Ann in KISMET, Tulane Summer Lyric Theatre, 1982

Monday, August 10, 2015


As a former English teacher and as an always lover of words, I've spent my adulthood learning and trying to know the etymology or origin of as many words as I could.  I can remember one of the earliest words that fascinated me was assassin.  During the Crusades, there was a sect of Shia Muslims who were sent out on suicidal missions to kill important enemies, especially Crusaders.  The Arabic word for these killers was ḥashshāshīn, which means a hashish user.  The assassins (Latin derivative) would get their courage from smoking hashīsh, thus the name.  Its first known use was about 1520. Interesting, huh?
Now, please don't think that I'm going to wrack my brain to think of every origin of every word I know.  I'm not.  There are just a few that I would like to call to your attention, because they  are very interesting, and they might come up the next time you play JEOPARDY!
In 1776, the Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan wrote his first play, The Rivals.  In it he created a character by the name of Mrs. Malaprop. This character used words that did not have the meaning she intended but the meaning of a similar-sounding word. For instance, at one point Mrs. Malaprop says, "illiterate him from your memory!"  [She means obliterate.] There are numerous examples, but you get the point.   In 1598, in Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare has a character do the same thing, but the character's name is Dogberry and his incorrect use of words was known as Dogberryisms. They also appear in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.  However, the word malapropism itself seems to have not been used until Lord Byron used it in 1814.

When I was in high school, my best friend and I, having learned about malapropisms, started using them as part of our high-school-code language.  Instead of saying we'd meet at a certain time and we, therefore, needed to synchronize our watches, we'd say, "Let's scrutinize our watches."  Now that I think about it, we weren't imitating Mrs. Malaprop, but the many characters played by the comedian Stan Laurel and the more contemporary Leo Gorcey as Slip Mahoney in The Bowery Boys. One of my favorite malapropisms that I still use today is I resemble that remark! instead of I resent that remark! However, my very favorite is in the Broadway musical, The Music Man.  Mayor Shinn looks at his wife and says, "Not one poop out of you, Madam!" Mrs. Shinn looks at the audience and says, "I think he means peep!"
A neologist is one who makes up or coins new words and uses them as part of his or her speech or writing.  Some of our U.S. presidents have been considered neologists.  George Washington was first to use the word administration.  John Adams is credited with using caucus and lengthy for the first time.  Theodore Roosevelt used muckraker and lunatic fringe for the first time.  President Harding was the first to use bloviation and normalcy.  Presidents George W. Bush and Thomas Jefferson are the leaders by sheer numbers in creating words.  President Bush coined words like misunderestimate and embitterment. But Jefferson is the leader in the number of first-used words and phrases like belittle and separation of church and state.  He is credited with creating more than one hundred words and phrases, which we still use today. Incidentally, my husband was the first I knew to use the expression moron fringe, referring to some of his students at Tulane University.

There have been many books written on the subject of the etymology of words and the countless  neologists who have first introduced certain words into our vocabulary.  Sadly, however, my name is not mentioned in even one volume!

I have been making up words all of my life.  When I was in high school, in addition to using malapropisms as I mentioned above, I made up a word which was to eventually become very famous and well known in the popular culture of the 60's.  Long before Hollywood came up with a certain word, I had a bad habit of calling my friends, brothers, and others who did things that I thought were sort of goofy, idgits for idiots. I knew my mother would not let me refer to anyone as an idiot, so I tried to hide the word in a nonsensical one.  It didn't work. After my mother severely criticized me for using a word that sounded too much like idiot,  I sought a new word to use that, to me and the recipients, meant the same thing.  I started with the consonants:  bidget, cridget, diget, figit, gidget. . .I liked the sound of gidget.  It could also mean a girl idgit which I had used a good deal. So, gidgit it was, and it became a very important part of my speech during my high school years in Bay St. Louis, MS, long before Sandra Dee became the personification of a small girl. And my classmates (the ones who are still speaking to me) and my relatives can attest to the fact that I used the word FIRST!

Continuing my career as an "accidental neologist," after I finished college and began teaching, I started again making up other words and expressions.  I knew, by this time, I couldn't use words that even rhymed with idiot, and now being educated and a little more sophisticated and living and teaching in South Louisiana, I came up with the best of my new words, a French-sounding word:  soie d'eau [pronounced swa do].  I used it to describe things, people, almost anything as the best, high class, top drawer, etc.  It became such a part of me that colleagues and students even started using it! If you were to translate the actual French, it would mean silk water.  That's not too bad.

Now, most of what I have written about myself here has been sort of tongue-in-cheek.  I would never get a lawyer and try to sue Hollywood for using my word gidget without my permission! And while everything I have said is the truth, I know where my humble self belongs, and it is not in the Journals of Etymology.

However, I close with my use of a perfectly good word that, as far as I know, I was the first to use in a particular situation!  In 1972-1973, I was in graduate school at Tulane University.  I had a part-time job at a public relations/advertising agency in downtown New Orleans.  My boss at the agency had just gotten a new client in Metairie. . .a bank.  This bank had something new: a drive-up window, the first in the Greater New Orleans Area.  We were sitting around trying to come up with a word or phrase that would differentiate between the hours of the drive-up teller and the inside teller. Everyone was throwing around words and terms.  All of a sudden, my mind went back to my sitting in movie theatres and hearing the song that, to me, was like the sirens that tempted Odysseus: Let's all go to the Lobby; Let's all go to the Lobby; Let's all go to the Lobby to get ourselves a treat!"  I suggested the word lobby, and that was it!  After that, I wrote reams of radio and TV copy, using "drive-up hours are such and such; lobby hours are so and so."  Every bank in the GNO that opened a drive-up window after that started using the word lobby to refer to the place where the inside tellers were.  And, as far as I know, everyone everywhere else followed suit.

Ah, my claim to fame!  However, my different use of the word lobby won't end up in a permanent record somewhere.  But, the next time you are sitting in the drive-up lane at the bank, look over toward the teller and see what the lobby hours are.  And remember me!  I know, and now YOU'LL  know and, to me, that's Soie D'Eau!

No comments:

Post a Comment