Lexie and Election Electricity

“Does that answer your question, ma’am?” Ms. Khan said into her phone. I hadn’t realized she had me on speaker. She looked down at the phone. Apparently Mrs. Big was responding by text.

“Thanks, Ms. Kahn. My employer says she sees how the different meanings of spring fit together. You don’t have to explain about the coiled metal type; she sees how it bounces up like the spring of water. She has another question now.”

I squeezed the envelope of cash. “Sure. Shoot.”

“She wants to know if elect and electric are related.”

“Is it true the reason her corporation is supplying electronic voting machines for several states has less to do with profits than with swaying elections?”

Election 512px-Urna_eletrônica

She wagged her finger at me. “No you didn’t. You didn’t try to use the old ‘How did you know? I didn’t; you just told me’ trope on me. I never revealed the identity of my employer.”

“You got me there. OK. No, the two words are not related. Elect is from Latin ēlectus, past participle of ēligĕre to pick out, choose. Eligĕre breaks into ē- out, and legĕre to chose, from the Indo-European root leg-, to collect.

Electric originally meant ‘possessing the property (first observed in amber) of developing static electricity when rubbed. It comes from post-classical Latin electricus of amber, amber-like, which is from classical Latin ēlectrum amber, ultimately from Greek ēlektron.”

“If elect means to choose, it must be related to select,” she said.

“Mmm-hmm. From the Latin verb seligere with the same root, legere, preceded by se- ‘apart’ instead of ē- out. Basically the same thing. The root leg- appears in a lot of other words you wouldn’t think are related. But I’ll have another Frappuccino before we get into that.


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Extra Lex: Retronyms for when you’re talking old school

If Don Draper of “Mad Men” asked his secretary to place the GM file on his desktop near the dashboard icon, she might wonder what joker got him a plastic figurine for his car. Those terms have different meaning since computers revolutionized offices, so we need “retronyms” to refer to the old technology.

Lexie’s alter ego discusses retronyms at Mental Floss.


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Extra Lex: Century-Old Words

If you took our 100-Year-Old Words quiz, you may recognize some of these, but it’s hard to believe these words have been around for a century. Imagine Mr Selfridge spouting some of these words and phrases.


        Harry Gordon Selfridge circa 1910. Wikipedia


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Extra Lex: Debunking Myths about Phrase Origins

A widely-circulated email called “Little History Lesson” gets the history of phrases like “big wig,” “to cost an arm and a leg” and “mind your own beeswax” all wrong. Here are the true stories from Mental Floss.

big wig 150669241_0


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Spring Bounces In

I didn’t see her slip in — the tall, wavy-haired figure silhouetted in front of me.

“Afternoon, Ms. Kahn,” she said.

“And to you, Ms. Khan.” It was Amira Khan, the anonymous Boss Lady’s go-fer. Things were looking up. “Mrs. Big” was loaded and generous. After a long drought, the spring was bubbling again. The novelist barista’s questions would have to wait.

“My employer decided to spring for a few etymology questions,” said Ms. Khan, sliding a bulging business-sized envelope toward me. I swear I could hear the crinkle of crisp bills over the hiss of the espresso maker.

“Please, have a seat. What can I do for you?”

“It’s about spring.”

“The season, the water source, or the bouncy kind?”

“All of them. But those are just the nouns. She wants the verbs too.”

I peeked into the envelope and riffled through the green stuff with a thumbnail. “OK. She’s got it covered.


Lupine in Portuguese Bend. J.B. Herman

“The verb meaning ‘to bounce up, move forward with a sudden jerk or bound’ goes back at least to 888, a nice round bouncy year, when the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred translated a 6th century Latin work into English.

“In Anglo-Saxon (or Old English) the noun spring meant ‘the place of rising or issuing from the ground, the source of a well, stream or river.’ It was springing up from the earth, see? Figuratively it came to mean ‘the source or origin of something.’ That meaning broadened out to mean ‘the action or time of rising or springing into existence.’ From around 1380 to 1600 it was common to refer to the spring of day or the spring of dawn. In the 1500s we find writings about the spring of the year.

“Wouldn’t that mean ‘the beginning of the year’?” Ms. Khan asked.

“Exactly. Until the calendar reform of 1751, the new year began on March 25 in England.”

“Spring does seem like the time of new beginnings. It makes sense that the year would begin then.”


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Extra Lex: “Life in the 1500s” Phrase Origins Hoax

While Lexie waits for the return of the novel novelist, check out these articles from Mental Floss debunking a popular email with fake origin stories for many expressions:




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A Novel That’s a Real Novelty

I was hunched in my windowless corner office nursing a double. I was dry as an unirrigated field in California’s 500-year drought. Maybe the last gully-washer knocked a few years off the rating, but I was in a dry state, no question. It wasn’t just my throat that was parched either. Business had dried up and blown away like the last tumbleweed of summer.

I was rubbing some nickels together in hopes of producing a quarter when the new barista slipped a tiny pumpkin loaf in front of me.

“On the house,” she said without moving her lips.

I smiled involuntarily. “That’s a novel get-up,” I said, indicating her leotard top, which was long-sleeved on one side, sleeveless on the other.

“You got that right.”

As her sleeve moved into a beam of light, my hand instinctively dove for the pearl-handled implement in the pocket of my trench coat. The “sleeve” was not made of cloth but tattoos – minuscule marks marching like ants around her arm. Raising the pearl-handled magnifier, I saw that the lines of ants were words – thousands of them.

Tattooed_Arm“My novel,” she said. “I decided self-publishing was the way to go, even if it costs an arm and a leg.”

I gazed downward, but her boot-cut jeans kept their secret.

“So, tell me, Lexie, why is something new and different called novel? Is it so unbelievably inventive that it must be fictitious?”

“Well, you gave me a freebie, so this one’s on me. It’s the other way around. The adjective novel, meaning ‘new,’ ‘of recent origin,’ ‘unusual’ or ‘fresh’ entered English around 1400 from Anglo-Norman and Middle French novel, ultimately from classical Latin novellus belonging to recent times, new, young, fresh, etc., from novus new + the diminutive suffix –ellus.

“The noun novel had several meanings in English before the one we use today.”

“Hold that thought. I’ve got customers at the counter.”

So I bade a temporary farewell to arms, tattooed and plain.

Got a question about a word or phrase? Ask Lexie in a comment.

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