Married, wedded, knot tied, vows exchanged, “hereby” issued, hitched. Yes, I got hitched, and nothing says “newlywed bliss” quite like an etymology.

If we go back to Middle English, to hitch was “to move by jerks” (Skeat), “raise with a jerk,” (Weekley), or “move jerkily” (Partridge, ODEE). It was said especially of pants and trousers. Hike, as in hike up your pants,” is related. This hitch was adapted to nautical environments, describing fastening and referring more specifically to catching something with a loop or jerking a rope around an object, thereby causing an obstruction. Hence the expression to go off without a hitch. This notion of fastening was later applied to equine needs, as teams of horses were hitched together. To hitch horses together was, so it goes, a way of saying two people got along. In his Dictionary of Americanisms (1859), Bartlett spells out “to hitch horses” a little more compellingly, if in the negative:

It is a common expression, when persons do not agree, to say ‘they don’t hitch horses together.’ Men who do not agree will not stop at the same house or tavern, or will not hitch their horses at the same stake. It is also contracted into ‘do not hitch horses together,’ and still further into, ‘do not hitch.’

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, there is evidence that this metaphor of hitching was said of married couples as early as 1837, with the expression “to get hitched” attested in 1844. (I, for one, find it interesting the sense is preserved in a sort of middle voice.)

Whence the Middle English hitch? Some cite the Middle English icchen, “to move jerkily,” where the trail ends; others look to variants in hatch and hotch. Partridge focuses on the latter, positing the Middle High German hotzen, “to shake.” Weekley also focuses on hotch, but connects it first to the French hocher, “to shake,” as in hocher la tete, “to nod the head.” This hocher, he says, is also behind the first element in hodgepodge. With an earlier form of hotchpotch, a hodgepodge was once a kitchen-sink sort of stew but earlier said “of lumping property before division (? by shaking up names in a pot).” The original French was hochepot, “soup,” with the sense, I’m guessing, that one continues to stir certain soups so it doesn’t settle. Whatever the case, Weekly goes on, like Partridge, to link the French hocher to the Germanic hotzen, source also of hustle, a “shaking” of money in a cap.

Hustle? Hodgepodge? Hitch? I’ll stick with another h word: honeymoon. The Mashed Radish will be back in June.

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*gno- (part i)

Mid twentieth-century Objectivist poet George Oppen, known for his populist and phenomenological concerns, writes in section 31 of his masterpiece, Of Being Numerous:

Oppen, "Of Being Numerous"
Oppen, “Of Being Numerous.” New Directions Books.

Indeed, there is a lot going on here. But there is more to Oppen’s connection between knowledge and nobility than a poetic, perceptual, and epistemological one. There is an etymological one.

I’m not trying to be cunning in making this uncanny connection, even if it could seem a bit academically uncouth, abnormal, or even a bit quaint. But I can, I’ll have you note, and I don’t think it’s beyond your ken (and you’re pretty keen), so I’ll narrate so, for all these words are cognate to know.


Last post, we looked at the surprising origin of the suffix –lock. We entertained, too, the possibility that the suffix explains the second part of the word knowledge. The first part, of course, is know. What do we know about know?

Old English had cnaw, Proto-Germanic had *knew-, and Proto-Indo-European *gno- and *gen-, among other base variations. The root is simple: It means “to know,” but, boy, did it go on to accomplish a lot. I can’t pretend to be exhaustive, so here are some highlights.


Let’s start with the can family, descended down the Germanic branch of *gno- and yielding, ultimately, can, couldcunninguncouth, cannyken, con, and keen:

  • Can, as in, “Yes we can,” is a widespread Germanic word and took the form cunnan in Old English. Now, it’s a modal auxiliary verb but is rooted in the sense of “to have learned” and “to come to know,” thus “to be able.” It is connected to *gno- and *gen– via “to know how” to do something.
  • Could is technically the past tense of can but also expresses indefinite possibilities. In Old English, the past tense of cunnan was cuðe, and the l came about by analogy to words like would and should in the 16th century.
  • Some cite cunningoriginally meaning “learning” or “widsom,” now a noun and adjective naming sly skill and artfulness–as the present participle of cunnan (think run and running), though the Oxford scholars link it to the Old Norse kunnandi. Old Norse has kunna, “to know,” a close cousin of can.
  • Cunnan‘s past participle was cuð, meaning “known” or “familiar.” It became couth, which really only survives in the negative, uncouth, which evolved from “unknown” to “unsual” to “awkward” to “unrefined.” A clipped version, unco, is Scottish and Northern English.
  • Canny comes to us from Scottish English. Among other meanings, it started out as “cautious” and “sagacious” and came to mean “clever” and “gentle.” It corresponds to cunning, and is an adjective (and occasional adverb) formed off of can using the –y suffix. We know it best in the form of uncanny, which evolved from “malicious” to “unsafe” to “weird.” There’s also the Scottish English ca’canny, joining ca’ (clipped from call, which could mean “to drive” or “proceed”) and canny; so, “to drive carefully.” It came to mean “to work slowly.”
  • Ken, which I’d guess is becoming fast frozen in the phrase “beyond my ken,” was “to make known” in Old English. It’s technically a causative form of cunnan. As a verb, it survives in Scottish English. It was also once a nautical term for “range of sight,” measuring distances at sea. Kenning, if you’ve ever studied Beowulf, is related.
  • Con may evoke con artists or conventions, but it is also an obscure verb meaning “to learn” or “study.” It is from a variant of cunnan.
  • Old English had cene, meaning “brave,” “wise,” and “fierce.” Later, it described a sharp edge or taste, going on as metaphor to mean “acute” and “enthusiastic.”And it has given English keen. It’s quite the word. Eyesight can be keen. So can blades and minds. Interests can be keen, as can be sensory experiences. We’re not certain, but Germanic cognates and roots along with an old connection between bravery and skill point back to that Proto-Germanic root of *gno-, kunnan, “to know.”

Ability, possibility, craftiness, appropriateness, vision, learning, all kinds of sharpness–none of these are possible, *gno- teaches us, without knowledge.

In part 2, we’ll pick up with what Latin did with *gno-, and, in turn, all the fun we’ve had with it.

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In a few short weeks, I’ll be married. So, naturally, wedlock has been on my mind. Literally, the word wedlock has been making my fingers flip through dictionaries. OK, I’ll admit this transition is a bit inelegant, but, rest assured, etymology does have its romantic side.

Specifically, I’m interested in the second half of the word: –lock. What’s going on with it?


First, the –lock in wedlock has nothing to do with the kind of locks we need keys for. Undoubtedly such locks do inform our understanding of wedlock, though. Two persons, bonded together, locked without a key…I mean, sealed and united together for a lifetime. This association is folk etymology but exerts its influence nonetheless.

Second, –lock is a dead suffix, once but no longer productive in the English language. It meant “action,” “proceedings,” or “practice,” and took the form of –lac in Old English. Essentially, it was a noun-former, functioning somewhat like -ing, –ness, or -ation. And it is probably from the Old English noun lac: “play” and “sport,” with ancillary meanings of “strife” and “sacrifice” as well as “gift.” Wiktionary adds “ritual.”

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes that it appears in a dozen or so compounds in Old English, but only “wedlac survives with altered meaning.” OK, OED, let’s have some fun with Old English:

  • Brydlac – “nupitals, marriage ceremony,” with bryd the source of “bride”
  • Beadolac, feohtlac, and heaðlac – all referring to warfare (bead, “battle”; feoht, “action of fighting” and origin of “fight”; and the Game of Thrones-ian heað, “to raise” or “extol”) 
  • Hæmedlac and wiflac – both refer “carnal intercourse” (hæmed meant “fornication” and wif is the source of “wife”)
  • Neaflac – “robbery”
  • Wedlac – “pledge-giving, espousal,” with wed originally referring to a “pledge” or “wager” (I’ll save that for another day)
  • Witelac – “punishment, torture, fine,” with wite meaning, essentially, the same
  • Wrohtlac – “blame,” the meaning of wroht

You promised me 12, OED, and I counted 10. As noted, lac could also mean “gift,” and so we see freolac, a voluntary religious offering, and sælac, literally a “sea-gift,” some kind of a present or spoil given from the sea. In freolac, we have freo, the source of “free.” In sælac, we can see the “sea.”

Perhaps, though, wedlock is not alone in its vestigial –lac. What might keeping it company? Knowledge.

Ironically, we don’t know knowledge as well as you’d think, not to mention its complicated relationship to acknowledge. Obviously, knowledge is a compound, composed of know and, well, the second part. In Old English, the word was cnawlecce. You might see how cnaw became know, from the prolifically prolific Proto-Indo-European root *gno-. Cancunning, coulduncouth are all cognate, to name an oh so short, English few.

The –lecce? We don’t know. Walter Skeat argues that it is akin to the very -lac we see in wedlock. The OED considers this as well, though holding out its close cousins –laik and –leche as possibilities. These options may be academic, though, because the evidence seems to point back to the fact the English –lac likely corresponds to the Old Norse leikr, meaning “game, sport, contest.”

We do know, though, that the transformation of –che to –dge is something also displayed in partridge and sausage, for whatever it’s worth.

First Dance

Speaking of knowledge, do we know anything else about this –lac? Connections can be made, through the Old Norse leikr mentioned above, to “various Indo-European verbs applied to activities such as playing, leaping, springing, dancing, fighting.” Other scholars see connections to words for dancing and singing hymns.

Ultimately, these verbs–possibly including the verb, like, you know, like and the suffix –ly–may go back to the Proto-Indo-European *leig- or *loig-, meaning, variously, “jump, hop, tremble, bounce,” and “shake.” It’s unclear whether it’s causative–”to shake” or “cause to shake,” but these distinctions blur and merge, ultimately–but what we’re  getting at here is the basics, anyways.

Our language–and in my book, our thought–is a thing of nouns and verbs, of objects and actions. While stuffed with abstractions like suffixes such as –lock, these are handy shortcuts for those base metaphors that I like to fancy is our more essential human experience in the world. See Spot run. It’s simple but it’s beautiful: This running is conceptualized, almost Platonically, as Action, associated with core efforts like playing and fighting; the linguistic mind, the human mind, transformed it into a portable, modular bundle of meaning.

It’s magical, these words are. Like demerlayk, a now obsolete word meaning “magic,” “the practice of the occult art,” and “the art of jugglery,” featuring a kin form of –lac and what was originally gedwimere, a “juggler” or “sorcerer.”

And yet nothing could seem more essential. So, see Spot run. And play. And jump. And dance. And get married. And research and write word origins. It’s simple but beautiful.

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one year

I am not one for posting on consecutive days, but today marks one year since I first launched this curious endeavor. I looked through all the many words I mashed up these 365 days–86 focal words, to be precise–and it indeed tells a story.

Chicken Swamp Hostage Doozy Afraid Protein
Egg Summer Gnarly Jolly Surprised Oil
Spring Estivate Socks Champion Angry Paradise
Win Edify Cardinal Dream Disgusted Lady
Tornado Citrus Aloha Bully Crisis Fiction
Wreak Self Typhoon Bowl Turmoil Derby
Havoc Other Burger Skate Mad
Ocean Risk Turkey Ski Bracket
Bay Bask Fall Luge Fool
Creek Fathom Autumn Sleigh Weird
Gulf Knot Aardvark Curling Taxes
Lake League Winter Hockey Easter
Marsh Plumb Christmas Monger Fruit
River Breakfast End Oscar Vegetable
Sea Lunch Young Happy Grain
Stream Dinner Old Sad Dairy

From one angle, it tells my story, beginning the project in Minneapolis and continuing on in Laguna Beach, California, with new work and adventures along the way, with sundry interests and concerns riddling the post week after week. From another angle, it tells our story, with words inspired by news that broke throughout the year or prompted by the very events we use to measure our lives year after year. And from yet another angle, I like to think it tells (a very small part of) our broader, human story, glimpsing ever so briefly into how we perceive, structure, and communicate our thoughts, our lives, our worlds through words and their changing meanings.

What is year, anyways? Year is a from the Old English gear (“year”). The Oxford English Dictionary can date it before 960. It many Germanic cousins all descended from a Proto-Germanic *jeram or *jærom, meaning the same. Other cognates include the Greek horasource of Latin hora, French hore, and English hour. The Greek hora meant “season” or “part of the year” as well as “part of the day,” hence, ultimately, hour.

Eastern European cognates are “spring.” So, originally, Earnest Weekley maintains, a year was probably “spring” or “turn of the year.”

One of my favorite parts of tracing these etymologies is not only the little insights I stumble upon in the roots of words, but the little discoveries and connections many of my sources make in their entries. For year, take Eric Partridge’s on hora: 

L[atin] ‘hora’ derives from Gr[eek] ‘hora,’ a season, hence a period of the day, an hour, whence ‘Horai,’ the three goddesses presiding over the seasons of the year, whence also the [compound] ‘horoskopos,’ lit[erally] ‘hour-surveyor,’… that part of a zodiacal sign which comes above the horizon at a given moment, hence a diagram that, showing the twelve signs in position, enables astrologers to predict a person’s life…

Huh, right?

Directly, historical linguistics reconstruct a Proto-Indo-European *jer or *yer for year and meaning the same, but a possible, deeper Proto-Indo-European origin is in ei (“to go”) might explain year as “that which goes” or “that which passes.” (This little verb lives on in everything from exit to ion to sudden.)  What could be more basic, more essential, more appropriate? Indeed, I go on.

Thanks to you, my readers, followers, commenters, and retweeters, who’ve chased many an etymological rabbit down the hole with me in this period. I am not one to get too personal either, but special thanks, too, to my fiancée, who I get to call my wife later this month, for putting up with my many hours with my head in dictionaries and fingers at the keyboard.

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Normally, the Mashed Radish begins with a word or theme and wanders its way back to its ancient root. In a recent post, though, I got excited by *dheigh, the Proto-Indo-European root that gave English the now obsolete dey, “female servant,” which lives on, though in hiding, in dairy. So, this post, let’s switch it up. As we saw, this *dheigh was also balled up into the English “dough.” But there’s more to the root: What are some of the other interesting creations that Indo-European languages baked out of *dheigh?

I’ll stick to my favorite three: paradise, lady, and fiction.

First, real quick, let’s revisit this asterisk in front of *dheigh and other roots. It means the root is hypothetical. We have no records of Proto-Indo-European: no documents, no recordings of speech. So, historical linguistics look at all the evidence they do have–comparing forms across documentation of German, Gothic, Latin, Sanskrit, say–to reconstruct their best guess at what the root should be based on these comparisons.


What’s paradise mean to you? A tropical island, a quiet cabin hidden in the forest, a Parisian penthouse? Try “an enclosed park” or “garden.” The word comes from the Old Persian, pairidaeza, and is made up of two components: pairi, “around,” is cognate to the prefixes per-peri-, and para-, which we’ve seen in “proto,” and daeza, “wall.” At the base of this daeza is the Proto-Indo-European *dheigh, a verb that means “to form,” “mould,” or “shape,” originally out of clay. The word passed into the Greek as paradeisos, as Weekley notes:

The G[reek] word, first in Xenophon, is used of a Persian enclosed park, and was adopted by LXX in [the Old Testament] for Garden of Eden, and in [the New Testament] for abode of the blessed, which is the oldest E[nglish] sense.

The LXX refers to the Septuagint, or the Greek Old Testament, translated from the Hebrew into Greek in the 3rd century BCE. In English, the Oxford English Dictionary attests a form of paradise before 1180, indeed referring to “the abode of Adam and Eve before the Fall, the garden of Eden.” Around the same time, the word was coming to refer to conceptions of heaven, and by the 1300s, its uses were already being extended to broader metaphors.

The descendants of *dheigh are ancient and sturdy. Old Irish had dehah for “body” (“that which is formed”). Tocharian had tseke for “statue.” Old Persian also had dida for “castle.”  Armenian made it into “pile,” Russian into “baker’s trough,” and Lithuanian into “cudgel.” Many were the “walls,” such as what Greek and Avestvan formed of the root.

From the mundane to the metaphysical, the quotidian to the sacred, from gardens to kitchens, *dheigh is a wall that won’t fall down.


What do you think of as a lady? A generic term for the female sex? A derogatory one? Maybe Victorian notions of refinement or more literary ideals come to mind? But what about bread?

Originally, lady was hlaefdige. Literally, hlaefdige was “loaf-kneader.” In Old English, it was a compound, joining hlaef (loaf, bread) and dige (related to dey, “maid,” and dough). Is that all a woman was to the Anglo-Saxons?! Well, a lord, in the same way, was hlaefweard, “loaf-keeper,” with the second element related to ward, as in a “guard.” In my book, it takes a lot more muscle to knead bread than it does to watch over those who eat it, so lady is the true “bread”-winner.

But what happened to the word? Where did all those sounds go? As the Oxford English Dictionary observes, the ae sound became shortened, the dige was reduced to di (remember, the g was more like a y), and the f switched to a v and became buried by the d.  Then, the first syllable became long due to the Great Vowel Shift. And voila! We end up with lady, disguised compounds and all.


Want to write the next great novel? The next Moby Dick or UlyssesI suggest you use Play-doh. See, fiction goes back to the Latin, fingere, “to shape” or “fashion,” and, originally, “to model in clay” or “knead bread.” Its past participle was fictus, shaped into “fictio,” a “feigning” or “invention,” direct source of fiction. Related is fictile, meaning “made of clay” or “able to be shaped.” Related also is figura–”shape,” “body,” “form”–and source of the English figure, whether of number, thought, or physique.

Or perhaps Harry Potter is more your style: indeed, a figulus was a potter.

By the end of the 1500s, fiction in the literary sense is attested.

The Primordial Act

Paradise, lady, and fiction: Three words whose form and meaning suggest they have utterly nothing common. But through etymology, we witness that primordial act, the shaping of form. Making–making buildings, cooking food, creating art, forming identities. We see, too, that primordial act of language, that great engine of language change, that great mechanism of etymology: metaphor. Hidden *dheigh may be, but transformed we should consider it, like clay into walls and pots, like dough into bread. At the Mashed Radish, that’s my garden, my paradise–the root, the original metaphor.

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In 1780, the 12th Earl of Derby instituted an annual horse race at the Epsom Downs near Epsom, England. It was called the Epsom Derby, so named from his title. This earldom is so named, of course, for Derby, the shire or town in England. For my readers outside of the UK, Derby is well north of London and Epsom is a bit south of the capital. So, the race was not run in Derby but is named, ultimately, after Derby.

Ready for a ride and race, the 12th Earl of Derby. Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.

Stateside, the derby lives on most famously in the Kentucky Derby. Indeed, Epsom Downs notes more than 140 races worldwide have adopted the toponym–not to mention the borrowings seen in roller derbies and demolition derbies. The Kentucky Derby itself is famous for its hats, although the derby hat, American English for the bowler hat, is no longer at the peak of its popularity, if you will.

Magritte’s “The Son of Man,” a derby-donned self-portrait. Image courtesy http://www.renemagritte.org.

The bowler is named for the surname of its creator, so why the US usage of derby that emerges in the 19th century? Etymologists speculate that the derby is perhaps named for those worn by the “famous sportsmen, the Earls of Derby” (Partridge) at the races.


Whence the name Derby?

The jury is out, but their verdict favors that Derby comes from the Old English Deorby (also recorded as Deoraby, and much later, the variant Darby). If this is so, the place name may be a compound of deor (“deer”) and by, from the Scandinavian byr, a “village” or “town.” You might recognize this by in bylaw, a local law, from the Old Norse. By the by, the preposition by was also used in place names, so the English by and Scandinavian by experienced some cross-influence.

If we hunt down deer further, we find generic Germanic roots for “animal.” If we run deeper into the woods, we find the Proto-Indo-European *dheusom, “breathing creature.” The base *dheu is hypothesized to mean “breath,” “smoke,” and “dust.” By‘s way goes back to a Germanic root *bu, “to dwell,” related to the Proto-Indo-European *bheu, “to dwell, “to grow,” and that be-all and end-all, “to be.”

So, if you’re at the Derby, live it up. No, literally, live it up and enjoy the Kentucky “Breath-Be.” OK, I might be chomping at the etymological bit, but run with it, will you?

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