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Jewish World Review May 6, 2004 / 15 Iyar, 5764

Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
Dictionary, Tenth Edition

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'Historic' v. 'historical'; 'prestigious' = 'trickery'?; 'can of corn' as sports phrase | Dear Editor:

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

Dear G.R.:

``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.

Dear Editor:

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.

Dear A.K.:

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.

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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.

Dear Editor:

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.

Dear L.T.:

``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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04/27/04: Derivation of 'bozo'; 'elt'; 'spill the beans'
04/21/04: Meaning of "budget'' in the word "fussbudget''; "bleeding hearts''; "skycap''
04/01/04: "Thin red line''; "doak"; "level playing field"
03/22/04: "King Canute"; "vodka"; "Cheese it. The cops!''
03/16/04: "Carrot and stick''; "hue and cry''; Where did the term "flea market'' originate?
03/09/04: Going "haywire"; "close, but no cigar"; "mahatma"
03/01/04: "Roundheel'' and "well-heeled''; "milquetoast"; "sick as a dog''
02/26/04: "Charley horse"; "`Foolproof''; "cracker-barrel''
02/17/04: "Dunce''; titles "Mr.'' and "Mrs.''; "under the weather''
02/10/04: "Turnpike''; "dead reckoning''
02/02/04: "Mutt"; "lobby" in its political sense; "procrustean bed"
01/27/04: "Decimate"; "duende"; a dessert "junket"?
01/14/04: Is "MacGuffin" related to all the "Mac" and "Mc" words we've been hearing about recently?; "afghans" and "Afghans"; "since Hector was a pup"
01/09/04: Confused about the word "hearsay"; "Burgle"; "waiting in line" or "waiting on line"?
12/31/03: The past tense of "plead''; Is "old adage'' redundant?; Where did "lounge lizard'' come from?
12/15/03: "Ostracize" and "oyster''?; Where does the "mentor'' come from?; "jeopard''
12/02/03: "Karats'' and "carats'' — meaning of and difference between; why apostrophe in "'cello''?; "hell-bent for leather''
11/18/03: "Hoosegow,''; why the little finger is called the "`pinkie''; difference between "lady'' and "dame''
11/13/03: 'Take it on the lam'; 'decorum'; 'you look like the wreck of the Hesperus'
11/03/03: Origin of "hypnosis"/"hypnotism"; "all right" or "alright"; emote
10/28/03: "Blue plate special"; how to use "hoi polloi''; "Peck's Bad Boy''
10/20/03: Who was the person the artist who first used "silhouette" as an art form?; why are they called migraine headaches?; origin of "keep one's shirt on"
10/13/03: "Grey'' in "greyhound'' has nothing to do with the color?; "at loggerheads''
09/29/03: Where does the word "karaoke" comes from?; people or persons?; "synecdoche"
09/23/03: Using "eke'' correctly; fedora; why do we call an especially flattering biography a "hagiography''?
09/10/03: Why do we call a zero score in tennis "love''?; "biannual'' or "semiannual''?; Is there any difference between "further'' and "farther''?; dilemma of using "dilemma''
09/02/03: "Out loud'' rather than "aloud''; "pushing the envelope''; "without rhyme or reason''
08/25/03: "Cheesy''; "hold a candle''
08/11/03: "Halcyon days''; Why isn't "sacrilegious'' spelled "sacreligious''?; "red light'' and "green light'' as expression — which came first, the inaction or the signals?
08/04/03: "Votive'' candles; "cosmeticizing"; "potluck''
07/28/03: Why ‘debt’ has a ‘b’ in it; "south moon under''; why "Rx'' is used for prescriptions
07/21/03: "Romance" & "Rome"?; punching & clocks; "conversate"
07/14/03: "Lukewarm''; Where did we get the word "wig'' for a fake head of hair?
07/09/03: Why doesn't "Arkansas'' rhyme with "Kansas''? ; "Catawampus"; "Jimmie Higgins work"
06/30/03: "Foozle"; author who wrote an entire novel without using a certain letter of the alphabet?; "kith and kin"
06/23/03: "On the fritz"; "knuckle down''
06/17/03: How did "lazy Susan'' come to be used for the rotating tray?; woolgathering'' as synonym for "idle daydreaming''; "in harm's way''
06/09/03: "Clotheshorse"; a god named "Ammonia"?
05/29/03: With kid gloves; "receipt'' = "recipe''?; from soup to nuts

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