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Local History

Discover the beautiful towns of Westerly, RI and Stonington, CT.

Westerly Library is now available by appointment only. Some sections of the first floor will be available for browsing material and to utilize the public computer lab, by reservation only. During this initial reopening phase we are unable to accommodate walk-ins. To make a reservation please call 401.596.2877 ext 930 for Circulation and ext 311 for the computer lab. Please check back for updates! Library Takeout Service is still available via the Books & Materials tab for contact-free pickup and the book drop is now open for material returns.

Westerly Sun Column

Etymological Oddities for the 'Dog Days'

In case you haven’t noticed, we’re most definitely in the dog days of summer. You’ve probably said this yourself, at some point. But where does this puzzling phrase come from? Or for that matter, why do we mark clams as the epitome of happiness (“happy as a clam”), or proclaim that the “proof is in the pudding”, when, frankly, I’ve never found it there? Whether you’re obsessed with etymology or still don’t know the difference between “i.e.” and “e.g.”, we have plenty of fascinating books on the origin of our language.

You may have seen “irregardless” in the news lately.  Merrian-Webster officially defended its inclusion in the dictionary, where it has actually appeared since 1934. (Fun fact: as I type this, Microsoft Word tells me it is NOT, in fact, a word, and wouldn’t I like to use “regardless” instead)? For many, this news was further evidence that the year 2020 has gone to hell in a handbasket (another interesting expression). But what do the editors at Merriam-Webster think about this controversial term? You can read all about it in Kory Stamper’s surprisingly hilarious book: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.

Many phrases that we grew up with are bordering on nonsensical to younger generations. “You sound like a broken record” probably means nothing to the kids who grew up with iPhones and streaming music. And given that blackboards have all but disappeared, as whiteboards have taken over, will kids scratch their heads at terms like “start with a clean slate”, or understand the agony of hearing “nails on a chalkboard”? Ralph Keyes explores these and more in I Love It When You Talk Retro.

There are a number of books that take a deep-dive into the odd idioms we are so fond of using. In Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds, Michael Quinion explains where phrases such as “raining cats and dogs” first originated, as well as the bizarre stories behind words like “kangaroo”. Similarly, authors John Mordock and Myron Korach examine confusing phrases like “apple of my eye” and “shed crocodile tears” in Common Phrases: And Where They Come From.

Oscar Wilde wrote that Brits have “everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language”. I mean, he wrote it in 1887, but I think it’s still relevant here. If you’re an anglophile on a mission to learn the ins-and-outs of British phrases and cockney slang, check out How to Speak Brit by Christopher J. Moore. And while we’re talking about the UK, I’d be remiss to not mention the great Bill Bryson, who always finds a way to make the driest subjects absolutely hilarious. Don’t believe me? Try The Mother Tongue: English Language and How it Got that Way.

So, whether you’re taking advantage of these “dog days” by lounging on the beach, or you’re “happy as a clam” in your air conditioned room, you may as well learn something new at the same time. Contact us at the library to check out any of these books!

By Cassie Skobrak, Reference Librarian