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Jewish World Review June 30, 2002 / 30 Sivan, 5763

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

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Consumer Reports

"Foozle"; author who wrote an entire novel without using a certain letter of the alphabet?; "kith and kin" | (KRT) Dear Editor:

I was reading a novel in which one of the characters used the word "foozle" to refer to a botched shot in golf. Can you tell me anything about the origin of "foozle"? Is it a very old word?

_ T. F., Shaker Heights, Ohio

Dear T. F.:

The word "foozle" only dates to the 19th century but its origin is obscure. It is both a verb meaning "to manage or play awkwardly, to bungle" and a noun meaning "an act of bungling." Etymologists suspect a link between "foozle" and the German dialect verb "fuseln," which means "to work carelessly," but the evidence for that is inconclusive. The noun "foozler," meaning "bungler," also is recorded.

Much of the evidence for "foozle" and its derivatives relates to the game of golf, in which to foozle a shot is to bungle it, and a foozle is a bungled shot. These uses of "foozle" are now old- fashioned, but the word still holds a special place in the hearts, minds and specialized vocabularies of many golfers. In a Century Magazine piece from 1899 called "Two Players and their Play," Beatrice Hanscom revealed more of the golf lexicon: "She tops her ball; then divots fly;/ In bunkers long she stays;/ She foozles all along the course/ In most astounding ways:/ In sooth, it is an eery thing,/ The way Priscilla plays."

Dear Editor:

I recall reading once about an author who wrote an entire novel without using a certain letter of the alphabet. I can't recall the person's name or the title. Is there a particular word referring to such a work?

_ M. L., Tucson, AZ

Dear M. L.:

The term for a work of literature that has suppressed at least one particular letter is "lipogram." The word originates from the Greek roots "lipo-," meaning "lacking, without," and "-gram," meaning "letter."

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There have been a number of works published throughout history that have deliberately omitted a certain letter, thereby presenting a narrative challenge to the author who was unable to use words containing that letter. One notable attempt was the 1939 novel "Gadsby," written by Ernest Vincent Wright. The novel, apparently written as a response to F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," omitted the most common letter of the alphabet, the vowel e.

A later lipogram was Georges Perec's 1969 novel "La Disparition," which omitted the letter e from its French narrative. When Gilbert Adair translated Perec's novel into English as "A Void" in 1995, the translation also omitted the letter e.

Dear Editor:

I've often wondered about the expression "kith and kin." "Kin" obviously means one's relatives, but what is "kith" all about?

_ E. B., Fort Worth, Texas

Dear E. B.:

"Kith" is a very old word in English, first attested in print around the year 900. It derives from Old English "cythth," a word akin to "cuth," meaning "known." In its early uses "kith" could be a general synonym for "knowledge," and it could also refer more narrowly to knowledge of what constitutes acceptable behavior, or it could denote the country or place which with one is familiar. These senses are now obsolete. In another very old sense, "kith" was used to mean "friends, fellow countrymen, or neighbors." This sense also eventually died out except for its continued use in the alliterative phrase "kith and kin."

"Kith and kin" is attacked as a cliche by some usage commentators, who point out that because "kith" means - or formerly meant - "friends, neighbors and countrymen," the phrase should not be taken as referring only to kinsfolk, but to countrymen and kinsfolk. (Of course, similar reasoning could be used to argue that "kith" should not be understood as meaning "countrymen," since that is not the word's original sense, and the Oxford English Dictionary shows that the original meaning of "kith and kin" was actually "country and kinsfolk.") What our evidence shows is that "kith and kin" is variously used and variously understood in current English. More often than not, it does seem to imply nothing more than "kinsfolk," and it is thus open to the charge of redundancy, but the precise meaning of the phrase is often hard to pin down. Some writers clearly do apply it to friends as well as relatives.

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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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