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.
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.