Buddha, eBay, & ombudsmen

My wife and I will soon be wat-eyed and pad-tied on our upcoming trip to Cambodia and Thailand. In preparing for these trips, I consulted the cultural, the cartographic, the culinary, the commercial, the communicational–and, of main concern here at the Mashed Radish, the cognates.

Thailand predominantly practices Buddhism, as you probably well know. The religion is founded in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, later dubbed the Buddha when he achieved enlightenment. As is often cited, Buddha means “awakened” or “enlightened” in Sanskrit. Now, online auctions and official complaints sure sound like a far cry from spiritual knowledge, but their etymological connections prove pretty enlightening.

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


In Sanskrit, buddha (बुद्ध) means “awakened” and “enlightened,” formed from the verb budh, “to know” or “perceive.” Historical linguists root this verb in the Proto-Indo-European *bheudh-, “to pay attention” or “be observant,” as glossed by the Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World.

As inscrutable as Sanskrit can seem, buddha is linguistically reincarnate in some very familiar English friends: bid and bode. Now, bid is a busy word in English. The bid related to Buddha is not the one we see in the phrase bid farewell; this bid has a different origin. Rather, the bid at hand might be the bid you make by raising your hand at an auction or when playing your hand in a game of Spades.

Bid and bode

Originally meaning “to offer” or “to proclaim,” we can trace this bid to the Old English béodan, which we have early evidence for in Old English. The Germanic base of this béodan has meanings of “to stretch out” and “present,” which were extended to “to communicate” and “inform,” hence the evolution of the English sense of “offer” and “proclaim.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the past tense of béodanboden, created the Old English boda, a “messenger.” Boda delivered the verb bodian, producing today’s bode, as in it doesn’t bode well.  With bid we get forbid; bode, forebode. Both feature the complicated prefix forwhich means “against” in forbid but “ahead of” in forebode.


The Old English béodan yielded bydel, a “herald” or “messenger.” This word evolved into beadle, a minor church official or ceremonial mace-bearer. Another kind of official also shares a root with bid and Buddha: the ombudsman

In Swedish, an ombudsman was an official appointed by parliament to investigate complaints of governmental maladminstration (OED). Other European governments adopted the position–and the word–in the 20th century. The word was taken up more generally in organizations by the 1970s. Carrying the sense of “commission man” in Swedish, ombudsman is related to the Old Norse umboðsmaðrUm– around,” is connected to the prefix ambi, while maðr, “man,” is connected to “man.” The core of the word, boð, “order, command, offer,” is the cognate to our roots of interest here.

The enlightenment etymology affords us by no means helps us attain nirvana, but such a connection as unites Buddhabidbode, and ombudsman can feel pretty transcendent to this word nerd.

The Mashed Radish will be back at it in April. In the meantime, make a point to explore the official languages of Thailand and Cambodia. They are rich, complex, multilayered, and fascinating. Sanskrit and Pali have left quite the footprint in them, especially in terms of their vocabulary and scripts.

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While you might not find many Irish people eating it, many Americans will be plating up corned beef and cabbage to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day today. The particular reasons for this are complicated and fascinating, as Shaylyn Esposito explained in 2013 on Smithsonian.com. Traditions vary with time, space, and circumstance, of course–and so do words, as is true for the corned in corned beef. So, why is it corned beef?

"Corned beef." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Corned beef.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


Corned means “salted,” as corned beef is preserved or cured with salt. Salt is made up of particles or grains, which the English language used to refer to more generally as corn. Indeed, corn is attested as corn in Old English. One might mention a corn of sand or rice–or pepper or barley, hence peppercorn or barleycorn. These instances have corned these old senses of corn, if you will.  For today, the sense of corn is more restricted. It likely evokes maize for North Americans, shortened from the phrase Indian corn. Wheat, oat, or rye, though, may come to mind across the Atlantic.

It’s no coincidence that corn means “grain.” Both words come from the same root, making them doublets, etymologically speaking. Both originally meaning “grain” or “seed,” corn was harvested from the Germanic *kurnóm, while grain from the Latin grānum. The Germanic root also gives English kernel, while the Latin has produced a crop, including garner, gram, granitegranule, filigree, and pomegranate, to name a few.

If we dig deeper into the Germanic and Latin roots, we find their common ancestor, the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *gre-no- or *grhnóm, or “grain.” According to Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, the root *gerh-, meaning “to ripen” underlies *gre-no- or *grhnóm, “grain.”

Etymologists have suggested a connection to the Sanskrit jṛa verb meaning “to wear down” or “waste away.” With this in mind, the Oxford English Dictionary explains: “A corn or grain is therefore, etymologically, a ‘worn-down’ particle.” So something, “worn down” or “wasted away” might be considered “old.” So, the PIE *gerə-, “to grow old,” may then be connected to corn, thus connecting the word to some other “age-old” derivatives of the PIE *gerə-. (Perhaps the PIE for “to grow old” and “ripen” are themselves connected.)

Do you work in the field of gerontology? Ancient Greek yields γέρων (ron)“an old man.” The Old Persian name Zarathustra, behind Zoroastrianism, is said to have the literal meaning of “owner of old camels.” *Zarant (“old”) has been reconstructed down the Iranian branch of Indo-European languages. (Ushthra means “camel,” thus yoga’s Ushthrasana, or “camel pose.”)

Now, those old camels probably just don’t have corns of sand on their weathered hooves, but that kind of corn, natively referred to as an agnail (later, hangnail), actually comes from the same root that gives us the word horn. Corned beef and cabbage was never so interesting.

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March is well underway, and for many folks across the United States, the snow is finally melting, though turning into a dirty, sloppy mush as it goes. Up in Alaska, the Iditarod is also underway, but with its own kind of mush–and march, as we’ll see in the origin of this term for traveling through the snow, especially by sled dog.

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


In the 16th century, the French began exploring, hunting, and trapping in North America. In the snowier stretches

of Canada, they adopted dog-sledding for transportation and hauling. The practice, of course, predates the French, as evidenced by ancient Native Americans in Siberia and North America. When the French drove their teams of dogs, they commanded Marchons!: “Go!” or “Run!” Marchons is the first-person plural imperative form of the French verb marcher, which we will revisit.

Apparently, Canadian English smushed this Marchons! into “Mush on!” Some linguists refer to this particular phonological process as the “Law of Hobson Jobson.”  Here, English takes up marchons but modifies it to fit the existing sound and sense of the English language. Eventually, the on fell off, leaving English just with mush.

Now, marcher has another imperative form in French: marche, a second-person singular imperative. Those French voyageurs may have issued Marche! to their huskies, which might also explain mush‘s trail into English. The Oxford English Dictionary first records such mush from an 1826 journal entry of Smithsonian explorer Robert Kennicott included in James Alton James’ 1942 The First Scientific Exploration of Russian America and the Purchase of Alaska, used to advise U.S. Senator Charles Sumner on that very purchase:

One sees only a large cloud moving along the track, out of which came queer cries of…Marche! Yeu! Chah! etc. The voyageur, be he English, Gaelic, Norwegian, or French, always addressed his dogs in a rubbaboo sort of a language they call French here.

In another entry, Kennicott records the mushing command as mouche.

As we saw, mush likely goes back to an imperative form of the French verb marcher. This verb, which could also simply mean “to walk,” gives English and other European languages their words for a military march. The word originally signified only “to get around on foot” but also “to trample.” The ultimate origin is unknown, but Baumgartner and Ménard posit a *markon, a possible cognate to the French marquer and the English mark. Middle English indeed had a sense of march meaning “to border” or “lie upon,” much like something marks a boundary. If this the case, we can take the word back to the Proto-Indo-European *merg-, “boundary, border.”

Now, the earlier sense of trampling has led some to propose the Latin marcus, a “hammer.” The connecting sense is that a certain manner of walking or trampling is like hammering the ground with one’s feet–which, I think we can all agree, definitely describes those Iditarod huskies and what they are doing to the snow beneath their paws.

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Background checks: everyday words with legal origins

I have a new post up on the OxfordWords blog, “Background checks: everyday words with legal origins.” From nude to innuendo, a great number of common words have a surprisingly legal record. Here’s my bit on mayhem:

Dating back to the 15th century, mayhem historically denoted a criminal offense. As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it, mayhem was ‘the infliction of physical injury on a person, so as to impair that person’s capacity for self-defence.’ In the late 1800s, American English expanded mayhem to ‘violent behaviour’ more generally, but it’s not until 1976 that the OED cites its modern usage for ‘chaos’ and ‘disorder.’ Mayhem emerged as a variant of maim, rooted in an Old French word for ‘to injure’ or ‘to cripple’ and which perhaps also supplied mangle. The ultimate origins of both mayhem and maim are unknown, but scholars have suggested roots in Indo-European verbs for ‘to cut’ and ‘to change’.

You may recall that I touched on the etymological mayhem of mayhem in my post on mad. For more of my verbal chicanery on the OxfordWords blog, click this hyperlink.

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Last week, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that it is finally retiring its elephant act. Perhaps the circus’s most famous elephant was Jumbo, whom Barnum bought from the London Zoo in 1882 with much hullabaloo. Jumbo’s legendary size lives on in the legacy of his name. Jumbo cigars fill our mouths and jumbo jets fill the sky. We gulp jumbo-sized sodas in our stadium seats as jumbotrons fill our eyes. So, let’s size up the origin of jumbo.


From West Africa to England, from Arabian hunters to Italian animal traders, from Prussian menageries to American circuses, Jumbo’s incredible and outsized story may be well known, but the etymology of jumbo is certainly not.

In short, we aren’t exactly sure who named Jumbo, why, and what the name precisely means. Some argue that Jumbo was named for a Zulu word for a “large packet” or “large parcel”; others, for the Swahili for “hello” (jambo) or chief, boss” (jumbe).  Also cited is a Kongo word, nzamba, apparently a word for “elephant,” though nzombo has been glossed by Daniel Webster as “python,” according to Eric Partridge. Yet others argue that Jumbo is taken from a 19th-century slang term, jumbo, originally referring to a big and clumsy person–which word may be derived from another proposed origin of the elephant’s name, mumbo-jumbo.

Continue reading “jumbo”


Last post, the word jar lead us to akimbo, with the latter possibly running parallel to the Latin adjective, ansātus, whose literal meaning of “furnished with a handle” the Ancient Romans likened to having one’s arms akimbo. Ansātus, we learned, is from the noun ansa, a “handle.” Our work with this ansa, however, is not yet done, for it may also be related to ease.

"Elbow room." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Elbow room.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


We cannot speak to the origin of ease with ease. We do know that English takes ease from the French aise,”comfort.” You might recognize aise in malaise, a direct borrowing of the French for “discomfort.” But the earliest usages of aise in French are actually “elbow room” and “opportunity.” How’d that happen?

Skeat, Weekley, and Partridge conclude that aise, formed from aisance, is from the Latin adjacentia, literally “something nearby.” You can quickly spot the English adjacent. According to Baumgartner and Ménard, “something adjacent” is connected to “the free space next to someone,” which produced an idea of a “nice location” and more generally, “wellness” and “recreation.”

Some, like Norwegian scholar Sophus Bugge, proposed that aise is ultimately from–here it is again–ansa, “handle” of a jug or jar, say. This ansa had a secondary sense of “opportunity,” so the record states, and may have evolved to asa on the roads of the Roman empire, later evolving into French’s aise.

OK, a “handle” is something to seize, to grab onto, an opportunity. Ansātus, as we’ve seen, is “with arms akimbo.” This explains the connection to elbow room. But how do we get to “comfort”? And do we know anything deeper about ansa? For these questions, we are looking at not the handle, but the little hole that the loop of the handle creates.

This is why etymology is not always easy but easily fascinating. Yes, easy is related to ease, as are a wealth of expressions, from “ill at ease” to “take it easy.” I think this is my cue to let jar, and all its many handles I clutched these past two weeks, be at ease.

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