on knock-knock jokes & word origins

Before moving on to the second part of my citrus series, I want to take a break from specific etymologies to reflect on them as such. Last post, I ended on quite the corny pun: “Orange you glad I didn’t squeeze them all into one?” This, of course, evokes a classic lemon of a knock-knock joke:

Knock knock.

Who’s there?


Banana who?

Knock knock.

Who’s there?


Banana who?

Knock knock.

Who’s there?


Orange who?

Orange you glad I didn’t say “banana”?

Two things here. First, I don’t know whether I should be embarrassed or proud that a knock-knock joke just consumed so much space in this post. I’m going with both. Second, I think this groaner actually has a few things to say about the nature of language.


The joke is recursive in nature: It unfolds  by repeating itself, output as its input, part as whole, like a picture of a picture of that same picture, creating an endless, infinite loop. In linguistics, this whole recursive thing is often called nesting. Here is an example:

I plucked the lemon.

In English, I can describe the lemon by applying some simple rules:

I plucked the yellow lemon.

I plucked the very yellow lemon

I plucked the ripe, oblong, and very yellow lemon.

Very is nested within yellow, which are together nested within lemon. As are ripe and oblong.

We can apply more rules, too. We can add whole clauses.

I plucked the very yellow lemon that grew on the tree.

I plucked the very yellow lemon that grew on the tree that was tended by the farmer who owned several acres in Southern California.

And I could go on ad infinitum. This is not a particularly well-written sentence and would be a lot to keep track of in conversation, but you can understand it perfectly well. Clause after clause is nested within lemon. For many, this recursion, this successive application of a rule, is a fundamental and definitive feature of language. And for many, it’s this very recursion—taking a few simple words and combining them endlessly through a few simple rules—that can explain the evolution of language’s complexity out a few simple grunts and gestures.


But I’m more so interested in the origin of the joke. Who first made it up? How does it get taken up and spread so widely, such that I, as a primary-grade student years ago, learned it from a childhood friend in the back of a minivan on the way home from school, at once mind-blown and vexed by it?

Certainly, there was a moment in time in which a single person conjured up the wisecrack. Or there there were multiple persons who separately made up and told the joke. One person tells a friend, who tells another, who tells a group of people, and so on. It gets passed on, it gets passed down. Soon, it has diffused, propagated, tipping-pointed. But as to the exact person, the exact moment of its creation? We don’t know. (Except in the case of the George Zimmerman trial. But, no, I’ll be curious to see how our digital age of hyper-documentation changes what we know about such phenomena.)

I think word origins are quite like this. True, sometimes we have direct evidence for the origin of words, such as blurb or yahoo or, drunk as we are these days on portmanteaux, cronut. But, for so much of our language, words, well, emerge. Take the or cut or pig. Their origins cannot be marked by birth (or death, for that matter), but by a continuous and gradual growth and decay of existing sounds and forms, aberrations from or innovations on those sounds and forms diffusing through a speech community until it is as if the word has always existed.

Changes invisible to itself, like a middle-aged man who put on 10 pounds or gradually went bald, a child who grew a few inches over a summer, a college student whose chest hair thickened—constantly around ourselves, we do not always notice these organic changes. (Until Uncle Jack, who you have not seen in a few years, sidles up at a Christmas party, slurring, “Looks like you put on a few pounds, Billy.”)

Words also originate by evolving imperceptibly through subtle (and, sometimes, not-so-subtle) changes. And so, in hunting for where words come from and how they change, we are like evolutionary scientists, looking at the clues of written records and changes in sound and structure and semantics. We are looking in patterns of formation distinct to the grammar of a language and patterns of cognition like metaphor. We are looking in forces of physiology like articulatory economy and borrowings resulting from cultural contact.

And, in my weird way here at the Mashed Radish, we are looking at chest hair and knock-knock jokes.

m ∫ r ∫

citrus, part I

Fast Mash

  • Citrus referred to the “citron tree” in Latin; possibly related to the Greek word for the cedar tree, kedros, and whose scent apparently can evoke citron
  • Lemon (via French) and lime (via Spanish) come from Arabic laimun/limah, which may in turn trace back to Persian limun/lim (citrus)  

I hate to get too personal on this blog, but one of my missions in the Mashed Radish is to connect etymologies to everyday life.

So, my fiancée and I are moving to Southern California for the next couple of years for her work. Tough luck, right? We’re aiming to be-neighbor (coinage props?) some family in Laguna Beach, where the rents are as high as the citrus is abundant. Here’s to unbalanced diets…and budgets.

Naturally, all of this got me thinking: Where do the words for fruit come from anyhow? Let’s start with citrus.


Today, citrus commonly refers to a class of fruits—you’re probably thinking of lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruits. I like clementines, tangerines, and tangelos, too, but someone has to draw the line. And you know how long these posts get already. More technically, citrus refers to a particular genus (capital “c” Citrus) of flowering plants that bear the fruit.

In Latin, citrus named the citron tree, found in Africa (the northern parts, I presume) that had fragrant wood and bore citron, a sour fruit that resembles a bumpier, more oblong lemon. Except for the, um, absolutely terrifying creature that is known as Buddha’s Hand citron featured below. Aptly named…if Buddha is a space monster trying to suck your face off.

I'm scared, too.

Anyways, the OED puts citrus as ultimately Asiatic in origin. As biologists do for the fruit, first springing up in Northeast India, Burma, and Southeast China.

Some etymologists (including Weekley and Klein) argue that citrus is actually cognate to Greek’s cedar (kedrosκέδρος). Adding to this theory is the aromatic resemblance between the two trees. As the Online Etymology Dictionary notes, the citron was the first citrus available in the West. (Ponder being the first to handle such a fruit!) And historically, the fruit was used as medicine, explaining the citron’s scientific name, Citrus medica.

Check out some of these passages from antiquity on citron. Theophrastus says its improves the breath? Pliny the Elder describes its uses as ancient bug spray? (Citronella is indeed derived from citrus, lexically speaking, but is squeezed out of lemongrass.) And a believer who cites the Koran is like a citron? Good work, Wikipedia.

Lemon & Lime

Speaking of Islam, cue the confetti: Mashed Radish has its first Arabic words. (Not that Islam is solely an institution of Arabic, but I needed a good transition.)

Lemon entered English around 1400 from Old French limon (citrus fruit). Via Provençal or Italian and with many a Romance cognate, the word ultimately comes from the Arabic laimun or limah*, with lim functioning as a collective word for citrus fruits in general. Lime shows a similar lineage, but entering in the 1630s through the Spanish lima. The OED ends lemon and lime here, but others, such as Skeat, trace the Arabic back to the Persian limun or limuna. 

Arabic is not an Indo-European language, but Persian is. It’s an Iranian language in the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family. Crazy that Persian is in the same family as English, Latin, and German, right? (Sc. English father, Persian padar; English name, Persian nam; English you, Persian to/tu; English mouse, Persian mush. Yep, cognates.). But, while in the Afro-Asiatic family, Arabic was nevertheless influenced by Persian. You know, history and stuff.

But, before looking up lemon and lime, I wouldn’t have thought of the ancient Middle East. And I wouldn’t just think of 7UP. Or, cocktails, more accurately. I think of a lemon, as in a crappy car. Lemon has referred to “something undesirable,” as Partridge puts it, since around 1920, although the Online Etymology Dictionary dates a meaning of “worthless thing” further back to 1909, noting:

American English slang…perhaps via criminal slang sense of “a person who is a loser, a simpleton,” which is perhaps from the notion of someone a sharper can “suck the juice out of.”

Or it could just be metaphorical, lemon’s being sour and all.

Limey, an insulting term for an Englishman, goes back, too. Apparently, in 1888, South Africans, New Zealanders, and Australians used the term as an epithet for English immigrants. In the US, the term goes back to 1918, first describing a British sailor or ship and later generalized to a whole nationality, often functioning adjectivally, if you know where I’m going. The term is shortened from lime-juicer, as lime juice was proscribed by the British Navy to prevent scurvy all the way back in 1795.

In Part II, things get a little bit plumper with orange and grapefruit. Orange you glad I didn’t squeeze them all into one?

m ∫ r ∫ 

*Due to variations in the transcription of the Arabic, I have “averaged out” the spelling of the Arabic and Persian roots of lemon and lime. 

estivate + edify

Fast Mash

  • Proto-Indo-European root *aidh– (burn) gave Latin aestus (heat) and aestās (summer)
  • From aestās English forms estival (of summer) and estivate (to spend the summer)
  • *Aidh– also gave Latin aedes (building, shrine, hearth), basis of English’s edify (originally, to build up the church or soul in holiness) and edifice

Estivate and edify aren’t exactly everyday words, but, boy, do their roots show some curious connections.

While writing my last post on summer, I was struck by the absence of any Romance cognates of the season’s origin.  (Two words are cognates, it is worth repeating, when they derive from the same source.  Consider the English father and Spanish padre.)

Given that summer‘s sound and sense have changed so little over the past centuries, I expected—OK, I hoped—the root would prove more pervasive. Haven’t we’ve seen the etymological cousins of words like stream simply proliferate in Proto-Indo-European lineages? So, why not for summer? I’d think it be like linguistic chicken stock.

I know, I know. Linguists—and sensible professionals of all stripes—please roll your eyes at my pursuit of etymological holy grails. I promise to spend some more time with Saussure—or, hell, Lewis Carroll for that matter. Languages are structured, systematic, and situated. Static and stable they are not. But let an armchair etymologist dream!

But speaking of Lewis Carroll, summer may have delivered me down no rabbit holes, but its Latin equivalent, aestās, most certainly did.


Ancient Romans referred to summer as aestās. This noun gave Latin its related adjective, aestīvus, as well as the verb aestīvāre, which means to spend the summer (somewhere or doing something).

Both forms have made their way into English words. From the former English gets estival (or aestival in the UK, often with a long i and stress on the second syllable). It means pertaining to the summer. The latter kept its meaning in the sadly-less-than-useful estivate (or aestivate). In fairness to biologists, the verb it does take on more technical and practical meanings for zoological purposes. Estivation: No, not the process of transforming into Emilio Estevez, but like hibernation in hot, dry seasons.

By the way, neither word will impress your high school English teacher. Especially not when used in casual conversation in the hallway at the end of the school year. And in the same sentence.

Admired Teacher (AT): “Mr. Kelly, what are your plans for the summer?” (Teachers at all-male Jesuit high schools seem to love formal address. Or the potential for mockery therein.)

Fawning Pupil (FP): “Well, I, uh, plan to estivate by playing music, reading, working. You know, the usual estival fare.”

AT: “Oh, you’re going to music festivals? And isn’t estivating sharing a little too much?”

FP:  “No, um, estival, like summer—”

AT: “—Estival. Like summer. Mr. Kelly, I know what it means, but…”

And so I learned what fifty-cent word means, how one’s love of Latin has some very practical limits, and, most important, how to distinguish perplexity and vexation in human body language.

Real quick, though. The adverb aestīvē means scantilyas in “scantily clad.” Fantastic, right?

OK. Now, here’s where it starts to pick up heat. Aestās is related to aestus, whose meanings include agitation, heat, glowsultriness, and tide, and could also refer to billowy, boiling seas. This word, in turn, is rooted in the Proto-Indo-European *aidh-, or to burn. Its Greek iteration ultimately gave English ether. It is also responsible for estuary (via Latin). And, new to me, oast, an obscure word once generally referring to kilns in Old English (āst) but now more narrowly signifying just those used for drying hops.

Oh, and there’s another word *aidh- is eventually responsible for: edify. Yep, edify.


Out of this root *aidh- Latin built aedes,  a noun that could mean apartmentbuilding, temple, shrine, and rooms (of a house). The Oxford Dictionary of Etymology, the Online Etymological Dictionary, and Shipley add hearth. Interestingly, I did not find hearth in my Latin sources, though cells (of a beehive), tomb, and rent-free home were glossed. (And if you were wondering, focus is the principal word for hearth in Latin, as well as a word for home and family. Now there’s a good rabbit hole.)  

From my cross-referencing, it seems that earliest meaning of aedes might have been hearth. Later, the sense of shrine and sanctuary came to dominate. And eventually the sense of building became common alongside its religious usage.

So, what’s the connection between burning and buildings? Did aedes come about because the use of fire for building materials? The ancient Romans did build an empire out of fired clay brick. Or simply because it named the floor or area around a fireplace? Or perhaps because of burning offerings to gods in their shrines? Indeed, for ancient Romans, an aedes housed the image of a god, and thus was considered a sanctuary or dwelling place of the god. Could the prominent Vesta, household deity and goddess of hearth and home, have had any compounding influence?

Whatever the case, aedes joined with facere (to do, make, an immensely productive root in English) to form aedifcāre (to erect a building). This generated aedificium (building, in the general sense).

And from these, via the French, English gets edify and edification. The OED dates both back to 1340, although edify technically appeared earlier (posthumous publication). Edifice comes in the 1380s.

Around 1340, edify first meant build or construct, but even then it also had a religious usage. From the OED:

To build up (the church, the soul) in faith and holiness; to benefit spiritually, to strengthen, support.

And around 1382 entered edification, which the OED notes was modeled after the Greek oikodome (οἰκοδομή), which appeared in 1 Corinthians 14. As the New International Version has it (pay attention to verses 3-5; the glosses are mine):

Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. 2 For anyone who speaks in a tongue [another language] does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. 3 But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening [edifying], encouraging and comfort. 4 Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. 5 I would like every one of you to speak in tongues [other languages], but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.

What’s the benefit (edification) when people can’t understand what your saying? What’s the point of saying estivate when you can say spend the summer— and actually be understood. I’m talking to you, John.

The OED’s definitions of edification adds that such spiritual strength and stability came about through “suitable instruction and exhortation.” It’s interesting to note here the connection between early education and religion. And so through metaphorical extension, edify came to figure a moral or intellectual buildup. Today, I think we see the word most as a present participle, edifying.

Burning and heat, hearth and home, sanctuary and shrine, the church and the soul, morals and the mind. All that from the Latin word for summer. Edifying, eh?

 m ∫ r ∫

the four seasons, part II (summer)

Fast Mash

  • Summer is from Old English, sumor, meaning the same; first attested ca. 825
  • Probably ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *sem
  • Abundant cognates, especially Germanic, and including the telling Sanskrit sama (half-year, year, season) 

This year, the summer solstice fell on June 21st at 1:04AM ET. The longest day of the year inaugurates the second and warmest season, for those dwelling in temperate climes. It also marks midsummer, religious and cultural celebrations of agriculture, fertility, and, in the Christian appropriation of so-called pagan traditions, the nativity of John the Baptist. And no, bonfires are not just for the beach; they feature prominently as a protective force in these festivities, particularly in Scandinavia today.

The mellifluous solstice, while we’re on it, is from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (cause to stand). This verb (related to stāre, stand) also gives English assistinsist, and subsist, among others.

While we consider this event a whole day, it’s technically an instant. For me, this fact evokes Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. Take a moment to enjoy this delightful, short, animated explanation from the Open University:

So, if we assign a magnitude to the instant of the solstice, then can’t we continue subdividing that instant into ever smaller parts, rendering it infinitesimal and therefore illusory, not a concrete instant at all? And wouldn’t that make all our instants—from our first breath and first step to our first words and first heartbreak and first job to or first car, child, house, and, and, and—all illusions?

Well, concerning time, there are these things called special and general relativity. And there is this thing known as spacetime, which wows me each time I learn it anew (and trust me, each time, I have to learn it anew) like a game of peakaboo. Trying to grasp at this theoretical smoke misses the point, though, phenomenologically speaking. I think Eistein would even agree with that.

Oh, by the way, you can read Einstein’s 1920 publication of Relativity: Special and General Theory in translation online. He opens with “a little consideration” of truth, geometrically speaking. He is at times quite poetic (Ch. 1, para. 1).

Anyways, the big takeaway is that time is all about frame of reference. But I’ll get back to that.

Wait. What we’re we talking about? Oh yeah. Summer.

So this is what happens when I can’t think of a good introduction. It’s like being assigned summer reading on summer break. (Which assignments inevitably elicit one of my favorite smart-aleck utterances from high schoolers: “Then why’s it called summer vacation?” Citing the “summer learning gap” is never cogent, in case you were wondering.)

It’s OK, though, because spacetime gives us permission to talk about summertime. And this whole frame of reference is actually pretty apropos.


Summer has had lots of different spellings overtime and seemingly just as many Germanic iterations. Dutch has zomer, German has Sommer. Old English had sumor (ODE first attests sumur ca. 825; gossamer is related, joining gos, goose, and sumer, summer). They all converge (excluding Gothic, which evidences no related form) in a Proto-Germanic root, *sumur-, related to the Proto-Indo-European *sem-. Its cognates include a curious, and ancient, array:

  • Sanskrit, sama (half-year, year, season)
  • Old Irish sam, samrad (summer)
  • Old Welsh ham, Welsh haf (summer)
  • Avestan hama (in summer)
  • Armenian amarn (summer)

A rose is a rose and summer is…summer. None of this seems terribly profound, or perhaps even interesting, until we consider the Sanskrit meanings of half-yearyear, or season. Indeed, Weekley (1967)  notes that summer (and winter) were the original divisions of the year, and that “a young lady’s years are [figuratively] reckoned by summers, an old man’s by winters” (p. 1446).

Seasons measure time. They are units of time. Through patterns of temperature and daylight, of flora and fauna, they mark agricultural calendars, life cycles, and the yet grander astronomical schemata whose determination of human affairs so many ancient cultures mapped out. Wet seasons. Dry seasons. Or six seasons, in the Hindu calendar. As such, they have taken on incredibly material and immediate significance for humans. Physical significance, organismic significance, as midsummer, for example, anticipates the harvest. What is to be done. What is to be expected. What is possible. And all this, in turn, gets encoded into social, cultural, and religious significance. Bonfires, maypoles, Stonehenges, nativities. Beliefs, myths, systems, narratives.

Summertime Frames

Now, it’s easy to forget this connectedness between our experience of time and the seasons, especially in the developed world where we are so alienated from our food sources, if not from capital-Nature altogether. (Remember “chicken“?) It’s also easy to think of summer just in terms of certain kinds of weather, clothing, holidays, or activities. But, for as much as we may no longer be conscious of how the seasons organize our experience of time, I still think it endures.

As its cognates show, summer has meant summer for a very long time. And I like to think of this deep, temporal sense of summer as sedimented in its etymology. For all our time in front of screens or in the frozen food aisle, and even for as much as language changes, perhaps we are more connected than we give ourselves credit for.

Today, we might primarily experience time through work weeks, through a cycle of weekends punctuated by holidays and vacations. Or perhaps through days and hours—or maybe in ever smaller increments, given the instantaneity of the digital age, or yet some other form altogether (like the emails from J. Crew, Macy’s, Amazon, et alia that pepper my inbox every morning. Like clockwork, y’know? They know what they’re doing.).

But as we watch the hands spin on wristwatches, the numbers turn on our cellphones or computer monitors, the boxes march and pages flip on calendars, we get hungry, we cold or hot, we get sleepy. We get it on. Food, light, climate, and reproduction—are these not guiding the primordial and persistent measures of the human experience in a physical world? Are these not the deep structures still undergirding our temporal frame of reference, invisible or antiquated as they may seem?

They are, according to the ecological psychology of James J. Gibson. In the introduction to his brilliant The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (1986), he describes the proper frame of reference for human perception as at the level of life as we live it as animal organisms evolved in terrestrial environments:

We are concerned here things at the ecological level, with the habitat of men, because we all behave with respect to things we can look at and feel, or smell and taste, and events we can listen to (p. 9).

And concerning the temporal, he poetically puts forth:

Human observers cannot perceive the erosion of a mountain, but they can detect the fall of a rock. They can notice the displacement of a chair in a room but not the shift of an electron in an atom…The rate of change, the transition, is within the limits of perceptibility…The flow of abstract empty time, however useful this concept may be to the physicist, has no reality for an animal. We perceive not time but processes, changes, sequences…(p. 12).

Beautiful. Like the word solstice. Or summer-idle, summer-soothed, or summer-still.

Huh. Standing still, soothed and idle. Maybe summer isn’t trying to tell me about time or change. Maybe it’s trying to tell me something about when the living is easy. 

 m ∫ r ∫