Origins of 'nincompoop' elusive
Q: My question is how did the word "handkerchief" come to mean "a piece of cloth for wiping the nose and face"? —S.B., Middlesex, N.J.
A: The origin of the word "handkerchief" is straightforward when you divide it into its two parts, "hand" and "kerchief," both of which, of course, are distinct words themselves.
"Kerchief" descends from the Middle English word "courchef," which in turn comes from the Old French word "cuevrechief." Broken down further, "cuevrechief" is from the Old French "covrir," meaning "to cover," plus the Old French "chief," which means "head." Originally "kerchief" meant exactly what you would expect, "a covering for the head," and that is still its primary meaning today, referring specifically to the often decorative squares of cloth worn by women throughout the world as head coverings.
The kerchief has proved to be a versatile article of clothing over the years. As any former Cub Scout or Boy Scout can tell you, a kerchief can be worn around the neck, in which use it is sometimes known specifically as a "neckerchief." Likewise, to differentiate between the square of cloth worn on the head and the square of cloth held in the hand for such tasks as face-wiping and nose-blowing, "hand" was long ago simply added to "kerchief" to form "handkerchief," a word that was first recorded in the 16th century.
Q: My dictionary says that the origin of "nincompoop" is unknown. Can you tell me anything else about it? —F.C., Seattle
A: One early theory about the origin of this odd word asserted that it was derived from the Latin phrase "non compos mentis" ("not of sane mind"). Samuel Johnson, the great British lexicographer, introduced this etymology in his dictionary of 1755. For two reasons, though, this derivation is no longer accepted. First, "non compos" has no equivalent to the second "p" in "nincompoop." Second, the earliest recorded uses of the word — dating from the 1600s and apparently unfamiliar to Johnson — are spelled "nicompoop" or "nickumpoop." Their lack of a second "n" makes the derivation from "non compos mentis" highly unlikely.
Another theory is that the word got its start as a whimsical creation, more or less out of the blue. This may be, but it's likely that the word originated in the spoken language; as a result, there's so little information about its earliest stages that we can't state this with any certainty.
Unless further information comes to light, the origin of "nincompoop" remains as stated in your dictionary — unknown.
Q: I ran across an unfamiliar word the other day, "tchotchke." How is this word pronounced? What does it mean? Where did it come from? —T.P., Baltimore
A: "Tchotchke' comes from Yiddish "tshatshke," which means "trinket." The Yiddish word comes in turn from an obsolete Polish word "czaczko," which was similar in meaning. "Tchotchke" is pronounced "CHOCH-ka." The word is used in English, as in Yiddish, for knickknacks, trinkets, or gewgaws. Its earliest known use as an English word dates from 1971. Here's a typical use from an article by Barbara Ehrereich that appeared in the New York Times Book Review on December 18, 1983:
"The working class gives itself away with plastic flowers and similar 'tchotchkes'."
Q: Can you tell me about the origin of the phrase "gild the lily"?
A: This idiomatic phrase is traceable to Shakespeare's play "King John," produced in 1597, which includes the lines, "To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,/To throw a perfume on the violet,/.... Is wasteful and ridiculous excess." With time, the phrase as we know it came to be used to mean "to add unnecessary ornamentation to something that is beautiful in its own right."
You'll note that Shakespeare's original phrase is actually "paint the lily," which is also still used as an idiomatic phrase in modern English. "Gild the lily" has sometimes been criticized as a misquotation of Shakespeare. The point can be made, however, that those who use the phrase are not quoting Shakespeare at all, but are instead using a well-established idiom.
It seems likely that the success of "gild the lily" over "paint the lily" is due to the repeated "-il-" of "gild" and "lily," which gives the phrase a more memorable sound.MORE IN NewsPORTLAND, Maine — U.S. Sen. Full Story
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