Tuesday, March 28, 2023

A Few Fewtrils

This post may be a first in the multi-year run of this blog, not because it ignores fossils completely (that’s not unprecedented), but because it may be disconnected altogether from natural history (unless etymology can be construed as part of natural history, which I doubt).

The source for this post is a file to which over the past few years I’ve added phrases and words that strike me as insightful, amusing, or simply unusual.  Also, they must be new to me.  Beyond those attributes, there is nothing that links them, so no big reveal at the end.  In this post, I share several of the more recent entries, describing what they mean, where I found them, and, if possible, their etymology.  (I discussed the word "fewtrils" that appears in this post's title in a previous post.) 

How long is a piece of string?

I first came upon this expression in a 2021 article by Scott Reyburn in The New York Times about a painting that had come up for auction in Madrid at a meager starting price, only to become the focus of a debate over whether it might actually be the work of Baroque master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.  Were it a Caravaggio, the work would be worth a great deal.  Drawn into the affair, the Spanish cultural ministry banned export of the painting, an action that killed the auction.  Reyburn posed the question of what the painting might have fetched if authenticated as a Caravaggio and auctioned in the international art market.  One British art expert quoted in the article, after hazarding an estimate of at least 50 million Euros, concluded, “But how long is a piece of string?”

That question – “how long is a piece of string?” – is someone’s retort to an initial question for which the respondent believes there is no answer.  In other words, a generic piece of string can have any length; a specific piece of string has a definite length.

Pascal Tréguer, in his excellent blog titled word histories, described the expression as American-English in origin, and wrote, quite perceptively, that it’s “a response to a question that cannot be answered precisely, although a precise answer seems to be expected.”  That latter observation about an expected answer is spot on, capturing what I think is a flippant tone to the retort.

Where and when it originated remain unknown.  Tréguer noted that the first instance of its use that he has found is an American newspaper article of 1885.

KD (as in “KD and lunch meat”)

Boy Golden (Liam Duncan) is a Canadian country rock musician with a gentle and mellow vibe (in keeping with his songs' frequent references to weed) whose excellent solo album (2021) Church of Better Daze opens with the song titled KD and Lunch Meat.  (Here’s the official video of the song on YouTube.)  The song is about the singer lighting up, quitting his job, and living with his significant other on the bare minimum.

Babe we got a
Few hundred bucks
Between the two of us.
That should be enough
If we eat really cheap,
KD and lunch meat.

This entry is a cheat in some ways.  I don’t think “KD and lunch meat” is a specific Canadian expression.  Rather, it’s the “KD” that has the story to tell because most Canadians know this stands for “Kraft Dinner.”  Life for the macaroni and cheese product began in 1937 when it was introduced and called, in both the U.S. and Canada, “Kraft Dinner.”  A split occurred in the 1970s when the product was renamed “Kraft Macaroni and Cheese” in the States, but remained “Kraft Dinner” north of the border.  The colloquial name in Canada for this meal became “KD.”  In 2015, Kraft of Canada leaned into that and officially renamed the product “KD.”  (For more on this story, see Susan Krashinsky’s article Kraft Embraces Canadian Term of Endearment to Rebrand Kraft Dinner, The Globe and Mail,  July 30, 2015.)

So, Boy Golden is singing about how to stretch the food dollar as far as possible, and eating “KD” is certainly one way to do that.


My sister introduced me to the word when I told her that, only upon watching Questlove’s spellbinding documentary Summer of Soul  (2021), did I realize that The Edwin Hawkins Singers were singing “When Jesus washed” in the refrain of their rendition of the gospel song Oh Happy Day.  I had always thought the line was “When Jesus walked.”  That error, she said, was a “mondegreen,” a term I’d never heard.

The writer Sylvia Wright coined the word, explaining its origins in an essay titled The Death of Lady Mondegreen, published in Harper’s in 1954.  It is included in Get Away From Me With Those Christmas Gifts and Other Reactions (1957, p. 105 et seq.), a compilation of Wright’s essays.

When Wright was a child, her mother read to her from Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry.  (Thomas Percy (1729-1811) originally published his compilation of English and Scottish ballads in 1765.)  Among Wright’s favorites was The Bonny Earl of Murray which recounts the tragic murder of James Stewart, Earl of Murray, in 1592 at the hands of a nefarious agent of Scotland’s King James VI.  Here is the first verse of that ballad from an edition published in 1906:

Ye highlands, and ye lawlands,
Oh ! quhair hae ye been?
They hae slaine the Earl of Murray,
And hae laid him on the green.

Wright heard the last line of that verse as:  “And Lady Mondegreen.” which gave rise to her rich and romantic mental vision of the scene.  The handsome Earl, dead from an arrow to the heart (Wright’s wonderful imagination at work), did not die alone, for he was with the Lady Mondegreen, slain by an arrow to the throat.

In her essay, she acknowledged that she misheard that line but preferred it as she heard it:

Leaving him to die all alone without even anyone to hold his hand – I won’t have it.
The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original  (p. 106-107)

There are those who insist that a mondegreen can only be derived from mishearing a song, a poem, a prayer – an oral performance of some sort.  It’s evident from Wright’s essay that for her, though mondegreens may arise in that way, that’s not always the case.  For example, she identifies “Pay Treats Day” (instead of “Patriots’ Day”) as a mondegreen, although it is simply the result of mishearing what people say or of people misspeaking.  I will leave to others the quibbling over whether an expression like “Pay Treats Day” is a mondegreen or actually an “eggcorn.”  (See, for example, “Wedding Vowels”, “Tongue and Cheek” and Other Eggcorns in the word histories blog.)

Wright’s assertion that mondegreens must surpass the actual wording is probably best not applied with any rigor.  Fruitless debate will ensue if we go down that road.  

That I had never heard the word is puzzling.  Identifying mondegreens is clearly a favorite past-time of many as any web search will reveal.  The array of very funny mondegreens from pop songs appears endless.  I’ll close this entry with one of my wife’s mondegreens.  John Lennon's So This Is Christmas has the following refrain:

A very merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear.

She always heard it as: "Without any beer."


This is not a word that I like, though the concept behind it is rather novel.  My introduction to the word was in a recent New York Times crossword puzzle (March 18, 2023) constructed by Ada Nicolle.  A long down answer was making no sense even as I filled in many answers to the cross clues.  The clue to this unknown entry was:  “Words that form other words when read backward.”  Finally, I completed the crosses and had “semordnilap” as the answer.  What??

I had to turn to blogger Rex Parker for the explanation.  In always entertaining but occasionally annoying posts, he dissects the Times puzzle of the day.  In the post for this puzzle, he explained that the word in question is “palindromes” spelled backward.  (Rex Parker Does The NY Times Crossword Puzzle, March 18, 2023).  Goes without saying (but I will anyway), palindromes are words or expressions that are unchanged whether spelled forward or backward, to wit, the puzzle’s constructor’s first name is a palindrome:  Ada.  So is “Madam, I’m Adam.” 

Rex expressed great frustration with “semordnilap”:  “So . . . I liked the ‘aha’ moment and I liked learning a new *concept* but man I hate this word and also it is 100% obscure, if ever a word was obscure.”  I agree with Rex.  Not only obscure, it’s unpronounceable.

Still the word describes an interesting concept which poses an intriguing challenge.  Can I come up with words (or expressions) to which the word would apply?  Some initial offerings are:  god (dog), star (rats), live (evil), part (trap), tuba (abut), and desserts (stressed).  So far, I've been unable to compose an expression or sentence that would qualify.

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