Sunday, January 27, 2013

drill down

For someone who is interested in learning where words come from, and the drift of language in general, I have a pretty low tolerance for new slang and new usage. Unfair of me, I know. I think what bothers me is both the way it spreads through the media, and also the celebration of certain cultures implicit in the spread. All of a sudden everyone is using the same little catch phrase. "Hunkered down" was the phrase I heard flying from one media spokesperson's lips to another's in the middle of the first Gulf War. There were probably a hundred ways to describe the situation of the Iraqi opposition in the desert then, but hunkered down was the way it was described by everyone. "Referenced" is a way people never used to refer to, well, referring to something, but now you hear it every day. I actually don't know exactly what people mean by the word, but I'm pretty sure it just means, "I looked that up." But a little fancier looking up than used to happen.

Lately, I seem to hear "drilled down" a lot. As in Hilary Clinton "really drilled down into such detail", or "Susan Rice should have drilled down" into the details of Benghazi. I suppose it struck me that what sounds like such a masculine, tough guy phrase was used of these two women. I also find it somewhat ironic that there is such a resonance of the Republican battle cry, "Drill, baby, drill!" in the verb.


I was surprised to find that the current usage has more to do with information technology worship than oil drilling. Our more general use of the term 'drill down' comes from IT lingo meaning to mouse click down through several levels of folders to a specific file or bit of data you're looking for. As the Urban Dictionary amusingly tells us,

The term is often used during instruction by hip sounding computer techs and quasi- computer instructors at computer program workshops. The term is especially popular amongst university types.

I was happy to find that there is a more geeky use of "drill down" from the same source--band geeky, that is.


I was in band in high school, so this is more my type of crew. Although I have to admit that it was about all I could do to play an instrument and march at the same time.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Tripoli on YouTube

My Tripoli friend came in again today, and told me of some things he'd unearthed since the last time I saw him. One of them was a YouTube upload showing Tripoli from 1964. This would have been about 10 years after my parents were there, but I bet much of this was the same for Americans abroad. I'm not sure if this is the same one he saw, but I think it must be very similar.


Saturday, January 12, 2013


This wasn't at all a word I was planning to explore--it just came up. I was writing up a quick post on Dana King's Wild Bill, a contemporary Chicago based mafia crime novel, when I found myself using the word 'internecine'. Decided to do a quick check to make sure an internecine war did not mean 'one between brothers', because that is not what I was trying to say.

And in fact it doesn't mean that. "Internecine" has come to mean a struggle within a group, organization or country. It can also mean mutually destructive, fatal or ruinous to both sides. It can also simply mean characterized by bloodshed or carnage. All of these would be quite appropriate to Wild Bill. But quite uncharacteristically, The Free Dictionary throws in a bit of word history. I'll quote it here in its entirety:

Word History: When is a mistake not a mistake? In language at least, the answer to this question is "When everyone adopts it," and on rare occasions, "When it's in the dictionary." The word internecine presents a case in point. Today, it usually has the meaning "relating to internal struggle," but in its first recorded use in English, in 1663, it meant "fought to the death." How it got from one sense to another is an interesting story in the history of English. The Latin source of the word, spelled both internecnus and internecvus, meant "fought to the death, murderous." It is a derivative of the verb necre, "to kill." The prefix inter- was here used not in the usual sense "between, mutual" but rather as an intensifier meaning "all the way, to the death." This piece of knowledge was unknown to Samuel Johnson, however, when he was working on his great dictionary in the 18th century. He included internecine in his dictionary but misunderstood the prefix and defined the word as "endeavoring mutual destruction." Johnson was not taken to task for this error. On the contrary, his dictionary was so popular and considered so authoritative that this error became widely adopted as correct usage. The error was further compounded when internecine acquired the sense "relating to internal struggle." This story thus illustrates how dictionaries are often viewed as providing norms and how the ultimate arbiter in language, even for the dictionary itself, is popular usage.

All right--fair enough. But the question does cross my mind--where do we have another example of this alternate meaning of  inter? Where else is it used as an intensifier? I'm skeptical, but willing to be persuaded. If you've got a good example, please let me know.

Meanwhile, I'm sticking with Johnson.


Friday, January 11, 2013

suppletion, anyone?

I haven't yet gotten into the habit of just linking to someone else's entire article, but  this new post from Anatoly Liberman on why the present 'go' and past 'went' are such different sorts of words captured my interest so I thought I'd share it with you before it falls too far down the blog scroll to remember.

Besides, it can't be a bad thing to read a little Liberman to start off the year. And certainly not the worst...Bad/worst--he tackles this one too.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013


It's interesting to me how my relation to this blog has changed over time. Although there has never been any shortage of things I'm ignorant about, in the beginning, I would kind of have to catch myself out, not knowing something. These days, I realize automatically that I don't know something, and immediately know exactly what to do with that fact.

Last night, I woke up in the middle of the night and thought about a childhood memory. In the very early stages of literacy, I had a hard time with the word "gauge". Reading it, it seemed like it should sound something like "gog". Things we see and hear as young children often don't automatically translate into the same thing, so it was probably awhile before I could read the word gauge as 'gage'. As I write this, I realize that a lot of words with that '-ge ending have a soft "je" sound--beige, rouge. But it still doesn't help me understand the necessity of the "u".

Time to get into the etymology of the word, I think.

*** says that a gauge is a device for measuring the magnitude, amount or contents of something, typically with a visual display. This aligns with my own sense that I started thinking about the word gauge while looking at some sort of gauge in my family car's dashboard. I'll have to check and see if that word is written there, next time I'm in one--which may not be soon.

In English, I don't think the noun gauge is usually changed to gage, but as a verb meaning to measure or weigh something, it is often written gage. Gauge comes through the usual Anglo French of the same spelling, but derives from the Old North French gauger or jauger. The best guess is that it goes back to the Frankish *galgo, which was a rod for measuring. There's a Germanic basis for this guess, with Old Norse having gelgja for pole or perch and Old High German having galgo. Perhaps somewhat gruesomely, this measuring rod beginning relates the innocent gauge to 'gallows', which goes back to another Old German word for pole, and probably farther.

I didn't find any clear answer about why the u is silent in all this, but one commenter over at the site English Language and Usage points out that the French sauf came over to English as "safe". Why vowel sounds change as they migrate from one culture to another is quite interesting, but well beyond my scope here.

At least for now.

Saturday, January 5, 2013


On a Detectives Beyond Borders post about Paul Cleave's work recently, Kelly Robinson mentioned that "glomming" was a word that she and her colleagues at a bookstore used to describe  "obsessively collecting the books of someone you have not yet read". I hadn't heard that use before, and it seems to be a kind of in-house kind of usage. But it did get me wondering a bit about what "glom" means and where it comes from. The phrase I think of most in reference to it is "to glom on to", which in my mind means "to attach to something as if with glue". But what is glom? Is it even a real word?


Okay. To glom is to snatch or steal, to seize or grab, to look or stare at. When you add that "onto", it means to seize upon or to latch onto something. The original word is the Scottish glaum, which probably comes from the Gaelic glam, "to handle awkwardly, grab voraciously, or devour". The word seems to have come into usage in America through underworld slang as glahm, with that same meaning of grabbing or stealing, around 1907.

The Grammarist has an interesting post about the shifting usage of the word. It appears that our contemporary usage has less to do with stealing and more to do with attaching oneself in a non-pejorative way, glomming onto a group, for instance. The Free Dictionary example is: "The country has glommed onto the spectacle of a wizard showman turning the tables on his inquisitors" (Mary McGrory). The Grammarist says that no one knows just why this meaning shifted, but thinks perhaps aural associations to the words "gum" and "glue" may have something to do with it. The old meaning of stealing is now usually limited to "glom" without the "onto".

Glom's relation to vision seems more straightforward, at least to me. After all, who hasn't wanted to steal a look at something at one time or another?

As a final note, I'll just add that glomming seems to have become a common word among booklovers. This blog says the term refers to a reader picking up backlist titles after reading an author's newer works. A variation, but related, I think...

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

What in the Sam Hill?

Happy New Year! No, my title is not expressing consternation, or not any more than I usually feel. Rather, we're going back to the comment thread of my recent blog post on tomfoolery, where we contemplated the use of common, simple male names in expressions. Sam Hill appeared in due course, and as usual, I really have no idea where the above expression comes from. Was there a Sam Hill? Was there an actual hill referred to? Is it a euphemism to swear more politely? As I think about it, I'm guessing this is the most likely, probably for 'what in the hell?'

But it still doesn't explain the Sam...


This is great stuff, folks. Predictably, no one knows exactly how this expression started. But it has some wonderful theories going. You can cut to the chase and go read the Wikipedia article, but I'll share one or two here for the fun of it. It is indeed a minced oath, American, from around the 1830s. Surprisingly, the one attested to be most likely to be accurate in terms of origin is one about Abraham Lincoln. In this version, Lincoln, pre-presidency, worked for a guy named Sam Hill, who reportedly threw Lincoln's manuscript arguing against the divinity of the Bible into the fire because he thought it would hurt Lincoln's chances when running for office. Lincoln is said to have exclaimed "What in the Sam Hill are you doing?"

To me, though, this kind of quick witted quipping seems more likely to have come to Lincoln's mind because the phrase already had some kind of currency.

H. L. Mencken thought that Sam was short for Samiel, the name for the devil in an opera by Carl Maria von Weber called Der Freischütz, which was performed in New York in 1825. This seems more likely a reference for Lincoln to me than the name of the even earlier "Sam. Hill", who represented his constituency from Guilford, Connecticut between 1727 and 1752. I think a state representative in Connecticut before the Union might be a bit obscure, even for Lincoln. I do think he might have heard of the opera...

Der Freischütz, though not from 1825