Thursday, February 28, 2008

Wordmall Blog

Monday, February 18, 2008


Ed from Alden, Michigan, called during Tuesday’s show to ask where the word snitch--meaning an informant--came from. In my misbegotten youth, we used it the same way, but we also used it in the sense to steal something. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a confirming citation from the N.Y. Times, 6 June 1904, 9: “They reached Coney Island by snitching rides.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to the informant who turns state’s evidence against a confrere, the OED slaps on the obscure origin label. But I think we can pick out some tight connections even if we can’t sniff out the origin.

Snitch started life meaning a fillip on the nose. An early citation is Elisha Coles, An English Dictionary, 1676: “Snitch . . . a fillip.” It might be a good idea to define fillip at this point: “A movement made by bending the last joint of a finger against the thumb and suddenly releasing it (so as to propel some small object, or merely as a gesture); a smart stroke or tap given by this means.” [OED]

By 1700, snitch meant the nose itself. B.E., Gentleman, A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew: “Snite his Snitch, Wipe his Nose, or give him a good Flap on the Face.”

By 1785, we have arrived at snitch, an informer who turns King’s or Queen’s evidence. It is thus defined in Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

So we see a straight line of development from a fillip on the nose to an informant. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the word nose itself had a related slang meaning: “a spy or informer, especially for the police” [OED]. Francis Grose defines it that way in his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue [1785].

So this much is clear: snitch and nose were synonyms, and both shared the slang meaning of an informant. I notice that the phrase “to thrust one’s nose into someone else’s business” has a citation dating back to 1611. I have no direct proof, but making a connection between that and the word snitch does not seem to stretch things beyond credulity.

If you liked this, there's lots more at:

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Keeping the V in UVSC

Note: I just posted a very similar article on my blog but I thought it was apropos to our continuing discussion of language and culture.

For five years now UVSC's Gender Studies Club has been putting on Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues as part of their V Day programming. And for five years the controversy often gets more of the spotlight than the production itself.

Organizers of the event, which always donates 100 percent of their profits to charity, usually have to put up with some form of grief; from their posters getting torn down, to the school refusing to use the "V" word, to outright hostility from legislators. And of course this year is no exception:

You hate the one about the moans, don't you (College Times, February 18 2008)

It is amazing that after five years that this production still stirs up the pot. For those of you who are not familiar with the production, The Vagina Monologues is a series of...well...monologues in which women talk about their experiences as women. Nothing is left out. Masturbation, menstruation, rape, physical abuse, psychological abuse...all the joys and the horrors of being a women are all there in black and white (OK...usually it is in black and pink feather boas, but you get the idea).

The subject matter is often shocking and the language is strong but I don't believe it is the intention to offend. Instead these "charged" words are to cause the audience to lower their guard just a think about things that all of us, men and women alike, are told are dirty and wrong. To confront these notions in a forum where "anything goes".

It is always a powerful experience. If you are planning on attending expect to laugh until your sides hurt and cry like a baby. February 26th at 7 PM in the Ragan Theater.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

I Didn't Say You Stole My Money


This sentence is interesting in that if you say the sentence seven times, each time placing the emphasis on a different word, the meaning of the sentence shifts.

Try it…

  1. I Didn’t Say You Stole My Money.
  2. I Didn’t Say You Stole My Money.
  3. I Didn’t Say You Stole My Money.
  4. I Didn’t Say You Stole My Money.
  5. I Didn’t Say You Stole My Money.
  6. I Didn’t Say You Stole My Money.
  7. I Didn’t Say You Stole My Money.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Saturday, February 9, 2008

This nose can't smell a PR snafu

There's an ongoing brouhaha in Bangkok over the sign language word for the new Prime Minister, Samak Sundarawej. The new PM, who was officially voted in this past Monday, has complained that Thai sign language interpreters refer to him by touching their nose with a cupped hand. On Thai TV several channels show a little box translating their programs into sign language, particularly during news and talk shows. The man's a little sensitive about the size of his schnozz.

Pundits have been duking it out in the media for more than a week now. The interpreters say that the sign isn't new--they've been using this sign for Samak for a long time now. Samak was previously the governor of Bangkok from 2000-2003, and has been a prominent and controversial political figure since he led the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1970s, and used U.S. involvement in the Middle East to justify Bloody May in 1992. He's no stranger to being in the news.

Right now I'm sitting here watching a Thai news talk show, and they've got a whole panel of sign language interpreters and deaf Thais on to talk about this. They're pointing out that they make up signs for public figures based on prominent physical features. Samak's nose isn't being picked on (sorry, I couldn't resist).

Their explanation makes good sense to me. But known for his sharp tongue and thin skin, it stands to be seen when or if Samak will give up this fight. It's getting a lot of press worldwide, and making rounds on the "weird news" websites. Samak has inadvertently discovered that the Streisand effect applies to more than just the internet.

I wonder if he'll do anything about his nickname among the general Thai populace, 'rose-apple nose' ...

[Cross-posted on Thai 101.]

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The semiotics of campaign buttons

By Knute Berger I've been fascinated with presidential campaign buttons all my life — or at least since I was a tyke who ran through the house wearing an Eisenhower flasher hollering "I yike Ike!" in 1956, a campaign junky at age 3. Every four years, I find myself scrutinizing TV coverage of campaign victory (and concession) parties to see how the faithful are expressing their political passions on their blouses and lapels.

One type of button can tell you a lot about the candidate and their supporters: It's the genre of pin that features the candidate and a picture of a famous predecessor or other historical figure. Pictures of presidential aspirants are often paired with the likes of Washington, Jefferson, one of the Roosevelts, or John F. Kennedy. It's all just to help you see them in the glorious glow cast by the great men of history.


"I love you period. And do you love me question mark?"

Alex and I were talking about how much we love punctuation the other day...(We are both big fans of ellipses and parenthesis by the way). I mentioned a song I knew by Dan Baird (Lead singer of The Georgia Satellites) about a kid in grade school who writes his teacher a love letter, and how she returns it to him with the punctuation corrected. It is a funny song for all you word nerds out there.

Lyrics to I Love You Period.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Memory and Language

There was an awesome 'language scraps' worthy experience that I had today. In our Freud and Philosophy class with Shannon Mussett, we were talking about Freud's ideas about "infantile amnesia". Shannon was saying that Freud talks about how we have virtually no memory from early childhood, that it is very strange and we really aren't sure why this happens. Much of our early childhood experiences are forgotten/repressed. And then Shannon said something along the lines of: "And then later, people started saying that language was definitely tied to memory and Freud said 'oh yeah...huh!?'...". It was pretty incredible. I really miss our language class, lectures, and discussions.