The diminutive suffix “-ish” to denote approximation is just plain lovely. Its attachment to time, as in “How about if we meet 4:00ish?”, was in use as early as 1916.

Apparently it started in Middle English to describe people’s ethnic origins: Spanish, Irish, Jewish. It moved from there to mean “like” or “characteristic of,” as in devilish or boyish, boorish or foolish or shrewish. As early as the 14th century it was used to soften the precision of color names, when the color in question was hard to describe: It was a greenish blueor “It had a reddish hue.” From there it came to mean “tending to be” or “verging on being,” as in a knavish look. Hence its broader use as an approximation.

I love the practice of using “-ish” as a standalone word. “How was the opera?” “Good. Ish.”

“Are you hungry?” “Ish.”

“Would you say she’s thirtyish?” “I’d say, heavy on the ish.” Continue reading

Categories: Language, Social Justice, Words | 4 Comments

Everything’s Copasetic

I don’t think I’ve ever posted an entire Wikipedia article before, but this one was too full of delight for me to stop myself. One of my favorite words has always been “copasetic,” though I never knew exactly how to spell it before. I found myself wondering about its origins. The dictionary etymologies weren’t particularly helpful, but Wikipedia was a gold mine. This lovely, mysterious word may be Chicago gangster argot, Chinook Jargon, ancient Hebrew, or even Louisiana Creole. Who wouldn’t adore a word like that? Continue reading

Categories: Language, Words | 5 Comments

“I have a catapult. Give me all the money, or I will fling an enormous rock at your head.”

That’s the translation of one of my favorite Latin phrases: Catapultam habeo. Nisi pecuniam omnem mihi dabis, ad caput tuum saxum immane mittam. Of course, I don’t actually speak Latin. I just subscribe to that famous dictum, Quidquidne latine dictum sit, altum viditur. (Whatever is said in Latin sounds profound.)

I may have mentioned before how much I like the phrase olet lucernam (it smells of the lamp), which describes writing that has been worried over too much: its lack of free flow betrays the long hours spent writing beside a smoky oil lamp. Here are some new favorites:

Nihil curo de ista tua stulta superstitione.
I’m not interested in your dopey religious cult.

Feles mala! Cur cista non uteris? Stramentum novum in ea posui.
Bad kitty! Why don’t you use the cat box? I put new litter in it. Continue reading

Categories: Language, Words | 4 Comments

Peruse This

Over coffee this morning (Raven’s Brew‘s delicious Resurrection Blend, which I highly recommend), Adam, newly graduated from massage school, read me part of a magazine article written by an expert in the field. It may have been chock full of good information, but I couldn’t get past the truly awful writing. Egregiously awful. With poor grammar to boot.

One error the writer did not make, mainly because I doubt that she’s ever heard the word (OK, that was unfair; I’m sure she’s heard the word, even if she’s never uttered it), is the misuse of the word “peruse.”

Peruse does not, as is popularly thought, mean “browse, glance over, skim.” It means “to read through with thoroughness or care; to examine in detail.” It was used as early as 1479 to mean “use up, wear out, go through,” from the Middle English per- “completely” + use. Its meaning of “to read carefully” is first recorded in 1532. Continue reading

Categories: Language, Words, Writing | 8 Comments

The Woman with Twenty Thousand Dictionaries

A propos of yesterday’s post, a little poem. Poem-ish. Poemishness:

I recently read of a woman who
Lives in a loft
In Lower Manhattan.
She owns twenty thousand

Though Madeline is a bookseller,
The article implied
These twenty thousand
Were the home’s tomes,
Not the store’s store.

She is, at the very least, a
I used to own all of two
The ultra-ultra-condensed
OED, with its own magnifying glass (a
Necessity if there ever was one), and
My beloved
American Heritage.

These days such large volumes are
Too cumbersome, and I’m too lazy,
To heft their heft. Particularly when
The world’s my oyster, and pearls are
Uncovered with keyboards.

I certainly admire Madeline’s
Sticktoitiveness (you might say),
But I worry for her,
Not to mention her downstairs
Neighbors, should she ever get
Twenty thousand and

Many thanks to Adam for the quick nip-and-tuck on it.

Categories: Language, Words | 1 Comment

From A to Zyxt

by Nicholson Baker, The New York Times

Ammon Shea, a sometime furniture mover, gondolier and word collector, has written an oddly inspiring book about reading the whole of the Oxford English Dictionary in one go. Shea’s book resurrects many lost, misshapen, beautifully unlucky words — words that spiraled out, like fast-decaying muons, after their tiny moment in the cloud chamber of English usage. There’s hypergelast (a person who won’t stop laughing), lant (to add urine to ale to give it more kick), obmutescence (willful speechlessness) and ploiter (to work to little purpose) — all good words to have on the tip of your tongue when, for example, you’re stopped for speeding.

Shea’s book offers more than exotic word lists, though. It also has a plot. “I feel as though I am eating the alphabet,” he writes halfway through, and you want him to make it to the end. This is the Super Size Me of lexicography. Continue reading

Categories: Language, Words, Worthwhile Reading | Leave a comment

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