“We two roam by the sea.” Or so I’ve attempted in Aleut.

My wife and I have taken to Alaska, the 49th state to join the Union but the 50th state my wife has visited. The dual tense verb alágukik may also mean “we two travel by baidarka,” with a baidarka the iconic Aleutian kayak. For our trip, we’ll just pretend baidarka is “cruise.”

The stem of this verb is alág, which, according to my research, is related to the Aleut word for “sea” and basis for the very name Alaska. According to the OEDAlaska is from the Aleut alaxsxix, “the object toward which the action of the sea is directed” – or “mainland.” There is evidence of Aljaska in the Russian of late 18th-century explorers there.

Alaska may be “the Last Frontier,” but its etymology is all about the sea.

The region is quite literally the last frontier of the Aleut language, with well under 500 speakers remaining. The US bought Alaska from Russia in 1867 – the “Alaska Purchase” – for $7.2 million, or 2 cents (2 cents!) an acre. Apparently, the storied Delmonico’s over on the other side of the US, New York City, baked some ice cream in a pastry and called it a “Baked Alaska” back in 1882 to commemorate of the event.

And I can think of no better way to commemorate our event – my wife’s birthday – than by serving up a little etymology. Happy birthday!

The Mashed Radish will be back in August.

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As noted in my last post on deal, the agreement the US, the UK, France, Germany, China, and Russia reached with Iran to limits Iran’s nuclear program took two years of intense negotiations. Certainly, the deal did not come together easily, fittingly enough for the etymology of negotiation.

Sword, aside. “Negotiation.” Doodle by me.


English has been negotiating negotiation since the early 1500s, adopting the word directly – or lazily, shall we say – from the French négociation, “business.” Early on, a negotiation named a “business transaction,” referring to political agreements by the middle of the century. By the end of the century, the verb form is recorded, apparently a back-formation of the noun. Today, we might also negotiate a turn; this sense of skillful maneuvering appears by the late 19th century.

The French négociation made a quick transaction with Latin’s negōtium, also meaning “business.” If you are working, you are not relaxing. This is etymologically true for negōtium: the word joins neg– (“not”) and ōtium, “leisure, free time, relaxation.” So, a negotiation is literally “not leisure.”

Also featured in English words like negative, neg– comes from Latin’s nec, an adverb meaning “no” or “not.” Nec has deeper Proto-Indo-European roots: *ne-, as you might have guessed, also means “no” or “not.”

As for ōtium? The origin is unknown. That long o might sound a wide yawn of leisure, but then how do you explain ōdium, “hatred”? That long o now assumes a different character, no? Alas, some etymological efforts are otiose, or “fruitless,” in an earlier sense of this ōtium derivative now largely meaning “lazy.”

That said, ōtium could take on some more specific meanings in Latin, such as “retirement,” particularly from public affairs. Some of the earliest usages of the word are military, referring to breaks in the fighting, which, in the campaigns of antiquity, might have lasted long winters.

They say the pen is mightier than the sword. In the case of ōtium, it might be more leisurely. Enjoying ōtium, the Roman might have attended to his or her personal affairs, or perhaps engaged in the more refined pursuits of discourse – of art and philosophy, just as we saw in my post on the origin of school, which derives from the Ancient Greek for “leisure.”

Today, we consider diplomatic negotiations as alternatives to war. Etymologically, that was true was the otiations. Either way, great things happen when we put down our weapons.

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First off, in case you missed the magenta, the Mashed Radish has a new look. Let me know what you think. Special thanks to my brother, Andrew, whom you probably know for the doodles he whips up for my posts, for the new images and input. Now, back to etymology.

Last week, after years of negotiation, the US brought together five world powers to reach a historic deal with Iran limiting that country’s nuclear development. True to the etymology of the word, the deal has quickly proved “divisive.” Let’s negotiate the origin of deal.

“Deal.” Ink, Sharpie, highlighter, and ballpoint on lined paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

No big deal

The English language has been dealing with deal for quite a long time. Originally, a deal was no big deal. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds record of the word as early as 700, when a deal or dǽl in Old English, was a “part” or “portion” of something, such as some deal of flour.

We’ve largely lost this sense of the word, although it does survive in the expression “a good (or great) deal (of).” A good deal of people feel the Iran agreement is a good deal; a good deal of people, of course, feel not.

Deal with it

By the end of the first millennium, the OED cites deal in verbal form: “to divide,” hence “to distribute” or “to share,” pointing to its later “transactional” sense – as well as its deeper origins, as we will see later. Over the centuries, deal broadened to signify “to take part in,” “to handle (or deal with),” “to do business with,” and, by the mid 1500s, “to distribute cards.”

The OED traces its current sense of a business deal back to slang in the late 1830s. Some decades later in the US, a deal had shadier connotations, referring to secret, underhand agreements. A bad deal – or raw or rough deal – was cheating, which many fear Iran will do in its deal. This usage might be connected to cheating at cards, which would require a new deal  (or “fresh start”for a square or fair deal.

Teddy Roosevelt dealt a Square one, of course. Big deal: His distant cousin, FDR, dealt a New one. A real deal can be a big steal, unless the dealer is wheeling and dealing.

Ordeal or no deal 

Some think the Iran deal isn’t a big deal but a big ordeal. Ordeal is indeed related to deal, featuring  a Germanic prefix meaning “out.” Originally, an ordeal was a “dealing out” of judgment, as accused persons were once put to trial – by an ordeal of fire, hot water, cold water, or combat, among other tests – believed to be “divine proof” of guilt or innocence, the OED notes. If the accused lives, God has intervened and the person is judged innocent.

Now that’s quite the ordeal. The word reemerged in the 1600s as a trial or test more generally.

Let’s make a deal

As we saw before, deal meant “to divide” many centuries ago. This meaning deals directly with the further origins of the word, as historical linguists reconstruct the word, common to the Germanic languages, in the Proto-Germanic root *daili-z (or *dailaz), in turn from the Proto-Indo-European *dail-, “to divide.” Dole also derives from this form.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots reaches further, proposing *dail- as Northern variant of *da-, also “to divide.” According to the dictionary, time and tide, which we might understand as more primitive “dividers” of the human terrestrial experience, also derive from *da-.

As might the Greek δῆμος (demos)which originally described a  particular political “district” in society, “divided” off, you might read, from other ones. Demos came to name “the common people,” giving us democracy – which will go to work when the US Congress takes up the Iran deal.

Deal_Ink Sharpie Highlighter and Ballpoint_scribbles

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Well over three billion miles from home, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has been sending back a treasure trove of images and information in its historic flyby of the dwarf planet Pluto. A treasure trove indeed, if we look to the etymology of Pluto.

Trans-Neputnian. "Gem." Ballpoint on lined paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
Trans-Neputnian. “Gem.” Ballpoint on lined paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Of gods and dogs

American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona in February 1930. With the discovery a sensation worldwide, the observatory took suggestions for the new celestial body’s name. A young student of classical mythology captivated by the new finding, 11-year-old Venetia Burney in Oxford, England suggested the name Pluto after the Greek god of the underworld. Her grandfather, a former Oxford librarian, passed her suggestion along to an astronomy professor at the university, who then cabled it the United States. In March, the name won the observatory’s vote, so it goes, as the god Pluto is concealed deep in his underworld just as the planet hides deep in the solar system. Additionally, Pluto’s first two letters nod to the observatory’s founder’s initials, Percival Lowell.

Walt Disney’s debuted his Pluto in 1931’s Moose Hunt. We don’t fully know the origin of Mickey’s dog’s name, but many suggest that Disney was inspired by the Pluto-mania of the day. Plutomania, or “the obsession with wealth,” is a rather different craze.

The root of all Pluto

In Greek mythology, Pluto (ΠλούτωνPloutōn) is an alternate name and identity for Hades, god of the underworld. He was associated – and confused – with Ploutos (Πλοῦτος), the Greek god of wealth, a domain Pluto himself was also known to rule over. See, riches like silver and gold come from Pluto’s territory: under the earth. Further, Pluto’s wife, Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, brought with her other treasures of the earth – grain – when she seasonally emerged from the underworld.

Pluto passed from Greek to Latin, entering into English as early as 1330 to refer to the Roman figuration of this god.

Greek has πλοῦτος (ploutos), meaning “wealth” and “riches.” The sense of ploutos, then, may originally been “overflowing,” as the American Heritage Dictionary of Proto-Indo-European Roots posits. Greek lexicographers Liddell and Scott connect ploutos to a verb πίμπλημι (pimplēmi), “to fill full.” The OED proposes a connection to πλεῖν, “to swim” or “to float.” These forms point our probe towards that Pluto of etymology, Proto-Indo-European, with an ultimate root *pleu, “to flow.” This root also yields English’s flow and flood – and fly, as in that very flyby of Pluto, if an etymology was ever to orbit itself. Via Latin, pluvial, “relating to rain,” is also so descended.

Lexicographer Eric Partridge suggests polus (πολύς), “many” or “much,” source of English’s prefix poly-. This is related to a Proto-Indo-European root that gives English full.

Of gods and men

News Horizons is the first flyby of Pluto, which is so incomprehensibly far away. Its images and information have certainly enriched our understanding of this dwarf planet, its moons, and its neck of the solar system. But what’s more, it has enriched our sense of what is possible, bestowing on professional astronomers and dreamy stargazers alike the riches of perspective: how immense the feats of man’s imagination, how tiny our place in the universe. If only that sense of wonder is what governed us under a plutocracy.


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English spelling can be a mess. Take the word debtmaking its own mess in Greece as we’ve seen, which features a b we write but don’t say. Whence the b?


For everything else, there's debt. "Debt." Doodle by @andrescalo.
For everything else, there’s… “Debt.” Red marker and yellow felt-tip on lined paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

As it appears in the English of the late 14th century, debt is recorded as dete. No b, for the word comes to English from the Old French dette. No b, as that was lost – in a process linguists call elision – when those early French speakers were shaping it from the Latin debitum, “debt.” Literally, debitum means a thing “owed,” a past participle of the verb debēre, “to owe.”

Starting in the Middle Ages, some scholars ‘restored’ the spelling to include its Latin b, which spelling stuck sometime in the 16th century. In this case, scribes were imitating Latin manuscripts. This effort may have aided understanding, linking the English spelling with its Latin root. The scribes may also have believed they were ‘elevating’ the English language to the likes of antiquity. Doubt, subtle, and receipt also reflect this phenomenon.

Debēre itself joins and elides the prefix de- (“away from”) and habēre (“to have, hold”). Debt, then, is literally something “away from having.” Debitdue, and duty also derive from debēre. The verb produced dever in Old French, or “duty.” A French expression meaning “to make it one’s duty” features the phrase en devoir, “in duty,” source of English’s endeavor.

And for habithabitat, and inhabit, English is also indebted to habēre – as well as malady, with its French root ultimately eliding the Latin male habitus, “in a bad [physical] condition.” Able, too, is from the verbvia the Latin habilis (“easy to hold”). Renaissance scholars try to ‘restore’ its h, too, but this didn’t stick.

Ultimately, a debt is dependent upon some sort of gift. This holds true, too, etymologically, if we’re generous. Indo-European scholars take the Latin habēre back to the Proto-Indo-European *ghabh-, a reciprocal root meaning “to receive” or “to give.” “To hold” something, perhaps, implies you can give it away or keep it for yourself.

Etymology doesn’t make economic debt any easier, but, concerning why we spell debt as we do, it helps.


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This past Sunday, Greece voted “No” to the terms – or more austerity measures or policies, as many describe them – of a new bailout from its international creditors. While modern Greece’s economic austerity may be due to the fact that it is in debt to its creditors, the origin of the word austerity is in debt to Ancient Greece.

“Austerity.” Crayola marker, ink, ball point, and felt-tip on lined paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


In its economic sense of “restraint in public spending,” the OED first attests austerity in a famous 1937 declaration by economist John Maynard Keynes in the London Times: “The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity of the treasury.” This term became more widely popular, the OED observes, during the rationing of the Second World War.

Austerity, of course, is a noun form of austere, first appearing in the late 14th century. The OED cites it in Wycliffe’s Bible, where it used to describe a “stern disposition.” Indeed, austere was early on confused with stern, thus appearing as austerne. Stern has a different origin.

The English austere comes from the French austere, in turn from the Latin austērus. As is often the case, the Latin is owed to the Greek: here, αὐστηρός (austeros). Across all of these languages, austere has not been so austere, semantically speaking, variously describing something “strict,” “severe,” “rough,” “harsh,” or “bitter,” much like a very astringent wine.

Indeed, some of the earliest uses of the Greek αὐστηρός, according to the likes of Liddell and Scott, refer to foods and wines “making the tongue dry.” The Greek αὐστηρός is ultimately formed on αὖος (auos), “dry.” Indo-European linguists have derived this word from the Proto-Indo-European *saus-, “dry.”

The hypothetical root *saus- also produced the English sear as well as the more archaic sere, whose earliest senses are “dry” and “withered.” Around the corner is the month of August, once referred to as Sere month in English. The reddish-brown color sorrel has also been connected to this root.

After hitting too much of the *saus-, I suppose, one should really want to dry out.

Withered (Stones) Tongue - scribbles

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Language “for the birds”: New guest post at Oxford Dictionaries

I have a new guest post up on Oxford Dictionaries’ OxfordWords blog. This one is called “Language ‘for the birds’: The origins of ‘jargon’, ‘cant’, and other forms of gobbledygook.” Here is a sample:

‘Infarction’? ‘Heretofore’? ‘Problematize’CathexisDisrupt? Doctors have their medicalese, lawyers their legalese, scholars their academese. Psychologists can gabble in psychobabble, coders in technobabble. For people outside these professions, all their jargon seems ‘for the birds’ — all too true, if we look to the origin of the word jargon and its common synonyms. Let’s cut through all the jargoncantpatoisargot, and gobbledygook with a look at the origins of these terms naming the specialized languages used by particular professions or social groups.


The downsizing or leveraging of corporate speak may be a modern phenomenon, but English has been prattling jargon for centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites jargon as early as the mid-14thcentury, naming ‘nonsense’ or ‘gibberish’. But a usage a few decades later — in Chaucer’s late 14th-century Merchants Tale – suggests the word’s etymology: “He was al coltish ful of ragerye / And ful of Iargon as a flekked pie”. Full of jargon as a flecked magpie: no, that’s not the fustian speech of a pretentious intellectual, but ‘the chattering or twittering of birds.’ By 1651, the OED records jargon’s contemptuous sense of ‘any mode of speech abounding in unfamiliar terms’, citing Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan.

The English jargon derives from the Old French jargon, also describing the ‘warbling of birds’. The Old French jargon was recorded in other forms, such as gargon, which may look a little familiar if you’ve ever gargled any mouthwash. For many etymologists take jargon back to the same source as gargle (and, due to their mouthy spouts on their cathedral roosts, gargoyle): garg-, a root imitating or echoing the sound of noises made in the throat. I wouldn’t recommend any mouthwash for your boss’s jargon any time soon.

Head on over to the blog to read the full post and learn what cantpatois, argot, and gobbledygook also have to do with birds. Be sure to check out the other great content on the OxfordWords blog and the always incredible Oxford Dictionaries.

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Book review: Holy Cow! by Boze Hadleigh

We’ve sighted a lot of different animals in the etymological safari that is the Mashed Radish. We’ve run with horse, talked turkey, reared up like a lion and wriggled like a shrimp with rampant, raised yearlings in old veteran, and raced with huskies in mush. We’ve sported with hawks and cardinals. We’ve traversed entire hemispheres in the native Quechuan habitat of condor and llama. We’ve even walked alongside a stegosaurus in thug.

But animals just don’t run wild in the origin of individual words: They also come in droves throughout the English language, from raining cats and dogs to currying favor. In his new book, Holy Cow! Doggerel, Catnaps, Scapegoats, Foxtrots, and Horse Feathers – Splendid Animal Words and Phrases, author Boze Hadleigh goes whole hog with his veritable menagerie of “the origin stories and the definitions of hundreds (at least!) of animal-related words, phrases, and expressions,” as he writes in his introduction. Skyhorse Publishing, whose In a Manner of Speaking I also recently enjoyed, kindly sent me a copy of Holy Cow! to review.

Perhaps like a zoo arranges its exhibits, Hadleigh organizes his book into five chapters: dogs, cats, horses, other mammals, and non-mammals. Each chapter takes a very comprehensive look at the various – and truly numerous ways – we talk like the animals.

Image from Skyhorse Publishing.

Let’s take dog as an example. Hadleigh serves up the history of hot dog and explains the meaning of hair of the dog and see a man about a dog. He discusses dog in various expressions like dog days or dog tags as well as in various words like dogwatch and doggerel. He looks into dogs in marketing, such as RCA’s Nipper, and dogs in the garden, such as dogwood. Hadleigh also covers many dog-related items, such as curbitchpuppy, and bark. I learned, for example, that harass may be from an Old French verb “to set a dog on” while chow, as in “food,” is related to Chinese expressions for food. According to Hadleigh, hush puppies were so-called due to their use either to quiet hunting dogs or hungry children amid the poverty of the postbellum South.

Passages like the origin of harass or hush puppy represent what I think the text does best. Lousy indeed comes from louse, the singular form of lice. To go whole hog might be come from the option of buying the whole pig, rather than just choice cuts, from the butcher at a discounted price. Canary the bird is named for the Canary Islands, whose Latin name actually describes an island of dogs (think canine). And jaywalker is a curious specimen:

Jays, member of the crow family, usually with blue feathers, thrived along the east coast of what is now the US when European colonists arrived. As more and more arrived, most jays withdrew to the country. By the mid 1700s jay was a nickname for a country bumpkin. Rural visitors to growing cities were often baffled by the traffic, not knowing where or when to cross the street, and sometimes doing so without looking. By the early 20th century a jaywalker was what he or she is now. Today they should really know better.

As this passage illustrates, Hadleigh’s writing is clear and easy to read. For as wide-ranging it is, his content comes in small chunks, making the text one you can easily pick up and put down, as I did at the airport, at a cafe, even at a bar. Again, Holy Cow! reads like going to the zoo: You can admire linguistic creatures great and small while strolling through the chapters at your own pace, taking away an interesting fact or two as you appreciate all the ways animals have populated our language.

I did have questions about some origins and thus wish Hadleigh provided us more information about his sources than just occasionally quoting Mario Pei or the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. A bibliography would also have been not only useful but also appropriate. The text could have marked words or phrases when they are being referred to as such (e.g., italicizing jaywalker in the passage quoted above), a standard practice which makes meaning clearer and the text easier to follow. I also would have appreciated some final remarks.  What did Hadleigh learn about the human animal and its language from gathering up so many animal terms into this ark of a text?

That said, Holy Cow! is a fun read. I found it very entertaining and enjoyable due in part to Hadleigh’s accessible organization and wide-ranging content and in part to the sheer fact that, as he notes in his introduction, “humans have always been drawn to animals.” It’s true. Hadleigh’s admiration for both animals and language comes across clearly in this book, and I think you, too, would enjoy a trip to his linguistic zoo.

By Boze Hadleigh
320 pp. Skyhorse Publishing. US $14.99.

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Forget fireworks: Nothing says “Fourth of July” like bunting. Gazebos and porches, ready your railings for some…cloths for sifting flour?

Light your sparklers. "Flour." Doodle by @andrescalo.
Light your sparklers. “Flour.” Felt-tip on lined paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


The OED first cites bunting in 1742 in a naval context, naming the worsted cloth used to make flags. Now, bunting can name an individual flag and flags more generally. I tend to associate bunting with the semi-circular flags displayed during the US’s Independence Day.

So, why buntingThe origin is unknown, but many have conjectured that it derives from a dialectical form of bunt, “to sift meal.” Another term for this is bolt, as in a bolting-cloth whose mesh weave served as a sieve for flour–and, apparently, as a fabric for flags.

In addition to flour, your kitchen may house a tammy cloth, which some think derives from the French étamine, a “bolting-cloth” and “bunting.” This word, related to stamen, has by analogy inspired the aforementioned derivation of bunting, though the OED doubts that it makes it through the sieve, so to speak.

Instead, we might not look to the material of bunting but its pattern, such as the red, white, and blue of the US’s patriotic banners. German has bunt and Dutch bount for “parti-coloured,” the OED notes

As for bunt? It may be a form of bolt (or boult), “to sift,” which might be related to the word bureau, originally named for a dark woolen cloth, later the desk on which it was laid. Ernest Klein, however, takes bunt back to the Latin bonus (sifted through *bonitare, “to make good,” which was then filtered through Old French).

Amber waves of grain? Federal bureaucracy? The good that comes with any public holiday? Whatever its origin, the etymology of bunting has got America covered on July 4th.

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