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Words March 3

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“Soprano Mary Ann Doe (nee Smith, nee Jones, nee Brown) and mezzo-soprano Suzanne Roe were superb soloists.” The reviewer seems to think that nee means “formerly.” It means “born.” Mrs. Doe was born either Smith, Jones or Brown, not all three. Why the reviewer thought it necessary to point out that she’s been married several times is another question. Her marital history hasn’t affected her singing, evidently. “Dennehy said not having Miller with them in London will put ‘a pall over it.’ “ ‘He’s one of the great triumvirates of the American theater.’ ” A one-man triumvirate would be something like a one-man gang — an exaggeration. A triumvirate is a group of three. Probably what Dennehy told the reporter was that Arthur Miller was one of the great triumvirate (no s) of the American theater. The other two members of that group would be Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, I suppose. “Sadly, my current Social Security contributions will equivocate to around only 1 percent annual growth when I receive my retirement distributions.” To equivocate means “to use ambiguous or unclear expressions, usually to avoid commitment or in order to mislead; prevaricate or hedge.” How does a Social Security contribution “equivocate to around only 1 percent annual growth”? Beats me. To hear some real equivocating, listen to the people who want to privatize Social Security. But don’t fall for it. Recent news articles about an unfortunate e-mail have prompted questions about the meaning and origin of dago. It’s an offensive slang term for a person of Italian or Spanish origin, an alteration of the Spanish name Diego, and it dates from the 18th century. It’s seldom heard these days, thankfully. Also rare is Dago red, which is offensive slang for cheap red wine. Dago is a cousin of wop, another offensive slang name for an Italian, derived from Italian and Spanish words that mean, variously, “swaggerer, pimp, ruffian.” The story that wop is an acronym for “With Out Papers” is folk etymology. Wop, too, has almost vanished from use, though I’m told there’s a restaurant in the Little Rock area that still lists wop salad on the menu.

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