April 06, 2018
Friday words #115, 2018-04-06
We’re having an extended-family (as opposed to extended family) outing to Long Beach, WA. Where at this time of the year you wear your raincoat to go down to the outdoor pool.
I’m sure you know the term vanity plate to mean a personalized auto license plate where you create your own combination of numbers and letters. (At least, you can do this in some or all US states; I’m not sure if the idea is common in other countries.) Some fun: Daniel Nussbaum rewrote the Oedipus story using only vanity plates from the state of California: Oedipus the King (of the Road).
I recently learned that vanity plate is also a term for a credit that identifies the production company for a TV show or movie. For TV shows, vanity plates typically follow the credits; for movies, they’re often at the beginning. Some are static (hence vanity plate or vanity card), but a lot are animated. Surely one of the most recognizable vanity plates is the MGM lion:
But you might recognize many others as well (all videos): the Disney castle animation, the Dreamworks fishing kid, the Paramount flying stars, as but three examples. I like the vanity plate for Scott Free, Ridley Scott’s production company:
As noted in the TV Tropes article where I learned this, contemporary media often involve multiple production companies. This can lead to long sequences of vanity plates, which people can find irritating. Now that I know more about vanity plates, tho, I will probably be more interested in those efforts rather than annoyed at the delay in starting the movie.
For word origins this week it’s back to the kitchen. From a recent tweet by freelance linguist Gretchen McCulloch I learned that biscuit originally meant “twice cooked.” The original is theorized to have been biscoctum panem, meaning “twice-baked bread” in medieval Latin, referring to the type of hard bread that was fed to seaman on voyages. (I guess this is aka hardtack.) The same word shows up in Italian as biscotto and in Spanish as bizcocho, both of course referring to baked goods; the Italian version, at least, seems still to reflect the “twice” aspect of the name.
Update I realized belatedly that the bread called Zwieback likewise means "twice-baked" in German and possibly other languages.
It might be slightly surprising that the “twice” meaning is not in bi- but in bis-. The cuit part comes ultimately from the Latin word coquere, meaning “to cook.” And that bis- goes back via a d > b transformation I don’t know about to duis.
In English, the definition of biscuit has shifted. In British English, a biscuit is what we in the US call a cookie or cracker. This retains a sense of small and flat. In the US, on the other hand, a biscuit is a kind of soft bread, more like a scone, often using soda as a leaven. I have no information on how this evolution took place, other than that the US sense of biscuit was already established in the 1800s.
Something else unexpected was the spelling. The word was often written as bisket, which reflects its pronunciation. So why the biscuit part? The OED calls this “a senseless adoption of the modern French spelling.” Not that they have an opinion about this or anything.
Like this? Read all the Friday words.