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Belt Idioms

A striking headline from The Daily Beast got me thinking about all the expressions that make use of the noun belt:

The Rustbelt Roars Back From the Dead

I thought a post about belt idioms might be especially useful to ESL speakers.

A belt is a strip of flexible material, such as leather, plastic, cloth, used with or without a buckle for wear (usually) around the waist. Some idioms are based on a belt’s narrow shape, like the following epithets for different sections of the United States.

Corn Belt
This term refers to the region in the north-central Midwest of the United States where corn (maize) and corn-fed livestock are raised. The Corn Belt extends from western Ohio to eastern Nebraska and northeastern Kansas.

Cotton Belt
This is the region of the South and Southwestern sections of the United States where much cotton is grown.

Rust Belt
Regions in the Midwest and Northeast that were once centers of manufacturing but which have become the sites of obsolete, abandoned factories are collectively known as the Rust Belt.

Bible Belt
Sections of the United States, especially in the South and in Middle West, where many residents hold fundamentalist religious beliefs, has long been referred to as the Bible Belt. The AP Stylebook warns journalists to use the term with care “because in certain contexts it can give offense.”

Sun Belt
Those states in the South and West, ranging from Florida and Georgia through the Gulf states into California are often referred to as the Sun Belt.

Other belt idioms are based on the use of the belt as an article of clothing.

to tighten one’s belt
The meaning is “to spend less money.” A person who must spend less money on groceries may be forced to eat less and lose weight as a result. Losing weight makes it possible to fasten a belt more tightly.

Example: Just as families and businesses across the nation have tightened their belts, so must the federal government.

to get something under your belt
This means “to complete some endeavor seen as necessary.”

Example: Aled Davies has his first Grand Prix under his belt.

to hit below the belt
The meaning is “to take unfair advantage of someone.” In boxing, striking an opponent below the belt is against the rules.
Example: Sarkozy hits below the belt as race for Elysée hots up

a belt and braces approach (British)
a belt and suspenders approach (American)
This refers to a way of doing things that involves more than the usual amount of caution. Either a belt or a pair of braces or suspenders is sufficient to hold up one’s trousers. Using both is excessive.

Example: The combination of these factors—change in key staff and rapid growth—meant that there needed to be a “belt and braces” approach to quality management and staffing. 

Constitutional protections seem to represent a belt and suspenders approach.

put a notch on one’s belt
This idiom can mean “to defeat an opponent” or t”o add something to a collection.” According to the lore of the Old West, every time a gunfighter killed a man, he cut a notch on his gun handle or along the edge of his gun belt.

Example: For DeMint, the Moran victory is another notch on the belt.

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Daily Writing Tips

Rode and Road

An article on the sports page of my morning paper quoted the owner of the winning horse praising the jockey:

Victor road him really well.

The reporter was reaching for the past tense of the verb ride:

Victor rode him really well.

The error is embarrassing, but etymologically speaking, the words ride and road are related.

Note: If you’re interested in the scholarly details, explore the entries for ride, road, and raid in the OED. I’m just giving a short version.

The verb ride derives from a word that had the following meanings:

to sit on and direct a horse or other animal
to travel on horseback
to travel in a vehicle
to transport goods by vehicle
to direct the movement of a vehicle
(of a ship) to lie or float at anchor; later (12th century) to float on the water

All of these meanings still attach in modern English, for example:

Having been reared in the West, Cooper knew how to ride horses and was able to get a job as an extra in a frontier film, The Thundering Herd (1925).

The captain of a smaller craft might throw out an anchor if the ship needed to ride out a storm.

The most common use of the noun road in modern English is to refer to a wide cleared pathway with a specially prepared surface along which motorized vehicles travel.

In coastal place names, the plural Roads refers to a sheltered section of water where vessels may lie at anchor in safety:

Hampton Roads is the name of both a body of water and a metropolitan region in Southeastern Virginia, United States. 

The ship anchored in the Savona Roads and was reported to the Custom House on the same day.

The Tuscarora left Southampton Water on the 30th of January, but anchored in Yarmouth Roads, and remained there until the 1st of February, when she proceeded as far westward as Portland.

Related or not, rode and road are different words and careful spellers keep them separate.

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Daily Writing Tips

Unctuous, A Humpty Dumpty Word

A reader alerted me to a new use of the word unctuous that has escaped me until now:

When did “unctuous” start having a positive connotation?  Watch any cooking show lately and it’s likely you’ll hear someone describe a dish as “unctuous,” as if that’s a good thing. Many celebrity chefs seem to now use the word to suggest a dish is rich, smooth, or maybe even creamy.”

Like the reader, my reaction to hearing the adjective unctuous applied to food is one of disbelief and gagging repugnance.

Unctuous derives from a Latin word meaning ointment. The earliest meaning of the word in English is “of the nature or quality of an unguent or ointment; oily, greasy.”

Like so many other words, unctuous is and has been used with multiple meanings. For example, applied to soil, unctuous refers to the presence of organic matter and fertility.

OED citations from 1495-1821 show the word used to describe meat that was “greasy, fat, and rich.” The OED labels this use “archaic.”

For me, the chief meaning of unctuous is “smarmy and hypocritical.” This figurative meaning developed in the 18th century from the religious use of the noun unction in reference to religious ritual.

Anointing with oil is a symbolic act indicating that a person is being prepared for something serious. For example, the Catholic sacrament Extreme Unction is equated with preparing a gravely ill person for death. Anointing is part of ceremonies associated with the crowning of a king and the ordination of a priest. The noun unction can be used literally to mean “anointing” or figuratively to mean “a spiritual influence acting upon a person or the manifestation of such a feeling in language.”

In a spiritual context, “an unctuous person” is one who displays a manner suggestive of religious earnestness. Unfortunately, not-so-religious people often see religious earnestness as hypocrisy. Also unfortunately, hypocrisy frequently takes the form of false humility or religiosity. These human realities led to the use of unctuous to describe hypocrites. Literature abounds with such characters.

Iago, Tartuffe, Uriah Heep, Mr. Brocklehurst, and Elmer Gantry are characters who talk a good game, pretending to a spiritual superiority and/or humility they do not possess in order to manipulate people. The literal meaning of unctuous only adds to the aptness of this figurative use: such characters are “oily and slippery,” like ointment.

English speakers familiar with unctuous in the sense of greasiness and hypocrisy are understandably repelled to hear the word applied positively to food.

Many food writers, however, have embraced the term. A writer at The Kitchn [sic] calls it a “favorite food word.”

The word is especially popular in headlines above pork recipes:

Braised pork belly is an unctuous treat

Unctuous Carmelized Chinese Braised Pork Belly

Aware that many English speakers object to the use of the word as if it meant succulent, food writers dismiss their critics with Humpty-Dumptian disdain:

If you’re a food writer, and you’re doing a review or article about pork belly, you have to use the word unctuous or unctuousness whether you understand what it means or not. (Food Wishes blog)

Words acquire different connotations according to the experiences of the people who use them. I’ve read that many modern speakers are grossed out by the use of the word moist to describe cake. To my generation, a moist cake is a good thing. It’s possible that food writers who find unctuous a suitable word to describe palatable pork may be repulsed by the word succulent.

The Humpty Dumpty Theory of Language:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”—Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll.

Note: The reader whose question prompted this post also wonders about the pronunciation of unctuous:

“Does unctuous have three syllables or only two?  I always thought it had three, but many of the folks on these [cooking] shows pronounce it with only two syllables.

The preferred pronunciation is with three syllables: unk-tju-us. Merriam-Webster gives the three-syllable pronunciation first, but also acknowledges a two-syllable pronunciation: unk-tchus.

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Daily Writing Tips

A Centenarian is Probably Not a Centurion

A reader was startled when a television announcer misused the word centurion:

Perhaps one of your columns could cover the meanings of “centurion” and “centenarian.” A news anchor on KTTC-TV, Rochester, Minn., just announced “There is a new centurion in Clear Lake, Iowa.” (This “new centurion” is a woman celebrating her 100th birthday. A centenarian centurion?)

I was amused, but assumed that the anchor’s error was unique and that I wouldn’t be able to find enough material to write a post on this misuse. My assumption was that any English speaker who has read a book or watched a movie set in ancient Roman times, or who has a superficial acquaintance with the New Testament knows the historical meaning of centurion.

I was wrong.

The use of centurion in the place of centenarian is widespread in discussions of longevity on the Web. Here are just three examples:

In this article we take lessons from the centurion communities of the world to gain priceless insight into how we too can live the longest.

In Okinawa, where the life expectancy is the highest on earth, 803 of 920 centurions who were alive as of September 2011 were women.

Daisy McFadden, a longtime resident of New York, will celebrate her 100th birthday this November. Still active, she believes her eating habits have greatly contributed to her longevity, as do most centurions.

I found an article in a Canadian publication in which the writer acknowledges that centenarian is the word usually used to describe a person who has reached the age of one hundred, but seems to think that centurion is a better word to describe a centenarian who remains in good health:

There are more than 4,600 Canadians now 100 or older. Estimates are that the United States might have a million people 100 or older by 2050. If those estimates are accurate, 43 years from now, many of those Boomers you see every day will be the new “centurions,” which strikes me as a better way to describe centenarians. Just as 60 is the new 50 today, 100 will be the new 90!

Note: Joseph Wambaugh titled one of his novels The New Centurions. As it is about the lives of Los Angeles policemen, I don’t get the connection. Neither did Wambaugh’s British publishers, apparently. In the UK, the book was published as Precinct 45: Los Angeles Police.

Centurion and centenarian are among several English words derived from the Latin word for one hundred: centum.

In the ancient Roman army, a centurion was the officer in charge of a century, a unit originally comprised of 100 men.

In the context of cricket, centurion refers to a player who has scored 100 points (a century):

Surrey teenager Dominic Sibley becomes youngest double centurion in County Championship history

Dominic Sibley swapped school books for record books by becoming the youngest batsman in County Championship history to score a double century.

This is a valid extension of meaning in a modern context.

Using centurion to replace centenarian is unnecessary. Centenarian already exists with the meaning “a person who has reached the age of one hundred.”

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Daily Writing Tips

Offendotron and Microagression

New words for me this week are offendotron and microagression. Both relate to a much-discussed topic: giving and taking offense.

I found the word offendotron in an article by Martin Daubney. I couldn’t find it in either the OED or Merriam-Webster, but the Urban Dictionary defines it:

offendotron: Person offended by anything, however innocuous.

Like offendotron, microaggression has yet to make it into my big dictionaries, but unlike the O word, microaggression already enjoys wide use.

According to an article on the blog Ricochet, the Student Government Association at Ithaca University in upstate New York, “concerned about the problem of microaggression,” is considering the creation of a tracking system “that students can use to anonymously report incidents of perceived bias on campus.”

The word was coined by Harvard professor Chester Pierce in 1970 as a term for “the insults and dismissals” inflicted on black Americans by non-black Americans. Since then, the meaning has been expanded to include sexist and other remarks:

The concept of microaggression has leapt from the shadows of academic writing into the bright light of general conversation, especially in the wake of widely consulted work by professors Derald Wing Sue and Madonna Constantine over the last seven or so years. Microaggressions, as these academics describe them, are quiet, often unintended slights—racist or sexist—that make a person feel underestimated on the basis of their color or gender.—John McWhorter, Time Magazine, March 21, 2014.

Aggression is an openly hostile act against someone. Aggressors are conscious that they are being offensive.

Microaggression, on the other hand, is an act that is not necessarily perceived as hostile by the person who commits it.

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Daily Writing Tips

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