Know Your Words

Giving “Raccoon” a Hand

This is a raccoon. It’s coming for your stuff.

By now, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the baboons that collaborated on a plan to escape the research facility holding them prisoner, but have you heard about the stoned raccoon? If not, I encourage you to read the story at the link provided. (Go ahead, I’ll wait ….) If  you can’t be bothered, I’ll give you the quick version:

A pet raccoon got into someone’s pot stash. Fearing for its life, the raccoon’s human companion brought it to a nearby fire station for help. Unfortunately, the firefighters could offer none. Their advice was simply to let the animal “sleep it off” (or whatever the raccoon equivalent of that is). End of story? Sort of. The article goes on to say how this sort of thing happens more often these days as marijuana has become more prevalent and, generally, more acceptable.

So, to recap, the firefighters washed their “hands” of the incident, which is interesting because, etymologically speaking, raccoons and hands go … um … hand in hand. Let me explain.

I’m going to assume you know that raccoons are (small mammals, with furry gray bodies, white faces with black circles around their eyes that make them look like they’re wearing a mask, paws that look like tiny hands, etc). I will not assume, however, that you know the history of the word raccoon. Here’s the skinny, according to Eric Partridge’s Origins, A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English:

Coon, with adjective coony; raccoon or racoon
Coon, the quadruped, hence the fur, merely shortens raccoon; Raccoon is of Algonquin origin; Webster compares Virginian arakun, raccoon, from arakunem, ‘he scratches with his hands’ (feet).

All the references at my disposal seem to agree on this. Even the online ones that I generally don’t care to consult. However, there is one text on the BLRL’s shelves, the Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, that contains this little nugget:*

Dr. Johnson said of the clever creature: “The rackoon is a New England animal, like a badger, having a tail like a fox, being clothed in a thick and deep furr: it sleeps in the day time in a hollow tree, and goes out a-nights, when the moon shines, to feed on the sea side, where it is hunted by dogs.”

Maybe. Or maybe raccoons are out at night when the moon shines because they’re looking for your stash. After all, in dreams, raccoons are said to signify criminal activity (you know, because they wear a “mask”). Also, because they dwell in trees, they’re said to symbolize the feeling of being “treed,” or having one’s back up against the wall. (Exactly the kind of feeling that might make you want to chill with some Grandaddy Purple.)

I’m aware what the date is and, no, I did not plan to write about this on this smokiest of days.

* The BLRL’s copy of Johnson’s Dictionary: A Modern Selection contains this same nugget.


Know Your Words

Baboons, This Post Is for You

Papio-hamadryas-headTo the baboons who joined forces in an unfortunately thwarted attempt to free themselves from a Texas animal research facility, the Butter Lamb salutes you! Thank you for reminding us to never grow accustomed to captivity and keep striving for freedom from our oppressors!  The following post is for you!

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines baboon as follows:

1. A grotesque figure (perhaps of a baboon) used in architecture or decorative work*.
2. A member of one of the great divisions of the Simiadae  or monkeys, distinguished by a long, dog-like snout, large canine teeth or tusks, capricious cheek-pouches, and naked callosities on the buttocks. They are inhabitants of Africa, Southern Asia, and the adjacent islands.
3. Figurative: as a term of abuse.

The OED goes on to say that first use of baboon dates back to 1409. Since that was many moons ago, I checked to my book of selected words from Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of  1755 (Johnson’s Dictionary: A Modern Selection) to see if it had an entry for baboon. It does.

babo’on. (babouin, Fr. It is supposed by Skinner to be the augmentation of babe, and to import a great babe.) A monkey of the largest kind.

Who’s Skinner? That would be Stephen Skinner, author of the 1671 work, Etymologicum Linguae Anglicanae. No, I haven’t read it.

Speaking of etymology, though, it seems Johnson and Skinner were right: baboon is connected to the French word babouin, a word meaning “lip.”

As Eric Partridge writes in Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English:

baboon comes from Middle English baboyne (or babewyn): Middle French babuin (French babouin): from babine, lip, “the baboon having prominent lips.” This word is in turn “influenced by the cognate Middle French baboue, a grimace.”

When it comes to etymology, Eric Partridge seems to be one of those dudes that other etymologically inclined dudes look to for insight and direction, so you can often expect his take on a word’s history to be recycled by others.  As a case in point,consider the entry for baboon in the (Ayto) Dictionary of World Origins.

The origin of baboon is obscure, but it seems that the notion underlying it may be that of ‘grimacing’ … it has been speculated that there may be a connection with Old French baboue ‘grimace.’ However that may be, it was certainly in Old French that the word first surfaced, as babuin, and originally meant ‘gaping figure’ (as in a gargoyle). This alternative meaning was carried over when the Old French word was borrowed into English, where it remained a live sense of baboon until the 16th century.

The entry for baboon in the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories treads similar (but not exactly the same) waters.

Adopted from Old French babuin or from medieval Latin babewynus, the base sense was probably Old French baboue ‘muzzle’ or ‘grimace.’ Its use in zoology is perhaps inspired by the exaggerated facial expression typical of an ape’s behavior.

Medieval Latin? What happened to Middle English? Was that a typo? Maybe. For whatever it’s worth, the word babewynus does not appear in my copy of the Pocket Oxford Latin Dictionary.

Not surprisingly, the the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories repeats the information in the Oxford English Dictionary relating to architecture. “The first recorded sense of baboon known at present is ‘a grotesque figure’ used in architectural carving, seen in all manner of gaping poses as gargoyles on ancient buildings.”

I know what you’re thinking: “This is all great, Joe3, but what does it mean if one dreams of a baboon?” Glad you asked. “To dream of apes, monkeys, gorillas, or baboons,” says the Dream Dictionary from A to Z, “suggests a link with the impulsive, imprudent, inquisitive side of ourselves, such as the self-centered grabbing of food, or sexual gratification without concern for the needs of the other person.”

Yikes, that’s not very nice. Thankfully, the Continuum Encyclopedia of Symbols puts baboons in a more flattering light.

The baboon was worshiped in Egypt as a divine being. Being large, white, stooping and having an erect penis and frequently a disk of the moon on its head, the baboon was the incarnation of the moon god Thoth, the protective patron of scholars and scribes who also often appears as a divine messenger, and as a guide of souls.**

We’ll have to leave it at that. You go baboons! Be the guides of souls that you are!

Notes (and comments):

* Didn’t see that one coming. Not sure about that architectural reference in the first definition of baboon, I consulted the Penguin Dictionary of Architecture. It did not have an entry for baboon, but it did have an entry for grotesque, which conforms to the definition in the OED. It did not, however, mention baboons.

** Baboon genitalia? Really? This is why I love dictionaries and other references. You can’t make this stuff up.


Reference News Roundup

New News Roundup Page!

dictionary news snipJust wanted to let you know that, instead of issuing sporadic posts about reference-related news items, I decided to give them their own page!

If you look at the main menu, you’ll see that there’s now a link for “References in the News.” If you click on that, it’ll take you to the latest crop of news items pulled from wherever.

Among the best of this week’s lot is a transcript of Kory Stamper’s appearance on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Check it out!

Know Your Words · The Art of the Dictionary

Dig This Damn Diagram!

It was one of those nights wherein I couldn’t fall asleep. Staring at the ceiling, I listened as insects chirped in the warm night air, cars whooshed by on nearby streets, and sirens screamed in the distance. Despite the noise, ideas rose from the inky-black depths of my brain, danced in the forefront of my mind for a minute or two, and then vanished back into the ether from which they came. Why the came in the order they did I’m not sure, for none seemed connected to its predecessor. Naturally, most of the ideas or thoughts that crossed my mind were ridiculous. One or two were profound and a few, like the following, were … interesting.

Dig this Damn Diagram!

Damn Diagram

Why I began to ponder sentence diagrams on this sleepless night I can’t say, but thinking about them made me wonder: If you can diagram a sentence, can you diagram a word? As the above graphic demonstrates, you can!

Why I picked the word damn I don’t know, but I’ll be damned if what I’ve produced here isn’t one cool diagram!

I know, it’s (probably) not perfect. I likely missed a line connecting this to that or I forgot to include one damned thing or another. Nevertheless, I think you get the idea that this graphic approach to delving into a word’s meaning, history, and usage (along with other, related factoids) is equally as effective in conveying the information I typically try to get across in words.

One of the things this graphic doesn’t include is the name of the dictionaries and other sources I used to generate this graphic. Here they are:

Definitions – Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language
Etymology – Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English
Theology – The Encyclopedia of Hell (Van Scott)
First Use – Compact Oxford English Dictionary (Partridge)
Cultural Expressions – Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins


Know Your Words

Hypochondria and that “Gut Feeling”

HippoHypochondria, or the belief that you’re ill or carrying some awful disease despite any evidence that to support it, is an interesting word. On first consideration, my gut feeling was that it was in some way related to Hippocrates, the famous Greek physician and, according to the Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Religion, Literature, and Art, “the founder of the school of a scientific art of healing.”

That, however, is not the case. As Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language informs us, hypochondria comes from the

“Late Latin word for abdomen (pl. of Greek hypochondrion, meaning “soft part of the body below the cartilage and above the navel” [hypo-, under + chondros, cartilage: so called because the condition was supposed to have its seat in this region].”

and means, as I hinted at above, “abnormal anxiety over one’s health, often with imaginary illness and severe melancholy.”

Blakiston’s Pocket Medical Dictionary gets a little more technical, and requests that those looking for information about hypochondria begin by learning its proper name: hypochondriasis, which it (awesomely) defines as:

“A chronic condition in which a person is morbidly concerned with his or her physical or mental health, and believes himself [sic] to be suffering from a grave, usually bodily, disease often focused upon one organ, without demonstrable organic findings; this condition is traceable to some longstanding intrapsychic conflict.”

I have to admit, I find this association between hypochondria and morbidity somewhat of a surprise–the hypochondriacs on television always seem so energetic … even manic! This relationship shouldn’t come as such a surprise, though, for as my etymological dictionaries reveal, the connection between hypochondria and morbidity, melancholy, and even depression has been right there from the beginning. As the Merriam Webster New Book of Word Histories notes in its entry for hypochondria:

“Many ancient theories of pathogenesis, attractive though they are, have been discarded. That dire humor, black bile (or melancholy), was said to be a secretion of the spleen or kidneys and to produce a morbid state of bleak depression and with it an excessive concern with one’s health. This ‘disease’ was named for the region below the breastbone in which it had its origin, the hypochondria.”

And from the Dictionary of Word Origins:

“Originally, hypochondria was an anatomical term, denoting the ‘area of the abdomen beneath the ribs.’ […] This particular part of the body was formerly supposed to be the seat of melancholy, and so in the 17th century the word came to be used for ‘low spirits, depression.’ The modern sense ‘belief of being ill’ originally belonged to the derived hypochondriasis, but was transformed in the 19th century to hypochondria.”

So, it seems that Blakiston, who no doubt benefited from the wisdom of the ages, was right–the hypochondriac is suffering from some “psychic conflict.”

So, what happens if you dream about being sick? Does that count as hypochondria? Not exactly, says the Dream Dictionary from A to Z, but it does point to more psychic conflict.

“In dreams, indigestion suggests an idea or attitude that does not agree with you or that you are finding hard to stomach in waking life … The dream may also point to actual indigestion. Alternatively, could your stomach have been protesting in your dream because it is literally crying out for nourishment, either literally or because you are feeling starved of love?”

The book goes on to say that if your intestines are the source of discomfort in your dreams, you could be dreaming about something you don’t think you have the “guts” to do. Nausea in dreams may refer to a negative feeling in real life you need to address. Further, if you’re physically sick in a dream, it could mean that you need to “expel” or “get rid” of something in your life, like a job, a relationship, etc.

Now I know why I always  feel sick at work….

Know Your Words · Reference News Roundup

Reference News Roundup – Feb. 2, 2018

Alvar Sanchez, Nephew of Dona Lambra, Insults Gonzalo Gomez and is Slain by Him

Howdy Butter Lambs! Another work week has come to a close and, as usual, the BL is celebrating the weekly 55-hour escape from stupid work with some articles about dictionaries and the words they contain.


News Item of the Week

25 Great Insults From 18th Century British Slang

And the rest ….

New Word In The Dictionary: ‘Snowflake’

Hangry and ransomware added to Oxford English Dictionary

OED’s new words include ‘mansplaining’ but steer clear of ‘poomageddon’

Test yourself: Do you know what new words in Oxford English Dictionary mean?

“TTC”, “VBAC” and Other Parenting Slang Added to Dictionary

Publisher of Japan’s most authoritative dictionary corrects definition of LGBT

Merriam-Webster disses host for using ‘pissant’ to describe Tom Brady’s daughter

What is the best dictionary for word lovers?

Ahead of the State of the Union, a lexicographer analyzes Trump’s impact on language

Merriam-Webster Breaks Down Use Of Singular ‘Their’ In Quirky Limerick

The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: Following Our “Way of Life”

Breathing new life into old words

And here are some items from the Butter-Lamb that you may have missed!

Happy Candlemass, Marmot Planting Day (in honor of Groundhog’s Day)

The Fascicle Heard ‘Round the World

My Awkward Past with Heuristic


Know Your Words

The Fascicle Read ‘Round the World

On this day in 1884, the first portion, or fascicle, of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), considered the most comprehensive and accurate dictionary of the English language, is published. Today, the OED is the definitive authority on the meaning, pronunciation and history of over half a million words, past and present.

—, This Day in History

OED Dictionary Def
Part of the entry for “Dictionary” in the Oxford English Dictionary

Today (February 1) marks the debut of the Oxford English Dictionary, or at least its first fascicle, anyway.

What’s that? You don’t know what a fascicle is? That makes two of us. To the books!

Given the significance of this day, I looked to the compact Oxford English Dictionary for a definition. It did not disappoint. Fascicle is defined as:

1. A bunch, bundle. (Now only in scientific use.)
2. A part, number (of a work published in installments)

Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language generally agrees, but refers to a fascicle as a “small” bundle. It also adds a botanical definition for fascicle, “a small tuft or cluster of fibers, leaves, or flowers.”

Surprisingly, the word doesn’t appear in hardly any of my etymological dictionaries (including the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories), except for Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. This text traces fascicle back to the Latin word fasces, “a bundles of authoritative rods,” plural of fascis, a bundle. Origins continues:

Latin fascis has an Italian derivative fascio, a bundle, hence a political group, whence both fascismo, hence Fascism, and fascisti, hence Fascists.

Whew, I didn’t expect the history of this word to take such a hard right turn. I’m not surprised, though, given the appearance of the word “authoritative” in meaning of its root. No wonder the OED is deemed an “authority.” (Relax, that’s a joke.)

According to Wikipedia, the Oxford English Dictionary began as a project of the London Philological Society and was led by a small group of intellectuals (not associated with Oxford University) who were “dissatisfied with the existing English dictionaries.”

Those intellectuals were Richard Chenevix Trench, Herbert Coleridge, and Frederick Furnivall, and not one of them gets a mention in the Dictionary of Global Culture (DGC), which is kind of weird given that Maria Kuncewiczowa does. Nothing against Ms. Kuncewiczowa, of course, but you’d think that the originators of the OED would be just as important as a Polish novelist and short story writer. The DGC is a fairly thick book. You’d think there’d be room for both.The same could be said for a mention of the OED in the book. “Punk” gets a mention, why not the OED?

But I digress ….

According to, the OED was initially expected to be “a four-volume, 6,400-page work … estimated [to] take 10 years to finish. It took over 40 years until the 125th and final fascicle was published in April 1928 and the full dictionary was complete.” Awesome as that is, my favorite part of the OED’s origin story is that, as soon as it was finished, the editors began updating it.  “A supplement, containing new entries and revisions, was published in 1933 and the original dictionary was reprinted in 12 volumes and officially renamed the Oxford English Dictionary.