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Jewish World Review Nov. 11, 2004 / 27 Mar-Cheshvan 57645

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

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Consumer Reports

'Catachresis'; 'kick the bucket' and dying; ballots | Dear Editor:

My teacher wrote on my paper that I need to avoid "catachresis.'' What does that mean?

— A.G., Portland, Maine

Dear A.G.:

One thing it means is that your teacher likes fancy words. "Catachresis'' can refer either to the use of the wrong word for the context or the use of a forced and especially paradoxical figure of speech. (You can probably tell which your teacher was objecting to by checking to see whether the indicated problems relate to particular words or to entire sentences.)

As you might have guessed, "catachresis'' is a word mostly used by grammarians and teachers of grammar. It can sometimes be used merely as a label of disparagement for uses the grammarian finds unacceptable, as when Henry Fowler insisted in 1926 that "mutual'' in "our mutual friend'' was a catachresis. (Fowler preferred "common,'' but "mutual'' does have an established sense which is correct in that context.)

In case you're curious, the first recorded use of "catachresis'' dates to 1553, and it has been used to describe (or criticize) misuses of words ever since. "Catachresis'' comes to us by way of Latin from the Greek word "katachresis,'' which means "misuse.'' A word whose meaning is very close to that of "catachresis'' is "malapropism,'' which usually refers to an unintentionally humorous misuse of a word.

Dear Editor:

Years ago when I was a child we used to sing a ditty that went "old man Moses kicked the bucket and old man Moses is dead.'' What does "kicked the bucket'' have to do with death?

— B.H., New London, Conn.

Dear B.H.:

The saying "kick the bucket'' has long been used to mean "die,'' usually in darkly humorous and sometimes disrespectful contexts. Several explanations have been advanced for its origin.

At one time, pigs to be slaughtered were hung by their hind legs upon a hook in a bent piece of wood; the word "bucket'' might refer to this piece of wood and "kick'' to the struggling movements made by the pig. Or the expression might refer to the act of kicking the bucket out from beneath a person being hanged. Another explanation holds that the "bucket'' in the phrase is the container of holy water once customarily placed at the feet of a corpse during the Catholic funeral mass so that mourners could sprinkle it upon the deceased as they passed.

Unfortunately, none of these theories can be substantiated, and the mystery of the origin of "kick the bucket'' remains unsolved.

Dear Editor:

The presidential election had me wondering about the word "ballot.'' I figure it can't be a very old word, since voting for one's leader is, historically speaking, a relatively recent development (isn't it?). Can you tell me about its origins?

— E.S., Crawford, Ga.

Donate to JWR

Dear E.S.:

You might be surprised to learn that the earliest evidence in English for "ballot'' dates all the way back to 1549. "Ballot'' derives ultimately from a word of Germanic origin meaning "ball.''

Small balls, variously marked or colored, have been used as a means for casting a secret vote since ancient times. For example, in ancient Greece balls were used in the determination of criminal matters. Jurors voted with one kind of ball for acquittal and with another for condemnation. Even today, some private clubs accept or reject candidates for membership on the basis of a vote taken with white and black balls, hence our word "blackball.''

In Renaissance Venice, which was actually a republic and had been one since the 11th century, this same kind of secret vote was used. A Venetian, being Italian, called the ball he voted with a "ballotta,'' or "little ball.'' "Ballotta'' is the diminutive of the Italian "balla,'' or "ball,'' a word that is ultimately Germanic in origin. The English borrowed Italian "ballotta'' and shortened it to "ballot,'' using it to designate a ball or any other object, such as a ticket or piece of paper, used in casting a secret vote.

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11/03/04: 'Divers' meaning 'different'?; 'The audience brought the house down'
10/25/04: 'Notorious' as a compliment?; 'and' as first word in sentence; 'yeoman' and 'yewman'
10/20/04: 'Shaggy-dog story'; 'tawdry'; 'Shawnee'
10/12/04: 'Busted'; differences between 'iterate' and 'reiterate'; 'the rain has quite abated'
10/04/04: 'Hat trick', 'rubber game' or 'rubber match'; source of 'spin doctor'; 'trope'
09/22/04: ' Redux'; 'elan'; 'swan-neck'
09/08/04: 'Adam's apple'; 'You sure lucked out'; 'the lion's share'
09/02/04: 'King's shilling'; 'Stockholm syndrome'; 'amid the alien corn'
08/24/04: Guacamole = avocados?; 'bona fides' needs plural verb?; 'exact same' redundant?
08/17/04: 'Nosey parker'; where the question mark came from?; why 'wash' doesn't rhyme with 'cash'
08/12/04: 'Vexillologist'; 'fifth column'; 'Homer sometimes nods'
08/05/04: 'Spitting image'; 'eclectic'; 'spendthrift'
07/28/04: 'Trousers'; 'argosy'
07/19/04: 'Sourdough wit'; 'headshrinkers'; 'seventh heaven'
07/08/04: 'The proof is in the pudding'; 'Pyrrhic victory'
07/01/04: Origin of 'vitamin'; 'binnacle list'
06/25/04: 'Abnegate' and 'abdicate'; 'feet of clay'; 'difugalty'
06/17/04: 'Whinge'; 'whole cloth'
06/10/04: 'The devil to pay'; 'crack', as in 'a crack marksman'; 'the dog that didn't bark'
06/03/04: 'Surrounded on three sides'; sleuths
05/18/04: 'Of the first water'; horses and horseradish; more
05/06/04: 'Historic' v. 'historical'; 'prestigious' = 'trickery'?; 'can of corn' as sports phrase
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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