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All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2020 Evan Morris & Kathy Wollard. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited, with the exception that teachers in public schools may duplicate and distribute the material here for classroom use.

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Mistletoe

 

mistletoeI think I’m finally getting the hang of “the Holidays” as they concern this column. It hasn’t been easy. For years the Holidays not only crept up on me, but tippy-toed right past me as I sat, snoozing peacefully, at my desk. Last year I actually managed to rouse myself in time to explain several “holiday words,” including “mistletoe,” but since two people have asked me about “mistletoe” just in the last week, I’ve decided to repeat my explanation of that word.

Like many people, I have a dismaying inability to remember jokes, but I heard a joke when I was about 12 years old which is so utterly stupid that I’ve never forgotten it. Ready? OK, if athletes get athlete’s foot, what do astronauts get? That’s right — mistletoe.

Although the American Heritage Dictionary defines “mistletoe” rather dismissively as “a Eurasian parasitic shrub,” most of us view this innocent little plant in a warmer light. Mistletoe was an element in European mid-winter celebrations for thousands of years before the advent of Christianity, and like many “pagan” traditions, mistletoe was eventually integrated into Christmas tradition, although it has no religious significance in itself. Today a small sprig of mistletoe is often hung in a doorway, tradition dictating that anyone caught under the sprig must submit to a kiss. Those pagan traditions certainly have staying power — even as I write this, a commercial on the radio promises that a haircut from a certain “salon” will provoke reactions from the opposite sex equivalent to wearing a “mistletoe hat.”

Tracing the origin of “mistletoe” is a bit of a problem — it’s a very old word, and all its precursors meant “mistletoe” as well. But if we go all the way back to Old English, there are some hints. “Mistle” came from the same root that gave us “mist,” and “tan” meant “twig,” giving us “twig of the mist” as a root meaning. “Twig of the mist” — the fact that one little word, thousands of years old, could contain such a beautiful image is a wonderful gift in itself, don’t you think?

 

[originally published in the 1990s]

snowflakes2snowflakes2

September-October 2015 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi

readme:

As observant readers will have noticed, this issue of TWD spans two months, rather than the usual one (although the most recent issue was also a two-monther, and a bit late to boot, as is this one). I apologize for the delay, but my MS has made my vision very unreliable lately, making getting anything done quite difficult. On a good day, my visual field resembles an old analog TV with bad reception: constant visual “noise” and fluctuating sharpness. On a bad day it’s all that plus flashing lights at the edges and big patches of fog or (my fave) total blackness drifting across my field of view. My eye-hand coordination has also decreased to the point where I make constant typos even with my new two-finger hunt-and-peck.

Continue reading this post » » »

Hackneyed

So go to the source and ask the horse.

Dear Word Detective: I recently made the mistake of reading a review of a TV show I watch every week, in which the reviewer mocked the show for what he called its “hackneyed” characters and plots. I inferred that what he meant by “hackneyed” was “lame,” which my show is absolutely not, but what exactly does “hackneyed” mean and where did it come from? — Dan Gordon, LA.

“My show”? Awesome, dude. You are a True Viewer, not some channel-hopping dilettante. I, too, watch and love things the reviewers mock. Unfortunately, most of “my shows” get canceled in mid-season, which really isn’t fair. Most recently, I was happily watching “Allegiance” on NBC, a show about a polymath CIA analyst who discovers that his parents (and sister!) are evil Russkie spies. It was an addictive (albeit deeply silly) show, but NBC pulled the plug after just five episodes. You can watch the rest of the season online, but it’s really not the same.

“Hackneyed” today is most often used to mean “commonplace, overused, trite, banal, or cliched” (“Most commentary on political web sites consists of hackneyed rants delivered to the bored faithful”), simply “tired or worn out” (“Bob’s boss was growing weary of his hackneyed excuses”), or “weary and cynical” (“Many of the reporters at City Hall were hackneyed veterans who barely raised an eyebrow at the Mayor’s resignation”).

The initial meaning of “hackneyed” when it first appeared in English in 1767 was, however, simply “for hire,” and thereby hangs a tale or, more precisely, a horse’s tail. Today London contains a borough called Hackney, a bustling urban neighborhood. But back in the 14th century, Hackney was a separate village surrounded by pastures ideal for grazing horses. The horses bred in Hackney were perfect for riding (called “ambling” horses as opposed to “work” or “war” horses), and the villagers developed a successful business renting them out. So successful was their rent-a-horse business, in fact, that soon any horse for hire became known as a “hackney,” and the term gradually spread throughout western Europe.

From meaning “a horse for hire,” the term “hackney” eventually came to mean just about anything “for hire,” and low-wage servants and prostitutes were also known as “hackneys” in the 16th century. But the most important development in the word was the rise of the “hackney coach,” a horse-drawn coach that could be hired by anyone who could pay. These hackneys eventually evolved into the classic black London cab still known as a “hackney.” And that, folks, is why taxicab drivers in New York City are called “hackies” and their cabs are called “hacks.”

By the mid-18th century, “hackneyed” had acquired both its “boring, common” and “weary, jaded” senses, most likely drawn from, respectively, the ubiquity of “hackney coaches” and the worn-out state of overworked carriage horses. The sense of “hackney” meaning simply “for hire,” plus a touch of “trite, banal,” gave us the “hack” writer who churns out uninspired prose (“hack work”), especially a journalist who habitually recycles hackneyed “conventional wisdom.”