the food groups, part ii

This post, we pick up on the food groups, looking at dairyprotein, and oils.


Dairy is the kind of word that makes etymology nerds like me jump up and down. It features disguised compounds. When words get smashed together with other words, sounds change and forms change, sometimes making one word look like another, other times burying a compound altogether. As the preeminent etymologist Anatoly Liberman puts it, “compounds tend to deteriorate.”

Dairy is a full-fat example of this.

In Middle English, the word dairy took the form deieriejoining dey (among other forms) and the suffix –ery. Dey first referred to a “female servant.” Later, it meant a “farm servant” and “dairymaid.” The suffix -ery can denote the place of a particular activity, Here, a dairy was originally the room or building “for treating milk and its products” (Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology [ODEE]). Think bakery or laundry for some –ery comparisons.

There is much to unpack in terms of the historic constructions of women and work implied in dey, but, on an etymological level, what’s going?

Dey is from the Old English dæge, a “female servant,” but, literally, it meant a “kneader of bread.” The word is rolled out from the Proto-Germanic *daigjon; the sense of “kneading” is at root. The product of kneading, dough is a cognate. If we knead this *daigjon further, we find a Proto-Indo-European root *dheigh, meaning, according to Jordan Shipley, everything from “knead” and “mix dough” to “shape clay” and “put together.”

Human tongues have shaped some other fascinating forms out of this *dheigh, but we’ll save them for next post.


Protein: the building blocks of life and, as a coinage, an example of one of the building blocks of etymology. In an 1838 article in Bulletin des sciences physiques et naturelles en neerlande, Dutch scientist Gerhard Johan Mulder uses a French formation, protéine, to describe the composition of some organic substances.  Apparently, this word was the suggestion of Jöns Jacob Berzelius, the accomplished Swedish chemist, who is also given credit for polymer and catalysis, among other terms.

So, why protéine? At root is the Greek proteios, “of the first quality,” joining protos (“first”) and the -eios suffix. It was so named as a “primary substance…of material bodies of animals and plants” (Oxford English Dictionary).

Proto- is a member of the big family headed by the Proto-Indo-European *per-, which came to mean everything from “through” and “around” to “before” and “first.” Per-, peri-para-, and pro- may all be familiar prefixes derived from it. They are still productive today.

Our understanding of protein has evolved, to be sure, for now protein is considered one of the three food groups in Orange County, CA. The others being, of course, juice (i.e., blended juices and smoothies) and Starbucks.

Doodle by me. Click to enlarge.


Health advice aside, even etymology is urging you to use olive oil as your cooking oil. For oil, etymologically, is olive oil.

Oil, whose historic spellings are more varied than your choices of olive oil at the grocery store, is from the Old and Middle French oile, pressed from the Latin oleum. It referred to “oil,” thus “olive oil.” Old English had ele, a cognate of oil, but Germanic languages jumped on the Latin oleum food craze, and a new brand, if you will, made it into the pantry.

The Latin oil goes further back to the Greek elaion, the “olive tree” or “olive.” The Romans took elaion up as oliva, hence olive. The Online Etymology Dictionary speculates that the Greek root might be related to the Armenian ewi, “oil,” adopted into Greek from Aegean or Cretan tonuges. Aremenian is indeed an Indo-European language with some kinship to Ancient Greek. Wiktionary seconds this ewi cognate, adding the Old Church Slavonic’s loi, “tallow,” and posits a Proto-Indo-European *loiwom.

Petroleum is literally “rock oil,” joining the Latin petra (rock, via Greek) and oleum (as discussed above). Shipley observes that petroleum was “first extracted from fissures in rock.” Margarine is short for oleomargarine. The oleo- refers to “oil,” of course, and the margarine refers to “margaric acid,” named from the Greek margarites, “pearly,” for the acid’s crystal’s “pearly lustre” (ODEE). And now you know why a Margaret is so named.

Next post, we’ll pick up on *dheighincluding the surprising origins of lady and lord.


the food groups, part i

What’s on your plate? At the Mashed Radish, I hope its lots of…root vegetables. Please throw a tomato at that one. This post–just because–let’s have a taste of the etymology of the major food groups, as defined by the United States Department of Agricultures’ “MyPlate”:

The new food pyramid, courtesy of I think they have something against knives and spoons.

What can I say? Some people can’t resist chocolate. I can’t resist a good info-graphic by an under-appreciated department of federal government.

Conventionally, we speak of five food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy. Fats, oils, and sweets–which I now often see treated together as “oils”–function as a sixth category. So, besides from the ground, where do “fruit,” “vegetable,” and “grains” come from?


Distinguishing between fruits and vegetables can be as spiky as a pineapple rind. Slate‘s Lexicon Valley episode “Legislating Language” will entertain and edify you with a story about a court case where this distinction truly mattered.

Etymologically, it’s a bit simpler, with fruit generally meaning “produce.” English plucked fruit directly from the Old French fruitin turn from the Latin fructuswhich indeed referred to this “produce” as well as “profit” and “satisfaction,” anticipating modern meanings lie the “fruits of one’s labors.”

In many ways, fruit is own metaphor: this fructus is from the verb frui“to enjoy.” A Proto-Indo-European root for “enjoy”–which some scholars reconstruct as *bhrug– and others as *brudh-may well have seeded the word. So, too, the Germanic-based verb brook. This evolved from an original meaning of “use” or “enjoy” to today’s sense of “put up with” and perhaps becoming fast fossilized in the construction brook no –, as in “I will brook no criticisms of our new Greek yogurt policy.”

We also have the Latinate frugal, from a notion of temperate use, and fruition, literally “enjoyment” but conflated with fruit and so thus a figure of “bearing fruit.”


If you don’t like to eat your vegetables, perhaps etymology will inspire your appetite. The Middle French vegetable dished English up its serving, from the post-classical Latin vegetabilis, an adjective that meant “animating” or “vivifying.” This life-giver is a very far cry from its pejorative use today to describe a person with brain damage.

If we dig deeper into the Latin soil, we will find vegetare, “to invigorate,” and vegetus, “lively, energetic.” Here, the Proto-Indo-European base is *weg-, “to be strong,” ultimately giving English wake, watch, and wax through Germanic seeds and vigilvigor, and velocity through Latin ones. Surveillance is a French take on Latin’s vigil.

Mothers wear many hats: they are caregivers, breadwinners, and…etymologists: Eat your vegetables indeed, they will literally make you strong.


The source of grain is the same as corn. American English restricts corn to “maize,” but it still can refer to cereal grains in British English. We can trace grain back through Old French to the Latin granum (think granuleand corn to Germanic root *kurnom or *kurnam. At some point, the Romanic and Germanic forms converge on the Proto-Indo-European *ger-. Jordan Shipley glosses this as “ripen” (from an earlier meaning of “grow old”) while the Oxford English Dictionary focuses on the Sanskrit cognate jr, “to wear down” or “waste away.” If the OED is correct, we may think of grains in reference to agriculture: a “worn down” particle, as the OED comments.

Next post, we will pick up on “protein,” “oils,” and the very interesting “dairy.”



For me, a good word origin is like discovering an Easter egg, hidden in plain sight yet holding a sweet surprise inside. What surprise might the word Easter hold in its shell?


Any hunt for the origin of Easter points back to the Venerable Bede (~672-735). He was an English monk, scholar, and translator. Perhaps his greatest legacy is his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a critical and primary source of knowledge on Anglo-Saxon history. Inter alia, his work did much to elevate the English language as a vehicle of scholarship.

Bede also scratched much velum on cosmology, astronomy, and chronology, and it is on these topics in his De Temporum Ratione, or The Reckoning of Time (ca. 735) where we see the earliest attempt to derive Easter. In a passage attempting to explain the Anglo-Saxon names of the months of the year, Bede writes, as translated from the Latin by Faith Wallis:

Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.  Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.

The opening of Bede’s “De Temporum Ratione.” Image courtesy of the University of Glasgow.

According to Bede, Eostre was an Anglo-Saxon goddess whose festival was celebrated at the vernal equinox. The problem, though, is that we can’t find confirmation of this pagan Eostre elsewhere. But as the Oxford English Dictionary asks, why would Bede invent a god to account for Christian one?

Only German and English use “Easter” to name the Christian festival. European languages–including manyScandinavian ones–use terms derived from Jewish Passover, such as Pascha. You may recognize this in the derivative paschal. This passed into Romance languages from the Latin, before that Greek and Aramaic, and ultimately from the Hebrew, pésakh (or pesah). The root–the triconsonantal root, if you’re familiar with Semitic verb structures–is p-s-ḥ (פסח) and means, in essence, “to pass over”–to jump, to skip (Wiktionary).

Nevertheless, Jacob Grimm–whose impressive and influential career included a comprehensive dictionary of the German language; groundbreaking linguistic research, including his formulation of Grimm’s law; and editing what we refer to as Grimm’s Fairy Tales–puts a lot of eggs in the basket of a Proto-Indo-European goddess of the dawn, *Ostara. He based much of argument on the grounds of linguistic reconstruction and etymological cognates.

New Dawns

While *Ostara is dubious yet possible, Grimm’s hunt doesn’t exactly turn up empty-basketed. For, the Easter cognates point back to a Proto-Germanic *austra-, source of the English east (as in the direction), and further back to Proto-Indo-European *aus“to shineor “clear” and “bright.” They live on in words like Australia, aurora, and the chemical symbol for goldAu (from aurum), all from Latin iterations.

We see, then, at root of Easter, a shining sunrise in the east. For the Easter believers, this Eostre was goddess of spring, of dawn, of fertility, whose festival was celebrated at the vernal equinox.

New beginnings: That’s what all the Easter symbolism–Christian or pagan–is about, isn’t? With its old root, Easter preserves a new dawn, literal and symbolic.



It’s Tax Day in the United States. In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes, and witty quotes about taxes. While attributed in this form to Benjamin Franklin, the earliest iteration goes to a Christopher Bullock in his 1716 The Cobler of Preston(This is not to be confused with Charles Johnson’s rival work of the same year and same name; read Bullock’s preface if you want to jump down a rabbit hole). As Bullock quipped:

‘Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes.

Well, are we at all sure about the origin of the word tax?


Tax first imposed itself upon English in the early 1300s, coming from the French verb taxer and, in turn, the Latin taxare. In Latin, taxare mostly functioned on a figurative level, meaning “to censure” and “reproach” someone with a fault as well as “to rate” or “appraise” the value of something. Here, we can already anticipate its modern meanings dealing with finance and fatigue.

However, taxare literally meant “to touch sharply” or “handle.” It’s a form of the verb tangere, “to touch.” Tangenttangible, tactilecontact, and contagious are all related.

And let’s not forget the tango, perhaps the most sensuous of tangere‘s derivatives.

More specifically, this taxare is a form of tangere known as a frequentative or iterative, an aspect some verbs can take that expresses repeated, intensive, or habitual action. It’s no longer what we call “productive” in English, meaning we’re not really using it to form new words, but a good number of frequentative forms have shown staying power.

Chat a lot? Then you might be chattering. Hear that snap, crackle, and pop of your Rice Krispies? That’s a lot of little cracks. Squirrels climb and clamber, leaks drip and dribble. Wrestlers are engaged in wresting. And your dog is so excited to see you when you get home he piddles on the floor, forming a puddle of piss. All those tweets makes for a lot of twitter.

You can see that the suffixes -le, -er, and/or ablaut (vowel change) were primary mechanisms for the frequentative in English.

So, in tax, how do we go from a touch to a levy? Visit an antiques shop, a clothing store, or, better yet, a guitar seller, and watch buyers inspect and value their wares with fondling fingers. And perhaps the gloss of “touch sharply” gives us a hint of tax as penalty–from appraisals to judgments to being charged with fines.

The original code of tax, if you will permit the overwrought metaphor, is believed to be the Proto-Indo-European *tag-, meaning touch.” (A variant, *tong-, would explain the nasalization we see in Latin’s tangere).

But this *tag– might also have been more aggressive with “grip” and “seize,” which would explain the Greek tassein, which means “seize” but also to “fix,” “arrange,” and “order.” Hence, taxonomy, tactics, and taxidermy:

Here, Hitchock discusses Norman Bates’ macabre “hobby” (and foreshadowing) in Psycho (courtesy of

Taskmasters, Tastemakers, and Taxi Drivers

Some curious derivates of Latin’s taxare include: tasktaste, and taxi. From the French tasque, task–originally a payment paid to a feudal superior or work exacted from a person, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) observes of its use in the late Middle Ages–may have undergone metathesis. Metathesis, recall, is the switching of sounds, as in the pronunciation of ask as ax, which we know Chaucer did. It’s a very common phenomenon in English–and in language and speech as such. This common root also makes tax and task what we call “doublets.”

Taste originated as “the act of touch” (OED) but referred to what we now think of as the sense of taste by the mid-1300s. Rooted in Latin’s taxare, it was also likely influenced by gustare (taste). Taste-buds, I thought I’d share, were once known as taste-goblets.

A taxi is short for a taxicab, itself short for a taximeter cab. The earliest attestation of taximeter (from the French for, essentially, “tariff meter”) is the German taxamon from around 1875 (OED).

So, after you have filed your taxes (or have extended that task for a later date), have a taste of wine–er, gulp–but be sure to hail a taxi if you need to get home.



Fast Mash: On “Weird”

  • Weird comes from the Old English, wyrd, which originally meant “fate” or “destiny”
  • It is related to Old English verb weorthan (“to become”) and the suffix -ward (as in forward)
  • It is of Germanic origin, and at root is probably Proto-Indo-European *wer- (“to turn”; cf. verse)
  • Shakespeare’s “weird sisters” in Macbeth is attributed with fueling its shift from “fate” to “uncanny”

In the first act of Macbeth, as the Three Witches are a-fouling and a-fairing their prophecies, they all dance in a ring and chant:

The weird sisters hand in hand,

Posters of the sea and land,

Thus do go about, about,

Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,

And thrice again to make up nine.

Peace! The charm’s wound up. (I.3.30-35)

Macbeth & Banquo meet the Weird Sisters. From the Holinshed Chronicles (see below), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I think we’ve all felt this way about sisters–or multiplication tables, for that matter–at one point or other, but these sisters are weird in more ways than one. See, weird is, well, a weird and wonderful example of how the meaning of a word can change.

It’s Getting Wyrd

Old English had wyrd, a noun that meant “fate” or “destiny.” Pronounced something like the rounded, French u this y would have made the word sound more like word than its descendant weird.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) earliest attestation of wyrd is around 725, referring to “the Fates, three goddesses supposed to determine the course of human life.” The Three Witches are also known as the Weird Sisters because they were the Fate Sisters. Shakespeare is known to have drawn from Raphael Holinshed’s 1587 Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland for the historical Macbeth, including “the weird sisters,” although the bard no doubt made them his own, too, with his conjury.

(In the First Folio, the English major in me must note, the text presents weyward for weirdlikely riffing on wayward, which he liked to use. (I know this because Shakespeare told me. Through the years, as the OED documents, wyrd was represented as weyrd and weyard, so wayward‘s influence on weird is understandable.)

This trope of three, fate-wielding women taps into a significant archetype in Western mythology. The Greeks had the Moirai, the Romans had the Parcae, and the Norse the Norns.

These Norns were Urðr, Verðandi, and Skuld. The name of the first, Urðr, also meant “fate”–literally, “that which has come (to be)”–and is cognate to the Old English wyrd. So is Verðandi; it means “that which will come (to be).” Skuld, it turns out, is related to the English “shall,” with its meaning of “that which should be.”

Ludwig Berger’s 1882 Norns beneath the Yggdrasil tree, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Twisting and Turning

The English wyrd shares the lexical life of the Norns, literally signifying “that which comes (to be).” And behind this notion of “coming to be” is, we think, a Proto-Indo-European root, *wer-, meaning “to turn, twist, bend.”

This twisting and turning lives on in a great number of words. According to Jordan Shipley, *wer– assumed various forms that have become, in English, everything from virgin and vermiform to verse, vertebrate, and the huge family of words featuring –vert-/-version (e.g., convert). We shouldn’t forget English’s own clan of words featuring the suffix –ward and -wards (Old English: -weard). As Eric Partridge comments on –ward, “The endings connote a turning, a being turned, in the direction denoted by the precise element.”  He lists: backward, downward, forward, homeward, inward, rearward, toward, upward, and, appropriately enough, wayward.

Why is there toward and towards? The s in the latter form is leftover over from the genitive (possessive case) ending in Old English. So, this –ward would have been -weardesTypically, the –ward words are adjectival, while the –wards adverbial, but this is not a strict distinction and one that is increasingly breaking down.

You Can’t Turn Back Now

As we saw in the above discussion of the names of the Norns, Germanic languages ended up using *wer– and its metaphor of turning for a common verb for “to become.” In Old English, it the verb was weorthan, which survives as a kind of vestige in expressions like woe worth the day–woe becomes, befalls, or betides the day.

I’d speculate that the guiding principle here is a notion of directionality, a you-can’t-turn-back-now on-the-course-ness, the inevitability and destination of -ward–all being wrapped into ideas of becoming. Any fan of The Walking Dead will be familiar the idea: “He’s turned,” viz., he’s become a zombie. Indeed, English regularly uses the “turn” and “turn into” to convey “becoming.”

 Worth, as in “worth a lot of money,” from Old English weorþ, might also come from this root *wer-, perhaps on the grounds of value as the kind of equivalency implied by “becoming.” Worship, featuring a meaning of weorþ as honorable, joins this word with the suffix –scipe, as in “friendship.” So, worship originally is a condition of being worthy, shall we say, of worship.

From Destiny to the Everyday

So, if the Weird Sisters were the Fate Sisters, this weird was originally an adjective form of weird describing someone or something that has the power to control the fate or destiny of human beings, to paraphrase the OED. But, as Ernest Klein observes, “the sense of ‘uncanny’ arose from a misunderstanding of the real meaning of the adjective weird, in the term weird sisters (the Fate Sisters), applied to the Norns.”

The misunderstanding–or “folkchange,” as Shipley more aptly calls is–understandable. Given its “currency” in Macbeth (OED), the association of weird with fate and concomitant mythology weakens, as what is most salient about the weird sisters is their odd, strange, and frightening nature.

Interestingly, the OED gives other literary giants–Shelley and Keats–the citation for the shift from fateful to frightful. Shelley describes the unusual appearance of “weird clouds” in 1816 and a “weird cave,” suggestive of the supernatural, in 1817. In 1820, Keats writes of “weird syrops” to paint their oddness.

Today, weird may not evoke “destiny,” but, aside from a general adjective for “strange” or “unusual,” whether of events or persons, it lives a fulfilling life, if my ears are any measure, as a go-to  commentary that signals acknowledgement, much in the way of awesomeinteresting, or crazy in their everyday contexts

Coworker: It turns out my mom is a third cousin of the creator of the game Monopoly.

You: Huh. That’s weird.

It’s really not that weird, but that’s not the point. One idea, expressed by a word, gets likened to another. We use it in a new way; we change it. We exaggerate, we overuse, we dilute. Though far away from its original meaning of “fate,” weird is no less powerful. It’s just different, a little weird, if you will. And I love this about the word.



The custom of April Fools’ Day has been traced to changes in calendars, Roman festivals, and that spring spirit in the air. Finding the true origin of April Fools’ Day may well be a fool’s errand, but what do we know about the origin of the word fool? It turns out its etymology is up to a bit of tomfoolery of its own.


Sometime in the 13th century, English picked up fool from the French fol, a variant of fou, which meant “fool,” but more so in an earlier sense of “madman.”  This French fou, in turn, is from–where else–Latin, which had follis, variously meaning “bag, sack, punching bag, inflated ball, bellows,” and “moneybag.” In the plural, it could denote “puffed-out cheeks.”

The principal senses–”bag” and “sack”–explain English words like follicle. Follis had a diminutive form, folliculuswhich is more directly behind this follicle.

But it’s the windier meanings like “bellows” or “puffed-out cheeks” that suggest the jump to fool. Walter Skeat focuses on folles, the plural form of follis: “puffed cheeks,” he writes, “whence the term was easily transferred to a vain or foolish person.” OK. Perhaps the connection isn’t quite so transparent, Walter.

In their etymological dictionary of  French, Emmanuele Baumgartner and Phillippe Ménard may help us spell out this transference. They point out “des divagations du fou avec celles d’un ballon gonfle d’air.” To paraphrase, the ramblings of a madman are like a bag of air. Later in the life of Latin, follis itself came to signify a “windbag,” according to the ODEE, making a fool a kind of “empty-headed person.”

Ernest Weekley gets a little more colorful, shall we say, in his etymology, which focuses on a different kind of sack and ball. He, too, notes the senses of “bellows” and “windbag” in Latin, but proposes a more specific sense of “scrotum.” First bracket and codpiece, now fool and scrotum? For this, he cites by way of analogy the Italian coglione, meaning “fool” and “little testicle,” as well as Latin, gerro, “fool,” Sicilian for “pudendum.” As far as my research goes, Weekley is alone in this etymology.

Ernest Klein adds another part of the body to the picture of follis, “stomach,” as well as “wind cushion.” These may not enrich our specific understanding of the fool metaphor, but they do fill out the notion of follis as a hollow, bag-like object that can fill up with air. Klein traces follis back to the Proto-Indo-European *bhol-nis, a derivative of *bhel, “to swell.” Joseph Shipley adds flowing” and “flowering” to the root, making it the origin of a great body of words, from ball to belly to bowl, not to mention words like flower and phallus. We’ve seen this root before in my post on the bowl in “Super Bowl.

From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

If we let analogy guide us, we might explore around the 14th-century meaning of fool, “jester” or “clown,” pointing us to the culture of professional fools in the Middle Ages through the Renaissance. Perhaps the source of buffoon can teach us something, passed down as it is from French via the Italian buffone, “jester,” from buffa, “jest,” derived from buffare, “to puff.” (We can imagine how the sound buff imitates the action.) As Weekley notes, this puffing is probably “with allusion to cheeks puffed out in grimacing.”

Have you ever made faces at a baby? Say, puffed out your cheeks, trilled your lips, blew out the air? I suppose we’ve all played the fool. Literally. And we’ve all been played by the fool–the wise fool, speaking of court jesters.

Etymologically, wind is associated with madness, but also with divine inspiration. Sanskrit has vatula, variously glossed as “windy,” “affected by wind disease,” and “mad.” In other, related forms, it may well mean “enlightened.”

Old English, too, had wod, which replaced “mad” in meaning and form. (I covered mad recently, too, if you’d like to learn more.) It may well derive from the Proto-Indo-European *wet-, “to blow” but also “to inspire.” It has come interesting cognates: the Old Norse oðr (related to the name of the god Odin), “poetry”; Old Irish faith, “poet”; and the Latin, vates, “prophet, seer” (Vatican is not related). We might remember, too, Latin’s afflatus, referring to a state of divine inspiration, literally, “blown upon,” featuring that same Proto-Indo-European root, *bhel-.

The ramblings of madmen, prophets–the Old Testament had some lessons about this, right? Pity the fool? Perhaps more like pay attention to the fool.