Last week, when hurricane Rita was just starting out as a tropical storm, someone on television was heard describing it as "just shy of a hurricane."
Shy? Come again? For a storm with winds that subsequently picked up to 175 miles an hour, is "shy" really the right word?
Well, OK, maybe, yes. "Shy" in the sense that means "short." (The storm season, however, has already gone on far too long. The National Weather Service is running out of names, and after "Wilma," the plan is to go to Greek letters to identify storms.)
The English language is full of little words we use all the time. We may marvel at the range and richness of the vocabulary of English - all those words imported from Norman French like silks and brocades - but it's the helpful monosyllables that we use all the time that really make the language what it is.
It often happens that little words like "shy," left lying around the house of common speech, get picked up for whole new uses - like those sturdy pink rubber bands that come home wrapped around the broccoli from the grocery store and end up holding tax papers together until we can get them to the accountant's office.
That's what seems to have happened with "shy." It's an ancient English word, going back to the Middle Ages, and it's rooted in the concept of a sort of timid-mindedness. Of the definitions given in the Oxford English Dictionary, the oldest meaning that's still current is "easily frightened away, difficult of approach owing to timidity, caution, or distrust," a sense that goes back to 1600. "Shyness" became the term used to describe those "difficult of approach" in social situations.
Note how it's shifted from applying to observable phenomena ("That horse is too shy to let me get near him; he bolts to the other side of the ring every time I try") to describing a subjective experience, namely, a state of social discomfort. ("I'm just too shy to really enjoy myself at big parties.")
Then there's the shyness of distrust or wariness - a reserve rooted not in lack of self-confidence or social grace but (perhaps well-founded) concern about another's motives or integrity.
But then there's the "shy" that is "lacking, just short of," which Oxford lists as an Americanism derived from betting slang, used to refer to one who has less at stake in a game than the rules call for. The usage has since been extended to other contexts, such as military rank.
Oxford cites Stephen Crane's use of the term in "The Little Regiment," a short story: "None ... knew how an orderly sergeant ranked, but then it was understood to be somewhere just shy of a major-general's stars."
The underlying metaphor here may be a holding back, a figurative hesitation to approach the full amount, the full rank. Whatever its background, this usage shows up in a number of idioms, including "a few bricks shy of a load." Someone who is described this way may also be said to be "not playing with a full deck." There's a whole canon of such insults out on the Web, known as "fulldeckerisms."
It may be quite a stretch for "shy" from its original sense of skittishness to its latter-day colloquial sense of falling short. Those pink rubber bands sometimes make quite a stretch, too. But calling a major tropical storm "shy" in any sense of the word was, well, a bit shy of a load.
• This appears with links at: http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy