Why the Blank Do We Cuss?

When I started doing Amaze-ing Words Wednesday posts, I knew that I eventually wanted to cover the topic of cussing. Why do we cuss?

English is hardly the only language with its collection of the colorful and profane. In fact, linguists and researchers have noted that every language and dialect ever studied has included words that are not to be spoken in polite company. There appears to be some natural human drive toward foul language.

Indeed, children pick up swear words and usage easily, and all adult speakers know how to use these words properly in multiple contexts. Some use them, some refrain. But we all know how to use cuss words. In fact, it can be a shock to a family when a dementia or brain-damaged patient reveals their implicit knowledge of cursing. Suddenly, Grandma is shouting, “Holy *&@#!” when she would have washed your mouth out with soap for such utterances before the dementia set in. Whether we use them or not, though, our brains are programmed to understand and formulate cuss words as needed and/or desired.

Psychologists note that cussing can relieve stress–such as when you stub your toe or a nearby driver cuts you off in traffic. Mark Twain said, “Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.”

Cussing around friends can also demonstrate a level of comfort and unity: You feel relaxed enough in that environment to let loose and let ‘er rip. There is the added benefit that cursing appears to be more memorable in contexts where other words are more common, so that insulting someone with a cuss word is likely to leave a more lasting mark than calling them, say, “a jerk.”

Now some of you have the mouths of sailors, and some of you can hardly vocalize the word “crap” without feeling guilty. Plenty of people fall somewhere in between. We can prime ourselves to use profanity as part of our regular speech, to use it more sparingly, or to eschew cuss words altogether. I think you can discover where you fall in the continuum with this quick test: Mentally fill in the blanks below.

1. Son of a _________.

2. What the _____ were you thinking?

Was your answer for #1 “gun,” “bitch,” or something even more colorful?

Did you complete #2 as “heck,” “hell,” or something else entirely?

Plenty of well-respected English authors cursed. Shakespeare used “zounds,” a highly offensive term for “God’s wounds” 23 times in his works. And if an original classic doesn’t cuss, you can always turn to BBC Radio 3, which produced a 2011 version of Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte with brand-new swearing “to help capture the shock that was associated with the original book when it was published.”

In my lifetime, social acceptance of curse words has increased exponentially. In fact, the Family Research Channel has tracked a rise in profanity during prime-time shows: “Using absolute totals, across all networks use of profanity on prime-time broadcast entertainment programming increased 69.3% from 2005 to 2010.” Sure, a lot of this gets bleeped, but you don’t have to be a master lip-reader to know what they’re saying and hear it in your head.

Is it good or bad or neutral that we have cussing? That we are cussing more?

pic from dalailina.com

I personally try to avoid cussing. That’s part of my own faith and moral stance. Moreover, if you almost never cuss, when once in a blue moon you do, it makes a far bigger splash. (I’m talking cannonball, people.) I was also raised to believe that you could be more creative with speech and come up with your own words and phrases for frustrating moments or situations. Admittedly, my current oft-uttered phrase “Good gravy” isn’t exactly inspiring, but no one blushes either, and I don’t worry about my kids repeating it at school.

Jenny Hansen had an interesting post on 10 Creative Ways to Express Your “Inner F-Bomb” with some more imaginative ways to say what you want to say without saying it. But I admit, it isn’t always easy to push-off the potty mouth and keep it clean. In fact, Christian comedian Brad Stine talks about how maybe Christians should have their own curse words:

Since I try to keep my blog PG-ish, I chose not to name each and every crass or cuss word in the English language or trace their etymology. There are plenty of online resources that do that. Besides, you’ve known them all since you were a kid–whether they were uttered constantly in your family or you discovered them scrawled on a bathroom stall.

But I do think cussing is an interesting language phenomenon. What I want to know is: Do you cuss? Why or why not? Why do you think are some words considered foul and others not? How do you feel about others using profanity or books that contain profanity?

Sources: NY Times: Almost Before We Spoke, We Swore; Parents Television Council: Habitat for Profanity; TwainQuotes.com; Socyberty: Evolution of Profanity–How Swear Words Came to Be; h2g2: The Origins and Common Usage of British Swear-words (fascinating article about etymology of British cuss words); The Guardian: Wuthering Heights to Turn the Airwaves Blue; Why We Curse: A Neuro-Psycho-Social Theory of Speech by Timothy Jay

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Oy! Adding a Little Yiddish to Your English

I am proudly one-sixteenth Jewish. For most of my life, I didn’t even know that. I think I learned of my Jewish heritage in my teens or 20s. However, I realized the other day how many Yiddish words I naturally use! Perhaps Jewish genes are just that strong. Whatever the reason, on this Amaze-ing Words Wednesday I invite you all to add a little Yiddish to your English.

Below are some of my favorite Yiddish words that we English-speakers have incorporated, along with their definitions from Dictionary.com and examples of usage.

bupkes. absolutely nothing; something worthless. Stupid muse. I stared at my screen for hours and wrote bupkes last night.

chutzpah. unmitigated effrontery or impudence; gall; audacity; nerve. You’ve got a lot of chutzpah to ask me out after I divorced your brother!

glitch. a defect or malfunction in a machine or plan. There is a glitch in SPECTRE’s plan to take over the world.

klutz. a clumsy, awkward person. I am such a klutz that I fell off the stage right after accepting my Oscar.

maven. an expert or connoisseur. I would love to be a maven of words and their origins.

mensch. a decent responsible person with admirable characteristics. My little brother paid for our lunch with his first paycheck; he’s such a mensch.

putz. fool; jerk. (In Yiddish, literally penis.) Get your hand off my knee, you putz!

schmaltz. exaggerated sentimentalism, as in music or soap operas. (In Yiddish, it’s literally chicken fat.) My guy won’t watch chick flicks with me because he says they’re all schmaltz.

schlep. to carry; lug. I schlepped my grocery sacks up the stairs to my apartment.

schmooze. to chat idly; gossip. At every work party, I have to schmooze with the higher-ups for at least an hour.

schmuck. obnoxious or contemptible person. (In Yiddish, literally penis.) My friend’s ex-husband better watch out because I have no patience for that schmuck.

schmutz. dirt; filth; garbage. Hey, you have a little schmutz on your cheek. Want me to wipe it off?

schpiel. (In Yiddish, to play a game.) a usually high-flown talk or speech, especially for the purpose of luring people to a movie, a sale, etc.; pitch. The politician gave me the whole schpiel on why I should vote for him.

tuchas. the buttocks. After sitting in this chair for hours, I can barely feel my tuchas.

It might help to practice making your h have a little k sound in it as well. That will help with words like “chutzpah” and “tuchas.” Also, you should note that spellings of these words in English vary. For instance, you might see hutzpah, chutzpah, or khutzpah. Take your pick.

When you get comfortable with Yiddish words, you can start talking in Yinglish (Yiddish/English). For instance, “Rosie schlepped through the mall with her packages, while I got bupkes. Some putz had stolen my card, and the credit company kept saying it was a glitch. I had to schmooze my way up to a manager who had the chutzpah to give me his schpiel about upgrading to a gold card. Oy, what a schmuck. It’s just as well, I suppose. I can’t find any pants these days to fit my big tuchas.”

If you still need some help, perhaps this video will help: Yiddish with Dick and Jane (based on a book of the same name by Ellis Weiner and Barbara Davilman).

Do you have any favorite Yiddish words? Do you find yourself using any of the ones above? What Yiddish words would you add to my list?

Sources: The Yiddish Handbook: 40 Words You Should Know – Daily Writing Tips; Yiddish Phrases – Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara; Some Yiddish Words – HebrewforChristians.com; Dictionary.com

Special Guest on Language: Gallagher

Today is Amaze-ing Words Wednesday! I admit, however, that I am frantically getting ready to attend the DFW Writers’ Conference on May 19-20. So today, I want to give you the treat of a special guest on the subject of our tricky English language.

I hope you enjoy this fabulous comedy bit from one of my favorite comedians, Gallagher. He is talking about trying to learn English at school and the resulting confusion.

Have a great week, y’all!

ROW80 Note: I don’t usually check-in on Wednesdays, but I want to announce that I finished the first draft of my YA novel, SHARING HUNTER, on Tuesday. My fellow ROW80 writers — with their encouragement, accountability, and word sprinting — helped me so much. Thanks! And now begins the editing.

Neologistically Speaking

Welcome to Amaze-ing Words Wednesday! Some time ago, I wondered if I could make up my own word. And then I did.

New words are called neologisms (neo=new, logo=word). Neologisms are added to our language all the time. For instance, technology has brought us “texting,” “tweeting,” and “Googling.” When you can’t find any word in the English language that conveys exactly what you mean, you could try adding a neologism to the existing vocabulary.

This is risky, of course. Language is, after all, for the purpose of passing along meaning between people, and if no one else understands your word, your meaning falls flat. Still, it’s worth a shot, and some great terms have made their way into our common lexicon by throwing a new word out there!

Here are a few I’m adding to my own word bank.

Scread. I picked this up from an episode of Fairly Legal. The main character, lawyer Kate Reed, is asked whether she read or skimmed a client’s file. Her answer is that it was something in between: She scread the file. Past tense, this is pronounced [skred]. It now applies to how I often go through blog posts, newspaper articles, and all of the paperwork the school sends home with my kids.

Infinimore. I give credit to my younger, and quite creative, son for this this word! We have a game of saying “I love you” and then the other says “more” or “infinity.” So he combined the two to come up with infinimore. He defines it as “more than infinity.” While I don’t know how more than infinity is possible, I now adore trading “I love you infinimore” with him. (I know, I know, he’ll eventually stop using it with me and use it on girls.)

Humblebrag. This one I saw on author Jenny B. Jones’s website. It immediately piqued my interest, so I searched the word “humblebrag” on the Urban Dictionary. The simplest definition is “a brag shrouded in a transparent form of humility.” An example tweet: “Uggggh just ate about fifteen pieces of chocolate gotta learn to control myself when flying first class or they’ll cancel my modeling contract LOL :p #humblebrag.” It’s a statement that sounds like you’re complaining but conveys that you are superior to others. Another one on the site was something like, “Just stepped in gum on the red carpet! Ugh.” Makes you want to say, “Ooh, poor baby.” *massive eye roll*

Hairitude. As you can see from this list, by far the easiest way to come up with a new word is to take two known words and shove them together somehow. That’s exactly what I did when Jenny Hansen asked for her peeps to vote for fictional character Rapunzel in Clay Morgan’s March Movie Madness. I was quite happy to vote for Rapunzel whose spunk and 80-foot long hair I admired and desired. I slapped together “hair” + “attitude” to say that Rapunzel’s got hairitude! I think this term can apply, however, to any chick with an out-of-the-box, over-the-top hairdo that communicates an “I am all that” attitude. Personally, I think these ladies have hairitude:

Kate & Cindy of the B-52s
Farrah Fawcett with THE hairdo to have when I was growing up.
Princess Leia & the buns
Amy Winehouse - Gone too soon, but the hair rocked.
HAIRITUDE!

If you love adding new words to your vocabulary, check out Natalie Hartford‘s Urban Word Wednesdays posts. Some of these terms are too raunchy for work water cooler conversation, but Natalie does a great job introducing neologisms and giving us a hilarious primer on their use.

So what words have you made up? What neologisms should we add to our common language? Are there concepts or things for which we need a new word? Maybe we can help.

(Note: I do try to keep this site PG-ish, so keep that in mind. Thanks.)

Parental Proverbs and Phrases

Welcome to Amaze-ing Words Wednesday, where we creep through the English language labyrinth with a flashlight and a good dose of curiosity. Today, however, we might be hearing in our brains such admonitions as “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” or “Look where you’re going, not where you’ve been.”

Whatever the saying, you probably have some proverb stuck your head that your parents planted there by repetition in your childhood. Why not use clever language to instruct your kids? My parents passed on to me the following:

A thing worth doing is worth doing well. This was a nice way for my father to say, “Get your chore done, and do it right.” Also, it reminded us to give it our best with schoolwork, extracurricular activities, and service.

Don’t upset the applecart. Never mind that the image of a street vendor selling fruit was not in this city girl’s mental Pinterest, my mother threw out that gem to remind us not to pick fights or overreact.

Come into port with all of your flags flying. No, we were not boat people. However, growing up in Corpus Chisti, Texas along the Gulf Coast, I saw plenty of boats. My father used this proverb to let us know how important it was to follow something through to the end. It was often pulled out after Spring Break when the desire of most teenagers is to let their flag sag and cross the end-of-school-year finish line in a ragged heap.

Shake a leg. Not really a proverb exactly, but I cannot count the number of times my mother suggested we be on time (or just a few minutes later instead of embarrassingly late) by using this phrase. It simply means to hurry up already!

Don’t toot your own horn. “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.” Yet my father would remind us not to brag about ourselves. Let someone else give a compliment and thank them for it. But let your actions speak for themselves; no need to boast.

I find myself adopting my own parental sayings for my children. I suppose it’s a habit all of us parents have. Here are a few I’ve tried.

When you win, celebrate; when you lose, congratulate. You’ll find that I like rhyming sayings. I came up with this one for my son who started playing t-ball at 4 1/2 years old (he’d been begging to play for several months already). Learning good sportsmanship is a primary goal of athletic endeavors with children. This was a way for him to remember how to behave when things do and don’t go your way in a game.

Commentary unnecessary. I use this phrase a lot! When you have more than one child, at some point you will give instructions to one and the other will want to add their own commentary to what you’re saying. It can be as simple as “Oh yeah, what Mom said!” or “He also hasn’t finished his math homework and played video games for an hour.” Whatever the issue, I try to let the non-instructed child know that I’m the parent and I’ve got it covered. Thus, “commentary unnecessary.” At this point, however, I just say, “Commentary–” and my children finish, “unnecessary.”

This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around. Well, I did try this one out. It seemed perfect for those times when we need to get serious about cleaning, getting ready, eating, etc., but instead my children are messing around and wasting time. As it turned out, Talking Heads lyrics were a little wasted on munchkins born post-1990. It’s fallen by the wayside. *sigh*

I’m wondering what I should add to my repertoire and what other parental proverbs and phrases are being used out there. So whatcha got? What parental sayings do you recall from your childhood? What sayings have you repeated with your children?

And to leave you with the mother of all parental proverbs and phrases, here is the fabulous comedian Anita Renfroe with The Mom Song, to the tune of the William Tell Overture:

By the way, I’m guest posting today over at Nicole Basaraba’s blog as part of her series on genre. I’m taking a look at Young Adult (YA) Fiction.

The Cat’s Out of the Bag: Idioms

Welcome to Amaze-ing Words Wednesday, where we enter the labyrinth of language and look for something interesting among the hedges. Today’s topic is in honor of our feline friends. I was going to do a post with idioms that included both dogs and cats, but there are so many that I will need to cover “man’s best friend” next Wednesday. Stay tuned.

In full disclosure, I am a cat person. While there are some lovely dogs out there, I gravitate toward the furballs who largely ignore you unless they want food or petting on their own schedule. In case you care, here are my cats:

Eclipse & Shadow

And now for the feline-inspired idioms and their origins.

The cat’s meow. A lot of slang words were introduced in the 1920s, including “the cat’s meow” — meaning something excellent or outstanding. It was introduced by American cartoonist Thomas Aloysius Dorgan, who also coined “dumbbell,” “for crying out loud,” “hard-boiled,” and another popular cat idiom: “the cat’s pajamas.” From what I can tell, there’s no rhyme or reason to it. But it caught on.

Couldn't find "cat's meow" comic. Here's "dumb-bell."

Cat got your tongue? Several theories exist on this one. Here’s one to make you cringe: Hundreds of years ago in the Mideast, liars had their tongues cut out and fed to the king’s pet felines. Well, maybe. But the first incidence of the term in the Oxford English Dictionary occurs in 1911, so this phrase wasn’t used much before then. It may simply be the general superstition about cats (e.g., don’t cross a black cat) that inspires this phrase meaning you can’t talk.

Not enough room to swing a cat. I had heard that this phrase came from 17th century sailors swinging the cat o’ nine tails, but according to Albert Jack (White Elephants & Red Herrings) this isn’t about a whip. Two centuries earlier, there was a “sport” of swinging cats by the tail into the air, making them moving targets for archers. This activity occurred at fairs and festivals, and if there were large crowds, there wouldn’t enough be room to swing a cat.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat. After reading the swing-a-cat story, I was so relieved to find that this one isn’t even about cats! Catfish are easy to catch, but their skin is difficult to remove. Apparently, there are several ways to skin a catfish, but no one in their right mind would skin a beautiful furry feline.

Curiosity killed the cat. The original phrase was “care killed the cat” from Ben Jonson’s 1598 play, Every Man in His Humor: “Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care’ll kill a Cat, up-tails all, and a Louse for the Hangman.” Don’t ask me what that line means. In Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, it was defined as “Care killed the Cat. It is said that a cat has nine lives [see below], but care would wear them all out.” That same year, the word “care” was exchanged for “curiosity” in The Galveston Daily News: “It is said that once ‘curiosity killed a Thomas cat.'” This new turn of the phrase was used by O’Henry in 1909 in Schools and Schools: “Curiosity can do more things than kill a cat; and if emotions, well recognized as feminine, are inimical to feline life, then jealousy would soon leave the whole world catless.”

I don’t know why care, or worry, would kill a cat to begin with. However, curiosity hasn’t always had the positive connotation it has today. Curiosity has at times been seen as challenging the status quo (tsk, tsk). Lord Byron called curiosity a “low vice” in Don Juan. I personally prefer the line I’ve seen several places: “Curiosity didn’t kill the cat; it was framed.”

A cat has nine lives. The number nine is considered sacred or mystical in some religions and mythology. Think about the trinity of trinities, nine muses, “dressed to the nines,” and a cat’s nine lives. Thus, when people in the Middle Ages had no X-Box or American Idol to entertain them, they threw cats off towers and watched them fall. Surprisingly, cats survived the murderous drop by twisting their bodies and landing on four paws. A cat seemed mystical in that moment: Surely it must have nine lives! My conclusion: The medievalers needed to get one life.

Let the cat out of the bag. Two good options here. First, back in the Middle Ages, people bought their food from the local marketplace. Apparently, some vendors were less honest than others. This idiom comes from a person purchasing a piglet at the market. While the vendor exchanged money and distracted the customer, the piglet in the bag would be exchanged for a cat. Only when the customer arrived home would the secret be discovered, as they “let the cat out of the bag.” Second, and far less appealing to me, there was once a game in which a cat was put in a bag filled with soot and hung on a tree. The game’s object was for competitors to cut open the sack, let the cat free, but not get covered with soot themselves.

Are you a cat person, a dog person, both, or neither? Can you think of any other cat idioms? What are your favorite feline-inspired sayings?

Sources: The Pet Wiki, The Phrase Finder, Red Herrings & White Elephants by Albert Jack, Lambiek Comic Shop, Cat-ch Phrases, The Word Detective, Moggies – Online Cat Guide, Westminster Gazette, Askville by Amazon.com

Miss Spelling Returns: Words that Get Confused

Welcome to Amaze-ing Words Wednesday. By popular demand — or simply because she asked — Miss Spelling has returned. Her insistence on making a reappearance stemmed from a nonfiction book she is reviewing. While the book itself is written well, a different author wrote the foreword. Appallingly, however, said author of many books used the word forward instead to refer to her contribution. That settled it. Miss Spelling politely requested to come here and focus on words that get confused.

It’s my pleasure to return to the fine folks here at Ms. Glover’s blog. I adored the comments from A Lesson with Miss Spelling. I hope to shed some light today as well. I have collected pairs of words which get switched all too often like Parent Trap twins. They are not exchangeable, however. You likely have seen them misused as well.

Affect/effect. Simply put, affect is always a verb. In turn, the result (a noun) is the effect. For instance, seeing my muscular personal trainer shirtless affects my heart rate. The effect of seeing my muscular personal trainer shirtless is an elevated heart rate (and flushed cheeks and sweaty palms, but I digress).

Effect can also be used as a verb, but it is rare. It means to bring something to fruition, such as “he effected his plot to take over the world.” Most of the time, however, affect = verb, effect = noun.

Note: The views of Miss Spelling regarding shirtless personal trainers in no way represents this blog’s owner — who has no personal trainer and whose heart rate is affected by her wonderful husband of 19 years.

Capitol/Capital. The only capitol is the Washington, D.C. building in which the United States legislature congregates. Otherwise, it’s capital, as in the following: (1) the capital of Burkina Faso is Ouagadougou (wah-guh-doo-goo); (2) Ouagadougou is a name so it begins with a capital letter; (3) I have invested no capital in the country of Burkina Faso. Why is the U.S. Congress fond of confusing us with the different spelling? The name capitol hails from the ancient temple of Jupiter at Rome, and it stuck.

Compliment/Complement. To compliment someone is to flatter them by saying something kind and true or something ridiculous that will get you what you want. “How sweet of you to compliment my house! Of course I’ll sign your petition to protect the mosquito.” To complement is to balance, enhance, or complete. “Yes, Angelina, that right leg is a wonderful complement to your dress’s slit.”

Desert/Dessert. I’ll make this one easy: It’s Sahara vs. Soufflé. One would hope that when dining in a dirt-infested wasteland, one could have a French baked treat. However, these words are not usually seen together. A desert is to die in; a dessert is to die for.

Forward/Foreword. Forward is the direction you are facing. A foreword is the section of words before the main book. Thus, the foreword is several pages of a different author telling you why you should read the main author and what an amazing contribution his or her book is to you personally and to humanity as a whole for moving forward in life.

By the way, I understand that some bookstores will turn down carrying a book if they see foreword misspelled; they figure if you can’t get that right, you didn’t take enough care with the book generally.

Lightning/Lightening. This may take the cake as the most confused pair. I covered this in A Lesson with Miss Spelling. It bears repeating, or perhaps a visual instead.

Lightning
Lightening (pic from josydoodle.blogspot.com)

Peaked/Piqued. If you have peaked in life, you have reached the pinnacle, the highest point you can achieve. Meanwhile, your interest may be piqued in what the heck you’re going to do now. I often see the statement, “That peaked my interest.” Does that mean your interest is hovering at the top of Everest?

Perhaps it will help to explain that pique means to arouse or excite. Having your interest piqued means your interest has been stirred up like a witch’s cauldron brew. Who knows what magical things could happen next?

Precede/Proceed. I am saddened to report that our own fine language lover, Ms. Glover, made this alarming error in her friend’s obituary. To precede is to go before, while to proceed is to go forward. By definition alone, they don’t seem so far apart. However, consider a procession, in which a parade of people proceed along. Thus, when Ms. Glover proofread the obit and saw that her friend had proceeded several family members, she should have corrected it to read preceded since her friend had died before the others. Instead, it sounded a funeral parade.

Now, now, Ms. Glover. No need to hang your head. You won’t make that mistake again. Moreover, your friend would have made a lovely Grand Marshal of any parade.

Principal/Principle. Consider this sentence: The principal problem with Congress is their lack of principles. While I believe the statement is true, more importantly it demonstrates the difference between principal, or primary, and principle, or ethic.

Principal McGee from Grease

Principal is also used as a noun to express this concept of the primary — such as when the money you pay on your loan goes in great part to the interest and in some part to the principal. Additionally, it refers to the warden of your local high school, as in Rydell’s Principal McGee. Meanwhile, principle refers to a guiding tenet, whether a moral one or, say, the principles of physics.

Now store all of your book under your seats and pull out one fresh sheet of paper and a pencil. It’s Pop Quiz time!

Just kidding. I’m sure you’ll all do wonderfully with these words in the real world. It has been my pleasure to be here once again. Ta-ta!

My thanks to Miss Spelling for helping us navigate the tricky world of spelling. Remember that natural ability to spell is not highly correlated to intelligence, but a complete disregard for checking your spelling is.

So which of these words give you trouble? Do you have other words spelled or pronounced almost the same which get switched in your mind?

The Fun Encyclopedia: Alphabet Game

My father recently went through his library (which is extensive). He came across a few old books he no longer wanted and offered them to me. Skimming through the pages, they looked interesting, so I carried the books home . . . and promptly put them on a shelf.

Last week, I finally started sifting through the books. One of them was published in 1940 and is titled The Fun Encyclopedia. Now you gotta up open a book that has the brass to be called THE Fun Encyclopedia. As it turns out, the book is chock full of hobbies, games, crafts, sports, music, magic, and party ideas. Some activities are outdated, but plenty are still worthy of the adjective “fun”!

Now I love fun games with language (e.g., Tom Swifties). So for today’s Amaze-ing Words Wednesday, I feature one of the alphabet games from the book written by E.O. Harbin 72 years ago. By the way, this book is subtitled — I kid you not! — “A Comprehensive, All-purpose, Entertainment Plan-book for the Home, Club, School, Church, and Playground.” Wow, that’s a mouthful, people.

The following is a quiz for which the answer is a word that can be expressed with a single letter. Here’s an example: A body part? I

See how you do with the rest of them. Answers are given below.

  1. A drink?
  2. A body of water?
  3. An exclamation?
  4. A female sheep?
  5. An insect?
  6. A bird?
  7. An actor’s signal?
  8. A query?

Answers: 1. T,  2. C,  3. O,  4. U,  5. B,  6. J,  7. Q,  8. Y

Now that you’ve got the hang of it, let’s try a few two-letter words! Example: Surpass? XL

  1. Chilly?
  2. Too much?
  3. Rot?
  4. Not hard?
  5. Jealousy?
  6. Tent?
  7. Composition?

Answers: 1. IC,  2. XS,  3. DK,  4. EZ,  5. NV,  6. TP,  7. SA

And here’s a bonus for those doing great with this mental exercise (or those willing to give a shot anyway): Three-letter words.

  1. Happiness?
  2. A small boy has lots of?
  3. A foe?

Answers: 1. XTC,  2. NRG,  3. NME

Perhaps you aren’t as giddy as I am after that brief stretching of our brain’s language center, but try these out on your friends or kids. See if you can stump them (now that you know all of the answers).

How did you do? Can you think of any other examples of words represented by one, two, or three letters? (Wouldn’t you open up a book called The Fun Encyclopedia?)

Valentine’s Special: Candy Heart Sayings

It’s Amaze-Words Wednesday, when I head down another path in the labyrinth of language and try to discover something I didn’t know before. With an estimated $1.5 billion to be spent on candy for Valentine’s Day, I expect that candy makers and sellers around the world are preparing for another busy season when people give sweets to the sweet (and sours to the sour?).

While candy corn is associated with Halloween and Cadbury eggs with Easter, heart-shaped candies are associated with Valentine’s Day. What’s the most popular of them? Perhaps candy hearts — you know, those chalky colored hearts that are pretty much pure sugar and have short sayings stamped onto them.

Necco Company produced the original and began making Sweethearts candies in 1902. There are usually about 80 sayings used at any given time. The sayings must be short since only two lines of 4-5 letters across can fit on the hearts. Some popular sayings — like “Be Mine” and “Kiss Me” — are carried over from year to year, but Necco also solicits the public for ideas and incorporates new ones from time to time. This is why by 2011, you could find hearts with “You Rock” and “Tweet Me” on them. Outdated sayings are also thrown out. For instance, they no longer print “You Are Gay” and “Dig Me.”

So what can you find on Sweethearts these days? Though I started with online research, I quickly decided to take a hands-on approach instead. In addition to Necco’s Sweethearts, I purchased the copycat products of Wonka’s Sweetarts Hearts, Ferrara Pan Heart Lines, and Brach’s Conversation Hearts. Taking a sample of 73-76 candies per brand, I studied how we say Happy Valentine’s Day with our candy.

Necco had the most options, with 48 sayings, and Wonka the fewest, with only 8. The most popular sayings? “Kiss Me” and “Love You” appeared with the highest frequency. If you include variations like “Let’s Kiss,” “Love U” and “Luv You,” all four brands had these sayings. Apparently, the straightforward messages are alive and well.

Old-fashioned sayings like “Be Mine,” “Yes Dear” and “Hug Me” show up on the candy hearts. But here are some of the newer, funkier ones:

My Test Samples

1 On 1
Awe-some
Bling
Boogie
BFF
Crazy 4 U
Friend Me
Game On
Get Real
Got Luv?
High Five
Let’s Ride
LOL
Mad 4 U
Peace
Play Time
Shake It
Sup Babe
Text Me
Time 2 Dance
TTYL
U Move Me
Whuz Up?
Wink Wink
You Rock

Other sayings confuse me. What does “Go Go Go” have to do with Valentine’s Day? Or “Jump 4 Me”? Is that one for your dog? “Love Bug” and “Race Me” also made appearances. Is this a Herbie movie?

Some of the pet names also seem rather syrupy to me. Does anyone really call their honey “Baby Doll,” “Cutie” or “Sweet Pea”? Perhaps they should opt instead for a little French-inspired love with the “Mi Amor” hearts or leap in fully with the “Soul Mate” hearts.

Basically, whatever message you want to send — fun, romantic, sexy, cutesy, hip — you can probably find it on a candy heart. In case you want to know which ones taste the best, I gave that task to my in-house candy experts (two junior high boys now on a big sugar high). Their unanimous results: Wonka Sweetarts taste the best (although they offer the fewest sayings), Necco places second (has the most sayings too), and Ferrara Pan and Brach’s come in at the end.

What were my favorite messages? Well, I think it’s hard to beat the classics — “Love You,” “XOXO” and “Marry Me.” Moreover, if you’re looking for a way to propose, upon request Necco will send you a bag of “Marry Me” hearts. And after my recent Buffy the Vampire Slayer marathon, I was kind of happy to find a heart that said “Angel.”

What do you think of candy hearts? What would you like to see stamped on a candy heart? What message do you want to send this Valentine’s Day?

Sources: Spelling Love with Candy Hearts, Wonka Candy, Necco Sweethearts, Candy Blog-Wonka, Candy Blog-Brach’s, National Retail Foundation, Brach’s, Mahalo, Time

Truly Colorful Idioms

Idioms are one of my favorite things to look up and discover their origins. Idioms are phrases or sayings which have an underlying and generally understood meaning apart from the literal words themselves. For instance, “dead as a doornail” or “break a leg.”

Curiously, we have quite a few idioms which revolve around COLOR. For today’s Amaze-ing Words Wednesday, we’ll navigate a labyrinth of phrases that include colors.

Blackmail. The word “mail” here is the old Scottish word for rent (which actually comes from Old Norse “mal” meaning contract). In the 1600s tenants paid their rent in silver coins known as “white money.” However, the Highland clan chiefs began threatening tenants with violence if they didn’t pay for “protection.” This additional rent soon became known as “black rent” or “black mail” – the opposite of rent paid on the up-and-up. During the 1900s its meaning was extended to the act of demanding money to protect another’s secrets.

In the pink. The phrase did not originate from the color itself. Its first use is found in Romeo & Juliet (1597), as Mercurio states, “Why, I am the very pinke of curtesie.” In this instance and several others, “pinke” meant tip-top, the highest, the peak. Perhaps using the word “pink” to indicate excellence derived from Queen Elizabeth I’s admiration of Dianthus flowers, commonly called Pinks. These flowers are both pink in hue and edged like pinking shears. So to be “in the pink” is to be in the most excellent condition possible.

Green with envy. According to The Phrase Finder, “the Greeks believed that jealousy was accompanied by an overproduction of bile, lending a pallid green cast to the victim.” I have yet to see anyone with an actual green complexion when envy strikes, but it is an effective saying.

Caught red-handed. The phrase “caught red-handed” is first seen in English novelist George Alfred Lawrence’s Guy Livingstone in which the presence of stolen goods caused the character to say, “we were caught red-handed.” In fact, the word “redhand” or “red-handed” had been used since the 15th century and originated in Scotland. It simply refers to having blood on one’s hands, which was proof of involvement in a killing.

Once in a blue moon. While there are a couple of other possible explanations, I’m going with a more commonly accepted one. In 1819, The Maine Farmers Almanac listed dates of “blue moons.” Various moon phrases were given names (e.g., “harvest moon”), and “blue moons” occurred in those years when there were 13 moon cycles rather than the typical 12. The extra moons were called blue. They don’t happen often, of course; thus, “once in a blue moon.”

Paint the town red. In our town, the D.A.R.E. drug awareness program for school is accompanied by an encouragement to “paint the town red” with red ribbons everywhere. However, the theories on where this phrase came from are hardly as innocent. One suggestion is that in 1837 the Marquis of Weatherford and his friends went on a spree in the town of Melton Mowbray and, among other misdeeds, painted it red. Although the event itself took place, no references to red painting were recorded at that time.

Another option comes from The New York Times in 1883 when a reporter wrote: “Mr. James Hennessy offered a resolution that the entire body proceed forthwith to Newark and get drunk… Then the Democrats charged upon the street cars, and being wafted into Newark proceeded, to use their own metaphor, to ‘paint the town red’.” Perhaps the drunkenness is related to a red flush on one’s skin. This still doesn’t explain the phrase’s origin.

A final suggestion was that the capital of the Indian state of Rajasthan was painted pink in 1853 in honor of a visit from Prince Albert. But then, why paint the town red when the building was painted pink?

Red itself often refers to blood, so perhaps the original meaning was to have such a violent spree that blood was spilled around the town. I think I’ll opt for the nice ribbons instead.

Red Herring. A red herring is a misleading clue, usually in a mystery. In the 18th and 19th centuries, herring was common in Britain. This fish was preserved by salting and smoking, which resulted in a deep brownish red color and a strong smell. Early animal-lovers in the 1800s wanting to preserve the fox could throw hounds off the hunt with red herrings.

Tickled pink. The word “tickled” here doesn’t mean to touch someone in a way that makes them laugh; it’s an older usage which means to give pleasure. “Tickled pink” is to be so pleased that you appear pink (as when blood rushes to the skin’s surface). Its earliest written reference was in 1910 in The Daily Review, an Illinois newspaper: “Grover Laudermilk was tickled pink over Kinsella’s move in buying him from St. Louis.”

White Elephant. Perhaps you’ve participated in a White Elephant gift exchange, in which you pull out some useless, unwanted item from your home and place it in a pretty gift bag for some other sap. Back when Thailand was Siam, whenever a white elephant was discovered, the king automatically took ownership but not possession. One could not neglect, ride, or work a white elephant, so it was a huge burden to have one. In fact, the king was said to give a white elephant as a special royal gift to those who displeased him. You couldn’t refuse the royal gift, but then you had to take care of said elephant without getting any use from it. Frankly, I’m happy that all of the white elephant gifts I’ve received required no feeding and shoveling.

White knight. In Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll, Alice is rescued by the White Knight from the Red Knight. He represents the chess piece of the same name. In the tale he is clumsy, but helps Alice nonetheless. Indeed, the term now simply means “one who comes to the rescue of another” (Merriam-Webster).

Yellow-belly. What the color of one’s stomach has to do with one’s level of courage, I’m not certain. There are several theories. However, the most convincing one involved the Texas revolution. The Wisconsin Enquirer reported in 1842 that “We learn from Capt. Wright, of the N. York, that it is the intention of the Texans to ‘keep dark’ until the Mexicans cross the Colorado, and then give them a San Jacinto fight, with an army from 5000 to 7000 men. God send that they may bayonet every ‘yellow belly’ in the Mexican army.” Was that merely a reference to the skin color of Mexicans? I suspect so. Thankfully, such racist tones have not lingered with the use of the term (that I know of). A “yellow-belly” is simply a coward.

What other color idioms can you think of? Why do you think we use color in our common sayings?

Sources: Red Herrings & White Elephants by Albert Jack; The Phrase Finder; Merriam-Webster online; Wikipedia

One more thing: Roni Loren‘s erotic romance novel has debuted! Congrats on her release of Crash Into You.