Jewish World Review Feb. 17, 2004 / 25 Shevat, 5764
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
"Dunce''; titles "Mr.'' and "Mrs.''; "under the weather''
D.S., Missoula, Mont.
We are mercifully far removed from the days of dunce caps in classrooms, but the word "dunce'' remains alive and well in our language.
First appearing in English in the l6th century, "dunce'' derives from the name of one of the most influential philosophers of the Middle Ages, John Duns Scotus.
However, this should not be taken to mean that Duns Scotus suffered from the kind of slow-wittedness traditionally associated with the word. Duns Scotus was, in fact, long considered a luminary of theological and metaphysical thought; among his many speculations was the classical defense of the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.
The writings of Duns Scotus continued to carry profound influence in the centuries after his death in the early 1300s, only to meet staunch criticism and ridicule at the time of the Protestant Reformation. The word "Duns'' (later "dunce''), taken from the town in Scotland in which he was born, was adopted as a term of obloquy to refer to one who is guilty of erroneous or fallacious reasoning, and soon expanded to include our modern application of the word.
Where do we get the titles "Mr.'' and "Mrs.'' from?
P.W., Lakewood, Ind.
The short answer is "tradition.'' Since at least the 15th century, folks have been using "Mister'' as a courtesy title before a man's surname. The title originated as an abbreviation for "maister,'' the Middle English word for "master.''
The earliest known uses of the abbreviation "Mr.'' occurred in the mid-16th century. Its feminine counterpart, "Mrs.,'' dates to the early 17th century. "Mrs.'' is an abbreviation of "mistress.'' Unlike "Mr.,'' "Mrs.'' indicates both the sex and marital status of the person being addressed.
A few years after the abbreviation "Mrs.'' appeared, "mistress'' was again shortened, this time to create "miss.'' We now use "Miss'' as a title for an unmarried woman or girl, but in its earliest (lowercase) uses "miss'' referred to either a so-called "kept woman'' - that is, a married man's mistress - or to a prostitute. Its use as a title dates from the second half of the 17th century.
The youngest of the courtesy titles is "Ms.,'' a blend of "Mrs.'' and "Miss'' that is used when a woman's marital status isn't known or is irrelevant. Although it didn't appear in print until 1949 (and some traditionalists still sniff at it), the Oxford English Dictionary notes that at least one 18th-century writer wished such a title existed back then. Although "Ms.'' is not a true abbreviation, it is still usually written with a final period.
Whenever my aunt gets a cold, she says that she is feeling "under the weather.'' I'm curious about the origin of this phrase. Is it British?
P.D., Saint Clair, Mich.
The phrase "under the weather'' is actually an American expression dating all the way back to 1850. Though it was once considered slang, the phrase now appears often in ordinary or even fairly formal contexts with the meaning "somewhat ill.'' Why the word "weather'' is used this way is not entirely clear. The expression may derive from the sense of the adjective "under'' meaning "lower than usual, proper, or desired'' (as in "under par'') and the sense of "weather'' meaning "state of life or fortune.''
We usually use the expression to convey the idea that someone is not seriously ill but simply recovering from a minor ailment. Over time the expression has also come to be used as a euphemism for drunkenness. George Orwell wrote in his novel "Coming Up for Air,'' "By closing time they were both so boozed that I had to take them home in a taxi, and I was a bit under the weather myself, and the next morning I woke up with a worse head than ever.''
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