20 February 2017

Hoosiers and other demonyms

I have posted here about eponyms, words that come from the name of a person, but there are also demonyms which are words that identify residents or natives of a particular place. The word is usually derived from the name of that particular place.

Simple examples of demonyms include Chinese, American and Mexican. In English, demonyms are capitalized and often the same as the adjectival form of the place, e.g. "Italian", "Japanese", "Greek," but this is not always the case. The adjective for Spain is "Spanish", but the demonym is "Spaniard."

Some groups of people may be referred to by multiple demonyms, such as natives of the United Kingdom who can be called British people, Brits, or Britons.

We commonly use  country-level demonyms - such as "French," but also use lower-level demonyms for residents of a region, state or city.  Someone from Nevada is a Nevadan, and from New Jersey is a New Jerseyan. A resident of San Francisco is a San Franciscan.

And then we have demonyms with more unusual origins. For example, a resident of Indiana is known as a Hoosier. The etymology is disputed, but the leading theory (via the Indiana Historical Bureau and the Indiana Historical Society) says that "Hoosier" originated in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Tennessee as a term for a backwoodsman, a rough countryman, or a country bumpkin

"Hoosier" was in general use by the 1840s,and the state adopted the nickname "The Hoosier State" in the mid-1800s.

The term shows up in the names of numerous Indiana-based businesses, organizations, and as the name of the Indiana University athletic teams.

Hoosiers is also the title of a popular 1986 film about a coach and his small town Indiana high school basketball team's unlikely run to a championship.

14 February 2017


A silhouette is the image of a person, animal, object or scene represented as a solid shape of a single color, usually black, with its edges matching the outline of the subject. The interior of a silhouette does not have any features or details. It is usually on a light/white background, or none at all. A silhouette is not an outline, since it appears as a solid.

Silhouette images can now be created in any visual media, but originally they were pieces of cut paper, put on a background, and then framed.

The word silhouette is an eponym, a word derived from a person's name. In this case, it was Étienne de Silhouette, a French finance minister. He was no artist, and he did not make silhouettes. In 1759, he imposed severe economic demands upon the French people, particularly the wealthy. His austerity measures made his name synonymous with anything done or made cheaply. Portraits of people made by doing inexpensive cutouts (this was pre-photography) on black cards were the cheapest way of recording a person's appearance.

The term silhouette was around since the the 18th century, but only applied to the art of portrait-making in the 19th century. The pieces were also called “profiles” or “shades.”

They could be painted on ivory, plaster, paper, card, or in reverse on glass. Ones that were “hollow-cut” meant the negative image was traced and then cut away from light colored paper which was then laid atop a dark background. The most common was "cut and paste” where the figure was cut out of dark paper (usually free-hand) and then pasted onto a light background.

30 January 2017


You can seed a field by putting seeds into the soil, but you can also seed a watermelon by taking seeds out of it.  "Fast" can mean "moving quickly" (as in "running fast") or it can mean "not moving" (as in "stuck fast"). How can that be?

Words that have one meaning but also have an opposite meaning are known as contronyms.

What I would consider to be true contronyms are also homographs - distinct words with different etymology which happen to have the same form. One word like that is cleave. It means "to separate" which comes from Old English clēofan. That is where we get the noun cleaver, a tool with a heavy broad blade used by butchers for chopping meat.  But cleave also means the opposite, "to adhere"which is also from Old English clifian.

You might also see the terms "autantonym" used for these types of words. That term was coined by Joseph T. Shipley in 1960, but in 1962 Jack Herring labeled them contronyms and that word is most frequently used.

Other examples:
sanction  can mean to permit and also to penalize
bolt (which originally came from crossbows) means to leave quickly and also fixed. It can mean "moving rapidly" or "unmoving."
buckle can mean "fasten securely" as in "buckle your seat belt", or it can mean "fall apart" as in "buckle under pressure."

Some contronyms are because of national varieties of English. "To table a bill" in the U.K. and Canada means "to put it up for debate."  But in American English it means the opposite, "to remove it from debate." The more logical British version comes from placing an actual bill on the table of Parliamentarians to be considered and debated.

Some contronyms have fallen out of usage. At one time, "awful" meant full of awe or awe-inspiring, but now it only means terrible.

An apocryphal story relates how Charles II (or sometimes Queen Anne) described St Paul's Cathedral as "awful, pompous, and artificial", meaning in modern English "awe-inspiring, majestic, and ingeniously designed."

Contronyms are not unique to English. For example, in French, hôte may mean either "host" or "guest."  

In Hawaiian, aloha  (which essentially means "love") is translated both as “hello” and "goodbye” depending on the context.