New Free Rice XIII
Bill Long 2/9/08
Three Letter Words..
Many spellers at the 2007 National Senior Spelling Bee discovered that the hardest words to spell were of five or fewer letters. I think the Free Rice "equivalent" to this notion to this is the difficulty of knowing the definitions of several three-letter words. After saying a word about pilliwinks, I would propose to define the following three letter words from Free Rice: (1) fou; (2) pam; (3) hod; (4) hob; (5) kra; (6) cru; (7) kop; (8) kob; (9) kef; (10) mas; (11) kai; and (12) kab.
Pilliwinks--a Leftover Word
I had never seen the word before two weeks ago. In some ways I wish I never knew it, for it is a medieval instrument of torture--the thumbscrew. Here is a brief article on it. The word first appeared, as pyrwykes, in a 1397 quotation. The language is a sort of medieval French. Let's see how you do with it:
"Johan Skypwyth...aresta le dit Johan Rouseby et lui enprisona horriblement en soun hostiel a Nicole [=Lincoln], et lui mist en ceppes et mist sez mayns aderere soun dorse, et sur sez mayns une paire de pyrwykes."
The only thing necessary for our purposes is the last phrase--"and on his hands a pair of pilliwinks." Then, from about 1400 we have a Latin usage of the term:
"Ipsum...cum cordis ligaverunt & super pollices ipsius Roberti quoddam instrumentum vocatum Pyrewinkes ita stricte et dure posuerunt quod sanguis exivit de digitis illius."
The relevant part can be translated: "and upon the thumbs of Robert himself they placed strictly and severely a certain instrument called pilliwinks that made blood flow from his digits." Enough of that--though I wanted to bring you into the heart of old language, as well as old (but really not so old) reality.
Now, the Three-Letter Words
Several of these are colorful terms. Let's begin with a few. A pam is the jack of clubs and, in five-card loo, the highest trump. In extended usage, it is an all-powerful or desirable person or thing. Herman Melville wrote in 1876: "Moses' God is no mere Pam With painted clubs." I think it was a "trump" for Free Rice.
A hod, which didn't seem to exist before the 16th century, was "an open receptacle for carrying mortar, and sometimes bricks or stones, to supply builders at work." The quantity carried in it was a "hodful." You can see such a two or three cornered hod here. A hob, on the other hand, can be various things, the two most common meanings of which are: (1) the level supports on the top of a stove over which pots and pans are to be placed and heated, and (2) an elf or fairy. A circular glass hob which fits on your stovetop is here. The other meaning is derived from Puck, that mischievous imp or elf of English folklore, known also as Robin Goodfellow or as a Hobgoblin. Shakespeare portrayed him skillfully in A Midsummer Night's Dream. He is called here a "shrewd and knavish sprite."
Fou, Kra, Cru, Kef
Fou, in a word, simply means "drunk." It is a Scottish term going back to the 16th century. As Robert Burns said in 1785: "I wasna fou, but just had plenty." From Scott a generation later: "He is as fou as a piper by this time."
A kra is the long-tailed macaque, Macaca fascicularis, native to southern and south-eastern Asia. This picture isn't kidding when it shows a really long tail...
A cru, derived from the French verb croitre, meaning "to grow," is a French vineyard or wine-producing region. It can also refer to the grade of wine produced there. The Georges Vesselle Premier Cru, a high quality French champagne, is pictured here. The first use of the term in English in 1824 gave it some precision: "A wine is called of such a cru, meaning a circumscribed spot in a vineyeard; it is also used in a more extensive sense, as the cru of such a district." Or, from 1833, "This word is applied in several ways. It means a vineyard,a particular spot in a vineyard, any vine land generally."
The word kef is a wonderful one. Derived from the Arabic, kef is a state of drowsiness or dreamy intoxication, such as is produced by the use of bhang, etc. In can also refer to the substance smoked to produce this state. Further, it can also be the enjoyment of a state of idleness; as the Italians say a "dolce far niente." If you "make kef" or "do kef," you pass the time in idleness. Rather than saying you are just goofing off, why not say that you are just 'making kef'? People will think you industrious in your idleness.
Kob, Kop, Kai, Kab, Mas
Let's begin with the word mas. Though the OED has three meanings for it, the Free Rice word was a "Caribbean festival." Well, this is nothing but a variant of masque or masquerede, and it a masquerede especially held as part of an annual carnival parade. From 1974: "Hundreds of Barbadian children yesterday got their chance to 'play mas,' when the Trinidad Women's Club of Barbados staged its annual children's carnival at Culloden Farm."
Kop is an Afrikaans word for a hill or head. It often is used as a proper noun to describe the hill. "It is east by north of Taikundo Kop." In a sentence that connects three words in the Free Rice list from levels 51-55, "On one side the kloof (deep, narrow South African valley) was bordered by a krans (any precipitous or overhanging wall of rocks...), two to three hundred feet high, and on the other by a kop so steep that it could almost be called a krans too."
Kai is simply the Maori word for "food," though I am taking the word of all the dictionaries for it. A kab is an ancient Hebrew measure, according to the Rabbis, which is the sixth part of a seah or about 3 imperial pints. Finally, the kob is the African water antelope of the genus Kobus (it is known as the Kobus kob), with several distinct species. It was this picture of such a Kobus kob in Science News that got me started in my quest to understand some of the failing protection of African National Parks, especially in the Eastern Congo, where a guerilla war has been going on for a decade and more than 110 rangers have been casualties to this ongoing war.
There are many other three-letter words of note in our language; this ought to get you started in earnest.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long