Dinosaurs, roofs, & togas: An etymological thug life

We’ve had a lot of big words in the news this week, as we’ve had a lot of big events. One word in particular grabbed headlines as a word, thug, thanks to Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s use of it in reaction to violence in her city this past week.

Thug is a very loaded word, to say the least. Thanks to some great commentary in the media outlets, we’ve also learned it is a very historically complicated, coded, and nuanced term, variously and nefariously applied through the centuries–to African Americans, union busters, and Indian assassins, whom the term originally names. Merriam Webster’s Kory Stamper weighed in on The Washington Post. Megan Garber reflected on The Atlantic. Ben Zimmer zoomed in back in 2013 at Newsweek. John McWhorter offers particularly incisive and insights on the word in an NPR interview, illustrating a key point that “black people saying ‘thug’ is not like white people saying ‘thug.'”

Since her statements, Baltimore’s mayor has walked back her words, stating they “don’t have thugs in Baltimore.” Etymologically, she she might be wrong, as the origin of thug may literally be present in the very name Baltimore.

Tiles are about the only thing that are ever truly so black and white.  "Thug." Doodle by me.
Tiles are about the only thing that are ever truly so black and white. “Thug.” Doodle by me.


Again, I will ultimately point you to the likes of Stamper, Zimmer, Garber, and McWhorter on the evolution of thug, but the Oxford English Dictionary first attests the word (often capitalized) in 1810, naming professional assassins in India who befriended travelers only to murder them, particularly by strangulation. The word is from the Hindi ṭhag and Mahrati (spoken in Western India) ṭhag or ṭhak, naming a “cheat” or “swindler.” We can see how the Thugs’ fundamental deception lends them their name.

Most etymologists stop here, as they are appropriately conservative, given the hypothetical, if methodical, nature of historical reconstruction. But others do speculate that this Hindi ṭhag may come from the Sanskrit sthagati, “he hides,” as Eric Partridge offers.

Under ‘cover’

The Sanskrit sthagati may be uncovered, if you will, from the Proto-Indo-European (s)teg-, “to cover.” This yielded Latin’s tegere“to cover,” which is behind integument (“covering”), protect (“cover up”), and detect (“uncover,and its derivative detective). A toga is also a kind of covering derived from this root. Roofs are coverings, hence tegula, “roof tile,” which gives us tile and Tyler, an English surname and given name for “tile-maker.” Speaking of English, the Germanic languages also took up (s)teg-giving English thatch and deck. The former was used especially of roofs. The latter bedecks those halls, too.

Roof tiles date back yet before antiquity: they are veritably Jurassic. The stegosaurus, or Greek for “roof lizard,” had armored back plates that resemble roof tiles, if the Greek στέγος (“roof”) is any measure when the creature was named in the 19th century.

No roof? No shelter. No house. This appears to be reflected in Celtic languages. Welsh has ty and Irish tech, both meaning “house.” Another Irish form for “house” is tigh or , which appear in Baile na Tighe Mór or Baile an Tí Mhóir, renderings for “townland of the big house,” a village in southern Ireland whose name you might recognize as Baltimore. (Apologies to my Irish-speaking readers for butchering any of these renderings.) The American city was named for the second Lord Baltimore, Cecil Calvert, first Proprietary Governor of the Province of Maryland and whose family estate is that “big house” in that Irish town.

Etymology does it again—if in its full, tenuous, overwrought glory here at the Mashed Radish. But, of course, the real thugs in Baltimore, the real big house in the big house, that we need to reconsider aren’t the etymological ones.

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errand & racy

Last week, we ran the etymological race. We saw the word was connected to error, which goes back to the Latin verb “to wander,” among other meanings. This made me wonder, an errand involves some kind of wandering about, does it not? And for that matter, something racy, something “risqué” and “spirited,” surely suggests the action and speed of running, no? Etymologies are a curious and illogical business.

"Time for a wine run." Doodle by me.
“Wine run.” Doodle by me.


A boss sends out an errand boy for soy lattes. A couple braves parking lots for Sunday errands. As far as the written record is concerned, this sense of the word begins emerging in the middle of the 17th century. Originally, however, errand enjoyed a bit more status. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests the word all the way back in the 9th century, where it signified a “message repeated to a third party,” especially a petition or a prayer. In Old English, errand took the form ǽrende, which has cousins across the Germanic languages.

Now, fetching the ultimate origin of the word may be a fool’s errand–or, as an older expression goes, a sleeveless one. Some etymologists have connected ǽrende to another Old English word  ár, “messenger,” but the connection is troublesome.


A racy comment, a racy ad, a racy photograph, a racy…wine? As the OED attests, racy originally referred to wine back in the mid-1600s, as it described, in reference to the grapes’ soil, “having a distinctively strong taste or odour; piquant, pungent, or flavorful.” By the end of the 17th century, racy was also tasting of more general meanings of characteristically “spirited” and “invigorating.” By 1901, racy‘s liveliness was specifying something more “daring,” “suggestive,” and “slightly indecent,” as the OED offers.

Racy joins race and the suffix –y. Different grapes have different skin colors, if you will, just like different races do. (Oh, if it were only with wine where color mattered.) This race, a “breed of grape” with a characteristic flavor of its soil, is a specialized sense of that race. The OED takes race back to the middle 1500s, when it denoted a “group of people, animals, or plants, connected by common descent or origin.” The ethnic sense, especially in reference to the distinctive physical features, was just as problematic a term when it appeared in the mid to late 1700s.

For all the problems racism has caused–and continues to, if we look most recently to Baltimore–we know that race is a biologically groundless concept. This holds true for race‘s etymology, too, appropriately enough. Race passes into English from the French, which adopted the word from the Italian razza, a late 14th-century word meaning “kind” or “species.” From here, a number of ideas have been proposed: ratio, which may have meant “species” in medieval Latin; the Old French haraz (later haras), naming a special enclosure for horses kept just for breeding, generalized to a breed; the Arabic ras, “head (of cattle)” or “origin”; and the Germanic raiza, a “line.”

As errand and racy show, sometimes the joy of etymology isn’t in crossing the finish line.

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For my latest on the OxfordWords blog, I brave the etymological lair of “dragon,” where I discover everything from herbs, guns, and sores:

23 April marks St. George’s Day. While St. George is widely venerated throughout Christian communities, England especially honors him, its patron saint, on this day. Indeed, his cross, red on a white field, flies as England’s flag.

St. George, of course, is legendary for the dragon he slew, yet St. George bested the beast in legend alone. From Beowulf to The Game of Thrones, this creature continues to breathe life (and fire) into our stories, art, and language – even the very word dragon is hoarding its own gold. Let’s brave our way into its etymological lair to see what treasures we might find.

Read my piece, “Guns, herbs, and sores: inside the dragon’s etymological lair,” in full here.

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This past Sunday, talk show pundits analyzed the latest developments on the 2016 presidential race. Yesterday, runners braved the rain–and memories–to race in the Boston Marathon. Where does this word race come running from?

Wrong way! "Error." Doodle by @andrescalo.
You’re running the wrong way! “Error.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


The word race has a lot of legs–and many different meanings over the centuries. In reference to the “act of running,” the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates the word back to the early 1300s with a sense of a “rush” or “raid.” From here, the word sprinted to signify all sorts of forward progress and movement. The sporting race is first in record by the early 1500s, generalized and extended in meaning over the century. According to the OED, the political race comes later, cited in–and a shout-out to my hometown here–the title of a Cincinnati Literary Gazette tale from 1824: “The Lovers’ Political Race, or a Kentucky Election.” (“A Kentucky election”: That certainly sounds like the punchline to a joke Cincinnatians might say about their neighbors across the river.) You can read the piece here. Like any proper political tale, it’s full of romance, backwoodsmen, electioneering, and whiskey that flows like water.

Which brings us nicely to the origin of race. Etymologists suspect race was adopted from the Scandinavian languages. Old Norse has rāsa “running” or “rush” of water, which English’s own race has signified. Old English has a close cognate, rǣs, a “running” but also an “attack.” These similar sounds and senses likely influenced each other in race‘s early development. Scholars reconstruct them in Proto-Germanic *res-, in turn from the Proto-Indo-European *ers-, “to be in motion” (American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots).


A race conjures a concerted speed and effort on a a determined path. (Yes, egg-and-spoon races can get serious.) This is quite unlike its Latin cousin (also descended from *ers-): errāre, “to wander,” “stray,” or “be mistaken about.” Not all forms of motion, I suppose, are onward, forward, and purposeful: Errāre relays errerrorerroneouserratic, and aberration into English. (The French-based errant and arrant may not ultimately come from this Latin verb, but it certainly influenced them when these words were confused with a derivative of the Latin īre, “to go.”) This notion of straying also has feet in other Germanic words but is associated with “anger,” an emotional aberration from the social norm, if you will.

Anger, running, error, attack? It sounds like were talking about a different kind of race too tragically making headlines lately. That race has a different—and largely unknown—origin.

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This week, Florida mailman Doug Hughes landed a gyrocopter on the lawn of the US Capitol in a bizarre act of protest against the corrupting influence of money in politics. The incident has compelled many questions, not the least of which is: What’s a gyrocopter? I’ll leave the technical explanation of this rotorcraft to the experts, but let’s have a look at the etymology of gyrocopter here.

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


The Oxford English Dictionary (OEDS) finds gyrocopter in print as early as 1915 and notes, as you probably guessed, that it is formed after helicopterGyrocopter joins gyro– and copter. The first element comes from the Greek γῦρος (gyros, “ring” or “circle”), which we see in gyregyroscope, and gyro, as in that delicious lamb meat roasted on a turning spit. Evidenced by 1947 (OED), copter is shortened from helicopter, and, etymologically, can’t get off the ground on its own.


As I have done, perhaps you’ve supposed helicopter fuses heli– and copter, some kind of “sun-seizer,” guessing the Greek root for sun (hello-) and a cognate to the Latin capere (“to seize”). If so, your knowledge of English phonology is sound but wrong. If we properly divide this word, it’s helico- and -pter. The first part pervades the fiber of your very DNA, as it is connected to helix, from the Greek ἕλιξ (helix)which Liddell and Scott gloss as “anything which assumes a spiral shape.” Its adjectival form is ἕλικος (helikos)The second part pervades the fabric of your childhood, as it is connected to pterodactyl, from the Greek πτερόν (pteron)“wing.”

Thus, a helicopter is a “spiral wing,” used by French inventor Gustave Ponton d’Amécourt in 1861 for a machine he devised (hélicoptère). While the modern helicopter doesn’t appear until the first half of the 20th century, the word keeps spinning, as heli– lives on as a prefix (or pseudoprefix) for all things helicopter (e.g., helipad) and copter serves to name other kinds of rotorcraft (say, gyrocopter).

Words of a “Feather”

Now, the Greek πτερόν features that unusual pt– cluster, which helps explains why we split helicopter as we do. In English, we keep the silent. In Greek, the is voiced. That pt– might seem strange, but it is related to some rather familiar words: feather, pin (like a peg), pen (like the writing instrument), compete, symptom, hippopotamus, and many more. The Proto-Indo-European root is *pet-, meaning to “rush” or “fly,” and evolved into many forms down the Germanic lines (feather), Latin (pin, pen, compete), and Greek (symptom, hippopotamus, pterodactyl). The Latin verb petere (“to seek,” “to attack,” et al.) is behind that compete, as well as petulant, which some might use to characterize Doug Hughes–and petition, which some might have advised him to do in lieu of his gyrocopter.

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I have eaten ‘crap now’

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing. How could I deny my Mashed Radish regulars this language fun from afar?

..and it was delicious.

Alright, there’s no coprophagy going on here, but I can’t resist sharing a scatological–and multilingual–anecdote with our readers.

My wife and I recently had the fortune to visit the temples of Angkor outside Siem Reap, Cambodia. Perfumed with the incense of the green jungle and rising steeply out of the red dirt into the white sun, these ancient temples–layered with spiritual symbolism from their broadest stones to their most intricate carvings–stand as astonishing testaments to man and woman, myth and memory, might and moment, impermanence and time. They are the soul of Cambodia, as our gracious and intelligent guide, Sokkoy, explained. He typified the generosity of service and spirit we experienced in the resilient Cambodian people. Yes, he well explained the rich history of the temples, but he also shared wonderful local foods and, as the language nerd in me never takes a vacation, insights into the Khmer tongue.

Just past one temple, he pulled his tuk tuk over to a roadside stand where women hacked at the fruit of the palm tree. The fresh seeds are nearly fist-sized, milky-clear, and jelly-like, cooling your mouth with a refreshing juice. Sokkoy then presented us some more mature seeds, which harden when too old but, at just the right age, take on a chalky-spongy texture, orange hue, and subtle coconut flavor, best when iced.

“How do you like it?” Sokkoy asked.

“It’s really good!”

“Well, you’ve eaten crap now,” I hear him say.

“Wait, what–”

“–krahp tnaot. We call this krahp tnaot. You have eaten krahp tnaot,” Sokkoy repeated with a shit-eating grin. Krahp tnaot, as I attempt to transcribe here, is pronounced very much like crap now, as I’m sure you’ve gathered. “When you go home, you must tell everyone that in Cambodia, you have eaten krahp tnaot.”

“I have eaten krahp tnaot,” I laughed, taking another bite into this tasty treat (whose exact identity, and a better transcription of which, I have not been able to locate since home). Like a little kid trying out a new schoolyard swearword at the dinner table, I tried out my new phrase on all the staff, and I mean all the staff, at our lodgings.

OK, crap is extremely mild for Strong Language standards, but Sokkoy’s (rather linguistically complex multilingual) pun proves that a poop joke knows no borders.


To its supporters, last week’s preliminary deal with Iran marks a momentous step towards nuclear nonproliferation. To its opponents, it’s plain nuts. Good deal or bad deal, nuclear is indeed nutty, etymologically speaking.

"Walnut." Doodle by @andrescalo,
“Walnut.” Doodle by @andrescalo,

Mixed “Nuts”

Nuclear is evidenced in the English language since 1833, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Its nucleus, if you will, nucleus, is attested much earlier in 1668, referring to the core of a comet and attributed to Polish statesman and astronomer Johannes Hevelius. Nucleus‘ sense of core made it quite useful to the sciences down the centuries, applied not only in astronomy but also in anatomy, biology, chemistry, and eventually physics. Michael Faraday used it to describe the hypothetical core of an atom, which Ernest Rutherford confirmed in 1911, using the term in his paper in the following year.

Where does nucleus come from? You guessed it: Latin, where it means “nut” or “kernel,” connected to nucula (“small nut”), a diminutive of nux, also naming a “nut” or “nut tree.” This nux turns out to be related to English’s own nut (Old English hnutu), with Proto-Indo-European scholars positing a root in *kneu-, again “nut.”

Aside from other scientific forms, such as nucleotidenucleic, and nucellusnux may have yielded the French-based newel, originally the central pillar of a spiral staircase, today primarily referring to the main post of a handrail. While this connection is uncertain, nut is solidly related to nougat, that delectable confection made from sweetened egg whites and nuts, especially almonds.

As Seinfeld‘s George Constanza made clear in his notorious battle over a Twix candy bar, “I think I’ve reached the point in my life where I can tell the difference between nougat and cookie.” Oh, if only nuclear agreements were this hilarious and delicious.

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From the earthy incense perfuming the red dirt roads of Siem Reap to the noodles frying in the sizzling streets of Bangkok, my wife and I had an incredible time in our all-too-quick visit to Cambodia and Thailand.

Some of my favorite moments, though, involved our attempts at the rich and complex Khmer and Thai languages. For example, locals laughed whenever I issued a self-deprecating barang in Cambodia or farang in Thailand as I fumbled my riel or cast a confused look at which condiments to put on my pad thai. These terms, and I’ll default to farang hereafter, name a “foreigner,” particularly a white Westerner. The etymology of the term has also travelled to these lands from afar.


We have evidence for farang as early as 1861 in the writings of French explorer Henri Mouhot, whose notes and sketches of Angkor first brought attention of its astonishing temples to many in the West. Most etymologists take farang back to Frank, illustrating, as we recently saw with mush, the so-called Law of Hobson-Jobson.

Many a farang now come to photograph this view of Angkor Wat, which Henri Mouhot sketched in the very travel journal that gives English one of the earliest attestations of "farang."
Many a farang like me now come to photograph this view of Angkor Wat, which Henri Mouhot sketched in the very travel journal that gives us one of the earliest attestations of “farang.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary records, Frank has served to name Western Europeans since the early 1600s, as is also preserved in the term lingua franca, a custom tracing back to the historic mix (and clash) of peoples in the Levant.

This phenomenon is paralleled–or, as some argue, farang‘s source–in Feringhee, used to signify a “European” in India, passed down from the Persian, and Arabic yet before, take on this Frank.

Frank derives from the Gaul-conquering Germanic tribe who ultimately lent their name to France, French, and, frankly, any Frank Franklin feasting on a frankfurter he fetched for a few francs at his neighborhood hotdog franchise, suffused with that, um, appetizing frankincense of sizzling sausages.

Why were the Franks so called? We’re not certain, but it might be for their weapons. Etymologists posit a root in the Germanic *frankon-, referring to a “javelin” or “lance.” These weapons were effective, making these Franks frank, or “free” as the adjective meant early on, ruling over their subjects. “Free” opened up to mean “open,” applied later to speaking frankly, or in a “candid” manner.

Like javelins, some etymologies–and the surprising connections between cultures they make–can seem so far-flung.

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