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February 15, 2019  |  Friday words #160  |  456 hit(s)

What do Sasquatch, the Loch Ness Monster, and Chupacabra have in common? Biologically not so much, since two are mammal-like and one is presumed to be reptilian. But terminologically, they’re all cryptids, or species (“species”) studied in the field (“field”) of cryptozoology. I might have known the word cryptid before, but whatever, I heard it, like, three times in the last couple of weeks, which made it seem new-ish to me.

Cryptids are not mythical/mythological creatures, like unicorns or the sphinx. A defining characteristic of cryptids is that they might exist. Some people believe they exist. There’s some evidence—anecdotal or urban-legend-ish—that they exist. There are periodic reports of sightings or of traces like footprints, or blurry photos, or mutilated goats.

The name cryptid is appropriate for these critters: crypt(o) means “hidden,” and that certainly describes the shadowy nature of these creatures’ existence. Despite the long list of cryptids and their long history in human lore, the word itself seems to have originated only in the 1990s. We might not be advancing in our understanding of the lives of cryptids, but we are lexicographically on top of the phenomenon.

For origins for real, today we have the word cheapskate. I follow the blog of Arnold Zwicky, a prolific linguist, and a little while ago he explored this word. What’s the skate part? It has nothing to do with ice-type skating, nor is it related to the fishy family of animals known as skates.

It seems that the word skate is slang for “fellow” (“a good skate”), not that I’ve ever heard this. It’s also apparently a slang term for a decrepit horse. The OED has cites running from 1894 to 1978 for this sense of skate; the last cite makes it seem like it might be a term used among those who bet on horses, but that’s speculation.

Somewhere the term skate got the connotation of not just “fellow” but “contemptible fellow,” which might be an example of pejoration, dunno. And that sense then became attached to the word cheap and we got a contemptible fellow who moreover is unpleasantly thrifty.

Zwicky makes an interesting observation about how cheapskate is pronounced. In this compound, cheap is an adjective. Normally, though, when you use cheap in this way, you put the stress on the noun (adjective-NOUN)—a cheap DATE, even a cheap PERSON. But in cheapskate, the stress is on cheap. Zwicky observes this but doesn’t explain it, although I bet there’s something phonologically interesting there.

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