If you’re reading this at work, at least your boss won’t be catching you shopping. Yes, it’s Cyber Monday, the Internet’s Black Friday. This online retail event was created by some very smart marketers in 2005. The word cyber was created, too, in its own way, by a very smart person and not too long ago. But its etymological inspiration is much older.

Talk about web navigation. “Cyber.” Doodle by me.  


Ironically yet fittingly, the once futuristic-sounding cyber already seems a bit dated. Ironically, because it’s a relatively young word. Fittingly, because, as technology swiftly changes today, so, too, does its language.

Cyber is a back-formation of cybernetics, used by American mathematician Norbert Wiener in his 1948 Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Put (not so) simply, cybernetics studies the self-regulating systems at work in complex organisms and machines.

Shortened from this cybernetics as early as the 1960s, cyber– was liberally prefixed to various phenomena of the computer age.  A prominent and influential example, cyberspace was coined by science fiction author William Gibson in 1982. Another author, Bruce Bethke, dreamed up cyberpunk in 1983.

But the cybercafe and cybersex of the 1990s – and many other neologisms that mushroomed during that decade – seem like curios of the past. I would guess that the ubiquity of the Internet – and everything we do on and through fast-changing technology – renders the descriptive prefix, well, obsolete.

Interestingly, cyberattack, cyber-security, and cyber warfare, still maintain currency. Cyber-bullying, too. These, perhaps, have staying power due to their widespread governmental and institutional usage. And Cyber Monday, of course, has turned 15.

While cyber may sound ancient today, its roots are in fact ancient. Via the connecting sense of guiding a system, Wiener’s cybernetics is formed on the Greek κυβερνήτης, or kybernetes, meaning “steersman,” “helmsman,” or “pilot,” as Liddell and Scott gloss it. This noun is rooted in the verb κυβερνᾶν, or  kybernan, “to steer (a ship).” Wiener may have been influenced by cybernétiquecoined by French scientist André-Marie Ampère for the “science of government.” (The scientific unit, the ampere, remembers him, too.)

The Greek kybernetes sailed into Latin as gubernator, hence gubernatorial. After passing into French, Latin’s gubernator eventually yielded English’s own govern and governor. The metaphorical pilot-as-leader is documented early on in all languages. So, if your boss finds you checking out on Amazon this Cyber Monday, just say how it showcases your executive experience.

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Letters, bones, & sides: etymology around the web

Waiting in long lines this Black Friday? Stuck in holiday traffic? Still recovering from a food coma? Need a little break from your family? Well, I’ve got you covered with some etymological entertainment in a few of my posts published around the web. Be advised: some strong language ahead.

Ever wonder what the A in fucking A stands for? Awesome? Asshole? As some Canadians joke, eh? Learn your sweary alphabet over at Strong Language with my piece, “What the fuck is the ‘A’ in ‘fucking A’?” Slate’s Lexicon Valley also published this piece.

The US Thanksgiving dinner offers so many delicious side dishes. So, too, the English language, with its many side words. For example, did you know that sideburns are named after an American Civil War general? Over at Oxford Dictionaries’ blog, go inside side with my post, “The many ‘sides’ of Thanksgiving…and the English language.”

Did you break a wishbone this US Thanksgiving holiday? This custom seems innocent enough, but the term may just have a naughtier past, if we look to merrythought, an earlier British term for this bone. Read more over at Strong Language (and Slate’s Lexicon Valley) in my “Merry thoughts, naughty bits: Putting the ‘bone’ in wishbones.”

Finally, if you’re new to my blog, you may enjoy my piece last year on the globe-gobbling origin of the word turkey.

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“Recipe”: it’s just what the doctor ordered

Worried about a culinary emergency this US Thanksgiving? Panicking about your menu? Sending out an SOS to Butterball’s Turkey Talk-line? Fear not: follow your recipes. It’s just what the doctor ordered, etymologically speaking.

Take with food. “Recipe.” Doodle by me.


English vocabulary owes a great deal to Latin, as we know, especially as filtered through French. But there are some Latin words – as Latin words – hiding right under our noses. Take recipe. It means “take.” It’s a Latin verb, pure and simple. Well, technically speaking, it’s the 2nd-person singular imperative of recipere. This word had various meanings, but, for our purposes here, will consider “take in” or “take back.”

In the Middle Ages, physicians headed their prescriptions with the Late Latin recipe, followed by a list of ingredients and instructions. So, recipe signified: “Take (the following substances as prescribed).” Over time, doctors abbreviated this recipe as ℞ –now often Rx – still used today to begin prescriptions and as a pharmaceutical symbol more generally. As David Sacks notes in his alphabet history Letter Perfect, “The x represents what was once a fancy crossbar [cf. ], inked onto the R’s tail as an identifying sign at the prescription’s start.”

Recipe is first recorded in the 1300s as a verb. By the 1500s, we see the word used as a noun, extended to cooking by a century later, where it has since prevailed. We can easily see how a recipe‘s ingredients and instructions jumped from medicine to cooking. Via French, the Latin recipere also formulated receipt, which was also used early on for medical prescriptions. This was superseded by its monetary sense, which emerges in the late 1500s.

Receivereception, and recipient are other words derived from Latin’s recipere. Literally, this recipere joins re-, “back,” and capere, “to take,” both of which densely populate the English language. But, with the recipes done and the food on the table, the only thing the Thanksgiving chef may want to “take back” is a stiff drink.  That’s one prescription I know I’ll be refilling this holiday.

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Laces and lashes: the origin of “scourge”

In the wake of the Paris attacks, world leaders have been condemning the scourge of terrorism. It is a powerful and forceful word, one we reserve for the most extraordinary of calamities and afflictions. But it might just have a very ordinary origin. Let’s have a look at the etymology of scourge.

Shoelaces that just won’t stay tied can be a real scourge, etymologically speaking. “Scourge.” Doodle by me.


Scourge has been lashing the English language since the early 1200s. Back then, it meant “whip,” particularly one used for punishment. By the late 1300s, a scourge was “a thing or person that is an instrument of divine chastisement,” as the OED explains. (And you thought a spanking was rough.)

Today, a scourge is not necessarily religious in its connotation, though it can feel biblical in its proportions, such is the sense of “great suffering” it inflicts.

In 1066, after the Normans scourged the English in battle, they also scourged English in language, so to speak. Scourge develops from the Anglo-French escorge, related to or derived from the Old French escorgiee, also “whip.”

For the origin of this French escorgiee, there are two arguments, both taking us back to Latin.

The first argues for the Vulgar Latin *excoriāta, “whip,” from the Latin verb, excoriāre, “to strip off the hide.” This verb joins ex- (“off”) and corium (“skin, hide”). An excoriation, so derived from this verb, is one (tongue) lashing you definitely want to avoid. And Ernest Weekley doesn’t ease our pain here: “It is uncertain whether the hide was [originally] that of the implement (cowhide) or the sufferer.”

The second argues for the Vulgar Latin *excorrigia, “whip,” in this case fusing the same Latin ex- with corrigia, a “shoelace.” Now, the Ancient Romans did wear some wicked kicks, involving substantial thongs of leather that strapped the shoe to the foot. So, the connecting sense here is of a “leather strip,” which we can crack as a “whip.” For this corrigia, philologists point to Celtic cognates, citing the Old Irish cuimrech, a “fetter.” This suggests a possible Gaulish origin for the Latin word and the Proto-Indo-European root *reig-, “to bind,” which may also have produced English’s nautical rig.   

If scourge’s possible origin in “shoelace” is any measure, even the most mundane of objects – and words – can be come truly extraordinary in human hands – and on human lips.

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Making ☮ : Where does the peace symbol come from?

On this blog, I usually write about the origins of words. Today, I want to write about the origins of symbols, because sometimes words utterly fail us. I think this has been the case following the terrorist attacks in Paris this past Friday.

In the aftermath of the attacks, a powerful symbol emerged:

Jean Jullien, “Peace for Paris,” Nov. 13, 2015, Twitter.

Where did this symbol come from?

French artist Jean Jullien inked this symbol and posted it to Twitter on the night of the attacks, captioning it “Peace for Paris.”

As Jullien has articulated in subsequent interviews, the symbol’s power rests in its simplicity: he joins an iconic symbol of Paris, the Eiffel Tower, with an iconic symbol of peace. From a few mere but inspired strokes, one man’s “very raw, spontaneous reaction” evoked universal solidarity.

And where did the peace symbol (or sign) come from?

Designer and activist Gerald Holtom created the symbol in April 1958 as part of the nuclear disarmament movement in England. It debuted in a protest march from London to Aldermaston, where nuclear weapons are still being maintained today. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament officially adopted the image for its mission and, following coverage of the protests, it travelled abroad and became a symbol for other causes, particularly as promoted by antiwar protests in the US.

The are several layers to its meaning. According to Ken Kolsbun’s Peace: The Biography of a Symbol, Holtom superimposed the flag semaphores for letters N (for “nuclear”) and D (for “disarmament”) inside a circle, which represented Earth.

Semaphore signs for for D and N. Image from The New York Times.

But Holtom later wrote that, inspired by the peasant in Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808, the image depicted himself in the despair he was feeling at the time:

Francisco Goya, The Third of May 1808, 1814, oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The focal peasant actually has his arms raised up in surrender, but Holtom’s point is clear. 

Curiously, Goya’s painting depicts Spanish resistance in the Napoleonic Wars, during which the French forces developed the semaphore systems believed to have originated the modern signals for Holtom’s N and D.

As we’re sadly already seeing with Jullien’s symbol, Holtom’s symbol has not been without controversy. Opponents to protestors who’ve emblazoned their mission with the symbol have variously attempted to link it to paganism (the footprint of a witch or crow) or Satanism (an inverted cross with broken arms). Even today the symbol is lampooned as a “chicken footprint” in an association of pacifism with cowardice.

Holtom’s and Jullien’s images have yet more in common: Neither are trademarked, and deliberately so. Created as idiosyncratic expressions of two individuals’ feelings, they speak – freely, in more ways than one – to more fundamental and transcendent human sentiments.

As reported in Peace News, Holtom wished his symbol was inverted, suggesting a more hopeful position with the forked lifted raised up and out. His original image prevailed. But while we don’t associate Holtom’s symbol with despair in spite of its origin story, Jullien’s take on it has certainly cast away any lingering doubts. For now, those central lines of the peace symbol stand tall as the Eiffel Tower over the city of Paris, over the world – the great heights of love and light, of strength and solidarity, unshakeable.

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How were the “pyramids” built?

Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson has been under a lot of scrutiny recently for a number of questionable statements he’s made, past and present. One has concerned the Egyptian pyramids, which Carson believes were constructed by the Old Testament patriarch, Joseph, to store grain.

Experts have thoroughly dismissed Carson’s notion. But some scholars, ironically enough, have claimed that the word pyramid does store an ancient word for “grain.”

"Pyramid." Doodle by me.
“Pyramid.” Doodle by me.


Coming into English via French and Latin, the ultimate base of English’s pyramid is the Greek πυραμίς (puramis), which named the Egyptian funerary monuments we still marvel at millennia later. This Greek word came to name other structures of pyramidal shape, a sense development also observed in Latin (pȳramis) and French (pyramide). The stem of the Greek noun was πυραμίδ- (puramid-), which is ultimately why the English word features a d.

As far as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) can tell, pyramid reached English as early as 1398, when, appearing in the late Latin form of piramis, it first referred to pyramids in the context of geometry. The word doesn’t explicitly refer to the Egyptian structures until the 1500s, at least according to the OED’s account.

So, how did the Greeks construct their word for pyramid? This question has sent many digging, including even the scholars of antiquity themselves.

Some have suggested the Greek puramis derives from πῦρ (pur), “fire,” due to the shape of the structure’s apex. Others have proposed a root in a similar word, πυραμίς (puramis), a kind of “cake,” whose shape resembled pyramids, apparently. Now, this puramis is derived from πυρός, (puros), meaning “wheat” or “grain.”  Other efforts have broken this puramis down to Greek words for “to measure grain” or “to collect grain.” Could the word even be connected to a Semitic root for “hill” or “fruit measure,” as has been speculated?

These explanations are really digging for it. As 19th-century American Egyptologist Lysander Dickerman sums it up in his discussion of the origin of pyramid: “To what straits we are driven when we become slaves to a theory!”

Other etymologies excavate in situ, linguistically speaking: Egyptian roots. One explanation claims the word is from the ancient Egyptian for “ray of the sun,” referring to the pyramid’s kin, the obelisk. Another, more common explanation posits an origin in the Egyptian piramus, among other forms, claimed to mean the “slant height” of the structure.

Alas, the ultimate origin may just be lost to the, er,  sands of time. But the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology does have one theory that’s pretty ‘far out’: “of alien origin.”

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How the “sausage” is made

Last post, I took the word bacon, well, “back” to its roots. As long as we’re on the subject of processed meats, just how is the sausage made? Sausage, of course, is seasoned meat stuffed into animal intestines. Delicious, no? The secret ingredient is salt, at least etymologically speaking.

"Sausage." Doodle by me.
Etymology cooks the best links. “Sausage.” Doodle by me.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), English starts serving up sausage sometime in the 1400s. Then, it was sausige, among other forms. Scholars root this in the Old Northern French saussiche, which ultimately (by way of Spanish and Italian) derives from the late Latin salsīcia. This is speculated to be a noun formed from *salsīcius, “seasoned with salt” or “prepared by salting.”

The link here – both for sausage as a product and sausage as a word – is salt. Etymologists see *salsīcius as coming from salsus, meaning “salted” and functioning as the adjective form of sal, “salt.” And neither sausage nor the English language went light on this sal.

High salt intake

Sauce derives from sal, again demonstrating that this French dialect was a picky eater when it came to this Latin l. Not so for other derivatives. Salad is from sal as well. How did we go from salt to whole sauces and salads? Why, salt was an important seasoning for and ingredient in various foods – in Latin, salsa means “salted things” – and so the part came to stand for the whole. Dip your chip in that.

Salami, meanwhile, is twisted off from Italian. Many Italian sausages can get spicy: The figurative saucy, sassy (a variant of saucy), and salty are indeed all about that kick.

A saltcellar, or salt shaker, is another derivative of Latin’s sal. Here, the cellar has nothing to do with basements. This cellar derives from the obsolete saler, ultimately going back (via French) to Latin’s salārium, “pertaining to salt,” as the OED explains.

This salārium continues to pay off. As I explored last year in my post on the origin of spice names at Oxford Dictionariessalārium was “originally money allowed to Roman soldiers for the purchase of salt, hence their pay” (OED). And hence, English’s salary.

Chemists know well saltpeter and saline, yet other words generously sprinkled into English from Latin’s sal. So, too, though, the halogens, which can yield salt in chemical reactions. This halo- comes from Greek’s hals (ἅλς), “salt,” pointing us to that earlier linguistic lick of salt: the Proto-Indo-European *sal-, “salt.” Its Germanic derivatives eventually yield souse, silt, and, yes, salt.

Salt helps preserve sausages, and etymologically, sausages preserves the salt.

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Bringing home the “bacon”

Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) caused many to flinch about flitch when it declared bacon and other processed meats carcinogenic. The actual report, of course, is more complicated than just that – unlike the etymology of bacon, which is fairly straightforward, even if a bit backwards, shall we say.

"Bacon." Doodle by me.
“Bacon.” Doodle by me.


English has been enjoying bacon since the early 1300s, naming fresh and especially cured flesh from the backs and sides of pigs. In the US, a strip of bacon is typically meat from the belly, but the back cuts fried up in many other cultures’ kitchens gives us an important taste of the word’s roots.

Bacon comes into English from the Old French bacon, perhaps via the Medieval Latin bacō.  From here, historical linguists find cognates in other Germanic languages, stripping the word from the Proto-Germanic *bakon-, which is ultimately cognate with English’s own “back.”

Cut as it is from the pig, this back-y bacon has thus been associated more generally with the body, à la skin or hide, yielding expressions such as to save one’s bacon and to sell one’s bacon.

Now, bacon-maniacs might turn to some 17th-century bacon-wrapped insults to express their feelings on the WHO’s report: bacon-brainsbacon-fed, and baconslicer all once denigrated rustic simpletons, the Oxford English Dictionary records. The meat, so it goes, was once a key foodstuff for peasants.

And it is this very connection – that cured pork was really the only meat available to most families in the Middle Ages – that has led to one common origin story for the expression bring home the bacon. Rewards for marital devotion in 12th-century England, greased-pig contests, the luxury of pork in early colonial America? These are other explanations, but Michael Quinion, among others, notes that the first evidence of the expression comes in 1906 in reference to a famous boxing match.

Whatever the particular origins of bringing home the bacon, one thing’s for sure: for bacon-lovers, the WHO has issued some fighting words.

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