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Words, Sept. 24

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President Obama's use of gin up has gotten people's attention. Luckily, I'd just finished reading a discussion of gin up when Dan Limke stopped by and asked what I knew about the origin of the phrase. A few minutes earlier, I would've had to say “Nothing.” And I get tired of saying that.

Not that I can claim authority even now. The etymology is not entirely clear, although there are some theories.

To begin with, gin up is not in my big Random House at all, but I found it in an on-line Webster's New World. WNW says gin up means “to stir up, stimulate, enliven, etc.,” which is pretty much the way the president has employed it, and that it might be derived from an old-slang gin up that meant “to become intoxicated.” I guess the reference in that case would be to the lively stage of intoxication, before the torpor sets in.

Other sources suggest that gin up comes from a short form of engine or from generate.

Finally, the Online Etymology Dictionary says more than you probably want to hear. Gin up, meaning “enliven, make more exciting” goes back to about 1887, the dictionary says, and is “probably from the earlier ginger up in the same sense, from ginger in the sense of  ‘spice, pizzazz'; specifically in reference to the treatment described in the 1811 slang dictionary under the entry for feague: … ‘to put ginger up a horse's fundament to make him lively and carry his tail well.' ”

I hope PETA has put a stop to that “treatment,” whether or not it's the source of gin up. But the thought of the president ginning up Joe Wilson in that manner is interesting.

 

Honesty in athletics:

Asked about a rumored schism in the Minnesota Vikings locker room, defensive end Jared Allen told ESPN, “I don't think anyone on this team knows what ‘schism' is.” Not many do in an ESPN broadcast booth, I suspect.

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