strategy & target

Another war, another abstraction–except for those who are actually suffering through it. For the fortunate rest of us, how might terms like strategy and target, which have been consuming a lot of bandwidth recently, become more concrete? Perhaps etymology can aid our understanding.


"Strategy." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Strategy.” Doodle by @andrescalo.

Today, a strategy is employed by a general or army commander, but in Ancient Greek, a strategos was the actual “general” or “army commander.”

The word is composed of two parts. The first is stratos, “army” or “multitude,” literally meaning “that which his spread out,” referring to the way an army was spread out in an encampment. The second is from the verb agein, “to lead” or “drive.” Hence, we have strategos, a “leader of an army.”

stratagem, which predates strategy back to the 15th century, is the “artifice” used to “surprise the enemy” (Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology [ODEE]).

Cognates to stratos are, well, widespread: strain, structure, instrument, industry, stratum, street, sternum, and strew are examples, as are streusel and perestroika. At root is the Proto-Indo-European *sterə-, “to spread.”

Driving agein is the Proto-Indo-European *ag-, ‘to drive,” “draw,” or “move.” (American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots [AHD]). This root saw a great deal of action: act, for one, and all of its related forms, as well as agentagile, cogentessay, navigateprotagonistaxiomagony, and demagogue, to highlight a few.


"Target." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Target.” Doodle by @andrescalo.

Target was a “light round shield” (ODEE) in the 14th century, a diminutive of the archaic targe, a general term for a light shield in Old English. Targe is from the French and is Germanic in origin, with cognates variously signifying “edge” or “border” (of a shleld). The ultimate origin has no clear target. The AHD, though, offers a Proto-Indo-European root in *dergh-, meaning “to grasp,” which would have been done to a targe.

In the middle of the 18th century, we see evidence for a target signifying something “marked with concentric circles to be used as a butt”(ODEE), or the target of an arrow in archery. And yes, that butt is where we get the expression “butt of a joke,” as in, a joke’s target. But why did the sense of target so evolve? I can’t quite hit the mark on this one, but targes were often constructed and designed involving concentric circles, not to mention that they were used in jousting, so some sort of transference is likely to have occurred. Indeed, as Skeat comments, “The mark to fire at is named from its resemblance to a small shield.”

War…What Is It Good For? 


Now, strategy may evoke chess and target discount retail (for my American and Canadian readers). From the political to the academic, the words have become wildly successful metaphors for goals, whether in terms of how to achieve them or what to aim for. They are far from the generals and shields of their etymologies–and this metaphorical metamorphosis is precisely how many words change. So ingrained they are into our language and thinking that many may even consider them dead metaphors: We don’t need to know their source imagery to understand what they mean, although their active military meanings may challenge that characterization.

Widespread indeed are military metaphors in English, as we also observed in my post on champion, but as armed conflicts wage on–inevitably, fatiguingly, and, as is all too real, too remotely and abstractly for the average, first-world civilian consciousness like my own–the concreteness of an etymology might serve as some small reminder of war’s reality.

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Scotland may have voted “no” a week ago, but the voice of “yes” was definitely heard. Indeed, etymologically, yes has some strong pipes–and, like aye and nought, not a few tricks up its sleeve.

"Planchette. Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Planchette.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


Historically, yes was a stronger affirmation than yea. Perhaps we can compare the yea of old to today’s yepYes was also relied upon to answer negative questions: “Don’t you want to see a picture of what I had for brunch?” Yes. Wait, I mean, not a whit.

Yes is an old one in the language. It’s so old, in fact, that my Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology doesn’t even bother dating it. This means it was hard at its affirmative work before the 12th century, around when we mark the beginning of the Middle English period. The word comes from the Old English gese, among other forms, and its was pronounced like the initial sound of, well, yes.

Like no, the simple yes is actually not so simple. Etymologists largely agree that gese goes back to an earlier, unattested form, *giese, which features one of two possible combinations, eventually easing and contracting into one:

  • Gea (“yea”) and swa (“so”), that is, “yea so.”
  • That same gea and si(e) (“may it be,” from a form of sindon, one of the Old English forms of “to be”), or “yea be it.”

So, Scotland voted “no” but you cast your ballot for “yes”? Perhaps you are coping with an existential, “Well, so be it.” In this light, yes is a bit magical (and my connection overwrought).


We previously saw swa in *s(w)e-, which was wearing its finest blue jeans in “Self and Other.” The Old English paradigm for “to be” more than merits its own entry, to be sure, but, briefly and perhaps bewilderingly, sie is from an optative form of a Proto-Indo-European form of “to be,” *es– or *hes-.

Optative? Um, yeah. In other words, this sie expresses a wish or desire. Yes: May it be so! (Wouldn’t it be nice if our words could indeed cast such a spell?)

And now we are left with the heart of yes: gea.

Like its German cousin ja, the Old English gea comes from the Proto-Germanic *ja or *jai, considered a word of affirmation or an affirmative particle. The ultimate root is the Proto-Indo-European *i-, a so-called pronominal stem which was extended into  *yam or *yai on its way to *ja and gese.

Pronominal? Pronominal is an adjective form of pronoun, like you, me, or it. Stem? Think of it like a core stock of the language–the form of a word you’d look up in a dictionary, as the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots helpfully puts it.

This *i- yielded the English yon, yond, yonder, and beyond (with a root meaning of “that”) as well as ilk and yet. In Latin, *i- put on some extensions to give us what we now know as id, identityitem, and iteration.

The root, too, may help us conjure up the great “beyond,” if you will.

Yes-yes board?

Maneuver your planchette over Ouija. Examine it closely. What do you see? For one, you might immediately recognize ja, which we discussed above as common Germanic for yes. And oui? Oui oui! It’s the French for yes.

But, according to Ouija historian (yes, Ouija historian) Robert Murch in a really compelling piece by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie (2013) at, perhaps the true story is a bit spookier. As McRobbie writes, the first producers of the board had it name itself in the early 1890s:

Contrary to popular belief, “Ouija” is not a combination of the French for “yes,” oui, and the German ja. Murch says, based on his research, it was Bond’s [one of the producers] sister-in-law, Helen Peters (who was, Bond said, a “strong medium”), who supplied the now instantly recognizable handle. Sitting around the table, they asked the board what they should call it; the name “Ouija” came through and, when they asked what that meant, the board replied, “Good luck.”

Now that’s magical thinking. Yet McRobbie continues channeling Murch:

Eerie and cryptic—but for the fact that Peters acknowledged that she was wearing a locket bearing the picture of a woman, the name “Ouija” above her head. That’s the story that emerged from the Ouija founders’ letters; it’s very possible that the woman in the locket was famous author and popular women’s rights activist Ouida, whom Peters admired, and that “Ouija” was just a misreading of that.

Whatever the case may be, I suppose some questions clearly defy yes or no answers, no matter how much we influence the planchette.

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lexicon valley

I want to take a break for a moment from my own content to share with you some other content that entertains, edifies, and enriches me on a regular basis: Lexicon Valley, a blog and podcast on all things language published by Slate. Perhaps you already know about the enterprise, but if you don’t, I suggest you change that pronto.

The blog features engaging writing on truly eclectic, language-based topics by some of the best language writers working right now. On the blog, recent posts include:

These are writers I follow–and look up to–on Twitter (see below), and I suggest you do the same. The writers’ special genius, and in many ways Slate’s overarching genius, is their twofold inquisitiveness: They pose questions we’ve all wondered at one point or another or pose questions you’d never think to ask in the first place.

The podcast, featuring the cool-headed descriptivist Mike Vuolo and curious curmudgeon Bob Garfield (of NPR’s On the Media), deserves your immediate binge-listening. Recently, they’ve added the illustrious linguist and lexicographer (executive producer of and Visual Thesaurus, where he writes “Word Routes”; columnist for the Wall Street Journal; and go-to language commentator for just about any media worth engaging with) on a regular segment, “LinguaFile,” which focuses on the history of particular word. In so many ways, this is the Mashed Radish’s Platonic form, its Aristotelian actualization.

Some of my favorites include:

Listen to them. Listen to them all. The podcast is available on iTunes and SoundCloud, and I’m sure you can find it in other places. Their latest LinguaFile is on…well, I let you guess it. That’s part of the fun. But, I have to say with not a little pride, I feel I ‘beat’ these word nerd heroes to it in my post from about a year ago.

For more from all of the above, follow:

  • Gretchen McCulloch @GretchenAMcC
  • Arika Okrent @arikaokrent
  • James Harbeck @sesquiotic
  • Ben Yagoda @byagoda
  • Bob Garfield @Bobosphere
  • Ben Zimmer @bgzimmer
  • Lexicon Valley @lexiconvalley

We’ve got a lot of good word origins coming your way this fall. And perhaps some new textures, if we’re lucky.

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Tomorrow, the people of Scotland will vote “Yes” or “No” to independence from the United Kingdom–or, as some would have it in variously inventive or stereotypical Scotticisms, “Aye” or “Nae.”

Last post, we saw that no (nae, in Scottish or northern England dialects) meant more than “no,” etymologically speaking. So, what of aye?


Fittingly, the origin of aye lacks consensus, according to my sources:

  • The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology notes that the earliest use of aye dates back to around 1575 and was first spelled I. The word probably comes from the same first-person pronoun I, “used as a formula of assent in answer to a question,” as in “I assent.”
  • Walter Skeat suggests that aye is a variant of yea, perhaps a ye, “oh, yes,” Wiktionary offers.
  • Ernest Weekley and Eric Partridge insist that aye is akin to that Old English a we saw in “naught,” meaning “always” or “ever,” which senses continued in the archaic ay. These scholars contend that aye–and ay, if they are indeed related–passes into English from the Old Norse ei, a widespread Germanic root descended, like the Old English a, from the Proto-Indo-European *aiw-, “vital force,” “life,” “long life,” or “eternity.” The root lives on in ageeon, and coeval and medieval, if you clip off the co– and medi-. 

The aye in voting comes from the tradition of voice votes, although certain votes or voting bodies use yea. As for the seas? Well, English was the language of the British Royal Navy, and aye would acknowledge a captain’s order. Perhaps, then, these usages–usages of assent–give weight to the argument that the I’s have it.

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Last post, we read into dread, inspired by the “fear-nothing” dinosaur, Dreadnoughtus. This post, we’ll stare straight into the void: nought, “nothing,” and perform a little magic in the act.

Nought So Simple

For nought, we might as well begin with not, because that’s what it became. And to put it simply, it’s not quite so simple. I made a diagram to, er, help us out:

"Not so simple." Diagram by me.
“Nought so simple.” Diagram by me.

In short, not is reduced from nought, which comes from the Old English nowiht. This word joins ne (“not”) and owiht (anything, or “something,” not related to I ought to start exercising). Owiht is, in turn, composed of o, “ever” or “a,” and wiht, a “thing,” “creature,” or “being.” So, on a literal level–and not that words ever really behave so–not means “not a thing.” And so we pull a rabbit out of the hat: In talking about nothing, we find something.

Nowiht to nought to not, with a labyrinth of alternate spellings in between? Kind of crazy, huh? This is all about economy of speech, and we see it everyday. Why do you think we say gonna for going to 

Naughty, Knotty Roots

Nought is considered a variation of naught, which arises like nought. In naught‘s case, the Old English nawiht still features ne but along with awiht (source of “aught,” a variant of ought). Awiht puts that same wiht together with a, a variant of o.

In its earliest uses in the 14th century, naughty meant “poor” or “needy.” It later evolved to “bad,” then “wicked,” then narrowing to describe disobedient children as “misbehaving” and “mischievous.” (Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology & Eric Partridge)

Even the English no is complex, from the Old English na, merging ne with to emphasize its no-ness as “not ever.”

Speaking of no, the Old English ne is from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *ne, “not,” pervasive across PIE daughter languages, including the English prefix un-. Wiht gives English whit–as in “not a whit”–and wight, from PIE *wekti, a “thing” or “creature.” And o and a? These are from *aiwwhich the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots defines as “vital force, life, long life, eternity.”

Yes, no means “no”–but etymologically speaking, there’s a whole lot more going on.

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We need to talk about dinosaurs.

There’s been a lot of big compound nouns in the news lately: ceasefires, outbreaks, airstrikes. But none has been bigger than the Dreadnoughtus: 85-feet long, 30-feet tall, and an I’m-still-growing 130,000 pounds, this newly discovered dinosaur is believed to be among the largest land animals to have ever lived (New York Times).

This behemoth–scientifically, Dreadnoughtus schrani–takes it name from the compound dreadnought, aptly meaning, “fearing nothing.”

You may be familiar with dreadnought as the name for a class of big, British battleships, appearing in 1906 but revived, according to Ernest Weekley, from a specific Dreadnought of the Royal Navy in 1596. We can cite a yet earlier Dreadnought warship, however, in 1573.

Less fearful–and familiar–is the 19th-century dreadnought outerwear: a “thick coat worn in rough weather” (Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology [ODEE]) typically made of wool and also known as a “fearnought.”

That’s some rough weather.


The word dreadnought, you can see, seems a simple enough compound of dread and nought, but each element its own little surprise.  We’ll start with dread.

Dread is from the Old English adrædan, “to fear,” an old word dating back to the 12th century.

What happened to the initial a? It was lost in a process called aphesis, like in How ’bout that?, as we saw in my post on mad. This adrædan was from an earlier word, ondrædan. The first partond-, a variant of and-, meant “in,” “on,” or “against.” Cognate to anti- and ante-, this and– is also part of answer, whose literal parts add up to “swear against.” The Proto-Indo-European source of this prolific prefix is *ant-, “front” or “forehead,” so-called, I gather, because when you face me, your forehead is opposite mine. Words are physical things, see?

The second part, the -rædan? The jury’s out.

The ODEE says its a West Germanic base of obscure origin. Weekley maintains it is cognate to the Old Norse, hræda, “to frighten.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD) links it to rædan, “to advise” or “counsel”–and, interestingly, ultimate source of the English read. At root, the AHD goes on, is the Proto-Indo-European *re(i), “to count” or “reason.” (We’ll duly treat read and *re(i) at a later date.) 

If this latter hypothesis is correct, then, dread originates in a sense of “something that should be counseled against.” Dreadful: You know, like, going for a swim right after eating.

And dreadlocks? You probably associate them with Rastafarianism, but they are indeed found throughout the world and history, from Peru to Egypt to India, often associated with ascetic devotion to God. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, dreadlocks is first attested in 1960, joining dread and lock, with:

the style supposedly based on that of East African warriors. So called from the dread they presumably aroused in beholders, but Rastafarian dread (1974) also has a sense of “fear of the Lord,” expressed in part as alienation from contemporary society.

Dinosaurs? Warships? Heavy coats? Cultural and religious treatment of hair? Reading? Yep, that’s precisely what a good etymology can connect.

Nought is next.

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punctuation, part i

"Hodos." Doodle by me.
“Hodos.” Doodle by me.

Recently, I reviewed the delightful Punctuation..? by User design. Since school is back in session, I thought a review of punctuation marks–that is, the origins of their curious names–may prove timely and instructive.

Many of the names for our punctuation marks exhibit a common trend we see here on the Mashed Radish, especially for scholarly or technical words (Oxford Companion to the English Language): They come from Ancient Greek and typically passed into English from Latin, sometimes directly and often via French.

The story of punctuation itself is a fascinating one, especially given that many of our punctuation marks originally were about speaking, not writing, used to help orators recite materials. Not to mention that spaces–yes, spaces between words in writing–are a relatively recent innovation.

Writ large, manuscript production and printing technology–and the ensuing growth in literacy propelling a shift from oral culture to text culture–are behind some of the major changes in punctuation use.

Keith Huston, author of the well-reviewed Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks, offers us a nice briefing on punctuation, as this will give you a taste:

Punctuation itself – literally, the act of adding “points” to a text – did not arrive until the third century BC, when Aristophanes of the great Library at Alexandria described a series of middle (·), low (.) and high points (˙) denoting short, medium and long pauses. Over the centuries, this system gave rise to punctuation as we know it: from Aristophanes’ three dots came the colon, the full stop, and many other marks besides. At the same time the paragraphs evolved into the “pilcrow”, a C-shaped mark (¶) placed at the start of each new section in a text. The word space was a late arrival, appearing only when monks in medieval England and Ireland began splitting apart unfamiliar Latin texts to make them easier to read.

Indeed, as Huston points out, punctuation is ultimately from pungere, “to prick.” Punctualpuncturepungentpoignant, and point are all related. Its earliest use as punctuation referred to the “pointing of the psalms” in the 16th century (Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology). This was a technique of marking the religious texts to aid phrasing for singing.

For this series on punctuation, we’ll start with commacolon, and period. Together, they all started out in Ancient Greek, naming a part of a sentence, particularly in terms of the length of an utterance in a rhetorical discourse or poetry. Various marks came to be used to aid in their delivery. Now, we use the name for the symbols rather than what the symbols were setting off.


The word comma as we refer to it came about in the early 1500s.

In shape and sound, comma is virtually unchanged from the Greek komma, where it referred to a “short clause” (Liddell & Scott) of a sentence and is said to mean, literally, “a piece cut off.” The word is cut off, so to speak, from the Proto-Indo-European *kop-,to beat” or “strike.”

Other derivatives include, if you can believe it, hatchet and hoof. The latter, for example, features a classic Indo-European sound change, where a Proto-Indo-European /k/ systematically evolved to an /h/ in Germanic languages, the /p/ to an /f/.

Speaking of rubleskopek, a Russian for “spear” and 1/100th of a ruble, is also derived from *kop-.


Colon came onto the English scene as we now know it not long after comma did.

Ancient Greek had two colons, one with a short o and the other with a long o. (I could make a joke here, but that would be a bit…jejune. Eh?) The former kolon gives us the intestinal, the latter kolon the punctuational. Like its short counterpart, this kolon was also bodily: It meant a “limb,” later taking on a metaphorical meaning as “member,” becoming a member of sentence, or a “clause” (Liddell & Scott).

The Greek has been traced back to the Proto-Indo-European *(s)kel-, “crooked,” with derivatives like isosceles and scoliosis originally “referring to a bent or curved part of the body, such as leg, heel, knee, or hip.”


The sentencing-end mark, the period, is a bit later to the scene, on the page right around 1600. It comes from the Greek periodos, which literally meant “a going around,” then adopted, as now, to name circuits and cycles. The Ancient Greek rhetoricians came to use the term for a “well-rounded sentence” (Liddell & Scott).

The word is composed of two parts. First is peri, meaning “around.” At root is the prolific Proto-Indo-European *per-, with a basic meaning of “through” or “beyond” but taking on a great range of extended senses (American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots).

The second is hodos, a “way” or “path,” from the Proto-Indo-European *sed-, which Greek turned into words that give us everything from episode to synod.

In upcoming installments for this series, we will visit the word origins of familiar friends like apostrophe and hyphen as well as the rarer acquaintances we have in ampersand or asterisk.

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"J.T. Rules." Doodle by me.
“J.T. Rules.” Doodle by me.

For most students across the states, school is back in session this week–if the luxurious leisure of summer has not already ceded to new seat assignments or syllabuses. (Yes, syllabuses: I think the perfectly functional English plural is just fine.)

Many teachers, however, may take a lesson from the etymology of school.


With widespread cognates, the word comes down from the Old English scol, acquired from the Latin schola, in turn from the Greek skhole.

On a literal level, the Greek skhole referred to a “holding back,” “halt,” or “pause.” This came to signify “spare time,” “leisure,” “rest,” and “ease,” according to Liddell and Scott. Later, the word referred to “that in which leisure is employed,” which, for Ancient Greeks, took the particular form of holding “learned discussions.” The word also came to name places where such discussions were held, hence a school.

With Greek cognates including schemeepochhectic, eunuch (who were originally harem guardians), the name Hector, as well as the Germanic Siegfried and Sigmund, the Proto-Indo-European root is *segh-, “to hold.”

Skholastikos, source of scholastic? “Enjoying leisure.” For this, I think every student in the middle of painful PowerPoint dreams the so-called “etymological fallacy” were true. Except that your professor would still win the day, for that leisure would have been properly devoted to…learning.

Leisure? Learned discussions? Oh, how times have changed–just like words and their meanings have, etymology reminds us. Or maybe we all just need better conversation partners.

But not really.

The best educators know that students are social–that learning is social. They work to harness–not extinguish–our innate desire to talk to each other. And I believe if many of us think back to our fondest teachers, we think of the ones who knew how to facilitate a truly engaging discussion. (And who probably didn’t use education-speak words like “facilitate.”)

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