ARL Archive · Know Your Words

I Saw It on Twitter: Fungible

What the F does fungible mean? The word sounds like a mixture of fun, fungus, and gullible, and although I was never quite sure what it meant, I figured it had something to do with economics or funds, based on context clues.
Fungible 2As it turns out, that guess wasn’t too off the mark, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, particularly when you consider how it’s used in this tweet from NPR.

Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (WNWDAL) says the word comes from the Middle Latin word fungibilis, which comes from the (early?) Latin word fungi, meaning “to perform.” It defines fungible as:

In law, designating goods, as grain, any unit or part of which can replace another unit, as in discharging a debt; capable of being used in place of another.

Seems to me, the second part of that definition could be used in place of the first — because the first part didn’t make much sense. But I digress ….

My Oxford Latin Dictionary tells a slightly different story, noting that the Latin word for perform (or discharge a duty) is fungor. Close enough, I suppose.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), agrees with Webster’s (or maybe vice versa). It also traces fungible back to Latin fungi, which it  defines as “to take the place, or to fulfill the office of.” It also traces the word back to 1765, where it was used in the following sentence: “Grain and coin are fungibles, because one guinea or one bushel or boll of sufficient merchantable wheat precisely supplies the place of another.”

Grain and guineas are all well and good, but that’s not how the word in used in this NPR tweet. Here, the world is being used to mean “flexible,” but not in a good way.  This kind of “flexibility” is akin to bending the rules or weakening one’s former pledge or position on an issue.

Obviously, “the ability to use one thing in place of another” (i.e., interchangeability) and “flexibility” are somewhat related. After all, in matters of business and deal-making, one might find a certain benefit in not being so rigid with a partner. Still, it’s interesting that neither the WNWDAL nor the OED are even the least bit pliable (sorry …) when it comes to associating fungible with flexible. In fact, none of the dictionaries in the my possession, including my etymological dictionaries, even attempts to bend fungible in this way.

The one place that does link fungible and flexible is It defines fungible as

1: being something (such as money or a commodity) of such a nature that one part or quantity may be replaced by another equal part or quantity in paying a debt or settling an account
2: capable of mutual substitution : interchangeable
3: readily changeable to adapt to new situations : flexible

As much as it pains this anachronist to say it, score one for the internet, for it would appear that the content of my reference library and this website are not fungible. Then again, who says is correct in this instance?

ARL Archive · Reference News Roundup

Reference News Roundup (Vol. 6)

newspaper-peepsHello Papercutters!

I haven’t done a Reference News Roundup in a while, so I decided to right that wrong with the following batch of reference- and word-related news items from the past week (give or take a few days).

Happy reading and Enjoy!


Kory Stamper, associate editor at Merriam-Webster and author of the new book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries , is EVERYWHERE these days. (Good for her and good for dictionaries.) In fact, she’s so omnipresent that, instead of just offering you one News Item of the Week, I’m giving you four — all of which center around her in some way.

How do new words get in the dictionary?

Kory Stamper, author of the new book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries describes three criteria Merriam-Webster uses for inclusion of words like truther, binge-watch, photobomb and the 1,000 other words that make the cut in a typical year.

The Chronicle of Higher Education (blog)

“So in speech, I don’t police people’s speech. I think that’s jerkery (ph) of the highest order when people do that,” [says associate editor of Merriam-Webster, Kory Stamper].

I love the “ph.” It means that the transcriber was not familiar with jerkery, found nothing when looking it up in Merriam-Webster and other dictionaries (including!), and thus offered a phonetic spelling. But Stamper didn’t make up jerkery.

Sorry, English teachers: ‘Irregardless’ is a word, dictionary writer says
Des Moines

“Everyone literally hates this word,” said Stamper, who visits Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City on [recently] to promote her new book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. “But it’s been around for 200 years. It has a clear definition and regular usage. So, mad props to you, ‘irregardless.'”

Collingswood dictionary editor explains inclusion of N-word, profanity

Charged with editing the very text used to determine which words are words and which words are not, Kory Stamper knows the power of language — for good or bad.


What Are Sheeple? Apple Users Are In New Merriam-Webster Dictionary Definition
International Business Times

Apple fanboys have always had a reputation for undying loyalty to the brand, but Merriam-Webster is taking that characterization to a new level by using them as an example for new dictionary entry “sheeple.”

Words of the Week: “Knock for a Loop”
Bozeman Daily

We American English speakers have thousands of colorful expressions at our disposal. A listener recently brought an exemplary one to my attention: knock for a loop, meaning to surprise or stun. As in: getting fired without notice knocked me for a loop. We sometimes get thrown for a loop, too, which means the same thing.

‘Wicked’ Interesting: Merriam-Webster Explores Rise Of New England’s Favorite Word

New England and “wicked” go together like peanut butter and Fluff. But what’s the story behind the word that has flourished in Massachusetts and the northeast corner of the United States? The folks at Merriam-Webster Dictionary tried to shed some light on its origins, tweeting Thursday “This is how ‘wicked’ became an adverb.”

Imposter Syndrome enters the Oxford English Dictionary

Colloquial usage of the term impostor syndrome has grown recently, so much so that the term is now one of the new entries into the Oxford English Dictionary.  In fact, the impostor phenomenon was first referred to in academic circles back in 1978, but it has recently developed another life as the impostor syndrome and is being used (incorrectly) to refer to any lack of confidence or self-doubt.


Meet the people who are making the dictionary relevant again

To many, a dictionary has likely gone the way of beepers, payphones and writing by hand, but for the folks at Merriam-Webster, they’re just doing what they’ve been doing for the past 186 years.

Tech Jargon Confusing You? Use this Online Dictionary

Are you enthralled by the numerous developments that tech has to offer but often get bogged down due to the complex tech concepts and terminology? Here is a dictionary to explain it to you like you were a child.

Chinese to English, Urdu dictionary launched

Deputy Consul General of China Wang Daxue and Prof. Dr. Nizamudin, Chairman Punjab Higher Education Commission Friday launched the first-ever “Chinese to English and Urdu Dictionary” along with the second edition of Chinese Learning book.


Turkey bans Wikipedia, labeling it a ‘national security threat’

If you try to open Wikipedia in Turkey right now, you’ll turn up a swirling loading icon, then a message that the server timed out. Turkey has blocked Wikipedia. If you’re inside the country, you can only access the online encyclopedia through a virtual private network connection to a system outside the country.

Introducing an Online Encyclopedia of Inuit Arctic Observations

Siku, an online tool that recently won a $750,000 grant from Google, aims to pull together native knowledge about dangerously thin sea ice and other conditions in the Arctic’s fast-changing landscape.


Dumbing down Shakespeare: Are Americans too intellectually lazy to appreciate his genius?

The fact that many theater companies seem to believe they can fulfill their classical mandates with only the most widely known plays, or worse, sacrifice more challenging plays to the popular-entertainment demands of the box office, makes [the author] wonder whether these are signs of a deeper problem.

10 Words That Will Make You Sound Smarter at Work

If you’re looking to stretch your workplace vocabulary without sounding like a pretentious asshole, here are some suggestions.

[And if you don’t care what those assholes at the office think about you, just keep talking as normal….]

That’s it for this installment. If you want to see previous issues of the Reference News Roundup, click the following links:

RNR (vol.5)
RNR (vol.4)
RNR (vol.3)
RNR (vol.2)
RNR (vol.1)

ARL Archive · Know Your Words

Clearing the Air on “Incense”

Incense artI recognized the pungent, peppery smell as soon as I walked into church: incense. I used to hate the smell of that stuff, but somewhere along the line I learned to like it. (I supposed a lifetime of going to church will do that.) What prompted this change in olfactory acceptance is a mystery, as is the relationship between the words incense and incense. Think about it: How could a word the Basic Catholic Dictionary defines as “a grainy substance made from the resins of various plants that give off an aromatic odor when burned; used in divine worship as a symbol of the ascent of prayer to God,” also mean “to make very angry; to fill with wrath; enrage” (Websters). Isn’t anger is one of the seven deadly sins?

To get to the answer this burning question, I crossed the threshold into another realm — the Anachronist Reference Library — where I scoured the sacred texts therein for answers.

The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories says, and the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins agrees, that (the substance) incense “comes from Old French encens, which comes from ecclesiastical Latin, incensum, ‘something burnt,’ the neuter past participle of incendere meaning ‘set fire to.’ It then goes on to say that the other incense (i.e., to make very angry) is associated, in the general sense, with the notion of ‘inflaming or exciting someone with a strong feeling.’ This word comes from Old French incenser, which is also from Latin incendere, ‘set fire to.’

There you have it: both words, on literal one figurative, can be traced back to the same Latin root, meaning to set aflame. Easy peasy, right?

Okay, but let’s return to what I wrote about the symbolic nature of incense (the kind you burn during religious ceremonies), because the history of its use is more interesting than you might think.

Since incense, or rather the smoke that results from burning it, has a “symbolic” role, I consulted The Continuum Encyclopedia of Symbols to see what it had to say about it. The text agreed that “the rising smoke symbolizes prayers rising to heaven,” but it goes on to say that the strong aroma of incense also helped “to drive away evil spirits.” (Good thing I learned to like it….)

The Davis Dictionary of the Bible adds another wrinkle, noting that, in the days of the Old Testament, the fragrance from burning incense may have had a more practical purpose.

Where so many animal sacrifices were offered … both [in] the tabernacle and the temple, the smell of blood must have polluted the atmosphere, and the burning of incense exerted a good sanitary influence.

Incense art 2The Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (CBTEL), takes this idea of deodorizing the air a step further — but not before noting that, initially, the use of incense was frowned upon in Christianity, as it was associated with paganism. However, when pushed underground, it seems the early Christians suddenly found a use for this aromatic concoction.

It appears likely that the use of incense was first begun in order to purify the air of unwholesome chambers, caverns, etc., in which the Christians were compelled to worship, just as candles were employed necessarily, even by day, in subterranean places.

So when did incense start to be used during Christian worship in a less practical, more symbolic and spiritual way? The CBTEL estimates the 6th century.

The first clear proof of the use of incense at the communion occurs in the time of Gregory the Great, in the latter part of the 6th century. After that period, it became common in the Latin Church.

This blog post has ended. Go in peace.

ARL Archive · Know Your Words

Fiasco: We Know Its Meaning, Not Its Origin

airborn bottles
Is it really so hard to figure this out?

The asked him to go, but he refused, so they forcibly removed him from his seat (bloodying his face in the process) and then dragged him out by his arms. No, I’m not talking about the guy who wouldn’t leave the bar at closing time or the protester occupying a senator’s office, I’m talking about a dude on a plane … a dude who paid for a seat on a plane.

You know what I’m talking about: United Airlines and the horrible way it treated one if its paying customers. As bad as air travel is, this episode was bizarre, shocking, and enraging all at once. If you’ve been paying attention to the fallout from this event (and I know you have because how could you not), you’ve undoubtedly encountered a tray table full of interesting words and phrases to describe the inept way United Airline’s responded to it. I certainly have, and my favorite is fiasco.

Going with the context clues here, you can probably guess that (per the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language) fiasco is defined as, “a complete failure; action that comes to a ridiculous end.”

I know, that “ridiculous end” part is superb. The definition offered by the (compact) Oxford English Dictionary is good too: “a failure or breakdown in a dramatic or musical performance. Also, in a general sense, an ignominious (i.e., shameful, disgraceful) failure.”

Don’t you just love it when dictionary definitions offer the perfect words for capturing the moment?

Okay, so that’s what fiasco means, but where does it come from?

The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins explains the origin of the word this way:

fiasco. Our word for “a total, foolish failure” derives from the Italian fiasco, “bottle,” but no one seems to know why. First recorded in England as a theatrical term in the late 19th century, the word may have something to do with a bottle breaking–either accidentally or as part of the plot–in some forgotten Italian play. Perhaps also a brand of wine in some bottles was flat or sour–a complete failure of fiasco–or imperfect bottles made by glassblowers we called fiascos. There is no proof for any theory.

As far as colorful word histories go, that’s a pretty good one, even if there isn’t any proof for it. Ah, but is there consensus? There’s only one way to find out.

The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories says:

fiasco. This is an adoption of an Italian word meaning literally “bottle, flask.” In the phrase far fiasco, literally “make a bottle.” Figuratively, this means “fail in  performance” but the reason for the figurative sense remains unexplained.

The (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins agrees that word is Italian in origin and means, “bottle or flask,” but it then goes on to say:

Its figurative use apparently stems from the phrase far fiasco, literally, “make a bottle,” used traditionally in Italian theatrical slang for “suffer a complete breakdown in performance.” The usual range of fanciful theories has been advanced for the origin of the usage, but none is particularly convincing.

Maybe, but folks keep trying. Picking up where the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins left off, the Merriam-Webster Book of Word Histories offers this:

Just what prompted the development of the sense of “failure” from “bottle” has remained obscure. One guess that has been put forward a number of times … is that when a Venetian glassblower discovered a flaw developing in a beautiful piece he was working on, he would turn it into an ordinary bottle to avoid having to destroy the object. The bottle would naturally represent a failure of his art to the glassblower. This theory (only one of several) remains without evidence to support it.

Okay, so that’s one guess. Here’s another, rather commonsense explanation from yours truly, and (if I do say so myself) it brings together the concepts of poor performance, failure, and bottles together quite nicely. Here goes …

It seems to me that members of an audience — especially members of an audience who’ve been drinking — would be apt to throw their empty bottles toward the stage during a play or concert when the thespians or musicians they paid to see gave a lousy performance. Chances are, it wouldn’t take long for “a negative audience reaction to a poor performance that involved the throwing of bottle-shaped projectiles” to become a “fiasco,” particularly if it happened in Italy.

But hey, if that doesn’t do it for you, there’s always the glassblower thing ….

ARL Archive · Know Your Words

Of Hockey and Hypothesis

[Note: This post was written in April of 2017. As the 2017 – 2018 season gets underway, I’m more hopeful the Sabres will have a more promising year.]

Well, the NHL playoffs start Wednesday (April 12) and, once again, the members of my hometown team — the Buffalo Sabres — will be watching the action on television just like me. The Sabres haven’t been involved in the post-season since 2010-2011 (WTF?!?!) and for fans of the blue and gold like yours truly, it’s getting old … and a little pathetic. That’s okay. I can take it. I am a fan of the sport in general and, over the past six seasons, I’ve learned to appreciate a good game regardless of which teams are on the ice.


I do have a question, though. (I mean, a question other than “What’s wrong with the Sabres?”) Where did this sport get it’s name?

The answer, it seems, is something of a mystery. The best guess is that the word comes from a French word for “bent stick.” According to the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the English Language:

hockey, n. (early mod. English: probably < Old French hoquet, bent stick, crook)

That’s one hypothesis. Another comes from the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins, which cites a different  source.

hockey – The first known unequivocal reference to the game of hockey comes in William Holloway’s General Dictionary of Provincialisms (1938), where he calls it hawkey, and describes it as ‘a game played by several boys on each side with sticks, called hawkey-bats, and a ball.’ It is not known for certain where the word originated, but it is generally assumed to be related in some way to hook, with reference to the hockey stick’s curved end.

“Hockey” from “hook,” I can see that. In search of a more definitive answer, though, I brought out the big gun: the (compact) Oxford English Dictionary. Sadly, it wasn’t any more precise … or definitive.

Hockey, also hawky, hawkey. Origin uncertain, but the analogy of many other games makes it likely that the name originally belonged to the hooked stick. Old French, hoquet ‘shepherd’s staff, crook’ suits form and sense, but connecting links are wanting.

“Connecting links are wanting”? What the hell is that? Oh well, at least there seems to be something of a general consensus if not an outright answer. Thankfully, as something of a consolation prize, I did find some good hockey-related slang. The first comes from the Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, the second and third are from the (Partridge) Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English.

hockey puck.  A hockey puck is a fool, a lamebrain, a blockhead, a numbskull or any of a hundred similar adjectives—in short, an inert someone who can offer no resistance to the blows of life or someone who is knocked around like a puck by a stick in the game of hockey. The term seems to have been coined by insult comedian Don Rickles* in the early 1970s.

hockey club, the.  A, the, venereal hospital. (New Zealand soldiers, WW1) Ex. a hockey-stick-shaped instrument used in the treatment of VD.

hockey stick. ‘The hoist used for loading an aircraft with bombs (Royal Air Force, WWII)

Well, that’s it for this entry. I am aware that, like the Buffalo Sabres’ 2016-2017 season, this was somewhat lacking. Be that as it may, you did the right thing by taking 5 minutes for etymology.

Thanks for reading and, to quote Red Green, “Keep your stick on the ice.”

*  R.I.P. Don Rickles!