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October 12, 2017  |  Friday words #90  |  4351 hit(s)

We were on vacation the last two Fridays, which resulted in a not-entirely-expected break for Friday Words. But we're back, and since we have a wee backlog, an extra word.

The first new-to-me word is a word that you know, at least in some meanings: snipe. But unless you've had some exposure to the US Navy, you might not know that this is a slang term in that branch for a seaman who's a member of the engineering crew, as distinct from one who works on the deck crew. Snipes have traditionally had dirty and dangerous jobs involving all things mechanical. This was originally the boilers and machinery for steam ships, but now also involves the nuclear powerplant on (some) ships, as well as firefighting, electrical work, and … well, whatever keeps the ship running. You can read a little more here and here.

The word doesn't show up with this definition in standard dictionaries, but it's clearly well established as Navy slang. Why snipe? One page of perhaps dubious etymological credibility says the term originated from the name of a certain John Snipe who ran a crew that became known as Snipe's men. I guess that's not impossible.

As a second term today, I have another one that I ran across in a military context. I've been reading Mary Roach's book Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War. At one point she's talking about soldiers who are riding in personnel carriers and have to keep their legs up off the floor in case an IED explodes below the vehicle. Keeping one's legs up like this can, as she says, "make the butt go numb." One of her informants refers to this as toilet palsy, "like when you're reading on the toilet too long."

I lol'd, as the kids (used to) say. I immediately stopped reading and looked that one up, because really? Yeah, pretty much. There's a recognized condition, formally called sciatic neuropathy (because it involves the sciatic nerve). Because it can happen to people who sit for long periods on the throne, whether from GI-tract illness or from falling asleep, even in the literature it's referred to as toilet seat neuropathy or Saturday night palsy, the latter a nod to all this as the result of too much partying. Amusing except, of course, to those suffering from it as either a temporary or (ack) permanent condition.

Let us turn to word origins. Only this week I learned from FB Friend Heather the unexpected origins of the word moxie, meaning "courage" or "fortitude." Had you asked me last week, I would have guessed that we got the word from Yiddish. Not at all. Moxie was originally a soft drink that was advertised as a way to build nerve. The product actually goes all the way back to 1884, which makes it about a year older than Coca-Cola. You can still buy it today, or anyway, something that's sold under that name.

The original brand name spun off the word moxie as a common noun, which seems to live contentedly side by side with the trademark. The generic word was in use at least as early as 1930, when Damon Runyon of Guys and Dolls fame used it in an article: "Personally, I always figure Louie a petty-larceny kind of guy, with no more moxie than a canary bird."

The name used for the soft drink might actually have come from an earlier term. The OED suggests as much but defers to other reference works for the details. Douglas Harper takes a bash and suggests that it's possible that it came from a Native American word meaning "dark water." Which also describes Coca-Cola, hmm. Ah, the mysteries of patent medicines.

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