Bongo Bongo

If you’re a fan of the Mashed Radish, you’ll definitely want to fire up some episodes of Bongo Bongo.

Magnet Media brought to my attention Bongo Bongo, a weekly web series from PBS Digital Studios whose host and writer,  Ethan Fixell explores “the etymology and cultural impact of popular words we use.” (You had me at PBS.) It airs every Tuesday, and its most recent show heats up on the origin of “fire”:


It’s a fun, frenetic, and info-stuffed four to five minutes with a big and busy personality. But don’t try to keep up and take notes. Simply enjoy Ethan’s colorful associations, goofy humor, and actual treatment of the word’s history. I especially appreciate the show’s refreshing assumption of  your intelligence and curiosity.



Ruble. Doodle by me.
Ruble. Doodle by me.

Some etymologies drive the point home perfectly–and others have a way of bringing it all together.

Such is the case with the word loot, which has surfaced–and I think in an insidiously racialized manner–amid the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. Its origin, however, is far, far away from the American Midwest.


Loot derives from the Hindi lut, meaning “spoil,” “booty,” or “plunder,” and was taken into English as a result of British colonialism in the Indian subcontinent.

The word is first attested in 1788 in a glossary of Indian words–The Indian vocabulary: to which is prefixed the Forms of impeachment. It was designed to aid Englishmen in understanding native words used in the impeachment of a British governor, William Hastings, accused of corruption in his post in India.

It’s attested again in 1839 in the erstwhile British publication Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine:

The annals of the Pindarry war show how easily a marauding force, held together solely by the hope of spoil, is collected in India. The famous freebooting leader, Ameer Khan (lately dead), on being asked how he contrived to keep together the various tribes and religions found in the ranks of his motley followers, said that he always found the talismanic gathering-word ‘Loot’ (plunder), a sufficient bond of union in any part of India; and in those devastating hordes of cavalry, the Cossacks and Bashkirs would find a similarity not only in habits and pursues, but even in name, the term Cosak being in common use throughout the north of India to indicate a predatory horseman.

Putting aside the rather invidious characterization of indigenous populations, the passage describes one, Amir Khan, a Pathan freebooter in northern India who wielded control over an army of tribal mercenaries. Often commissioned by allies, he would sic his soldiers on enemies, securing their services through the promise of loot–the spoils of war. Khan eventually surrendered to British forces. And, as the author points out, Cossack should indeed evoke the horseback militiamen in southern Russia/Ukraine: They take their name from the Turkish kazak, “free man” or “wanderer.” Kazakhstan is cognate. But we’ll get back to Russia in a moment.


Another Anglo-Indian glossary–this one the famed, 1886 Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursivegives us a little more information on this lut.

According to it, the Hindi lut is taken from its parent language, the Sanskrit lotra, meaning “to rob.” A variant, loptra, is suggested, as well as the word lunt. Lotra, in turn, is from the Sanskrit root lup or rup, “to break.” Other colloquial terms included looty and lootiewallah for “plunderer.”

From here, historical linguistics point us back to the Proto-Indo-European *reup-, “to snatch.” And this root has been much in the news, so to speak.

A volcanic eruption appears imminent in Iceland and clashes are erupting in Africa over Ebola quarantines. Erupt is ultimately from the Latin rumpere (like lup/rup, “break,” “burst,” “split”), traced back to *reup-Interrupt, corrupt, and bankrupt, among others, are also so derived.  

Russian convoys in Ukraine have been disruptive (another example), to say the least. More sanctions were threatened to hurt their rubles. Indeed, ruble is also believed to be from *reup-, from a Slavic root for “hew” or “chop,” referring to the way specific amounts of currency were historically cut off from silver bars.

And many are still feeling bereaved over the death of Robin Williams. Bereave–and its base, reave–are from a Germanic iteration of *reup- for “rob.” Via a French borrowing, rob itself is derived from this as well.

Maybe all this makes you just want to surrender to your bathrobe. But you might want to rip that off, too. Like robrobe is French via the same Germanic root for rob, here referring to “clothes taken as booty.” And rip? Yep, that’s ultimately from *reup-, too.

Ah! What are we to do? Perhaps play with your dog Rover or sate your curiosity and marvel at the astonishing feat of the Mars Rover? Nope. It’s inescapable. Via a Dutch term for “sea-robber” or “pirate,” rover, cognate to reave, is also looted from that same Proto-Indo-European *reup-.

We got a lot of loot out of *reup-.

 m ∫ r ∫


Sometimes etymologies just drive home the point perfectly.

Ferguson, Missouri is named for one, William B. Ferguson, who allowed a railroad to go through his land in 1855. A train depot thereafter built there was named for him as part of the deal. The city–and now central station of an urgent debate on police militarization and racial inequality in the United States–grew from there.

This debate–this unrest–has thrust words like protest, curfew, and loot into my etymological spotlight. But perhaps it’s the origin of Ferguson itself that is most illuminating.


Ferguson is a Scottish surname. It’s Gaelic in origin, meaning “son of Fergus.” Fergus (or Fearghus) is a given name that combines two words. The first component, fer, means “man.” The second, gus, means “strength” or “ability.”

Fer has many friends, such as Latin’s vir (“man”), source of English virile and virtue, among others. It lives on, too, in world–and in the first part of werewolf–from its Old English iteration, wer.

At root is the Proto-Indo-European *wi-ro-, meaning, as I’m sure you’ve deduced, “man.” As the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD) comments: “The reconstructed word *wi-ro-, a derivative of *the root weiə-, ‘to be vigorous,’ was used especially of men in their capacity as warriors or as slaves. (Slaves were often captured warriors.)”

Gus has also kept good company. We saw it before in disgust. The base is the Proto-Indo-European *geus-, with the curious dual meanings of taste” and “choose.” Choose and choice are descendants, as we saw, down the Germanic line, while the Italic route yielded gusto and gustatory. 

In the case of Fergus, it features the Celtic *gustu-, used in personal names. So, Fergus, the AHD observes, means “having the strength of men,” via Old Irish gus for “strength.”

So, Fergus is literally “man-strength.”  And the question Ferguson, Missouri is asking us is, in many ways, what really constitutes “having the strength of men”?

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A Review of Punctuation..?

I was recently delighted to receive in the mail a copy of Punctuation..?, an illustrated guide to punctuation marks, published in 2012 by UK book designer, User design. At 35 pages, it concisely treats 23 distinct punctuation marks, from the everyday comma to the more arcane interpunct (inter·punct).

Punctuation..? (2012, User design). Image courtesy of User design.
Punctuation..? (2012, User design). Image courtesy of User design.

If at times imperfect, its explanations are accessible and helpful. Its illustrations are offhanded and whimsical. Its examples are light-hearteded and playful, refreshingly plain in the way they are drawn from ordinary life. And its design is clean and minimal.

There are a few curiosity-tickling factoids, too, such as its historical thumbnail of the medieval, paragraph-marking pilcrow (¶) or, more unusual to American eyes, the guillemet (« »), used on the European continent (and around the world) for quotation marks and named for a 16th-century French printer.

Speaking of differences, I also enjoyed several, small “huh’s” and “oh yeah’s,” recalling that, say, the American period is the British full stop, compelling me to appreciate that subtle geography of punctuation conventions.

I may not consult Punctuation..? for my punctuation questions, and nor would I consider its treatment authoritative, but that’s besides the point.

This book is a beautiful little art object and a well-made book–and I really enjoy it for that.

And the overall effect of its design, explanations, illustrations, and examples leaves me with a feeling of punctuation as–how should I describe it–intuitive. This is in part because the text is unpretentious and unthreatening, particularly in an age where still too many tout grammar as the ability to uphold historically arbitrary rules or bemoan “the end of English” because perfectly useful concepts like YOLO are codified in dictionaries.

But it is also in part because of the clever incorporation of the punctuation marks into its illustrations, such as the way the semicolon is used to link the illustrations, rendering the content the form, as seen below:

Semicolon; image courtesy User design.
Semicolon; image courtesy User design.

Punctuation can be so abstract and so intimidating. So I admire how Punctuation…?, infusing the marks into its images, makes punctuation concrete, and with a quiet simplicity. Punctuation is to serve our human communication needs, after all, not the other way around.

Here at the Mashed Radish, I resonate with that concreteness. I strive for it, working to pull out of word origins those core phenomena–those essential actions and objects, the raw materials of human language–preserved in our many words. To this end, what might the origins of some of the names for our punctuation marks reveal..? We’ll have a look in upcoming posts.

m ∫ r ∫

comedy & tragedy

Tragos. Doodle by me.
Tragos. Doodle by me.

Comedy & Tragedy

According to Mallory and Adams in The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, there are 24 distinct verbs concerned with speaking in Proto-Indo-European. But if headlines these past weeks have been any measure, we all feel a bit speechless in our great many daughter Indo-European languages.

One such root for speech is *wed-, which Mallory and Adams gloss as “to raise one’s voice.”Oh, “the world may be too much with us; late and soon,” as Wordsworth moaned, but even he had to shout “Great God!” in that seismic volta.

In the Attic region of Ancient Greece, the famed Athenians there formed *wed– into oidos, a “singer” or “minstrel.” Indeed, that Romantic oidos John Keats versified many a great ode.

Some poets and actors of antiquity sang of the comic and were named komoidos. This comes from komos, meaning “a revel” or “merry-making”–or, properly, a “village festival,” according to Liddell and Scott’s seminal Greek dictionary. Latin borrowed the Greek komoidia to make comoedia, and English borrowed much later from French’s Latin-morphed comedie, staging comedy in the 14th century.

Others sang of the tragic, from tragos, a “he-goat.” This delivered tragodia or tragoidia, a “goat-song,” though this etymology is not settled. Mallory and Adams cite eight Proto-Indo-European roots for “goat,” four specifically meaning “he-goat.” Clearly, the goat–as sustenance and symbol–occupied a special, and frequently phallic, place in Indo-European life.

The Dramatic Goat 

So, if “goat,” why goat? Liddell and Scott note that ancient Greek tragedy was originally a “goat song, because in early times a goat was the prize [in a competitive event], or because the actors were clothed in goat-skins.”

Others, including the great Aristotle himself, argue this tragos points to the saturikon, the so-called satyric drama or satyr play, which featured tragic, though also comedic, tropes, motifs, and formulae involving satyrs, mythic creatures sometimes depicted as goat-legged men.

However, as The Oxford Classical Dictionary concludes, “tragoidia probably originally meant the song sung by singers at the sacrifice of a goat (in which the goat also may have been a prize), and has no inherent connection with the satyrs, who anyway were at this period more like horses than goats.”

Tragos traveled a similar path to komos to produce tragedy.

Ode to Odes

Other derivatives of oidos include melody, quite literally a “song-song” in Greek. We also have rhapsodya “stitcher of epic songs,” and parody, featuring a specialized meaning of “mock” for the prefix para-, “beside.” The less common epode, hymnody, monody, and threnody are also from oidos 

If we are to push back against “the pressure of reality,” as another poet, Wallace Stevens, put it, the ancient root oidos teaches us that we must not be silent but must raise our voices. In song, whether comic or tragic, through language, through imagination, we can create order out of the otherwise insensible and senseless chaos.

m ∫ r ∫ 


Buckaroo Jenner. Doodle by me.


For every deadly virus, we hope there is a vaccine. The word, it turns out, milks a very old root.

In 1796, British scientist Edward Jenner is credited with inventing the first vaccine by inoculating patients with cowpox in order to protect against smallpox.

That’s the nice way of putting it.

The story is more like this: Jenner, following in the efforts of many before him, took pus from a cowpox sore in a milkmaid and injected it into an eight-year-old. Then, Jenner injected the boy with some smallpox and he didn’t die.

OK, that’s a bit glib. Jenner, considered the father of immunology, was a much more methodical about it all–and put in place one hell of a protective measure to save countless, truly countless lives.

Two years later in 1798, he published a bookletAn Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, a Disease Discovered in Some of the Western Counties of England, Particularly Gloucestershire and Known by the Name of Cow Pox.

Jenner is said to have called this procedure vaccination. See, variolae vaccinae means “smallpox of the cow,” with vaccinae literally meaning “of the cow.” The Latin vaccinus is an adjective meaning “from the cow,” formed on vacca, meaning “cow.”


The Latin vacca shares a cognate in the Sanskrit vasa, also meaning “cow.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots traces the Sanskrit and Latin back to *wokeh-, one of three roots linguists have reconstructed for “cow.” (More on that soon.)

To the famed Frenchman Louis Pasteur, a cow was cache. He helped generalize vaccine (via French vaccin) for its uses beyond cowpox.

You may quickly recognize the Spanish for “cow,” vaca and vaquero, a “cowboy” or “herdsman.”  But buckaroo? Yep, this is how we Anglicized vaquero.

If we’re to remember Jenner, what better way than as the buckaroo of vaccines? It works on so many levels.

m ∫ r ∫


For so many of us, a virus might spell the end of our computer–not our lives, as we are witnessing so tragically in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Sometimes a viral video is precisely what is needed to distract us from today’s feverish crises. Too often, though, a viral video may be distracting us from them.

But etymologies, I often feel, can bring us back down to earth–and quite literally so in the case of virus.


Originally referring to the “venom” of a snake in Middle English, virus is a Latin word, where it also named “venom” as well as “slime,” “stench,” and “poison.” An adjective form of the word, virulentus, or “poisonous,” provides us virulent. The pathological meaning of virus is attested in the first of the 18th century.

Etymologists like Eric Partridge offer an earlier Latin meaning of the “sap” or “juice” of a plant, especially a poisonous one. Sap can indeed be sticky, and hence the Romans spoke of viscum, “mistletoe,” whose berries yielded a sticky juice, which was spread on branches to trap birds–so-called “birdlime.”

Romantic, huh? The mistletoe tradition calls back Indo-European beliefs in the virility associated with the evergreen flora. Ironically, the tree’s berries are themselves virulent–well, poisonous–to humans. In its human designs, it spelled the end of many birds, many of which were actually depended on the plant for food.

From this viscum English has viscid and viscous.


As the American Heritage Dictionary diagnoses it, the Latin virus and its related forms are rooted in the Proto-Indo-European *weis-, which meant “to flow.” Other scholars, including Ernest Klein, specify the virulence of this particular effluvium as “to melt away” or “rot.”

Other derivatives of this *weis– may include a secondary meaning of ooze, referring to a “mire” or “mud,” from the Old English wase, recognizable certainly not in shape but in sound.

The other ooze–as in a grilled-cheese sandwich or pus–is traced to the Old English wos, meaning, perhaps like virus, “sap” or “juice.” Due to the close similarities in sound and sense, some etymologists take these words back to the same root meaning “wet.” The Ninja Turtles, though, certainly didn’t help uncover the etymological secret of ooze. 

From *weis-, Walter Skeat argues for wizen, “to shrivel” or “dry up,” living on in wizened. This probably from a different root meaning “to wither,” however.

Yet others propose weasel and bison, as well as the bison’s European cousin, the wisent. Apparently, this is from the fact that, as Jordan Shipley puts it, “some animals…smell, especially at rutting time.” Some cry foul at these derivations, though a Sanskrit cognate in meaning “musty-smelling” is interesting.

The Greek ios, Sanskrit visam, and Old Irish fi–all meaning “poison”–also derive from *weis-. 

Vulnerable Language

Virus indeed has an ancient root, but many of its uses are recent.

The Ebola virus was only first observed in 1976 in the Ebola river valley in the Congo. And David Gerrold is credited with one of the first uses of a computer virus in his 1972 science fiction novel When HARLIE Was One.

In today’s hectic information age, it’s easy to think that these kinds of things have been just always been around, so lodged these words are in our lexicon and consciousness.

But, more important, in our day-to-day motions, as we observe a crisis from a distance and try to understand an out-of-the-ordinary disease, it’s also easy to forget how truly devastating something like the Ebola virus. In its historical roots in senses of “stench,” “slime,” and “poison,” perhaps its etymology can make virus less abstract–and far more of the earth, our language reminders of vulnerability.

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