Where Does That Word Come From?

"Instead of a handshake, I gave Toby a high-five to break the ice; and when we sat down on the front porch and started talking off the cuff, it was as if serendipity brought us together."

That sentence contains several words and actions you see and hear every day. But have you ever wondered where some of our most common communication-related terms come from?

Handshake
We do it every day ? sometimes 20 times a day. But how many of us actually know where the handshake originated? According to author/speaker Melvin Murphy, "The handshake has origins more anthropological than historical. Men used to carry knives, spears and rocks. And when land was scarce, males would extend their hand to show that they were not attempting to kill their neighbor."

"Furthermore, the classical Greeks were under the impression that the right hands were mysteriously connected to the heart. And they may not have been very far off point. The handshake is a symbol equivalent of a promise. It becomes a virtue of the word and value of the person extending it. It is an agreement sealed with honor before the lawyers get involved. The handshake is a very valuable tool and, since in business often the communication is one-to-one, it's flexible and indicates that an agreement has been reached on current dealings. It says that all information and intentions have been disclosed so that the value of the handshake is not diminished. The lesson here is that the handshake historically has carried symbolic importance. It is good to know what your handshake is worth. It's your word and it says you can deliver on your promises."

High Five
It was late in the 1977 season. Dusty Baker of the Dodgers was rounding third, heading for home, having just hit his 30th home run. The Dodgers were heading for a National League pennant! The on-deck hitter was Glenn Burke, enjoying his second season in the big leagues. As Baker crossed the plate Burke raised his hand. Baker responded by raising his. The two hands slapped together and a bit of history was made: the very first high-five.

Popularized in the 80's, the high-five not only served as a cultural symbol, but was added to the dictionary as well! According to Merriam Webster, a high-five (noun or verb) is "a slapping of upraised right hands by two people, as in celebration."

Break the Ice
The origination of the term break the ice dates back to old trade practices that involve, well, breaking the ice. When cargo ships became icebound for weeks at a time due to bitter, frozen winters, smaller ships were sent out to break the ice in order to make a path that would enable future trade. In other words, if you (as a boatman) wanted to get down to business - you had to break the ice.

Front Porch
In the book Preserving Porches, Rene Kahn explains that front porches were first made popular by the Greeks. They used them as gathering spots for public discussions, originally called porticos. As history unfolded and the Middle Ages arrived, the porch came to represent a cathedral's vestibule where worshippers could gather to socialize before and after the service. Then, by Victorian times, the word "porch" became interchangeably used with the words "veranda," "piazza," "loggia," and "portico," each of which could connote individual meanings. From this period until the second half of the nineteenth century, the word "porch" itself most often described a small, enclosed vestibule or covered rear entrance.

At this time, at the end of the nineteenth century, the word "porch" began to represent its present meaning. This meaning, in its American sense, generally refers to a "roofed, but incompletely walled living area." Honestly, I like what Bill Cosby says about front porches, "The front porch was an invention of the housewife who wanted to keep her husband far enough away to be quiet; but close enough in case she couldn't lift something heavy."

Off the Cuff
According to www.idiomsite.com, although this phrase was traditionally thought to be a spontaneous statement or response (isn't amazing how he comes up with those ideas off the cuff like that...?), it actually has origins in one of two places, depending on who you listen to. One example comes from the English Pub keepers' accounting system. Bartenders of the era kept track of patron's tabs by markings made on the starched cuffs of their shirts, so that with a mere glance at their shirt cuffs the bartender could quote a price seemingly 'off the cuff.' It may also come from the alleged practice, in the 1930's, of public speakers making last-minute notes on their shirt cuffs, for use during their speeches.

Serendipity
According to www.word-detective.com, the connection you've heard of between "serendipity" and Sri Lanka is true, and it's a very interesting story. Back in 1754, Horace Walpole, fourth Earl of Orford, wrote a letter to his friend, Horace Mann. In this letter, Horace W. undertook to explain to Horace M. the derivation of a new word he had invented, "serendipity":

I once read a silly fairy tale, called 'The Three Princes of Serendip'; as their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.

By 'serendipity,' Walpole meant 'the gift of making lucky discoveries, of finding valuable things one is not looking for,' and the word entered English in that sense. Curiously, however, 'serendipity' was rarely used in literature until the 20th century, and today is more often employed to mean the lucky find or happenstance itself, as in 'A parking meter with time left on it when one is broke is serendipity.'"

So, next time someone mentions one of these words; shakes your hand or gives you a high five; tell him the history behind it! It's a great conversation starter and surefire way to spice up the encounter.

© 2005 All Rights Reserved.

Scott Ginsberg is a professional speaker, "The World's Foremost Expert on Nametags" and the author of HELLO my name is Scott and The Power of Approachability. He helps people MAXIMIZE their approachability and become UNFORGETTABLE communicators - one conversation at a time. For more information contact Front Porch Productions at http://www.hellomynameisscott.com.

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