In search of The Word Detective

“The Word Detective” has gone missing!

That beloved site run by Evan Morris on the Web since 1995 has not posted an update since October, and instead of dissecting words he told of battling primary progressive multiple sclerosis — quite the mouthful — and struggling to pay his bills.

He’s the one who charmingly answers such reader questions as this:

Dear Evan: I was spending a day at the beach recently, and, taking time out from reading a book, spent some time watching seagulls. I noticed that these gulls did a great deal of walking around and picking up things that they seemed to think would be edible but weren’t, such as candy wrappers. They did not, in short, seem very bright. Is this where we get the word “gullible”? — Katherine Mercurio, New York, NY.

Since I am only remotely related to any seagulls myself, I shall answer your question, but first I’ll let you in on an old lexicographer’s secret — “gullible” is one of the few common English words not listed in any dictionary.

I’m tempted to let that sentence stand as is, but I get enough irate reader mail already, so yes, I’m pulling your leg. “Gullible,” meaning “easily tricked or deceived,” is in all decent dictionaries and does indeed have a connection with “gull” the bird. Lest I inflame my avian correspondents in Brooklyn, however, I should note that most authorities feel that the “gull” in “gullible” is not a seagull, but comes from an earlier sense of the word, meaning a young bird of any species. And young birds, as you seem to have discovered, are easy to fool.

For those of us enamored with language, it would be dreadful to lose his fulgent voice. My own, pathetic column riffing on language, “Word Whoops,” is an occasional distraction, but Morris’ livelihood depends on his lively linguistic probes.

They tell young people to pursue what gives life meaning, and they’ll find the means to live. They tell writers: Write what you know, and you’ll be successful. They say: Do what you love and never work a day in your life. Here’s Morris, trying to cure a poverty of knowledge, or at least enrich our ability to communicate, and he faces impoverishment? Then suddenly — ex-communication?!

Seriously, I’m concerned. If anyone gets word, please spread it. And if you have the means, please support his effort to bring more meaning into our lives.

Bird was not always the word

The etymology of “bird” is fraught with mystery and/or typos. In Old English, the word for bird was “fugol,” while “bridd” applied to all nestlings. In Middle English, “byrde” applied to all young animals, even humans, with “burd” targeting “young, maiden women.” In modern-day Britain, the slang “bird” retains that “sweet young thing” meaning.

0864c_3031018903_b0d754d862Giving someone the bird.

The middle-finger reference seems to arise from 1860 vaudeville, when catcalling or hissing at a performer in rejection was likened to a goose’s hissing.

6 of the funniest species names (to me)

1. Bananaquit (national bird of the U.S. Virgin Islands)

2. Rufous-vented Chacalaca (national bird of Tobago)

3. Andean Cock-of-the-Rock (national bird of Peru)

4. Imperial shag

5. Grey Go-away-bird

6. Long-wattled Umbrellabird

umbrella

A long-wattled Umbrellabird, found in a relatively narrow belt along the Pacific slopes of the Chocó of western Colombia and Ecuador, sayeth Wikipedia.

Top 5 references to birds in the Bible

Writers of the Bible had a limited grasp of diversity, but some species get regular mentions.

1. Noah’s ark: Raven vs. dove. “So it came to pass, at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made. Then he sent out a raven, which kept going to and fro until the waters had dried up from the earth. He also sent out from himself a dove, to see if the waters had receded from the face of the ground.” Genesis 8:6–8. And you know the end of that story. In Christianity, the raven appears in 12 Bible verses. The dove? At least double that.

dove-with-olive-branch_lg

Picasso’s dove sketch

2. Nesting. Psalm 84:3: Yea, the sparrow hath found a house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars …” Deuteronomy 22:5-7: “If a bird’s nest chance to be before thee in the way in any tree, or on the ground, whether they be young ones, or eggs, and the dam sitting upon the young, or upon the eggs, thou shalt not take the dam with the young.” Psalm 104:17: “Where the birds make their nests: as for the stork, the fir trees are her house.” Isaiah 34:15: “There shall the great owl make her nest, and lay, and hatch, and gather under her shadow: there shall the vultures also be gathered, every one with her mate.”

3. Hunting/evading capture (only a smattering of examples as hunting is quite popular, biblically speaking).
Proverbs 1:17: “Surely in vain the net is spread in the sight of any bird.” Proverbs 6:4-6: “Deliver thyself as a roe from the hand of the hunter, and as a bird from the hand of the fowler.” Proverbs 7:23: “Till a dart strike through his liver; as a bird hasteth to the snare, and knoweth not that it is for his life.”

songbird

4. Birdsong (a sampling). Ecclesiastes 10:20: “Curse not the king, no not in thy thought; and curse not the rich in thy bedchamber: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.” Ecclesiastes 12:4: “And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low.” Song of Solomon 2:12: “The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.” Turtle?

5. Start of an ancient life list. Leviticus 11:16-17: “And the owl, and the night hawk, and the cuckow, and the hawk after his kind, And the little owl, and the cormorant, and the great owl.” Psalm 102:6: “I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert.”

burr-owl

5 out-of-fashion terms that somehow still fit

Design and fashion shape language in ways most people don’t stop to notice. Here are a few dated concepts that somehow have survived the test of evolving styles and technology.

MonopolyHat

The Monopoly guy has pretty much cornered the market on hat-tipping.

1. Hat tip. On the Intrawebz — among social-media socialites mostly — this has been condensed to “h/t.” It’s what we in the real media biz call sourcing: a nod to the person or organization providing whatever scoop, meme, funny video, scintillating blog post you’re sharing. My suspicion: Its recent popularity was inspired by the “Tip of the Hat / Wag of the Finger” segment on the The Colbert Report — but I don’t have that sourced. Or maybe it’s bad economic times reminding us how hats are held out to collect tips.

What strikes me as odd: The style of hat that men once congenially tipped was in vogue all the way back in the Edwardian age. With this usage, it zooms into the digital age. Although some men — primarily cowboys — still flick their brims in a kind gesture of recognition, respect, gratitude or greeting, hat-wearing has been in decline since the end of World War II.

ManTipHat

Side note: In American Sign Language, the “hat tip” gesture signifies “man,” while drawing a bonnet’s chin strap across the chin signifies “woman.” Today’s deaf kids must be durn-tootin’ confused by that one.

2. Powder room. Doing lines in the ladies’ room aside — and I refer to both kinds of lines — powdering one’s nose seems a somewhat outdated rite. Refreshing her makeup was always a subterfuge for “meeting in the ladies’ room,” anyway, and what happens in the ladies’ room, stays in the ladies’ room, amiright, m’ladies? But day and night, as I watch endless episodes of whatever comes on HGTV — the modern gal’s counterpart to ESPN — I’m reminded that “half-bath” may be correct, but “powder room” has more polish.

Another take on "powder room."

Another take on “powder room.”

3. Duck tape. When Ace Hardware stores started stocking all those decorator rolls of “duck tape” — sports teams, camo, tie-dyed, floral patterns — I chortled. Isn’t that cute? They are changing the spelling of duct tape! Joke’s on me, because the original spelling of this jack-of-all-trades tool is, in fact, “duck tape.” It was developed in 1942 using a cotton duck-cloth backing. It assumed the “duct tape” spelling, along with the gray sheen, only in 1950, when the Melvin A. Anderson Co. bought the rights and started using it primarily for sealing air duct systems. So what’s old definitely has some sticking power. (Who said blogging wasn’t educational?)

fancy_duck_tape-545x545

My only issue: Why penguins and not ducks?

4. QWERTY. There is poetry in this shorthand reference to how keys are arranged on a typewriter — or “a keyboard,” for those born after 1990. (Yes, Virginia, I have friends who have not only never used a typewriter but have never seen one. There may even be some youngsters who would need a dictionary to get through this bullet point.) But the beloved 1873 layout is not universal. As technology advances and we find a need for more control keys, panic buttons, what-not, the QWERTY is as endangered as those quick brown foxes jumping over the lazy dogs. For instance, the Dvorak keyboard, patented in 1936. Muyah-ha-hah, if it gained traction, then you’d ALL be hunt-and-peck typists, like me.

kbdvorak

The simplified Dvorak keyboard.

A more complex arrangement in the Dvorak keyboard by Maltron.

A more complex arrangement in the Dvorak keyboard by Maltron.

This is a typewriter.

This is a typewriter.

SGH-t469 008

5. BUtterfield 9 and PEnnsylvania 6-5000. Gone are the days when such obscure cultural references as these mean anything to those who text using predictive text. When texting was new, I pondered why phone designers clung to the arrangement of letters on numbers that once formed the genomic sequence for reaching out and touching someone. That is — arcane phone exchanges spurred the design of touch-tone phones, even though exchanges pretty much went out with rotary phones and a boom in urban population (too many land lines to maintain limited combinations of letters).

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then you probably weren’t as frustrated as I was trying to spell-text on flip phones, especially when my “3” and “6” buttons would lose their paint from overuse. Predictive text SOMEWHAT eased this problem. I no longer had to type each letter. And now touchscreens mirror the QWERTY schematic, although the numbers still appear on the flat-screen keypad. WHY?!?!?!

Can’t help wondering: If the designers of touch-tone phones knew how much communication would be based on actual touching today, would they ever have arranged the letters this way?

get your digitsIt gives “Can I get your digits?” a whole new meaning. Can I BORROW someone’s else’s digits so I can manage to stay in touch in the digital age?

(Cross fingers this post doesn’t make me seem so out-of-touch.)