Fun with Words: Feckless is So Hot Right Now

The word “feckless” has been cropping up a lot as of late.

Longtime GOP strategist Steve Schmidt deployed it in a recent denouncement of the Republican Party’s devolution into a Trumpian cult: “[The GOP] is filled with feckless cowards who disgrace and dishonor the legacies of the party’s greatest leaders.” Kathy Griffin used the f-word when taking Melania Trump to task for not standing up more to her bully bigot husband: “You know damn well your husband can end this [child separation] immediately… you feckless, complicit piece of shit.”  And Samantha Bee employed “feckless” with aplomb when she famously and controversially called Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt.” *

That said, today’s Fun with Words explores the etymological origins of “feckless,” which today is primarily used to mean “weak” or “worthless,” “ineffective” and “impotent.” And that’s pretty much what it’s always meant, ever since its arrival on the linguistic scene in the 1590s, when Scottish vernacular truncated “effect” to form “feck,” meaning, “vigor, effect or value.” Used in a sentence: “Ivanka Trump is a valueless [noun of choice here].”

“Feckless” should not be confused with Irish “feck,” a milder form of “fuck.”

It’s worth noting: The Online Etymology Dictionary says that though the term’s been around since the late-sixteenth century, it was popularized in the mid-nineteenth, due to Thomas Carlyle’s penchant for using it. He wrote in 1823, for example, “I am so feckless at present that I have never yet had the heart to commence it.” He was also apparently quite fond of “feckless’” opposite, “feckful,” which has since fallen out of use.

*Also, as an aside The Etymology Dictionary entry on “cunt” is one of the longest I’ve ever seen. The first usage apparently dates back to 1230, and referred to a prostitution track called gropecuntlane, a location name that speaks volumes about how women have been treated throughout history. (It’s also very Trumpian…)

Cunt subsequently used to varying degrees throughout Europe, often with different apparent origins — wedge, hollow place, just woman — but always with the same rough meaning. It wasn’t until the 1600s that people started taking offense to it. And clearly opinion remains divided today: obviously some really don’t like it, as seen in outrage of Bee’s usage, while others are firmly in Sally Field’s camp:

Here, here!

Fun with Words: Trump and Obstruction

This semi-regular feature, Fun with Words (aka Etymological Adventures), has previously explored the linguistic roots of collusion, a word with which we’re all familiar due to – well, you know: Donald Trump and his constellation of cronies’ shady dealings. Today we’ll briefly explore another once-rarish term that Trump’s thrust into our everyday usage, collusion’s cousin by association: obstruction.

Born from the Latin word, obstructionem, itself the offspring of Ob, Latin for “in front of,” and the verb strurer, for “to pile or build,” the term “obstruction” emerged in English around the 1530s, and translated literally into “building up” or “creating a barrier” – a barrier like a wall, which, as we all know, real estate mogul Trump wants to make literal at the Mexican border.

In the meantime, Trump’s busying himself building a rhetorical wall against justice, a barrier built through lies and coercion, through acts like intervening in the Michael Flynn case; firing James Comey over his refusal to intervene in said case; drafting a faux narrative for Donald Trump Jr. to regurgitate vis a vis his meeting with Russians; Trump’s recent politicized demands that the DOJ investigate the FBI; and let’s not forget the barriers created by Trump’s unsubtle attacks on people involved in these investigations, not least of all against Special Counsel Robert Mueller, whom Trump has tried to influence by warning him not to nose around his personal finances…. All of this and more builds up a wall of lies and obfuscation that is the very definition of obstruction.

Perhaps one day truth, justice and karma will tear down that wall, burying Trump in a mess of his own making.

(For more Fun with Words, click here!)

A Reality Star’s Lie, Cloaked in Violence

Donald Trump and his cable news sock puppet Sean Hannity have been trumpeting the claim that Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians for election meddling “vindicates” Trump (pictured) and his campaign in the collusion case.

Again, this is not true, but it’s worth noting I think that while the 1640 definition of “vindicate” is “to clear from censure or doubt, by means of demonstration,” the word’s 1620’s root is much more violent, “to avenge or revenge,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

In Trump World, even a claim — or, rather, lie — like “Trump cleared” becomes bloodthirsty and ugly. He and his ilk are incapable of not seeing red. “SAD!”

(For more Fun with Words, aka Etymological Adventures, click here.)

‘Cabin Fever’ Was Coined By A Woman in 1918

No matter what Punxsutawney Phil may say, there are still six weeks of this seemingly eternal winter, and many of us are starting to feel the claustrophobic anxiety colloquially called “cabin fever,” a term that happens to have just turned 100.

Originally association with typhoid fever, the more familiar definition arose with the January 1918 publication of a western-set novel Cabin Fever, about a man named Bud who, feeling suffocated by being a husband and father, leaves his wife and becomes friends with a prospector named Cash. The author? BM Bower, pen name for a woman named Bertha Muzzy Sinclair, who wrote 57 western-themed novels, many of which were best-sellers and 18 of which were made into short and/or feature-length films. But none had the lingual or cultural  impact of “cabin fever.”

The Cincinnati Enquirer defined “cabin fever” as “that irritation and temper, that quarrel-breeding state of mind that comes to those whose lives are too confined and monotonous without action of variety;” and The New York Times noted, “It is the common disease of overwhelming domesticity.” And though Virginia’s Times Dispatch pegged the condition to western life — “There is a certain malady of mind induced by too much monotony: fashionable folk call it ennui, but Westerners call it ‘cabin fever.’” — the term was equally applicable to eastern elite who, shell-shocked by WWI, ensconced themselves in log cabins in places like the Adirondacks and the Poconos. [I write about this briefly in my book: The Log Cabin: An Illustrated History.]

In any event, try to keep your head about you as winter thaws. It’s a ways off, but it will happen… I hope….

[For more Fun with Words, click HERE.]

 

‘Appreciate’ Going Up

I noticed after moving from Brooklyn to Atlanta last year that a lot of people around these parts use “I appreciate you” as a synonym for “thank you.” I don’t recall hearing this very often in New York. There was “appreciate it,” but not so much “appreciate you,” so I initially thought this quaint “I appreciate you” affirmation was a southern thing, part of the region’s genteel hospitality, but then a Boston-born, LA-based friend sent me a text asserting “‘preciate chu.”

Dubious abbreviation aside, it made me wonder more about the word “appreciate,” which brings us to this week’s edition of a segment I alternatively call “Word Play” and “Fun with Words,” but which should perhaps be called “Etymological Adventures…”

Anyway, the indispensable Online Etymology Dictionary reports that the English word “appreciate” is traced back to the 1650s, and comes from Late Latin’s appretiatus, which meant “to set a price to,” and was derived from then marriage of then lexemes “ad,” meaning “to,” and “pretium,” meaning price. To appreciate a person therefore came to mean “to raise their value, which is a lovely sentiment indeed, though one that also assumes they had little value in the first place. Hmmm. Maybe it’s not so cute after all…

‘Hypocrisy’ is Acting Badly

Now that we’re nearly one year into the Trump presidency, you’ve probably seen a few hundred Tweets, Facebooks, Instagrams, Snapchats, or Whatchamacallits noting how hypocritical it is for Donald Trump to decry “fake news.” After all, this is the man who concocts self-aggrandizing Time magazine covers, the charlatan who claimed for years that Barack Obama was from Kenya, and the ego-maniac who decries chimerical voter fraud to justify losing the popular vote.

But what is hypocrisy? Of course most of us know it roughly means “doing or saying some thing you criticize others for doing or saying,” but the true definition is, as always, more nuanced.

Hypocrisy” as we know it comes from the Latin word of the same spelling, meaning “an imitation of a person’s speech and gestures” and derived from from the ancient Greek word “hypokrisis,” “acting on stage.” You see, hypocrisy was originally a drama term, one initially and specifically relegated to the stage, but which eventually evolved to the more general, pedestrian “pretense.”

This latter lexeme trickled through languages over the centuries, landing in French as the h-less word “ypocrisie,” and then seeping into Middle English around the year 1200 as “ipocrisie,” a term defined in clearly moralistic terms: “the sin of pretending virtue or goodness.” I’ll leave judgement of sin to more qualified entities, but that “pretending virtue” bit is pretty spot-on to what we’re seeing out of the Oval Office.

For more Fun with Words, click HERE.

Was ‘Pocahontas’ Her Real Name?

Tuesdays are traditionally wordplay days over here, and my original intent was to do a short post on Dictionary.com’s word of the year, “complicit.” Then President Trump went and again referred to Sen. Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” and, as he does, changed the game.

So, real quick, here’s something I learned today, while researching the real-life woman we call Pocahontas: Pocahontas wasn’t her real name. Not really, at least.

Like many Powhatan Indians, “P” was given a series of names throughout the course of her life: her birth name was Matoaka, meaning “bright stream between the hills;” she was later given the name Amonute, which doesn’t translate from Powhatan to English; and later in life, after marrying John Rolfe and converting to Christianity, she changed her name to Rebecca.

According to Jamestown Secretary William Strachey, Pocahontas was a childhood nickname given to her by her father; translated to “little wanton,” it captured her adventurous independence. But according to William Stith, a 19th century historian who devoted his life to studying the Virginia colony, Pocahontas was something of a codename to ward of white curses. From his 1865 The History of the First Settlement of Virginia:

“The Indians carefully concealed [her real name] from the English and changed it to Pocahontas, out of a superstitious fear, lest they, by the knowledge of her true name, should be enabled to do her some hurt.”

As someone who just completed a book all about American myths, I understand this could be apocryphal; and it’s just as possible the name Pocahontas was both a childhood nickname and a curse deterrent. But if Stith’s correct and “Pocahontas” was something of a shield against vexation, then there’s a certain irony to Trump and his supporters using the sham sobriquet to slur Elizabeth Warren. The Powhatan prophecy came true, only for a woman by another name.

(For more Fun with Words, click HERE.)

 

The Original Definition of “Harass” Is Most Apt

1. Harassment. We all know the word. Or, I hope we all know the word — just as I hope we all have a general sense of its meaning, something along the lines of Merriam-Webster’s definition of the verb “harass,” “to create an unpleasant or hostile situation…especially by uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical conduct.” But this common conception is in fact the second, newer interpretation of the word; it’s original definition is both more and less specific and altogether appropriate in today’s context.

Briefly used in the 1610s as “to lay waste,” mainstream usage of “harass” shifted in the 1620s, veering toward “to vex by repeated attacks,” a definition derived from the 16th century French verb harasser, or “to tire out.” Though the specific origin of the French harasser remains hazy, the Online Etymology Dictionary suggests it comes from a mélange of harer, an Old French term for “to provoke or set a dog on,” and the equally Old French harier, as in “to draw [out] or drag [on].” In this light, “harassment” is tenacious and corrosive, pernicious and erosive. Defined by MW as “exhaust or fatigue,” harassment in this light is by definition perpetual and ongoing, a fact to which many women can attest.

Though the term “sexual harassment” didn’t arise until the early 1970s, the pairing of those two words couldn’t be more fitting. Women since time immemorial have been cat called and harangued, pinched and poked, raped and molested, and generally treated like objects by predatory men.* They have been tormented by repeated, caustic incidents like those we’re reading about on the daily. Thankfully, we’re seeing a backlash against such virulent behavior. All the repetitive and successive intrusions meant to erode women’s wherewithal have prepared them for this watershed moment we’re experiencing today. Now it’s time for men like Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, Roy Moore, Donald Trump, Louis C.K., Mark Halperin, Charlie Rose et al. to be vexed themselves.

(*I know it’s not only women who face harassment — Terry Crews and Tony Goldwyn have come forward with their own stories of being manhandled and verbally harassed, and half-a-dozen men have already accused Kevin Spacey of harassing and/or assaulting them — but women are harassed more often and openly than men.)

(For more Fun with Words, click HERE.)

Collusion Is Not Innocuous

As a follow-up to last week’s etymological dissection of “meddling,” and inspired by all the real news about Russian meddling in the 2016 election, I decided this week to take a closer look at another word frequently used in these stories, “collusion,” as in this Newsweek headline from this morning: “Evidence of Trump-Russia Collusion Already Exists, Watergate Prosecutors Say.” Here’s what I found…

Used in its current form since the 14th century, the Old French “collusion” originates from the Latin collusionem, which comes from the verb colludere, an amalgamation of the prefix “com,” as in “with” or “together,” and ludere, which means “to play” and is the same root for ludicrous. Married into one term, “com” and “ludere” mean, loosely, “coming together to play.”

It almost seems innocuous, and even jocular. We of course know otherwise. As legendary English lexicographer Henry Watson Fowler noted, “The notion of fraud or underhandedness is essential to collusion.”

For more Fun with Words, click HERE.