May 28, 2014

Case File #014.05.28: WACKY

First appearing in the English lexicon circa 1935, the adjective wacky evolved from the noun whacky, a British slang term meaning “a fool” that reached its peak of popularity at the close of the nineteenth century. Whacky itself was a derivative of the verb whack, meaning “to strike or chop,” the idea being that a fool is an individual who acts as if he or she has received a few too many blows to the head. Not surprisingly, then, wacky first came about as a way to denote the imprudent quality of a whacky's behavior, but when the noun whacky fell out of use soon after, the adjective wacky quickly acquired the broader sense of “absurdly or amusingly eccentric, irrational, or crazy.”

©2014 Michael R. Gates

May 21, 2014

Case File #014.05.21: ZERO

Zero ultimately comes from the Arabic word sifr, which is used to mean either “nothing” or “empty.” (Yes, the English word cipher, which once meant “zero” or “null” before it came to mean “code” or “to encode or to compute arithmetically,” stems from that same Arabic source.) In the early thirteenth century, Medieval Latin used the Arabic as the basis for the word zephirum, meaning “of nothing” or “with nothing,” and sometime during the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, the Latin passed into both French and Italian as zero. It wasn't until the early seventeenth century, however, that English speakers borrowed the French and Italian word and applied it to the arithmetical figure 0 and its related concepts, and it was as late as 1813 before the English zero took on its now common but informal noun sense of “a person or thing of no importance or having little measurable influence.”

©2014 Michael R. Gates

May 14, 2014

Case File #014.05.14: FALSETTO

If you're like me and you grew up groovin' to the vocal intonations of Smokey Robinson, Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations, and Frankie Valli of the Four Seasons, you're probably already familiar with the noun falsetto. Still, you probably don't know much about the word's background, so listen up. Borrowed directly from Italian circa 1774, falsetto is the diminutive form of the Italian adjective falso, which itself is a direct descendant of the Latin falsus, meaning “false” or “feigned.” Thus, the literal translation of falsetto is “artificially small.” But when eighteenth-century English speakers got hold of the word, they chose to use it as a noun and to apply it to something that is conspicuously fake in its smallness: a voice (especially one used by an adult male singer) that is affectedly high in pitch, or a singer who uses such a voice.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

May 7, 2014

Case File #014.05.07: MAVEN

If you've ever been referred to as a maven, it's probably because somebody recognizes you as an expert in some special field or discipline, or maybe it's because you're known to be a connoisseur of wine, fine dining, and the like. Or perhaps you are, like me, an avid fan of the cinema and are thus a movie maven. Whichever the case, you were labeled with maven because it means “one who has special knowledge of or extensive experience with something,” and English speakers have been applying the handle to experts and connoisseurs since the mid-twentieth century. The word is actually an Anglicized form of the Yiddish meyvn, which means “expert or authority”—whether literally or sardonically is a matter of context—and is itself a derivative of the Hebrew mebhin, meaning “one who understands.” So the next time somebody calls you a maven, it'll be okay if you kvell a little. But try not to overdo it, 'cause God forbid you should make yourself look like a schmuck.

©2014 Michael R. Gates