Saturday, 15 December 2007

A.W.A.D. - Terms in the Pattern an X's Y

There's baker's dozen and bull's eye and deadman's hand (a poker hand) and blindman's buff.

Our language is sprinkled with terms coined with the formula X's Y. There are diseases and syndromes and body parts named after physicians (Parkinson's disease); there are theorems, laws, and numbers named after scientists (Avogadro's number); there are plants named after botanists (Ahnfelt's seaweed); and there are places named after explorers, though some are named after no one ("no man's land" :-).

This week we'll look at five terms that follow this X's Y or "someone's something" formula, terms that are named after no one in particular.

busman's holiday
(BUS-manz HOL-i-day) noun
A holiday spent doing things as at work.

[Imagine a bus driver having a day off, 'enjoying' a bus ride and you'll have a pretty good idea of this term. Going on a long drive might be a great vacation for many of us, but not for a bus driver. Of course, when the phrase came up some 200 years ago, bus drivers had charge of horse-drawn buses. The term is sometimes seen as 'businessman's holiday'.]

friar's lantern
(FRY-uhrz LAN-tuhrn) noun
A phosphorescent light seen over marshy ground at night, caused by spontaneous combustion of gases emitted by decomposing organic matter. A synonym is foxfire (not Firefox), especially for luminescence produced by fungi.

[The first use of the term is in John Milton's 1632 poem L'Allegro: "She was pinched and pulled, she said;/And he, by Friar's lantern led."]

curate's egg
(KYOOR-itz eg) noun
Something having both good and bad parts.

[From a cartoon in Punch magazine (London, UK) in which a timid curate (a junior clergy member), when served a stale egg at a bishop's table, tries to assure his host that parts of the egg were edible:

Right Reverend Host: I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr. Jones!
The Curate: Oh no, My Lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!

The cartoon was drawn by George du Maurier and published in the Nov 9, 1895 issue of the magazine. That makes it one of the very few terms whose origin we can pin down to a specific date.]

widow's peak
(WID-oz peek) noun
A V-shaped hairline at the center top of the forehead.

[From the former belief that this feature in a woman was an omen that she'd outlive her husband, as in those days a widow wore a mourning hood with a pointed crest.]

shank's mare
(SHANGKS mare) noun
One's own legs. Also known as shank's pony.

[From facetiously referring to one's legs as a horse, a shank being the part of the leg between the knee and ankle.]

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