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December 21, 2018  |  Friday words #152  |  1786 hit(s)

By now, you've probably almost had your fill of the wall-to-wall seasonal customs. You've long since lost the LDB challenge and/or Whamaggedon. Your teeth are starting to go on edge when you hear "Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings!" And you've probably seen enough ads and newspaper headlines that play on seasonal clichés: 'Twas the night before; naughty or nice; Christmas came early; deck the halls; Old Saint Nick.

Of these last, the one that seems to particularly invoke the ire of editors is 'tis the season. John McIntyre, who's been a copy editor for decades, offers a seasonal PSA to writers who might be thinking of slipping 'tis the season into an article. His suggestion for when it might be appropriate to use this phrase is pretty straightforward—never, never, never, never, never:

McIntyre has dispensed this advice a number of times, and he's found a ready audience among other editors, who've picked up the flag. Nancy Friedman has collected examples that show just how widespread 'tis the season is in seasonal ad copy.

Which, finally, brings me to the new-to-me word(s) for this week: 'tisses, 'tissing, and 'tisser. These refer, respectively, to examples of 'tis; the act of using 'tis; and one who uses 'tis. Thus in one of her posts, she cites someone saying "What I really want is to put those tisses out of business," which is a nice near-rhyme. In that same post, Nancy refers to "some news-media 'tissing" and "The 'tisses of Xmas Past." In a recent post, she referred to the company T&C as "a 'tisser." As you can deduce, 'tissing is not an admired activity, and being branded a 'tisser is not a compliment.

What struck me about these words, I think, is that they show a couple of interesting principles. The first is that 'tis is a now-unusual construction, at least in standard American English. Today, we'd say it's time to go to bed, not 'tis time to go to bed. In the word 'tis, the t is what's called a proclitic: it's a shortened version of a word (it)—not a full word, but not a prefix—that can be attached to the front of a verb. The t proclitic used to be common in English ('twas, 'twere, 'tain't), but today in American English these words are used primarily to sound olde-timey. (I think British English still uses 'tisn't and possibly other words that include the t proclitic.)

The other interesting thing about 'tisses and 'tissing is that they're examples of anthimeria: using a word as another part of speech. Take 'tis, pretend it's a verb, and you've got 'tissing. Pretend it's a noun and you can get 'tisses and 'tisser ("one who 'tisses").

English is a pretty amazing tool, even if people sometimes use it in clichéd ways.

And now a quick origins story. I’m currently enjoying Carl Zimmer's highly readable (if dauntingly long) book She Has Her Mother's Laugh. Early on he discusses how people groped for terms to describe what they were discovering about heredity. One term he included was germ, which gave me a kind of "d'oh" moment. Germs are microbeasts that make us sick, right? Why that word, tho?

Well, there's an older meaning of germ also: "bud" or "sprout" or "seed," which we still see in wheat germ and the metaphoric germ of an idea. Medicinally, germ was originally used to talk about the cause of a disease ("the germe of the small-pox"); when microbes were discovered, the name was attached to them.

The word germ goes back to Latin, and before that, to a root that means "beget." Related words (some distantly) are genetics, genitals, kin, nation, and genuine. And as we saw a few weeks ago, cognate. That gen root sure has a lot of offspring, haha.

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