Nostrils and Fingers: Notes on Word Histories

The word “thrill,” when it came into the English language, originally meant “to pierce.” In The Faerie Queene, for instance, knights are always thrilling one another through with lances, swords, and other sharp instruments. In a joust or duel, you’d most certainly want to be the one who’s thrilling rather than the one who’s being thrilled. It also meant “hole”—that is, a place where someone or something has been thrilled. The astute reader may already have noticed a connection with the word “drill.” 

Our current use of the words “thrill” and “thrilling” is a figurative extension of the original: when you are thrilling, you feel as if you have been  pierced through with joy or excitement. “Thrill” is one of those words for which a figurative use took over so completely that we hardly ever think about the original, literal meaning. Two other examples of this phenomenon are ardentand flagrant, both of which used to mean literally “burning” or “on fire”—as in, “Call the fire department! My house is flagrant!”

Anyway…at the end of Book I of The Faerie Queene, the Redcrosse Knight gets mixed up with a dragon of whom it is said, “flames of fire he threw forth from his large nosethrill.” And now you know where the word “nostril” comes from. Your nostrils are the places where holes appear to have been drilled in your nose.

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Where Scary Words Come From

Many of you will be attending costume parties this week. No doubt you’re putting a lot of thought into your costume, and perhaps a lot of time, effort, and/or money. But it has been my experience that most costume-partygoers aren’t mentally prepared for the whole party. You make your entrance. Everybody congratulates you on your costume. You congratulate your fellow partygoers on their costumes. But then you find yourself standing in a living room with a paper plate of hors d’oeuvres in one hand, the head of your T-rex costume under your other arm, and a whole evening of small talk stretching out before you. What are you going to talk about?

I am here for you, partygoers. This special Halloween episode of The Habit Weekly will give you all the small-talk fodder you need to get through any awkward silences that descend on this week’s Halloween parties. I realize there are no shortcuts to popularity. I can’t promise you immediate entree to the in-crowd. But it can’t hurt to have a few Halloween-related word histories in your back pocket when the conversation starts to flag.

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Helicopter, Goldendoodle, Outrage: On Rebracketing

If your teacher ever made you memorize the beginning of The Canterbury Tales, you may remember this line:

  • Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth,

Which just means

  • When Zephyr [the West Wind] also with his sweet breath.

The word I want to draw your attention to is eek. It means “also.” Eek didn’t survive into modern English, except in one little linguistic fossil that I find fascinating.

Imagine you live in medieval England. Your parents named you Matilda, but all your friends call you The Reaper. In that case, you could be said to have an eek name—an also-name. Matilda is your real name, The Reaper is an eek name.

Especially in a world where not many people could read, it’s not hard to see how an eek name could be mistaken for a neek name, which ultimately becomes a nickname.

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The Terrible, Horrible Blog Post

My biography of Flannery O’Connor is titled The Terrible Speed of Mercy. I borrowed the phrase from O’Connor’s second novel, The Violent Bear It Away. I was always struck by that odd juxtaposition of terrible and mercy; I chewed on it for about twenty years, never suspecting that I would one day be able to use it as a book title.

The possibility of a terrible mercy obviously has a lot to say about Flannery O’Connor’s understanding of sin and grace and judgment, but it also points up a peculiar pattern in the development of the English language.

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