Word Facts for June 11-17, 2011

Word origin for the weekend of June 11-12, 2011: cui bono – Someone’s been murdered. Who’s the prime beneficiary of the will? That’s the line of reasoning a savvy detective of the Monk / Columbo school might follow. Cui bono? is the lawyer’s tag for it, meaning (in Latin) “Who benefits?” It’s a good experience to ask yourself whenever something unexpected happens. The company is cutting jobs. Who makes out well?

Word origin for June 13, 2011: cutty sark – The name of the clipper ship of yore, and of the whiskey named after it, is a mildly dirty joke. In Scots English, a “cutty sark” is a short-cut shirt, namely an undershirt or other undergarment. In Robert Burns’ poem “Tam O’Shanter,” a young woman is wearing a “cutty sark” meant for a little girl. This causes the hero to cry out, transported, “Weel done, Cutty-Sark!” The phrase became well-known in Britain, and then the ship and drink called “undershirt” came to be.

Word origin for June 14, 2011: finest hour – When someone acts with uncommon value or merit, it is customary to praise that action as his or her “finest hour.” The term owes to Winston Churchill. He coined the phrase to refer to the heroic actions of the pilots of the Royal Air Force who drove back wave after wave of German attack planes during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940.

Word origin for June 15, 2011: staycation – It’s a terrible thing – at least to some minds – when an economic downturn means that a vacation has to be spent inside one’s home watching TV or catching up on chores. Many homebodies, however, like nothing better than spending vacation time in the comfort of one’s castle. The portmanteau word “staycation” was coined for the phenomena in 2003, but it did not come into wide use until the recession that began in late 2007.

Word origin for June 16, 2011: fanboy – A “fan” is a fanatic, or so the word’s origin tells us, zealous in his or her devotion to a particular idol or activity. The addition of “boy” adds a sense of servility. The term first turns up in the computer hacker culture in the late 1990s to refer to devotees of particular operating systems (“Mac fanboy,” “Linux fanboy”), and is now a fixture in youthful slang.

Word origin for June 17, 2011: devastate – The word “devastate” does not relate to vastness, but instead to an old Latin word, vastus, that underlies our word “waste.” To “devastate” an enemy country, by that model, is to turn it into a wasteland. The word was rare in English until the nineteenth century, when the advent of modern mechanized warfare made it ever more useful.


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