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.
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.