Saturday, April 10, 2010

A Clue: “It Has Notions”

Crossword puzzles, you may have noticed, tend to feature certain words again and again. In a February 2009 article for the Boston Globe (found via Languagehat), lexicographer Erin McKean pointed out discussed the tendency of a group of English words to appear more often in these black and white grids they do in everyday speech or writing. As she puts it:
The vocabulary of crosswords is like the dialect of an alternate and highly specific universe, populated by Ednas and Enids and Ians; where the food is Oreos and oleo and the drinks ales and tea. It embraces particular bits of French (ami, ete), Latin (esse, ave), Spanish (este, oro), and even a little Hindi (Sri). It wields an epee with elan; is on familiar terms with tsars and emirs; enjoys music, especially the oboe and altos, and likes to travel: Iran, Oslo, Reno, Etna. And it's interested in science, exploring ions and the atom, as well as the erne and the orca.
McKean goes on to explain that these old standards are giving way to the likes of a fresher batch of words whose arrangements of vowels and consonants make them good fits for crossword puzzles. (Check the current papers for clues seeking elater (a click beetle), istle (a fiber made from tropical plants such as agave), the name Omri (associated with the father of the Biblical Ahab or the actor from Eerie, Indiana.) But it’s the start of the article that I’m interested by. McKean notes that at the 2008 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, grand high puzzlemaster Will Shortz held up a tiny object that elicited applause from the nearly 700 people in the room. The object, an etui, happens to be one of those whose name pops up frequently in crosswords despite being obscure. It’s also my word of the week.
etui (ae-TWEE or AE-twee) — noun: a small, ornamental case.
The word, which I’ve seen in puzzles before — more often in the answer keys, and less often never in the spaces I’m filling in — comes from French via the Old French estui, a form of the verb estuier, “to enclose.” The word goes back to the Vulgar Latin studiare, “to treat with care,” which in turn comes from the Latin stadium — “study,” “zeal” or “pursuit.”

I’m less interested in the etymology, however, than with this word’s popularity with those fluent in crosswordese, as McKean calls it. There’s nothing all that special about etuis in general. I mean, look at them:

Etui simply beats out others by virtue of the arrangement of its letters, this lucky little word. And oh how well it’s done. The website XWord Info had documented 76 different appearances of the word in English-language puzzles since 1993 — and eight times since Shortz held up an etui before other puzzle fanatics. (Quite possibly the only time an etui has gotten such a warm reception outside of sewing circles, I’d bet.) Another website has documented the many ways that etui has been hinted at in nearly every way imaginable. Just some of them:
More than a lot of words can claim. Etui, I salute you. Also: Whatever happened to Omri Katz, anyway?

Previous words of the week:
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