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December 27, 2019  |  Friday words #202  |  311 hit(s)

The vocabulary of American and British English differs a little bit—I mean, we all understand terms like clockwork orange and dark materials and deathly hallows. But there are words that mean different things on either side of the Atlantic, like biscuit and pants and flannel. And there are words that are generally found on only one side or the other of the Atlantic, like skint and dosh, or cooties and dumpster.

In this last category, I (an American) don't often run into words from Britain that are new to me. Generally speaking, even if I don't use British words, I know what they mean. But recently I ran across a term that I had never heard before: to gurn.

My American friends, take a moment to study this sentence, which is from the BBC article where I found the word:

So now you have made your entrance – hopefully without gurning like a maniac – experts agree that the next key to likability is to make your interaction about the other person.

Truly I had no idea what it might mean to gurn like a maniac, although it was clear that it was something to be avoided.

Merriam-Webster, an American dictionary, has no entry for gurn. My default spell checker setting in Word—English (United States)—underlines it. But I found other entries that identified this as a British term, and it seems that it's a term that's well understood in the UK. Hence, we can suppose, why the BBC can use gurn in an article and assume everyone knows what it means.

Anyway, to gurn means "to grimace; to make a distorted or grotesque face." (It might be a related to grin.) From Wikipedia, I learned that there's such a thing as a gurning contest, and even a World Gurning Championship. Apparently the ability to bring your lower lip over your nose is a competitive advantage?

There are still apparently plenty of well-known British words (well known in Britain, anyway) that I have yet to learn. Now I wonder if there are other competitive sports that I should be investigating.

For origins, I have to start by noting that I've been using Duolingo to work on Latin. I'm in a section that's about school, and according to Duolingo, the word lection is translated as "chapter." The Latin word lection is obviously related to legit ("to read"), which we see in lecture, lectern, lexicon, and legible.

I assumed there was probably more subtlety to this translation than the lesson provides, but it did make me wonder where the word chapter actually comes from. Well, it too comes from Latin (filtered through French), namely from the word capitulum, meaning "little head." (See also capital/capitol, decapitate, and capo).

The word capitulum was used in late Latin to refer to a section of a book, just as we might use it today. Many people have probably heard the expression chapter and verse, which refers to chapters (i.e., sections) and verses within books of the Bible. Per the OED, this can be "A short ‘lesson’ or passage of Scripture read in certain services of the Latin Church." What's not clear to me is how "little head" comes to mean "section," unless perhaps it refers to a title or other "little head(ing)" that divides the sections of a book.

The word chapter is also used to mean a subdivision of an organization, as in the Seattle chapter of the International Society for the Promotion of Etymological Research (ISPER). This is a metonymic sense that derives from the more literal one. People might read chapters at a meeting (or service), so the gathering by extension came to be known as a chapter.

And so we bring the—ready?—2020 chapter of Friday words to a close. I wonder what new words and etymological surprises I'll find in 2020!

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Jim Travis   28 Dec 19 - 1:05 AM

Interestingly enough, the drop-cap letter is also called "versal." So there you have chapter and verse in a single letter. :-)