socks & cardinals

Fast Mash

  • Sock, attested as socc as far back as 725, is from the Latin, soccus, meaning “slipper,” which may come from a yet more Ancient Greek word for some type of early footwear
  • Cardinal, as in “fundamental” and numbers, comes from Latin’s cardo (hinge)
  • The adjective form of the noun, cardinalis, gave us the name for the Catholic dignitary, occupying a pivotal position in the church, and whose scarlet robes inspired the name of the bird

First off, take a minute to check out (and follow) Lexicolatry, a fun and informed project run out of Ireland by Eddie, a linguaphile reading the OED and blogging about it, one word at a time. He graciously invited me to guest-post about breakfast, which I adapted from my own. And it’s not just leftovers–it also includes fresh goetta.

Second, I want to thank all my new followers and re-tweeters of late. For the isolation we fear it can cause, social media is also so good at building community. You can’t throw a digital dictionary without hitting a word nerd online.

The leaves may not change much out here in Southern California, but the air is crisp and cool on the coast, and the World Series is on TV. Whoever you are rooting for, I can’t help but root for sock and cardinal. (Permission to groan like you would at a bad call from an ump.)


They get holes, they get stinky, they get mismatched, they get mysteriously gobbled up by the dryer. Some can’t stand to sleep in them (moi), others can’t stand to sleep without them. Socks are fussy, but, as a word, sock is hard to quibble with.

The word is attested as socc (synonym for slebescoh in Old English, or “slip shoe”) as far back as 725, when, according to the OED, it referred to a “light, low-heeled shoe.” It’s from the Latin soccus, which meant “slipper.” Germanic languages variously darned it, including German’s own Socke. Latin’s soccus may derive from Ancient Greek’s sykchos, which the Online Etymology Dictionary glosses as a “kind of footwear from Phrygian or another Asiatic language.”Think modern day Turkey. The word’s older meanings indeed point to sock’s evolution of form, function, and fashion, including the world’s ostensibly oldest known pair, made in Egypt somewhere between 250-420 AD. The divided toe was designed for sandals:

oldest known socks

At least Big Bird, Germans, and Garrison Keillor would have been right at home in them.


Latin had cardo, a multifunctional word which meant “pivot and socket,” “hinge,” “turning point,” “axis,” “pole,” or “boundary,” among other meanings. In its adjective form, cardinalis, a mechanical metaphor was already at work, signifying “principal” or “fundamental”–literally, “on which something hinges or depends,” as the OED puts it. Hence, cardinal virtues, winds, sins, numbers (so-called because, according to Percyvall in 1591, all the rest depend on them). This adjective gave its blessing to its ecclesiastical sense: a principal dignitary in the Catholic Church, next in rank to the pope and among whom the pope is chosen. It is after cardinals’ red vestures the Northern bird species was named by early colonists.  

And why do cardinals wear red? According to the College of Cardinals, the red cap cardinals don, called a biretta, is:

…red as a sign of the dignity of the office of a cardinal, signifying that you are ready to act with fortitude, even to the point of spilling your blood, for the increase of the Christian faith…

I bet many fans of the Redbirds feel the same way right now.

m ∫ r ∫


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