Friday, January 30, 2009


Fanciful formations are informal words that usually derive from uncertain origins. But more often than not, they are onomatopoeic, imitative, frequentative, or just plain funny.
Examples: collywobbles; discombobulate; hornswoggle; izzard; loosey-goosey; namby-pamby; nincompoop; palooka; rumpus; skedaddle; snollygoster; sockdolager; spifflicate; wonky


A doublet is either of two words of the same historical source, but with two different stages of entry into the language and different resultant meanings.
Examples: abbreviate/ abridge; aperture/ overture; beef/ cow; carton/cartoon; chef/ chief; cloak/ clock; coy/ quiet; crypt/ grotto; faction/ fashion; fragile/ frail; frantic/ frenetic; garden/ yard; mode/ mood; poison/ potion; praise/ prize; secure/sure; shirt/ skirt


Kudos is a noun that looks plural but is etymologically singular.
Other Examples: congeries; headquarters; linguistics; mathematics; news; shambles

Thursday, January 29, 2009


A contronym is any word that can be its own antonym.
Examples: dust; overlook; oversight; sanction; transparent; trim


The prefix in- means "in," "into," or "not." It can also act as an intensive.
Examples: incandescent; inflammable


The prefix re- means "back" or "again." It can also act as an intensive.
Examples: refine; regret; religion; renege; repast; repent; research; resent; resolve; reticent; revenge; revere


Epenthesis is the insertion of a sound or an unetymological letter within a word.
the a in thataway
the b in thimble
the b in crumble
the d in thunder
the p in empty

WORD ORIGIN: Caress, Kamasutra and Whore

Caress, kamasutra and whore descend from the same Indo-European root "ka," which means "desire."


False splitting occurs when a word loses an initial letter n to the indefinite article.
Examples: adder; apron; auger; inkling; umpire
It can also happen when the letter n from the indefinite article is added to a word.
Examples: newt; nickname


A back-formation is a word that is formed from an already existing word from which it appears to be a derivative, often by removal of a suffix (e.g., laze from lazy and edit from editor).
Other Examples: berserk; couth; eavesdrop; enthuse; greed; gruntled; haze; kempt; peddle; swindle; televise


A reclaimed word is a word that was formerly used solely as a slur but that has been semantically overturned by members of the maligned group, who use it as a term of defiant pride.
Examples: faggot; queer; nigger; redneck; tranny


Pejoration is the process by which the meaning of a word becomes negative or less elevated over a period of time, as silly, which formerly meant "deserving sympathy, helpless or simple," has come to mean "showing a lack of good sense, frivolous."
Other Examples:
Homely: from "characteristic of the home" to "not attractive"
Lady: from a parallel to "gentleman," it has acquired a derogatory sense
Lewd: from "belonging to the common people" to "worthless and vile"
Mistress: from a parallel to "mister," it has acquired sexual connotations
Prude: from "wise woman" to "a person who is excessively concerned with being proper"
Rape: from "seize" to "force someone to submit to sexual acts"
Senile: from "relating to old age" to "having the weaknesses of old age"
Surly: from "lordly" to "bad-tempered"
Vulgar: from "the common people" to "rude and unrefined"


Rhyming reduplications
Examples: claptrap; fuddy-duddy; herky-jerky; higgledy-piggledy; hobnob; hodgepodge; hurly-burly; mumbo-jumbo; namby-pamby; nitty-gritty; pell-mell; tidbit; willy-nilly

Ablaut reduplications
Examples: bric-a-brac; chit-chat; crisscross; dilly-dally; flimflam; flip-flop; knicknack; mishmash; pitter-patter; riffraff; seesaw; shilly-shally; singsong; teeter-totter; wishy-washy

SUFFIX: -ette

This suffix forms nouns that denote small size or female gender.
Examples: bachelorette; baguette; banquette; brunette; cigarette; coquette; eau de toilette; etiquette; maquette; omelette; palette; pirouette; vignette; vinaigrette

SUFFIX: -ling

This suffix forms nouns that are diminutive or hypocoristic.
Examples: darling; gosling; inkling; sapling; stripling; youngling

This suffix forms nouns having a depreciatory sense.
Examples: changeling; foundling; hireling; princeling; starveling

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Absquatulate (abscond + squat + perambulate)
Bit (binary + digit)
Bodacious (bold + audacious)
Brunch (breakfast + lunch)
Chortle (chuckle + snort)
Flabbergast (flappy + aghast)
Galumph (gallop + triumph)
Guesstimate (guess + estimate)
Hassle (harass + hustle or haggle + tussle or haggle + wrestle)
Lieutenant (lieu + tenant)
Motel (motor + hotel)
Sitcom (situation + comedy)
Smaze (smoke + haze)
Smog (smoke + fog)
Stagflation (stagnation + inflation)
Tankini (tank top + bikini)
Tarnation (eternal + damnation)

ALTERATIONS: Creature and Potato

Creature and potato were respectively shortened and altered to critter and tater.

ALTERATIONS: Auburn, Tweed and Vanilla

The original sense of auburn was "yellowish white" until it became associated with brown.

may be the result of a misreading of "tweel." The alteration was probably influenced by Tweed, which is a river that forms part of the border between England and Scotland.

Vanilla comes to us by way of Spanish from the Latin word "vagina." The current spelling was influenced by association with the French word "vanille."


Fey came to mean otherworldly, perhaps from confusion with fay.

Icky is possibly related to sick or sticky.

Quiz could be an alteration of inquisitive.

ALTERATIONS: Albatross, Island and Quarry

Albatross was influence by the Latin word “albus,” which means white.

The “s” was inserted between the “i” and the “l” in island by mistakenly relating it isle, which comes from the Latin word "insula."

is derived from the Latin word "cor," but altered by association with the Old French word "cuir," which means leather.

COMMON ERROR: Plural of Octopus

The standard English plural of octopus is octopuses. However, the word octopus comes from Greek, and the Greek plural form is "octopodes." Modern usage of "octopodes" is so infrequent that many people mistakenly create the erroneous plural form octopi, formed according to rules for Latin plurals.

SUFFIX: -ard

This suffix forms nouns that have a depreciatory sense.
Examples: bastard, coward, drunkard, dullard, laggard, sluggard, and wizard.

WORD ORIGIN: Adolescent

"Alere," the Latin word for "to nourish," has given us such familiar words as adolescent, coalesce, alimony and coalition.

WORD ORIGIN: Giddy and Enthusiasm

Giddy and enthusiasm are derived from two different words that both mean “possessed by a god.” Giddy comes to us via the Old English word "gidig." Enthusiasm ultimately comes from the Greek word "enthous."


Warranty, war, wardrobe, wary, wile, and wise are derived from Germanic words that contributed to the development of similar words through a change of the initial letter from "w" to "g" when Old French picked them up in Central France. Thus, we have added guarantee, guerrilla, guard, garage, guile, and guise to our vocabulary.

WORD ORIGIN: Fizzle and Feisty

Both words come to us from the Middle English word "fist," which means "break wind."

WORD ORIGIN: Ethnic and Heathen

Ethnic was a Middle English word that meant heathen.

WORD ORIGIN: Fear and Revere

Fear traces back to the Old English word "foer," which in one sense means revere. The Latin word for fear--"vereri"--has given us revere.


English speakers borrowed ciao from the Italian word "schiavo," which means "I am your slave."
Ciao is used as a casual greeting, and first appears in Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Pronunciation Change

During the 15th century English experienced a widespread loss of certain consonant sounds within consonant clusters, as the (d) in handsome and handkerchief, the (p) in consumption and raspberry, and the (t) in chestnut and often. In this way the consonant clusters were simplified and made easier to articulate. With the rise of public education and literacy and, consequently, people's awareness of spelling in the 19th century, sounds that had become silent sometimes were restored, as is the case with the t in often, which is now frequently pronounced. In other similar words, such as soften and listen, the t generally remains silent.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


It is hard to believe that a word as Asian as Zen is ultimately an Indo-European word. Zen, which has been in English since 1727, is the Japanese pronunciation of Chinese chán, "quietude." Chán comes from Pali jhanam, from Sanskrit dhyanam, "meditation," from the Sanskrit root dhya-, dh1-, "to see, observe." The Indo-European root behind the Sanskrit is *dhya-, "to see, look at." This root also shows up in Greek, where *dhya- developed into sa-, as in Common Greek *sama, "sign, distinguishing mark." This became sema in Attic Greek, the source of English semantic.


Winsome people easily win friends, so it is not surprising that winsome and win have a common root. Their shared element win- comes from the Indo-European root *wen-, meaning "to desire, strive for," and has a number of descendants in the Germanic languages. One was the prehistoric Germanic noun *wini- meaning "friend" (literally, "one who desires or loves" someone else), which became wine in Old English and is preserved in such names as Winfred, "friend of peace," and Edwin, "friend of (family) possessions." A different form of the root with a different suffix became Old English wynn, "pleasure, joy," preserved in winsome. Finally, the verb win itself is from this root; its meaning is an extension of the sense "to strive for," namely, "to strive for with success, be victorious." Outside of the Germanic branch of Indo-European, we see the root, for example, in Latin venus or Venus "love, the goddess of love," and the verb venerare, "to worship," the source of English venerate.

WORD HISTORY: Wallflower

The sweet-smelling flowers of Cheiranthus cheiri came to be called wallflowers because they often grow on old walls, rocks, and quarries. The plant name is first recorded in 1578. It is not known who first made the comparison between these delicate flowers and the unpartnered women sitting along the wall at a dance, but the figurative sense is first found in an 1820 work by Mrs. Campbell Praed entitled County Ball. Although originally used to describe women at dances, the word is now applied to men as well and used in situations remote from a ballroom.


The word vulgar now brings to mind off-color jokes and offensive epithets, but it once had more neutral meanings. Vulgar is an example of pejoration, the process by which a word develops negative meanings over time. The ancestor of vulgar, the Latin word vulgaris (from vulgus, "the common people"), meant "of or belonging to the common people, everyday," as well as "belonging to or associated with the lower orders." Vulgaris also meant "ordinary," "common (of vocabulary, for example)," and "shared by all." An extension of this meaning was "sexually promiscuous," a sense that could have led to the English sense of "indecent." Our word, first recorded in a work composed in 1391, entered English during the Middle English period, and in Middle English and later English we find not only the senses of the Latin word mentioned above but also related senses. What is common may be seen as debased, and in the 17th century we begin to find instances of vulgar that make explicit what had been implicit. Vulgar then came to mean "deficient in taste, delicacy, or refinement." From such uses vulgar has continued to go downhill, and at present "crudely indecent" is among the commonest senses of the word.


The history of the word vogue demonstrates how sense can change dramatically over time even while flowing, as it were, in the same channel. The Indo-European root of vogue is *wegh-, meaning "to go, transport in a vehicle." Among many other forms derived from this root was the Germanic stem *wega-, "water in motion." From this stem came the Old Low German verb wogon, meaning "to sway, rock." This verb passed into Old French as voguer, which meant "to sail, row." The Old French word yielded the noun vogue, which probably literally meant "a rowing," and so by extension "a course," and figuratively "reputation" and later "reputation of fashionable things" or "prevailing fashion." The French, who have given us many fashionable things, passed this noun on as well, it being first recorded in English in 1571.


Learning the meanings of affixes is a common approach to building vocabulary, but studying a group of words that share an affix can be fascinating in its own right. The suffix -ling, inherited from Common Germanic, already had several uses in Old English, all of which produced new nouns. It could, for example, be added to a noun to make a second noun that referred to something connected with or similar to the first noun; thus, adding this suffix to the Old English word yrth, "ploughland," produced the Old English word yrthling, "plowman." The suffix could also be added to an adjective to make a noun that referred to something having the quality denoted by the adjective: from Old English deore, "dear, beloved," was derived deorling (Modern English darling). Adding -ling to an adverb produced a noun referring to something having the position or condition denoted by the adverb: from Old English under came underling. This last use of -ling is actually taken over from Old Norse. In Old Norse -ling was used to form diminutives; thus, our word gosling was a borrowing in Middle English of an Old Norse word, gæslingr, "gosling, a little goose."


It has been claimed that in today's global economy some business leaders have more power than heads of states. It is etymologically fitting that such leaders are sometimes called tycoons. Tycoon came into English from Japanese, which had borrowed the title, meaning "great prince," from Chinese. Use of the word was intended to make the shogun, the commander in chief of the Japanese army, more impressive to foreigners (his official title shogun merely meant "general"). It worked with Matthew C. Perry, who opened Japan to the West in 1854; Perry carried out his negotiations with the shogun, thinking him to be the emperor. In fact, the shogun did rule Japan, although he was supposedly acting for the emperor. The shogun's title, taikun, was brought back to the United States after Perry's visit. Abraham Lincoln's cabinet members used tycoon as an affectionate nickname for the President. The word soon came to be used for business and industry leaders--at times being applied to figures like J. P. Morgan, who may indeed have wielded more power than many princes and presidents.


Changes in word forms are not always the result of patterned changes in consonants and vowels over time. In the case of the word tweed, as in many others, human error may have played a part. Tweed may be the result of a misreading of tweel, an originally Scots form of twill. Tweed might also be a misreading of an abbreviated form of tweeled, a form of twilled. Association with Tweed, the name of the river that is part of the border between England and Scotland, probably helped support the misreading of what was originally a trade name. Harris Tweed, a particular type of tweed, is still trademarked and must be woven from yarn dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Tweed is said to have first been used around 1831, but it is not recorded until 1847.


The word trivial entered Middle English with senses quite different from its most common contemporary ones. We find in a work from 1432-50 mention of the "arte trivialle," an allusion to the three liberal arts that made up the trivium, the lower division of the seven liberal arts taught in medieval universities--grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The history of trivial goes back to the Latin word trivium, formed from the prefix tri-, "three," and via, "road." Trivium thus meant "the meeting place of three roads, especially as a place of public resort." The publicness of such a place also gave the word a pejorative sense that we express in the phrase the gutter, as in "His manners were formed in the gutter." The Latin adjective trivialis, derived from trivium, thus meant "appropriate to the street corner, commonplace, vulgar." Trivial is first recorded in English with a sense identical to that of trivialis in 1589. Shortly after that trivial is recorded in the sense most familiar to us, "of little importance or significance," making it a word now used of things less weighty than grammar, rhetoric, and logic.


The earliest recorded sense (around 1690) of toady is "a little or young toad," but this has nothing to do with the modern usage of the word. The modern sense has rather to do with the practice of certain quacks or charlatans who claimed that they could draw out poisons. Toads were thought to be poisonous, so these charlatans would have an attendant eat or pretend to eat a toad and then claim to extract the poison from the attendant. Since eating a toad is an unpleasant job, these attendants came to epitomize the type of person who would do anything for a superior, and toadeater (first recorded 1629) became the name for a flattering, fawning parasite. Toadeater and the verb derived from it, toadeat, influenced the sense of the noun and verb toad and the noun toady, so that both nouns could mean "sycophant" and the verb toady could mean "to act like a toady to someone."


To the casual eye testy and heady seem to have no connection; a more thoughtful examination reveals that both words refer to the head. The head in heady is easy to see in both the form and meanings of the word. The earliest sense, first recorded in a work composed before 1382, is "headlong, headstrong," which is clearly a "head" sense; but so is the better-known current sense "apt to go to the head, intoxicating." To see the head in testy, we must look back to the Old French word testu, the source of our word. Testu is derived from the Old French word teste, "head" (Modern French tête). In English testy developed another sense, "aggressive, contentious," which passed into the sense we are familiar with, "irritable."


Among the many discoveries of Captain James Cook was a linguistic one, the term taboo. In a journal entry from 1777, Cook says this word "has a very comprehensive meaning; but, in general, signifies that a thing is forbidden.... When any thing is forbidden to be eat, or made use of, they say, that it is taboo." Cook was in the Friendly Islands (now Tonga) at the time, so even though similar words occur in other Polynesian languages, the form taboo from Tongan tabu is the one we have borrowed. The Tongans used tabu as an adjective. Cook, besides borrowing the word into English, also made it into a noun referring to the prohibition itself and a verb meaning "to make someone or something taboo." From its origins in Polynesia the word taboo has traveled as widely as Cook himself and is now used throughout the English-speaking world.


That the word surly means "churlish" nicely indicates its fall in status. Churlish derives from the word churl, which in its Old English form ceorl meant "a man without rank, a member of the lowest rank of freemen," as well as "peasant." In Old English ceorl may have been a term of contempt; it certainly became one in Middle English, where cherl meant "base fellow, boor," with churlish descending in meaning accordingly. Surly, on the other hand, started life at the top of the scale. In Middle English and Early Modern English, surly was only one spelling for this word; another, sirly, reflects its origin in sir, the term of honor for a knight or for a person of rank or importance. Sirly, the form under which the early spellings of the word are entered in the Oxford English Dictionary, first meant "lordly." Surly, entered as a separate word in the OED and first recorded in 1566, meant perhaps "lordly, majestic," in its earliest use and was subsequently used in the sense "masterful, imperious, arrogant." As the gloss "arrogant" makes clear, the word surly could have a negative sense, and it is this area of meaning that is responsible for the current "churlish" sense of the word.


We are indebted to a British comedian for the word spoof. Sometime in the 19th century Arthur Roberts (1852-1933) invented a game called Spoof, which involved trickery and nonsense. The first recorded reference to the game in 1884 refers to its revival. It was not long before the word spoof took on the general sense "nonsense, trickery," first recorded in 1889. The verb spoof is first recorded in 1889 as well, in the sense "to deceive." These senses are now less widely used than the noun sense "a light parody or satirical imitation," first recorded in 1958, and the verb sense "to satirize gently," first recorded in 1927.

WORD HISTORY: Soothsayer

The truth is not always soothing, but our verb soothe is related to soothsayer, the word for one who tells the truth, especially beforehand. The archaic adjective and noun sooth, "true, truth," comes from the Old English adjective and noun soth with the same meanings. The Old English form derives from Germanic *santh-az, "true," which comes from Indo-European *sont-, one of the participles from the Indo-European root -es-, "to be": the truth is that which is. Old English also formed a verb from soth, namely sothian, "to confirm to be true." This is the ancestor of soothe; its meaning changed from "to assent to be true, say 'yes' to" to "humor by assenting, placate." Doing the latter on occasion requires something less than the truth.


Tracking down the history of the word sleuth requires a bit of etymological sleuthing. The immediate ancestor of our word is the compound sleuthhound, "a dog, such as a bloodhound, used for tracking or pursuing." This term took on a figurative sense, "tracker, pursuer," which is closely related to the sense "detective." From sleuthhound came the shortened form sleuth, recorded in the sense "detective" as early as 1872. The first part of the term sleuthhound means "track, path, trail," and is first recorded in a Middle English work written probably around 1200. The Middle English word, which had the form sloth, with eu representing the Scots development of the Middle English (o), was a borrowing of the Old Norse word slodh, "a track or trail."


Calling someone a shyster might be considered libellous; knowing its probable origin adds insult to injury. According to Gerald L. Cohen, a student of the word, shyster is derived from the German term scheisser, meaning literally "one who defecates," from the verb scheissen, "to defecate," with the English suffix -ster, "one who does," substituted for the German suffix -er, meaning the same thing. Sheisser, which is chiefly a pejorative term, is the German equivalent of our English terms bastard and son of a bitch. Sheisser is generally thought to have been borrowed directly into English as the word shicer, which, among other things, is an Australian English term for an unproductive mine or claim, a sense that is also recorded for the word shyster.


A place or situation referred to as a shambles is usually a mess, but it is no longer always the bloody mess it once was. The history of the word begins innocently enough with the Latin word scamnum, "a stool or bench serving as a seat, step, or support for the feet, for example." The diminutive scamillum, "low stool," was borrowed by speakers of Old English as sceamol, "stool, bench, table." Old English sceamol became Middle English shamel, which developed the specific sense in the singular and plural of "a place where meat is butchered and sold." The Middle English compound shamelhouse meant "slaughterhouse," a sense that the plural shambles developed (first recorded in 1548) along with the figurative sense "a place or scene of bloodshed" (first recorded in 1593). Our current, more generalized meaning, "a scene or condition of disorder," is first recorded in 1926.

WORD HISTORY: Serendipity

We are indebted to the English author Horace Walpole for the word serendipity, which he coined in one of the 3,000 or more letters on which his literary reputation primarily rests. In a letter of January 28, 1754, Walpole says that "this discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word." Walpole formed the word on an old name for Sri Lanka, Serendip. He explained that this name was part of the title of "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...."


In earlier writings one finds phrases such as "a senile maturity of judgment" and "green and vigorous senility," demonstrating that senile and senility have not always been burdened with their current negative connotations. These two words are examples of pejoration, the process by which a word's meaning changes for the worse over time. Even though senile (first recorded in 1661) and senility (first recorded in 1778) initially had neutral senses such as "pertaining to old age" (the sense of their Latin source, the adjective sen1lis), it is probable that the mental decline that sometimes accompanies old age eventually caused negative senses to predominate. Although recent medical research has demonstrated that the memory and cognitive disorders once designated by senility are often caused by various diseases rather than the aging process itself, it seems unlikely that the word will regain its neutral senses.


The origins of séance are surprisingly mundane, given the mysterious atmosphere associated with the word. It comes from French séance, "seat, session," from Old French seoir, "to sit." In French as in English the word came to be used specifically for a meeting of people to receive spiritualistic messages (a sense first recorded in English in 1845), but earlier in French and English the word had been used for meetings more generally. One can, after all, do many things while seated. Certainly the second recorded use of the word in English in 1803 does not promise the frisson of an encounter with the spirit world: "your séances . . . which I have a shrewd suspicion must be something dull." Perhaps the writer was referring to the meetings of a legislature or learned society, which sometimes put attendees to sleep rather than into a trance.


In the 1969 edition of The American Heritage Dictionary a dead issue was buried by our Usage Panel, 85 percent of whom thought it was acceptable to use scan in the sense "to look over quickly," though the note stated that this was less formal usage. The usage issue was raised because scan in an earlier sense meant "to examine closely." From a historical perspective it is easy to see how these two opposite senses of scan developed. The source of our word, Latin scandere, which meant "to climb," came to mean "to scan a verse of poetry," because one could beat the rhythm by lifting and putting down one's foot. The Middle English verb scannen, derived from scandere, came into Middle English in this sense (first recorded in a text composed before 1398). In the 16th century this highly specialized sense having to do with the close analysis of verse developed other senses, such as "to criticize, examine minutely, interpret, perceive." From these senses having to do with examination and perception, it was an easy step to the sense "to look at searchingly" (first recorded in 1798), perhaps harking back still to the careful detailed work involved in analyzing prosody. The sense of looking something over to find a specific set of things was eventually broadened to include looking over the surface of something, with or without close scrutiny of the details. From this was born the modern usage of scan as a verb meaning "look over quickly."

WORD HISTORY: Sarcophagus

Sarcophagus, our term for a stone coffin located above ground and often decorated, has a macabre origin befitting a macabre thing. The word comes to us from Latin and Greek, having been derived in Greek from sarx, "flesh," and phagein, "to eat." The Greek word sarkophagos meant "eating flesh," and in the phrase lithos ("stone") sarkophagos it denoted a limestone that was thought to decompose the flesh of corpses placed in it. Used by itself as a noun the Greek term came to mean "coffin." The term was carried over into Latin, where sarcophagus was used in the phrase lapis ("stone") sarcophagus, referring to the same stone as in Greek. Sarcophagus used as a noun in Latin meant "coffin of any material." This Latin word was borrowed into English, first being recorded in 1601 with reference to the flesh-consuming stone and then in 1705 with reference to a stone coffin.


The similarity in form between sanguine, "cheerfully optimistic," and sanguinary, "bloodthirsty," may prompt one to wonder how they have come to have such different meanings. The explanation lies in medieval physiology with its notion of the four humors or bodily fluids (blood, bile, phlegm, and black bile). The relative proportions of these fluids was thought to determine a person's temperament. If blood was the predominant humor, one had a ruddy face and a disposition marked by courage, hope, and a readiness to fall in love. Such a temperament was called sanguine, the Middle English ancestor of our word sanguine. The source of the Middle English word was Old French sanguin, itself from Latin sanguineus. Both the Old French and Latin words meant "bloody," "blood-colored," Old French sanguin having the sense "sanguine in temperament" as well. Latin sanguineus was in turn derived from sanguis, "blood," just as English sanguinary is. The English adjective sanguine, first recorded in Middle English before 1350, continues to refer to the cheerfulness and optimism that accompanied a sanguine temperament but no longer has any direct reference to medieval physiology.


Occasionally, a word can have contradictory meanings. Such a case is represented by sanction, which can mean both "to allow, encourage" and "to punish so as to deter." It is a borrowing from the Latin word sanctio, meaning "a law or decree that is sacred or inviolable." In English, the word is first recorded in the mid-1500s in the meaning "law, decree," but not long after, in about 1635, it refers to "the penalty enacted to cause one to obey a law or decree." Thus from the beginning two fundamental notions of law were wrapped up in it: law as something that permits or approves and law that forbids by punishing. From the noun, a verb sanction was created in the 18th century meaning "to allow by law," but it wasn't until the second half of the 20th century that it began to mean "to punish (for breaking a law)." English has a few other words that can refer to opposites, such as the verbs dust (meaning both "to remove dust from" and "to put dust on") and trim (meaning both "to cut something away" and "to add something as an ornament").


Among early peoples writing was a serious thing, full of magical power. In its only reference to writing, the Iliad calls it "baneful signs." The Germanic peoples used a runic alphabet as their form of writing, using it to identify combs or helmets, make calendars, encode secret messages, and mark funeral monuments. Runes were also employed in casting spells, as to gain a kiss from a sweetheart or to make an enemy's gut burst. In casting a spell the writing of the runes was accompanied by a mumbled or chanted prayer or curse, also called a rune, to make the magic work. These two meanings also appear in Old English run, the ancestor of our word. The direct descendants of Old English run are the archaic verb round, "whisper, talk in secret," and the obsolete noun roun, "whispering, secret talk." The use of the word to refer to inscribed runic characters apparently disappeared in the late 14th or early 15th century but was revived by Danish writers on Germanic antiquities, who adopted it from Old Norse toward the end of the 17th century. Appropriately enough, this sense of rune, which had faded away like a whisper, reappeared from the mists of the past.


When we read the statement "Should we not be monstrously ingratefull if we did not deeply resent such kindness?" (from the Sermons of Isaac Barrow, written before 1677), we may be pardoned for momentarily thinking we have followed the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole. For a time ranging roughly from the last part of the 17th century to the second half of the 18th, the word resent could refer to gratitude and appreciation as well as injury and insult. Resent has also been used in other senses that seem strange to us, such as "to feel pain" or "to perceive by smell." The thread that ties the senses together is the notion of feeling or perceiving. The Old French source of our word, resentir, "to feel strongly," is made up of the prefix re-, acting in this case as an intensive, and sentir, "to feel or perceive." There is much that one can feel, but at least for now this word has narrowed its focus to a feeling of indignation.


A persistent resentment, a festering sore, and a little snake are all coiled together in the history of the word rankle. "A little snake" is the sense of the Latin word dracunculus to which rankle can be traced, dracunculus being a diminutive of draco, "snake." The Latin word passed into Old French, as draoncle, having probably already developed the sense "festering sore," because some of these sores resembled little snakes in their shape or bite. The verb draoncler, "to fester," was then formed in Old French. The noun and verb developed alternate forms without the d-, and both were borrowed into Middle English, the noun rancle being recorded in a work written around 1190, the verb ranclen, in a work probably composed about 1300. Both words had literal senses having to do with festering sores. The noun is not recorded after the 16th century, but the verb went on to develop the figurative senses having to do with resentment and bitterness with which we are all too familiar.


When the British stand in queues (as they have been doing at least since 1837, when this meaning of the word is first recorded in English), they may not realize they form a tail. The French word queue from which the English word is borrowed is a descendant of Latin coda, meaning "tail." French queue appeared in 1748 in English, referring to a plait of hair hanging down the back of the neck. By 1802 wearing a queue was a regulation in the British army, but by the mid-19th century queues had disappeared along with cocked hats. Latin coda is also the source of Italian coda, which was adopted into English as a musical term (like so many other English musical terms that come from Italian). A coda is thus literally the "tail end" of a movement or composition.


Being called a prude is rarely considered a compliment, but if we dig into the history of the word prude, we find that it has a noble past. The change for the worse took place in French. French prude first had a good sense, "wise woman," but apparently a woman could be too wise or, in the eyes of some, too observant of decorum and propriety. Thus prude took on the sense in French that was brought into English along with the word, first recorded in 1704. The French word prude was a shortened form of prude femme (earlier in Old French prode femme), a word modeled on earlier preudomme, "a man of experience and integrity." The second part of this word is, of course, homme, "man." Old French prod, meaning "wise, prudent," is from Vulgar Latin prodis with the same sense. Prodis in turn comes from Late Latin prode, "advantageous," derived from the verb prodesse, "to be good." Despite this history filled with usefulness, profit, wisdom, and integrity, prude has become a term of reproach.


Because trances were so important to the Native American shaman as a means of getting in touch with spiritual forces beyond the ken of the normal person, the title powwaw, literally meaning "one who has visions," was accorded him. An occurrence of this word in an early piece of propaganda designed to bring more settlers to New England represents fairly well the Puritan attitudes to the religion of the native inhabitants of the New World: "The office and dutie of the Powah is to be exercised principally in calling upon the Devil; and curing diseases of the sicke or wounded." The word whose spelling was eventually settled in English as powwow was also used as the name for ceremonies and councils, probably because of the important role played by the shaman in both. Eventually the newcomers decided that they could have powwows too, the first reference to one of these being recorded in the Salem, Massachusetts, Gazette of 1812: "The Warriors of the Democratic Tribe will hold a powwow at Agawam on Tuesday next." The verb powwow, "to confer," was recorded even earlier, in 1780.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

WORD HISTORY: Posthumous

The word posthumous is associated with death, both in meaning and in form. Our word goes back to the Latin word postumus, meaning "last born, born after the death of one's father, born after the making of a will," and "last, final." Postumus was largely used with respect to events occurring after death but not exclusively so, since the word was simply one of the superlative forms of the adverb post, "subsequently, afterward." Because of its use in connection with death, however, later Latin writers decided that the last part of the word must have to do with humus, "earth," or humare, "to bury," and began spelling the word posthumus. This form of the Latin word was borrowed into English, being first recorded in a work composed before 1464. Perhaps the most telling use of the word appears in the poet Robert Southey's comment on the rewards of an author: "It was well we should be contented with posthumous fame, but impossible to be so with posthumous bread and cheese."


The word pariah, which can be used for anyone who is a social outcast, independent of social position, recalls a much more rigid social system, which made only certain people pariahs. The caste system of India placed pariahs, also known as Untouchables, very low in society. The word pariah, which we have extended in meaning, came into English from Tamil pavaiyar, the plural of pavaiyan, the caste name, which literally means "(hereditary) drummer" and comes from the word pavai, the name of a drum used at certain festivals. The word is first recorded in English in 1613. Its use in English and its extension in meaning probably owe much to the long period of British rule in India.


The word outlaw brings to mind the cattle rustlers and gunslingers of the Wild West, but it comes to us from a much earlier time, when guns were not yet invented but cattle stealing was. Outlaw can be traced back to the Old Norse word utlagr, "outlawed, banished," made up of ut, "out," and lög, "law." An utlagi (derived from utlagr) was someone outside the protection of the law. The Scandinavians, who invaded and settled in England during the 8th through the 11th century, gave us the Old English word utlaga, which designated someone who because of criminal acts had to give up his property to the crown and could be killed without recrimination. The legal status of the outlaw became less severe over the course of the Middle Ages. However, the looser use of the word to designate criminals in general, which arose in Middle English, lives on in tales of the Wild West.


The rather dry word oscillate may become a bit less dry when we learn its story. It is possible that it goes back to the Latin word oscillum, a diminutive of os, "mouth," meaning "small mouth." In a passage in the Georgics, Virgil applies the word to a small mask of Bacchus hung from trees to move back and forth in the breeze. From this word oscillum may have come another word oscillum, meaning "something, such as a swing, that moves up and down or back and forth." And this oscillum was the source of the verb oscillare, "to ride in a swing," and the noun (from the verb) oscillatio, "the action of swinging or oscillating." The words have given us, respectively, our verb oscillate, first recorded in 1726, and our noun oscillation, first recorded in 1658. The next time one sees something oscillating, one might think of that small mask of Bacchus swinging from a pine tree in the Roman countryside.


The word ombudsman has one familiar element, man, but it is difficult to think of what ombuds could mean. Ombudsman is from Swedish, a Germanic language in the same family as English, and man in Swedish corresponds to our word man. Ombud means "commissioner, agent," coming from Old Norse umbodh, "charge, commission, administration by a delegacy," umbodh being made up of um, "regarding," and bodh, "command." In Old Norse an umbodhsmadhr was a "trusty manager, commissary." In Swedish an ombudsman was a deputy who looked after the interests and legal affairs of a group such as a trade union or business. In 1809 the office of riksdagens justitieombudsman was created to act as an agent of justice, that is, to see after the interests of justice in affairs between the government and its citizens. This office of ombudsman and the word ombudsman have been adopted elsewhere, as in individual states in the United States. The term has also been expanded in sense to include people who perform the same function for business corporations or newspapers.


Old English had a number of strong verbs (often loosely called "irregular" verbs) that did not survive into Modern English. One such was the verb niman, "to take," later replaced by take, a borrowing from Old Norse. The verb had a past tense nam and a past participle numen; if the verb had survived, it would likely have become nim, nam, num, like swim, swam, swum. Although we do not have the verb as such anymore, its past participle is alive and well, now spelled numb, literally "taken, seized," as by cold or grief. (The older spelling without the b is still seen in the compound numskull.) The verb also lives on indirectly in the word nimble, which used to mean "quick to take," and then later "light, quick on one's feet."

WORD HISTORY: Nonchalant

A nonchalant person is not likely to become warm or heated about anything, a fact that is underscored by the etymology of the word nonchalant. It stems from Old French, where it was formed from the negative prefix non- plus chalant, the present participle of the verb chaloir, "to be concerned." This in turn came from the Latin word calere, which from its concrete sense "to be hot or warm" developed the figurative sense "to be roused or fired with hope, zeal, or anger." French formed a noun nonchalance from the adjective nonchalant that was borrowed into English by 1678; the adjective itself was borrowed later, as it is not attested for another half-century.

WORD HISTORY: Namby-pamby

We are being very literary when we call someone a namby-pamby, a word derived from the name of Ambrose Philips, a little-known 18th-century poet whose verse incurred the sharp ridicule of his contemporaries Alexander Pope and Henry Carey. Their ridicule, inspired by political differences and literary rivalry, had little to do with the quality of Philips's poetry. In poking fun at some children's verse written by Philips, Carey used the nickname Namby Pamby: "So the Nurses get by Heart Namby Pamby's Little Rhimes." Pope then used the name in the 1733 edition of his satirical epic The Dunciad. The first part of Carey's coinage came from Amby, or Ambrose. Pamby repeated the sound and form but added the initial of Philips's name. Such a process of repetition is called reduplication. After being popularized by Pope, namby-pamby went on to be used generally for people or things that are insipid, sentimental, or weak.

WORD HISTORY: Milquetoast

An indication of the effect on the English language of popular culture is the adoption of names from the comic strips as English words. Casper Milquetoast, created by Harold Webster in 1924, was a timid and retiring man named for a timid food. The first instance of milquetoast as a common noun is found in the mid-1930s. Milquetoast thus joins the ranks of other such words, including sad sack, from a blundering army private invented by George Baker in 1942, and Wimpy, from J. Wellington Wimpy in the Popeye comic strip, which became a trade name for a hamburger. If we look to a related form of popular culture, the animated cartoon, we must of course acknowledge Mickey Mouse, which has become a slang term for something that is easy, insignificant, small-time, worthless, or petty.


When the members of an audience sit mesmerized by a speaker, their reactions do not take the form of dancing, sleeping, or falling into convulsions. But if Franz Anton Mesmer were addressing the audience, such behavior could be expected. Mesmer, a visionary 18th-century physician, believed cures could be effected by having patients do things such as sit with their feet in a fountain of magnetized water while holding cables attached to magnetized trees. Mesmer then came to believe that magnetic powers resided in himself, and during highly fashionable curative sessions in Paris he caused his patients to have reactions ranging from sleeping or dancing to convulsions. These reactions were actually brought about by hypnotic powers that Mesmer was unaware he possessed. One of his pupils, named Puységur, then used the term mesmerism (first recorded in English in 1802) for Mesmer's practices. The related word mesmerize (first recorded in English in 1829), having shed its reference to the hypnotic doctor, lives on in the sense "to enthrall."

WORD HISTORY: Mealy-mouthed

It seems fitting that Martin Luther, a man noted for the forthright expression of his ideas, may have had a hand in giving us the contemptuous term we apply to those unwilling to state facts or opinions directly. Mealy-mouthed may come from a saying such as German Mehl im Maule behalten, "to carry meal in the mouth, that is, not to be direct in speech," which occurs in Luther's writings. In English we find the terms mealmouth (1546) and meal-mouthed (1576) recorded around the same time that we find mealymouthed (around 1572). Mealy-mouthed is the only form that survived to describe this trait described by Luther, which not only survives but flourishes in our time.


Hard-riding marshals of the Wild West in pursuit of criminals reemphasize the relationship of the word marshal with horses. The Germanic ancestor of our word marshal is a compound made up of *marhaz, "horse" (related to the source of our word mare), and *skalkaz, "servant," meaning as a whole literally "horse servant," hence "groom." The Frankish descendant of this Germanic word, *marahskalk, came to designate a high royal official and also a high military commanderknot surprising given the importance of the horse in medieval warfare. Along with many other Frankish words, *marahskalk was borrowed into Old French by about 800; some centuries later, when the Normans established a French-speaking official class in England, the Old French word came with them. In English, marshal is first recorded in 1218, as a surname (still surviving in the spelling Marshall); its first appearance as a common noun was in 1258, in the sense "high officer of the royal court." The word was also applied to this high royal official's deputies, who were officers of courts of law, and it continued to designate various officials involved with courts of law and law enforcement, including the horseback-riding marshals we are familiar with in the United States.


"She's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile" and "He is the very pineapple of politeness" are two of the absurd pronouncements from Mrs. Malaprop that explain why her name became synonymous with ludicrous misuse of language. A character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play The Rivals (1775), Mrs. Malaprop consistently uses language malapropos, that is, inappropriately. The word malapropos comes from the French phrase mal à propos, made up of mal, "badly," à, "to," and propos, "purpose, subject," and means "inappropriate." The Rivals was a popular play, and Mrs. Malaprop became enshrined in a common noun, first in the form malaprop and later in malapropism, which is first recorded in 1849. Perhaps that is what Mrs. Malaprop feared when she said, "If I reprehend any thing in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!"


The word macabre is an excellent example of a word formed with reference to a specific context that has long since disappeared for everyone but scholars. Macabre is first recorded in the phrase Macabrees daunce in a work written around 1430 by John Lydgate. Macabree was thought by Lydgate to be the name of a French author, but in fact he misunderstood the Old French phrase Danse Macabre, "the Dance of Death," a subject of art and literature. In this dance, Death leads people of all classes and walks of life to the same final end. The macabre element may be an alteration of Macabe, "a Maccabee." The Maccabees were Jewish martyrs who were honored by a feast throughout the Western Church, and reverence for them was linked to reverence for the dead. Today macabre has no connection with the Maccabees and little connection with the Dance of Death, but it still has to do with death.

Friday, January 23, 2009


When William Tyndale translated aiskhron kerdos, "shameful gain" (Titus 1:11), as filthy lucre in his edition of the Bible, he was tarring the word lucre for the rest of its existence. But we cannot lay the pejorative sense of lucre completely at Tyndale's door. He was merely a link, albeit a strong one, in a process that had begun long before with respect to the ancestor of our word, the Latin word lucrum, "material gain, profit." This process was probably controlled by the inevitable conjunction of profit, especially monetary profit, with evils such as greed. In Latin lucrum also meant "avarice," and in Middle English lucre, besides meaning "monetary gain, profit," meant "illicit gain." Furthermore, many of the contexts in which the neutral sense of the word appeared were not wholly neutral, as in "It is a wofull thyng . . . ffor lucre of goode . . . A man to fals his othe [it is a sad thing for a man to betray his oath for monetary gain]." Tyndale thus merely helped the process along when he gave us the phrase filthy lucre.


Our use of the word limbo to refer to states of oblivion, confinement, or transition is derived from the theological sense of Limbo as a place where souls remain that cannot enter heaven, for example, unbaptized infants. Limbo in Roman Catholic theology is located on the border of Hell, which explains the name chosen for it. The Latin word limbus, having meanings such as "an ornamental border to a fringe" and "a band or girdle," was chosen by Christian theologians of the Middle Ages to denote this border region. English borrowed the word limbus directly, but the form that caught on in English, limbo, first recorded in a work composed around 1378, is from the ablative form of limbus, the form that would be used in expressions such as in limbo, "in Limbo."


The study of the classics allows one to understand the history of the term laconic, which comes to us via Latin from Greek Lakonikos. The English word is first recorded in 1583 with the sense "of or relating to Laconia or its inhabitants." Lakonikos is derived from Lakon, "a Laconian, a person from Lacedaemon," the name for the region of Greece of which Sparta was the capital. The Spartans, noted for being warlike and disciplined, were also known for the brevity of their speech, and it is this quality that English writers still denote by the use of the adjective laconic, which is first found in this sense in 1589.


French not only gave us hundreds of words, it sometimes gave us the same word more than once. A prime example is Old French gentil, "high-born, noble." In the early 1200s, this was borrowed into Middle English and spelled as gentile, which later developed to mean "having the character of a nobleman, courteous," and, by the 1500s, "soft, mild." After some changes in spelling, the result was Modern English gentle. French gentil was borrowed again into English at the end of the 16th century, also in the spelling gentile and meaning "well-bred, belonging to or appropriate to the gentry." In the ensuing century it came also to mean "courteous, elegant," and continues to do so today as the word genteel. Since the spelling gentile did not accurately represent the word's French pronunciation, in the 17th century some people wrote it jantee or janty. This word took on a life of its own: while it originally meant "well-bred," by the 1670s it meant "easy or unconcerned in manner," and thence "spritely, lively, brisk." Thus was born jaunty. The French gentil that spawned these words comes from Latin gent1lis, which meant simply "belonging to (the same) gens or family." It is from the original Latin meaning that we get the modern word gentile, borrowed in the 14th century (again through French) meaning, essentially, "belonging to the same family as all non-Jews."

WORD HISTORY: Internecine

When is a mistake not a mistake? In language at least, the answer to this question is "When everyone adopts it," and on rare occasions, "When it's in the dictionary." The word internecine presents a case in point. Today, it usually has the meaning "relating to internal struggle," but in its first recorded use in English, in 1663, it meant "fought to the death." How it got from one sense to another is an interesting story in the history of English. The Latin source of the word, spelled both internec1nus and internec1vus, meant "fought to the death, murderous." It is a derivative of the verb necare, "to kill." The prefix inter- was here used not in the usual sense "between, mutual" but rather as an intensifier meaning "all the way, to the death." This piece of knowledge was unknown to Samuel Johnson, however, when he was working on his great dictionary in the 18th century. He included internecine in his dictionary but misunderstood the prefix and defined the word as "endeavoring mutual destruction." Johnson was not taken to task for this error. On the contrary, his dictionary was so popular and considered so authoritative that this error became widely adopted as correct usage. The error was further compounded when internecine acquired the sense "relating to internal struggle." This story thus illustrates how dictionaries are often viewed as providing norms and how the ultimate arbiter in language, even for the dictionary itself, is popular usage.

WORD HISTORY: Interloper

The word interloper has its origin in the time when England was embarking on the course that would lead to the British Empire. Interloper, first recorded in connection with the Muscovy Company, the earliest major English trading company (chartered in 1555), was soon being used in regard to the East India Company (chartered in 1600) as well. These companies were established as monopolies, and independent traders called interlopers were not welcome. The term is probably partly derived from Dutch, the language of one of the great trade rivals of the English at that time. The inter- is simply the prefix inter-, which English has borrowed from Latin, meaning "between, among." The element -loper is probably related to the same element in landloper, "vagabond," a word adopted from Dutch landloper, with the same sense and composed of land, "land," and loper, from lo;pen, "to run, leap." The word interloper, first recorded around 1590, was too useful in a world of busybodies to be restricted to its original specialized sense and came to be used in the extended sense "busybody" in the 17th century.


Inkling has nothing to do with ink, but it may have something to do with niches. Our story begins with the Old French (and Modern French) word niche, meaning "niche." It is possible that in Old French a variant form existed that was borrowed into Middle English as nik, meaning "a notch, tally." This word is probably related to the Middle English word nikking, meaning "a hint, slight indication," or possibly "a whisper, mention." Nikking appears only once, in a Middle English text composed around 1400. In another copy of the same text the word ningkiling appears, which may be a variant of nikking. This is essentially our word inkling already, the only major change being an instance of what is called false splitting, whereby people understood a ningkiling as an ingkiling. They did the same thing with a napron, getting an apron.


Nothing hobbles a President so much as impeachment, and there is an etymological as well as a procedural reason for this. The word impeach can be traced back through Anglo-Norman empecher to Late Latin impedicare, "to catch, entangle," from Latin pedica, "fetter for the ankle, snare." Thus we find that Middle English empechen, the ancestor of our word, means such things as "to cause to get stuck fast," "hinder or impede," "interfere with," and "criticize unfavorably." A legal sense of empechen is first recorded in 1384. This sense, which had previously developed in Old French, was "to accuse, bring charges against."

WORD HISTORY: Iconoclast

An iconoclast can be unpleasant company, but at least the modern iconoclast only attacks such things as ideas and institutions. The original iconoclasts destroyed countless works of art. Eikonoklastes, the ancestor of our word, was first formed in Medieval Greek from the elements eikon, "image, likeness," and -klastes, "breaker," from klan, "to break." The images referred to by the word are religious images, which were the subject of controversy among Christians of the Byzantine Empire in the 8th and 9th centuries, when iconoclasm was at its height. In addition to destroying many sculptures and paintings, those opposed to images attempted to have them barred from display and veneration. During the Protestant Reformation images in churches were again felt to be idolatrous and were once more banned and destroyed. It is around this time that iconoclast, the descendant of the Greek word, is first recorded in English (1641), with reference to the Byzantine iconoclasts. In the 19th century iconoclast took on the secular sense that it has today, as in "Kant was the great iconoclast" (James Martineau).


It has often been remarked that the early Celtic inhabitants of Britain contributed very little to the stock of English words. Perhaps this should not surprise us, given the difficult relations over the centuries between the people of Germanic stock and the people of Celtic stock in England and Ireland. It seems likely that a certain English contempt resides in the adoption of the word hubbub from a Celtic source, which is probably related to ub ub ubub, a Scots Gaelic interjection expressing contempt, or to abu, an ancient Irish war cry. In any case, hubbub was first recorded (1555) in the phrase Irish hubbub and meant "the confused shouting of a crowd." In addition to the senses it has developed, hubbub was again used, possibly in an unflattering way, by the New England colonists as a term for a rambunctious game played by Native Americans.


The Usage Panel survey done for the first edition of the American Heritage Dictionary (1969) found that 92 percent of the Panel approved of the use of hectic in its most familiar sense, "characterized by feverish activity, confusion, or haste." The question was posed because earlier that sense had sometimes been deprecated as a loose extension of the term's meaning in medicine, "relating to an undulating fever, such as those accompanying tuberculosis." Without some acquaintance with Middle English one would not recognize the first recorded instance of the word, etik, in a text written before 1398. The Middle English term comes from the Old French development of the Late Latin word hecticus, whose form helped reshape our word in the 16th century. Hecticus comes from Greek hektikos, "formed by habit or forming habit" and "consumptive." The last sense developed because of the chronic nature of tuberculous fevers. Thus a word that once meant "habitual" eventually had an English descendant used to refer to conditions that most would want to be rare.


It is difficult to believe that there were no hassles before 1945, the year in which the noun hassle is first recorded in English. The origins of this word might be considered a hassle for the etymologist. An English dialect word, hassle, meaning "to hack at, cut with a blunt knife and with a sawing motion," is recorded at the end of the 19th century. A Southern dialect word, hassle, "to pant, breathe heavily," is also a possible source. A more popular notion has been that hassle is a blend, but here again we have a hassle. Three separate possibilities have been proposed, a combination of harass and hustle, haggle and tussle, and haggle and wrestle. Given all these possibilities, it is clear why words such as hassle end up with the etymology "origin unknown."


The word harlot nowadays refers to a particular kind of woman, but interestingly it used to refer to a particular kind of man. The word is first recorded in English in a work written around the beginning of the 13th century, meaning "a man of no fixed occupation, vagabond, beggar," and soon afterwards meant "male lecher." Already in the 14th century it appears as a deprecatory word for a woman, though exactly how this meaning developed from the male sense is not clear. For a time the word could also refer to a juggler or jester of either sex, but by the close of the 17th century its usage referring to males had disappeared.


The word giddy refers to fairly lightweight experiences or situations, but at one time it had to do with profundities. Giddy can be traced back to the same Germanic root *gud- that has given us the word God. The Germanic word *gudigaz formed on this root meant "possessed by a god." Such possession can be a rather unbalancing experience, and so it is not surprising that the Old English descendant of *gudigaz, gidig, meant "mad, possessed by an evil spirit," or that the Middle English development of gidig, gidi, meant the same thing, as well as "foolish; mad (used of an animal); dizzy; uncertain, unstable." Our sense "lighthearted, frivolous" represents the ultimate secularization of giddy.


The word flunky has come into Standard English from Scots, in which the word meant "liveried manservant, footman," coming at least by the 19th century to be a term of contempt. The word is first recorded and defined in a work about Scots published in 1782. The definition states that a flunky is "literally a sidesman or attendant at your flank," which gives support to the suggestion that flunky is a derivative and alteration of flanker, "one who stands at a person's flank."


Philemon Holland, in his 1601 translation of Pliny's Natural History, wrote that if asses eat a certain plant, "they will fall a fizling and farting." Holland's asses provide a vivid example of the original meaning of the word fizzle, which was, in the decorous phrasing of the Oxford English Dictionary, "to break wind without noise." During the 19th century fizzle took on a related but more respectable sense, "to hiss, as does a piece of fireworks," illustrated by a quotation from the November 7, 1881, issue of the London Daily News: "unambitious rockets which fizzle doggedly downwards." In the same century fizzle also took on figurative senses, one of which seems to have been popular at Yale. The Yale Literary Magazine for 1849 helpfully defines the word as follows: "Fizzle, to rise with modest reluctance, to hesitate often, to decline finally; generally, to misunderstand the question." The figurative sense of fizzle that has caught on is the one most familiar today, "to fail or die out."


The history of the words fey and fay illustrates a rather fey coincidence. Our word fay, "fairy, elf," the descendant of Middle English faie, "a person or place possessed of magical properties," and first recorded around 1390, goes back to Old French fae, "fairy," the same word that has given us fairy. Fae in turn comes from Vulgar Latin Fata, "the goddess of fate," from Latin fatum, "fate." If fay goes back to fate, so does fey in a manner of speaking, for its Old English ancestor faege meant "fated to die." The sense we are more familiar with, "magical or fairylike in quality," seems to have arisen partly because of the resemblance in sound between fay and fey.


It is fitting that the name of an authoritarian political movement like Fascism, founded in 1919 by Benito Mussolini, should come from the name of a symbol of authority. The Italian name of the movement, fascismo, is derived from fascio, "bundle, (political) group," but also refers to the movement's emblem, the fasces, a bundle of rods bound around a projecting axe-head that was carried before an ancient Roman magistrate by an attendant as a symbol of authority and power. The name of Mussolini's group of revolutionaries was soon used for similar nationalistic movements in other countries that sought to gain power through violence and ruthlessness, such as National Socialism.


The word eunuch does not derive, as one might think, from the operation that produced a eunuch but rather from one of his functions. Eunuch goes back to the Greek word eunoukhos, "a castrated person employed to take charge of the women of a harem and act as chamberlain." The Greek word is derived from eune, "bed," and ekhein, "to keep." A eunuch, of course, was ideally suited to guard the bedchamber of women.


One might like to be erudite but hesitate to be rude. This preference is supported by the etymological relationship between erudite and rude. Erudite comes from the Latin adjective erud1tus, "well-instructed, learned," from the past participle of the verb erud1re, "to educate, train." The verb is in turn formed from the prefix ex-, "out, out of," and the adjective rudis, "untaught, untrained," the source of our word rude. The English word erudite is first recorded in a work possibly written before 1425 with the senses "instructed, learned." Erudite meaning "learned" is supposed to have become rare except in sarcastic use during the latter part of the 19th century, but the word now seems to have been restored to favor.


Were they alive today, users of Classical Latin might be surprised to find that centuries later a phrase of theirs still survives, although as a single word. The phrase mihi in odio est (literally translated as "to me in a condition of dislike or hatred is"), meaning "I hate or dislike," gave rise to the Vulgar Latin verb *inodiare, "to make odious," the source of the Old French verb ennuyer or anoier, "to annoy, bore." This was borrowed into English by around 1275 as anoien, our annoy. From the Old French verb a noun meaning "worry, boredom" was derived, which became ennui in modern French. This noun, with the sense "boredom," was borrowed into English in the 18th century, perhaps filling a need in polite, cultivated society.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


Drink and drench mean quite different things today, but in fact they share similar origins, and, historically, similar meanings. Drink comes from a prehistoric Germanic verb *drinkan, from the Germanic root *drink- meaning "drink." Another form of this root, *drank-, could be combined with a suffix *-jan that was used to form causative verbs, in this case *drankjan, "to cause to drink." The descendant of the simple verb *drinkan in Old English was drincan (virtually unchanged), while the causative verb *drankjan was affected by certain sound shifts and became Old English drencan, and in Middle and Modern English, drench. In Middle English drench came to mean "to drown," a sense now obsolete; the sense "to steep, soak in liquid" and the current modern sense "to make thoroughly wet" developed by early Modern English times. Drink and drench are not the only such pairs in English, where one verb comes from a prehistoric Germanic causative; some others include sit and set ("to cause to sit"), lie and lay ("to cause to lie"), and fall and fell ("cause to fall").