Last week, well over 700 people tragically died in a stampede in Mina, a neighborhood outside Mecca where Muslims carry out a symbolic stoning as part of the Hajj. This stampede occurred in the deserts of Western Asia, but the word stampede originates near the deserts of the American West.

Mortar and Pestle_Ink on Paper_doodle
“Mortar and pestle.” Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), English took to stampede in 1823. It is first cited as a verb describing a herd of cattle becoming panic-stricken and taking flight. The earliest record the OED finds is in The Austin Papers, firsthand documents left behind by Moses and Stephen F. Austins’ efforts to settle Texas. The capital of the Lone Start State still remembers their name.

English took stampede from the Mexican Spanish estampida, a special usage of estampido, a “crash,” “bang,” “boom,” or “uproar.” With the initial e dropped by a process called aphesis, early forms of stampede show its Spanish origins still settling in: stampado, stampedostampido, and stompado. The latter, stompado, also appears in an early passage illustrating the sonic intensity that inspired the Spanish word. In his 1826 novel, Francis BerrianOr the Mexican PatriotTimothy Flint writes of wild horses:

Instantly, this prodigious multitude, and there were thousands of them, took what the Spanish call “stompado.” With a trampling like the noise of thunder, or still more like that of an earthquake, a noise that was absolutely appalling, they took to their heels, and were all in a few moments in the verdant depths of the plains, and we saw them no more.

As we so sadly saw in Mina, human stampedes don’t have “verdant depths of the plains” to flee to.

The connection of stampedes to humans occurred quickly, evidenced in the OED very soon after its original usage appears. Stampedes have also referred to gold rushes, rodeos, and, at US political conventions, rushes to nominate “the candidate who seems likely to win,” (OED) which clearly remains to be seen in the current race for the White House.


Many scholars place the Spanish estampido in the Provençal estampar, “to stamp,” as in “to press” or “pound.” The word is common across the Romance languages, believed to have been borrowed from a Germanic root, *stamp-. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots sees this ultimately as a nasalized form of a Proto-Indo-European root, *stebh-, a “post” or “stem” in noun form, “to place firmly on” or “to fasten” in verb form. Staff, staplestepstoop, and stump are also considered derivatives – as is stamp, as you probably originally guessed.

Like its Romance cognates, stamp has taken on a variety of meanings over the centuries. Today, stamp likely evokes postage or foot-pounding for English speakers. But the earliest record we have for stamp in the language actually refers to mortar and pestles. The OED has evidence for a form of stamp as early as 1000, a verb meaning “to bray in a mortar.” As the OED helps us out,  the sense is “to pound” or “beat to a pulp.”

Let’s look not to the process but the product of a mortar and pestle, which has, for so long along our greater human pilgrimage, helped create medicine and nourishment – something that the many wounded in the stampede, or the many who have lost a loved one in it, well deserve.

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On popes, baseball, & engines

First, my last on pontiff was recently Freshly Pressed by WordPress. Be sure to check it out if you missed it.

Now, speaking of the Pope, if you’re in D.C., New York, or Philadelphia this week, you may want to snag some papal swag. Perhaps an “I (mitre) the pope” t-shirt? Seeking a humbler pontificate, Pope Francis might prefer his zucchetto over his mitre (or miter), but, if he truly wants to build bridges, he should put on that special high, arched, and cleft ceremonial headdress. For the etymology of mitre bridges – or should I say, weaves together – the microscopic, the macroscopic, and just about everything in between.

Mitre_Felt Tip and Sharpie on Paper_doodle
“Mitre.” Felt tip and Sharpie on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Papal hats and baseball caps 

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), English first dons mitre in Wycliffe’s Bible during the late 1300s. In one passage, mitre refers to the “ceremonial turban of a high priest,” from which we eventually inherit today’s term for this episcopal headgear.

But historically, mitre wore many hats. Even in other passages of Wycliffe’s Bible we see  other meanings the word had in its French, Latin, and, ultimately, Greek sources. As Liddell and Scott observe, the Ancient Greek μίτρα (mitra) was a “headband worn by Greek women to tie up their hair.” It was also a “Persian headdress or turban.” Principally, though, a mitra was a “belt or girdle worn around the waist beneath the cuirass.”

The OED also historically observes the mitre as “an Asian headdress,” curiously adding, “the wearing of which by men was regarded by the Greeks and Romans as a mark of effeminacy.” Speaking of turbans and curious associations, childhood friends of Yogi Berra, whom we lost this week, once “watched a feature [film] that had a Hindu fakir, a snake charmer who sat with his legs crossed and wore a turban on his head,” explains the Society for American Baseball Research. “When the yogi got up, he waddled and one of the boys joked that he walked like Lawdie. From then on Berra was known as Yogi.” (Lawdie was his Italian parents’ pronunciation of his given name, Lawrence).

Driving cells, driving cars

Now, some suppose that Greek’s μίτρα is derived from another Greek word, μίτος (mitos), “a thread of the warp” in weaving. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD) sees a common thread for mitra and mitos in the Proto-Indo-European root *mei-, “to tie.”

German scientists spun the Greek mitos into mitosis and mitochondrion. By 1887, Walther Flemming   likened to threads the chromosomes he observed during the process of what he called mitosis. In 1898, Carl Benda saw the chain-like engines of cells, which he dubbed mitochondria, as “thread granules.” The name of another German scientist – Rudolf Diesel – is remembered in the name of a different kind of engine, the manipulation of which scandalized Volkswagen this week.

Looking to the heavens

Fibers can be tied together. So can people, forming a “contract” or “friendship,” as the AHD glosses the Indo-Iranian descendant of *mei-, *mitram. This concept, sacred to ancient peoples (not to mention modern ones, too), was “divinized as a god,” the AHD goes on. Specifically, *mitram was represented in the Persian Mithras, the god of light, and the Vedic Mitra, also associated with the sun. Buddhists await the Maitreya, a future bodhisattva, successor to the Buddha and the Sanskrit root shared by Mitra.

Jordan Shipley observes that we see sacred bonds also formed in the Judaic tradition, viz. the covenants struck between Noah and Moses and God, respectively. The kingly title of rulers, Mithridates, is considered a theophoric form of Mithras.

The name of a current ruler, Vladimir Putin, who made headlines by asking to meet with Barack Obama next week, is from the Old Church Slavonic Vladimirŭ, meaning “ruling peace,” ironically enough, many might say. The Slavic *mirŭ is believed to mean “commune,” “joy,” or “peace,” according to the AHD, a sense preserved in Russian’s mir. For the connecting sense, think “bound together,” a lesson that would behoove our world leaders.

Out of this world, huh? That would be Mir, as in the former space station, named for this Russian word for “peace” and “world.”

Whew! Some of my connections may be a bit threadbare. But mitre, if etymology is any measure, turns out to be not only a Catholic word, but a truly catholic word as well.

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Pope Francis is visiting the US this week. His stances on climate change, homosexuality, divorce, and capitalism, among other issues, have been inspiring Catholics and non-Catholics alike. We might say he’s building bridges, a fitting description for a pontiff.

Like a bridge over troubled etymology?
Like a bridge over troubled etymology? “Bridge.” Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


Pontiff crosses into English from the French pontif in the late 1500s. The word originally named a “bishop” or any “high priest” but eventually settled on one in particular: the bishop of Rome, or the Pope. French fashioned pontif from Latin’s pontifex, a title which is certainly not ancient history. You can find the Pope on Twitter. He’s @pontifex; at @pontifex_lnhe even tweets in Latin.

Pontifex connects two Latin words: pons, “bridge,” and –fex, a “maker,” from the verb facere. Pontifices were powerful priests in Ancient Rome who helped administer religious law, with the pontifex maximus heading their council, or collegium. Over time, emperors, including Julius Caesar, came to function as the pontifex maximus. Early Roman Catholic bishops borrowed the title in the 4th century, with the bishop of bishops, the Pope, eventually donning the supreme title along with his mitre.

Why bridge building? Ernest Weekley comments that “bridge-building has always been regarded as a pious work of divine inspiration.” Indeed, the Tiber-spanning Pons Sublicius, the oldest known bridge in the city,  was sacred. In his History of Rome, Theodor Mommsen observes that the pontifices:

Derived their name from their function, as sacred as it was politically important, of conducting the building and demolition of the bridge over the Tiber. They were the Roman engineers, who understood the mysteries of measures and numbers

Eric Partridge adds that ancient Rome was known as the “city of bridges.” Metaphorically, the name works, with priests “bridging” gods and men, which the Online Etymology Dictionary points out, but this may be due to folk etymology, as we’ll see.

Pons also had an earlier meaning in Latin: a “path,” “road,” “way,” or “passage.” Ernest Klein  comments that the original meaning of pontifex was “waymaker” or “pathfinder.” Is this “way” also figurative? Well, Walter Skeat remarks that the early pontifex was “one who leads to the temple” or “leads the way in a procession. Jordan Shipley adds clergy in the Middle Ages helped pilgrims find the roads – and some argue oversaw their very construction – to sacred shrines. All roads lead to Rome, after all.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots grounds pons in the Proto-Indo-European *pent-, “to tread” or “go,” source of English’s path and find and even Russian’s sputnik.

Catholics may deem the Pope infallible, but none of these etymologies are. Pontifex, the “bridge builder,” may be the construction of folk etymology, which changes a word based on mistaken beliefs about its nature. Etymologists, including Weekley, suggest Oscan and Umbrian roots (puntis) meaning “propitiary offering.” Shipley connects this to the Greek pompe (πομπή), a “religious procession,” from a verb meaning “to send.” He goes on to say pontifex was originally pompifex. So, perhaps the more unfamiliar puntis or pompe was altered to resemble pontifex in sound and sense.

This Greek pompe produced the pomp in pomp and circumstance as well as pompous, which may characterize someone who is pontificating. This term began as “to perform the functions of a pontiff,” evolving to its current sense via the dogmatic decrees associated with powerful pontiffs. But for this pontifex, as we are seeing, pomp and pontification don’t build bridges. They burn them.

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Clerk (Part II)

In “Clerk (Part I),” we saw how the meaning of the English clerk has changed over the centuries. We also saw that this clerk ultimately derives from the Greek κλῆρος (kleros), an “inheritance” or “lot,” used in Greek texts of the Bible. So, what does “inheritance” or “lot” have to do with clergy, anyway? Scholars point to two Biblical usages of κλῆρος (kleros).

“Twigs.” Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Chapter and verse

The first is in Deuteronomy 18.2, where God is described as the “inheritance” of the Levites. All the ancient tribes of Israel, as it goes, were promised land except for the Levites. They were the priests. They were temple assistants. The original clerks, if you will. Due to their sacred, sacerdotal responsibilities, they weren’t allotted any land. Instead, they lived off the tithings the other landed tribes provided them.

The second is in Acts 1.17. Here, Judas is described as one of the “number” of the 12 apostles and “shared in” the ministry. After Jesus’ resurrection and Judas hanged himself, the apostles needed to replace him to carry out their ministry. The apostles cast lots between two other disciples, Barsabbas and Matthias. The “lot fell” to Matthias.  So close, Barsabbas.

And how did Ancient Greeks draw lots? Well, this κλῆρος (kleros) was literally a little “twig,” “wood chip,” “potsherd,” or, according to Liddell and Scott, even a “clod of earth.” Liddell and Scott point us to Homeric usages: Men would mark their lots, or little shards, and toss them into a helmet. Then, someone would shake the helmet and the first that fell out was the winning lot.

As the twig is bent

If we want to break apart κλῆρος (kleros) into smaller pieces, Proto-Indo-Europeanists direct us to *kel-, “to strike” or “cut,” with “derivatives referring to something broken or cut off” like a “twig” or “piece of wood,” to quote the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD). The AHD notes a number of other interesting derivates of *kelincluding the Germanic hilt and Hilda, the Celtic claymore, and the Italic gladiator. Apparently, the twig is mightier than the sword. Aside from clerk, Greek descendants also include clonecalamity, and iconoclast.

For as much as the word clerk has branched out, etymology and Kim Davis do have one thing in common: they both cite the Bible.

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Clerk (Part I)

County clerk Kim Davis went back to work yesterday after being released from jail over her refusal to issue same-sex marriage licenses in Rowan Co., Ky. Let’s have a closer look at her job description. Etymologically, that is.

Over the centuries, "clerk" has taken on different registers. "Register."  Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
Over the centuries, “clerk” has taken on many different registers. “Register.” Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first records clerk in the late 900s. Way back then, it took the forms of cleric and clerc, among other forms, and referred to “an ordained minister” in the Christian Church. During the Middle Ages, literacy was largely the domain of the clergy, whose very name is also related to clerk, as are cleric and clerical. These clerks often put their literacy to use for various secular purposes, helping with accounts, records, and other transactions that required their book learning.

So, by the 1200s, a clerk more generally came to describe “a person who could read and write.” Thus, Chaucer writes of the Clerk of Oxenford, a “scholar” from Oxford. Alas, his tale is not of a dictionary, but of marriage, fittingly enough. This sense of clerk remains in a law clerk, say, who helps a judge research an issue or write her opinions.

By the 1500s, with the further spread of literacy, clerk took off its collar. The term came to refer to “an officer in charge of the records, correspondence, and accounts” of an organization, as the OED observes. Such record-keeping is demanded of administrative or office work, which is why we might call it clerical work. Today, this term can take a pejorative tone, ironically enough for the rare and specialized ability that literacy historically was. Now that’s a clerical error, no?

This record-keeping sense of clerk also continues today in county clerk. A county clerk in the US is often in charge of the county’s vital records, such as birth and death certificates and marriage licenses, as we’ve seen (or not) in Kim Davis’s case.

Records, correspondence, accounts? The books? Shops have those, and so shops have clerks. The OED documents this clerk, a North American usage for a “shop-assistant,” by 1790. Today’s retail clerk can have a thankless job, if the hellish depiction of it in Kevin Smith’s indie film Clerks is any measure – once again ironic, given the history of the word.

“Lots” of Clerks

So, there have been a lot of clerks over the years. If we consider that language is constantly changing and the meanings of words evolve, this is the “lot” of clerk.

Whether borrowed directly or through French, all of the clerkly words we’ve seen thus far –  clergyclerkcleric, and clerical, not to mention the name and surname Clark – derive from Late Latin’s clēricus, a “priest” or “clergyman.” The word is technically a substantive adjective, meaning “of or belonging to the clērus.Clērus means, well, “clergy.”

This Latin term was used in early church writings, as was Ecclesiastical Greek before it, from which Latin took this clērusEcclesiastical Greek had κληρικός (klerikos)itself a term for the “clergy.” Literally, however, it meant “pertaining to an inheritance.” As Liddell and Scott explain, the root of this κληρικός (klerikos) is κλῆρος (kleros), a “lot,” as in “drawn by lots.” The term also was applied to “an allotment of land,” especially conquered foreign lands portioned out to citizens. English’s very own lot shares a similar sense development.

What could “inheritance” and “lot” possibly have to do with Christian ministry?  We’ll pick it up next post.

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Last post, I considered the origin of refugee. The word comes from Latin, as we saw, though so many of the actual refugees are fleeing Syria and other Middle Eastern and North African countries to seek asylum in Europe. Here, let’s seek the origin of asylum. 

Humans should not have to be cargo. "Cargo crates." Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
Humans should not have to be smuggled like cargo. “Cargo crates.” Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


In my experience, asylum evokes two phrases in the English language: political asylum and insane or lunatic asylum. The latter has largely and duly fallen out of use, but both terms are documented around the middle of the 19th century.

The earliest record of asylum in English comes in the form of asyle, attested in the late 1300s in Wycliffe’s Bible. Asylum is recorded by the early 1400s. As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it, an asylum initially was “a sanctuary or inviolable place of refuge and protection for criminals and debtors, from which they cannot be forcibly removed without sacrilege.” Over the next 200 years, the word became more general in its sense of “refuge.” Now, the word has again narrowed, this time to the political and humanitarian rather than the religious or psychological.

Where did English find asylumAsyle comes from French via Latin’s  asȳlum while English re-borrowed asylum directly from the same. Latin, in turn, took asȳlum from the Greek ἄσῡλον (asylon), a “refuge” or “sanctuary.” This word is formed from the adjective ἄσῡλος (asylos), “safe from violence,” “inviolable,” or “seeking protection.” Now, ἄσῡλος itself has two parts: ἄ (“not,” “without”) and σύλη/σύλον (syle/sylon). Connected to a verb meaning “to strip the armor off a slain enemy,” this σύλον ultimately names a maritime concept, according to Liddell and Scott: “The right of seizing the ship or cargo of a foreign merchant to cover losses received through him.”

For many of today’s refugees, it also comes down to ships – although in a very different manner, of course – as they risk perilous passage across the Mediterranean, hoping for asylum.

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According to the UN, more than 4 million refugees have fled Syria, among other countries, for neighboring countries and Europe. The humanitarian crisis is complicated, dramatic, and tragic, as we so sadly observed in the toddler who washed ashore a Turkish beach.

As the international community figures out how to help the refugees, some debate has flared over what to call these humans displaced by horrible events in their homelands. At The Wall Street Journal, lexicographer Ben Zimmer weighed in on loaded history of the term refugee. 

As Ben notes, refugee, a term also contentiously employed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina,

owes its roots to persecution in 17th-century France. When Louis XIV declared Protestantism illegal in 1685, many thousands of Protestant Huguenots sought refuge in other countries. English-speakers quickly adopted the French “refugié.”

Finding structure in fleeing. "Apophyge."  Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
Finding structure in fleeing. “Apophyge.” Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites the word in 1671. Refugees seek refuge, a word that has variously meant “shelter” and “protection” as well as “evasion,” documented by the OED around the 1400s. The source is the Latin refugium, a “place of refuge,” from the verb refugere, “to run away from.”  Refugere is formed from fugere, with related senses of “to escape” or “to flee,” connected to the noun fuga: “flight,” “escape,” “avoidance,” and “exile,” among other shades of meaning.  A related verb is fugāre, “to put into flight.” Indo-European scholars reconstruct a Proto-Indo-European root, *bheug-, “to flee.”

Fugere and fuga have run from Latin into a number of other English words. We have fugitive, “fleeing (the law).” And we have the more recondite fugacious, a term for “fleeting,” “ephemeral,” and “volatile.”  Then there is subterfugea sneaky stratagem to evade blame or reach one’s goals. Latin’s subter– means “below” or “underneath.”

Also relevant to recent headlines about the Iran nuclear deal is centrifuge. The earliest form in English, centrifuge, was an adjective, “center-fleeing.” Isaac Newton coined the term centrifugus in his groundbreaking studies of mechanics. He also counted its opposite, centripetus, “center-seeking,” which yields centripetal.

The current refugee crisis is wrenching, but there may be hope yet, if Germany and etymology are any measure. Fugere and fuga also generated febrifuge, an old term for a “fever reducer.” Febris is Latin for “fever.” Related are feverfew and featherfew, names for a plant historically used to help fight fevers. And we have the beauty of a fugue, whose defining  counterpoint suggested “flight” in its original Italian formulation.

But it’s going to take a lot more than music and medicine to resolve the crisis. It’s going to require systematic structure and support – across the world, not to mention within Syria. Much like what is provided by a surprising architectural cognate of refugee: Sturdy and load-bearing pillars or columns, whose apophyges curve from the shaft into the capital or base. The word is from the Greek ἀποϕυγή (apophyge), “escape,” from a verb (φεύγωmeaning “to flee,” describing the way a column’s shaft “escapes” into its head or base.

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Strong language, strong numbers

Be advised: There’s some swearing ahead.

In spite of being all about zero, I think my latest post on Strong Language has it all: linguistics, mathematics, politics, sociology, media and cultural studies. I can’t even keep count. Good thing  we have the Count.

The Count gives zero fucks. Image from Quickmeme.

But you should ignore him. Give a fuck and head on over to Strong Language for my piece, “Something from nothing: A zero-fucks game.” It takes a brief look into an interesting sweary construction I’ve observed, zero-fucks-X.

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It’s been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and regions along the Gulf Coast. This past month, many news organizations have been reflecting on Katrina – and lessons we’ve learned from it – as the region continues to recover and rebuild. Are there any lessons in the origin of the word hurricane?

"Hurricane." A Taino depiction of of storm goddess Guabancex. Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Hurricane.” A depiction of the swirling-armed Taíno storm goddess, Guabancex, who commanded the ferocious storms. Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the earliest evidence of hurricane actually comes in two forms: furacane and haurachana. These words appear in British scholar Richard Eden’s 1555 translation of some important historical works that chronicle Spain’s exploration – er, colonization – of the Americas. One of the works, Peter Martyr d’Anghiera’s De orbe novo decades, gives the Spanish huracán; the other, Oviedo’s La natural hystoria de las Indias, gives furacán.

Why were there two forms? In a phonological process called debuccalization, Spanish changed certain word-initial Latin f’s to h’s around the 16th century. So, Latin’s facere (“to do”) became Spanish’s hacerfabulari (“to say”) became hablar. But huracán/furacán aren’t from Latin, though the pair documents subsequent switching of and f spread by the sound shift. Huracán/furacán, rather, come from the Caribbean.

Indigenous to the Caribbean were the Arawak people, including a subgroup, the Taíno, who inhabited the Greater Antilles. Spanish colonization decimated their population, but not without first taking some language, of course. In Taíno mythology, the anger of the goddess Guabancex unleashed powerful storms, or huraca’n – sometimes personified itself as an evil god of chaos, possibly derived from a powerful Mayan creator deity of wind, fire, and storms, Hurakan. Guabancex commanded Guatabá, who brought thunder and lightning, and Coatrisquie, who brought floods, forming a formidable trio that wreaked meteorological havoc.

Very sadly, I can’t pull down a dictionary of Taíno or Mayan etymology from my shelf, so I can’t speak to the deeper origins of huraca’n or Hurakan with any certainty. But the Mayan Hurakan is said to mean “one-legged,” as he was so physically manifested, while some Taíno indigenous culture and heritage websites break down huraca’n as “center of the wind” (hura, “wind”; c’an, “center”).

Whatever the particular origin of hurricane, both Hurakan and Guabancex wielded the destructive power of hurricanes, but both were also associated with creation. Hurakan helped create the world in Mayan cosmology. Some consider Guabancex the destructive face of the Taíno supreme being, complementary to the creative forces of nature.

Neither etymology nor mythology can restore New Orleans as it was before Hurricane Katrina. Nor do their insights necessarily bring any consolation. But perhaps they can remind us of some fundamental lessons of nature – human nature included – that mythology’s dualities capture so well: Out of destruction can come the chance to make new, to make better. Out of destruction can come creation.

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