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NEW LEADERSHIP IMMINENT – U.S. President-elect Joe Biden speaks Monday at The Queen theatre in Wilmington, Del. The origin of ‘malarkey’, one of his favourite words on the election campaign trail, is uncertain. AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Words on the TV news: politics, curfews, vaccines

Following last Sunday’s death of Alex Trebek, the bilingual Canadian who hosted the Jeopardy! quiz show for 36 years, CBC TV interviewed the winning contestant from the episode telecast Nov. 5; it had been taped several weeks earlier.

By Gregory Bryce on November 13, 2020

Following last Sunday’s death of Alex Trebek, the bilingual Canadian who hosted the Jeopardy! quiz show for 36 years, CBC TV interviewed the winning contestant from the episode telecast Nov. 5; it had been taped several weeks earlier.

The man recalled watching the show as a boy while sitting on his grandfather’s lap. Both were immigrants from India. He credited it for teaching him English and for helping him learn about Western culture and American and world history.

The continuing U.S. election drama and the surge in coronavirus infections in Canada have made for similar learning experiences.

News and commentary on those events kept me glued to the screen for hours each day and provided many opportunities to explore the English language.

Though the words reporters and pundits use are familiar, my curiosity about a word’s origin or its precise meaning often makes me jot it on an envelope for later research or reach for a good dictionary from the shelf and flip through its fascinating pages.

Malarkey and shenanigans

Retrospective clips of Joe Biden’s early drive toward the U.S. presidency featured the rallying cry “No malarkey!”

It was emblazoned across his campaign bus, printed on lapel buttons and sold on T-shirts and coffee mugs.

Some saw the slogan as a throwback to a calmer era, others as corny. Yet malarkey was unknown to most young voters and seen as emphasizing the candidate’s age; he turns 78 next week.

Defined on Dictionary.com as “speech or writing designed to obscure, mislead, or impress,” it has dozens of near-synonyms including bunkum, nonsense, rubbish, balderdash and tommyrot. In my youth, Baloney! was a favourite term.

Malarkey is American slang dated to 1924. Like so much slang, its origin is uncertain.

Though an Irish surname Mullarkey exists, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) says “no connection is known between any person of that name and this word.”

Another Irish-sounding word was used this week by a letter writer who referred to certain U.S. election practices, such as gerrymandering and voter suppression, as shenanigans.

It first appeared in 1855 in California at the tail end of the 1848-1855 gold rush which brought 300,000 newcomers to the sparsely populated former Mexican territory.

No wonder its origin is considered “obscure.” Suggestions cited by Etymonline.com include a Spanish word for trick or deceit, related German slang and the Irish sionnach, meaning fox.

The history of the aforementioned pundits is much clearer. Described by one U.S. website as “network windbags,” pundit has more elevated origins.

A Hindi word dated to 1660 in English, the OED defines it as “a learned or wise person; a person with knowledge of Sanskrit and Indian philosophy, religion, and law.”

The modern Western sense of an expert, commentator or critic is traced to 1816.

Curfews and placebos

Reporting on the pandemic has brought new prominence to some common words. In late October, Spain imposed a nationwide night-time curfew to help control the spike in infections.

Since the 16th century, William the (French) Conqueror of England in 1066 has been blamed for imposing a curfew as a means of political repression. The OED says that no historical evidence for this story exists.

We associate ringing church bells as a deadline for returning home, which is what it was for centuries and still is at times.

However, it was originally a medieval regulation requiring fires to be covered over or put out at a certain hour signalled by bell ringing. It aimed to prevent conflagrations arising from domestic fires left unextinguished at night.

Curfew comes from the 13th-century Anglo-French coeverfu, or couvre-feu in modern French. It means simply “Cover the fire.”

The French feu – like the Catalan and Romanian foc, Spanish fuego and Portuguese fogo – comes from the Latin focus, which originally meant fireplace but eventually fire more generally.

Latin words used in English showed up on Monday when the pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced that the COVID-19 vaccine they are working on has been 90 per cent effective.

Clinical trials involving 43,000 people, presumably healthy beforehand, would have involved giving half the volunteers a placebo, an inactive substance used as a control in a research project.

Placebo is a future tense Latin verb meaning “I shall be pleasing.”

Newscasters pointed out the caveat (a warning or caution) that the research data had not yet been independently reviewed, nor had the vaccine been approved.

Caveat is a Latin subjunctive verb form meaning “Let (someone) beware.” It shares a root with caution.

The director-general of the World Health Organization recently said, “Now is the time to double down” and take quick action on infection clusters.

Double down refers to doubling one’s bet in a game of blackjack when one hopes to beat the dealer. It has expanded since 1990 to mean increasing one’s efforts, especially when vulnerable.

Whitehorse resident Gregory Bryce’s column on intriguing aspects of English is usually published on the second Friday of each month from September to May.

Comments are welcomed; please write to him at YukonWords@gmail.com.

WORDWATCHING
By GREGORY BRYCE

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