The many ‘sides’ of Thanksgiving… and the English language
We may talk a lot of turkey during the holiday, but US Thanksgiving is really all about the sides. Yes, we pile our plates with mashed potatoes and green beans, but we also feast on the many other great sides the English language has to offer.
From all sides
During the holiday, both sides of a family may gather together out in a relative’s home in the countryside. The cook may serve up food on a sideboard, with the stuffing cooked on the inside of the bird.
At dinner, some may take sides of a political controversy, while others may just stay on the sidelines – of the American football game on TV, that is, where a ref may flag a player who is offside.
A distant aunt may pull an unsuspecting nephew aside for some colorful side comments. That’s better than her husband, who corners a cousin about the new siding on his house.
Besides the family drama, too much food will split sides, as will the convivial laughter. Celebrants can cap the meal with a postprandial snooze: How about sideways on the sofa right by the fireside? The drowsiness is surely just a side effect of all the turkey’s tryptophan – not the booze, of course!
English really dishes up the sides. This may not be surprising, as the word has had a lot of time to develop in the language: the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates side back to Old English, when, much as now, it named the sides of the body.
Side has many cognates in the Germanic languages, but its ultimate origins are unclear. Proposing a Proto-Germanic root, philologist Walter Skeat has suggested an earlier, literal meaning of ‘that which is extended’. This is possibly connected to another early side in Old English, this one meaning ‘long’ and ‘spacious’.
Let’s have a look at – er, taste of – some other particularly interesting side words in English.
If we have a hard time paying attention, we might easily get sidetracked. This term is derived from the 19th-century side-tracks of railroads.
If we want to avoid a touchy topic, we might sidestep it in a conversation, a word first recorded in military marches near the backside, shall we say, of the 1700s. In such a conversation, we might digress with many sidebars, which US journalists were using by the late 1940s to refer to articles secondary to the feature story in a newspaper; the figurative sense was in place by the early 1950s.
A sideshow may have been – no hoax – a coinage of the great showman P.T. Barnum. He refers to it as a ‘temporary enterprise’ alongside his main attraction, as the OED first records the word in 1855.
A sidekick is also first found in American English. It’s back-formed from side-kicker, documented at least by the start of the 1900s for a ‘close but lesser pal’. The kick may originally have meant ‘to walk or wander’, yielding to kick around or kick about.
Another stateside word is sideburns. This facial hair is named after Ambrose Burnside, an American Civil War general noted for the particular way he groomed his whiskers. Here, the OED quotes the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1875: ‘His whisker was of the Burnside type, consisting of mustache and ‘muttonchop’, the chin being perfectly clean’.
Maybe you recall that records had A-sides and B-sides? Another term for the B-side was the flip side, dated to the late 1940s. The B-side typically featured the lesser track(s) of a recording, although on the flip side lives on as a positive consideration of some matter.
Like flip side, we can also speak of the upside or downside of some event. While upside and downside have long been in the language, these substantive usages for ‘advantage’ and ‘disadvantage’, respectively, trace back to the early 20th century, when they were used to describe the movement of share prices in the stock market.
Upside down is far older, at least in sense. The OED dates it back to the 1300s, but the phrase took a different form early on: up so down. Speakers shaped the word into upset down and upside down, which stuck, since the usage of so was unusual, the OED explains.
Sidle, ‘to edge sideways’, also features some curious linguistic changes at work. The verb is actually a back-formation of sideling, which was an adverb meaning ‘sideways’ but whose -ing sounds like the progressive tense or a present participle in English. In the word sideling, however, this -ing is actually part of -ling, an old adverbial suffix in the language. Not to be left out, -ling got confused with -long, another adverbial suffix seen in sidelong.
Sports fans, especially of American football, may well be familiar with blindsided. As the OED notes, the term, deriving from blind side, actually dates back to the very early 1600s, referring to the ‘weak side of a person or thing’. Bedside manner may also strike some as a relatively new phenomenon, but it is in fact recorded by the mid-1800s.
Finally, two words that are surprisingly younger than many may suppose are insider and outsider. Insider is documented by 1848 (and in the context of the stock exchanges), which makes it roughly contemporary to sunny side.
In a recent observation made by lexicographer Peter Sokolowski, outsider, has been spiking in the American language due to the political outsider status some Republican Party presidential candidates are touting. Sokolowski also noted it appears in 1800 in a letter by Jane Austen (the OED attests this, too), referring to some outsiders to a card game.
But like gravy, many like to keep their politics on the side on Thanksgiving.