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9 Old-Fashioned Words for the Fickle

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Whether we’re waffling between Facebook and Twitter, beer and wine, or pure goodness and diabolical evil, few of us are steadfast enough to avoid some flip-flopping—and inconstancy must be an ancient quality, because there are many old-fashioned words for the flighty. Make sure to use them the next time you dither.

1. SHITTLE

Shittle, which goes back to the 1400s, means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “Inconstant, variable, wavering; fickle, flighty; hasty, rash.” In 1676, Aylett Sammes’ Britannia Antiqua Illustrata, Or the Antiquities of Ancient Britain demonstrated the changeability inherent in the term, describing a leader who “had once an intention to Invade Britain, but by his shittle Head, sudden repentance, and mighty designs against Germany, all came to nothing.” If you’re about as reliable as a ditzy dunderhead, you can also be called shittle-brained, shittle-headed, or the pleasingly rhyming shittle-witted.

2. CHOICEFUL

This rare term is a bit euphemistic. It sounds like positive term for a decisive, stalwart hero, but sometimes refers to someone so overwhelmed by choices they can’t make a single one. Way back in 1591, the term was used by Edmund Spenser in his collection Complaints: “None of these ... Mote please his fancie ... His choicefull sense with euerie change doth flit.” In other words, that fella can’t make up his damn mind.

3. BINGLE-BANGLE

Reduplicative words are an untrustworthy bunch, with many meaning some form of malarkey, such as fiddle-faddle, jibber-jabber, and mumbo jumbo. So it’s fitting that bingle-bangle is a word for flippy-floppy behavior. This term, which showed up rarely in the 1800s, comes from a meaning of bangle that refers to the apparently aimless fluttering of a bird. Bingle-bangle-ness likewise involves a fluttering and frittering about, lost in the fog of fickledom.

4. SHILLY-SHALLY

Another reduplicative term with a flimsy meaning is shilly-shally, which has had several forms and uses, all relating to indecisiveness, since about 1700. This term can be an adjective, describing shilly-shally stuff and nonsense, and also a noun meaning fickleness. An 1847 example by Thomas De Quincey uses the word to describe its opposite: “She lost not one of her forty-five minutes in picking and choosing. No shilly-shally in Kate.”

5. MOONISH

This word can refer to many moony attributes, but especially the sense that the moon is influencing you—maybe not to lycanthropy, but perhaps to wishy-washiness. Moonish has been around since the 1400s, and it appeared in Shakespeare’s As You Like It in 1616: “At which time would I, being but a moonish youth, greeue, be effeminate, changeable ...”

6. VERSATILE

Today, if you’re described as versatile, you’d likely take it as a compliment, meaning you can do this, that, and a lot of other things. But the history of versatility is a tad disreputable. The OED has several examples that demonstrate how ill-regarded versatility was, including quotations from 1659 (“To mold, the versatle hypocrisy of his depraved mind”) and 1882 (“He is too versatile, too soft-hearted and impressionable.)” This meaning deserves a comeback: versatile should live up to its own meaning.

7. FRITTLE

This obscure word is related to frittering, which the fickle do at an Olympic level. In 1579, the term popped up in a translation of a Jean Calvin sermon: “We are so frittle, that though the way be plaine and beaten before vs, yet can we hardly lift vp one foote.”

8. WEATHERCOCK

A weathercock is a rooster-ish weathervane whose name took a metaphorical turn as a word for people who also shift easily with the breeze. This term appears in Shakespeare’s comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost: “What plume of fethers is he that indited this letter? What vaine? What Wethercock?” The adjectival form is the amusing weathercocky. Another variation is a synonym for fickleness that showed up in an 1887 issue of London’s Saturday Review: “To do these Radicals justice, there is a great deal of consistency in their weathercockism.”

9. HEBDOMADAL

The first uses of this word, found in the 1600s, had a simple sense: lasting a week. In the 1700s, this word evolved to refer to folks who change their minds once a week. This sentence, from Edmund Burke in 1797, describes a timeless and unpleasant experience: “Listening to variable, hebdomadal politicians, who run away from their opinions without giving us a month's warning.”

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How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?
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Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

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Designer Reimagines the Spanish Alphabet With Only 19 Letters
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According to designer José de la O, the Spanish alphabet is too crowded. Letters like B and V and S and Z are hard to tell apart when spoken out loud, which makes for a language that's "confusing, complicated, and unpractical," per his design agency's website. His solution is Nueva Qwerty. As Co.Design reports, the "speculative alphabet" combines redundant letters into single characters, leaving 19 letters total.

In place of the letters missing from the original 27-letter Spanish alphabet are five new symbols. The S slot, for example, is occupied by one letter that does the job of C, Z, and S. Q, K, and C have been merged into a single character, as have I and Y. The design of each glyph borrows elements from each of the letters it represents, making the new alphabet easy for Spanish-speakers to learn, its designer says.

Speculative Spanish alphabet.
José de la O

By streamlining the Spanish alphabet, de la O claims he's made it easier to read, write, and type. But the convenience factor may not be enough to win over some Spanish scholars: When the Royal Spanish Academy cut just two letters (CH and LL) from the Spanish alphabet in 2010, their decision was met with outrage.

José de la O has already envisioned how his alphabet might function in the real world, Photoshopping it onto storefronts and newspapers. He also showcased the letters in two new fonts. You can install New Times New Roman and Futurysma onto your computer after downloading it here.

[h/t Co.Design]

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