Friday, October 23, 2009

Who Gives a Fig About Sydelle Pulaski?

Two points of verbal interest for your Friday.

First, a new term that, much in the manner of cranberry morpheme and kangaroo word, strikes me as funny and oddly informal even though it is the correct way to refer to a particular linguistic concept: false friend. It refers to words in different languages that don’t mean the same thing but resemble each other to the point that they look like they should mean the same thing. Wikipedia offers a few examples of these verbal frenemies, the one most familiar to me being the English embarrass and the Spanish embarazada. The latter sounds like it should mean what the former does, but, as anyone who’s taken introductory Spanish knows, it actually means “pregnant.” Hilarity ensues. There’s a whole list of them, but I’m far less interested in the examples than I am in the term itself, which calls to mind two words who act all nice in person but then send defamatory text messages about each other to their cognates and synonyms.

The other bit involves a thing that I assumed had been invented by my father and was unique to my family: the phrase a wigwam for a goose’s bridle. This nonsensical string of words was used often in my house as a response to any question centered around the word what. For example: What are you looking for? What are we having for dinner? What did you get me for my birthday? In retrospect, I don’t know why we weren’t more forthright in answering each other’s questions. It turns out it that the phrase has been used in all English-speaking countries, especially Australia and New Zealand. And my dad is from New Zealand, so the story checks out. According to Wikipedia, the second word in the phrase at one point was not wigwam but whim-wham, an obsolete bit of vocabulary meaning “whimsical object” or “trinket.” (Curious, then, that the word would have been made more whimsical by attaching it to a headgear for a goose.) As whim-wham fell out of use, the phrase replaced it with wigwam. This substitution strikes me as an odd one, given that the phrase was most popular in nations whose residents had little reason to know the name of a Native American dwelling unit. But that’s the story nonetheless. Over at World Wide Words, Michael Quinion has collected a few other nonsense responses used to deflect questions by nosy passersby and inquisitive children. Among them:
  • a whim-wham for ducks to perch on
  • a whim-wham for a treacle mill
  • a whim-wham to wind the sun up
  • layovers to catch meddlers
  • a silver new nothing to put on your shoe
  • airlos to catch medlos
  • a whipple for a dooses poke
  • a pair of kitty britches
  • a wigwam for a goose’s bridle and a crutch for a lame duck
  • a whim-whom for grinding smoke
Now please go enjoy your Friday.

No comments:

Post a Comment