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Jewish World Review Jan. 27, 2005 / 17 Shevat 57645

Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
Dictionary, Tenth Edition

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Consumer Reports

‘Nightmares’; Macadam discovered macadamia nus?; difference between ‘extemporaneous’ and ‘impromptu’ | Dear Editor:

Why do we call bad or scary dreams "nightmares''?

  —  D. H., Atlanta, Ga.

Dear D. H.:

Because of the similarity in form between the second element of the compound "nightmare'' and the noun "mare,'' meaning "a female horse,'' many people have assumed a connection between the two words. Actually, however, the "-mare'' of "nightmare'' is a survival of another "mare'' found in Old English.

"Mare'' was a word in English as early as the 8th century, but it was obsolete by the 18th century. Old English "mare'' means "an evil spirit thought to oppress people during sleep.'' The compound "nightmare'' first appears in Middle English in the 13th century, in a sense much the same as "mare'' in Old English. Not until the 16th century was the meaning of "nightmare'' extended to refer to a frightening or oppressive dream, probably from the belief or suggestion that such dreams were caused by evil spirits.

  —    —    —  

Dear Editor:

My wife and I are having a dispute. I say that "macadam'' and "macadamia nut'' are both named for the same scientist, a man named Macadam. My wife insists that they must have different sources, since the things they name are so different. Can you tell us who's right? We've got dinner riding on this.

  —  O. H., Gilbert, Ariz.

Dear O. H.:

There was in fact a scientist named John Macadam. He was an Australian chemist who lived during the 19th century. As you may know, the macadamia is a hard-shelled nut produced by an evergreen tree native to Australia. This nut, and its tree "Macadamia ternifolia,'' were both named for John Macadam.

We're afraid, though, that you owe your wife dinner. Despite the similarity of its spelling, "macadam,'' the name for a road surface made by compacting a layer of small broken stone into a solid mass over a well-drained roadbed, is derived from the name of an entirely different person, the 19th century British engineer John L. McAdam.

After making his fortune in New York, McAdam returned to his homeland in Scotland. As a road trustee for his district, McAdam noticed the poor state of the local highways. At his own expense, he began a series of experiments in road-making. He later perfected his methods under a government appointment, and in 1819 he published a "Practical Essay on the Scientific Repair and Preservation of Roads.''

You may wonder how the word for the road surface come to be spelled "macadam'' rather than "mcadam.'' According to traditional English rules of spelling, "macadam'' makes more sense to the eye and more accurately indicates the word's pronunciation than does "mcadam.'' It is also worth noting that "McAdam'' and "Macadam'' are spelling variants of the same name, and so the insertion of the "a'' into "mcadam'' was in all respects a natural occurrence.

  —    —    —  

Dear Editor:

Is there any difference between "extemporaneous'' and "impromptu''?

  —  L.H., Lexington, Ky.

Dear L. H.:

When the subject is public speaking and the two words are being distinguished, "extemporaneous'' means "carefully prepared but delivered without notes''; "impromptu'' means "composed or uttered without previous preparation.'' This distinction in meaning is observed not only in public-speaking classrooms but in the wider world as well, as can be seen in the following passages found in our files: "He spoke without a note, and he is a superb extemporaneous speaker''; "It might be misleading to say that these Churchill talks were `impromptu' - for it is doubtful that he was ever unprepared for a speech.''

Teachers of speech consider the distinction between "extemporaneous'' and "impromptu'' an unbreakable rule. In many cases, however, these two words are used interchangeably. In its oldest sense, "extemporaneous'' is simply synonymous with "impromptu,'' and its use in describing off-the-cuff remarks is both common and correct. An example of "extemporaneous'' in this sense comes from "The Case of the Stuttering Bishop" by Erle Stanley Gardner: "... the ready wit of a detective who has had to resort to extemporaneous prevarications on numerous occasions.''

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01/19/05: 'Stool pigeon'; 'last hurrah'; train depots
01/12/05: 'Aught' and 'ought'; 'he doesn't know sickum'
12/30/04: Stranded'; 'over;'; circulars are square
12/16/04: 'Derrick'; 'scales falling from their eyes'; 'anthem'
12/09/04: Sailors using 'port' and 'starboard' for 'left' and 'right'; plural of compound words
11/30/04: 'Fly off the handle'; why the words 'left' and 'right' became associated with the political connotations of 'liberal' and 'conservative'; 'review' and 'revue'
11/17/04: 'Ball the jack'; Nazis
11/11/04: 'Catachresis'; 'kick the bucket' and dying; ballots
11/03/04: 'Divers' meaning 'different'?; 'The audience brought the house down'
10/25/04: 'Notorious' as a compliment?; 'and' as first word in sentence; 'yeoman' and 'yewman'
10/20/04: 'Shaggy-dog story'; 'tawdry'; 'Shawnee'
10/12/04: 'Busted'; differences between 'iterate' and 'reiterate'; 'the rain has quite abated'
10/04/04: 'Hat trick', 'rubber game' or 'rubber match'; source of 'spin doctor'; 'trope'
09/22/04: ' Redux'; 'elan'; 'swan-neck'
09/08/04: 'Adam's apple'; 'You sure lucked out'; 'the lion's share'
09/02/04: 'King's shilling'; 'Stockholm syndrome'; 'amid the alien corn'
08/24/04: Guacamole = avocados?; 'bona fides' needs plural verb?; 'exact same' redundant?
08/17/04: 'Nosey parker'; where the question mark came from?; why 'wash' doesn't rhyme with 'cash'
08/12/04: 'Vexillologist'; 'fifth column'; 'Homer sometimes nods'
08/05/04: 'Spitting image'; 'eclectic'; 'spendthrift'
07/28/04: 'Trousers'; 'argosy'
07/19/04: 'Sourdough wit'; 'headshrinkers'; 'seventh heaven'
07/08/04: 'The proof is in the pudding'; 'Pyrrhic victory'
07/01/04: Origin of 'vitamin'; 'binnacle list'
06/25/04: 'Abnegate' and 'abdicate'; 'feet of clay'; 'difugalty'
06/17/04: 'Whinge'; 'whole cloth'
06/10/04: 'The devil to pay'; 'crack', as in 'a crack marksman'; 'the dog that didn't bark'
06/03/04: 'Surrounded on three sides'; sleuths
05/18/04: 'Of the first water'; horses and horseradish; more
05/06/04: 'Historic' v. 'historical'; 'prestigious' = 'trickery'?; 'can of corn' as sports phrase
04/27/04: Derivation of 'bozo'; 'elt'; 'spill the beans'
04/21/04: Meaning of "budget'' in the word "fussbudget''; "bleeding hearts''; "skycap''
04/01/04: "Thin red line''; "doak"; "level playing field"
03/22/04: "King Canute"; "vodka"; "Cheese it. The cops!''
03/16/04: "Carrot and stick''; "hue and cry''; Where did the term "flea market'' originate?
03/09/04: Going "haywire"; "close, but no cigar"; "mahatma"
03/01/04: "Roundheel'' and "well-heeled''; "milquetoast"; "sick as a dog''
02/26/04: "Charley horse"; "`Foolproof''; "cracker-barrel''
02/17/04: "Dunce''; titles "Mr.'' and "Mrs.''; "under the weather''
02/10/04: "Turnpike''; "dead reckoning''
02/02/04: "Mutt"; "lobby" in its political sense; "procrustean bed"
01/27/04: "Decimate"; "duende"; a dessert "junket"?
01/14/04: Is "MacGuffin" related to all the "Mac" and "Mc" words we've been hearing about recently?; "afghans" and "Afghans"; "since Hector was a pup"
01/09/04: Confused about the word "hearsay"; "Burgle"; "waiting in line" or "waiting on line"?
12/31/03: The past tense of "plead''; Is "old adage'' redundant?; Where did "lounge lizard'' come from?
12/15/03: "Ostracize" and "oyster''?; Where does the "mentor'' come from?; "jeopard''
12/02/03: "Karats'' and "carats'' — meaning of and difference between; why apostrophe in "'cello''?; "hell-bent for leather''
11/18/03: "Hoosegow,''; why the little finger is called the "`pinkie''; difference between "lady'' and "dame''
11/13/03: 'Take it on the lam'; 'decorum'; 'you look like the wreck of the Hesperus'
11/03/03: Origin of "hypnosis"/"hypnotism"; "all right" or "alright"; emote
10/28/03: "Blue plate special"; how to use "hoi polloi''; "Peck's Bad Boy''
10/20/03: Who was the person the artist who first used "silhouette" as an art form?; why are they called migraine headaches?; origin of "keep one's shirt on"
10/13/03: "Grey'' in "greyhound'' has nothing to do with the color?; "at loggerheads''
09/29/03: Where does the word "karaoke" comes from?; people or persons?; "synecdoche"
09/23/03: Using "eke'' correctly; fedora; why do we call an especially flattering biography a "hagiography''?
09/10/03: Why do we call a zero score in tennis "love''?; "biannual'' or "semiannual''?; Is there any difference between "further'' and "farther''?; dilemma of using "dilemma''
09/02/03: "Out loud'' rather than "aloud''; "pushing the envelope''; "without rhyme or reason''
08/25/03: "Cheesy''; "hold a candle''
08/11/03: "Halcyon days''; Why isn't "sacrilegious'' spelled "sacreligious''?; "red light'' and "green light'' as expression — which came first, the inaction or the signals?
08/04/03: "Votive'' candles; "cosmeticizing"; "potluck''
07/28/03: Why ‘debt’ has a ‘b’ in it; "south moon under''; why "Rx'' is used for prescriptions
07/21/03: "Romance" & "Rome"?; punching & clocks; "conversate"
07/14/03: "Lukewarm''; Where did we get the word "wig'' for a fake head of hair?
07/09/03: Why doesn't "Arkansas'' rhyme with "Kansas''? ; "Catawampus"; "Jimmie Higgins work"
06/30/03: "Foozle"; author who wrote an entire novel without using a certain letter of the alphabet?; "kith and kin"
06/23/03: "On the fritz"; "knuckle down''
06/17/03: How did "lazy Susan'' come to be used for the rotating tray?; woolgathering'' as synonym for "idle daydreaming''; "in harm's way''
06/09/03: "Clotheshorse"; a god named "Ammonia"?
05/29/03: With kid gloves; "receipt'' = "recipe''?; from soup to nuts

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