Hissies, Conniptions, and Negligees

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March 24, 2020 by libroshombre

“Words, like nature, half reveal and half conceal the soul within,” according to Ralph Waldo Emerson.  That’s true enough, but, since words’ meanings regularly change, it’s often difficult to fully grasp meanings of words written long ago.  “Negligee” meant “a loose gown worn by women” in the 1700s and evolved into the modern definition – “semi-transparent, flimsy, lacy dressing gown” –by 1930, about the time it also meant “shroud for a corpse” in the U.S. funeral industry.   But its original form was the Latin “neglegere,” meaning “to disregard, not heed, not trouble oneself about.”

Change in our vocabulary’s demonstrably inevitable, yet some folks get all hipped up; yes, many have lexicographical hissy fits, but few of these actually develop into conniptions.  “Hissy,” an American term, the OED assures us, “is a fit of temper, an angry outburst, a tantrum.”  No one knows hissy’s origin, but in “Hissy vs. Conniption fit: The Difference in These Southernisms,” Haley Laurence cites the English Language & Usage Stack Exchange, who “theorize that it’s a contraction that formed from the word ‘hysterics’.”  However, she notes, “it really does get worse than a hissy fit … conniptions are when things get physical.”  “Conniption’s” origins are equally murky, but, according to the Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, it’s “most likely the creation of an imaginative American who coined the term in an attempt to sound educated with a bit of pseudo-Latin.”

That leaves out William James Sidis as a suspect.  A 2011 NPR.org article, “Meet William Sidis: The Smartest Guy Ever?”, described Sidi’s early education by overbearing medical doctor parents who “believed that you could make a genius.”  Born in Massachusetts in 1898, Sidis “could read the New York Times before he was 2.  At age 6 his language repertoire included English, Latin, French, German, Russian, Hebrew, Turkish, and Armenian … as a young boy, Sidis invented his own language and wrote French poetry, a novel, and a constitution for a utopia.”  All smoke and mirrors?  He entered Harvard University at age 11 despite qualifying for admission at 9, since the school insisted on waiting until he “matured.”

Sidis graduated cum laude 5 years later, after years of teasing, physical abuse, and humiliation by fellow Harvard students, and after his parents’ relentless publicizing pressure, he wanted nothing more than to “be a regular working man.”  Estranged from his family, Sidis went into hiding, according the JewishVirtualLibrary.org, “moving from city to city, job to job, often using an alias.  All the while he wrote a number of books, including a 1,200-page history of the U.S. and a book on streetcar transfer tickets, which he loved to collect, for he was a ‘peridromophile’, a term he coined for people fascinated with transportation research and streetcar systems.”

His books were never widely published, and he used at least eight pseudonyms.”  In Sidis’ 1925 “The Animate and the Inanimate,” one of the few published under his real name, he proposed a number of theories including dark matter and black holes that predated most astrophysical speculations.  After all, one of his MIT physics professors predicted, “young Sidis will be a great astronomical mathematician.  He will evolve new theories.”  However, despite possessing an IQ “estimated to be 50 to 100 points higher than Albert Einstein,” Sidis craved privacy and isolation, and he “only took work running adding machines or other fairly menial tasks.”  At www.Sidis.net you’ll find a virtual library of his known works: “four books; four pamphlets; 13 articles; four periodicals; 89 weekly magazine columns; a design for a corporation owned and operated by a federation of its employees; and one wonderful invention.”

In 1937 the New Yorker sent an alluring female reporter to ferret out the recluse, and Sidis felt the subsequent article “made him sound crazy” according to Amy Wallace, his biographer.  He emerged from hiding and successfully sued the New Yorker for libel.  “Shortly afterward, in 1944, he died from a brain hemorrhage.  He was 46 … Wallace thinks Sidis led a happier life as an adult. ‘People who knew him adored him.’”

There’s always someone ready to pitch fits about anything in today’s prickly society, even with something as mundane as words.  But all y’all’d’ve known that already by reading the online comments to News Miner articles.


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