Category Archives: Words

Origins of “Talk Turkey” and “Quit Cold Turkey”

alex atkins bookshelf wordsAs Turkey Day approaches, curious minds ponder turkey related phrases, like “talking turkey” or “quitting cold turkey.” So why do we single out the poor turkey and imply that they are frigid? (Around this time of year we should pity them for the sacrifice they must make. No wonder those unfortunate beasts cower at the very mention of Thanksgiving Day. ) We don’t say, “I quit my Netflix binging cold monkey” or “I quit my addiction to Fortnite cold salamander.” Those statements sound so amazingly weird, don’t they?

Although they have different meanings, “talking turkey” means talking frankly and seriously while “quitting cold turkey” means quitting something suddenly and completely (typically used in context of a bad habit like smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol, or taking drugs), both phrases are closely related. Let’s step into the time machine and visit the early 19th century to learn how these phrases came about.

First, if you are American, you can take pride that both are true Americanisms (made in the USA!). The earliest recorded appearance of either phrase, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), is in the early 1800s. Specifically, “talking turkey” appears in 1824 referring to speaking affably or frankly: “So that, all things considered, I hope neither the Indian, whom the Yankey could not cheat in the division of their game (a turkey and a buzzard)… will accuse me of not talking turkey.” So how did turkeys getting linked with talking — especially since they gobble? Lexicographers surmise that when settlers and Native Americans went hunting for wild turkeys, at the end of the hunt, they had to divide the spoils. If one of the hunters said, “talk turkey for Indian,” that meant that the Native American received a turkey. (Certainly, the Native American did not want to hear the settler talking buzzard.) Another explanation for the phrase was that the settlers encountered Native Americans, they often asked about the supply of wild turkeys; that is to say, they came to “talk turkey.” Finally, turkeys, being social birds (running around in flocks), came to represent individuals engaged in conversation. Gobble! Gobble!

The use of “taking turkey” slowly changed in meaning from talking affably to talking plainly or directly. We see this use in Dialect Notes from 1903: “I’m going to talk turkey with him and see if I can’t get him to mend his ways.” Over a period of about two decades, a variant of “talking turkey” arose: “talking cold turkey.” To talk cold turkey meant getting straight to the point, without delay or mincing words. The Random House Dictionary of American Historical Slang cites this entry from 1920: “Now tell me on the square — can I get by with this for the wedding — don’t string me — tell me cold turkey.” And from a 1922 letter from American poet and journalist Carl Sandburg: “I’m going to talk cold turkey with booksellers about the hot gravy in the stories.” LOL — Sandburg talking turkey!

Shortly after, the meaning of cold turkey morphs into “stopping suddenly” and is applied to addictions. The OED cites an article in the Daily Colonist (Victoria, B.C., 1921) that states: “Perhaps the most pitiful figures who have appeared before Dr. Carleton Simon … are those who voluntarily surrender themselves. When they go before him, they [drug addicts] are given what is called the ‘cold turkey’ treatment.” Well, thank you very much for that etymological contribution Dr. Simon!

So now you can dazzle your guests by talking turkey at Thanksgiving dinner with this fascinating etymology of “talking turkey” and “cold turkey.” And can you please pass the gravy…

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There’s a Word for That: Lagniappe

alex atkins bookshelf wordsEver walk into a store and purchase something, and as you conclude your purchase, the merchant thanks you with a small gift? Perhaps you bought a pair of shoes, and you get a free pair of socks; or you walk into a See’s Candies shop and get a free candy after obtaining your chocolate fix (in addition to the free sample)? It happens to be a lovely unexpected gesture that has an equally lovely word: lagniappe. The word is pronounced “LAN yap,” derived from the South American Spanish phrase, la yapa or la ñapa, meaning “a free extra, but inexpensive, item” or “a little extra” — in other words, a small token of appreciation. The word was initially introduced in Louisiana, since it was once part of the Spanish Empire. However because the word’s spelling has been influenced by French, it is mistakenly considered a Cajun French or Louisiana Creole French word.

In America, the custom of lagniappe goes back to the mid to late 19th century when street merchants would give their customers a small gift with their purchase; for example, a vegetable vendor might give a customer a free bunch of cilantro or green chili peppers. Legendary American novelist and humorist Mark Twain was enamored with the word. In his popular book, Life on the Mississippi, published in 1883, Twain writes: “We picked up one excellent word — a word worth travelling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word — ‘lagniappe.’ They pronounce it lanny-yap. It is Spanish — so they said. We discovered it at the head of a column of odds and ends in the Picayune, the first day; heard twenty people use it the second; inquired what it meant the third; adopted it and got facility in swinging it the fourth. It has a restricted meaning, but I think the people spread it out a little when they choose. It is the equivalent of the thirteenth roll in a ‘baker’s dozen.’ It is something thrown in, gratis, for good measure. The custom originated in the Spanish quarter of the city. When a child or a servant buys something in a shop—or even the mayor or the governor, for aught I know — he finishes the operation by saying — “Give me something for lagniappe.” The shopman always responds; gives the child a bit of licorice-root, gives the servant a cheap cigar or a spool of thread, gives the governor — I don’t know what he gives the governor; support, likely.”

So the next time a merchant rewards you with a small token of appreciation, turn around and say, “Well, thank you kind sir (or madam) for the thoughtful lagniappe!” and watch the bewildered expression on their face. Priceless.

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There’s a Word for That: Galeanthropy

alex atkins bookshelf wordsEvery Halloween one will witness a predictable number of people, especially children, dressed as cats. Who hasn’t looked at a photo of a 4-year-old dressed as a kitty cat and purred “adorable?” However, all that adorableness flies (or jumps) out the window — and is replaced with deep concern — when a person harbors the delusion that he or she is a cat. Excluding the most dedicated feline cast members of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, the most well-known human cat is New York socialite, Jocelyn Wildenstein, affectionately known as “Catwoman” (and pejoratively known as “The Bride of Wildenstein”) due to the many cosmetic surgeries she has undergone to look like a cat. Google her — truly, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Naturally, the English language has a purr-fect word for this: galeanthropy which is defined as the mental condition of a person who believes that he or she is a cat and adopts feline habits and mannerisms (what one could call “cat-titude”). The word is derived from the Ancient Greek words galee (meaning “weasel”) and anthropos (meaning “humanity”). The word is pronounced “Ga lee AN thra pee.” So now, the cat is out of the bag, so to speak. Meow.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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Rare Words to Describe People

alex atkins bookshelf wordsWord lovers take delight in using rare words to describe everyday things and people. The more arcane, the better. This was the inspiration for lexicographer David Grambs dictionary of rare and unusual words for people, titled Dimboxes, Edopts, and Other Quidams: Words to Describe Life’s Indescribable People. Grambs dusted off some old dictionaries and word books from the 1800s to find some fascinating specimens for his “bestiary of people words.” In chapter ten, Grambs list some very rare words for troublemakers (annoyers, meddler, intruders, upstarts, and bores):

agitprop: a vociferous propagandistic agitator, particularly now with leftist or Marxist sympathies.

ami de cour: (from the French, meaning “friend at court”) a fair-weather friend; an insincere friend.

bashi-bazouk: an out-of-control, undisciplined person who is oblivious to laws; a wild person.

bitter-ender: a very stubborn person who refuses to compromise or apologize.

blateroon: a chatterbox.

crosspatch: a person who is disagreeable and ill-natured.

Dogberry: (derived from a character from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing) a smug official who is dumb and inept.

marplot: a person who interferes, well-meaning or not, and ruins things.

mauvais sujet: (from the French, meaning “bad subject”) a thoroughly untrustworthy person

quidnunc: a gossip and newsmonger.

scattergood: a person who wastes time or money (or both).

smell-feast: a person who invites himself to a meal.

stormy petrel: a person who instigates a fight or an argument.

Once you learn them, you can start dropping these words into your conversations or texts and enjoy the reactions.

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Adventures in Rhetoric: Homeoteleuton

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIf you listen to music and pay attention to the lyrics, it is very likely that you have heard plenty of homeoteleutons. Say what? Containing six syllables, the word is certainly a mouthful. A homeoteleuton (pronounced “ho me oh TEL yuh ton”) is a near rhyme, also known as a half rhyme or an imperfect rhyme. Homeoteleutons are especially prevalent in rap music. For example, take a look at this lyric from Rakim’s “I Know You Got Soul”: “When I’m writing I’m trapped in between the line, / I escape when I finish the rhyme.” Line. Rhyme. Really close — but not a perfect rhyme. In the world of hip-hop music, a near rhyme is referred to as slant rhyme. In his song “Respiration,” rapper Mos Def rhymes the following words: narcotic-optics and watches-colossus. Clever.

Incidentally, the word homeotelueton was introduced by Aristotle, the greatest hip thought artist of Ancient Greece. Word. In his influential work, Rhetoric, Aristotle provided the primary meaning: the use of word-endings that are similar (or the same). The word is derived from the Greek word homoioteleuton which means “like ending.” Aristotle also included samples, which are um… all Greek to me. But here are some examples in English (emphasis added to word-endings):

Abraham Lincoln (Gettysburg Address): “But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow, this ground.”

William Shakespeare (The Two Gentlemen of Verona): “[My] mother weeping, my father wailing, my sister crying, our maid howling, our cat wringing her hands.”

Since the secondary meaning has already been discussed in the opening paragraph, let us now turn to the third meaning. A homeoteleuton is an error introduced by a scribe while transcribing a frequently reproduced book, like the Bible. For example, the Old Testament contains several textual errors (missing words or sentences) that scribes made while they were making copies of the Good Book. These errors have existed for hundreds of years until biblical scholars found the missing words or sentences in the Dead Sea scrolls discovered in the late 1940s.

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Imagine if Your Parents Named You Marijuana Pepsi

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIn late June 2019, a 46-year-old African-American woman graduated from Cardinal Stritch University Wisconsin, earning a doctorate in higher education leadership. Her doctoral dissertation, titled “Black Names in White Classrooms: Teacher Behaviors and Student Perceptions,” analyzed the impact of nontraditional names on academic achievement. However, neither of these things was what caught the attention of the media — rather it was her incredibly unusual and memorable name: Marijuana Pepsi Vandyck (née Jackson).

I know what you are thinking — why in the world would parents name their daughter after a mind-altering plant and a carbonated sugary soda? In her hometown of Beloit, Wisconsin several rumors arose to explain the incredible moniker. One rumor was that her parents were smoking pot and drinking Pepsi when she was conceived. Given the time period, the post-Woodstock/Summer of Love era, that scenario was very plausible. Nevertheless, it was her mother, Maggie Jackson, who came up with the name, even though her father, Aaron Jackson, objected. Vandyck explains: “She said that she knew when I was born that you could take this name and go around the world with it. At the time as a child, I’m thinking ‘yeah, right — you named my older sister Kimberly. You named my younger sister Robin.'” Vandyck’s aunt, Mayetta Jackson, remembers when Maggie picked the unusual name back in 1972 during the hippie era, when smoking a joint was as common as… well, drinking a Pepsi. Mayetta added, “[After smoking weed, Aaron and Maggie] would cool off with a Pepsi. I thought it was crazy, but they were fun-loving people that it suited them.” Interestingly, it was in late 1971, that Coke introduced one of the most memorable commercials featuring one of the most famous jingles of all time: young people gathering on the top of a hill singing “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” Perhaps it was a good thing that the Jacksons were not influenced by this, otherwise their daughter would have been named Marijuana Coke, which sounds more like two psychotropic drugs rather than a drug and a soft drink.

As you can imagine, it wasn’t easy for a little girl growing up with an unusual name like that. She recall relentless teasing during her school-age years. During her junior high school days, Vandyck dreaded roll call: “Every single class, the teacher is taking attendance out loud, and as they slowly get down through the J’s, I’m just like here it comes. ‘Marianna? Marijuana?’ And all the students turn to see who it is.” By the time she reached high school, her peers’ attitude about her name shifted — they thought it was cool. Vandyck explains: “They were like, ‘Oh yeah. Man, I wish I had your name. I love that. I’m going to name my kid after you.’ I hear that so much and I go, Lord, please don’t do that to that child.”

But despite the obstacles that her name presented, insisted on being called by her birth name: Marijuana, eschewing more common variations like Mary or Mary Jane. One of her high school teachers told the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel: “They could make a movie about her. I could almost write a book on Marijuana myself in terms of a young student who’s been so resilient and taken even her name and made it into a positive… She’s exactly what any kid in America needs to know about someone who can truly make it if they put their mind to it.” And that’s exactly what she did with her career: she wanted to share her own life struggles and eventual success in order to inspire students. Her doctoral dissertation, in fact, analyzes how black students with unique names are treated by educators in predominantly white settings and how this treatment impacts their academic performance. Specifically, Vandyck found that students “with distinctly black names” were subject to stereotypes, disrespect, and low academic expectations. This in turn led lower self-esteem, career choices, and ultimately fewer educational and career opportunities for students of color.

In an interview with NPR, Vandyck shares her optimistic perspective on life: “”It’s what you do after you recognize that you have this feeling about [having a nontraditional name]. And it’s what you act on from that point on. That’s the most important part…. We can’t always go through life-changing things to make other people happy … and I had to learn that early on.”

Ironically, Marijuana Pepsi has never smoked marijuana and her choice of beverage is orange soda.

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For further reading: http://archive.jsonline.com/news/milwaukee/40874017.html
http://www.npr.org/2019/06/21/734839666/dr-marijuana-pepsi-wont-change-her-name-to-make-other-people-happy


There’s a Word for That: Euneirophrenia

alex atkins bookshelf wordsAlthough it sounds like a dreadful mental illness, euneirophrenia is actually a very wonderful, desirable condition, although the word is not found in most authoritative dictionaries. Euneirophrenia is the calm and content mood that a person experiences after having a relaxing night’s sleep and waking from a pleasant dream. The word is formed from the Greek words eu (meaning “good”); oneiro (meaning “dream”); and phrenia (meaning “state of mind”). The word is pronounced “you ne row FREE nee ah.”

The opposite of euneirophrenia is malneirophrenia, defined as the grumpy mood a person experiences after lack of sufficient sleep or a restless night’s sleep or having nightmares — also referred to as “waking up on the wrong side of the bed.” Incidentally, this phrase comes from a superstition held by the ancient Romans who believed that it was bad luck to get out of bed from the left side (the “wrong” side), as opposed to the right side.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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There’s a Word for That: Deipnosophist
There’s a Word for That: Pareidolia
There’s a Word for That: Macroverbumsciolist
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