Sunday, July 24, 2011

Spotlight on Words

The language of the Readers' Services staff can sometimes get complicated. Ask us about a documentary film and how to find it, and we launch into a description of the Dewey Decimal System. But during a good part of our day we just talk in plain English about blockbuster movies like Die Hard or Public Enemies. Or we direct you to a magazine or a tabloid to find out which celebrities are in the limelight or who won an Oscar or a Tony award. After a few general questions, we can decipher a book title from a cryptic request as we use the library catalog or the online site Amazon.

Our training and natural curiosity won't stop at that though. You may be off to enjoy your findings but we'll be searching the nearest reference sources to better understand the etymology of the words we just spoke.

Amazon - Greek legends of 5th century BC describe strong, courageous women warriors of Asia Minor as Amazons.

Blockbuster - A word coined during WWll for a massive bomb capable of leveling a block.

Die Hard - This was the battle cry of William Inglis during the Napoleonic Wars imploring his troops to stick to the battle and not give up.

Limelight - In the early 19th century, the mineral lime was heated to incandescence to improve the lighting in gas lit theaters. The bright white light was directed on the actors for better visibility. (See photo)

Magazine - Borrowed from the Muslim word makhazins which describes a fortress like storage facility holding a collection of equipment. By the 17th century Europeans were using the word to describe any miscellaneous collection of things.

Oscar - The film award statue went unnamed until the 1930's when the Academy's librarian Margaret Herrick said it looked like her Uncle Oscar and the name stuck.

Public Enemy Number One- Used by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in reference to John Dillinger. This phrase has come to represent any criminal whose crimes are particularly heinous and a threat to the public.

Tabloid - Coined by the pharmaceutical company Burroughs, Wellcome in 1884. Tabloids were specially formulated pills that were highly concentrated and easily swallowed. First used in a journalistic sense in 1900 by Alfred Harmsworth.

Tony - The award for excellence in Broadway theater was named after Antoinette Perry, an actress, director and founder of the American Theater Wing.

Check out these sources:
What's in a Name by Eugene Ehrich
Word Origins and How We Know Them by Anatoly Lieberman
Dictionary of Historical Allusions and Eponyms edited by Dorothy Auchter

1 comment:

Roberta said...

This just seems to fit: "gaslight" to manipulate someone into questioning their own sanity; to subtly drive someone crazy (from the movie of the same name, 1944).

I used to hear this in cop shows all the time - "we're being gaslighted, Eames!" and wonder what it meant.

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