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March 2010 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Whew.  That was close.  It’s still March, right?  It must be, somewhere.  Australia?  By the way (he said, deftly changing the subject), is anyone else still creeped out by having to write “2010”?  It seems to have scrambled my noggin so badly that I caught myself writing “1997” on a check the other day.

Elsewhere in the news, Spring has sprung, of course, sinking its razor-sharp claws into my soul.  The good news is that Monroe and Babs, our resident turkey vultures, have returned to the old hollow tree where they nest every year.  The day they arrived I walked over to the tree to say hi, and one of them took off, swooped down to about six feet above my head, circled around me, and zoomed right back to the tree.  I think they like me.  They should.  I found a dead mouse in the front hall the other day, so I took it to them as a housewarming gift.

The cats whack mice around here every so often, but I don’t always notice right away because the floor is already littered with platoons of mousey cat toys, many of which are very realistic.  If you look closely, of course, you’ll notice that the cat toy mice appear to be a lot happier.

Oh yeah, the bad news is that the grass is growing.

Incidentally, I’d like to take this opportunity to give formal notice to the world that I am no longer paying attention.  At all.  After being a semi-news-junkie for years, I’ve had it.  I think something snapped when I realized that, after intense study, I finally understood credit default swaps, but it didn’t make a damn bit of difference.

So I’ve decided to watch lots of  TV.  So far I’ve taken a shine to a show called Pawn Stars, which is a reality show set in a family-owned pawn shop in Las Vegas.  It’s actually a very funny show.  Really.

I’ve also started watching House, which is easy to do because it’s carried in reruns on, like, five different cable networks.  I had not realized (because I’d never watched it, even though it’s in its sixth or seventh season) that the show was modeled on the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, which I’ve always loved.  Yeah, it’s a bit silly and formulaic, but I admire House’s cynical attitude and sardonic humor.  And, of course, there’s the cane thing.

Continue reading this post » » »


Dear Word Detective:  I was recently reading a journal of mine from when I was a good bit younger than today and found that I had used the phrase “full fledged” to refer to a rather robust beard, as opposed to a light smattering of stubble.  Any idea where this came from?  Does it have anything to do with an arrow fletcher?  Oh, and just in case this gets answered, I’m a proud resident of the wonderful state of Dela-Where? — Addison Scott.

Well, there you go.  You’ll never know what might catch my eye.  By the way, I included your last line because I think it’s funny and, at least in my case, it’s true.  I honestly have no idea of where Delaware is, though I’m fairly certain that it’s somewhere to the right of Pennsylvania.  Is it near Rhode Island?  Is there really a state named “Rhode Island”?  Weird.  According to Wikipedia (brace yourself), “… in other parts of the country, Rhode Island is referred to as ‘Little Rhody.'”  Yeah, sure it is.  Little Rhody.  It was on the tip of my tongue.  “Dela-Where,” however, is a keeper.

The American Heritage Dictionary gives three definitions for “full-fledged.”  The first, “having reached full development; mature,” is the broadest in modern usage, useful to describe anything from a personal occupation (“Ortega … became a full-fledged matador in 2006 but has been hampered by repeated and serious gorings,” AP, 9/23/09) to a public health crisis (“US prepared for ‘full-fledged pandemic’ if necessary,”  AP, 4/29/09).  The second definition, “having full status or rank,” is good for describing things that have graduated from some larval stage (“Larry is now a full-fledged lawyer”).  But it’s the third definition that gives a hint as to the roots of the term: “Having fully developed adult plumage.”

“Plumage,” of course, means “the feathers of a bird” (from the Latin “pluma,” which also gave us “plume”), but the key here is the word “adult.”  Baby birds usually emerge from their eggs with what you might call “starter” feathers, usually a downy set useful only for staying warm. As time passes and baby birdy grows, the stronger adult feathers appear, until finally the little nipper is ready to leave the nest and fly on his or her own.  This process is known as “fledging,” a verb that appeared in the 16th century, derived from the now-obsolete adjective “fledge,” which meant “having feathers sufficient for flight.”  The adjective “full-fledged,” which first appeared in the late 16th century, is based on “fledge” as a verb, and almost immediately was put to use in its modern figurative meaning of “mature and prepared.”

If we trace “fledge” back to its Germanic roots, we find the West German root word “fluggja,” which also gave us the English word “fly.”  A young bird, nearly fully-feathered but still inexperienced, is called a “fledgling” (1830), a term also applied to a person inexperienced (“unfledged”) in a task or occupation.

Your question about “fletcher” is more complicated than it looks.  A “fletcher” is a person who makes arrows, which, of course, have “flights” (vanes at the tail) often made from feathers.  There is no recent connection between “fletcher” and “fledge,” but “fletcher,” via its French root “fleche” (arrow), may be drawn from the same ancient Germanic root word that produced both “fledge” and “fly.”

Hawk one’s wares

Or maybe they work there and can’t afford an apartment.

Dear Word Detective:   What is the meaning of the phrase “to hawk their wares”?– Lisa.

Is this about me selling my books in the Wal-Mart parking lot?  The guy who collects the carts said it was OK.  And my publisher isn’t exactly force-feeding them to Barnes & Noble, so I had to take the initiative.  Besides, it’s not as though I, let’s see, drove my humongous RV over there and set up camp for a month with lawn chairs and a barbecue.  What’s up with that?  You see these people in nearly every Wal-Mart lot.  Do they just really, really like Wal-Mart?  Are they waiting for the mothership?  Or were they on a cross-country trip and finally realize that every place in this country now looks like every other place and just give up?

OK, back to work.  To “hawk” originally meant “to offer for sale in a very vigorous, public fashion, especially by calling out loudly in the street,” in the classic fashion of newspaper vendors.  Modern “hawkers” tend to be found in TV infomercials, where a fast, aggressive and mind-numbingly repetitive sales pitch can hypnotize millions of otherwise sane people into buying musical doorstops and digital clothes hangers.

One might think, especially after watching a few infomercials, that “hawk” in this sense is a metaphor, likening a “hawking” huckster swooping down on hapless customers to a real hawk hunting field mice.  But while “hawking” can have definite predatory overtones, the bird we know as a “hawk” (whose name comes from a Germanic root meaning “to seize”) is not the source of this “hawking.”

The verb “to hawk” in the sense of “to sell” is actually what linguists call a “back-formation,” a word coined by removing parts of an existing word to form a new, more “basic” word that perhaps should have, but didn’t, exist before.  Classic examples of this process are the creation of the new verb “to sculpt” in the 19th century from the existing noun “sculptor” and, in the 18th century, the invention of “to edit” from the existing noun “editor.”  In the case of “hawk,” the existing form, back in the 16th century,  was the noun “hawker,” meaning a traveling street vendor, which was rooted in the old German “hocken,” meaning “to carry upon the back,” as a vendor lugs his goods from place to place.  In other words, it’s the traveling around that distinguished a true “hawker.”  All the shouting was just gravy.

“Wares,” in case you were also wondering about that, is a very old word meaning “article  manufactured for sale,” and comes from a root meaning “object guarded with care” (the same root that gave us “wary”).  “Hardware,” “silverware” and similar words all incorporate this “ware.”