Words at Play

Nauga

Once upon a time (in 1936 perhaps) the United States Rubber Company (now Uniroyal) trademarked the name Naugahyde.  Naugahyde, a substitute for leather, became very popular in the 1960s.  It was used primarily as a covering for chairs and sofas and came in many colors.  It was manufactured in Naugatuck, Connecticut.

An advertising campaign in the 1960s and 1970s claimed that Naugahyde was the skin of an animal, the nauga,  that lived in the forests around Naugatuck.  A photograph of the nauga is shown above.  The advertising campaign went well until some animal lovers complained that killing naugas so their skins could be used for furniture coverings was absolutely horrible.

“You don’t understand,” said the PR folks at Uniroyal.  “We don’t harm the naugas.  They naturally shed their skins, and we simply collect and use them.”  “Oh,” said the pacified animal lovers.  “That’s fine.”

And the naugas, the Uniroyal employees, and the animal lovers all lived happily ever after.

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You’ve probably read some novels in which the owner of a large home invites a visitor into the drawing room for a little chat.  What, exactly, is a drawing room?  Is it a room where someone paints pictures, or a room where people gather to play games?  Actually, a drawing room is a room into which people withdraw for privacy.  One novel I recently read used drawing room and withdrawing room interchangeable throughout the work.

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“Gaslighting” is a word commonly used to describe the efforts on one person to make another think he/she is going crazy.  Gas Light was the title of a 1938 play by British playwright Patrick Hamilton.  In the play a man tries to make his wife think she is going crazy by turning on the gas lights in a room above their home which causes the gas lights downstairs to dim.  When he reappears and she tells him that the lights dimmed, he tells her that she just imagined it.  The floor above their living quarters is supposed to be vacant, so he walks around while he’s up there to also make his wife think that, in her delusional state, she is hearing footsteps as well.

Gaslight-1944

Gas Light was the basis for the 1944 U. S. movie Gaslight starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, and Joseph Cotten.  Bergman won an Academy Award for her spectacular performance in the movie.  The movie also included a newcomer named Angela Lansbury who played a saucy maid who plainly had designs on her employer.

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Detectives in novels are often referred to as “sleuths.”  Do you know the origin of the word?  Long ago a bloodhound was referred to as a sleuthhound.  As time went by it came to refer to a detective who follows the trail of a lawbreaker.

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I ran across the following sentence in a Guardian newspaper article about the die-off of insects: “Molecular biology, with its concern for DNA, proteins and chemical processes within individual cells, dominates curriculums and hoovers up grant money.”  “Hoovers up” is, as it turns out, a British term that means “vacuums up.”  Of course the hoover in the sentence refers to the Hoover brand of vacuum cleaner.  I’m sure that many British use it without considering its origin.

Then I thought about a word that we use in the United States without giving any thought to its origin.  The word is “fridge.”  The word may be taken from “refrigerator” or it may be derived from the name of the first commercial electric refrigerator, the Frigidaire (frigid air), which debuted in 1919.  In many areas, including my area of the deep south, any refrigerator was commonly referred to as a Frigidaire. “Put the milk in the Frigidaire,” you might have heard someone say.  From there it’s easy to imagine that after a while the request was shortened to “Put the milk in the fridge.”

The refrigerator was preceded by the icebox, a non-electric cold storage unit that featured a pan at the bottom which held a block of ice – probably a cubic foot or so in volume – that melted in about 24 hours.  Iceboxes were so numerous in my neighborhood that the local iceman riding a horse drawn wagon (and later driving a motorized truck) would replenishing the melted ice daily.  If you missed the iceman, you could always go to the neighborhood ice house to buy more.

During my childhood the people around me would often talk about putting food in the icebox when, in reality, they meant the fridge.  Sometimes it takes a while for our speech patterns to catch up with the current technology.

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Sloe

“Sloe-eyed” and “sloe gin” are two terms that you may have heard,  but did you ever check to see what the word “sloe” means?  Well, there is a bush called a blackthorn or sloe which has berries that look very similar to blueberries.  Remarkably, It is a member of the rose family, and is not related to the blueberry bush at all.  The berries (see the photo above) are dark blue or black, so if you refer to a woman as being sloe-eyed, you’re saying that she has dark or black eyes.  And sloe gin is an alcoholic beverage made from the juice of sloe berries.

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“Chin Music” is a term I ran across while solving a crossword puzzle.  The clue was, “idle chatter.” I was surprised to learn that Stephen Crane used the term in his 1885 novel The Red Badge of Courage.  “There’s too much chin music an’ too little fightin’ in this war,” one of Crane’s characters declares.

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How often have you heard that someone has “cirrhosis of the liver”?  In fact, cirrhosis is a disease that only occurs in the liver, so it is redundant to add “of the liver.”  Cirrhosis is a condition in which normal liver cells  degenerate into scar tissue thus limiting the organ’s functionality.

Knowing what you now know, I’ll bet that if you tell someone that such-and-such has cirrhosis, your listener will ask, “Of the liver?”  Then you can display your intellectual superiority by explaining the above.  Or, better still, simply answer, “Yes,” and avoid being considered a smart ass.

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