Know Your Words · LRL Achive

Well Thank My Lucky Stars, That Could Have Been a Disaster!

stars_navigationThe other day, while reading a book titled “Callings,” I came across the following:

Being unwilling to bear the hurly-burly of faithfulness to our call, we court disaster—Latin for “against one’s stars”—and we end up agitated anyway. Although we have the choice not to follow a call, if we do not do so, the Sufi poet Kabir said, our lives will be infected with a kind of “weird failure.” We’ll feel alienated from ourselves, listless, and frustrated, and fitful with boredom, the common cold of the soul.

Being the “werd nerd” that I am, the armchair etymology in the first sentence of this excerpt caught my eye. It struck me as too perfect, too neat and tidy to be accurate, so I thought I’d check. Here’s what I found out.

Disaster, says the Oxford English Dictionary of Word Histories, is from the Italian word disastro, ‘ill-starred event,’ from dis- (expressing negation) and astro, ‘star’ from Latin astrum. Disastrous, from the same period, had the sense ‘ill-fated’ and is from French desastreux, from Italian disastroso (from disastro ‘disaster’).

“Aha,” I say! I didn’t think so! But before I get too full of myself, let’s get a second, third, and maybe fourth opinion, shall we?

The (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins seems to be on board:

The word disaster has astrological connotations. It comes, perhaps, via French desastre, from Italian disastro, this was a back-formation from disastrato, literally ‘ill-starred,’ a compound adjective formed from the pejorative prefix dis- and astro ‘star,’ a descendant of Latin astrum ‘star.’ This in turn came from Greek astron ‘star,’ source of English astronomy and related to English star. So the underlying meaning of the word is “malevolent astral influence.’

So does the hefty and poorly named Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, which links disaster to star and traces star back to “Greek astron or, rather Latin astrum becomes Italian astro, with compound disastro (Latin dis- connoting deviation), an event not favorable to one’s stars….

Even the Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories supports this interpretation.

Stars_weird“[The word disaster] entered English from Middle French or Old Italian [and] owes its very existence to astrology. Old Italian astro is ‘star’; a disastro was due to the negative aspects of stellar influence.”

So, contrary to what Callings purports, disasters happen because of one’s stars, not because a person acted against them.

Okay, so that’s the skinny on the relationship between disaster and star, but from where did this idea that each of us has stars, lucky or otherwise, originate? To find out, I went straight to the symbol references on the LRL’s shelves, but they left me in the dark (get it?). So, I went with plan B and hit the dream dictionaries, which did offer a bit of illumination (sorry … kind of). According to these texts, stars have always been “guides” in one way or another, a concept which fits with this idea that they could be”ill-fated” or lead us astray and into … you guess it … disaster.

The Watkins Dream Dictionary:

Stars suggest guidance, not only in the navigational sense, but also in the form of the ineffable, given that the vast majority of stars exist outside … our human remit.

The Dream Dictionary from A to Z:

The planets, stars, and constellations have been considered good-luck omens from the earliest times. Dreaming of them represents your wish to guide your own fortune, hence ‘wishing upon a star.’ In general, they suggest exciting new opportunities as long as you possess the necessary self-belief.

Dream Dictionary (Crisp):

Stars [represent] intuitions about the cosmos; the perhaps almost unnoticeable promptings or motivations which occur through life leading us in a particular direction [or] destiny.


Know Your Words · LRL Achive

The Truth about Phony

Hello Papercutters! I know, I know … it’s been a while. There was some (additional) Mother-in-Law interference last week, as well as some other stuff that kept me away from the blog. I won’t let it happen again! Honest!

Did you believe that, or did I come across as phony? You don’t have to tell me, but while we’re on the subject, let’s make phony our word of inquiry today, shall we?

Phony DJT

Phony is a strange word. Not only does our “president” like it (hence the tweet), but it has nothing to do with any of the “phones” that are out there in the world: telephones, homophones, microphones, headphones, megaphones. So what does it have to do with and what exactly does it mean?

We’ll take that last question first. As implied above, phony is often used as an adjective to describe something or someone as “fake, not real, or disingenuous.” It can also be used as a noun, meaning a disingenuous or hypocritical person, as in “That guy’s a phony.” But hey, don’t take my word for it, let’s go to the dictionaries!

American Heritage Dictionary:

phony (also phoney), adj. Informal. Not genuine or real; spurious; fake. n. 1. something not genuine. 2. A spurious person; impostor; hypocrite. [Origin unknown]

Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language

phony, adj. [said to be altered < Forney, cheap jewelry < forney rings, brass rings made by a manufacturer named Forney for sale by street peddlers], [Slang], not genuine; false; counterfeit; spurious; fake; sham. n. 1. something not genuine; sham; fake. 2. a person who pretends to be what he is not; charlatan; imposter. Also spelled phoney.

Since Webster’s referred to it as “slang” rather than “informal,” I also consulted the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Partridge), which associates phoney/phony with “fraudulent, shady, criminal, unreal, and make-believe.”

PhonyObviously, there’s a lot of agreement among these references about the meaning of phony. It’s etymology, however, is a different story. We’ll get to that, but before we do, let’s (re)consider the president’s tweet. Putting aside the fact that “phony witch hunt” is redundant, his claim that jobs and enthusiasm are “way up,” just isn’t true. (It is true that the unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been since 2001, but the reason it’s so low is because a lot of people have left the labor market. Moreover, the rate at which the economy is adding jobs is well below expectations.) That would make his statement “false,” “spurious,” “not genuine,” and, you guessed it, phony. 

Now, about that etymology …

As much as I hate to disparage my favorite dictionary, it seems phony has nothing to do with a manufacturer of cheap rings named Forney. As the Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins puts it:

phony. H.L. Mencken suggested that a mendacious maker of fake jewelry named Forney is the eponym behind this word, but no one else seems to agree with him. [Well, the folks at Webster’s do. – Ed.] The majority opinion is that phony is an alteration of fawney, British slang for a worthless ring, which itself derives from an Irish Gaelic word. The word, first recorded in 1890 or so, probably comes specifically from the fawney rig, a confidence game in which a worthless ring is planted, and when someone “finds” it he is persuaded by a “bystander” that he should pay the bystander for his share in the find.

Partridge’s etymological dictionary Origins tells a very similar story and, I presume, is the source of what appears in the Facts on File entry.

I’m Joe from the Lonely Reference Library, and you have my word on it.

Know Your Words · Loner's Dictionary

The Daimon: Guardian Angel or Evil Seed?

Spirit guide
Dante and his spirit guide

On my recent vacation, I read James Hillman’s famous work, The Soul’s Code, in which he talks about the daimon, or the idea that, “The soul of each of us is given a unique daimon before we are born,” and that this companion of the soul exists to help each one of us recognize what we are called to do and adhere to it. As he explains further:

For centuries we have searched for the right term for this “call.” The Romans named it your genius; the Greeks, your daimon; and the Christians your guardian angel. The Romantics, like Keats, said the call came from the heart, and … the Neoplatonists referred to an imaginal body, the ochema, that carried you like a vehicle. It was your personal bearer or support. For some it is Lady Luck or Fortuna; for others a genie or jinn, a bad seed or evil genius. In Egypt, it might have been the ka or the ba with whom you could converse. Among the people we refer to as Eskimos and others who follow shamanistic practices, it is your spirit, your free-soul, your breath-soul.

Whether or not you can accept this idea is not the point of this blog entry. Rather, I’d like to focus on the word itself, for as Hillman oddly confesses, although “these many words and names do not tell us what it is, they do confirm that it is.”

You’d think that Hillman, a smart guy, would offer a rock-solid definition of a word that plays such a central role in his book, but he doesn’t. How can this be?

Perhaps the texts populating the shelves of the Lonely Reference Library have something to say about this mysterious and antiquated word.

Daimon Defined:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines daimon as “one’s genius or demon,” while the editors of the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, who abandon the Greek spelling in favor of daemon, define the word as (in Greek mythology), “any of the secondary divinities ranking between the gods and men; hence, a guardian spirit; inspiring or inner spirit. A demon; devil.” The Oxford Latin Dictionary also uses the spelling daemon, but omits the evil and defines the word as “a supernatural being or spirit.”

Guardian angel
Guardian angel

The etymological dictionaries at my disposal seem somewhat more discerning and tend to split the word in half, separating the light from the dark if you will. For example, the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, which lacks an entry for daimon or daemon, explains the roots of demon this way:

demon [Middle English] This is from medieval Latin, from Latin daemon, from Greek daimon ‘deity, genius’; the English sense ‘evil spirit’ is from Latin daemonium ‘lesser spirit,’ from Greek daemonion. The spelling daemon was common from the mid-16th century until the 19th century.

The (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins sings a similar tune.

demon English acquired this word from Latin in two forms. Classical Latin daemon and medieval Latin demon, which were once used fairly interchangeably for ‘evil spirit’ but have now split apart. Demon retains the sense ‘evil spirit,’ but this was in fact a relatively late semantic development. Greek daimon (source of Latin daemon) meant ‘divine power, fate, god.’ … It was used in Greek myths as a term for ‘minor deity’ and it was also applied to a ‘guiding spirit,’ (senses now usually denoted by daemon in English). It seems to be from this latter usage that the sense ‘evil spirit’ arose.

Daimon Mythology

Oddly enough, this notion of dividing the daemon/daimon into good and evil halves fits nicely with the mythology surrounding these mysterious creatures and may explain why they’re described in terms of both darkness and light (i.e., a guardian spirit and a devil). As explained by the Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Religion, Literature, and Art, these creatures were widely seen as “intermediaries” between the gods and humankind and, in doing the bidding of deities, played both good and evil roles. Thus, those that got involved in people’s lives were but one type of a larger class of daimon.

“Another kind of daemones are those who were attached to individual men, attending them, like the Roman genius, for their birth onward through their whole life. In later times, two daemones, a good and bad, were sometimes assumed for every one. This belief was, however, not universal, the prevalent idea being that the good and bad alike proceeded at different times from the daemon of each individual; and that one person had a powerful and benevolent, another a weak and malevolent daemon.”

Then again, as suggested by the Continuum Dictionary of Symbols’ (CDS) matter of fact tone, the definition of daemon/daimon has such great latitude because there was simply no consensus on the benevolence or malignancy of these mythical beings.

Demon – From the Greek “daimon.” The term was originally used to describe gods and later referred to mediary beings between gods and humans who could influence human destines and cosmic events for good or evil.

A tidy and satisfying summation of my attempt to better understand the term daimon it is not, but I can live with it. Besides, given the shitty job my “guiding spirit” seems to be doing, this explanation from the CDS seems to be the most accurate of them all.

Know Your Words · LRL Achive

A Brief History of the F-Word

F-wordI’ll admit it: the word fuck amazes me, and if you’re into words, language and the like, it should amaze you too. Not because it’s naughty or taboo, of course, but because it’s versatile! Think about it: What other word, low-brow and unrefined as it is, applies to so many situations and means so many different things? Even the ubiquitous shit plays second fiddle to it!

From ignorance (stupid fuck) to intercourse (fuck) and incredulity (what the fuck!?!) to exasperation (fuck my life!), the f-word is nothing short of fabulous in its functionality. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder: Where does this word come from and why does it have so many uses? Let us try to find the fuck out!


“Our word for the act of sexual connection may remotely come from the Latin word for the same, futuere, but [it] most probably is from the Old German ficken/fucken, ‘ to strike or penetrate,’ which had the slang meaning ‘to copulate,” says the Facts of File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins. “The German word is almost certainly related to the Latin words for pugilist, puncture, and prick, through the root pug, which goes back to prehistoric times.”

The (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins agrees about this verboten word’s German roots, but not much else.

“There is little doubt that it is of German origin, but it’s precise source has never been satisfactorily identified. All the earliest known examples of the word come from Scotland, which may suggest a Scandinavian source, related to Norwegian dialect fukka ‘copulate,’ and Swedish dialect focka ‘copulate, hit’ and fock ‘penis.'”

Not to be outdone, Eric Partridge’s etymological dictionary of English, Origins, offers a similarly unsatisfactory account of the word’s lineage in the most superb and roundabout way possible.

“That f**k cannot descend straight from Latin futuere … is obvious; that the two words are related is equally obvious. That it cannot derive unaided from German ficken, to strike, (in popular speech) to copulate with, is clear; it is no less clear that the English and German words are cognates. ‘To f**k’ apparently combines the vocalism of futuere+the consonatism of ficken, which might derive from fucken (only dubiously attested).”

I can’t be sure, but I think Partridge is fucking with us….


Well, if there isn’t a lot that can be said about the origins of the f-word, there is even less, it seems, to be said about how the word became so pliable and/or flexible. The only information I could find about how the word is used appears in Eric Partridge’s immense Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English.

fuck, n.  1. An act of sexual connection.  2. A person (rarely a male) viewed in terms of coition, as in ‘She’s a good f.’ These two sentences are excellent examples of vulgarism, being actually standard English.  3. The seminal fluid, especially if viewed as providing the requisite strength (full of fuck, potently amorous).  4. In such intensive phrases as ‘Get the fuck out of here!’ fuck is apparently a noun.  5. See create fuck ‘to make a considerable fuss, usually in protest of something.’  6. See like fuck!, ‘certainly not!'”

Johnson with a fugh on his face.

This excerpt is by no means an exhaustive list, but don’t worry, Partridge has you covered. His Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English lists more than 50 entries featuring this most famous four-letter word as an adjective, noun, or verb. You simply must check it out for yourself.

A Few Fucking Facts

Beyond the word’s origins and use, several of the books in the Lonely Library’s collection contain some interesting facts about the f-word that I’ll share below, as well as a few words that are, or ought to be, related to it.

First and foremost, you may have noticed that in the excepts from Partridge’s works, fuck is not spelled out because, as he notes in Origins:

“F**k [and c**t] … are the only two words standard English words excluded from all general and etymological dictionaries since the 18th century and are the only two standard English words that, outside of medical and other official or semi-official reports and learned papers, still cannot be printed in full anywhere within the British Commonwealth of Nations.*”

[*Note: Origins was published in 1958.  It seems this is no longer the case.]

In a related item appearing in he Facts of File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins:

“Fuck began to become more rare in print in the 18th century when human experience began to be disguised behind a “veil of decency,” and the last dictionary it was recorded in up until recent times was Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) in the form of f**k. The great Oxford English Dictionary banned it, just as it banned cunt (but not prick for some reason), and this made the word’s acceptance all the harder. … It wasn’t until Grove Press in America won a court case that permitted publishers to print fuck legally for the first time in centuries.”

In yet another related note, the Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Doubletalk tells the tale of the word fug, which some writers used as a stand-in for the f-word.

fug. Fuck; a historical curiosity, popularized by Norman Mailer before it was safe to legally print the real word in full. It continued in service for some years after the ban on the real f-word began to be relaxed.

Finally, while searching the Lonely Library’s collection for “fuck” entries, I came across the following word in [Samuel] Johnson’s dictionary:  fugh, which could easily be used like fug, although fugh sounds more like the real deal — and just look at that definition!

fugh. An expression of abhorrence. As in, “A very filthy fellow: how odiously he smells of his country garlick!”

Know Your Words · Loner's Dictionary · LRL Achive

I’m Back … and “Lonely”

“I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
– Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau: alone, but not lonely

The mother-in-law-related interference I mentioned in my previous post has run it’s course and I’m back at it. However, if there was an up-side to being away for that week or so, it was that being away from this blog gave me a little time to think about my reference library, this blog, how they fit in to my present state of affairs and what I want to accomplish.

The result of all that thinking was a subtle name change — what was once the Anachronist Reference Library has now become the Lonely Reference Library. It was the right move, and not only because the word “anachronism” doesn’t exactly mesh with blogging. The other reason behind the name change is that I spend an awful lot of time by myself, which I suppose makes me something of a loner, but not necessarily lonely, which has a rather somber ring to it. Be that as it may, the “Loner Reference Library” didn’t sound quite right, so I went with “lonely.”

It is in that spirit, that I thought I’d start this new era by examining the word lonely in my customary way. To the dictionaries!

To my surprise, the Oxford English Dictionary defines lonely in more ways than I anticipated.

1. (Of persons, their actions, conditions, etc.) Having no companionship or society; unaccompanied, solitary, lone
2. (Poetical) Of things: Isolated, standing apart; lone
3. (Of localities) Unfrequented by men; desolate
4. Dejected because of want of company or society; sad at the thought that one is alone; having a feeling of solitariness b.) (poetical) Imparting a feeling of loneliness; dreary.

Obviously, when speaking of things or place, there is little question as to what lonely means. Things get a little more complicated, thought, when you apply it to humans. Thus, to see if a little more knowledge might light my way, I reached deep into the LRL’s stacks and checked some other dictionaries.

To my surprise, they did. The Webster’s School and Office Dictionary from 1914 included the word “retired” with its definition and the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language offered the curious phrase “longing for friends,” which is something quite different from “want of company or society.”

Clearly, when describing people, the aforementioned sources deem alone and lonely to be synonymous, but are they? A self-professed loner (like me) might object, saying that when he or she spends time alone (i.e., unaccompanied), he or she is not necessarily lonely ( i.e., “longing for friends” or feeling “dejected because of want of company or society”).

To further complicate matters, I typically feel loneliest (in the sad, dejected use of the term), when I’m standing in a room full of people I don’t know and don’t feel up to the small talk (why yes, I am an introvert). In these instances, I don’t suffer from a “want of society,” but rather a want of escape.

Oddly enough, this co-mingling of alone and lonely may have an etymological justification, at least according to the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins, which says “Lonely is a derivative of lone, itself a truncated form of alone.” Even more interesting is that, as the text goes on to say, the term alone is “simply a compound of all and one” and that, in Old English, it was a completely separate phrase, all ana, literally, “completed by oneself.” I don’t know about you, but that has a rather positive ring to it. So much for feelings of dejection.

Most surprising of all, perhaps, is that the most nuanced assessment of loneliness in my library comes not from Oxford or Websters, but (Cheung’s) Dream Dictionary from A to Z:

Dreams about being alone often refer to the solitary life you might be leading, but they can also refer to those time when you need to strike out in a new direction, separating yourself from your friends and family in a non-social context. To dream that you are alone in a crowd may imply that you are isolated from those around you, while being alone in a landscape may suggest that you prefer to make decisions by yourself. A dream of being an astronaut on a solitary space walk may refer to deep feelings of being alone or going it alone. If you dreamed you were alone in a garden or in the countryside, a more tolerable — even pleasurable — form of solitude may be being referred to. Finding  yourself alone as a child is a powerful image of loneliness, emotional vulnerability, and feeling lost.

So are alone and lonely  synonymous? Not when they’re applied to human beings, for as noted above, one can be alone but not lonely, or conversely, lonely while standing in room full of people. Or to put it another way, while being alone and feeling alone mean different things in different contexts, those who are lonely and feel lonely are experiencing the same thing–a want for companionship–regardless of other factors.

ARL Archive · Know Your Words

I Saw It on Twitter: Fungible

What the F does fungible mean? The word sounds like a mixture of fun, fungus, and gullible, and although I was never quite sure what it meant, I figured it had something to do with economics or funds, based on context clues.
Fungible 2As it turns out, that guess wasn’t too off the mark, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, particularly when you consider how it’s used in this tweet from NPR.

Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (WNWDAL) says the word comes from the Middle Latin word fungibilis, which comes from the (early?) Latin word fungi, meaning “to perform.” It defines fungible as:

In law, designating goods, as grain, any unit or part of which can replace another unit, as in discharging a debt; capable of being used in place of another.

Seems to me, the second part of that definition could be used in place of the first — because the first part didn’t make much sense. But I digress ….

My Oxford Latin Dictionary tells a slightly different story, noting that the Latin word for perform (or discharge a duty) is fungor. Close enough, I suppose.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), agrees with Webster’s (or maybe vice versa). It also traces fungible back to Latin fungi, which it  defines as “to take the place, or to fulfill the office of.” It also traces the word back to 1765, where it was used in the following sentence: “Grain and coin are fungibles, because one guinea or one bushel or boll of sufficient merchantable wheat precisely supplies the place of another.”

Grain and guineas are all well and good, but that’s not how the word in used in this NPR tweet. Here, the world is being used to mean “flexible,” but not in a good way.  This kind of “flexibility” is akin to bending the rules or weakening one’s former pledge or position on an issue.

Obviously, “the ability to use one thing in place of another” (i.e., interchangeability) and “flexibility” are somewhat related. After all, in matters of business and deal-making, one might find a certain benefit in not being so rigid with a partner. Still, it’s interesting that neither the WNWDAL nor the OED are even the least bit pliable (sorry …) when it comes to associating fungible with flexible. In fact, none of the dictionaries in the my possession, including my etymological dictionaries, even attempts to bend fungible in this way.

The one place that does link fungible and flexible is It defines fungible as

1: being something (such as money or a commodity) of such a nature that one part or quantity may be replaced by another equal part or quantity in paying a debt or settling an account
2: capable of mutual substitution : interchangeable
3: readily changeable to adapt to new situations : flexible

As much as it pains this anachronist to say it, score one for the internet, for it would appear that the content of my reference library and this website are not fungible. Then again, who says is correct in this instance?