scherenschnitte & nunatak

For the second year in a row, co-champions won the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee: Vanya Shivashankar landed scherenschnitte and Gokul Venkatachalam stuck nunatak.  If etymology was ever useful, it’s certainly in spelling bees. Let’s have a quick look at origin of the winning words.


A gorgeous scherenschnitte by Esther Gerber. Image from

For this word, I turned to Merriam-Webster (whose own Peter Sokolowski offered superb live-tweeting of the bee) online. According to Merriam-Wesbter, scherenschnitte is the “the art of cutting paper into decorative designs,” and, as you might have guessed, is from the German. It literally means “scissors cut.” The online entry continues:

German, plural of scherenschnitt, literally, scissors cut, from scheren, plural of schere scissors (from Middle High German schære, plural, from Old High German skār) + schnitt cut, from Middle High German snit, from Old High German; akin to Old English snid cut, from the Germanic root of snīthan to cut

In the first part of the word, you might recognize a cognate, the English shear. This historical linguistics have cut all the way back to the Proto-Indo-European *(s)ker-, a hugely prolific root meaning “to cut.” Sharesharp, shore? That’s just the beginning. In the second part of the word, I’ll point you to any you know who goes by Schneider, a “tailor” (think, “cutter”) in German.


Atanasoff Nunatak in Antarctica. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Nunatak comes from the Greenlandic, an Eskimo language spoken in Greenland. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it joins nuna, “land,” and tak, “thing pertaining to,” yielding “an isolated piece of rock projecting above the surface of inland ice.” Also offering excellent live-tweeting of the event, Ben Zimmer of offers “a hill or mountain completely surrounded by glacial ice.” Words depend so much on context, no?

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Last post, we studied the origin of finale, an appropriate word for this time of year. Come summer, many students finish their final finals. They don their caps. They don their gowns. They endure long addresses. They walk the stage. They receive their diploma (holder). They graduate. In some traditions, students toss the tassels on their mortarboards from the right side to left at the ceremony’s close, signaling their newly graduated status. What of the etymology of tassel, which–unless you are frequently drawing drapes, cloaking yourself in capes, or slipping on some loafers–gets much of its attention during graduation season?

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


The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites tassel back to around 1330, naming a “clasp” that fastens together the two sides of a cloak. By the 1400s, tassel was referring to a “pendent ornament,” a tuft of cords bunched and suspended at a knot or knob.   

Many etymologists unfasten tassel, if you will, to the Old French tassel, also a “clasp” for a mantle or cloak, which is from the medieval Latin tasselus. This tasselus, in turn, could come from the classical Latin taxillus, a “small die” used in gambling, from talus, a “knucklebone,” “anklebone,” “ankle,” or “heel.” (This talus also equipped English with talon, which once named a “heel” or “hoof” in addition to its prevailing sense of a “claw” today.)

Now, the graduate’s parents may think that that English major is real gamble, but what do tassels have to do with bones? As Skeat concludes, a tassel was originally “a sort of button made by a piece of squared bone and afterwards of other materials,” evolving from the clasp to the ornament we know today. But not all etymologists are convinced.

Ernest Weekley posits that the Old French tassel is a diminutive form of tas, rendering tassel a “little heap.” He points us to the Middle English tass, a “heap” or “bunch,” which may aptly describe the graduate’s student loan debt. The OED offers tossel, an 18th-century variant that may connect the word to toss, evoking that other graduation tradition of throwing the cap in the air. Toss has been quite the active and versatile word since its recorded debut in the early 1500s, but it, too, is of unknown origin. The OED adds that “the only cognate word appears to be the Norwegian and Swedish dialect tossa,” glossed as “to spread, strew.”

In my opinion, the best etymologies are like diplomas: always earned, never handed out. To all the graduates out there, flip your tassels–and congratulations.

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This week, we witnessed some grand finales in “Mad Men” and “The Late Show with David Letterman.” A finale is all about the ending, of course, but what do we know about the word’s beginning?

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


Finale starts in English as a musical term adopted from the Italian. The Oxford English Dictionary cites it in 1724 as an Italian word in English and fully taken up by 1783 to name the last movement of a musical piece (e.g., a symphony). It was quickly generalized to other types of endings (e.g., plays) and to endings as such not long after.

The Italian finale comes from the Latin fīnālis, an adjective form of fīnis, an “end,” “purpose,” “limit,” and “goal,” and, at its core, a “boundary” or “border.” Eric Partridge specifies the particular usage of the Latin etymon as the “limit or boundary of a field or a farm or an estate,” with its plural form, fīnes, describing “the boundaries of a large territory” or “the frontiers of a country or a state.”

And this is about the limit of our knowledge of finale. Partridge suggests that fīnis may have originally referred to a “mark on a tree,” with “trees often serving as limits of field” or a “stake driven into the ground to mark a boundary.” If this is the case, fīnis could be derived (and nasalized) from figere, “to fix” or “fasten,” and source of fix, among many other words.

But fīnis doesn’t end here. It also eventually produced (largely through French) a seemingly infinitude of English words. To name a mere few: finishfinefinanceaffinity, confinefinesse, finicky, and, dear to word nerds like me, definitions.

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the incredible -ulk (part ii)

Last week, the etymologies of hulk and bulk led us to “ships” and “heaps.” How about those two other –ulk words, skulk and sulk?

What does the fox say? Nothing. It's skulking. Doodle by @andrescalo
An incredible “Fox.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


The ultimate origin of skulk lies in hiding, fittingly enough. The OED first records this verb, signifying “to move in a stealthy manner” or “hide oneself in cowardly manner,” back in around 1225. Etymologists see connections to Scandinavian languages, such as the Norwegian skolka, “to lurk” or “lie watching,” and the Swedish skolke “shirk” or “play truant.” The latter may be echoed in a largely British usage of skulk, “to malinger,” which the OED attests in the late 1700s. A skulk may also refer to “one who skulks” or a group so given to such a furtive behavior, which gives us a skulk of foxes.

Ernest Weekley and Walter Skeat try to ferret out a deeper root in the Low German schulen, “to lurk,” “hide oneself,” and even “look askance,” which might thus link skulk to scowl, also from an unclear Scandinavian source.  For scowl, Skeat maintains a root in the Proto-Indo-European *skeu-, “to cover,” which, apparently, is what the “lowering brow” of a scowl does to the eyes, while the Online Etymology Dictionary posits *(s)kel-, “crooked,” depicting a scowling expression, I gather.


Somebody skulking might be sulking, perhaps, which the OED (rather poetically, I submit) defines as “to keep aloof from others in a moody silence.” The OED dates this verb to 1781, while it antedates the adjective sulky to 1744, thus suggesting that sulk is a back-formation of sulky. A substantive usage, the sulky, a two-wheeled, single-seat carriage used for transport, ploughing, or racing, is dated not long after in 1756. Indeed, the ultimate root of sulk is certainly keeping aloof.

The OED offers sulke, a rare and obsolete term for “hard to sell” or “slow in going off” and whose own origin is obscure. Skeat argues that, due to a misdivision of its noun form, sulkinesssulky really should be sulken, from the Old English āsolcen, “slothful,” “remiss,” or “lazy,” past participle of the verb āseolcan, “to become languid.” Weekley suggests this sulk is from another, obsolete meaning of sulk, a “hollow or trough (of the sea),” on the basis that a sulking individual is like a “lonely furrow.” This sulk originates in the Latin sulcus, a “furrow,” from the same Proto-Indo-European root *selk-, which has given us that very hulk we saw last week.

The Incredible Hulk may not be much of a sulky skulk. But, to riff on the veritably sulking and skulking Rust Cohle from HBO’s True Detective, etymology can sure be like a flat circle.

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the incredible -ulk (part i)

The Hulk has been smashing the box office in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The U.S. House of Representatives voted to end the N.S.A.’s controversial (and, according to an appeals court, illegal) bulk data collection of phone records. Indeed, -ulk, while a meaningless sound in and of itself*, has been making a lot of noise in the news. Let’s have a look at the origin of two of its appearances, hulk and bulk.

Bulky hulk or bulking hulk?
Bulky hulk or hulking bulk? “Hulk.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


The superhero the Incredible Hulk is strong enough to lift his own etymology.

He debuted in 1962, but his namesake has been around in the English language since at least 1000. Today, we typically understand hulk for something bulky yet unwieldy. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) documents this sense of the word since 1600. Earlier, however, a hulk named a ship. In Old English, a hulc was (a very un-hulking) “light and fast sailing vessel,” while in Middle English, a hulke was “a large ship of burden,” such as a merchant ship (OED). In the 17th century, hulk specified a “dismantled ship,” “unfit for sea service” but used for storage, quarantine, housing crews, or even holding prisoners (OED). We are left with the hulk of a rundown car or building today, too.

With cognates in Germanic languages, hulk is “a word of early diffusion among the maritime peoples of Western Europe,” and this makes its ultimate origin difficult (OED). Ernest Weekley and Eric Partridge suggest a connection to hull. Others, such as Walter Skeat, propose it comes from something the Incredible Hulk could have smashed to pieces: the Greek ὁλκάς, a “ship that is towed.” The Incredible Hulk smashes, but the Greek ὁλκάς “pulls,” such is the meaning of its root verb, which, transliterated, is helkein.  The American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) takes the Greek helkein back to the Proto-Indo-European *selk-, “pull” or “draw,” source of ὁλκός, a “machine for pulling ships.” The AHD suggests this *selk– may have also produced seal, from a Germanic root literally meaning “that which drags its body along with difficulty.”


A hulk has bulk in more ways than one.

The OED first attests bulk around 1440, naming a “heap” or the “cargo” a hulk might haul. This original meaning of the word points us to a Scandinavian source, such as Old Norse’s bulki, “heap” or “cargo,” literally “a rolled-up load” (AHD). But in the 15th century, the written record also shows bulk to signify a “belly.” Scholars chalk this up to confusion with another word, bouk, the “belly” or “trunk” of a body. This confusion might then explain how bulk bulked up to refer to all sorts of masses. However, both bulki and bouk may come from the same Proto-Indo-European root, *bhel-, “to swell” or “to blow,” which has given English derivatives in bulk, as we’ve seen in bowl and fool. A ship’s bulkhead is unrelated; the first part could be cognate to English’s balk.

Next post, we’ll look at two other -ulk‘sskulk and sulk.

*Unless you consider ulk, one Middle English form of the word week.

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the Allusionist podcast

Have you heard the Alllusionist? It’s a new podcast for Radiotopia from PRX presented and produced by the talented Helen Zaltzman. Every two weeks, she takes listeners on “etymological adventures” with intelligence, wit, and style, typically bringing great guests along. The podcast debuted in January, and since then, she’s explored everything from the origins and evolution of bra to the writing on museum exhibit walls. It’s fun, smart, and eclectic. And it’s always playful–true to the etymology of the podcast’s name, ultimately from the Latin lūdere“to play”–but never ludicrous.(Collusiondelude, elusiveillusioninterludeand prelude are all so derived as well.)

Each episode is usually about 15 minutes and you can subscribe like I did through iTunes (and through other providers). I really learned a lot from a recent episode on how spaces between words came about, featuring the brilliant Dr. Kate Wiles. One of my favorites is “Latin Lives!” It’s about a long-running news broadcast from Finland…in Latin. You can enjoy it right here:

Stay tuned to the Allusionist, and stayed posted for more word histories here later this week. 

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two years

Today, the Mashed Radish turns two. I think the blog is really growing up.

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

My brother, Andrew, has given my words shape, line, texture, and color with his deft and delightful doodles. They’ve really added a lot personality, don’t you think? Thanks, brother! A number of my posts have become cross-posts, as I have been contributing to the OxfordWords blog at Oxford Dictionaries and Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing. I hope that these posts have lead you to some new writers, blogs, and projects. The group at Strong Language is a tremendously talented bunch, no? It’s an honor to be writing alongside them. Speaking of honor: Oxford Dictionaries Online? Let’s just say about every post here begins with three letters: the OED.

While my writing has branched out through those two blogs, I think my writing here has matured, focusing on topical etymologies as my own small lens to think about current events–and using current events as a lens to think about words and language. Speaking of branching out, so have my readers here, reaching close to 5,000 followers. Each like, each comment, each compliment, each question–each is a shared act of curiosity, of word nerd-dom, of the little, electrifying huh‘s and ah-ha‘s and I’ll-be‘s that make me excited to continue into year three. There is a lot of choice out there today. There is a lot to read and enjoy. There is a lot of noise competing for our attention. So, whether you are scrolling through a new post while waiting in line at the post office or reading it over a cup of coffee at your computer before kicking work into gear, thank you.

Above all, however, I want to thank my wife (and blog widow), Amanda, whom I never give enough credit for supporting me and my writing.

Year two 

Below, you can read through the list of words, roots, or topics I covered in year two. You get something of a buzzword, catchword, or keyword “news reel” for May 2014-15. I’ve linked each word to its post:

*gno- (part i)
*gno- (part ii)
*sekw- (part i)
*sekw- (part ii)
amnesty & coyote
rockets & missiles

comedy & tragedy

Bongo, Bongo
punctuation (part i)
Lexicon Valley
strategy & target
drubbing & shellacking
everyday Quechua: Coke, jerky, & DNA
ciao, slave!
Strong Language
twelve words of Christmas
“big goddamn car”
language (for your ears)
Davy Crockett in a hot-air balloon
hawk vs. patriot
Mardi Gras
swear jars & springtime
Background checks: everyday words with legal origins
Buddha, eBay, & ombudsmen
I have eaten ‘crap now’
errand & racy


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This past Sunday, Baltimore’s mayor lifted the curfew she placed on the city in face of the unrest that followed Freddie Gray’s funeral. The tragic death of Freddie Gray, who later died from injuries sustained while in police custody, sparked fire, in some cases literal ones, over racial inequality and police brutality in the community there, as we’ve seen in other American cities, including Ferguson, Mo., whose city name I wrote about last August.

Sparks start fires, and if etymology is any measure, curfews attempt to put them out, apparently.

Some fires you don't want to snuff. "Curfew." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Curfew.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests curfew (corfu, in Middle English, among other forms) in the early 14th century. The word is adopted from the French (Old French, also among other forms, has cuevre-fu), ultimately joining two words. The first is couvre, an imperative verb meaning “cover,” from which English gets the same word. The second is the noun feu, “fire.”

The French couvre comes from the Latin coöperīre“to cover up,” fusing the intensifying com– (“with”) and operīre, “to cover.” Covert is so descended, as is kerchief, from the French for “cover-head.” Feu is also from Latin. Here, the etymon is focus, “hearth” or “fireplace” as well as “home” and “family” in figurative senses, and source of English’s own focus.

curfew, then, is a “cover-fire.” The French expression mirrors medieval Latin terms, the OED points out, such as ignitegium and pyritegium, also words literally meaning”cover-fire.” Do you recognize that “teg” portion of the word? It’s from tegere, “to cover,” which we saw last week in my post on thug.

So, why “cover-fire”? The OED explains it was:

A regulation in force in mediæval Europe by which at a fixed hour in the evening, indicated by the ringing of a bell, fires were to be covered over or extinguished; also, the hour of evening when this signal was given, and the bell rung for the purpose.

The OED goes on:

The primary purpose of the curfew appears to have been the prevention of conflagrations arising from domestic fires left unextinguished at night.

Eventually, the original purpose of the curfew gave way to evening bells, historically issued around eight or nine o’clock, for other kinds of city orders, hence its use for the restrictions the word names today.

curfew might test the patience of 17-year-olds on Saturday nights, but, as its etymology reminds us–as Baltimore reminds us–a curfew was and is a serious business.

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