Etymological epiphanies

Making our way back to the house we were startled by a short burst of thunderous crashes coming from the direction of the rams. Woodruff and Siegfried had recently been returned to their pasture some distance from the ewes. Our breeding season lasts for fifty days each fall; when that window closes we collect the boys and pasture them in isolation. When we first put the rams back together lots of pushing and head butting ensued. Once Woodruff reestablished himself as the boss both boys commenced to demonstrate their resentment at having been separated from their paramours by running, full tilt, and crashing headlong into the sidewall of their metal shelter. Thus the thunderous, staccato, boomboomboom. Joanna commented wryly, Numbskulls. With the word barely off her lips a neural connection which took more than 50 years to complete finally came to fruition. How many times had I used the term? How many times had I heard others use it? Why had I simply assumed it was a nonsense word used to refer to silly, or otherwise unthinking individuals? Why did it take so long for me to dissect the compound into its components … numbskull? Why did it take this very literal demonstration to make the connection? Answers to all of these not-so-rhetorical questions are fascinating. How is it that one can use a word in conversation for decades and then, in an instant, realize that the construction of the word has an etymological rationale that had never occurred to you? I know this has happened to me before but other examples elude me no matter how hard I try to recall them. Has this happened to you? If so, what was the word which jumped from obscurity to clarity? My daughter reminded me that the word dilemma was one which, one day, took her by surprise. A lemma is, in the mathematical lexicon, an intermediate proposition upon which a proof is based. So, of course, a dilemma is a choice between two alternatives. And, finally, the term earmark is used to describe the legislative provision of funds, one which often circumvents established protocol. To earmark also requires identification of the recipient of appropriated funds and here is where we may discover the origin of the word. We used to raise hogs here on the farm and all of our animals were registered with the Tamworth Swine Association. The registration process requires the unambiguous identification of each animal and, in the case of hogs, this involves notching of the ears. Litter identifiers are notched into the animal’s right ear while individual identifiers are notched into the left ear. If you’re interested in learning about the numbering system click this link to an earlier farm post. So there you have it … to identify a hog is to earmark it … and to appropriate funds (often pork incidentally … pardon the pun) and identify the recipient is also to earmark. Closure … love it.

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