Word of the Day

Sunday, May 12, 2019

mother wit

[ muhth-er wit ]

noun

natural or practical intelligence, wit, or sense.

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What is the origin of mother wit?

Mother knows best, as they say. In mother wit, the word mother means “innate, inborn.” Wit comes from a very widespread Proto-Indo-European root weid-, woid-, wid– “to see, know.” This root appears in Latin vidēre “to see,” Sanskrit veda “knowledge,” Greek ideîn (and dialect wideîn) “to know” (literally “to have seen”), Slavic (Czech) vědět “to know” and vidět “to see.” From wid– Germanic (Old English) has the verb witan “to know.” In Old English the first and third person singular form was wāt “I know; he/she/it knows,” which survives today as the obsolete word wot (“God wot”). Mother wit entered English in the 15th century.

how is mother wit used?

… not one of the rest of us had the guts, the gumption, or the mother wit to recognize where all four of us were headed and drag the fool to a stop.

David Weber, How Firm a Foundation, 2011

One’s mother wit was a precious sort of necromancy, which could pierce every mystery at first sight ….

Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Devereux, 1829
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Saturday, May 11, 2019

motte

[ mot ]

noun

Chiefly Southwestern U.S.

a grove or clump of trees in prairie land or open country.

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What is the origin of motte?

Motte is a word that may cause food fights in reference libraries among etymologists. Motte, “a grove or stand of trees in prairie land or open country,” is a regionalism in the American Southwest, especially in Texas. The origin of motte may be from Mexican Spanish mata, from European Spanish mata “grove, plantation,” and perhaps from Late Latin matta, source of English mat. Other authorities say that motte is not a borrowing from Spanish but from French motte “hillock, mound” (English moat), related to Medieval Latin mota “hill, mound, fortified height” (further etymology is speculative). Motte entered English in the 19th century.

how is motte used?

We came up finally to a place where the road made a bend around a motte of trees, and I thought I ought to be able to find it again.

Elmer Kelton, Joe Pepper, 1975

They’d camped at the edge of a motte, a thick grove of oak trees, not too far from the Arroyo Colorado …

Larry D. Sweazy, The Gila Wars, 2013
Friday, May 10, 2019

popinjay

[ pop-in-jey ]

noun

a person given to vain, pretentious displays and empty chatter.

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What is the origin of popinjay?

The many spellings of popinjay, e.g., papejay, popingay, papinjai in Middle English, in medieval Romance languages, and in medieval Germanic languages, demonstrate the foreign, exotic origin of the term, let alone the bird. The English change of the final syllable from –gay to –jay may be by folk etymology, through association with the jay, the name of several kinds of raucous, lively birds of the crow family. Medieval Latin has papagallus, whose first half, papa-, may be imitative of the bird’s cry; the second half, gallus, is the ordinary Latin noun for “rooster, cock.” Papagallus comes from medieval Greek papagállos, itself a derivative of papagás, from Arabic babghā’, babbaghā’, which is imitative of the bird’s cry. Popinjay entered English in the 13th century in the now obsolete sense of a picture or representation of a parrot (as on a tapestry).

how is popinjay used?

… Matt Damon brings preening fun to a popinjay in spurs and suede fringe; his throwaway lines and sidelong glances finally realize the comic promise the character always possessed.

Ann Hornaday, "Cohen brothers' 'True Grit' is polished and entertaining," Washington Post, December 22, 2010

The Prince of Wales (Rupert Everett) is a nasty popinjay, and George’s prime minister, Pitt the Younger … a manipulative cold fish.

David Denby, "It's a Mad Mad Mad George," New York, January 2, 1995

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