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Jewish World Review Feb. 17, 2004 / 25 Shevat, 5764

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

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"Dunce''; titles "Mr.'' and "Mrs.''; "under the weather'' | The other day I came across a political cartoon that featured a child sitting forlornly in a corner wearing the classic conical dunce's cap. It led me to wonder: where does the word "dunce'' come from?

— D.S., Missoula, Mont.

Dear D.S.:

We are mercifully far removed from the days of dunce caps in classrooms, but the word "dunce'' remains alive and well in our language.

First appearing in English in the l6th century, "dunce'' derives from the name of one of the most influential philosophers of the Middle Ages, John Duns Scotus.

However, this should not be taken to mean that Duns Scotus suffered from the kind of slow-wittedness traditionally associated with the word. Duns Scotus was, in fact, long considered a luminary of theological and metaphysical thought; among his many speculations was the classical defense of the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

The writings of Duns Scotus continued to carry profound influence in the centuries after his death in the early 1300s, only to meet staunch criticism and ridicule at the time of the Protestant Reformation. The word "Duns'' (later "dunce''), taken from the town in Scotland in which he was born, was adopted as a term of obloquy to refer to one who is guilty of erroneous or fallacious reasoning, and soon expanded to include our modern application of the word.

Dear Editor:

Where do we get the titles "Mr.'' and "Mrs.'' from?

— P.W., Lakewood, Ind.

Dear P.W.:

The short answer is "tradition.'' Since at least the 15th century, folks have been using "Mister'' as a courtesy title before a man's surname. The title originated as an abbreviation for "maister,'' the Middle English word for "master.''

The earliest known uses of the abbreviation "Mr.'' occurred in the mid-16th century. Its feminine counterpart, "Mrs.,'' dates to the early 17th century. "Mrs.'' is an abbreviation of "mistress.'' Unlike "Mr.,'' "Mrs.'' indicates both the sex and marital status of the person being addressed.

A few years after the abbreviation "Mrs.'' appeared, "mistress'' was again shortened, this time to create "miss.'' We now use "Miss'' as a title for an unmarried woman or girl, but in its earliest (lowercase) uses "miss'' referred to either a so-called "kept woman'' - that is, a married man's mistress - or to a prostitute. Its use as a title dates from the second half of the 17th century.

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The youngest of the courtesy titles is "Ms.,'' a blend of "Mrs.'' and "Miss'' that is used when a woman's marital status isn't known or is irrelevant. Although it didn't appear in print until 1949 (and some traditionalists still sniff at it), the Oxford English Dictionary notes that at least one 18th-century writer wished such a title existed back then. Although "Ms.'' is not a true abbreviation, it is still usually written with a final period.

Dear Editor:

Whenever my aunt gets a cold, she says that she is feeling "under the weather.'' I'm curious about the origin of this phrase. Is it British?

— P.D., Saint Clair, Mich.

Dear P.D.:

The phrase "under the weather'' is actually an American expression dating all the way back to 1850. Though it was once considered slang, the phrase now appears often in ordinary or even fairly formal contexts with the meaning "somewhat ill.'' Why the word "weather'' is used this way is not entirely clear. The expression may derive from the sense of the adjective "under'' meaning "lower than usual, proper, or desired'' (as in "under par'') and the sense of "weather'' meaning "state of life or fortune.''

We usually use the expression to convey the idea that someone is not seriously ill but simply recovering from a minor ailment. Over time the expression has also come to be used as a euphemism for drunkenness. George Orwell wrote in his novel "Coming Up for Air,'' "By closing time they were both so boozed that I had to take them home in a taxi, and I was a bit under the weather myself, and the next morning I woke up with a worse head than ever.''

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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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