Words (Again)

Time to talk about words again. As I have confessed here before, as a writer I am fascinated by words—their meaning, where they come from, how they work. So here are some more:

Milquetoast: a timid or feeble person, lacking in character or vigor; wishy-washy. From the character Caspar Milquetoast of the comic strip “The Timid Soul,” created by American cartoonist Harold Tucker Webster (1885–1952) and first published in 1924. The character was named after the American dish milk toast, toasted bread served in warm milk.

Neck and neck: About two or more competitors: level with one another; having an equal chance of winning; also meaning similar and the same. The term, originating in the early 1800s, comes from horse racing, where the necks of two horses in competition appear to be side by side. A synonym for nip and tuck.

Melee or melée: a confused fight, skirmish, or scuffle. From the French mêlée meaning fray or struggle. That term is from the French verb meler, meaning to mingle.

Hoopla: excited or agitated commotion or activity; bustle. First recorded in 1865–70, “hoopla” is from the French word houp-là, a command (as to a child) to move, take a step.

Squelch: to completely suppress. A second meaning is to make a soft sucking sound like that made by walking heavily through mud. The word’s etymology is unknown. It might have resulted from combining squash with quell and quench.

Goon: a slang term meaning a silly, foolish, or eccentric person. The word originally meant (and still does) a violent, aggressive person who is hired to intimidate or harm others. The term was reputedly coined in 1921 by Frederick Lewis Allen (1890-1954), the editor of Harper’s Magazine, perhaps a variant of the U.S. slang “gooney” meaning a simpleton or fool, which may have derived from “gony,” applied by sailors to the albatross and similar big, clumsy birds.

More next time.

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