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Word Facts for Apr. 23-29, 2011

Word origin for the weekend of Apr. 23-24, 2011: religion – The word “religion” probably derives from the Latin word religare, which means “to bind.” The sense is that a practitioner such as a monk or nun is bound by an oath of religious office. “Religion” once referred only to the practice of belief in a formal institution such as a monastery, but by the late Middle Ages, it had come to refer to belief generally.

Word origin for Apr. 25, 2011: foamcrete – “Foamcrete” is an ingenious kind of concrete foam used to stop airplanes in an emergency landing. The term first appeared, with the substance itself, in 1996, when it debuted at New York’s Kennedy International Airport. The material can stop a runaway Boeing 727 travelling at 60 miles (97 kilometres) per hour in about 133 yards (123 meters). Fortunately, it is seldom used.

Word origin for Apr. 26, 2011: Quonset hut – A prefabricated metal building built en masse during World War II to provide temporary housing and offices for troops in the field, the “Quonset hut” takes its name from the place in Rhode Island where it was first manufactured. It takes its design, however, from a Royal Army engineer whose name is enshrined in the British version of the building, the Nissen hut.

Word origin for Apr. 27, 2011: May you live in interesting times – This supposed pearl of Chinese idiom, a curse that plays on the negative aspect of the word “interesting,” is actually a sort of fortune-cookie saying – the fortune cookie being, of course, an American invention. In this case, the saying appears to have originated with a staff member at the British Embassy in Beijing in the late 1930s, though why its writer should have attempted to pass it off as ancient wisdom is anyone’s guess.

Word origin for Apr. 28, 2011: Celsius – The world’s most commonly used system of temperature measurement, which sets zero as the freezing point of water and 100 as its boiling point, was named for its inventor, Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius (1701-1744). He coined the centigrade system just two years before his early death. The less obvious system that has 32 as the freezing point and 212 as the boiling point was likewise named for its inventor, German physicist Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit (1686-1736).

Word origin for Apr. 29, 2011: utmost – Readers familiar with 1960s slang – or fans of Jetsons reruns – will remember the expression “way out,” a general term of approval. In just that spirit, speakers of Old English used the word ütmest, or “most out.” The superlative sense comes from the bottom-to-top ranking familiar to contemporary theologians, in which heaven was the “utmost” of places relative to the earth.

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