Fill the bill: Avoid folk etymology and the rest will follow

Expressions fascinate me. Why do they vary so from one language to another? Consider, for instance, how “through thick and thin” in English becomes “contigo pan y cebolla” (literally, “with you through bread and onions”) in Spanish. There must surely be cultural influences that shape the development, as well as the nuances of, language. Suffice to say that uncovering what these—and other factors—are is more than just a weekend hobby for me. I’m always happy when I uncover the origins of yet another idiom, and I’m always dismayed when I see someone misusing and/or misspelling that same idiom.

Ice floes on the flowing river…

With spring approaching, I thought I would start with a phrase familiar to anyone who has lived near a river. Growing up in northern Alberta, I remember how residents would wager on just when the Athabasca River would break—yes, break; not melt—sending huge chunks of ice rocketing into the air. Of course, those living at more southern latitudes may never have witnessed such a phenomenon. Further south, rivers tend to thaw gradually as spring approaches and temperatures begin to climb. As the ice melts, people can see the river water flow, carrying with it ice floes.

Chaise longue…

Already, I’m dreaming of pleasant spring days and of curling up with my cat as beams of sunlight stream through my patio doors, warming my living room. Since lounging is what most people do in an upholstered sofa or reclining chair long enough to support the legs, I suppose it’s not a crime that they’d assume the correct term is chaise lounge. In reality, however, this is an example of folk etymology (from the nineteenth century academic German Volksetymologie), a phenomenon in which a word or phase changes over time as the result of replacing an unfamiliar form with a more familiar one. In this example, chaise longue (from the French “long chair”) is sometimes written as chaise lounge. This form has persisted so strongly in the United States that it is no longer considered incorrect there; it can even be found in American dictionaries. When a chaise longue is divided into two parts, the chair itself and a long footstool, it is known as a duchesse brisée, although the origin of this name is not known. The récamier, in contrast, has long sides and two raised ends. It is said that French society hostess Madame Récamier, for whom the couch is named, posed elegantly on this equally elegant lit bateau (boat bed). Often seen on the silver screen, the asymmetrical méridienne, popular in the grand houses of France in the early nineteenth century, is characterized by its high headrest and lower footrest, joined by a sloping piece. Its name is derived from its typical use as a daybed on which people would rest in the middle of the day, when the sun is near the meridian.

Filling the bill…

Around the early nineteenth century, theatrical troupes began advertising by way of handbills. In order to fill up the page, the lead performer’s name was commonly printed in extra large letters. When the star’s performance lived up to expectations—that is, the bold recognition on the handbill—he or she was said to have lived up to the hype. Of course, today, those saying instead “fit the billand those who misspell the two aforementioned expressions clearly don’t “fill the bill”. (I’m of the opinion that chaise lounge, while considered acceptable in the U.S., should still not be used in Canada.)

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