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October 26, 2017  |  Friday words #92  |  1878 hit(s)

This time next week, it'll be November. Good golly. Time sure flies when you're collecting words.

The first word today is from the world of entomology (not to be confused with etymology): frass. This is another term I got from reading Mary Roach's book Grunt. (See the recent discussion of toilet palsy.) Frass is, to quote Roach, insect poop. Slightly more formally than that, it's used to describe the stuff that insect larvae (caterpillars) excrete, and also to describe the fine crumbs of wood left behind by wood-boring bugs.

What appealed to me is that frass derives from the German word fressen. Somewhat curiously, German has two words for "to eat." Essen is what people do, as in Delicatessen. And fressen is what animals do, or when applied to humans, to eat in an animal-like way. Since bugs are animals, fressen applies to them, and frass is what becomes of what they et.

According to authoritative sources like Wikipedia, frass has many ecological benefits. Just like manure in general, I suppose. On the other hand, seeing little piles of wood dust near expensive parts of your house, can be, you know, a cause of concern. At least now you'll know how to describe it when you put in that urgent call to the exterminator.

One more today. Recently I was reading about the country singer Toby Keith and ran across a term for "rap-influenced country music": hick-hop. This genre has been around for about 15 years. I'm not sure about the term itself, but I find it (with new-term-y quotes) in 2014. I don't follow country music, so this was new to me. If it's new to you also, here's an example from the artist Colt Ford:

I think the word hick-hop is clever, if potentially snotty. (Depends on how the artists see it, I guess.) There are always limits to spawning words based on wordplay, but the assonance with hip-hop works in this case. For me, anyway.

Not long ago the question came up about where the word shot came from in the sense of drinking ("a dram of spirits," as the OED says). The theory is that it comes from an old word for "payment," which we still see in scot-free, i.e., without penalty. Given the antiquity of this origin, the earliest cites for shot as a quantity of drink are surprisingly recent—the OED has it at 1928 in the works of P. G. Wodehouse. Where the word doesn't come from is the idea that people in the Old West paid for drinks with bullets, as Michael Quinion explains.

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