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Jewish World Review Dec. 15, 2003 / 20 Kislev, 5764

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

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"Ostracize" and "oyster''?; Where does the "mentor'' come from?; "jeopard'' | Dear Editor:

I know that to ostracize someone means to banish or exclude that person from a place or group. Recently I learned that the word "ostracize'' shares a similar root as the word "oyster.'' How are the two words related? — K.O., Warwick, R.I.

Dear K.O.:

In ancient Greece, prominent citizens whose power or influence threatened the stability of the state could be exiled by a practice called ostracism. During annual elections held in Athens, voters could elect to banish another citizen by writing that citizen's name down on a potsherd (a fragment of earthenware or tile). Citizens who received the required number of votes (usually a majority of at least six thousand) would then be subject to temporary exile from the state (usually for ten years). The Greek word "ostrakon'' referred to the shell used in this voting process and was related to "ostreon,'' the word for "oyster,'' which has a rough, irregular shell. "Ostrakon'' begat the verb "ostrakizein,'' meaning "to banish by voting with potsherds,'' the direct ancestor to our "ostracize.''

When the word "ostracism'' first appeared in English in the 16th century, it was used only to refer to the old Athenian custom. The word is now used to refer to any kind of banishment from a group, usually inflicted on a social level.

Dear Editor: We're hearing a lot these days about "mentoring'' programs. Where does the "mentor'' come from? — R.B., Longview, Texas

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Dear R.B.:

"Mentor'' is the name of a character in Homer's "Odyssey'' who serves as the advisor of young Telemachus, the son of Odysseus. A wise and trusted counselor, Mentor is especially helpful because much of the time he is actually the goddess Athena, who assumes Mentor's identity in order to give Telemachus advice and information.

Today, the word "mentor'' is applied to a senior person, often in an organization, who assists less-experienced and usually younger persons to succeed. The concept is so familiar that, as you've noted, it has turned into a verb.

Dear Editor:

I came across the word "jeopard'' in an old book recently. Is this a misspelling or a typo intended to be "jeopardize''? — A.K., Baltimore, Md.

Dear A.K.:

No, it's a legitimate word in its own right.

It may be hard for you (or any modern reader) to believe that that "jeopardize'' was once controversial, but in 1870 the grammarian Richard Grant White called it "a foolish and intolerable word.'' His view was shared by many 19th-century American critics. The preferred verb was the one you've noted - "jeopard,'' a much older word that first appeared in print in the 14th century, but that had fallen into disuse by the 1600s. (The upstart "jeopardize'' first turned up in 1582, but grammarians still hadn't acknowledged it as an acceptable word 300 years later.) In 1828, Noah Webster himself declared "jeopardize'' to be "a modern word, used by respectable writers in America, but synonymous with 'jeopard,' and therefore useless.''

Useless or not, "jeopardize'' became increasingly common in both America and Great Britain, as attempts to resurrect "jeopard'' met with predictable failure. In fact, the primarily American protests against "jeopardize'' began to die down by 1900, and it has now been about a hundred years since anyone has raised any serious objections to its use. "Jeopard,'' on the other hand, is now used only in recalling the language of the past.

Incidentally, these words derive ultimately from the Anglo-French noun "jeuparti,'' which means "alternative'' or, literally, "divided game.''

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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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