Jewish World Review Sept. 23, 2003 / 26 Elul, 5763
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
Using "eke'' correctly; fedora; why do we call an especially flattering biography a "hagiography''?
M.D., Malden, Mass.
This seems to be a new and, as yet, nonstandard usage. But before we frown and shake our fingers, let us point out that something like this has happened to "eke'' before. Beginning in the 1950s, commentators began objecting to the use of "eke'' with "out'' in sentences like "They managed to eke out a living.'' The sense there, "to get with great difficulty,'' became predominant in the mid-1900s, superseding in frequency the older sense meaning "to supplement,'' as in "He eked out his income by getting a second job.'' That use dates back to the late 16th century, whereas the newer use (which isn't so new - it first appeared in the first half of the 18th century) was considered by some to be unacceptably at odds with the verb's original and now archaic meaning of "to increase or lengthen.'' But the important thing to note is that now the newer usage is quite standard.
So what we have in "eke one's way'' appears to be a further extension of the "get with difficulty'' sense. It might be influenced by "edge one's way,'' where "edge'' is a transitive verb meaning "to move or force gradually,'' as in "She edged her way through the crowd.'' We too have seen examples of "eke one's way'' - as in referring to an idea that "has eked its way into their consciousness.'' But we have only observed this use since the early 1980s, and we have not yet found it to be at all common.
I will always have memories of my grandfather wearing a dark brown fedora whenever he left the house. Can you tell me where the word "fedora'' comes from?
H.R., Elizabeth, N.J.
The word "fedora,'' referring to the soft felt hat with the creased crown, comes from "Fedora,'' a tragedy by the 19th-century French playwright Victorien Sardou. First produced in 1882, the play starred Sarah Bernhardt as a Russian princess named Fedora Romanoff, one of several roles that Sardou, a master of melodrama, had created with Bernhardt specifically in mind. Bernhardt's character in "Fedora'' wore the familiar hat we know today, and the new fashion was quickly scooped up by men and women alike. It was less than a decade later that the stylish fedora was being sold in popular department stores under the name of the character and the production that made it famous.
The rise of "fedora'' is not the only occasion in which a popular narrative inspired not only a fashion trend but a new word as well. The hat known as the trilby owes its name to George Du Maurier's 1894 novel "Trilby.'' Early illustrated editions of that novel showed the title character's fiance wearing a soft felt hat with a narrow brim. The runaway success of the novel created an immediate demand for the hat, further encouraged by a popular stage production of the novel in which the hat was conspicuously featured.
Why do we call an especially flattering biography a "hagiography''?
T.U., Virginia Beach, Va.
Dear T. U.:
You may have already guessed from the meanings of more common words such as "biography'' and "autograph'' that "-graphy'' has something to do with books and writing. If so, you are right. The combining form "- graphy'' comes from the Greek word "graphein,'' meaning "to write.''
"Hagio-'' comes from a Greek word too - one that means "saintly'' or "holy.'' The word "hagiography,'' first recorded in 1821, originally referred to biographies of saints, but these days you are apt to see the word applied more broadly to any idealizing or idolizing biography. In other words, a hagiography is a biography that treats its subject as if he or she were a saint.
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