Last week, the US Supreme Court issued a landmark decision, declaring a right to same-sex marriage all across the Union. Court analysts have been going beneath the robes of the justices, especially Justice Kennedy in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, to deepen our understanding of the man and mind behind the opinion. Let’s go beneath the word robe for an etymological ruling.

Watch out for robbers during bath time. "Robe." Doodle by @andrescalo.
Watch out for robbers during bathtime. “Robe.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


Robes have long been worn to signify one’s rank, office, or profession, and the word robe has long been used a metonym for those professions. This is true of judges, whose custom of wearing black robes is subject to differing opinions, as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor herself notes. For all the justice symbolized by a judge’s robe, the origin of the word is rather criminal, shall we say.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites robe in the early 13th century. English borrowed the word from the Old French robe, which, in turn, borrowed the Germanic *rauba. Yet “borrow” might not be the best verb here. For *rauba, as with the Old French robe, means “booty” or “spoils of war” – literally, “clothes taken from an enemy.” As Walter Skeat explains, this root came to name “a garment because the spoils of the slain consisted chiefly of clothing.”

We talk about thieves taking everything but the shirts off our backs. Not so, apparently, for robes. Fugitives, however, will gladly shed their outerwear, as we saw in my recent post on escape.

This taking, this despoiling? It’s robbery. Old French also fashioned *rauba into a verb, rober, “to plunder,” “to pillage,” “to steal,” or “to rob,” source of English’s very own rob. Evidenced even before roberob, and robbery – all of which the OED attests in around 1225 – is robber, cited in a manuscript dated back to around 1175. The word appears alongside reafer (“Robberas & Reafer[as]”), which is a form of reaver, from reave, “to rob” – and related to that very *raubaReave is not very common anymore, but it does live on in bereave and bereft, characterizing the loss of a loved one we’ve been robbed of.

Indo-European scholars pick roberob, and reave from the pocket of the Proto-Indo-European root, *reup-, “to snatch.” There were was a lot of loot in this *reup-, including the very word loot, as we previously encountered on my post on loot. Other cognates include riprublerover, tempo rubato (the Italian musical term for “robbed time”) and the many English derivatives of the Latin rumpere, “to burst,” including bankruptcy, which is plaguing the likes of Puerto Rico and Greece, essentially.

If you don’t want to get robbed of your robes, guard them in a wardrobe, which is, etymologically, a “guard-robe.”


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In the wake of the Charleston church shooting, the United States has been examining the place the Confederate flag should have in American culture. Any arguments in favor of it on public grounds are flagging, shall we say. The etymology of the word certainly doesn’t aid the rebel cause.

Put out that flag!
Put out that flag? “Butt.” Felt tip and Sharpie on lined paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), English has been flying flag since the late 15th century. The OED explains that the word is “found in all modern Germanic languages, but apparently first recorded in English.” Its ultimate origin, however, is obscure.

Scholars have unfurled several ideas for the etymology of flag: 

  • Some irises are called “flags” and have sword-shaped leaves. The resemblance between the blade-like shape of these leaves and the form of a flag may have thus given flag its name.
  • Another flag, as in flagstones, is the flat slab used in paving. Again, the shape of these rocks may have inspired our name for cloth flags. The stony flag has Scandinavian roots and is related to English’s flakeflaw, and flay.
  • The noun might also derive from the verb, as to flag is “to hang down” or “flap about loosely,” as the OED defines this word that we’ve extended to mean “to lag” or “to languish.” This verbal flag might come from an earlier adjective, flag, “hanging down.” This flag might flap atop a Latin staff: flaccidus (“drooping”), from flaccus (“flabby”). Or it might be hoisted from the Old Norse flaka, “to flutter” or “to hang loosely,” which Skeat has connected to flaunt.

The answer, my friend, may be blown’ in the wind: Flag might just imitate the sound of a flag flapping in the wind. Flap, whose flappy gives us flabby, also expresses this sound. In fact, English has a great number of fl– phonesthemes that suggest flying, flowing, and sudden motion: flutterflit, fleeflick, flap, and the archaic flack and flacker. And flag? Perhaps the final constant portrays the limpness and looseness of a windless ensign.

Speaking of flick, smokers might do this to a fag they’ve finished smoking. This fag is from the fag-end, or butt, of a cigarette, as a fag is the end part of a piece of cloth, which often hangs down, making it a possible corruption of flag.

Whatever the origin of the word, some flags are simply red flags in need of a color change–white, in this case for surrender.


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In *bheidh- we trust

It’s beyond words, the massacre of nine Black church members by a white gunman in Charleston, S.C. last week. Beyond words, the forgiveness the victims’ families and community showed the shooter. Words fail to express the tragedy of their deaths, the terror of that racist violence. They fail to express, too, the unshakeable resolve of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. But perhaps words can bring us some understanding–and they will be critical, of course, if we are ever going to properly address the problem of racism.


For this event, I am particularly struck by two words: Confederate and faith. They seem to be at two opposite ends of the pole–literally. Clutched by the shooter as a symbol of white supremacy in photographs released since his arrest, the Confederate flag flies over the South Carolina Capitol, sharing a sky with the cross, symbol of the Christian faith, atop Mother Emanuel, whose historic doors still welcomed worshippers this past Sunday.

Confederate is best known for the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. In English, the word is much older. The OED first cites it in the late 14th-century, referring to people “united in a league or alliance.” The term comes from the Latin confoederārewhich joins con- (“with,” “together”) and foedus, a “treaty,” “charter,” “league,” or “compact.” Many who brandish the Confederate flag still feel the federal – also derived from foedus, as with federation – is their foe. Federal was originally a theological term, characterizing a covenant with God, it is interesting to note.

Via French, faith also comes from Latin: fidēsa word as versatile as its English descendant and meaning, “faith,” “trust,” “belief,” among many others. Bona fidesemper fideles, and affidavit are directly lifted from it. Also derived are confidencefidelity, and defiance (literally, “to renounce faith”), which is today used positively to describe, say, the steadfast refusal of the AME Church to empty its pews and let racism and violence prevail. Fiduciary, too, points to the ways in which the value of paper currency is something held in trust.

Yet, in one of those illuminating ironies of etymology, confederate and faith are rooted in a common source, according to Indo-European scholars: *bheidh-: “to trust.” English also gets bide, abide, and abode from this root. About this root the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots observes: The root “is noteworthy in that its descendants in several Indo-European daughter languages refer specifically to the mutual trust on which covenants and social contracts must stand in order to be binding.” Between people, trust builds unions. But between groups of people, when we come to place our trust in radically different ideas, trust divides houses–in this case, brutally taking down nine lives. Trust can bring us together, but it’s going take a lot more than just trust to hold it together.

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Trans fat, transracial, Trans-Pacific Partnership, transgender – indeed, trans- is the prefix of the moment, if we take a look ‘across’ the headlines.

This hummingbird must live forever. "Nectar." Ballpoint on lined paper. Doodle  by @andrescalo.
“Nectar.” Ballpoint and Sharpie on lined paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


In Latin, trans was a preposition meaning “across,” “over,” or “beyond,” often prefixed onto other words, as evidenced in English’s translatetransitive, Transylvania, or transmogrify. It was assimilated in many other words, such as tradition, trajectory, trancetranquil, and travesty. But this simple and utilitarian preposition bears quite the etymological load.

Historical linguists root trans in the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *terə-, “to cross over,” “pass through,” or “overcome.” This verb passed through Germanic passages to arrive at the English through and thorough as well as thrill and nostril. Old English had þýrel, a “bore” or “hole,” whose sense of penetration eventually yielded thrill – making nostril literally a nose thrill, or “nose hole.” *Terə- crossed over into Sanskrit, too, yielding avatar, naming a deity that has “crossed over,” or that has come down to earth incarnate.

We overcome difficulties – we come over them, cross over them, pass through them. Ancient Iranian took up this sense of *terə in *thraya, “to protect,” which Persian fashioned into saray, an “inn.” Caravansary and seraglio, among others, preserve these roots. The Latin trux, “savage” or “fierce,” may have had the force “to overcome,” eventually giving English something truculent. Something truncus may have been “overcome,” maimed like a limbless trunk or cut like trench.

Trans trans- 

Many humans ultimately wish to overcome the great ‘beyond’: death. The ancient Greek gods figured that one out – with the help of etymology, of course – with a little drink called νέκταρor nectar. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD)*nectar joins the PIE *nek-, “death,” and *terə, producing “to overcome death.”

Summer’s upon us. Better get those nectarines while they last. Unless they’re making a transcontinental or transoceanic transit – immortals eat local.

*Thanks to the AHD for help with many of the derivatives of *terə– that crossed over into English.

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The two convicts who escaped from prison in New York almost two weeks ago still elude the grasp of authorities – quite true, too, if we look to the etymology of escape.

"Escape." Doodle by me.
“Escape.” Or something like that. Doodle by me.


If we look to its earliest form, ascape, English captured escape from the French as early as 1250. The Old French verb eschaper comes from the late Latin *excappāre, which joins ex– (“out of”) and cappa (“cape” or “cloak”). As Walter Skeat explains it, to escape is literally “to slip out of one’s cape.” For the sense of this, Ernest Weekley refers us to a Greek verb ἐκδύεσθαι (ekduesthai), a Greek verb meaning “to put off one’s clothes, escape, the idea being that of leaving one’s cloak in the clutch of the pursuer.”

The root of the late Latin cappa – caput, from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *kaput-, both meaning “head” – cloaks many an English word: capitol and capital, cap and the selfsame cape, biceps and triceps, captain and chief, and achieve and capitulate, to name a prominent few. The PIE *kaput- also heads up English’s own head, whose Old English predecessor, hēafod, lost some sounds along the way.


One derivative of cappa – chapel – involves a very special cape or cloak indeed, one famously left behind by St. Martin of Tours (who was also famed for helping prisoners escape, as it happens, though these prisoners were admittedly of a very different sort). For this legend, we turn from etymology to hagiography.

As the legend goes, one winter’s day, while serving against his will in Roman army in the 4th century, a young Martin came across a beggar wearing mere rags in the cold. Martin used his soldier’s sword to cut his cloak in two, giving half to the beggar. That night, he dreamed that Jesus Christ was wearing that half and commented on Martin’s compassion. In the morning, the halved cloak was made whole. Frankish kings, the legend continues, kept the cloak as a miraculous relic, using it for oath-making and bringing it into battle. Eventually, certain priests guarded the sacred relic – the little cloak, or cappella – in a sanctuary. The priests were known as cappellanior chaplains, as it became in the French; the sanctuary, a chapel. This is a story literally a cappella, or “in the style of the chapel,” such is the origin of unaccompanied vocal music.

I suppose comic books get it right here: both superheroes and villains wear capes.

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Oh, hell!

Up on the Strong Language blog, I have new post on the many uses–er, circles–of hell, from hell yes! to hell-to-the-no. Noun, verb, intensifier, prefix? Hell hath a lot of linguistic fury in the English language. Readers here may be particularly hellbent on the etymology of hell:

In Norse mythology, Hel is Loki’s daughter and goddess of the underworld, which is one way to raise Hel, I suppose. Her name is indeed a cognate of English’s own hell, whose Old English source, hell, comes from the Proto-Germanic *haljo (“the underworld,” literally “the concealed place”). Descending further into the origins of hell, some etymologists believe *haljo hails from the Proto-Indo-European *kel-, “to conceal” or “to cover.” English sees this same root in the very unhellish hall, hull, and cell, as well as that very conceal, to name a few hellions.

Read more from “Nine circles of hell.” 

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A horse is a horse, of course, of course. Unless you’re American Pharoah, who coursed the Belmont Stakes last Saturday for the first Triple Crown in 37 years. This three-year-old colt clearly isn’t just any old horse. But etymologically, a horse is a course. Well, not of course, but maybe.

“Horse.” Ballpoint on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


Horses may race young, but the word horse runs old: The Oxford English Dictionary records horse (as hors) all the way back to around 825. Etymologists take the word back to the Proto-Germanic root for the animal, *horso-, hitching it there. But some ride off into a further sunset: the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *kers-, “to run.” This root equipped Latin with currere (“to run”), which, in turn, saddled English with all sorts of words: carchargecorridorcurrentcursordiscourseintercourse, and, of course, course, among others. A horse is a course, of course of course.

Yet Ernest Klein suggests that a different feature defined horse. He suggests that horse may come from the Proto-Germanic *hrossa-, from the pre-Germanic *qru-ta-s, formed on a “lost verb,” “to jump,” from a PIE root meaning the same. If this is the case, horse, then, is “the jumping animal.”

Wild Horses

Old English also had a horse of a different etymological color: eoha word cognate to equus, the Classical Latin for “horse” and source of equine and equestrian. At root is the PIE *ekwo-, “horse,” which also stables the Greek ἵππος (hippos, producing hippopotamus, “river horse” and Philip, “fond of horses.”) Like horse “the jumper” or horse “the runner,”  *ekwo may itself be named for something characteristically equine, as it perhaps derives from the PIE adjective *oku-, “swift.”

The hippopotamus is the “river horse.” Likenesses also give us the sea-horse. And the whale-horse, or walrus, if folk etymology has its way. Walrus comes from the Dutch walrus. The wal- component is indeed related to whale, but the rus– part (cf. German words for horse, like German’s own Ross, hence the name) is probably not etymologically (not to mention zoologically) sound. Etymologists cite confusion between some Scandinavian words naming certain types of whales and the walrus.

While the Greeks may have likened the hippopotamus to a river horse, the ancient Egyptians thought of it as a water-ox, or the p-ehe-mau, which Hebrew probably shaped into behemoth. Fittingly enough, for hippos do have a pretty mean reputation in the wild.

Ancient Egyptian also had pr-ʿo, “great house,” a title given to those kings also of great reputation, pharaohs, partial namesake of American Pharoah. American Pharoah has little in common with walrus–other than being mammals and have a name shaped in error. It all runs full circle. You know, like a racecourse.

Speaking of horses, look out soon for another review of a new title from Skyhorse Publishing, Holy Cow! by Boze Hadleigh, a book about expressions of animal origin, which includes a whole section on horses.

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Book review: In a Manner of Speaking by Colin McNairn

At the Mashed Radish, I like to nibble on etymology, snacking on the origins of words and getting a taste of how they’ve changed over time. So, I was excited to get some bigger linguistic portions, if you will, when I read Colin McNairn’s In a Manner of Speaking: Phrases, Expressions, and Proverbs and How We Use and Misuse Them. The publisher, Skyhorse Publishing, kindly sent me a copy to review. I found the book very tasty and think you will, too.

Image from Skyhorse Publishing.

From higgledy piggledy and a pig in a poke to Bushisms and spoonerisms, In a Manner of Speaking has a big appetite. As McNairn states in his introduction:

This book is unlike most others in the field, for it’s not simply a compilation of expressions or sayings with meanings and their origins. Rather, it spins a narrative that “runs the gamut” of the characteristics of both tools of communication, including their style, their use of various literary devices, including metaphors, similes and other figures of speech, their recurring patterns, their encryption as acronyms and the varieties of images they draw upon–ranging from the world of animals to human anatomy to the food and drink that we consume. The book is also different from its predecessors in that it brings expressions and sayings together “under one roof” and illuminates their similarities and differences.

But McNairn has still more room on his plate: He also looks at how such language–mostly American English, though a good deal of British, Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian English, too–is “manipulated in a humorous fashion.”

His menu–if you’ll permit me to continue the metaphor in the spirit of this book–includes 16 chapters (er, courses) which classify and categorize various expressions based on a different feature, theme, or topic that, according to McNairn, underlies their usage.

He starts with rhyming and alliterative expressions (e.g., mumbo jumbodeader than a doornail), whose sound symbolism help give them their power. He moves on to idioms (break a leg) and amusing wordplay involving non-literal language, like such Wellerisms as “I’m dressed to kill,” as the recruit said when he donned his uniform. Next up is illogical expressions whose meanings have been obscured. For instance, the expression happy as a clam makes sense when you learn it was originally as happy as a clam in butter sauce.

McNairn then serves up coded expressions, such as euphemisms (pushing up daisies), acronyms (YOLO), and rhyming slang, such as the famed Cockney variety, all showing off the breadth of the material he draws from. He offers expressions that draw on places (a New York minute), expressions that draw on persons (like the northern English you’ll end up in Dickie’s meadow), expressions involving words whose meanings have evolved (the fell in one fell swoop, say), and expressions that rely on metaphor (walls have ears).

McNairn continues with an insightful chapter on the structure of certain sayings: Once an X, always an X or X is as X does. He proceeds to expressions that compete and contradict one another in the language: The early bird gets the worm but the second mouse gets the cheese. His courses keep coming with a chapter on sayings that originate in or are riffed on commerce (Just Do It) and another on ones that originate in Latin (carpe diem). He closes with chapters based on the body (thumbs up), animals (bell the cat), food (eat crow), and drinks (bottoms up).

As you might have guessed, In a Manner of Speaking scoops up a generous helping of content. And each chapter, moreover, is truly chock full of examples.

Many of his examples are toothy little morsels: Keeping up with the Joneses originates from a 1900s comic strip while the graffito Kilroy was here was popularized during World War II. Sometimes I learned something surprising and new: To call a spade a spade comes from a mistranslation of Greek. Sometimes I had a good chcukle: “Strine” is a term imitating Australian accents, famed from the writings of Afferback Lauder, a pseudonym that sounds like an Australian pronunciation of “alphabetical order.”

McNairn’s sources are delightfully eclectic: the Bible, Shakespeare, limericks, Monthy Python, fortune cookies, popular t-shirts, and the Urban Dictionary are all welcome In a Manner Speaking. The kinds of expressions are eclectic, too: mottos, slogans, proverbs, mock proverbs, dead metaphors, shaggy dog stories, clichés, snowclones, mondegreens, and eggcorns.

How about a taste? Here’s a fun passage from his chapter, “Animal Images”:

Although sucking eggs involved an admirable talent on the part of grandmothers, the demand “go suck eggs” developed as a slang form of derision in North America. That expression comes from the behavior of unwanted henhouse intruders, the skunk and the weasel, who are wont to come out at night “under cover of darkness” and suck out the contents of any eggs they find. At least “that’s what they say,” to add some “weasel words” to the narrative. The stoat, also know as the ermine, behaves in the same fashion as the weasel but, otherwise, the two species are readily distinguishable for, in the words of a punishingly bad joke (repeated here with suitable apologies), “one is weasily recognized and the other is stoatally different.” However, it’s worth noting, while temporarily mired at this low level of humor, that “stoat” and “weasel” do have certain similarities, for there’s an “a” in each and an “n” in neither.

I think this passage illustrates well McNairn’s style. His writing is fun, inviting, and easy to read. His tone is sometimes wry, sometimes zesty. His explanation of technical terms is clear. His organization is associative and well-paced.

However, I did find myself getting distracted by the use of expressions to explain expressions (e.g., “At least ‘that’s what they say'”… above), even if it illustrates just how much we rely on expressions.

(This, too, was ironically illustrated when he explains the literal meaning of expressions. For instance:

Many other similes refer accurately to familiar animal behavior patterns. For example, a strong draw or attraction, particularly to some thing, may be described as being “like bees to honey,” “like moths to a flame,” or “like flies to sugar.” These similes all trade upon the recognized susceptibilities or instincts of the named creatures.

His explanation, at least to me, is obvious to the point of it going without saying, but this only underscores how taken-for-granted expressions are in language.)

Further, I also found myself sometimes losing McNairn’s larger point due to the jumpiness of his narrative.

Speaking of his larger point, I liked how McNairn organizes expressions by type rather than merely listing out randomly interesting ones, but his effort at typology left me hungry for the deeper conclusions he drew about the very patterns he identifies. What do we make of and take away from the fact that some sayings rely on animal behaviors and others on food, that sound symbolism shapes some expressions while syntax forms others Perhaps some concluding remarks may have helped. Or perhaps McNairn is just “cooking that up” in his next book–which I would look forward to reading.

In a Manner of Speaking clearly “takes a big bite out of the apple,” as McNairn might say, and gives “a lot to chew on” and “filled me up.” Dig in.

By Colin McNairn
288 pp. Skyhorse Publishing. US $14.99.

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Comparisons are apt. Majorities are vast. Experiences are harrowing. Situations are hairy. Competition is stiff. Coffee is strong. Linguists describe this habitual juxtaposition or co-occurence of words as “collocation.” In her indictment of FIFA officials last week, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch used one example in describing the organization’s corruption as “rampant.”

Why do we describe corruption as “rampant”? I searched Google Books and came across an early example of the phrase in John Brown Patterson’s 1828 On the National Character of Athenians and the Causes of those Peculiarities by which it was Distinguished, an essay commissioned for a prize of 100 guineas by the University of Edinburgh to students there:

The national constitution having unfortunately, in great measure, taken for granted the virtue of its administrators, no check was found in the law to the rampant corruption.

The next citation I could find is in an 1836 Edinburgh publication of The Scottish Christian Herald and then in an 1847 London publication of the Wesleyan Methodist Association Magazine. Historically, we should recall, corruption frequently characterized moral depravity. And rampant–well, let’s have a look at the history of this word.


Today, rampant primarily refers to something spreading “unchecked.” Coming into English from the French, the word first appears, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), around 1300, when it frequently collocated with a very different noun: lion, as in “a lion rampant.” (Why does the adjective follow the noun? French generally places its modifiers after the noun. Linguistically, we call this a “postnominal adjective.” This is why we say, well, attorney general, due especially to the influence of Law French on English.)

Rampant originally described animals, particularly lions, “rearing or standing with the forepaws in the air” (OED). The term was especially used in heraldry, as in a lion depicted in rampant attitude on a crest:

“Rampant.” Doodle by @andrescalo.

A rampant posture was, unsurprisingly, a “ferocious” one. Thus, by the early to mid 1500s, rampant was describing something “fierce” and “in high spirits,” as in a rampant horse (OED). This was then likened to the phenomenon of something “running rampant,” like corruption, today.

The French rampant is formed from the verb ramper, “to climb” or “crawl,” which English eventually elevated into, say, a highway ramp or to ramp something up, among many other usages based on the verb ramp.  Rampage, first appearing verbally as rampaging in Scottish dialect as well as the wonderful adjective rampageous, may also be formed on ramp.

The French ramper may derive from the Frankish *hrampon, according to Baumgartner and Ménard. Frankish was a Germanic language, and some etymologists ground this *hrampon in the same Proto-Germanic root that gives English the very un-ferocious rumple and rimple: *hrimp- or *hrump-. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, this *hrimp- is reconstructed in the Proto-Indo-European *(s)kerb-, “to turn” or “bend,” perhaps also responsible for scorchshrimp, and scrimp, and maybe even the Welsh cromlech.

So, what it so rampant about a rumpleWell, Ernest Klein glosses the Frankish *hrampon as “to contract oneself convulsively.” Climbing and crawling, I suppose we can visualize, involve bodily contortions. Ramper‘s early usages in French may be instructive, as the verb was used of those wriggly reptiles, as well as of quadrupeds more generally, explaining the rearing of “rearing up.”

In FIFA’s case, then, we might understand rampant corruption as very rumpled white collar crime.

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