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.


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: My Favorite Etymology

Today’s post is brought to you by a word I love, as well as by the fact that I want to get some work on my novel and will be consequently a bit lazy about my blog.


Here’s the lightning round for what is my favorite word history to date: “Story” popped up in Middle English as “storie,” which came from the Old French estorie, which came from Latin historia, where the dictionary redirects us to the obvious modern cognate “history.”


The Romans stole historia from the Greek, who formed the word from their verb historein, which means “to inquire.” Older still is their nour histor: “learned man.” So why do stories matter? They are, at their hearts, the inquires of learned humans.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go pretend I’m a story writer until it becomes true.

Random Bonus: I just found a packet of lemon balm seeds that I misplaced a while ago. Where was it? In my dictionary, bookmarking “baffle.”

TNQDE: That’s Umbrageous!

No, I’m not making words up. “Umbrageous” is a real word. It means both “forming shade” and “easily offended.” You know what’s umbrageous? Umbrellas. It’s funny, though, we don’t often pull them out when there is anything to be shaded from. Also, I’ve never seen an umbrella take umbrage at anything, not even that umbrella that Cho and I used as a foil in our epic duels, and that umbrella took a beating. (New form of rock, paper, scissors: Music stand beats umbrella, umbrella scratches ceiling tiles, ceiling tiles fall on music stand. Let’s not tell Mom about it though, okay?)


“Umbrage” is, perhaps obviously, the root from which “umbrageous” springs. It has all the wonderful twisty meaning wrapped up in its adjectival offspring and more. It can mean not only “offense” and “something that affords shade,” but also “shadow” or “a hint.” I have never heard it used for any but the first meaning, but I love discovering secondary meanings. They add such depth to the connotation of the way I experience words.

Complicated as the relationship between its meanings may be, the etymology of “umbrage” is simple and straightforward. The first appearance of the word in English was during good old Middle English, where is meant “shade.” This came to us through Old French from Latin (would it be terribly confusing and obscure if I started short-handing this path as the “Tour de Via Appia” or “TVA”? Yes?), where its most relevant form was umbraticum, or “of shade,” coming from the simple umbra, or “shadow.”

If you remember your elementary science, you’ll know umbra for the way we use it to describe an eclipse. In case you missed the point of my introduction, I’ll note that “umbrella” also comes umbra. Shade is the dominant idea behind the concept, and it’s not until sometime after the word appears in Middle English that it develops a primary sense that is, at face value, completely unrelated to shade. I could sit hear making guesses about the jump from shade to hints to offense until I’m blue in the face, but the reality is that coming up with anything resembling a respectable theory takes a great deal more time than I have to spend on the matter. Ergo, I shall leave you to imagine wild semantic histories for yourself.

That’s the fun part anyway, right?

TNQDE: Baffle, Baffle

Have you ever had to use a word over and over for some reason and found yourself suddenly giggling because it doesn’t look like a word anymore? Baffle. Baffle, baffle, baffle. Bafflebafflebafflebafflebaffle… Yeah. That phenomenon is called semantic satiation. Today’s word is brought to you by reactive inhibition due to rapid repetition.


I usually think of “baffle” as meaning more or less “confuse” or “dumbfound.” It has a less common connotation meaning “impede.” Isn’t that wonderful? Of course to confuse someone is fairly effective in tripping them up at times, so it just works for me that there’s a word to bring the ideas together.

What I love ever more, however, are the origins the AHCD proposes for “baffle.” The history isn’t entirely clear, but the AHCD suggests that the word is a blend of the Scottish Gaelic bauchle (to denounce) and the French bafouer (to ridicule). So there’s another idea to throw into the mix. You mock someone, which gets in their way, which ultimately leads to their confusion.

Lovely, rich word, isn’t it?

TNQDE: Turn a Blind Eye

I came across today’s word in a novel the other day and it just tickled me. Some words are like that, right? You know what they mean, but it’s hard to say how you learned it because it will forever be a word that you connect with a specific author. No one else ever bothers to work it into a sentence. So hands up, class: who can use the following word in a sentence?


Not sure about that? Here’s a sample: “J. Pierrepont Finch inveigled his way to the top of the World Wide Wicket Company.”

You’re going to love the background of this one. Its most recent noteworthy ancestor is the Middle English envegle, which is a minor alteration of the Old French verb aveugler, which means “to blind.” I’m not quite sure what happened to turn the “a” to an “en.” My best guess is that a similar word (perhaps “inveigh”?) started with an “in-” and influenced the way people thought they heard the foreign word.  “A-” and “en-” can both be negative prefixes, so there would have been no particular issues for semantics in the shift.

The Old French comes, naturally, from Latin. In particular, we can trace the root aveugler to the Vulgar Latin aboculus, i.e. “blind.” Did I hear you say, “Hold the phone…how on earth did you get from point A to point B on that one?” The words look completely different, right? Wrong. Say “v” over and over for a few minutes. Notice the placement of your teeth and lips. Now say “b” a few times. The only difference between the sounds is a tiny shift in  articulation (teeth to lip vs. lip to lip). The shift between the two sounds is actually a very common switch in language shift.

On a similar level, play around with “c” and “g.” Do you feel the way your tongue hangs out toward the back of your throat for both? The only difference between these two sounds is whether or not your vocal chords are making themselves heard. Again, it’s so simple a change that it’s very common.

As for the vowels…well, vowels are vowels. They’re a mess to represent and a beast to sort out from one another, so for now, let’s just leave it at this: Sound change is completely regular. There is nothing strange about the difference in the vowels.

Now that we’ve cleared that path up, we can pull the Latin apart. You all know “ab-” already, right? (Nod your heads, class, we’ve been over this one several times. Look it up if you missed a lesson.)  Who’s got a guess about –oculus? What’s that? You think oculus might mean eye? Very good! A+ use of cognates.  The general sense of the word is “eyes turned away.”

With a whole history of the word behind us, we can imagine great scenes of people inveigling their way into things. “Jenny inveigled her way into that club” could invoke a picture of Jenny stabbing bouncers in the eye with the heel of her stiletto. “Stanley inveigled his way into that great job” could suggest a scene where Stanley hires a circus for the express purpose of shouting “Look over there!” to his interviewing committee, thus distracting them and allowing him to then pretend they’ve already made him an offer. Take your pick.

And the next time you hear the word “inveigle” and get a fit of the giggles in an inappropriate location…you’re welcome.


TNQDE: Out of Obscurity

Today I have a word with a not-so-interesting etymology, but with great potential to become the new go-to slam for ethically-challenged individuals. What do you think of…


No, I won’t make you grab your dictionary for this rather obscure word. It means “living in mud.” It’s strongly related to the word “limicoline,” which means essentially the same thing but has come to be a technical term referring to shore birds such as plovers and sandpipers. The word comes from your friendly neighborhood classification team and as such, it’s a straight-up Latin compound. Limus means “slime” and -cola means “inhabitant.”

Where I think language has fallen down is in the use of the non-specific adjective. Why is it that we don’t refer to morally deficient villains as “limicolous low-lifes”? I think that’s a linguistic trend waiting, don’t you?