Bill Long 6/22/08
Oops--Don't Miss These!
Though the "oo" prefix in many words in English signifies nothing having to do with the Greek root ("oh-o"; omega-omicron), which means "egg," it is a prefix that was attached to a word that tripped up a very fine speller in last week's National Spelling Bee finals. Mike Vetris, Jr., who participated and did well in the "kids bee" in 1958, got the word oothecae (ou ou THE kai), and missed it. So, this essay is dedicated to all of you who would like to get the "oo's" right in your word life.
Let's begin, however, with a word about the Latin equivalent--ovum, abbreviated in English words as "ovi." The Collegiate only has about eight or nine "ovi" words. Ovicide is the "killing of an egg," literally, but is an insecticide that kills in the egg state. An oviduct is a tube allowing the passage of eggs from the ovary. Something oviparous lays eggs, an ovipositor is a specialized organ designed to depositing eggs. An oviraptor is a genus of dinosaurs of the late Cretaceous period, with a toothless jaw and long forelimbs with clawed fingers. Oviraptor, literally, means the "egg seizer," and it received its name in 1924 from the position in which it was found: "The third...is a short skull, entirely toothless like the Ornithomimidae, which was found lying directly over a nest of dinosaur eggs, separated only by four inches of friable sandstone; hence we name it Oviraptor, the 'egg seizer.'" Ah, the accidents of archaeology bequeath names to us.
When I turned to the OED to find a few more "ovi" words, I was delighted with ovism, which will have to be my last "ovi" word today. Ovism is a theory from the history of biology that believes that the ovum holds all the material necessary for the development of the embryo, the sperm providing only a stimulus to initiate the process. One who believes this is an ovist. The battle for female or male priority was called the conflict between Ovism and Spermatism in an 1892 article. But in 1983 Science framed it this way: "During the 18th century..controversies arose over whether the preformed organism is carried by the female (ovism) or the male (animalculism).
Returning to the Oo's
We can begin with oodles of words that begin with a "oo" but have nothing to do with "eggs." You might as well get a cup of oolong tea and listen to an oompah band while I tell you the story. You need not have oozed your way out of the dark lagoon to believe in the multitude of "oo" words. One "oo" word I hadn't previously heard was ooftish, which means "money" or "cash." How did this term arise at the end of the 19th century? If you have studied German you know that something "auf den Tisch" is something "laid on the table." Actually the Yiddish form of this phrase was afn tish or gelt afn tish (money on the table). Thus, we see how it could have arisen. We have this from 1892: "'Oof' as a current pseudonym for money has been in use for about seven years, but 'ooftish,' which also is Whitechapel slang for coin of the realm, has been in use in England over thirty years." From 1944: "Here are a few older slang terms for money: dough, jack..wad, oof, offtish, yellow boys, thick 'uns."
Let's conclude these "non egg" "oo's" with ooky, a word probably derived from ucky or icky and meaning "unpleasant, repellent, slimy." Saul Bellow first used the word in 1964: "He writes poems and reads them to Mama..He looks ooky when he says them."
Let's begin with the word that Mike missed: oothecae. It is a plural, and the word theca is from theka, the Greek word for "case" or "cover." But the Greek "kappa" often becomes a "c" in English. It is, therefore, an "egg cell" or "covering," or, in botony, a part of a plant serving as a receptacle; a sac, cell, or capsule.
An oologist is one who collects bird eggs, and oology is the the "branch of knowledge that deals with birds' eggs." Ooh-la-la. An oolith is "any of the small rounded granules of which oolite is composed." Why is oolite some called? Because it is defines as "any limestone composed of small rounded granules resembling the roe of a fish." Thus, it appears to the eye that "eggs" are there, and the rock ('lith') takes on that name. Something oogamous relates to or involves the union of dissimilar gametes, usually a small motile male gamete and a larger non-motile female gamete. Oogenesis is the production or development of an ovum. An oocyte is an egg before maturation and an oocyst is a "spprozoan zygote undergoing sporogenous development." I see that I, like you, probably have a lot to learn about life. Finally, an oophorectomy is "the surgical removal of one or both ovaries." The word is a great one to learn, but I am afraid that most spelling bees wouldn't have the nerve to use it.
I haven't touched on all the "oo"-words, but let's cose wth a rare one, ooscopy. It is the process of divination from birds' eggs. Normally the "divination" word ends with "mancy," such as catoptromancy (divination by mirrors) but here it is scopy. I love the sound of the word, even though the OED tells us that the word is obsolete. Each morning, when I arise and eat my "Omega -3"-laden egg, I should begin the day performing an ooscopy. Never know how much more it would bring to life...