was revealed to the heroes. My only real question here is: why on earth has this practice been discontinued? Pretending that I have incontrovertible evidence as to the truth of this practice, it would make sense that “jig” would then pick up the less common sense it still has, i.e., “joke or trick.” From this connotation, we get the meaning that makes sense in “the jig is up.”

So there you have it, RW–the best explanation I can offer until I get my hands on the OED. The jig is not a sail, but a joke or trick, and that’s why we say it’s over when a gag has run its course.

TNQDE: Caring by Curation

It’s been so long since I’ve done an etymology post that I’m sure you all thought I had expended all I had to say on the subject. Not going to happen. Ever. Sorry.  I had a good reason to meditate on a word last week, and I think the etymology is interesting enough to be worthy of  a TNQDE segment.


Did you know that this word is both a verb and a noun? It is, in fact, not only the act overseeing and organizing, but also a cleric who assists in the oversight of a parish. Via back-formation, we have another noun form, “curator,” which also refers specifically to the process of managing a museum collection (curiously, the museum-specific sense of “curator” evolved along a different path). All of these words hail from the Latin “curare,” meaning “to care for.” We get another modern word from this verb: “cure,” but the sense is different enough that I won’t add that turn-off to our rabbit trail today.

Curator, in the liturgical sense, as I said, is a back-formation of “curate,” which comes from Middle English curat, which is derived from the Medieval Latin curatus, which in turns comes from the Late Latin cura, meaning “spiritual charge.” Not having an appropriate dictionary for Late Latin on hand, I can’t easily verify this, but my sense of that definition is that it is meant as “having charge of the spiritual well-being of another.” I suspect this, because the original Latin sense of cura is simply “care.”

Curator in the secular, museum-oversight sense, actually comes from the Middle English curatour, meaning “legal guardian.” This term came through the Old French curateur from the Latin curator, meaning “overseer.” Funny how orthography comes full circle, isn’t it?  Curator is a noun derived from the past participle (curatus) of the verb curare, meaning “to take care of,” which is no doubt the same word at the root of cura.

Oversight springs from a tradition of giving care, you see, and the reason this is on my mind is that I’ve been considering my role as an educator. Last week, my kids and I help a bake sale/comic auction/cookbook sale to benefit our local athletic league. The event was born from some of my kids forming a comic club. Their charter: everyone can join and all comics produced will be copied and sold to benefit a charity which will be chosen by active members in turn, beginning with the youngest. They asked for my help to make it happen, and who could possibly say no to that sort of request?

In order to get a more obvious curb appeal and also engage some of my kids who are not inclined to draw comics, I added a bake sale to the event and also a cookbook project: students wrote recipes using two randomly chosen ingredients and I turned the recipes into a cookbook. Given the nature of my program (i.e., utterly insane), I don’t get enough focused attention with kids on individual projects to lead them from draft to finished project. If I can convince them to slap a title and their name on something when they’re done, I consider it a victory. What this translated to for our sale was several hours of tracing over pencil lines too light for the copier to read, typing recipes into a cookbook, scanning and ordering unnumbered pages, and trying to make sense of jumbled directions.

I realized that the work I was doing in those moments was not unlike the work I’ve done with college literary magazines, where my job was to take boatloads of crazy and edit it into art. The only differences are (1) the level of finesse expected in the finished project and (2) the fact that I care about my k-6 authors. (Lit mag authors are, by a disturbingly high percentage, complete tools with ego problems and while this is not a non-existent occurrence among children, children are generally more capable of accepting advice on their work and reproof for rudeness, making them infinitely easier to get along with.) To teach my kids that they are capable of anything they set their minds to, that they matter to me and to their community, all I had to do was polish and organize their work enough for their audience of teachers and parents to be able to make sense of what they had done.  I was curating.

As I pondered the idea of a teacher as curator, I thought back to the original sense of the word and realized that caregiver was a good way of looking at what I was doing. When I pulled out my dictionary and found the spiritual sense of the word, it also struck me as relevant. Sometimes, the best thing I can do for my kids is simply to care about them enough that I am capable of interpreting their work so that a wide audience of their caregivers can appreciate them more fully.

Not to go sappy here, but this feels a little bit like a life-calling to me.


TNQDE: Knot One

While I was working on my master’s, part of my coursework was to teach something to a classmate using the particular philosophy and methodology the class was discussing. I chose to teach knitting, mostly because it was the only unique skill I could actually get away with claiming mastery in for three lessons in a row without getting food involved (which would have demanded kitchen space no one in the class really had). I love the way the results of the first lesson connect to today’s word.


The idea of critical exploration is to help a student find a way to discover a piece of information for themselves. In knitting, you begin by getting loops onto the needle, which is called “casting on.” There are many ways of doing this so that the loops will stay and many, many more ways of doing it that the loops will fall right off. When I presented this challenge to my student, she landed upon hand-tying individual knots that were unevenly spaced and completely rigid, but definitely and edge you could start from. It wasn’t pretty, but it was functional.

“Knit” comes from Middle English knitten, which means “to tie in a knot,” according to the AHCD.  This form stems from the Old English cnyttan, presumably meaning the same thing. How long the term and concept has applied to the idea of the yarn craft, I can only guess. (Well, someone might know, but that someone doesn’t edit the AHCD. : ) If I had to guess, I’d imagine that the term came through English’s Germanic origins, possibly borrowing from Scandinavian neighbors.

Wherever it came from originally, the person who named it in English had it right. Knitting is still, essentially, just a fancy way of tying knots.



TNQDE: The Lunacy of Courage

I’ve mentioned already that being a camp counselor has been requiring me to grow. It seems like almost every day there’s something I need to do that would have been fairly firmly in the list of things I would be perfectly content to die without ever attempting. Strapping myself into a harness and being hauled into the air by a rope, for example, or teaching the fundamentals of number sense necessary to understand long division. This requires me to be something I never particularly thought I could be:


The AHCD defines intrepid as “resolutely courageous: fearless.” The word harks back to Latin. Our old friend in- means, of course, “not” and trepidus you might recognize from “trepidation.” Trepidus means “alarmed” or “afraid.” I haven’t dug the word up in the OED to find out where and how the word was initially used, so I can’t say anything about the original connotation of the word, but I do love the modern sense of perseverance that accompanies “intrepid.” Being intrepid is not just being brave, it’s determining to stick it out regardless of your misgivings.

Courage in itself is an interesting concept, from and etymological standpoint. “Courage” came to Middle English through Old French through Vulgar Latin from the Latin word cor, which simply means “heart.” I don’t know the history of the heart as a symbol for certain emotions, but it’s a persistent idea, and strangely juxtaposed to another word for courage: “bravery.”

“Bravery” actually has the most interesting history of the three words, so much so that I may get another post out of it later. For now, I’ll just skip to the amusing part and note that it hails from the Latin word barbarus, which they lifted most cleverly from the Greek barbaros, a word which means “non-Greek” or “foreigner.” The word is onomatopoetic and insulting, mimicking the barking of dogs, which is how the Greeks perceived the speech of anyone not speaking Greek.

Does this mean I have to be barking mad to enjoy life as a camp counselor? Quite possibly.


The Tick Whisperer

At my first in-person interview for my camp job, my soon-to-be-bosses asked me if I was okay with handling bugs and slimy things and such. “Oh sure,” I said. “No problem.” Cue laugh track.

As my husband and my sister Cho will gladly tell you, if there is a crawly thing of any sort in my personal space, it takes me about one-tenth of a second to be up on the furniture screeching for somebody else to kill it quickly. I am not actually okay with handling bugs and slimy things and such. Not that I meant to lie in the interview, but you know how interviews can be. Sometimes you’re so eager for a job that you start playing the yes-man and don’t realize until it’s too late to backtrack what you just said about yourself.

The blessing about this situation is that I’m discovering a capacity for growth in myself. Also, there’s a reason they invented sticks and kids. There’s not really any reason for me to ever touch anything vile. Kids love picking up frogs and crickets–most other bugs can be persuaded to hang out on a stick while we pass it around. On the first day of camp, we actually found and identified a female dog tick. Ticks of any sort are one of the worst for me to deal with: they fill up like a darn balloon with sucked blood, for pete’s sake, and if you’re not careful about removing them you can end up with a head embedded in your body, spreading infection. If that’s not creepy, I don’t know what is. And yet, I found myself coaxing the tick onto a stick so I could show her off to my fascinated little group.

On Monday, as we were getting our shoes on after swimming, my kids all started pointing at me and exclaiming, “Melissa, there’s a bug on you!” It was on my back–that is definitely in my space–and the kids thought it was a tick. The mark of my growth is that the kids experience this:

instead of this:

The bug (which was a shiny gold beetle, not a tick–the kids think all unfamiliar bugs are ticks) lived to tell the tale, believe it or not, because I’m trying to encourage them to respect nature. We’re are guests in the homes of the spiders, the beetles, and the ticks; it is permissible to pick the bugs up and examine them, but only if we do it gently for short periods of time before returning them to the place we found them. We kill nothing, except perhaps for mosquitoes, primarily because if I let them kill anything, they’d kill everything, up to and possibly including each other. Bugs receive mercy outside.

To all you insects and bugs who may be reading this, let me clarify: this rule holds true only in the great outdoors. If you invade my home and bite me or eat my food, I will take no quarter. You will die a horrible death by crushing, most likely at the hand of someone else while I stand at a safe distance and squeal.

TNQDE: The Music of the Fleas

I’ve been lax about etymology posts lately, for which I do and do not apologize. I do, if you’re completely addicted to the way I share words with you and long desperately for my next post. I don’t apologize, however because I worked over fifty hours last week, forty-seven of which were served in the sweltering, humid freedom of the great outdoors. Camp was cooler today and a little smoother, so here’s a word dedicated to my weekend work: tuning half a dozen cheap ukuleles.


The ukulele (or “uke,” as those in the know might say) is associated strongly with Hawaii, but a quick search for the history turned up an interesting piece of trivia. Although the ukulele was invented on Hawaii, it was not a part of Hawaiian culture prior to the presence of Europeans. The invention of the ukulele is usually attributed to Portuguese immigrants Manuel Nunes, Joao Fernandes, and Augustine Dias, sometime after 1879. Hawaiians did name the instrument (around 1896, just prior to the U.S. annexation of Hawaii), calling it a “jumping” (uku) “flea” (lele).

As the story goes, the instrument was named for the speed with which the early players played. Fleas have another part in the story of the ukulele, a part which I have yet to figure out. Musicians use iconic tunes to help them learn to recognize intervals. “Here comes the bride,” for example, is used to help you learn to hear the perfect fourth (Do, Fa). “Twinkle, twinkle” (as in “little star”) is used for the perfect fifth (Do, Sol). Ukes are traditionally tuned G, C, E, A, with the G being the one above the C, so the interval pattern you need to recognize is Sol, Do, Mi, La.

For no sensible reason that I have been able to find, uke players attach this progression to the words “My dog has fleas.” If anyone can explain to me why this was chosen and has been perpetuated, I will write you a song and post it on Youtube.


TNQDE: From George to George

As usual, I’m a day late and a dollar short on the etymology front. Or, rather, a week later and completely broke because as much as I love you all, I am not paying you to read my blog. Today’s inspiration comes from last week’s national holiday, the 4th of July, on which we celebrate the days the American colonists decided to thumb their noses at Mother England and Father George. (Funny, isn’t it, how we booted out one George and promptly tried to get another to subjugate us?) Anyway…here’s your word.


As with all good things, independence does not come easy. Neither does its etymology, apparently. I lifted an eyebrow last week when a quick internet search yielded nothing about the etymology of “independence.” I didn’t expect anything complicated, having a fairly good guess at the origin, but I imagined it would have shown up in one or two patriot places. Not so.

My dictionary was not any more forthcoming with a word history, which did surprise me. I was hoping at least for a quick note to point to when the word came into use, whether in Latin or English or somewhere in between. No such luck. I had to backtrack to “dependence” and from there (actually, unsurprisingly) to “depend.”

“Depend” is a classic Latin to Old French to Middle English verb, changing very little in form or meaning along the way. It does break down into two parts in Latin de- meaning “away” or, in this case, “down,” and pendere, meaning “to hang.” The connotation, as far as I can tell, is fairly similar now as it originally was. The idea still, if you’ll forgive the expression, hangs around in modern English. People who require too much or who are generally unwelcome are “clingy” or “hangers-on.”

You all know in-, right? As in “inflammable” or “incredulous,” this prefix (preposition, if you’re teaching Latin) means “against” or “not.” “Independence,” then, roughly means “not hanging on.” When you put it that way, it’s a bit surprising England wasn’t just itching to get rid of us, isn’t it?


Did You Miss Me?

So, didya? I’m sorry I’ve been so neglectful of my beloved readers this past week, but life and blogging consistently don’t always go hand in hand. By way of apology, please accept this post that has photos AND a bonus etymology at the end.

Last week, instead of writing, I traveled to Maine to help out with the annual TechMaine gala. My primary reason for driving up there was to deliver a piece of art that the board had commissioned from me. Their theme this year was “A Spectacular Spectacle.” Do you think the table art lived up to its name?

John helped me design and create these foamcore beauties so they were modular. They could be set up with the earpieces, as shown here, or mounted onto the white and blue board underneath them, like this:

Tres bien, n’est-ce pas? The TechMaine folks appreciated them anyway…

I had a few other work-related things to do in Portland, but I could easily be persuaded to drive to Portland for less. I got a chance to catch up in person with several of the loveliest human beings I know and meander aimlessly around my old college stomping grounds. I didn’t realize this until I was wandering around the farmers’ market waiting for a text from a friend, but I had barely set foot in Portland since John and I got married, almost three years ago. That is not an acceptable state of affairs. Portland is too close to my heart and too full of people I adore for me to stay away that long again.

Case in point: I stayed with one of my closest friends, who unintentionally reminded me of something about friendship. She’s been traveling around since last we kept company and has been picking up little elephant tchotchkes for me here and there.

Cute, right? I was a little baffled by the elephants when she first mentioned she had them for me until she reminded me of a conversation we had a while back. Sometime in college, I had a little epiphany about why elephants strike a resonant chord with me. Elephants are, in a way, my personal totem, but that’s not a fact I’ve made a habit of trumpeting to the world. It’s just a little piece of me that sits in the back of my brain in a place as dusty as the shelf I ended up putting this little guy on. (It’s not dusty from lack of use. Dusting just isn’t usually a priority for me.) The gift of the little elephants was a lovely reminder of how friends keep important bits of us alive in their memories and help us remember who we are.

In amidst catching up with friends and family, getting a pedicure, working, eating out (another reason to love Portland), and shopping (I would put up a picture of the dress my mom found for me, but that might make this post NSFW ; ), I also did a fair amount of driving. When I got back Friday night, I crashed hard and then had to get up in the morning to drive to a four-hour training in Boston. When I finally got home to stay Saturday afternoon, I didn’t really feel like doing much. My Sunday and Monday were dedicated to cooking some duck (with sweet potatoes, swiss chard and strawberry empanadas, yum) and sitting on the couch like a lump working on my new knitting project bag (that is, my new bag for holding knitting projects):

The sewing machine I have barely works, so you are looking at bag and a lining that were pieced together entirely by hand. Oh yes, my friends, home-ec has its usefulness. And that is what I have been doing instead of writing. In case that’s not enough, here’s the long-awaited conclusion to my two-part etymology series on 19th-century fashion…


“Corset” is one of those fun words that came from Old French even though it had a counterpart in Middle English: “Bodice.” As with the difference between “beef” and “cow,” the French word quickly came to have a more specialized meaning, but the roots of the words are almost identical. “Bodice” is simply an alteration of the plural of “body.” “Corset” is a diminutive form of the Old French cors, which means body and comes from the Latin corpus, which means, you guessed it, “body.”

Would it surprise you to learn that corpus is also the root word for “corpse”? No, I didn’t think so. I’ll leave you to fill in your own snarky commentary about the fashion industry, as long as you promise to twist the connotative history without mercy.


TNQDE: Bow Ties Are Cool, However…

Cummerbunds are not. Sorry folks, there’s no two ways about it. Cummerbunds are a bit elitist and unreservedly silly. I love them, though, if only because the word is so much fun to say. Cummerbund, cummerbund, cummerbund… I enjoyed doing a theme etymology week so well last week that I’m doing it again. This week, my inspiration will come from that classic institution from which modern steampunk takes its cues: 19th century British fashion.


I have found great detail on how the cummerbund entered the world of western fashion, but the etymology gives me a good guess. It’s a new path this time, one we haven’t trod a hundred times together already. “Cummerbund” comes from the Persian word kamarband, which is a compound of kamar (meaning “waist”) and band (meaning “band”).

Wait, what? The Persians use the same word for “band” that we do, and that the British mixed it up when they imported the term? Yes, more or less. And no. The pronunciation was most likely not the same as you or I would pronounce it–kamarband is certainly not how the word would appear in the Persian writing system and is an approximation at best. But the words do hypothetically come from the same root *bhendh- in Proto Indo-European. Apparently, “band” is generally a good word to keep constant in your linguistic toolbox.

As for how the cummerbund came into western fashion, I would imagine they were a chic, upper-class import sometime after 1617, when the East India Trading Company was granted trading rights by the Mughal Empire. As usual, of course, that’s just a guess.

TNQDE: Wavy Hair, FTW!

To continue the Scripps-inspired theme this week, I bring you the word that won the competition. I almost bailed on doing this word because it’s not in my dictionary. (The Bee uses Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, which is a tome that I have had no good reason to lay down the money for. I haven’t used it myself, so I can’t speak to its etymologies or definitions, though I may have to give it a gander the next time I’m at the library. If anyone over at Webster is reading this, I can probably be persuaded to shamelessly plug your dictionary from time to time in exchange for a free copy. : ) When I googled the winning word, there were at least as many links to articles about the bee as there were to definitions, and certainly more words written about  it in those articles than in the definition pages. So which word won?


The reason there’s not much written about this word is that there’s not much to write. It’s specific to the discipline of anthropology and means simply: “having wavy hair.” I’m cymotrichous! The breakdown, as with many field-specific words, is nothing special. It’s take straight from ancient Greek: kuma = “wave” + trich = “hair” + Latin’s -ous. It is a good study in how academic words are formed. That mish-mash of Greek and Latin is a dead giveaway that the word was made up by someone academic, although I haven’t found enough information to tell you at what point in history that academic was working. I would guess mid-1700s to early 1900s, when classification of races was an issue that occupied the minds of English scholars, but it’s just a guess.

So there you have it. How to win a spelling bee, in one simple step: learn all the really obscure academic terms.