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June 21, 2019  |  Friday words #177  |  1059 hit(s)

I keep a list of new-to-me terms, and on that list I have a note next to a couple of words that says, "seems obscure but defines an easy concept." Of course, obscure is in the eye of the beholder. Still, I wonder how many people know these terms.

The first is Lusophone. The phone part clearly has something to do with sound (like "microphone" or "saxophone") or language ("Francophone"). But beyond that, I had no idea. It turns out that Lusophone is someone who speaks Portuguese. That's about 280 million people in about 10 countries, so not an obscure or poorly represented set of speakers.

It's not self-evident what luso- means unless you know classical history. In Roman times, the area roughly corresponding to modern-day Portugal was a province named Lusitania. (That's where the ship RMS Lusitania got its name, who knew!) Why they used that name is not known; it might have been a Celtic name adopted by the Romans. Anyway, that gave us a "combining form" luso- for Portuguese things.

The second new-to-me, obscure-but-easy term is Monegasque. Again we can deduce something, namely that it's probably an adjective; we get that much from the -esque ending. So "of or relating to" … what? If you know French, easy: of or relating to Monaco. In English we also have the more straightforward adjective Monacan, but it's always more glamorous—and obscure—to use a French term, n'est-ce pas?

(The name Monaco comes from an ancient Greek name Monoikos, meaning "single house," something to do with either single-family dwellings or "living apart," per the infallible Wikipedia.)

Ok, enough with the new-to-me obscurish stuff. I recently ran across a history of the expression in the buff to mean sans clothing or, you know, sky-clad. The expression in the buff comes from the word buffalo, like the animal. Leather made from bison was called buff(e) leather, or just buff for short. In the 17th century, coats that were made from this leather were called buff coats. The type of leather is light-colored, and because of the resemblance, in buff(e) was used to describe people who were naked. (There used to be a similar expression in stag, probably along the same lines. Both expressions are recorded in 1602.) Somewhere along the line, a the was dropped into the expression.

I think this origin particularly delighted me because when I was studying Spanish, I ran across the expression en cueros, which literally means "in leathers." I puzzled about that until someone clued me in that it's a way to say "naked." Just like in [the] buff!

Many other buff words come from buffalo. Buff to mean "to polish" comes from using this type of leather to polish things. Buff as in "has a sculpted body" comes from the sense that something buffed looks polished. Buff as in "fan of" ("she's a real film buff") comes from the buff-colored uniforms worn by firefighters in New York City in the 19th century; people who were enthusiastic followers of the firefighters came to be known as buffs. (Or anyway, that's one theory.)

At this point I should again put in a plug for the book Etymologicon, which has page after page of stuff like this. Including, in his entry about buffalo, an explanation of "the longest grammatically correct sentence in the English language that uses only one word:" Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. You can read more about that famous sentence in Wikipedia.

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