Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The Origins of Words

I very much like the Aubrey/Maturin series of novels, partly because I find the British Navy of Captain Aubrey's era interesting as well as the Royal Society/naturalism bits that concern Dr. Maturin, but just as much because the author writes as if he's of that era as well. This is a good idea for a number of reasons, including authenticity to an extreme and satisfying degree, but it also leads to a lot of fun "origins of words" tidbits, especially since many of the expressions we use today are of British Naval origin (as are a lot of Star Trek references). There are far too many of the common examples to list, but I get a big kick out of catching an obscure one from time to time.

My absolute favorite (and I've read 14 of the 18 books available) has got to be "ass-load." You know, like the amount of a particular thing that a donkey, or ass, can carry. Here's Dr. Maturin talking to the wife of the Governor of some godawful Australian colony:

"It was an exceeding interesting experience, ma'am; we survived, thanks to an intelligent black, and we brought back an ass-load of specimens that will keep us busy for the next twelvemonth and more."

Note the racial bizness, which while offensive in a modern context, was very common at the time. O'Brian doesn't spare his readers the truth of the times for fear of offending some. Good for him.

Anyways, I'm pretty sure people who say assload now don't do so because the word has been passed down by great-grandpa on the farm. But it's nice to know people have been saying it for a long time.

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