Word of the Day: dust (again)

Word of the Day: dust, again.

Lily Munster walks about the tumbledown parlor, shaking a mop-like thing over the pump organ, the raven-clock, the sofa, and the electric chair.  Smoke scatters everywhere.  “Excuse me,” she says to the astonished visitor, “I was just dusting the furniture.”
The joke’s on us English speakers.  How odd it is, that we turn nouns into verbs, just like that, to mean that we put that noun onto something else.  We paint things by putting paint on them.  We soil things by smudging them with soil.  We nail things by driving nails into them.  We water flowers.  And yes, Lily, we dust crops!


What’s odder still is that we have a group of verbs, many of them having to do with preparing plants or animals for our tables, which mean that we take the noun away from something.  Olives that are pitted have no pits.  Cherries that are stoned, if they are not on college campuses, have no stones.  You shell peas by taking them out of their shells.  The kid on roller skates hits a bump in the sidewalk and skins his knees.  It means that his knees had skin on them, and don’t anymore.  “Gimme that wrench or I’ll brain ya!” says Moe to Curly.  It is not clear in Curly’s case whether such an operation could be performed, but we know what Moe means.
Many of the other verbs are common enough, and even when they’re not so common we understand them readily, by analogy: peel, hull, shuck, husk, bone, scalp, juice.  If you bark your shins against a rock, you’ve stripped the flesh off just as if you’d barked a tree to prepare it for planing.  A fire guts a house: it burns the guts of it right out.  One of these verbs is now common but entirely figurative: sap.  It means to take away all the strength from something, slowly but inexorably.  But its original meaning is just as it says: to drain the sap away.

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