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December 20, 2019  |  Friday words #201  |  2131 hit(s)

Last week I was working on a NYT crossword, and one of the clues was “At full speed,” 5 letters. Even once I’d gotten far enough to have A M A _ N filled in, I still didn’t know what the word might be. It turned out to be amain, which as far as I remembered I’d never encountered. (And this was just the Tuesday puzzle, where one doesn’t expect to encounter obscure words.)

I turned to the dictionary (several, in fact). In addition to meaning “at full speed,” amain means “with all one’s might; with full force; suddenly; exceedingly.” For the first sense, Merriam-Webster offers the example “the soul strives amain to live and work” from Emerson. And for the sense of “exceedingly,” they offer “they whom I favour thrive in wealth amain” from Milton. The OED has “Down came the storm, and smote amain the vessel” from Longfellow.

When you find a word whose cites are Emerson and Milton and Longfellow, you might guess that it’s not a word that’s in common use today. M-W says that two of the senses (“at full speed” and “exceedingly”) are archaic. It doesn’t attach that label to the sense of “with all one’s might,” but Dictionary.com labels all senses archaic. The most recent (dictionary) cite I can find for amain is Longfellow in 1851, a person also given to using smote, so draw your own conclusions.

In addition to it being an archaic word, its relatives in English are not necessarily obvious. But they exist: the main part comes from an Old English word mægen, which means “power, force.” Although you might not guess it, that word has the same ultimate root as might, machine, and magic. The a- part of amain was tacked on eventually, probably by analogy with terms like afoot.

It might be useful to revive amain, not only to have a compact way to say “at full force,” but so that more puzzle authors can use the term with the confidence that they’re not expecting you to know an archaic word.

Ok, we all know that Fiddlesticks! is an interjection for dismissing what someone has said. This week I was reading about what’s called old-time music, a style of music that’s a precursor of bluegrass. This learned me something interesting about fiddlesticks.

The interjection fiddlesticks was originally just fiddlestick (singular) or fiddlestick’s end. There’s a similar usage to not care a fiddlestick or not care a fiddlestick’s end, an older form of something like not give a damn. In these usages, a fiddlestick (or its end) is something worthless.

But what is a fiddlestick? Simple: it’s a violin bow—the stick that you use to play the fiddle. Once you know that, it’s obvious; I wonder whether violinists today use fiddlestick to refer to their bow.

It turns out, though, that there’s a second literal meaning for fiddlesticks, which is the one I learned while reading about old-time music. When a fiddler is playing, a second person might beat rhythms on the violin strings using, yes, fiddlesticks. A Wikipedia article suggests that this combination of playing melody and rhythm on the same instrument might have been inspired by African instruments, which would explain why it’s found in American music but not Celtic or British music.

Here’s a video that shows someone playing this particular kind of fiddlesticks:

It’s not certain how a violin bow came to mean something trifling. People have theorized that it's “perhaps simply because the word sounds intrinsically silly.” What we know for sure is that a metaphoric sense of fiddlestick was established by the 1600s. Although now that I think about it, maybe fiddlesticks in the interjection sense is starting to become archaic also?

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