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Jewish World Review July 21, 2002 / 21 Tamuz, 5763

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

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Consumer Reports

"Romance" & "Rome"?; punching & clocks; "conversate" | Dear Editor:

As I understand it, the word "romance'' comes from "Roman.'' So how did it obtain an association with love?

_ J. D., Chilmark, Mass.

Dear J. D.:

In the last centuries of the Roman Empire the wide variety and the geographical distribution of the peoples recognized as Roman citizens led inevitably to the gradual change of the classical language of earlier days that we call Latin. These developing languages, which in their early, unrecorded stages were only local dialects of Latin, were designated "romans'' (to use the Old French term cognate with other similar forms in Spanish, Italian and the other languages that we still call "romance'' languages today) to distinguish from the formal and official language.

Most serious literature, both prose and verse, continued to be written in Latin, but gradually the practice arose in France of writing entertaining verse tales in the more popular spoken language. Thus, to refer to something written in "romans'' was to refer to one of these works, and in Old French the word "romans'' came to mean "a tale in verse based chiefly on legend, chivalric love and adventure, or the supernatural.'' In this sense the word was borrowed into Middle English. Because many of these tales in both English and French, as well as in other languages, dealt with chivalric or courtly love, "romance'' came to mean simply "a love story'' and eventually it developed the sense of "a love affair.''

Dear Editor:

I've heard and read the word "clock'' used to mean to punch someone in the face. It sound old-fashioned to me. Can you tell me anything about its origins?

_ R. B., Fort Washington, Pa.

Dear R. B.:

The use of "clock'' to mean "to hit hard'' or "to punch in the face'' is quite a recent development. The earliest citation comes from a 1941 Australian source in which it is considered slang. Like most slang words, this sense of "clock'' had probably been around a while in spoken language before it began appearing in print.

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Exactly how this sense originated isn't known. One theory suggests that it stems from the noun sense of "clock'' meaning "human face.'' The earliest printed evidence for "clock'' meaning "face'' dates to the 1920s.

Another interesting use of "clock'' occurs in the phrase "to clean one's clock.'' This phrase emerged in printed sources as recently as the 1970s. It means "to beat one badly in a fight or competition.'' Many of our collected citations for "to clean one's clock'' come from sports reporting. We also have evidence of a number of less common phrases that are similar in meaning and construction, including "clean one's plow'' and "fix one's clock.''

Dear Editor:

I sometimes hear the word "conversate,'' but I can't find it in any dictionaries. Is this a real word?

_ R. R., Columbus, Ohio

Dear R. R.:

"Conversate'' is relatively new on the English language scene. Our earliest evidence of the word is from 1987. Its usage seems to be on the rise, although it is still largely restricted to the speech of young people (as in the world of hip-hop).

"Conversate'' is of course a back-formation from the noun "conversation.'' Back-formations often succeed in becoming established in the language. Perfectly respectable verbs like "diagnose,'' "televise" and "donate'' originated as back-formations (of "diagnosis,'' "television,'' and "donation'' respectively). Other back-formations become established but continue to be the targets of occasional criticism - for example, "enthuse'' (from "enthusiasm'') and "commentate'' (from "commentator''). It's possible that "conversate'' will one day become established itself, but it faces a significant potential barrier to ever winning general acceptance as a standard English word: it's trying to fill a space in the language that's already occupied. The word "converse'' has been used to refer to what people do when they have a conversation since the late 16th century.

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Readers may send questions to Merriam-Webster column, P.O. Box 281, 47 Federal St., Springfield, Mass. 01102. Comment by clicking here.


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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