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May 11, 2018  |  Friday words #120, 2018-05-11  |  1619 hit(s)

Sumer is icumen in, as they (used to) say. (Video)

I work in software with a lot of really smart people. What they are most smart about, of course, is software, or more generally, engineering-type stuff. A possible side effect of being very smart about engineering is that a person can believe that they are equally smart about many other things and/or that the type of thinking they bring to their vocation applies to other and different areas of endeavor. This type of thinking has a name, which I only recently learned: engineer's disease.

I do know that this phenomenon is not limited to software or engineers. For example, many people have opinions about climate science, but not all of those people have advanced degrees in climate science. I know from personal experience that medical professionals often feel they have expertise to render opinions on non-medical issues. Anyway, I don't know of a more general term than engineer's disease, but there probably could or should be one.

I should note that the sense I discuss here is only one definition of engineer's disease. A MetaFilter thread lists several more, including someone who does something strictly by the (engineering) book, and assuming that others share one's expertise, also known as the curse of knowledge.

Your homework this week is to keep a lookout for examples of engineer's disease.

For surprising-to-me word origins this week, I've got the charming word druthers, as in "If I had my druthers." If you think about this word, you, like me, might wonder two things: what the heck are druthers, and why don't you ever have just a single druther?

It turns out that druther, singular, is a variant of "would rather"—"He would rather not" becomes "He druther not." This usage shows up in Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer books, so recorded about 1875, but likely older in various dialects.

A note on the Merriam-Webster site suggests that this is an example of metanalysis, also known as rebracketing, where a string of sounds is reparsed: I'd rather becomes I druther. Another historical example of rebracketing in English is an apron, which in Medieval English was a napron.

The noun version ("my druthers") shows up not much later (1895). The entry in the OED has druther as a singular noun, but they list druthers as a variant, and their single citation also uses the plural version. An ngram search shows a very low incidence of singular druther, although it's not zero.

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I can't find an explanation for how a verb phrase ("I'd rather") came to be a noun ("my druthers"), and a plural one at that. Nor can I offhand think of similar examples, though I would love to hear about them if someone else knows of some.

I did learn from the OED that the noun ruther(s) is a variant of druther(s). I don't recall hearing that, but that's likely because I haven't spent time in the American South, where these terms seem to have been most prevalent.

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Nancy Friedman   12 May 18 - 6:10 AM

"If I Had My Druthers" was one of the more popular songs in the musical "Li'l Abner" (1956). Lyrics by Johnny Mercer, who was from Savannah.


John Denver wrote and recorded "Druthers" in 1977.