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Uncouth, tarnation, ninth circle of hell, dead on arrival (D.O.A.),

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January 9th, 2017
Illustration of Ichabod Crane fleeing the headless horseman by John Quidor.
Washington Irving used the original version of the word “uncouth” when he states in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow that Ichabod Crane is afraid to look over his shoulder, “lest he should behold some uncouth being tramping close behind him!”

Uncouth

When we say that someone is “uncouth,” it means they are rude, lewd, and generally inappropriate. The word comes from the Old English root “cuth,” which meant familiar. 

To say that someone is “uncouth” borrows from that definition; in other words, his or her behavior is unfamiliar in that it is contrary to known, accepted social tenets. This slight transformation in the usage of the term took place over many years.

Looking back, we can find examples in classic literature. For instance, in Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the story’s skittish protagonist Ichabod Crane is afraid to look over his shoulder one night during a ride home from a neighbor’s home, “lest he should behold some uncouth being tramping close behind him!”

By “uncouth,” Irving meant grotesque and unnatural—an offshoot of the word’s original reference to familiarity.

“Some at last night’s meeting felt that his remarks were uncouth.”

Tarnation

The word “tarnation” grew out of society’s many attempts to swear without actually doing so. In this case, “tarnation” was a substitute for “damnation” (or more succinctly, “damn”).  

Etymologists believe the word originated in the eighteenth century, the product of two curse words. 

The first was “tarnal,” a shortened form of “eternal,” which referred to “eternal damnation.” When combined with the second word, “damnation,” you get the new curse substitute “tarnation.”

“What in tarnation are you doing?!”

Ninth circle of hell

When a person references “the ninth circle of hell,” whether they know it or not, they’re borrowing from Dante Alighieri’s fourteenth-century epic poem Divine Comedy.

The first part of this classic work, The Inferno recounts Dante’s fictional journey through hell, with ancient Roman poet Virgil as his guide. In the story, hell has nine circles, the last of which is the worst, reserved for the most egregious sinners.

Today, the phrase “ninth circle of hell” appropriately serves as an idiom to connote a situation that couldn’t get worse.

“Sitting through economics class was like being in the ninth circle of hell.”

Dead on arrival (D.O.A.)

Anyone who has ever worked in law enforcement or emergency medicine knows this grim acronym. For years now, hospital reports have used the abbreviation D.O.A. to document patients who have died in the ambulance en route to the emergency room. 

In fact, the term and its acronym are so well known that they’ve become idioms for anything that fails or dies at the outset.

“The House majority believes the bill will be D.O.A. when it moves to the Senate.”

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