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Knowing word origins critical to communicate properly

It seems life always has some surprise around the corner for us to bump into. This week was no different from any other. No matter how “prepared” I was to tackle my numerous projects, Monday showed up on my doorstep and the next thing I knew, Friday was already out the door.

Somewhere during those 120 hours, I was vulnerable to missing a deadline, stressing out emotionally, and physically collapsing from sheer exhaustion. (I am sure you are so organized and capable that you have never experienced such feelings. I, however … Well, let’s just leave it at that.)

At any rate, I was talking with a friend about the week’s events and, in thanking her for a kindness, I used the expression “thank you for covering my back.” That started me thinking about the etymology of that phrase. (If you read my column, you already know “I am nuts” about words; there’s another of those ludicrous phrases to ponder). I know I am not the only person on the planet (or even in Boulder City) who “gets off” on words (one of this column’s groupies emailed me some etymologically fun snippets). In essence, “the proof is in the pudding.”

So, where did the phrase “covering your back” originate? After extensive research (with the Internet that equates to about 10 minutes), I found it is synonymous with “watch my six,” “have my back” and “back me up.”

“Watch my six” refers to being behind a person in the six o’ clock position (directly behind to “cover their back”); that image makes me feel claustrophobic and “cramps my style.” Personally, of the group I like “cover my back.” “Have my back” and “back me up” are close seconds to “cover my back,” but I don’t want to “give” my back away. I need it! I’d rather someone “cover it.” Besides, “cover my back” has a warm and fuzzy feel. It’s like having a friend behind you to not only protect you, but to cover your shoulders with a warm, cozy blanket after the primary threat is repelled.

Then there is that phrase “I am nuts.” Now, who thought of that one? Someone back in the 1800s, but who? Who knows! Basically, someone started using the word “nut” as slang for someone not quite right cognitively; something is wrong with their thinking. How often do you hear “s/he’s nuts!”? Of course, there is also the “I’m nuts about him,” but that absolutely coincides with the “nuts” usage — love does make our thinking a bit off balance at times.

My aforementioned column groupie shared the origins “curfew” and “sleep tight” (thanks, Hans!). Curfew (from the French “couvre-feu” meaning a clay pot) — Back before fireplaces and electric furnaces, there was a time when the family living in a single-room hovel was kept warmed and fed by a fire stoked in the center of the dirt floor (hmm … is this the etymological birth of “central heating”?) To keep the sound-asleep family from rolling into the fire or the fire sparking out of control in the middle of the night, the fire was covered with a “curfew,” keeping any unruly sparks from causing trouble — much as curfews today are supposed to constrain hot-blooded rampages from igniting unrest.

“Sleep tight” is one of my favorites. It is so very literal! Back in the 1800s, beds were made from ropes tightly tied in a crosshatch pattern across a wooden frame and a straw mattress laid on top of the ropes. As all well-used ropes do, eventually the ropes stretched and the bed would sag. The owner had two choices; s/he could ignore the sagging bed and eventually end up sleeping with the ropes and mattress on the floor or s/he could tighten the ropes to enjoy a decent night’s sleep. How much a person tended to procrastinate had a great deal to do with whether they “slept like a lamb” (on the dirt) or “like a baby” in a soft bed.

Understanding etymology (the origins or words and word phrases) seems almost critical to communicating in today’s environment. It can keep us from the faux pas of being politically incorrect as with the term “handicapped.” Many people with physical challenges cringe as they park in a spot labeled “handicap” parking or when they are called “handicapped.”

Understanding their dislike of the term is easy when one learns that the origin of “handicap” means a beggar with “cup in hand” waiting for a handout. Putting in long hours at their employment just does not equate to “cup in hand.”

On a lighter note, understanding word origins can certainly improve enjoyment of big-screen entertainment. Anyone watching the movie “Far and Away” would lose a significant piece of the movie if they didn’t know the meaning of “a corker” (a person whose actions bubble over with such intensity as to leave others speechless).

Some Old World verbiage still in use today, like the term “fortnight,” is common (an abbreviation for fourteen nights). And then there is the phrase that comes from the peace ceremony of some Native American tribes which, after a war, would ceremoniously bury a tomahawk to declare peace. I wish our politicians would start to ponder that etymological treasure and act upon it! A lot more would get accomplished if they would stop all their war dances and learn to “bury the hatchet!”

Cat Trico has been a resident of Boulder City since 2003 and is a past president of the Senior Center of Boulder City and co-founder of the Decker Lake Wetlands Preserve. As an author and editor, she contributed to “Rights, Responsibilities, and Relationships” for youth. She can be reached at cat.circa1623@gmail.com.

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