Fast Mash

  • Tornado is first attested as ternado in the late 16th-c. 
  • First referred to tropical Atlantic thunderstorms; sense of rotating funnel clouds came about in 1700-1800s 
  • Probably a bad borrowing by navigators/seamen/travelers from Spanish tronada (thunderstorm, related to English thunder)
  • Later forms flipped the and the r, probably under the influence of Spanish tornar (turn, related to English turn)

One thing is certain: A tornado wreaked destruction on Moore, OK just over a week ago. As I have been following the news of such tremendous loss and damage, of such profound recovery and resilience, I couldn’t help but wonder about the origin of tornado, trivial and petty as my musings seem in the face of the disaster. It turns out, no pun intended, that its origin isn’t quite  so certain.


In 1589, as documented by the OED, Richard Hakluyt—an English geographer, writer, and ardent champion of English colonial expansion, particularly in North America—wrote in his Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation*:

The we had terrible thunder and lightning, with exceeding great gusts of raine called Ternados.

The word took a number of different forms over the next centuries, including tornathoturnado, and tournatho, settling into its current spelling by the 1800s. And, the OED notes, navigators used the word to refer to torrential, gusty tropical thunderstorms in the Atlantic. In the 17th-c., these navigators used the term to name the entire season in which such storms were common, although this usage is now obsolete,  though we do say “tornado season” in the States.

Overtime, the rain and thunder elements receded while that of rotation and wind ascended. The turn, so to speak, seems to take place in the early 1600s. The OED documents the following from Samuel Purchas, an English cleric and complier of travel accounts, in his Pilgrimes (1625):

We met with winds which the Mariners call The Turnadoes, so variable and vncertaine, that sometime within the space of one houre, all the two and thirtie seuerall winds will blow. These winds were accompanied with much thunder and lightning, and with extreme rayne.

The OED observes that the rise of spellings using u and -or– seems to correspond with usages that emphasize the storm’s windy whirling. Indeed, in the early 1700s, the word was naming rotatory storms in West Africa and, in the late 1800s, the narrow-pathed funnel-clouds we know all too well in the Midwest and South today.

It fascinates me to end how new experiences, new concepts, new contact—with different lands and different people—necessitates new language. But seldom do we invent new terms out of thin air. We steal, we borrow, we appropriate, we adapt. And English has proven itself particularly adept at this.

So, where was tornado ultimately taken from?

While -ado certainly betokens Spanish or Portuguese (where it functions as the past participle ending of certain verbs, from the Latin -atus; cf. French -ade, as in paradecrusade, and many others), neither tornado nor any its previous forms shows up in those languages. So, etymologists posit a few things:

  1. The word was a “mangled borrowing” from Spanish tronada (thunderstorm, from the verb tronar and Latin tonare, to thunder. English thunder is related.).
  2. The o‘s and r‘s got flipped, a little thing called metathesis (pretty and *purty, ask and *aks)
  3. This flipping was influenced by Spanish tornar, which means to turn, return. This verb is from Latin, tornare, to turn on a lathe, from tornus, a lathe. English turn is related.

Yes, I totally had to look up what, exactly, a lathe is. And this completes a full turn: tornadoes destroy, lathes  help rebuild.

*Speaking of whirlwinds, the full title of  Hakluyt’s afore-quoted book is:

The Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation: Made by Sea or Over Land to the Most Remote and Farthest Distant Quarters of the Earth at Any Time within the Compasse of These 1500 Years: Divided into Three Several Parts According to the Positions of the Regions Whereunto They Were Directed; the First Containing the Personall Travels of the English unto Indæa, Syria, Arabia … the Second, Comprehending the Worthy Discoveries of the English Towards the North and Northeast by Sea, as of Lapland … the Third and Last, Including the English Valiant Attempts in Searching Almost all the Corners of the Vaste and New World of America … Whereunto is Added the Last Most Renowned English Navigation Round About the Whole Globe of the Earth

And you thought all those subtitles so in vogue today were bad. In all fairness, though, I’d venture that  writers of those early texts didn’t conceive of such cumbersome titles as titles, but previews or outlines. Perhaps proto-blurbs or proto-tables of contents. Interesting plural #ftw. Self-reference #ftw.

m ∫ r ∫


Fast Mash

  • Win comes from Old English winnan (work at, strive for) and gewinnan (gain by working at, striving for)
  • Ge- is a verbal prefix that English has since lost
  • The verb has deep roots in Germanic languages
  • By 12th-c., win meant “gain, be victorious”
  • By 14th-c., win became a noun (winn, gewinn): “conflict, strife, victory, wealthy”

Modern Winners

Recently, a colleague sent me an email with the subject: “21st century metaphor FTW.” In the email, she shared a simile that likened legislative budget-slashing to “Fruit Ninja addicts in Arcade Frenzy Mode.” It was clever, smart, and quirky. It worked—surprisingly, since it refers to a smartphone game essentially new to the whole enterprise we call the human experience. Indeed, for the win.

Which is what FTW stands for, if you don’t know.

FTW is commonly used as a form of adverbial commentary in online conversations. Various Internet and online slang dictionaries define it as adding cheerful emphasis, usually earnest but sometimes tongue-in-cheek, to a success, victory, or to something its user simply judges as good. The phrase appears to have originated from online gaming argot, where win lives a more literal life, but has since jumped into our broader lexicon of digital meta-commentary.

I did come across some claims that the phrase started with Hollywood Squares. (“I choose Peter Falk for the win.”) Given its recency and role in digital environments, I think online gaming is the more sensible provenance. Curiously, I came across little discussion about the possible influence that sports idioms might have had. It seems to me that FTW had something of an active life before online gaming, but its use in that environment helped it to burgeon.

Peter Falk reference #ftw.

Speaking of the online life of win, I also came across for the first time the phrase wins the Internet. In online forums, this phrase can offer sincere or ironic approval of a post in the discussion, an expression of so-called “Chanspeak,” named after the notorious 4chan forum. More generally, “wins the Interent” characterizes something’s virality, e.g., PSY’s “Gangnam Style” song/dance and its parade of imitations have variously won the interent. Yes, the tune is now lodged in your cranium for the rest of the day. My bad.

And speaking of viral, we also have the meta-commentary of winning, which spread thanks to Charlie Sheen’s addlepated blustering of late. Online, it seems to lead a similar, though now less active, life as FTW. As in, I fit digital meta-commentary and Hollywood Squares into the same blogpost #winning. However, winning is still hanging on in speech, used in the same way but often uttered with a singsong pitch and ding-dong tone.

The language of Interent subcultures and the way language spreads online are fascinating in their own rights. But I am stuck on the particular meaning of win in these three examples, especially as they have taken off from their original contexts in the ether. What are they winning, per se?

See, these expressions can be used to characterize more obvious “wins”: I just got promoted at my job #ftw or I graduated from college summa cum laude #winning. But, in my experience, they usually don’t characterize such things. They characterize little, oddball, or clever accomplishments or moments of satisfaction. (That same colleague brilliantly added “digital schadenfreude.”) What’s the big deal with me referencing Peter Falk? Nothing, just a boost to my cultural cachet. What’s the big deal with someone’s quirky parody of a popular song getting a million hits online? Maybe one’s 15 minutes (although in these days, possibly many more), indeed quite nice in an age where so much noise competes for our attention. And these small, quirky “wins” seem to come in the face of what, some nameless, anonymous force of opposition—the World, Existence, the Other, the Void, Modern Inconveniences?

Whatever the case may be, I think we ultimately use these expressions not to trumpet ourselves, but to build connections. FTW and winning point to tiny triumphs over everyday hassles that we can all relate to and empathize with. And viral videos are as much about “Did you see this video?” as the contents of the video. Here, perhaps win does not imply competition after all.

So, where does the word win come from, anyhow?


Outside of these special usages in digital environments, we modern English speakers win lotteries, prizes, awards, contests, various games, arguments, campaigns, and wars. 

The word comes from the Old English winnan. The i was pronounced like ee and the -an marks the infinitive form of the verb (to win). Forces of economy lopped the inflection off over time, as with many of English’s other verb markings. (Remember conjugating those verbs in Latin class—amo, amas, amat…? Well, there was once ic winne, þu winnst, he winn…) And there is also record of gewinnan, with the ge- pronounced like the ye in “yes” and functioning as a verbal prefix.

Wait, verbal prefix? Yeah, like the for– in forswear or the be– in becalm.

There is still a bit of uncertainty surrounding exactly how this ge– prefix worked in Old English. If you speak or have studied any Dutch or German, you’ll recognize this prefix added to verbs to form past participles. Past participles are a specific form a verb can take. They are most obvious in irregular verbs, say, in write, wrote, written. Let’s use this verb as an example. Each function of the past participle follows in parenthesis.

  1. I have written an email to the Sasquatch (perfect tense).
  2. The email to the Sasquatch was written (passive voice).
  3. I sent the email written for the Sasquatch (adjective phrase).
  4. Written for the Sasquatch, the email contains an invitation to my wedding (adverb phrase).
  5. The email written, I starting writing one to David Duchovny (the fancy-named nominative absolute and reason so many of us hated grammar lessons).

Of course, this was an elaborate excuse to bring up David Duchovny. David Duchovny #ftw

Now, in Old English, this geprefix could be used to form past participles, but it didn’t have to be used. And among other roles, it could also be affixed to nouns and verbs to convey the result of an action (so-called resultative verbs). This prefix was dying out in Middle English, although it did hang on as and i (which sound like the in sit). The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that it is still disguised in the words alikeaware, and handiwork

Anyways, we have winnan, which meant “to work at, strive for, fight, struggle, vanquish” in Old English and gewinnan, which conveys more of gaining or getting as a result of working and striving. You can see the resultative aspect of ge– at work in the latter word. We might understand winnan as doing the work while gewinnan as the gaining of a product of the work. In this light, win seems closer to the sense of earn.

Already by the 12th-c., though, the Oxford Dictionary of Etymology records win as denoting gain and be victorious, and the Online Etymology Dictionary indeed observes that win ultimately fuses these two senses.  From the verb came the noun. Winn, gewinn, and iwin (Middle English) meant conflict and strife in the 12th-c, and, later in the 14th-c., it communicated the result of such conflict or strifevictory, wealth, gains. It also seems that the transitive form of the verb (i.e., to win the battle) followed its earlier, intransitive sense.

The lineage of winnan has a robust life in ancient Germanic languages, with some interesting and subtle differences in meaning across languages and time:

  • Old Frisian, winna (obtain)
  • Old Saxon, winnan (suffering)
  • Middle Low German and Middle Dutch, winnen (till, obtain, acquire)
  • Old High German, winnan (rage, contend) and gewinnan (gain by labor)
  • Old Norse, vinna (labor, gain)
  • Gothic, (ga)winnan (suffer)

These forms trace back to the Proto-Germanic *wenwanan and might be related to the origin of wish, whose etymology is connected to, of all things, Venus. But that’s for another occasion.  

Now, why won? Why is won the past tense and past participle (he won, the battle having been won)? This is due a little something called ablaut, which, to put it simplistically, entails changing vowels to change meanings. In our case, we are dealing with strong verbs in Germanic languages. These verbs change their vowels to form the past tense, e.g., write, wrote, written. These have given English a lot of irregular verbs. Contrast strong verbs to so-called weak verbs, which in English is most verbs and takes on a simple -ed or –t (typed, dreamt).

And why does won rhyme with un and not on? This is big stuff, too. For starters, in Old and Middle English was long (as in no). But between ~1350-1700 there took place something called the Great Vowel Shift which caused long vowels to became pronounced with tongue higher in the mouth and with the mouth more closed. For instance, the vowel in five once rhymed with fee but now with high). It had consequences for more than just pronunciation. As Baugh and Cable (2002) nicely summarize:

It will be noticed that the Great Vowel Shift is responsible for the unorthodox use of the vowel symbols in English spelling. The spelling of English had become fixed in a general way before the shift and therefore did not change when the quality of long vowels changed. Consequently our vowel symbols no longer correspond to the sounds they once represented in English and still represent in other modern languages. (p. 239)

Wins the Day

To rage, to suffer. To till. To me, there is a very laborious, backbreaking, sweaty effort connoted in these older meanings. And vanquish adds an element of sheer power. Winning the lottery or #winning seem like a far cry from such effort. Almost wimpy. Well, with a recent Powerball jackpot of about $590 million, “wimpy” may not be the best word, but it’s interesting how winning in this situation typically implies quitting (one’s job). But don’t let me romanticize the past, especially when it comes to language. Language constantly changes, and arguments of better or worse aren’t productive.

See, win still has a lot of muscle. It just uses a different muscle. Think about the phrasal verbs formed out of win and the various efforts, particularly of the tongue, they convey:

  • Win out and win through, highlighting victory through some sort of persistence or endurance
  • Win back, focusing on the recovery of something lost
  • Win away and win over, featuring an element of cajolery

It’s curious, the way languages contract and expand. Win has lost  ge-, but it gained some marvelous shades of meaning with the help of these prepositions. And observe how win has taken up the rhetorical rather the physical.

Win still lives a rich and hearty life. We have winning tickets and winning smiles. Winnings retains the sense of monetary gain. Breadwinner (attested ~1821) holds on to the sense of toil to earn a living. And that peculiar sports superlative winningest, which is attested all the way back in 1804. Speaking of long days and rolled-up sleeves, politicians can win the day. More obscurely, a winning is an opening from which coal has been mined, or is simply a bed of coal itself. And boats can win shores.

And what about winsome? Well, that uses the Old English wynn, “pleasure, delight.” That y had a sound like the in the French tu. As Raymond Chandler first wrote in his masterpiece of hard-boiled detective fiction, The Long Goodbye (1953), “Take it easy, Doc. You can’t win them all.”

Ending on a clever note #ftw

the four seasons, part I (spring)

Fast Mash

  • As the name for the season, spring replaces lent in the Middle Ages
  • In 1500s, English has spring of the year and spring of the leaf 
  • Spring comes from Old English verb meaning to “leap, burst forth”
  • Lent comes from Germanic roots meaning “long days”

As the Anglo-Saxons would say, I am now one winter old. Technically, I have many more winters under my belt than that, but I only have notched one Minnesotan winter. Well, since we rewrote the record books on that one with, oh, I don’t know, about 23 inches of snow in the lovely springtime month of April alone in the Twin Cities, maybe veteran Minnesotans will award me one-and-half.

But I’ll get back to this seasonal time-telling later. I can’t control the weather, but I can at least control when I get to write about it. And right now, I’m into this spring business.


This time of year, school marquee signs, advertisements for nurseries and home improvement stores, and all too many captions of Instagram photos of tulips bear the clever phrase: “Spring has sprung.” (I, for one, can’t help but think of a certain lyric by Sir Mix-A-Lot whenever I read those words, but that’s a different matter.) Yet what might seem like fun wordplay is actually an accurate etymological statement. For the name for the season, spring, ultimately comes from the same verb.

By the 16th-c. if not well earlier (possibly as early as the late 14th-c.), English speakers stopped saying lent (earlier, lenten and lencten) and started saying spring to refer to what some call the first season of the year and others the season after winter.

For this difference, see spring in Romance languages, which emphasize first-ness. French has printemps, from Latin primus tempus, or “first time/season.” Spanish and Italian both have primavera, from Latin primus ver, “first spring,” which I hope makes your next order at the Olive Garden easier. My friend and German Ph.D. candidate informed me that German has Frühling, which contains früh (early) and the noun-making suffix -ling (now reserved for people; see changeling).  

Of course, there is the issue of how cultures differently mark and need to mark seasons. For instance, there are simple divisions between dry and wet seasons in some tropical cultures, as compared to the sophisticated subdivisions employed by Aboriginal peoples of Australia.

Quick tangent. I was working with a student from Ethiopia and asked her if her native language, Amharic, had a word for snow. She couldn’t offer one, simply saying, “Snow is…snow.” Indeed, there are some high peaks that get snow in the Ethiopian Highlands. And I did find an expression for snow (yäbärädo bnany, one transliterations from Amharic script). But other than identifying the b-r-d portion as some kind of trinconsonantal root, my trail stopped here. Snow is not an everyday word there, but since many peoples from that region of Africa resettle in, say, Minneapolis, there must be some practical need, not to mention spiritual/mythical/folkloric possibilities that snow-capped mountain peaks can inspire. But let’s not go down that rabbit hole. Languages constantly develop words for new concepts, often as loanwords from an existing tongue. Latin is believed to have picked up carrus from a Gaulish word, karros, which named a kind of Celtic two-wheeled chariot. (Chariot derives form this. So does car.) This is old business. And new. Look at words for hotel and automobile across many modern languages. 

Anyways, the Online Etymology Dictionary marks out several phases of spring‘s development, which help illustrate the rising-up-and-out-to-life-ness of spring:

  • Late 14th-c., springing time
  • Late 15th-c., spring-time
  • Around the 1520s and 1530s, spring of the year and spring of the leaf
  • 1540s-1600s, spring 

How about spring in the general sense?

Old English had springan, which primarily meant “to leap, jump, bound”; “to burst forth, fly out”; or “to grow, rise up.” The Oxford Dictionary of Etymology (ODE) notes “originate” as far back as the 12th-c.

This has and remains a very productive word, from wellsprings and offsprings and springboards to spring tides, springing traps, springing birds, and springy coils. To Hopkins’ sprung rhythm and sprung cricket bats to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s getting sprung. And vivid phrases like I could spring for some White Castle right now. (Four-hit combo. Points for referencing Hopkins, cricket, and Sir Mix-A-Lot in the same sentence. Bonus points for following it with White Castle reference.)

I think it’s wonderful that we still retain so many of these senses today. Spring a leak. He has a spring in his step. The little boy was afraid a monster would spring out of his closet. I’m sorry I was late; something sprung up. Just as I was finishing up, my boss sprang a new project on me. Ah! Behold the beauties of English phrasal verbs, verbs that occur with prepositions. And behold the virtues of polysemy. (I just wanted to show off a little bit there. I like everyday words, but big ones are cool, too.)

Of more recent consequence, we have the so-called “Arab spring.” As best as I can tell, George Packer is attributed with the first usage of the phrase “Arab spring” (or, more accurately, the possibility of one like that which we were witnessing ~2011, around the time when the phrase for this referent as such crystallized) in a 2003 New York Times Magazine article:

The war [in Iraq], which is vastly unpopular in the Arab world, is far more likely to improve the fortunes of the Islamists, he says, and provoke governments to tighten their grip, than to ventilate the region with an Arab spring.

This phrase continues in the tradition of “Springtime of the People” (European revolutionary efforts in 1848, a translation of the German Völkerfrühling), the Prague spring of 1968, the Seoul Spring of 1979, and others. As Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus concludes on a thoughtful piece on this phenomenon:

These springtime labels all owe their rhetorical power to a master metaphor that transfers the qualities of seasonal change to political change.

And it’s not difficult to imagine how the season of new life, new growth, and longer days owes its name to the action of leaping and bursting forth. Indeed, the Online Etymology Dictionary and ODE link spring to the Proto-Indo-European *sprengh-/*spreŋʒ, which had a sense of rapid movement or hastening. Skeat, however, defines the original sense as “to split or crack” (as in budding plants) and sees it as allied to roots for spark and even speak.

Whatever the case, these reconstructions point us again to the ways in which words embody the physical, the phenomenological, the poetic. I can’t help but envision a gorgeous, Terrence Malick-styled time-lapse sequence of a flower, from cell to bloom. But for me  WIlliam Carlos Williams’ did it best in his opening poem in Spring and All: 

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined—
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance—Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted they
grip down and begin to awaken (ll. 20-27)

It is worth nothing that many critics read much of this poem as taking a hit at T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” published not but a year before, and which famously begins, “April is the cruellest month…” This turns on its head the beginning of Chaucer’s “General Prologue” in The Canterbury Tales: “Whan that April with his showres soote / The droughte of March hath perced to the roote…” So, speaking of cool words, this tradition is called reverdie, French for “re-greening,” a poetic genre that sings the arrival of spring.

So much depends on…one syllable.


Now, what about lent? The word is preserved in Lent , the solemn, ~40-day Christian period of prayer, giving alms, and fasting (i.e., enduring the excruciating pain of giving up chocolate, wine, swearing, Facebook, or the like) ahead of Easter Sunday. Originally, the word simply meant the season, “spring.” Dutch still uses it with lente. German has Lenz, although it is largely poetical.

Etymologically, lent ultimately develops from a Proto-Germanic root *laŋgaz /*lanngaz (long) *tina (day). It carried the sense of the lengthening of the day. Indeed, length/lengthen are related. The former root, as I suspect is apparent, sprung the long lineage of long.  The latter, tina, has some notable cognates, including the Latin dies. Despite appearances, the English day is probably not related, but that’s a story for another…day.

Why was Lent applied and retained for the liturgical season (note the metaphorical development of season)? The ODE notes that the “ecclesiastical sense of the word is peculiar to English.” In Latin, the language of the Roman Catholic Church, Lent is referred to as Quadragesima, or “fortieth” (day before Easter). How Lent came to be forty days is actually pretty complicated, by my reckoning, almost as complicated as calculating when Easter falls.

But, in the late Middle Ages, vernacular English gained ground (vis-à-vis Latin) as a legitimate language of learning, literature, and Christianity. English translations of the Bible (famously by Wycliffe and Tyndale) and sermons and worship in English, coupled with Easter usually falling in the springtime month of March, likely helped propel this labeling of Lent.

So, why did spring replace lent? Who’s to say. Both words display Germanic origins and seem equally economical. And I’m sure both words co-existed in one form or another side by side, as synonyms do, for some time. Language changes—constantly, in sound and sense.

Could there be some confusion with lent as a noun and lent as a past participle for lend? I doubt that. Originally, the infinitive of the verb was lænan (to lend),  and was lende in the past tense and lent as a past participle. On the basis of analogy to words like send and bend, Middle English established the d in the root of the verb in the 15th-c.. Besides, languages manage ambiguity pretty well, it seems to me.

We must think, too, about how much change England underwent in the Middle Ages., when lent cedes to spring. And could major events in the 16th-c., from the Protestant Reformation to the proliferation of printing, have diverged their ways once and for all? Perhaps at some point the ecclesiastical associations of lent hardened, boosting an already ascendant spring. By chance, usage, and a lot of time, lent referred to the liturgical, spring the seasonal.

My Google Ngrams on Lent and spring as nouns yielded some interesting result, although we must read these results with extreme caution, especially since spring has many meanings as a noun other than one we are concerned with here:

  • Spring spikes in 1593 (and in the late 16th-c. more generally) and again in 1778
  • Lent spikes in 1636 and 1662, although a far smaller percentage (at already small percentages)

I’ll let you muse on those dates.

The Vernal Word

I love the physicality implied by the ancient meanings of spring and lent. Little green buds do seem to burst forth so suddenly, so instantaneously, so imperceptibly. And the day’s elongation does seem to gradually dawn on us with advent of the season. The metaphors may be dead on our lips or ears, but it doesn’t take a whole lot of etymological digging—it doesn’t take a whole lot of environmental noticing—to quicken them anew.

It’s curious, though. Of course, spring means different things and times to different peoples, climatologically, culturally, etc. But in spring and lent are sedimented immediate, environmental saliences: the bursting of new life out of barren brown, the lengthening of the day after dark, winter nights. But how come a sense of the greening of earth didn’t get signified? How come a sense of the warming of the day didn’t get encoded? These musings are not the work of historical linguistics, obviously. They are romantic speculations, but hey, spring is in the air, after all.

chicken & egg

First Things First

Easter has long passed (unless you’re Greek Orthodox), but I still have eggs on my mind.

Not that I spend a lot of time thinking about Easter—or eggs for that matter. Well, maybe that last part isn’t so true.

I have been thinking, however, about new beginnings. Spring (sort of) arrived in the Twin Cities, although it didn’t stay very long. And this is the inaugural post of my new project, the Mashed Radish. Here, I will spend a lot of time thinking about Easter or eggs—that is, the words Easter or eggs, for example.

This is a project about etymologies—about where words come from and how they change and develop over time. This is a project that believes that every word has a story to tell.

So, which came first: chicken or egg?


Chicken comes from the Old English (~450-1150 AD) ćīcen, pronounced something like “cheeken.” The OED cites a variant, ćycen, as late West Saxon, a dialect of Old English prevalent around the 11th century AD. It might be helpful for our purposes, then, to place ćīcen closer to 1000 AD. The word referred to any kind of “young fowl.” Over time, its meaning narrowed to refer to what we think of today as chicken more generally. Chick is attested around the mid-14th century.

I know, dear reader, you’re thinking of it. That other sense of chick. As the Online Etymological Dictionary points out, that derogatory term is first recorded in Sinclair Lewis’ 1927 novel Elmer Gantry:

He has determined that marriage would cramp his advancement in the church and that, anyway, he didn’t want to marry this brainless little fluffy chick, who would be of no help in impressing rich parishioners.

While we’re on a tangent: What does chicken bring to mind now? The feathered bird, all a-clucking and a-pecking or… pale, pink. and over-plump breast meat wrapped in cellophane and sold en masse at Super Target for about $2.00 a pop. I judge not; I know this from experience.

At least eggs still look like …well, even that’s debatable.

And while we’re at it, check out these astonishing numbers from the US Poultry and Egg Association concerning chicken and egg  consumption:

  • 247.7 eggs per capita in 2011
  • 58 pounds of boneless, trimmed per person, per year in 2010

Anyways, the Old English ćīcen goes back to the Germanic *kiukīnam. This comes from the root *keuk-, echoing the sound the bird makes. Onomatopoeia, it turns out, is not just a word you loved to say but could never spell when you studied poetry in grade school, but is also a major source of words. Many historical linguists see *keuk– also as the origin of the equally onomatopoeic cock.

You’ll be seeing a lot of asterisks in this project. The asterisk means that this term is unattested and is therefore hypothetical. That means that there is no record of the root or word documented in a real source (like in Elmer Gantry, say, not that anyone has ever really read that book), so linguists reconstruct the form as it could have been. They do this by comparing languages that come from a common ancestor language, a so-called proto-language.

Both chicken and cock have given us a lot of fun and foul language over the centuries. And both have proved metaphorical from the start, too, though in opposite directions. Chicken carried its cowardly connotations as early as the 14th century, and people likened the cock’s struts to arrogance earlier yet. The latter was cocc in Old English, once a common nickname in the Middle Ages for jaunty male underlings, as I learned from the Online Etymology Dictionary. Apparently it was a common personal name, too, although I’m guessing the arrival of the slang member of its lineage in the early 1600s might have changed that.

And what about this –en business? The suffix –en is a diminutive suffix chiefly applied to animals. See kitten. (Maiden uses it, too, but I’m not going to touch that). I think it’s neat, though, to imagine a time when we people had a need for such a suffix, especially in contrast to our severe alienation from food sources today.

Now, you might be thinking of some other words that contain this suffix. Oxen? That –en is the plural for Old English nouns in what is known as the weak declension. Children also uses it. Vixen? That’s the sole survivor of a Germanic feminine suffix. OK, what about men and women as plurals? We’ll have to save that for another day—or days, as those etymologies have engendered a lot of commentary.


The form of egg has essentially gone unchanged from the Old Norse egg, which took over the Middle English (~1150-1500 AD) ey during the 14th-century.

Egg points to an immediate, tangible, mundane, and ancient concept. There is evidence that the domesticated chicken reached Eastern/Mediterranean Europe in 3000 BC, and traveled to Western Europe in the first millennium BC. Some archaeologists even claim evidence of domestication in Southeast Asia as far back 6000 B.C.

So, English-speaking peoples must have been egg-headed for some time. How, then, does a Scandinavian word for such a quotidian thing supplant the Middle English term?

First off, Vikings had been raiding and settling in England from the late 700s to early 1000s, resulting in a lot of contact between English and Scandinavian language. English picked up a fair number of Scandinavian words—a phenomenon referred to as loanwords. In A History of the English Language, as Baugh and Cable (2002) note:

The Scandinavian and the English words were being used side by side, and the survival of one or the other must often have been a matter of chance (p. 100).

This must be the case for Old Norse egg and Middle English ey, two everyday words expressing the same concept. In this case, it seems to me that no word must have had any qualitative advantage. An extraordinary exception is the case of our third-person plural pronouns, they/their/them, Scandinavian words that pushed out the original, Old English equivalents. That’s influence.

You may notice, though, egg and ey look quite a bit a like. That’s because we are dealing with cognates, or words that come from a common root or origin. Here’s an overview of the lineage:

The Middle English ey is derived from the Old English æg, which, along with the Old Norse egg, goes back to ei, as seen in Dutch and German now and in the past. Etymologists trace ei back to the Proto-Germanic *ajja(m) or *ajja(z) and even further back to Proto-Indo-European *owyo, *oyyo. (Please note: different dictionaries transcribe these roots, as well as those that follow,  differently. I’ll talk about this Proto-Indo-European business in a later post.)

This form produced a lot of cognates:

    • Latin, ovum (Fr., oeuf; Sp., huevo)
    • Greek, oión 
    • Irish, og
    • Welsh, wy
    • Old Church Slavonic, aja
    • Russian, jajco

Now, here’s the crazy part to me. Etymologists speculate this ancient hypothetical root for egg might reach further back to an ancient, hypothetical root for…


Sanskrit has vis, Latin has avis, both referring to birds, possibly from a Proto-Indo-European root, *owis or *awi. You might see owl here, but that creature is named in imitation of its cry. See ululation.

First Things First

Well, which came first?

So, etymologically, chicken as such seems technically older in the English language, but, given the strengths of cognates of eggs, not really.

For me, these etymologies turn up something deeper. I’d guess that ancient man would observe and name the sound of a bird—hooting and clucking and cawing and cuckooing and chirping and twittering and shrieking—before they did so for their eggs, what with nests and incubation. And I can imagine metonymy (part for whole) playing a role, too.

But this small notion that the egg is the bird suggests an ancient, Aristotelian metaphysics—ways in which early man’s observations of natural phenomena, e.g., eggs becoming birds, became encoded in language. Or at least Indo-European languages. I’d be interested to see any egg/bird connections in other language families and in cultures that saw domesticated fowl later (or never).

Eggs are birds, endings are beginnings. Maybe the egg wins out after all— might these etymologies suggest anything how these ancient experiences became encoded in our earliest creation myths? After all, how do you like your cosmic eggs?

Since we can never know these things with certainty, I suppose I like mine scrambled.

m ∫ r ∫