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In Word of the week on May 5, 2008 at 2:23 pm

Funky (adjective)

Pronunciation: [‘fung-kee]

Definition: (1) Cowardly (1837 Dickens), (2) depressed, or (3) smelling of old and moldy cheese. The November 1954 issue of Time Magazine referred to “Funky, authentic, swinging blues, down to earth, smelling of earth.” Today its meaning is very diffuse but is, roughly: authentic, less than fresh, earthy, in the broadest senses of these terms.

Usage: Today’s word is used frequently but the meaning is difficult to pin down; we have attempted a brief survey of the possibilities above. The adjective may be compared (funkier, funkiest) and the adverb is “funkily.” The noun may be “funk” or “funkiness.”

Suggested Usage: Today’s word began as a description of a smell and was extended to virtually anything too old, cheesy, or outdated, “After lifting weights for an hour at the gym Brett came home smelling a bit funky with clothes to match.” Today the word can as easily refer to style and fashion as cuisine: “Edna arrived in a hair-do with a funky bouffant straight out of the 50s.”

Etymology: “Funky” has been around in various forms since at least 1623. It probably originated in a dialectal French word, “funkier” from Latin fumigare “to smoke,” a verb based on fumus “smoke” (also the origin of our word “fumes”). This is suggested by the fact that it originally referred to the smell of musty tobacco smoke. Later it became associated with the smell of moldy cheese and then with anything smelling less than fresh. The use of the term “funky jazz” in the 1950s by African Americans to refer to the old, authentic jazz was an attempt to distinguish it from the newer more sophisticated forms being developed by white band leaders.

–Dr. Language, YourDictionary.com


In Word of the week on March 27, 2008 at 9:14 am

Hyperbole (noun)

Pronunciation: [hI-‘pêr-bê-lee]

Definition: Overstatement; a figure of speech that uses exaggeration for effect, without intending to be taken literally.

Usage: There must be a thousand forms of this word: hyperbolism “the use of hyperbole” is the noun, “hyperbolize” is the verb, and “hyperbolic” [hI-pêr-‘bah-lik] is the adjective. When using “hyperbole” in writing or speaking, one must be especially careful to avoid the hyperbolic cliché. “I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse” and “Her skin was as white as snow” are not only hackneyed but overstated, as well.

Suggested Usage: No one has provided the English language with better hyperboles than Mark Twain: “There did not seem to be brains enough in the entire nursery, so to speak, to bait a fishhook with.” But the hyperbole is alive and well. One of today’s suggested examples comes from Justin of T. S. Hill Middle School in Dexter, Missouri, who wrote that his dog is so ugly, “he only has cat friends.” And as a jazz musician friend said, “Yeah, I know Des Moines. Played for a week there one night.”

Etymology: From Greek hyperbole “excess,” from hyperballein, “to exceed”: hyper “above, beyond” + ballein “to throw.” In Greek, “hyperbole” refers to the rhetorical effect of using exaggeration for emphasis. “Hyper-” (Latin “super”) is a relative newcomer to English, arising only in the 17th century, but it is used frequently now: “hyperactive,” “hypercritical,” “hypersensitive” are some of the neologisms recently bestowed on English. Greek ballein goes back to *gwel- “to throw; to pierce.” In English it ended up as “ball” (from Old French baller “to dance”) and “ballad,” which originally was a dance song. In the sense of “pierce,” this stem came to English as “quell” and “kill.”

–Dr. Language, YourDictionary.com


In Word of the week on March 20, 2008 at 8:56 pm

Debacle (noun)

Pronunciation: [di-‘bah-kl]
Definition: A sudden rush of water and debris such as results from dam failure or the breaking up of river ice in the spring; any sudden, total collapse or rout.
Usage: The problem with today’s word is that no one knows how to pronounce it. Most dictionaries now concede three acceptable pronunciations: [di-‘bah-kl], [di-‘bæ-kl] and [‘de-bê-kl]. The first is not only closer to the original French but seems to be the preference of most speakers today. It is the one we recommend.
Suggested Usage: We seem to be moving away from the original meaning of this word, “The spring debacle of the Susquehanna caused considerable damage to several bridges.” We should keep it alive since it serves a useful function. We can also speak of the debacle of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 or the debacle of the Soviet empire in the 1990s.
Etymology: French débâcle, from débâcler “to unbar, release” from Old French desbacler : des- “un-” + bacler “to bar.” The Old French word probably came from a Vulgar Latin verb *baculare, derived from Latin baculum “rod, staff, walking stick.” “Bacillus” is the diminutive of “baculum” and hence means “a little “rod,” the shape of many bacilli and bacteria. “Bacterium” goes back to Greek bakterion, the diminutive of baktron “rod.”


In Word of the week on March 14, 2008 at 2:17 pm

Boogie (verb)

Pronunciation: [‘bu-gee]

Definition: (Humorous slang) To dance in a fast and unrestrained fashion; to move quickly, hurry; to leave or get moving.

Usage: The term is used humorously in North America as a term meaning “let’s party” (also slang) or “let’s get moving.” Other than the expectable “boogying,” it is an orphan that has not gained wide acceptability in the English-speaking world.

Suggested Usage: Like all slang words, the meaning of this one is so general that it may be applied to almost any motion in the sense of an intensifier, to move exceptionally in some way: “When he saw the new car his parents bought him for his birthday, Sanford’s eyes boogied around in their sockets several times.” It can add a bit of color in top of its inherent humor in casual conversation, “As the pungent Island aromas began boogying out of the kitchen, Tremayne’s esteem for Shallala rocketed.”

Etymology: From “boogie-woogie” a reduplication of “boogie,” certainly from Black English, possibly from Black West African English bogi “to dance” akin to Hausa buga “to hit, beat (drums, etc.)” “Boogie-Woogie” entered the American idiom from a 1928 recording “Pinetop’s Boogie-Woogie” by Clarence “Pinetop” Smith. It was originally a piano style that developed in the U.S. after rag-time based on recurrent chord progression C-F-C-F-C-G-F-C played with a strong recurrent bass rhythm. These chords were the immediate predecessor of the blues and made a come-back in early rock and roll. The dancing that accompanied boogie was fast and unbridled, hence the meaning of today’s word.

–Dr. Language, YourDictionary.com


In Word of the week on March 9, 2008 at 4:46 pm

Nonplus (verb)

Pronunciation: [nahn-‘plês]

Definition: To place someone at a loss as to what to say, do, or think.

Usage: The state of being at a complete loss for a response is also called “nonplus,” so one can be at a nonplus or be brought to one by the actions of someone else. We also often say that we are “nonplussed” by something. (This is another orphan negative, which means you cannot “plus” anyone by raising their consciousness.)

Suggested Usage: This is a state the events of the day bring us to all the more often, so we should prepare ourselves to use it properly. Do you know what to say on occasions such as this: “Frieda nonplussed the whole family when she parachuted into the backyard during Dad’s birthday party.” My friend Shirley came to a complete nonplus at Roland’s response to her question whether he liked cheap wine. “I didn’t know sheep gave wine,” he said.

Etymology: The etymology is very simple though its semantic improbability leaves many etymologists, well, nonplussed. It is from Latin non “not” + plus “more” via the 17th century French phrase mettre a nonplus “to put at nonplus.” “Plus” comes from the same root (*pel-/*pol-) as plenus “full” from which we borrowed “plenty.” This root came to English as “full” and German as “voll.” In Russian the same root emerges as polny “full.”

–Dr. Language, YourDictionary.com