As pumpkin spice yields to gingerbread, Christmas is approaching, which means lists: wish lists, holiday party guest lists, Santa’s list of the naughty and nice, and best-of and year-end lists, trailed, of course, by their runners-up on shortlists.

To that effect, Oxford Dictionaries has already unveiled its winner for my favorite year-end tradition, the Word of the Year. This year, they crowned vape, short for “vaporize” or “vapor” (or “vapour,” depending on where you are writing) and referring to electronic cigarettes. The word really picked up steam this year, if you study the case they make for it.

Speaking of “steam,” where does vapor come from?


Passing into English from the French, the word vape has not drifted too far its root in the Latin vapor, meaning “steam” or “heat” (especially from the sun). Today, it may get more scientific use, but it’s first attested around 1374 in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde:

As man, brid, best, fisshe, herbe, and greene tree / The feele in tymes with vapour eterne.

Here, The is referring to, essentially, Love, deified, but we’ll find a way back to that.

Poetry, though, like many etymologies, can wax metaphorical. So, too, with vapor. Related to vapor is vapid, whose earliest meanings were “flat,” as in beverages. Latin has vapidus–”flat” or “spoiled”–related to vappa, “sour wine,” having lost its vapor, its spirits, so we surmise. (A secondary meaning of “brat” for vappa is also cited. Think “spoiled.”)

Some, like Eric Partridge, see life in a connection to the Latin fatuus, “foolish,” or “tasteless” when describing food. The word gives English fatuous. As Latin was evolving into the Romance languages, however, this fatuus may have been confused with vapidus to yield the French adjective fade, variously denoting “pale,” “dull,” “tasteless,” or “vapid.” English picked up the word, too, originally describing faded colors. The verb in both French and then English came quickly thereafter.


Our deeper knowledge of vapor has indeed faded. It might originate in the Proto-Indo-European *kwēpwhich the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots proposes means “smoke,” cook,” “move violently,” or “be agitated.” Walter Skeat defines the root as “to reek” or “to breathe forth.” In terms of cognates, Greek has kapnós for smoke; various Lithuanian words for “breath,” “smell,” and “perfume” are also cited.

The root word certainly brings evaporation to my mind, but it also may have yielded concupiscencecovet, and cupid, which, in all their biblical and mythological valences, go back to the Latin cupere. Boiling over in desire, the verb means “to long for” or “be eager for”–just like so many are for a deep draw from their vape.

m ∫ r ∫


4 thoughts on “vape

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