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Word Facts for June 18-24, 2011

Word origin for the weekend of June 18-19, 2011: DIY – Americans have always prized being handy, though with the ascendancy of white-collar work in the early twentieth century, manual labor and skills were prized less and less. The phrase “do it yourself” (shortened to “DIY”) emerged in the 1950s as a call for suburbanites to gain or regain some of the old ethic. Originally, it was applied to painting and sewing projects, but then came to brand an entire movement – one that even has its own broadcast channel, the DIY Network.

Word origin for June 20, 2011: random – In its original sense (which dates to the medieval period), “random” means “at a gallop,” something done on a horse and in a big hurry. Accidents happen at speed, of course, and in time the word “random” came to mean “unplanned / careless / accidental” – as in “a random encounter.”

Word origin for June 21, 2011: premium – In its original sense, a “premium” was a reward given to someone for an act that usually involved seizing something belonging to someone else – booty, in other words. The term entered the insurance industry by way of shipping: a privateer would pay a share of the loot to an insurer if his ship returned to its home port safely. If the premiums we pay today resemble a “ransom” fit for a pirate, there’s an etymological basis for it.

Word origin for June 22, 2011: You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs – Common in many European languages, this old proverb probably comes originally from the French. “Omelette” comes from the French alemette (“knife edge”), so called for the flat thin shape of the finished product. The sense is that if you want to get a big project done, you must not fear steamrolling “the little people.” The poet Randall Jarrell rejoined, “That’s what they tell the eggs.”

Word origin for June 23, 2011: plaza – A “plaza” is an open space in what is usually an urban environment. Roman city planners favored these public squares, for which reason the “plaza” is found whenever the Roman Empire or its descendant states settled. The Latin word platea means “flat area” and relates to the words “plat” and “plateau,” as well as the modern term “plaza,” which comes into English from Spanish.

Word origin for June 24, 2011: controversy – The word “controversy” (from the Latin for “turn against”) once referred to the sort of verbal conflict that we would today call a dispute or argument – and even something so innocent as a mere difference of opinion. Known in English since about 1400, the word now refers (more strongly) to the matter being argued about rather than the argument itself.

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