“Shifting Meanings”

hussy (n.)

1520s, “mistress of a household, housewife,” deformed contraction of Middle English husewif (see housewife). Evidence of the shortening of the two vowels is throughout Middle English. Traditionally pronounced “huzzy,” in 20c. the pronunciation shifted to match the spelling. The sense gradually broadened colloquially to mean “any woman or girl.” By 1650 the word was especially applied to “a woman or girl who shows casual or improper behavior” (short for pert hussy, etc.), and it had lost all but its derogatory sense by mid-18c. (www.etymonline.com)

When I was in graduate school my mother bought the two volume compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary(O.E.D. to aficionados.)I was riveted by it and spent time reading it for fun. (I had read earlier dictionaries for fun too. You might say I was/am a word nerd.) I stumbled on my favorite new word “crinkle-crankle” and used it to describe our brook winding along at the edge of the property.

But the biggest gift of a resource such as the O.E.D. is its clarification of the way words change over time. I have highlighted “hussy” because it is such a dramatic example of both the denotation and the connotation of a word changing. I used this instance when I taught literature to help my students see that words do actually change in one or both of two ways. Of course it is fun in the present to help my grandchildren understand that the “gay 90’s” were not populated solely by people they now know as “gay.”

I try to keep this knowledge in mind when I see people outraged over language in earlier literature. At one point “colored” was considered thoughtful and “Black” offensive. “Homosexual” was a much more polite form of the more common “homo.” “Mongoloid” was a softening of the label “Mongoloid idiot,” long before we knew to call it “Down Syndrome.” We kid ourselves if we think future generations won’t be appalled at what we think of as “common speech.” After all, Chaucer wasn’t insulting a woman when he called her a “hussy.”

“Toasty Warm?”

Since covid Charlie has been working from home, using the dining room as his office. Two doors allow him to shut the room off to make the numerous phone calls and Zoom meetings his job entails. But recently as it has gotten very cold here the past few weeks I kept noticing that his “office” stayed pleasantly warm while the rest of the house was fairly cool.

Of course being the mature adult I profess to be it never occurred to me to envy him his warm den. And of course it never crossed my mind to resent that he was comfortable as I put on another sweater. Fortunately my ordinary grumpy self quieted for a bit yesterday. I remembered that the thermostat for the whole house is in the dining room. The thermostat, recognizing that the dining room is now our desired 68 degrees, promptly shuts down the furnace for a bit. The rest of the house gets cold quickly since it is open without the benefit of the warm air in the dining room.

Now the question remains. Would I rather be warm or listen to the tedious bureaucratic conversations my husband has to endure that allow us to pay the heating bill? Good thing I have a lot of sweaters.

“Apron Strings

Yesterday I tied Emmy’s leash around the leg of our butcher block kitchen island so I could cook in peace without worrying about spilling hot liquids on her. She enjoyed teething on a chew stick while watching me work.

This morning in the shower my mind drifted as my mind tends to do in the shower. I started thinking about the possible origin of the phrase “tied to her apron strings.” I am familiar with colonial life here, complete with its ongoing open fire for cooking and heat. Perhaps colonial mothers used a similar restraint to keep their toddlers away from the fire while they worked.

Sadly I have so far been unable to corroborate my idea. The phrase took on meaning long ago, not so different from our current use. Now and for a couple of hundred years it refers to a man who refuses to grow up. Since I believe that most popular phrases had an origin in actual practice, I find that origin unsatisfactory.

If there are any other sleuths out there curious about the phrase, I would appreciate knowing what you find.


“Sweet Girl”

Today is the birthday of my late sister Patsy. I love the picture above taken when she was 14 and my grandfather was 77 in 1967. They are outside of my grandparents’ farm in western New York. My grandfather, despite the summer weather, is dressed as always as if ready to chair his academic department. My sister is listening attentively to him as he lovingly rests his hand on her arm.

They shared a kind spirit. In that way my sister stood out among the four of us. She also had the only black hair and brown eyes; we other three had blue eyes and light brown hair. She was the tallest girl, too, passing me by at least four inches. Since we were six years apart I didn’t know her well as a child. Sadly we were assigned labels growing up, and I was “smart” and she was “pretty.” Only when I was an adult did I realize that she was brilliant and handled challenging job responsibilities at a large health organization as well as completing Master’s degree work in nursing and public health.

She hated hearing that she “fought” cancer three times. She liked to say that with God’s gracious help she lived for 12 years with the disease. She died at peace in her sleep. With her went a gentleness and kindness I can only hope to incorporate more fully into my ordinary life.

“Not The Old Drugs”

Published November 2021
Portland, Oregon 2021

I thought I was informed about the current drug scene until I read Sam Quinones book The Least of Us. His first book focused on the Sackler family and their horrendous marketing effort of Oxycontin and the addiction surge that followed across the United States. While this book continues relating the gymnastics the Sackler continued to perform even after their legal convictions, its main focus is on fentanyl and meth.

I was fairly informed about fentanyl since it has been turning up here for several years. Last week a 13 year old boy died from an exposure at his junior high school where 100 bags of the stuff were found. It is regularly involved in our overdose deaths because of it potency. When mistaken for heroin it is deadly, and many users don’t know what they are buying.

But the biggest surprise was his depiction of meth. I thought of it as “speed,” a drug which amped up energy and kept users awake for stretches of time. It turns out that was the “old meth” made from decongestants like Sudafed(which are no longer easily available.) The new is factory made from chemicals. But its effects are drastically different. As Quinones talks to doctors, outreach workers, police and addiction centers he shares with us the results of the “new meth.”

Rather than giving bursts of energy, the drug more often produces paranoia,hallucinations and behavior frequently mistaken for schizophrenia. He says that many of the tent occupying street people are meth addicts: paranoid, hoarding, ranting and acting irrationally, often violently without provocation. Not all of the homeless are on meth, but many are and old ways of helping them are no longer working.

There seems to be a tendency in cities filled with tent street “villages” to either have compassion for those who can’t afford a home or to see all as drug addicts and seek to remove them. And of course it isn’t one way or the other. Some people who can’t afford a home have spent all their money on drugs. Some have been kicked out of their own home for drug use. And then there are many who simply can’t afford a home because of low wages and high rent.

There is no one solution for the myriad of US citizens now living in tents on public sidewalks. But without a clear understanding of the “new meth,” many public officials will continue to operate with old answers. I hope many of them will take the time to read the book. And I recommend it for anyone who wants to understand what is going on around many of us right now.

“You Are A Neanderthal!”

Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton

One of the old insults we used was saying someone was a Neanderthal, especially in their thinking. To my surprise an old friend called recently and told me that, if it explained anything, his DNA test revealed he is 2% Neanderthal. After laughing for quite a while and harassing him about his find, I turned to the internet to see what on earth it meant.

Apparently a large number of DNA analyses, particularly in Northern Europe, are showing this same percentage of Neanderthal genes. I didn’t explore how scientists can distinguish them from the others. Instead I followed the inevitable time gobbling adventure into the history of human beings. I left more confused than I began, knowing that I would have to devote an amount of serious attention, as opposed to web cruising, to really understand the issue. And I had other things to do.

Looking back at the analysis of my DNA, I saw that I had no Neanderthal genes. I have no idea if that is beneficial or not. At any rate I can defend myself if anyone accuses me of having the brains of a Neanderthal. I don’t.

“Slip Sliding Away”

No, I haven’t taken another fall! On our new walk in the park we get to enjoy views up and down the Connecticut River. The temperature dropped dramatically this week, and in two days the river began to freeze over. Here I am standing on the eastern shore looking upstream towards Hartford. At this stage the river is only partially frozen. In fact the next day this ice was broken up and lying on the edges of the river while the main channel was free.

Sometimes the Connecticut freezes over for long stretches and the Coast Guard has to bring in ice breaking boats to keep the shipping lane open. The cove near us, a backwater of the river, freezes over completely and allows ice fishing. As a sad aside, the carpenter who built our home in 1929 died in 1930 when he fell, unattended, through the ice of that cove when fishing.

Do any of my readers live near major rivers that freeze over in part or in whole? I would love to learn where else this picturesque phenomenon occurs.

“Embodied Insults”

I suppose that anyone who is around young kids has learned that any discussion of rear ends using any kind of slang word is bound to cause gales of laughter. “You butt” and “you booger” seem to be the extent of insults for little kids.

Strangely adults seem to limit their insults to much cruder language, almost always referring to body parts not show in toddler body parts books. There seems to be a plethora of choices for both male and female “private” parts and they all seem to be slung around as insults. Adults seem to have abandoned the simpler “butt” and “booger” for the most part. Apparently calling someone a “foot” or an “ear” has never seemed to have caught on.

I am not, by the way, writing this in the hopes of collecting crude slang words. Please keep any lists that come to mind to yourselves. Rather I am hoping to hear insults that don’t involve body parts. My favorite insult came from my daughter when she was four years old. She called me something she hated more than anything. “You, you.. Swiss steak!”

Gentle teasings preferred. Does anyone still use “nincompoop?” (entymology shows no connection to body functions by the way!)

“Getting Her Vitamin D”

We had eight inches of snow on Friday and after Emmy roamed in it to her heart’s content, she found that she could lie on the picnic table and soak up the sun. This when it was 20 degrees outside. Her undercoat has come in and she is “dressed” for winter. She even refused to come back into the warm house when offered the chance, just stretched out again after I took this photo.

“Uncle Who?”

1924 advertisement

I continued to think of English phrases that confuse me. I first heard “Bob’s your uncle” in the film version of “Mary Poppins,” but forgot about it until I heard it again recently in a Masterpiece Theatre episode. In the recent case, the detective said “Quicker than you can say Bob’s your uncle.” Of course I had to try to track down the meaning of this odd phrase.

Interestingly enough, given my recent foray into nepotism, there was some suggestion on line that the phrase first applied to a British prime minister appointing his nephew to be minister to Ireland in 1887. I liked the possibility that I had stumbled on two English phrases for favoritism. Sadly, other web sites discounted the attribution and said it was first mentioned in connection with the variety show illustrated above.

After reflecting again on nepotism I found myself singing a song my grandfather loved. “Lloyd George knew my father, Father knew Lloyd George” and so on ad infinitum. But I still was no closer to understanding the meaning of “Bob’s your uncle.” Once again I am counting on my friends across the pond to enlighten me.