Jewish World Review May 6, 2004 / 15 Iyar, 5764
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
'Historic' v. 'historical'; 'prestigious' = 'trickery'?; 'can of corn' as sports phrase
Is there a rule about when to use ``historic'' and when to use ``historical''? I'm never sure if I'm using the right one.
G.R., Portland, Maine
``Historic'' and ``historical'' are simply variants, although over the course of two or three hundred years of use they have developed some differences in usage. ``Historical'' is the usual choice for the broad and general uses relating to history, such as ``a historical survey of the United States military'' or ``a historical novel.'' ``Historic'' is most commonly used for something famous or important in history, as in ``a historic event'' or ``a historic home.''
But the differentiation between the two words is not complete. ``Historic'' still crops up in the general sense, as in ``objects of little historic significance.'' And ``historical'' can mean ``important in history,'' although this sense does not appear to be very widely used any more.
I was looking at the entry for the word ``prestigious'' in my copy of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, and I noticed that the first sense, labeled ``archaic,'' is defined as ``of, relating to, or marked by illusion, conjuring, or trickery.'' I've never heard of that meaning of the word. Is it related to the one I'm familiar with: ``having prestige; honored''?
A.K., Portland, Ore.
The archaic sense of ``prestigious'' has been rarely seen since the late 19th century, so it's no surprise that is sounds unfamiliar to modern English speakers like you. As a glance at the development of the root word ``prestige'' shows, however, the archaic sense is in fact related to the modern sense of the word.
The Latin verb ``praestringere,'' meaning ``to bind fast'' and later ``to blind,'' gave rise to the noun ``praestigiae,'' meaning ``illusions, juggler's tricks, feats of legerdemain,'' from the notion that these blind the eyes to reality. In Late Latin this noun became ``praestigium,'' which was taken into 16th-century French as ``prestige.''
The word's first appearance in English was in a 1656 glossary of ``hard words'' compiled by Thomas Blount, who defined ``prestiges'' as ``deceits, impostures, delusions, cousening (cozening) tricks.'' It is this sense, of course, that gave rise to the archaic sense of ``prestigious.'' While the ``deceit'' sense of ``prestige'' has itself become archaic, an extended sense of ``influence, esteem, or honor'' arose in the early 19th century to become the predominant use of ``prestige'' today, and the source of the current sense of ``prestigious.'' The link between the senses may lie in the presumed power of prestige to blind people to the real merits and faults of those who possess it.
I've heard several sports commentators use the phrase ``can of corn.'' I believe it has a positive connotation, but I'm not sure what it means. Does it just apply to sports (in particular, baseball)?
L.T., Lyndhurst, N.J.
``Can of corn'' is a phrase out of baseball's past, still occasionally used by sportscasters who like its appealingly old-fashioned quality. A batter will hit a high fly ball, and as an outfielder settles into position under it, waiting to make an easy catch, the announcer will say something like ``That's a can of corn for (the fielder).'' The phrase ``can of corn'' simply denotes a high fly that's easily caught. (If the catch is a piece of cake, the fly ball is a can of corn.)
Several explanations have been offered for the origin of ``can of corn.'' The most popular theory traces it back to old-style grocery stores, where canned goods kept on high shelves were retrieved by being tipped over with a long pole and caught in the grocer's hands or apron. Other theories suggest a possible connection with popcorn or with the phrase ``as easy as taking corn out of a can.''
Although ``can of corn'' has been used in baseball for many years, it shows no evidence of acquiring more widespread use outside of the sports world.
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