Funny words are par for the course


As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, May 20, 2018.

I was watching golf on television when my daughter, age 8 or 9 at the time, asked me what “par” meant.

I understood her bafflement. As a family, we had only played at courses with windmills and waterfalls; shooting par wasn’t our concern at Mulligan’s Island or Adventureland.

So, on this day, I told Julie the term denotes the number of strokes a good golfer is expected to use to sink his or her ball on any given hole. And, being a word nerd, I wondered where par came from. A quick search at the then-new etymonline.com revealed that it’s Latin for “equal,” which makes sense. When you par a hole, you equal the expected score.

Par isn’t the only peculiar term you’ll hear on PGA broadcasts. In the early 20th century, “bird” was slang for anything excellent. Hence, holing your ball at one stroke below par became known as a birdie. Keeping with the avian theme, an eagle means you beat par by two strokes, and shooting three under par on a hole is known as an albatross. The rare seabird is an apt symbol for a rare score.

Tennis serves up its share of quirky words. “Love” is the one that stands out, but it has nothing to do with romance. Rather, it means zero, as in “Rafael Nadal is up 40-love.” A popular, but unproven, etymological theory is that love is an Anglicization of the French word “l’oeuf,” which means egg, owing to an egg’s resemblance to a zero.

Baseball is in a league of its own when it comes to lingo. The uncovered seats out beyond the outfield are called bleachers because, in the late 1800s, these seats were simple board benches that got bleached by the sun. Spectators there hope to catch a ball when a batter “goes yard” and hits a home run.

If a left-hander is on the mound, we might refer to him as a “southpaw.” I like the etymological explanation that says the word was coined because baseball diamonds typically oriented home plate to the west. That meant a pitcher’s left hand (or paw) would be to the south when facing a batter. However, the term is found in earlier references to boxing, where the ring’s orientation has no relation to the sun (and a pugilist’s haymaker may leave his foe seeing stars).

Former Red Sox southpaw Bill Lee sometimes threw an Eephus pitch, which is a low-speed, high-arching junk toss designed to catch hitters off guard. The irreverent hurler’s version of the pitch, dubbed a “Leephus,” didn’t fool Tony Perez in Game 7 of the 1975 World Series. The Cincinnati slugger smashed a dinger over the Green Monster, and the Reds went on to win the game and the championship. For years afterward, Lee quipped that the ball “is still rising.”

When benches clear for a baseball brawl, it may be called a “donnybrook,” a word that derives from a so-named suburb of Dublin, Ireland. In the 19th century, an annual fair in the town was known for such rowdiness; it was said that those gathered would sooner fight than eat. Bill Lee found himself in the middle of a donnybrook with the Yankees in 1976 and paid the price: torn ligaments in his pitching arm.

Umpires had tried, futilely, to intercede in the Sox-Yankees rhubarb (a synonym of donnybrook, with “barbarism” in its linguistic DNA). The word “umpire” is related to the Old French “nompere,” which means without peer or equal. The men in blue are certainly not the equals of the players; they always have the last say.

But try telling that to the fans (likely short for “fanatics”) in the bleachers. When they disagree with an umpire, they generally have another word for him: “bum” or “idiot,” if not something a lot more colorful.

On a sunny day at Fenway, that’s just par for the course.


What Lost Luggage Led Me To Find


My son’s luggage got lost at O’Hare International Airport last weekend. It’s still missing in action, to his extreme annoyance.

As I texted him for an update, the lug in luggage leapt out at me. Did the two words share etymological DNA?

Sure enough, at etymonline.com, I found that luggage derives from the late 14th-century lug, meaning “to move (something) heavily or slowly.” Even better, lug derives from the Swedish lugga and Norwegian lugge, “to pull by the hair.” Ouch.

Luggage emerged about a hundred years later, meaning “what has to be lugged about.” By the 20th century, it referred to “baggage belonging to passengers.”

True to lug’s Scandinavian roots, my son will be pulling his hair out if his bag doesn’t show up at his doorstep soon. What a drag.

In the meantime, I have newfound respect for the word luggage. I love words that tell a good story.

I’ll never call it a suitcase again.

The Mystery and Magic of a Made-up Word


I was thrilled to hear that the Providence Journal wanted to publish my piece about wishing for a snowy Super Bowl.

But there was one glitch.

“Muckle?” Ed Achorn asked me on the phone. Ed is the Editorial Pages Editor at the Journal. “It’s not in the dictionary,” he said.

I laughed. I knew “muckle” wasn’t in the dictionary. I had looked it up, too. But that didn’t stop me. In my description of how my friends and I loved to play football in the snow as kids, I had left “muckle” in:

“We would hike up to the fields at La Salle Academy or Mount Pleasant High School, mark the end zones with our coats, and muckle each other until our cheeks and fingers were numb.”

I explained to Ed that “muckle” was the word we used when we really wanted to hammer the guy with the ball. Muckling was tackling and then some. Muckling could land you in the ER.

I offered to re-write the sentence, but Ed had a better idea. He simply referenced in parentheses that “muckle” was a “kid verb denoting violent tackling.” I’m glad he did. The piece had 570 words, but none hit home more than “muckle.”

A retired Providence firefighter emailed me: “Muckle,” he wrote. “When I saw that word, my face broke into a broad smile.” He told me how he had played football in the snow at Neutaconkanut Park in the Silver Lake section of Providence.

Perhaps “muckle” was a local colloquialism, I thought. Then another emailed arrived: “I found myself transported back 45 years to Lindell Lot in St. Louis where there was plenty of mucklin’ going on in the early 70s.”

So muckling wasn’t regional. Turns out it wasn’t exclusive to football, either. A good friend told me how a girl muckled him behind a dumpster when he was in 4th grade. Sounded better than getting muckled on the gridiron.

If “muckle” were in the dictionary, what would its etymology be? Maybe a combination of muscle and tackle. Or mug and tackle. Or mud and knuckle. Or muck and kill. That seems about right, especially in bad weather.

I gave my son, Evan, the backstory on “muckle” before he read the column. He texted me later: “Had you not said that, I would still 100% understand the usage.”

High praise for a word, especially one you won’t find in the dictionary.

With thanks to Ed Achorn of The Providence Journal.

Word Games: The Language Of Sport

I love sports – and the words that games give us.

My daughter asked what “par” means the other day. I told her it’s a golf term that refers to the number of strokes a good player is expected to use to sink his or her ball on any given hole. The more interesting question followed: where does the word come from?

Par is Latin for equal. When you par a hole, you equal the expected score. Use fewer strokes and you’re under par; use more and you’re over par. Par first appeared as a golfing reference in 1898. The figure of speech “par for the course” dates back to 1928.

Love is a tennis term: Federer is up, 40-love. In the tennis sense, love has nothing to do with romance; it means zero. A popular theory is that it’s an anglicization (i.e., Englishification) of the French word l’oeuf, which means “egg”. Of course: an egg’s shape resembles a zero. Leave it to the French to get a food reference into sports parlance – and then abandon it when everyone else follows suit. They now use “zéro” instead. Incroyable!

In baseball, the bleachers are the uncovered seats out beyond the outfield, where sunscreen, binoculars, and cold beer are the order of the day. The term appears in 1889, when these seats were simple board benches that got bleached by the sun.

Southpaw is baseball slang for a left-hander. I like the etymological explanation that the word was coined when baseball diamonds typically had home plate oriented to the west. That meant a pitcher’s left hand (or paw) would be to the south when facing a batter. However, the term is found in earlier references from boxing. So much for pastoral roots.

Umpire is the odd-looking word for an official who arbitrates between two teams in a sporting match. It derives from the French nonper – non “not” + per “equal”. Umpires are not the equals of the players; they always have the last say.

When fans in the bleachers disagree with an umpire, they may call him another name: “bum” or “idiot” or something more colorful and fricative.

Which, on a sunny day at Fenway, is par for the course.

When Two Words Become One: The Economy And Wit Of Portmanteaus



On my way to brunch last Sunday, I saw a cockapoo and had to chortle. Not at the dog, but at the word: cockapoo?

It’s a portmanteau, a word that blends parts of two or more words to create a new one. Did you catch the three portmanteaus in my first paragraph? Cockapoo combines cocker spaniel and poodle. Brunch is a mash-up of breakfast and lunch. Chortle mixes chuckle and snort.

Portmanteau is the French word for a large traveling case that opens into two equal compartments. The word derives from porter (to carry) + manteau (cloak). Lewis Carroll coined portmanteau as a linguistic term to describe the blended words he created in Through The Looking GlassThese words have “two meanings packed up into one word.” Examples include slithy (slimy + lithe), galumph (gallop + triumph), and mimsy (miserable + flimsy).

If Carroll is the father of portmanteaus, James Joyce is the master. His novels Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are filled with them – saddenly (sad + suddenly), shim (she + him), individuone (individual + one), pornosophical (pornographic + philosophical) …

Portmanteaus are inventive and useful. They allow us to describe our world with accuracy, economy, and wit:

> advertorial (advertising + editorial)

> blog (web + log)

> Bridezilla (bride + Godzilla)

> Chunnel (channel + tunnel)

> guesstimate (guess + estimate)

> pixel (picture + element)

> slurve (slider + curve)

> smog (smoke + fog)

At the Walsh house, we have our favorite portmanteaus. Bromance (brothers + romance) describes the affection that our sons have for one another. Vork (veal + pork) is what I often serve for dinner on Sundays – cutlets that look like veal but are actually made from pounded pork medallions. Guydea (guy + idea) indicates the thinking of a man who decides to take on an ambitious do-it-yourself project at the most inopportune time, i.e., rewiring the dining room chandelier hours before guests arrive on Thanksgiving Day.

My wife, Deb, gets the credit for guydea, though I don’t know where her inspiration came from. I’m a reluctant DIY-er at best, and avoid re-wiring at all costs.

Especially after that Thanksgiving.

Do you have a favorite portmanteau? One you invented? Please share in the comments below.

When Words Do A 180: The Story Behind “Scan”

Look up the word “scan” at dictionary.com and the first two definitions may confuse you:

1. to glance at or over or read hastily: to scan a page.

2. to examine the particulars or points of minutely; scrutinize.

One word with diametrical meanings – what’s up with that?

The word “scan” is derived from the Latin “scandere”, which means “to climb” and relates to the rising and falling rhythm of poetry. By the late 14th century, the word had the specific meaning of “marking off verse in metric feet.” I remember scanning Shakespeare’s sonnets in high school English, deconstructing each line, syllable by syllable.

In the 16th century, however, the sense of the word began to broaden. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, people started using it to describe “looking over the surface of something” without examining every detail. Which brings us to today, when most of us would say that scanning something means to look it over quickly, e.g., “I scanned the homepage to get the news.”

Word meanings evolve slowly. It wasn’t until 1969 that 85 percent of the Usage Panel at the American Heritage Dictionary found the broader meaning of “scan” acceptable, though the panel noted (with a tap of its red pencil) that this was less formal usage.

When I go to Stop & Shop these days, I scan the UPC codes on the products I buy. UPC stands for Universal Product Code, though I find that ironic since each UPC is unique. As I stand in aisle 7, scanning the parade of black bars and white spaces on my box of vermicelli, both meanings of “scan” apply. The scanner’s laser reads every barcode particular, and then in an instant – beep! – the information is absorbed. Scrutiny and speed, all at once, in a nice modern-day mashup.

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