Let’s face it. Words are awesome. How words change over time is awesome. And idiomatic expressions? They are THE BEST. If you could buy idiomatic expressions at the store, they’d be on my Christmas list.
Years ago, I was working at a non-profit agency and getting ready for a state audit. Everyone in the agency was having a nervous breakdown waiting for the auditors to swoop down for their annual visit. I was in my office slogging through case files to make sure all the i’s were dotted and all the t’s crossed, when the psychologist came in to see me. She was from an Eastern European country and her English was very good, but rather literal.
She saw that I was busy and asked me if I was okay. I said “Oh yeah, I’m happy as a pig in shit.” She responded, “Is that an idiomatic expression?”
Now that’s my kind of colleague. I explained that literally it means that when a pig is rolling around in manure it’s very happy, so it is used to mean one is very happy. Except that I was using it sarcastically, because I was the total opposite of happy and just wanted the auditors to come and go. She brightly said “Oh, I see” and happily walked down the hall practicing. “Happy as a pig in shit. Happy as a pig in shit.” I ran after her…..WAAAAIT….IT’S INAPPROPRIAAAATE…….
My favorite idiomatic expression in Spanish is “No entiendo ni papa.” As an expression it roughly means “I don’t understand a word.” Literally it means (rough translation by moi) “I don’t understand, not even a potato.” I’m assuming they don’t mean the Pope (el Papa). How cool is that?! I love that expression.
One of my favorite books ever is The Professor and the Madman, A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester.
Side note: Notice the Oxford comma? I guess Simon Winchester had no choice but to use it here.
At any rate, this story reads like the best fiction novel but is the best nonfiction novel. Personal intrigue, madness, murder and words. The title alone was worth the price of the book.
Which leads me to etymology. Wake up! wake up! I promise this isn’t boring! Etymology is the origin of words and their history. In other words (it’s hard to make a play on words, about the word “words”), etymology is how a word started out and how it ended up today.
Kind of like a word’s genealogy.
A couple of years ago, a kichwa professor friend from Ecuador referred to me as an Anglo-Saxon. On the radio. I was startled. I expected Caucasian, white or even gringa. The details of the conversation are not germane to this article but it was a compliment. However, I have never even one time in my life thought of myself as an Anglo-Saxon.
The first thing that came to mind were the words “hut” and “axe.” I’m an axe wielding Anglo-Saxon who is off to her hut. And then I thought, okay the Anglos are white people from England, and the Saxons are people in a jazz band. Who were the Saxons?
I decided to find out through the word “axe.” Man, has that word been around the block and the globe. I couldn’t describe it well so here it is:
axe (n.) Old English æces (Northumbrian acas) “axe, pickaxe, hatchet,” later æx, from Proto-Germanic *akusjo (source also of Old Saxon accus, Old Norse ex, Old Frisian axe, German Axt, Gothic aqizi), from PIE *agw(e)si- (source also of Greek axine, Latin ascia).
The spelling ax is better on every ground, of etymology, phonology, and analogy, than axe, which became prevalent during the 19th century; but it is now disused in Britain. [OED]
The spelling ax, though “better on every ground, of etymology, phonology, & analogy” (OED), is so strange to 20th-c. eyes that it suggests pedantry & is unlikely to be restored. [Fowler]
Meaning “musical instrument” is 1955, originally jazz slang for the saxophone; rock slang for “guitar” dates to 1967. The axe in figurative sense of cutting of anything (expenses, workers, etc.), especially as a cost-saving measure, is from 1922, probably from the notion of the headman’s literal axe (itself attested from mid-15c.). To have an axe to grind is from an 1815 essay by U.S. editor and politician Charles Miner (1780-1865) in which a man flatters a boy and gets him to do the chore of axe-grinding for him, then leaves without offering thanks or recompense. Misattributed to Benjamin Franklin in Weekley, OED print edition, and many other sources.” From the Online Etymology Dictionary
And there you have it. My joke about jazz is not as clever as I thought. And I spend so much time worrying/laughing about the “u” in colour that Americans threw out at some point for the much, much simpler word “color.” Now I have to decide to write ax or axe.
I don’t know what Old Frisian is, but it sounds crazy awesome.
Welcome to the wonderful world of words.