Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Whist, muslin, and bumble-puppy

It's been a while since I've posted on anything of a linguistic nature, which is kind of a shame.  I'm a bit of a fanatic for words, especially odd words with curious origins.  This has the result that a trip to a dictionary or encyclopedia is never quick for me.  I go to look something up, get distracted by another entry, and then that reminds me of something else to look up, and I'm off on a two-hour birdwalk when I had intended to spend five minutes looking up a definition.  Ah, the pain of being a language nerd.

A couple of days ago, I referred to an individual as being a "muckety-muck," and I was asked by one of my students whether I made that up, or if not, where did it come from.  I didn't know -- I've heard the expression "high muckety-muck" since I was a kid, it was one of my mom's pet expressions for someone who was in charge and whose assumption of the mantle of responsibility had turned him/her into a puffed up, arrogant twit. As far as I knew, my mom made it up.  So I went to the Linguists' Bible -- the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology -- and lo and behold, she didn't.

The term apparently comes from the trade language Chinook, which was a composite pidgin used by members of various tribes in the Pacific Northwest to communicate, since their home languages were mutually unintelligible.  The Chinook phrase "hiu mukamuk," meaning "a man with plenty to eat," got brought into English as "high muckety-muck" with the overtones of someone using his affluence or influence for self-aggrandizement.

I've always found such things fascinating, and so I have become something of a collector for obscure word origins.  I still haven't lived down with my family members the fact that I knew that "juggernaut" came from the name of a god in Hindi (Jaganath), and therefore is not a half-cognate to "astronaut" (which comes from Latin words meaning "star sailor").   The fact that "ignorant" and "agnostic" are cognates always makes me smile a little, and probably would bring an outright laugh from any religious folks -- "i" and "a" both mean "not," and "gnosis" means "knowledge."  To fire a salvo in the other direction, however, remember that the stock phrase of the stage magician, "hocus pocus" (originally "hocus pocus dominocus"), comes from the Latin phrase hoc est corpus domini -- "this is the body of the lord," the words used during the Catholic mass before communion.  Ha.  Take that.

My tendency to lose focus as soon as I open up the ODEE means, however, that looking up a word origin never proceeds in a straight line.  During my recent zigzag path through the Oxford, for example, I discovered another type of cloth that comes from a Middle Eastern city name. I knew that "gauze" comes from Gaza, and "damask" comes from Damascus, but who knew that "muslin" came from Mosul?  Not me, or not until this week.

And then, there's my favorite new word, which I will find a way to work into a conversation soon.  "Ingurgitate."  Meaning "to swallow greedily."  From the Latin gurges, meaning "whirlpool."  That one also makes me strangely happy.

I also stumbled upon "bumble-puppy."  This charming word doesn't refer to a particularly clumsy dog, but (and I quote), "an unscientific game of whist."  This then necessitated looking up what "whist" was, and I gather from the definition of that word that it's a kind of card game (whose name, apparently, comes from Old Norse).  Card games generally make as much sense to me as integral calculus does to a second grader, so I doubt I'd be able to tell a scientific from an unscientific game of whist in any case.  ("Bumble-puppy" itself, I hasten to add, was marked "origin unknown.")

Then I found that "coracle" -- a little round boat -- wasn't a Latin word, as I expected from the "-acle" ending -- it's from the Welsh cwrwgl, meaning, of all things, "a little round boat."  I guess when the Welsh were out in their cwrwgls, there was a storm, and all of their vowels washed overboard.  Pity, that.

And last -- the first recorded use of the word "meringue" was in an English manuscript in 1706.  Sounds French, doesn't it?  I'd have thought so.  I guess not.  The ODEE puts it in with "bumble-puppy" as "origin unknown."

Honestly, none of this information is of the slightest use, but it's amusing and curious, and that's enough for me any day.  Can't be deathly serious all the time, or even most of the time.  Remember that next time you're playing a fast-moving game of bumble-puppy while ingurgitating meringue.


  1. "meringue" isn't from French?!?! My world is undone.

  2. We don't know that it isn't from French. That's what "unknown" means. What's French for fiddle-dee-dee?

    "W" is a vowel to the Welsh. In historical times, there wasn't much to do in Wales during the winter (now they have the internet), and, you know, w is a fun letter to draw, and it's got a nice round sound to it (in Welsh), so during those dark winter days they would sit around the rough-hewn table coming up with new w-words. "Cwm," grandfather would mutter. "That's yonder valley. Don't care to call 'em valleys no more. That's a sissy word. Cwm, now, that's got heft."

    "Aye," says his daughter-in-law, Mwg. "And that little round boat of Dwg's, figger we need a special word for that. Guess we can call it a cwrwgl. That's two w's, very nice."

    Dwg looks up from repairing a hole in his fishing net. "...wgl?" he says, doubtfully.

    "Don't argue with me," she warns, "or you can sleep out in the barn with the cwws."

    "Cwrwgl," Dwg says. "I like it."

    1. You're right, of course, I was just lamely attempting to be funny. Your story of Dwg and Mwg is brilliant, by the way, espcially read aloud, because "w" is pronounced "oo," so they would be Doog and Moog.

  3. 59 million words!

    1. I have spent my entire life, thus far, being unbepissed. I hope that trend continues.