Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

 

In bygone days, an essential part of a wandering peddlers’ business was the buying and selling of old gold. To test the value of gold, the peddler would file a shallow groove in that item and touch it with nitric acid. Color reactions from the acid would reveal the approximate gold content.. This procedure was called the acid test; and by extension, any exacting method designed to reveal hidden flaws is now known by this term.

In long-ago England, gold was appraised at a building named the Goldsmiths’ Hall. If the gold content was acceptable, the gold was stamped with a seal known as a hallmark. That’s why today any mark, object or action denoting quality and excellence is termed a hallmark.

Another golden word is touchstone, a standard whose meaning goes straight back to goldsmiths and the hard stones they kept in their shops. When a customer brought in some gold, the goldsmith would rub it against the touchstone, usually composed of jasper or basalt, With his practiced eye, the goldsmith could determine from the streak left on the stone the purity and quality of the gold.

To the ledger of words once reserved for business alone we can add a number of verbal products now shared in our common language:

  • cut and dried. Certain herbs sold in herbalists’ shops were prepared ahead of time and thus lacked the freshness of herbs newly picked. Since the early eighteenth century these herbs have been labeled cut and dried. It’s easy to see how that phrase came to signify anything boring and lacking in spontaneity.

 

  • The phrase dead as a doornail harks back to the 14th century. What’s so dead about a doornail? To find out, we must look back through the centuries to the craft of carpentry. Long-ago carpenters would drive big-headed metal nails into the heavy studs surrounding doors to strengthen or beautify them. Because metal nails were then scarce and precious, the carpenters would hook the tip of the nail back to “clinch” the nail (as we clinch a deal). The nail was “dead,” meaning “fixed, rigid, immovable,” as in deadline and deadlock. It didn’t take long for the pun on “ immovable” and “not alive” to become clinched in our language, as in the opening of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol: “Old Marley was dead, dead as a doornail.”

 

  • Commercial life in medieval times was organized by guilds and crafts. An English apprentice who wished to be recognized as a master, with the right to work without supervision, was required to submit some article of metal, wood, stone or leather. The quality of the work determined the artisan’s future, and it came to be known as a master piece.

 

  • When people say they feel they’ve been put through the mill, they echo a metaphor from the trade of milling. Grain fed to the jaws of a millstone (now “a crushing burden”) is subjected to heavy and thorough grinding. By figurative extension, any person receiving rough treatment is said to be put through the mill.

 

  • out of whack. I’ll bet you’ve wondered what the heck is the whack that  something is out of  Wonder no more. The most likely source is the auctioneer’s hammer, which, when whacked, signals the conclusion of a competitive purchase. Without that final whack, all is discombobulated, catawampus — “out of whack.”

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On Saturday, September 8, 4-5:30 pm, I’ll be presenting my just-published book, The Joy of Names at our Central Library, 330 Park Boulelvard, first floor, Clark Conference Center. I’d love to meet you there.

On Friday, September 7, 12 noon-2pm, I’ll be signing at La Mesa Barnes & Noble, 5500 Grossmont Center Drive, Ste. 331, and on Sunday, September 10, 2-4 pm, at the Mira Mesa Barnes & Noble, 10775 Westview Parkway.