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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Difficulties in the English Language

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, March 27, 2005

Some say that the English Language is one of the most difficult languages to learn for a newcomer to America.  So many words are derived from other languages, and make little sense when applied by Americans. Libraries are often challenged to research word origins to settle a bet, end an argument, or satisfy a curiosity. When I wrote about some of these words several weeks ago, I still had several words on my list and I would like to share them with you.

The groundhog is an animal that comes to mind every February 2, when the old fable about him "seeing his shadow" as a means of predicting winter weather is replayed across the nation. Actually, a groundhog is a marmot, the largest member of the squirrel family.  It is native to North America and Canada, with the name starting with the Dutch colonists in America relating to the South African "aardvark, an earth pig or hog. The two animals have similar burrowing habits; otherwise there is no connection in the two.  The more correct name is "woodchuck," although that also is not correct, as a woodchuck doesn't do anything with wood.  The name comes from a Cree Indian word, "wuchak or otchok."

Early settlers found the groundhog, or woodchuck all over their land, and the name slowly became "woodchuck," which eventually became synonymous with groundhog. So, "how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if the woodchuck could chuck wood?  He'd chuck as much wood as a woodchuck could, if a woodchuck could chuck wood." Explain that to a new student of the English Language.

"Hitchhike and Hijack" are both connected to World War I.  "Hijack," as a term, first appeared in the Midwest during Prohibition.  It was the name for a holdup that occurred at night of illicit liquor, typically a truck transporting the product. It likely started with the greeting, "Hi, Jack" to a truck driver who would stop to aid a stranded motorist and the shipment was then taken, or "hijacked." "Hitchhike" was a term applied to World War I soldiers traveling from training camps home for a furlough.  The men would "hike" until picked up by a car or truck, then "hitch" a ride to their destination.

Today, a treadmill is typically the name of a machine in an exercise gym that allows a person to walk on a moving belt. The origin of the word goes back to one of the earliest books in Anglo-Saxon history, "Beowulf."  It is used in this Seventh-Century story to mean "step upon, or to walk on. "The treadmill machine was invented around 1820 as a means of employing prisoners to rotate a wheel or large cylinder through a series of horizontal treads.  As the men stepped on the treads, the axle was turned to operate a mill, thus the word, "treadmill."

"Fahrenheit" is the term used for the thermometric scale; which places freezing at 32 degrees, and boiling at 212 degrees.  The twenty-eight year old German citizen, Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit, developed that mercury-filled thermometer in 1714.

"Slipshod" is a somewhat slang term for poor quality and construction.  In the 16th Century, the term "slipshoe" was the name of a loose-fitting shoe or slipper that was worn for comfort around the house. Some people began wearing this footwear in public, and were known as "shod in slipshoe."  From that, the word developed as relating to anything performed in a careless, slovenly way.

"Hodgepodge" is a mixture of anything, but the word originally came from "hotch-potch" derived from a French word meaning, "a shaking together in a pot."  It was applied to a culinary mixture of broth and vegetables.

Have you ever played badminton and learned that the thing that is whacked back and forth across the net is called a "shuttlecock?"  The word came from the Anglo-Saxon word, "scytel" meaning an arrow or missile.  It was applied to the weaver's shuttle, because it shot back and forth through his machine.  In the game of badminton and its predecessor battledore, a cork was fitted with feathers, resembling a bird or a cock, and the word "shuttlecock" was born.

And finally, the relatively modern term of "litterbug" was born in 1950 when Mrs. Henry W. Land, a member of the Mount Dora, Florida Garden Club, suggested that the term be used in a roadside clean-up campaign.  The phrase, "Don't be a litter-bug" was used by the Club, eventually spreading to Garden Clubs nationwide.