Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

Nov. 25 2015 2:29 PM

Merry Thoughts, Naughty Bits: Putting the "Bone" in Wishbones

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

At the Strong Language table this U.S. Thanksgiving, we’ll be having none of that euphemistic white or dark meat first served up in the polite speech of 19th-century American English. No, we’ll be piling our plates high with turkey breasts and thighs.


But there’s another part of the turkey that may be a bit naughty if we look to its linguistic history: the wishbone.

Some ultimately derive wishbone customs from divinatory practices of the ancient Etruscans, but etymologists derive the word wishbone back to 19th-century American English. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites it in the third edition of John Russell Bartlett‘s 1859 Dictionary of AmericanismsBartlett thoroughly describes this wish-bone or wishing-bone, as his headword enters it:

The breastbone of a fowl is so familiarly called, especially by children, from a custom connected with it. The bone, after being dried, is taken by two persons, who hold each shank between their fore-finger and thumb, and then pull until it breaks, at the same time wishing for something. The one in whose fingers the larger portion remains, it is said, will have his wish.

Children indeed enjoy the wishbone. And so do, adults, as we’ll see.

Americans adopted the custom from the British (who, as it is at least popularly claimed, adapted it from the Romans, taking it in turn from the Etruscans). And while Americans may be used to breaking the wishbones of turkeys, historically the British would be breaking those of geese, chickens, or other fowl.

These turkeys are wishing they could bone right now.

Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Now, in British English, this wishbone was actually once called the merrythought. The OED cites merrythought in 1598 and also in an early dictionary: John Florio‘s Italian-English dictionary, A Worlde of Wordes. Here, Florio glosses the Italian catriosso as “the bone called the merie thought.”

This merrythought behaves similarly to wishbone in sound and sense: both words are compounds nouns and refer to some pleasant cogitation, shall we say, while breaking the furcula. Furcula is the scientific name for this bird bone, from the Latin for “little fork”—and a little sweary-sounding in its own right.

But its merrythought‘s particular merriment where things get a bit more grownup. As the New English Dictionary (later, the OED) observed of merrythought in its 1908 volume:

The name, like the synonym wish-bone, alludes to the playful custom of two persons pulling the furcula of a fowl until it breaks; according to the popular notion, the one who gets the longer (in some districts, shorter) piece will either be married sooner than the other, or will gain the fulfillment of any wish he may form at the moment.

Getting married? Certainly a dream come true. And even if your English dialect doesn’t merge the pronunciation of merry and marry, the wordplay is clear.

But many a bone-wishing bachelor may have had the marriage bed more so in mind. So, getting lucky may be more like it, if another citation of merrythought has its say. The OED points to an alternative theory of its origin, referencing English polymath John Aubrey‘s late 1600s folklore compilation, Remaines of Gentilisme and JudaismeIn a passage called Lotts, Aubrey writes:

‘Tis common for two to breake the Merrythought of a chicken-hen, or wood-cock, &c., the Anatomists call it the Clavicula; ’tis called the merrythought, because when the fowle is opened, dissected, or carv’d, it resembles the pudenda of a woman.

Aubrey goes on to describe a slightly different, more involved, and, at least to my modern sensibility, more suggestive ritual of breaking the wishbone than we’ve seen thus far:

The manner of breaking it, as I have it from the woemen, is thus: viz. One puts yᵉ merrithought on his nose (slightly) like a pair of spectacles, and shakes his head till he shakes it off his nose, thinking all the while his Thought; then he holds one of the legs of it between his forefinger and Thumbe, and another hold the other in like manner, and breake it; he that has the longer part, has got the Thought; then he that has got the thought putts both parts into his hand, and the other draws (by way of Lott), and then they both Wish, and he that lost his Thought drawes; if he drawes the longest part, he has [gets] his wish, if the shorter he looses his Wish.

I’m not quite sure what the distinction between Thought and Wish is, but, on a word-nerdy side-note, I do love the late usage of for the Old English thorn in yᵉ, shorthand for the.

So, we might say the purportedly pudendal appearance of the furcula puts the um, "bone" in wishbone—and, if we look to historical meanings of the word, shades merry naughty, to say the least.

In its treatment of this merrythought, the OED goes on to reference Gordon Williams’ Dictionary of Sexual Language in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature. This merry, variously denoting “pleasing” and “joyful” in its long history, may not have always been so family-friendly. I was unable to consult the actual text the OED refers us to, but I did consult his Shakespeare’s Sexual Language. For merry, Williams offers “wanton,” which, among its other meanings, has been levied on sexually promiscuous woman since the 1400s.This merry meaning compels the OED to suggest that “the traditional theory may perhaps be a euphemistic folk etymology.” You may not want Dad to carve the turkey this year.

As the English writer Frederick Locker-Lampson quipped in his 1857 London Lyrics:

They cannot be complete in aught
Who are not humorously prone;
A man without a merry thought
Can hardly have a funny bone.

Alas, as far as I can tell from reviews of his poetry (as well as its later quotations in Demorset’s Family Magazine and Home Needlework Magazineamong other wholesome publications), Locker-Lampson was earnest in his verse, neither punning on merry or bone nor referring to the furcula. Alas!

But perhaps the poet’s larger point—about the importance of humor—echoes our own celebration of strong language here. This Thanksgiving, eat, drink, and be sweary.

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Nov. 23 2015 9:00 AM

It’s Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman! The Art and Science of Mixture Descriptions

Capturing the essence of a movie is tricky work, especially when you’ve only got a few minutes to pitch your idea in front of a high-powered executive. It’s Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman! Ghost meets The Manchurian Candidate! These classic “elevator pitches” are examples of “mixture descriptions”: characterizations that liken a target document to blends of other documents. Mixture descriptions also appear on Amazon reviews, which prize brevity and limpidity. Because they do such a beautiful job distilling and transmitting nuanced information, researchers have begun to examine them more closely

According to library scientists Peter Organisciak and Michael Twidale, a typical mixture description can have up to three parts. There’s the mixture itself, which frequently names something a “cross between,” “a mashup of,” a “combination of,” or “the offspring of” X and Y. (“Empire is a mashup of King Lear and Hustle and Flow.”) Sometimes, there’s also a qualifier—“Empire is a better [mixture]” or a [mixture] without the charm”—meant to “subjectively realign a listener’s expectations.” Finally, there can be a twist, or a modifier that offers further thematic or stylistic adjustments: “…in space.”

Voilà. Empire is a much better cross between Glee and As the World Turns, but with black people.

Nov. 19 2015 1:31 PM

What the Eff Is Up With the “A” in “Effing A”?

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

Swearing loves the alphabet—or euphemisms for swearing do, at least. To avoid saying fuck outright, we might just drop an F-bomb, sidestep with the F-word, or register “initial” reactions with WTF. Some swears play with spelling: see you next Tuesday. Yet others, including a number originating from military expressions, are acronyms: snafu, or situation normal: all fucked upThat’s no BS, an abbreviation of bullshit that Mark Peters has written a whole damn book on.

But what about fucking A? What is this doing? Is it standing in for another swearword? What the fuck is this A in fucking A?

Nov. 18 2015 12:31 PM

Verbing Weirds Language, but in a Good Way

We often think of parts of speech as immutable properties of words, but in some cases noun-ness and verb-ness are more like hair colors: You can switch them up without altering any core meanings. Consider the noun “a blanket” and the verb “to blanket,” each hooked into the same semantic life-source—something about layers, or one material spread over another. To ask which version is primary (for what it’s worth, the noun came first chronologically) is almost to wonder about the relative reality of actions versus things.

Adjectives are the same. Can you form a notion of happiness if you’ve never been happy? It seems as impossible as the inverse: comprehending happy when you don’t know what happiness is. (Happiness, for the record, is a warm puppy.) The revelation that all language rests on the aqueous foundation of other language can feel destabilizing. But the interplay among nouns, verbs, and adjectives gives us a chance to mull what mysterious substrate “a blanket,” “to blanket,” and “blanketing” might share in common. 

So I’ve been amazed at the awesome of antimeria, a rhetorical device that repurposes a word as a different part of speech than usual. In exposing that word’s ability to be understood across grammatical categories, antimeria—like polyptoton—does more than surprise or joke or streamline (or sow surprise or crack a joke or render prose more streamlined). Antimeria unlocks a word’s essence.

Nov. 16 2015 5:09 PM

This Year’s Word of the Year Isn’t Even a Word 😂😂😂

The Oxford Dictionaries “Word” of the Year 2015 has landed. It’s 😂, aka face with tears of joy, already weeping with relief at its victory. (I suppose we asked for this.) Casper Grathwohl, president of Oxford Dictionaries, explains the choice, which set off revels in emojiland: “Traditional alphabet scripts have been struggling to meet the rapid-fire, visually focused demands of 21st Century communication.  It’s not surprising that a pictographic script like emoji has stepped in to fill those gaps—it’s flexible, immediate, and infuses tone beautifully." That said, according to the press release, “there are no plans to add emoji to any Oxford Dictionaries.”

TJ—let’s call him TJ—is the most commonly used emoji on Earth. In 2015, he constituted 20 percent of all deployed emojis in the U.K., and 17 percent in the U.S. This can’t be chalked wholly up to the little guy’s semantic utility, though: He gets a popularity boost from the tendency of some users to clone him and string him into conga lines.


Though TJ’s official task seems to be to convey uncomplicated happiness, interpretations vary. Sometimes he expresses a brief “ha,” with multiple TJs intensifying the amusement. In other contexts he indicates the snarky state of laughing so hard you cry. (Nicki Minaj is a genius practitioner of the “tears of derision” kiss-off on Twitter, linking multiple TJs together in a daisy chain of scorn.) I’ve used a line of TJs to convey that I’m choosing to crack up rather than weep—the signs become a philosophical statement about the proximity of extreme joy and extreme pain.

Which makes 😂 the right linguistic incarnation of yet another complicated year, not to mention a good commentary on the very act of choosing a word of the year. What does it mean? Is it good or bad? It depends! With his intense and inscrutable emotional lability, TJ is less of a word and more of an invitation to invent some sort of meaning. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, but in the end you might just ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Nov. 16 2015 12:44 PM

Sauce or Gravy? The Secret, Fervent Debate at the Heart of the Italian American Spaghetti Dinner.

“The Italians of my parents’ generation are held together by the notion of the family,” wrote Martin Scorsese in his introduction to Italianamerican: The Scorsese Family Cookbook. “That is why the pasta sauce is so sacred to the Italian family.”

See, now right away we have a problem. Because as pretty as Scorsese’s words might sound, he’s taking sides in a major ethnic dispute. It involves Italian Americans and food—and not just any food but that most elemental source of nourishment (actual, emotional, spiritual, tribal), practically the equivalent of mother’s milk. The food of foods.

Tomato sauce. Wait, I mean gravy.

There’s nothing about the stuff itself that created this rift, just the name by which it’s called, gravy or sauce, seemingly a trivial matter but guaranteed to trigger strong partisanship.

Nov. 10 2015 3:59 PM

Spotting Hidden F-Words in Films

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

We’ve looked at swearing in films before, in the obvious sense where it occurs on the audio track. But sometimes films offer visual swears, a few examples of which are presented below. Visual swears may be remarked on or alluded to in the dialog, or they may not; they may be props, used for color and characterization, or they may serve comedic aims, or some combination of the above.

Nov. 6 2015 12:02 PM

Where Did We Get Cooties

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

Can we get cooties from a cooter? Etymologically? No.

But if you do get cooties from a cooter, there’s a good chance they’ll be crabs.

Cooties was the term members of the military used in World War I to refer to the body lice that ravaged the soldiers, compounding the misery of the trenches and transmitting diseases like typhus. Some etymologists have proposed that this sense of cooties came from kutu, the word for louse in Malay and Maori, but it most likely came from cooty, a British regionalism meaning “infested with lice” and referring originally to coots—waterfowl (such as auks)—that were perceived as dirty and teeming with parasites. This sense of coot is quite old, coming from the Middle English cote, and the Oxford English Dictionary has a citation of “as lousy as a coot” from 1864.

Nov. 6 2015 10:00 AM

Truthiness: BS Gets a Colbert Bump  

As part of the launch of Bullshit: A Lexicon, Mark Peters is writing a BS word of the day. 

Finally, we have arrived at the Stephen Colbert of BS words—a term coined in the first episode of The Colbert Report back in 2005.


My book Bullshit: A Lexicon includes a few recent words that name specific types of BS (like humblebrag and mansplaining), but I reckon truthiness is the best recent word for bullshit. How did we live without a word for statements that have the ring but not the reality of truth? Truthiness is a godsend, particularly during the current election season, which already feels longer than some geological eras.

But I love this word for another reason: I had a hand in its success.

Well, more like a toe, but still. I was part of the American Dialect Society meeting that voted truthiness Word of the Year for 2005. At that point, the word wasn’t remotely successful: It was an oddball candidate nominated by American Heritage Dictionary executive editor Steve Kleinedler. But the term took hold because of its cleverness and relevance.

Truthiness also raised a lot of issues about what the heck a Word of the Year should be. Should the WOTY be the most prominent new word? Should it be an omnipresent word, regardless of newness? Or should it be a word that simply sums up the year? Truthiness completely failed on the first two counts, but gloriously succeeded on the third, as it felt like the perfect label and rebuke of the bullshit of that time, when America seemed more bamboozled and hornswoggled than usual.

Truthiness wasn’t a choice immediately loved by all. I remember at least one peeved language maven storming out of the WOTY election, as though we’d just chosen lol as word of the century. After the meeting, I remember going out to eat with a bunch of word mavens (including Michael Adams, who would go on to discuss the word on The Colbert Report), and we told the greeter we had chosen truthiness as WOTY. She looked at us as if we had asked to sit in the heroin section.

But despite some initial consternation and confusion, we “done good,” as they say, lighting the spark that made truthiness a legitimately successful word. These days, truthiness can be found all over the place—and the uses that don’t mention Colbert are the best indicator of its success:

“The ongoing debate surrounding reproductive rights in the United States is often heavy on assumptions and light on facts. One of the issues most mired in truthiness is whether viewing an ultrasound has an effect on a woman's decision to have an abortion.”
, Oct. 8, 2015

“There are lots of efforts made to fact-check claims and lots of times claims are difficult to explain because their ‘truthiness’ depends on what yardstick is used.”
Winnipeg Free Press, Sept. 18, 2015

“One reason for doing so is that I thought the media, often pilloried for just reporting what the candidates tell them when it comes to this sort of thing, performed notably well in this case, digging deeply into the numbers, referencing historical failures of these sorts of policies, and generally getting it factually correct. That’s worth applauding in our age of ‘truthiness’ where ‘he-said, she-said’ too often poses as balanced analysis.”
Washington Post, Sept. 14, 2015

“More on off-label marketing expansion: a U.S. District Court judge granted a preliminary injunction for Amarin over its prescription omega-3 fish oil icosapent ethyl (Vascepa) on the grounds that truthful marketing is protected by the First Amendment. But maybe it's just ‘truthiness,’ considering the heavy industry influence on the papers being used as ‘truthful’ information, CardioBrief's Larry Huston notes.”
MedPage Today, Aug. 17, 2015

For insight into the primordial origins of truthiness, check out this interview with Colbert by Visual Thesaurus executive producer Ben Zimmer. Colbert revealed he wanted, among other things, “a silly word that would feel wrong in your mouth.” Who knew the word would also feel so right?

Previously on BS Word of the Day

Nov. 5 2015 1:00 PM

We Need a Better Word for Spreading Vicious Rumors. Let’s Try Calumny

Early in the day on Monday someone possibly related to the hacktivist group Anonymous released on Pastebin a possibly real, possibly trustworthy possible data dump possibly identifying persons of note possibly connected to the Ku Klux Klan.

Note: That’s a lot of possibles.


Here in North Carolina, we went a little crazy: freshman Sen. Thom Tillis was on the list, and if you’re a progressive, hearing something bad about Tillis is pretty exciting. Tillis was speaker of the House in the North Carolina General Assembly during a period of overwhelming rightward lean—taxes cut, Medicaid expansion refused, the education budget cut, restrictions on abortion passed, the university system assaulted, and voting made more difficult. Progressives do not like Thom Tillis.

So progressives loved the claim that Tillis was connected to the Klan. Cue the frenzy of unexamined sharing that usually follows such claims.

And cue the word for the day, which is calumny.

We don’t hear it much—it’s very much an analog word, a word from a time when what you said had meaning both to yourself and to the people about whom you said it. It first shows up in the 16th century. Hamlet uses it as a threat to Ophelia. Calumny, says the New Oxford American Dictionary, is "the making of false and defamatory statements in order to damage someone's reputation; slander.”

And if you can think of a better way to do that than claiming someone is associated with the Klan you're doing better than I can. The link to the Klan—the nuclear option in American politics—borders on calling someone a Nazi.

Calumny comes from the Latin calumnia, which, according to Black’s Law Dictionary, means “a false accusation; a malicious prosecution.” It was part of the Roman civil law. Which is to say, though its modern legal equivalent is defamation—making untrue statements to damage another’s reputation; spoken is slander and written is libel—I think the ancient-sounding calumny connects, with that false prosecution angle, a little more strongly with the ninth commandment. The one about bearing false witness. The one we pretty much all ignore on social media.

The noun calumny—like its sister, the verb traduce—has fallen out of fashion. We love legal definitions like slander and libel, because they enable us to comfortably refer to rules of evidence and remedy that, not being lawyers, we can all pretend we don’t understand. We can make vague gestures toward the First Amendment or some other thing that ought to allow us all to say whatever we want, and if it turns out to be wrong, well, sorry then.

But calumny has a stinging, Old Testament sound, and in this case that’s vital.

Because by Monday’s end it was clear—even Snopes was on the case—that the uploaded and shared material did not come from the plausibly trustworthy Anonymous. The group’s own Operation KKK Twitter feed, in fact, tweeted that it had not yet released any information: “We believe in due diligence and will NOT recklessly involve innocent individuals.”

I will for a moment allow us all to enjoy the irony of one anonymous group pledging to fact-check its information as it prepares to expose members of another anonymous group. In all, though, fact-checking is a good thing.

And most people on Facebook don’t. (I’ve complained about this before.)

Like many of the more responsible among us, I noted the moment I saw the fake release that no matter who the information came from, without evidence it was just rumor. And spreading defamatory rumor without concern to its veracity is calumny.

I began scolding on Facebook full time—who doesn’t love to do that?—and I was shocked by the blitheness with which those spreading the information regarded the news that it was at the very least unproven and certainly misrepresented. A massive progressive shrug: “I’m just stooping to their level,” one said to me; said another, “the evidence that he espouses similar belief with the KKK is already in his policy.” True enough as to the latter—I think Tillis has been a catastrophe for our state—but that doesn’t mean you get to accuse him of membership in the KKK, or of rape or murder or drug-running, or of littering, for that matter. As to stooping to their level, well then.

It’s easy to press share—and if you share without thinking, the wrongdoing doesn’t stay with the originator. Whoever was impersonating Anonymous did something wrong: committed calumny. But if you press share or retweet? You get a full measure of calumny for yourself. When you’re talking about words you always go back to Dr. Johnson, and in this case he has words of wisdom that ought to be tattooed on the inside of our eyelids. He writes in The Rambler, 183, from Dec. 17, 1751: “To spread suspicion, to invent calumnies, to propagate scandal, requires neither labour nor courage. It is easy for the author of a lye, however malignant, to escape detection, and infamy needs very little industry to assist its circulation.”

Modern translation: looking for clickbait? Lie about someone famous.

We’ve got a long way to go before we determine that sharing or retweeting false information makes you guilty of anything, much less slander or libel. But as for what you commit when you share some vicious accusation because, regardless of whether it’s true, you despise its subject?

Word of the day. Calumny. Get used to it.