Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Procrastination is productive

“No one wastes time quite like I do; I can waste time like no one else.” (1)

That phrase does a fairly good job of capturing me and my worst habit: procrastination. I never seem to have enough time in the day (I’m sure many of you understand this dilemma).

Today, however, my seeds of procrastination were rewarded with some extremely juicy fruit.

Browsing the library at school in order to avoid reading my psychology textbook I discovered etymology – namely the study of the origins of words and phrases – and more specifically toponyms.

(A toponym is a word derived from a place or region.)

The book Toposaurus: A Humorous Treasury of Toponyms by John D Jacobson (as the title aptly suggests) was the source of two hours of entertainment. I didn’t read the whole thing; just sporadically flipping through pages and stopped whenever my eye was caught (I’m easily distracted so that was fairly often).

I thought I would share some of the more interesting (to me, anyways) findings.

Many of the words and phrases enriching our language come from fictional literature:

Cheshire cat: Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) is generally associated with the Cheshire cat.
This isn’t true – shocking for a Wonderland Wannabe such as myself. The first appearance of the beloved (utterly mad) cat was actually from a book published 82 years earlier by some guy named Wolcott entitled A Pair of Luric Epistles: “Lo, like a Cheshire cat our court will grin.” Jacobson found an explanation for the idea of the Cheshire cat: Cheshire cheese – hard cheese, yellowish, orange or white, similar to cheddar – was once sold in Cheshire England, and molded like a widely grinning cat.

On a separate humorous note, apparently in the 19th century the expression grinning like a Cheshire cat was followed by eating cheese (cheese, though quite good – in my experience – does not cause one to grin like a lunatic), chewing gravel (umm, does this make any sense to anyone else? Or am I alone in my bewilderment?), evacuating bones (what a revolting image – the Cheshire cat as a zombie).

Lilliputian: comes from Jonathan Swift popular book Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver’s first stop was Lilliput where the people were one twelfth his size. Lilliputian is currently defined as extremely small, tiny or diminutive. It can also be described as someone who is narrow or petty in outlook.

(The idea of making up a word for a place – or really any word – and using it in my novel and have it transcend the scope of my book and bleed into real life is crazy, in that oddly thrilling way. It’s also now made it onto my list of goals [have at least one made of word become a real word] – I just have to make up a list to go with it now....)

Some more interesting – though not from fiction – words:

Lesbian: There is actually a place on this earth where everyone is called Lesbians – with a capital “L”. In the eastern Aegean Sea off the northwest coast of Turkey there is an island called Lesbos, it is natural then, that they be called Lesbians. So how, pray tell, did the name of these people deviate so far from its original meaning? Well it started because a lady named Sappho (born in 612 B.C.) became a poetess (considered by scholars to be among the world’s greatest poets) and leader of a group of young women who were dedicated to the cult of Aphrodite. The great affection she expressed for these girls was the cause of the change in meaning.

Dollar: In the 16th century in Joachimsthal (now in Czechoslovakia and now known as Jachymow), where the Counts of Shlick resided and minted coins that came from their family’s own silver mine. The coins were known as Joachimsthalers which locals shortened to thalers. When the thalers reached the land of the Dutch, the word thaler was altered to daler, which the English rounded out to dollar. Any coins now minted in Jachymow would literally glow in the dark since they have switched from mining silver to mining uranium (What would you do for glowing money? I know I’d do just about anything – it’s so cool!).

Cheap: It goes back to the Latin word cauponis: merchant. The word later emerged as ceap an Old English word meaning to barter or sell (this lasted into the Shakespearean period). As the “c” in ceap changed from a hard “k” sound to a soft “ch” the meaning also changed. In London, England, a major bargain center was called Cheapside – Londoners could barter with merchants to buy goods at low or cheap prices. This was instrumental in changing the word to its now inexpensive definition.

I hope you guys found this information at least half as interesting as I did!

And remember this lesson: procrastination can be productive.

(1) A line from Wooden Heart by The Duke Spirits.

Word Of The Day: Pejoration - change in a word to a less respectable meaning. (Cheap is an example of this)


  1. Melissa! Ahahah! Your hilarious!
    People WILL be using your words, so stop acting like such a muggle!

  2. hahha thats soo funny especially the lesbian one hahha. that book does sound pretty interesting. I love that you enjoy it so much. Now I have read your blog, you cant say i havent haha. please feel better my love i cant stand to know you are sick. :( i love you.


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