Etymologists are wary of March Madness.

No, it’s not the term bracketology, describing the art, science, and ritual of filling out one’s tournament bracket, which word induces many a cringe. (I, for one, find it to be a perfectly fine coinage.) It’s the inevitable utterance, “There goes my bracket,” issued in resignation when an upset fells one’s lovingly, inevitably wrought bracket.

See, we avert our eyes, for a bracket is, etymologically speaking, a “codpiece.”


Bracket (16th century) took the form bragget in Old English, referring to a “support in architecture” (Weekley). Skeat specifies it as a “corbel”–not the champagne (that’s with a k), nor Microsoft’s typeface, but one of these:

A Venetian corbel, courtesy of Wikipedia.

This bragget comes from the French braguette, meaning “codpiece” or “codpiece armor.” (How important you are, little r: Je voudrais un café et une braguette). As Skeat explains, bracket was “[s]o named from the resemblance to the front part of a pair of breeches, as formerly made.” In the 15th century, men wore separate hose, one for each leg, along with drawers. The crotch, though, needed a bit more protection and concealment. Enter the codpiece. Protection and concealment gave way to fashion statements, and the codpiece served to, emphasize, shall we say. Imagine, if you will, the above corbel in profile.

Forget Warren Buffet’s billion-dollar bracket contest.  Tied with its little bow, I think Henry VIII’s beats out anything even David Bowie could offer within this “winning bracket”:

Henry VIII keeping a straight face. Image courtesy of The Daily Mail online.

The French braguette is a diminutive of brague (14th century), or “pants” or “breeches,” believed to be Gaulish in origin, perhaps in the form of *braca. Speaking of Gaulish, learn a little bit more about Gaulish and other Celtic languages on my latest guest post at Lexicolatry.

Even in the Romance languages, though, the codpiece was used as an architectural metaphor. Brague also referred to a “mortise.” And Spanish, for example, has bragueta, naming both “codpiece” and “bracket.”

Borrowing from the proposed Celtic origin, Latin has bracae for “pants” and Germanic forms (such as Old English’s brec, whence “breeches”) are traced back to a Proto-Germanic *brokiz, maybe from a Proto-Indo-European root for “break” (*bhreg-). Partridge attempts a Proto-Indo-European *brac-, “to encircle” or “gird on.” Perhaps there is an argument for this, given that early codpiece technology featured a kind of belt the wearer strapped on.

How about those typographical brackets: [ ], { }, ( ), and < >, among others? These are “from resemblance to some double supports in carpentry,” as Weekley tells us. The ODEE dates the usage back to the 18th century, noting that, in the 17th century, they were called braces. Believed to have influenced senses of bracket, brace we can trace back to the Latin brachhium, for “arm,” from Greek brakhion, for the same.

As for the origins of the kinds of tournament bracket we see in the NCAA, Slate magazine points us to an 1851 London Chess tournament. Below is a diagram of from the competition, as Howard Staunton provides in his 1873 account, The Chess Tournament. I think the image gives us an effective visual etymology, if you will:


Linguist and language commentator Ben Zimmer gives us more on “brackets.”

I suppose the real winner in all this is the human imagination–and its ability to add little spice or color to something as mundane into as, you know, that thing-y that holds up that bookshelf on your wall. 

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It’s not just me? You, too, were recently reflecting on the comedic stylings of Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt’s ’90s sitcom Mad About You?  Oh, no. That’s right. Maybe mad is on your mind because you’ve been gearing up for the American college basketball extravaganza, March Madness. Sorry, Paul. For more on the origins of “March Madness,” this old Slate piece sum its up.

I’ve been mad about mad, though, because of my recent musings on its counterpart, angry

A semantic aside. I could say “My fiancée is so mad at me right now” or “My fiancée is so angry at me right now.” Both work just fine. However, I don’t think we can interchange madness and anger. We reserve the latter for the emotion, while the former is the domain of the insane. What determines this? Well, it’s all semantics, I guess.

Anyways, what is this mad about?


We get mad from the Old English, mād, aphetic for gemǣd, from gemǣded, past participle of an undocumented or lost verb. (Aphesis, you may remember from fray, is the loss of an initial vowel. How ’bout that?) Perhaps this verb, as Skeat maintains, is gemǣdan, “to drive mad.”

Madness–or “insanity,” being “out of one’s mind,” “foolishness”–is indeed the earliest sense of the word mad, which the OED documents as emerging in the 1300s. This mād threw out the usual Old English adjective for the matter, wōd, though it appeared in the compound mādmōd, “folly.” Think mad mood

But how do we get from “insane” to “angry”?

The OED cites a range of meanings that help tell the story. Mad referred to aggressive animals, such as those with rabies (~1275), or persons who are “extravagantly or wildly foolish” and “ruinously impudent” (~1300). The OED notes we shouldn’t turn over any stones because the earliest attestation of mad is “rabid.” It has no priority, with all the mad‘s cropping up around the same, approximate 1300 mark.

Mad also described being “carried away by or filled with enthusiasm” (~1325) or being “crazy” and “mentally unbalanced” (~1330, probably earlier). And, by about 1400, it described being “beside oneself with anger.”

And mad cow disease, attested in 1988, harkens back to earliest meanings of “berserk” behaviors.

Mutant Roots

The key to mad, then, is the intensely foolish or excited behavior displayed in insanity or anger. This speaks to how madness, in both its forms, makes us different, something other than our ‘normal’ selves–it speaks to how it changes us.

Indeed, “change” may well be the ancient root of mad. Gemǣded is probably passed down from gamaidaz (OED, ʒamaiðaz), whose middle, maid/maið, points to the Proto-Indo-European *mei, “to change.” Shipley also glosses for this root “move away,” “exchange,” and “arrange for services.” He notes that this root was expanded to *meig-, *mein-, and *meit-. The first explains derivatives like migrate. The second common and municipal. The third mutate and mutual. (All of these are from Latin.)

The nature of the change is a bit more specific in the Germanic descent into madness. Gothic has gamaiths/gamaids, meaning “crippled” or “maimed.” Icelandic shows meiða for the same. Old High German presents gimeit/gameit for “foolish” or “vain.”

Focusing on the injury angle, Partridge attempts to connect mad to this very maim. The jury is out on this maim. It is likely a Romance form but could be connected to the Germanic forms for “hurt” like Icelandic’s meiða or the Proto-Indo-European mait-/mai- (to cut, to hew). 

Another aside. We get mayhem from maim. It was a variant that emerged as a late-1400s French legal term: “the infliction of physical injury on a person,  so as to impair or destroy that person’s capacity for self-defence” (OED). Mangle is cognate as well.

It’s a Mad World

Mad is an active moonlighter, if you will. We have “as mad as a hatter,” referring “to the effects of mercury poisoning sometimes formerly suffered by hatmakers as a result of the use of mercurous nitrate in the manufacture of felt hats” (OED, as with all ensuing references).

Let’s not leave out the others. We have as mad as (a):

  • Ajax
  • brush
  • buck
  • goose
  • hornet
  • (March) hare
  • meat ax & cut snake (Australia, New Zealand)
  • tup (a ram, whose sexual connotations are probably not lost on users of the expression)
  • (wet) hen
Lewis Carroll’s Hatter with his equally mad companion, the March Hare, along with Alice and the Dormouse. Maybe there is something in the tea. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

And mad gives me occasion for a little Ohio pride (I come from the Buckeye state), as two Ohio newspaper are given the first OED attestations for mad money and mad scientist.  For the latter, the Newark Daily Advocate published in 1893: “Nerving myself for the blow, I felled the mad scientist dead at my feet.” For the former, good old Lima News printed in 1922: “The 1922 girl ‘squirrels’ or hides, a few dollar bills known as ‘mad money’.”

Then we have mad‘s use as “cool” in US jazz slang, emerging in the 1940s and reemerging to refer to something abundant or in excess in the 1990s, e.g., “The DJ had mad skills.”

Mad: a small, everyday word made up of three simple sounds. It does a lot with little. I give it mad props for that.

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crisis & turmoil

Fast Mash

  • Crisis originally referred to point in which an illness would get better or worse
  • It comes from the Greek, krisis (decision, sifting)
  • The Proto-Indo-European root is *krei-/*ker- (separate, sift, sieve); cognates range from ascertain to excrement to crime
  • Turmoil likely comes from the French tremouille, evoking the commotion of a “mill hopper”
  • This tremouille might be from the Latin tremere (tremble) or trimodia (3 pecks, referring to dry measurement)
  • Moil (hard work, toiling) influenced sense of turmoil  

If you have visited The New York Times online recently, you’ve probably seen something like this front and center:


Not a week ago, the Times used “Crisis in Ukraine” as its section header as opposed to turmoil. This change is subtle but meaningful, and it raises many questions. How do we give name to conflicts? How does a crisis represent and construct a conflict differently than turmoil does? Are we reporting on the situation in, say, Syria in different language than we are in Ukraine? When does a crisis or turmoil escalate into war?

At the Mashed Radish, of course, our concerns wax etymological. So, what are the origins of crisis and turmoil?


According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the earliest use of crisis was pathological. In 1543, it referred to a

point in the progress of a disease when an important development or change takes place which is decisive of recovery or death; the turning point of a disease for better or worse.

This, then, would illuminate the notion of a patient being in “critical condition.” But crisis had an astrological valence, too, the OED continues, as it was

said of conjunction of the planets which determines the issue of a disease or critical point in course of events.

Our medical understanding has certainly evolved, though recoveries can sometimes seem just as magical.

As of 1659, crisis was generalized, a “turning point” applied especially to “times of difficulty, insecurity, and suspense in politics or commerce” (OED).

The, um, critical elements in these definitions are “decisive” and “determines.” For, the root of crisis is the Greek κρίσις (krisis), formed on the verb krinein. Literally, it meant a “separating” or a “sifting”; figuratively, it meant a “judgment” or a “decision.”

What sparked this krisis? The Proto-Indo-European *krei- or *ker-. Joseph Shipley glosses the root as “scratch, cut, pluck, gather, dig, separate, sift,” and observes of it: “This is another prolific root, for scratching became writing; and sifting led to judging, discriminating; and cutting led to the use of cut things, as bark, hide, and food.”

The root of the crisis is a sieve. 

Focusing on the “sifting” lineage of *krei-/*ker-, here are some notable descendants:

  • Ascertain
  • Certain
  • Concern
  • Concert
  • Concrete
  • Crime
  • Criterion
  • Decree
  • Discern
  • Discrete
  • Discriminate
  • Endocrine
  • Excrement
  • Hypocrisy
  • Riddle
  • Secret

At the heart of each of this we find the central metaphor of sifting and separating. Crime is a particular standout. It’s from the Latin crimen (via cernere, “to separate,” responsible for such forms as discern and concrete). Here’s Partridge sharp synopsis, though a bit in dictionary-ese, which also demonstrates a basic process of semantic change through transferred meanings: Crimen, that which serves to sift (hence, decide), esp legal one, hence accusation, finally, object of accusation,–misdeed itself, the crime.”

And riddle? Not riddle as in the word puzzle but riddle as in making many holes in something: “You’re report is riddled with typos” or “the windshield was riddled by the hailstorm.” It was passed down from the Old English hriddel. Old English was riddled with since-lost word-initial h‘s. 


The origin of turmoil is, well, in turmoil. First attested in 1526, the OED lists its origin as “unascertained,” (speaking of ascertain) but we do have some interesting leads. It’s possible that turmoil is from the Middle French tremouille, a “mill hopper,” “in reference to its constant motion to and fro” (ODEE). This tremouille could be from the Latin root tremere, “to tremble.” Or it could be from the Latin trimodia, “a measure of three pecks” (Traupman). A modius, or a “peck,” was 1/6th of a bushel.

A mill hopper. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. There are no good pictures of mill hoppers out there.

According to the British and American systems of dry measure, however, two pecks made a kenning and four pecks a bushel. So, 1/4th of a bushel. but that’s so 14th-century. The peck has stuck around, though, at least when it comes to selling apples.

See, you really do need to watch out for those costermongers. Er, crisis-mongers.

The sense of turmoil is likely influenced by turn and moil, “hard work.” Indeed, the OED cites in 1569 uses of turmoil as “harassing labor” and “toil.” Through French forms meaning to “moisten,” this moil goes back to the Latin mollis, “soft.” Wetsoft? What does this have to do with drudgery? Dr. Johnson may provide the missing link, as he defines moil as “to labour in the mire.”

While etymologically unrelated, a moil can also refer to a hornless cow, the glass left on a pontil in glass blowing, and a variety of apples. A peck of moils, if you will.

What we are witnessing in places like Ukraine is certainly no peck of moils, of course. The origin of crisis and turmoil equip us with no political tactics. Nor is etymology diplomacy. But their root metaphors do prove apt. Events unfold in what seems like constant motion and solutions require real toiling. And we wait to see if situations resolve for better or for worse.

Here’s hoping for the better, or, as we might have said in the 1700s, for a “favourable crisis.”

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the emotions, part ii (afraid/surprised & angry/disgusted)

Fast Mash

  • From the French-based affrayafraid likely comes from the Vulgar Latin exfridare, joing ex- (out of) and the Germanic frithu (peace), constructing fear as a “breach of peace”
  • Surprise is Latin-by-way-of-French: French surprendre joins super (over) and prendere (take, seize), rooting the word in a notion of a “sudden attack”
  • Through Old Norse, anger comes from the Proto-Indo-European *angh- (choke, squeeze); anguish, anxiety, and angst are related
  • Via French, disgust joins dis- (opposite) and gustare (to taste), from the Proto-Indo-European *geus– (taste, choose). This same root indeed gave English choose

Earlier, we looked at how happy got lucky and how sad got its fill. But what’s the story of the remaining core emotions: afraid/surprised and angry/disgusted?



I think it comes as little surprise, really, that scientists root surprise in fear. I’ve witnessed some well-intended surprise parties induce panic-paced pulses. The word afraid, however, is not rooted in fear, for as much as “afeared” has been considered a corruption of “afraid.” No, at the root of afraid is…free.

Afraid is the past participle (think broken in, say, broken bone) of afray or affrayfrom the French esfreer (worry, concern, trouble, disturb). This French verb, in turn, is said to come from the Vulgar Latin exfridare, joing ex- (out of) and Frankish frithu (peace). (Frankish is a West Germanic language). The sense is, as Weekley puts it, “a breach of the peace.” Skeat goes feudal with “the king’s peace.”

Free is cognate to frithu, at the root of which is the Proto-Indo-European *pri, “to be friendly” and “to love.” That rejiggers your reckoning of freedom, don’t it? Fray, as in “in the fray,” is an aphetic form of “affray.” In aphesis, an initial, unstressed voweled gets lost.

The Online Etymology makes an interesting observation about afraid: It is a “rare case of an English adjective that never stands before a noun.” Meaning, we would not say “the afraid boy,” but rather, “the boy is afraid.” There is a handful of so-called predicative-only adjectives in English: ablaze, abreast, afire, afloat, aghast, aglow, agog, ajar, alert, alike, alive, alone, aloof, ashamed, asleep, awake, aware, fond, and unaware. What’s interesting is that many of these begin with a-, but what’s more interesting is that these a-‘s have different origins: The ain afraid has come down from a Latin prefix, ex-, while the a- in aloof is an Old English form, meaning “on.” Anyways, this topic deserves its own discussion.


Surprised also snuck into English from French: the Old French surprendre, “overtake” or “seize,” joing sur- (over; from Latin super) and prendre (to take; from Latin prehendere [to take hold of]). In the 15th century, a surprise was a military term, a “sudden attack” or “capture,” while its emotional sense emerges in the 17th century.

And, in 1858, a “surprise party,” according to Richard Thornton’s American Glossary, was:

Sometimes called a donation party. A gathering of the members of a congregation at the house of their preacher, with the ostensible purpose of contributing provisions, &c., for his support.



Remember this riddle? This web comic kxcd pretty much sums it up:

“Word that End in Gry.” Courtesy of xkcd:

Angry is from the Old Norse, angra, meaning “to grieve” and “vex” (ODEE), originating in the Proto-Indo-European *angh-, “to squeeze,” “narrow,” and “painful.” Here, we see a sense of how choking and constricting raises the blood pressure–perhaps literally. Cognates include the Latinate anguish, the Greek anxiety, the Germanic angst, and, the true bane of all existence, the Old English hangnail.

While hangnail looks like it blends hang and nail, it’s probably from the still extant agnail, “a corn on the foot” (ODEE). It blends instead a form of *angh- and nægl (nail, “hard excrescence of the flesh,” as the ODEE put its). Just as /h/ can fall off words, so it  can jump aboard.

Lest the puzzle pester you like a hangnail, English also has aggryanhungry, gry, iggry, mawgry, and puggry. They’re obscure, archaic, and more-clever-than-though-rage-inducing.


The French, arbiters of “taste”: From desgouster (have a distaste for), disgusted features the Latin prefix dis- (opposite of) and gustare (to taste). This verb should leave a Proto-Indo-European aftertaste, for at its root is *geus-, “to try” or “to taste.” Latin and Greek pursued the latter meanings, while, down the Germanic line, this *geus– eventually put choose on the English menu. Some systematic sound changes were certainly in play. 

When Emotions Get Physical

I am taken by how bodily the origins of these basic emotions are–sadness weighs us down, anger chokes us, surprise takes a hold of us, our taste buds are decision-makers. Happiness, too, points back to what fits us. And freedom suggests getting along–friendship, affection, love between people, between bodies. OK, that’s one’s a stretch, but the point stands, as we have seen here before on the Mashed Radish. At root, our experience of the world–our experience of ourselves in the world and the way we have come to talk about it through language–is fundamentally embodied and metaphorical.

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the emotions, part i (happy & sad)

Fast Mash

  • Happy originally meant “lucky,” from hap (fortune, fate, chance, luck). This hap goes back to the Proto-Indo-European *kob (fit, suit). The meaning shifts towards “contentment” around the 15th century. 
  • Sad comes from the Old English sæd, meaning “full,” in the sense of having one’s fill. Sated is cognate, from the Latin satis (enough), as in “satisfy.” Feelings of fullness gave way to a tiredness and heaviness that became associated with what we now refer to as sadness. 

How are you feeling today?

Illustrated by Jim Borgman, a Cincinnatian, this proud transplant will have you note.

All across the nation, this poster is fading on the sides of bulky filing cabinets that squat in the offices of high school counselors. If we heed recent research, though, we might want to restrict our menu.

As The Atlantic reports, some scientists hypothesize that, on the most basic level, there are four core emotions: happy, sad, afraid/surprised, and angry/disgusted. Their findings collapse the long-running, conventional distinction between afraid and surprised as well as angry and disgusted.

Psychologists, philosophers, and scientists will no doubt continue putting the nature, number, and nativity of emotions on the proverbial couch. But, speaking of origins, what does etymology have to say on the matter?

Let’s get to the bottom of happy and sad.


Happy joins hap and the adjective suffix –y, which denotes ‘having the character of,’ ‘inclined to,’ or ‘consisting of,’ as the ODEE glosses this productive sound.

Early on, happy meant “lucky,” for hap conveyed “chance,” “fortune,” “luck,” and “fate.” Attested in 1200, hap hails from Old Norse happ, which comes from the Proto-Germanic *khapan, in turn from the Proto-Indo-European *kob. This root, meaning “suit,” “fit,” or “succeed,” has cognates in the Old Church Slavonic kobu (fate) and the Czech koba (consequence). Old Enligh’s gehæp kept this ancient sense, signifying “convenient.”

The OED attests happy in the sense of “contentment” in 1477. But the meaning is still “getting lucky,” if you will, in happilyhaplessmishap, happy accident, and happy-go-lucky. And, of course, happen, well, happens.  


Mick Jagger was right on the money when he sang, “I can’t get no satisfaction.” Sad comes down to us from the Old English sæd, which meant “sated”–as in “full”–and indeed is related to the word “sated.” Via Proto-Germanic *sathaz and Proto-Indo-European *seto-, sad ultimately goes back to the root *sa-, “satisfy.” This root gave Latin the same, satis, yielding everything from “satisfy” to “satiate” to “saturate.” 

But how do you go from gluttony to grief?  Sad‘s sense of fullness became a metaphor for “tired” and “grieved” (Skeat) through the centuries, as well as for “steadfast,” “serious,” and “solid” (ODEE). To these, Weekley adds “settled,” “orderly,” and “sober.” Associations of “fullness” to “darkness” likely gave additional fuel to the shift as well. Today’s principal reference to grief is attested in the 14th century.

Cause and Effect 

How do we conceive of happiness today? Do we consider what befalls us luck? Or do we like to think that we have more agency in our happiness, the result of hard work and effort, of rolled-up sleeves and elbow grease? Perhaps its sadness we are more apt to attribute to fate: Not getting the job or the boy/girl was “simply not meant to be,” or how terrible tragedies that defy even our most basic understandings of reason, sense, purpose, and causality.

Next post, we’ll get in touch with more of our feelings: afraid, surprisedangry, and disgusted.

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And the “Oscar” goes (back) to…

It’s hard to snub the spectacle completely, the Oscars. Movies have such a significant standing in America’s cultural, historic, and economic life. Sure, there is gilded excess and celebrity worship. Yes, the Academy has a history of failing not only to award but even nominate great films, directors, actors, writers, and other industry creatives. And too often, movies and cinema culture loom too large in our minds, much like the Hollywood sign, so iconic in our imaginations yet underwhelming in the flesh. But, in an age of fragmentation and multi-tasking, it’s comforting to have a cultural touchstone–to have some sort of conversation and narrative in common with our neighbors.

So, in this spirit, let’s roll out the etymological red carpet for “Oscar.”


Much lore surrounds how the Academy’s statuettes were awarded its sobriquet. I can’t resist quoting the Online Etymology Dictionary’s (concise) account, particularly because of the delightful, matter-of-fact epithet at the end:

The name is said to have sprung from a 1931 remark by Margaret Herrick, secretary at Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, on seeing the statuette: “He reminds me of my Uncle Oscar.” Thus the award would be named for Oscar Pierce, U.S. wheat farmer and fruit grower.

Sorry, uncles and farmers, Oscar‘s origin will humble you. It’s an Old English name, Osgar, which means “God’s spear.” Os, denoting “god” and used in personal names and compounds, comes from a Proto-Indo-European root, *ansu“spirit.” Asgard, Oswald, Osmund, Osborne–all of which I’m predicting will be the hip baby names for boys in 2018–also feature this root. For *ansu-, historical linguists also propose meanings of “breath” and “deity,” reconstructing root verbs, too, of “produce, beget, engender, give birth to.”

I mean, the Oscars celebrate creativity and all, but, let’s be real.

Gar is one of a number of Old English words for “spear.” Roger that? Indeed, Roger that, for the name ultimately means “spear-famous” (Partridge), joining hrod– (fame) and gar. (Old English had a number of consonant clusters–/hw-, hl-, hr-, hn-/–whose initial /h/ has since been lost. The origin of lord and lady are particularly noteworthy on that matter.) This Roger may also be kin to Hrothgar of Beowulf fame, but the facts aren’t firm. The name Robert, however, is a veritable cousin, featuring that same hrod– along with berht, meaning “bright”–so, “bright in fame” (Partridge).

“And the Robert goes to”–now that seems fitting.

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