Should old acquaintance be forgot, as we sing in the New Year with Robert Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne.” While we may be well-acquainted with this tradition, the etymology of the word acquaintance may be much less well-known, shall we say.

Raise your pint-stoup! “Acquaintance.” Doodle by me.


English gets acquainted with acquaintance from French sometime around the 1300s, at least as the written record is concerned. Deriving from the Old French acointance, acquaintance originally referred to “friendship” or “friend.”

These are the acquaintances we take a cup of kindness to. For only later did the word shade towards its very useful distinction of “someone who is known but not a close friend,” as Merriam-Webster concisely glosses it. Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary notes that the sense of acquaintance referring to actual persons – as opposed to the condition of so knowing persons – is “not paralleled in the Romance languages.”

Around the same time English borrowed acquaintance, it also borrowed the word’s root verb: acquaint, from the French verb acointier“to make the acquaintance (of a person),” among many other meanings (and spellings) that evolved in the language over time.

Whaddaya know?

Now, the French acointier – as I’m sure you’ve guessed if you’re at all acquainted with Romance languages or this blog – comes from Latin. Here, we are ultimately looking at accognitus, past participle of accognoscere, “to know well.” This verb, in turn, joins ad-, “to,” and cognoscere, “to come to know.” Cognoscere itself joins cum-, “with,” and  gnoscere, “to know.”

If we dig deeper, Indo-European scholars link Latin’s gnoscere to *gno-, “to know,” a very prolific root. Last year, we saw this root’s many offspring – from could to narrative – in two posts: “*Gno– (Part I)” and “*Gno– (Part II).”

In this etymological light, acquaintance almost looks like a complete stranger, but that’s just how the sound, shape, and sense of words change over time. Just like the word quaint, indeed a cousin of acquaintance, as I wrote in “*Gno– (Part II)”:

Did your English teacher like to point out its salacious pun in so many poems? Quaint, oh how far your form and sense has come! Like cognition, the word is rooted in cognoscere. Just as notus was noscere‘s past participle, so cognitus (“well-known”) was cognoscere‘s. In French, it shed its ending and merge its medial sounds, yielding coint, “fine” and “neat.” If you keep French pronunciation in mind, you might see how English rendered the word as queintquoint, and, now, quaint. It started out meaning “skillful,” “crafty,” “pretty,” and “ingenious” (Skeat; Weekley), evolved to “odd” and “whimsical” (Skeat) as well as the now better known “old-fashioned.”

So, whaddaya know? Lest we forget, that’s what acquaintance is all about.

Happy New Year!

m ∫ r ∫

Dos niños: Christmas, weather, and nursery words

What do El Niño and Christmas have in common? It’s not just the unseasonable weather much of the US is experiencing this holiday, though my drought-stricken state of California is getting a much needed White Christmas in the Sierras. No, this weather pattern and Christian holiday also share a crib, etymologically speaking.

A common etymological crib. “El Niño.” Doodle by me.

El Niño

Spanish speakers will readily recognize el niño as “the child” or “the boy.” In the case of the proper noun El Niño, it’s a very special little boy, at least to Christians: El Niño de Navidad, the Christ Child.

But to many people who don’t speak Spanish, El Niño means some weird weather. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration explains it: “The term El Niño refers to the large-scale ocean-atmosphere climate interaction linked to a periodic warming in sea surface temperatures across the central and east-central Equatorial Pacific.”

But what does this have to do with baby Jesus? South Americans – and many sources specify Peruvian fishermen as early as the 1600s – noted the warm waters of the weather phenomenon occurring during December. Hence, the association between the weather event and Christmas.

Christmastime, then, can bring Dos Niños. 

Baby talk 

As for the origin of the Spanish noun niño (and its feminine form, of course, niña)? Etymologists are pretty sure it’s ultimately a baby or nursery word, expressing the noises babies first babble or the sounds parents and caretakers present to their children. Like mama and papa, which the excellent linguist John McWhorter recently had a fascinating piece on over at The Atlantic.

I think it’s neat  – if, of course, arbitrary, given the accidents of language and society – that two so very complex systems affecting so many millions of people across the globe – one meteorological and climatological, the other cultural and religious – share this little bit of baby talk: niño.

Well, it’s been another great year of word origins. Thanks, everyone, for your interest and support. I’m looking forward to another year ahead. It’s a presidential election year in the US, so I’m sure it’ll be a good one.

The Mashed Radish will be back in 2016. Happy Holidays!

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What is the “chest” in “chestnut”?

I don’t know about you, but I primarily associate the word chestnut with that opening octave in “The Christmas Song”: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” Every holiday season, this melody, this first line, this first word, really gets stuck in my head. This year, with chestnut nipping at my brain, I found myself asking: what is the chest in chestnut?

“Chestnuts.” Doodle by me. 


What do we find when we open chestnut’s chest? More chestnuts. Originally, a chestnut was actually a chesten nut. And a chesten was, well, a chestnut.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates chesten nut back to the early 1500s. Perhaps for clarity, emphasis, or distinction of the fruit from the tree, this redundant nut was added to chesten. The OED notes that speakers eventually reduced the phrase chesten nut to shorter forms, including chesnut and chestnut. The latter prevailed.

Now, this chesten evolves out of Middle English’s chesteine, which comes from French’s chastaigne, in turn from Latin’s castanea. These all refer to the chestnut tree or its fruit.

Looking ahead, Latin’s castanea eventually formed Spanish’s castaña, whose diminutive castañeta yields those nut-shaped percussion instruments we call castanets.

Old English actually already had an earlier form of chestnut in cyst-béam (“chestnut tree”), from Germanic sources, suggesting ancient Germanic tribes may have borrowed the word from the Latin root.

Loanwords roasting on an open fire

Looking back, Latin formed castanea on the Greek καστανέα (castanea), which we actually find in a longer phrase: κασταναῖον κάρυον (Kastanaion karyon), the “Castanian nut.” (You might recognize karyon, “nut,” in eukaryote.)

Where is this Castania, if you will? Some say Kastanaion refers to Castanea, or Pontus, the modern-day eastern Black Sea region of Turkey. Others locate it in Castana, or Thessaly. Both places, word historians speculate, were named for the chestnut trees that grew there.

Looking further back, some etymologists compare the Greek καστανέα with the Armenian kask (“chestnut”) and kaskeni (“chestnut tree”), concluding, as Barnhart does, the Greek word was ultimately “borrowed from a language in Asia Minor.”

It seems the chest in chestnut is just a chestnut.

That hoary old chestnut?

Chestnut, we know, can also refer to a certain reddish-brown color and horses with such a colored coat. In slang, a chestnut can also name a well-worn story or joke, which is first documented in the 1880s.

Some argue that this chestnut is so called because people told stories around fires, where the nuts were roasted. Others link the stale humor of a chestnut to the nut’s toughness.

But the origin of the term may actually lie in a little bit of comedic dialogue between characters Captain Zavior and Pablo in William Dimond’s 1816 play, The Broken Sword (note chesnut):

Zav. Let me see–aye! it is exactly six years since, that peace being restored to Spain, and my ship paid off, my kind brother offer’d me a snug hammock in the dwelling of my forefathers;–I mounted a mule at Barcelona, and trotted away for my native mountains. At the dawn of the fourth day’s journey, I entered the wood of Collares, when, suddenly, from the thick boughs of a cork-tree–

Pab. (Jumping up.) A chesnut, Captain, a chesnut.

Zav. Bah, you booby! I say, a cork.

Pab. And I swear, a chesnut–Captain! this is the twenty-seventh time I have heard you relate this story, and you invariably said, a chesnut, till now.

In the late 1880s, the provenance of the term was much discussed in newspapers, apparently. The January 1888 issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine credits this ‘cracking’ of chestnut to a Mr. Joseph Jefferson, who traces the term to William Warren, an actor who often played this Pablo. Michael Quinion weighs in further, if you’re interested.

This holiday season, when all the gifts have been given and all the carols have been sung, keep the merriment moving with this old chestnut of a etymology. Nothing, surely, fills people with that holiday cheer like a good word origin.

m ∫ r ∫

In a “galaxy”… so, so close to home

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

From its opening lines to its ticket lines, Star Wars,  whose latest episode, The Force Awakens, opened this week, is as epic as its interstellar setting.  But the etymology of this galaxy, it turns out, is so, so close to home.

Not just any old trip to the store. "Galaxy." Doodle by me.
Not just any old trip to the store. “Galaxy.” Doodle by me.


English first gazes at the word galaxy, so to speak, late in the 1300s. It first named the Milky Way. Several centuries later, it was referring to other such star systems, whose existence Edwin Hubble only officially verified in the 1920s.

Galaxy derives from the Latin galaxias. It may have entered English either directly from Latin or through a French form of the word, galaxie. Latin borrowed its word from Greek’s γαλαξίας (galaxias)short for γαλαξίας κύκλος (galaxias kyklos), which means “milky circle.” And at the center of this galaxias is no black hole: it’s γάλα (gála), “milk.” (The base is γαλακτ-, or galakt-.)

Milky ways 

Have you ever looked up a clear night sky and marveled at that streaming band of stars glowing white overhead? You’re beholding the Milky Way, the galaxy we call home. Indeed, as galaxy‘s etymology has already suggested, the Milky Way takes its name from its milky-white appearance. Chaucer himself notes this a long time ago in his oft-quoted “House of Fame”:

Se yonder, loo, the Galoxie,
Whiche men clepeth the melky weye,
For hit ys white…

This poetry of Milky Way was indeed inspired: the English name calques the Latin via lactea, a translation of the Greek galaxias kyklos, as we saw before.


Now, fix your etymological telescope on the Latin lactea and Greek galaxias. Do you see anything in common? Gaze at lact- and –lax- and you might see that the words share an orbit. (The basic Latin noun for “milk” is lac, source of lactic, lactate, latte, and even lettuce, whose juice is milky, apparently.)

For these Latin and Greek cognates, Indo-Europeanists propose a root *g(a)lag- or *g(a)lakt-, “milk.” But, interestingly, the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots notes that “no common Indo-European root for milk can be reconstructed.” This is little curious, perhaps, given that scholars can construct a common root for, say, cow. Germanic words, such as English’s milk, suckle a different root: *melg-, which refers to “rubbing off,” an action for obtaining milk, I suppose.

The universe is home to hundreds of billions of galaxies, each of which holds hundred of billions of stars. And our word for these incomprehensibly huge, imponderably numerous phenomena derives from something so mundane, so ordinary: “milk.” Now I think that’s epic.

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Making an “agreement”: a gratifying etymology

This past weekend, nearly 200 nations reached the Paris Agreementa landmark effort to combat climate change.

Now there’s a pleasing word these days: agreement. It’s yet more pleasing if we consider its etymology, and one we should be quite grateful for, too.

Let's shake on it. "Agreement." Doodle by me.
Let’s shake on it. “Agreement.” Doodle by me.


It’s apt, I suppose, that the historic climate agreement was negotiated in Paris: agreement is borrowed from the French agrement. English’s agreement is evidenced in the early 1400s. It named – perhaps not unlike the very pact that prompted this post – a binding legal agreement between two or more parties.

At the heart of agreement, I’m sure you’ll agree, is agree. This word also comes from French: agréer“to please.” Evidenced earlier in Middle English (and French) than agreement, this verb first meant “to please” or “to be pleased with.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary‘s (OED) record, we see agree’s modern senses of “consent” and “shared opinion” emerging by the end of the 1400s. The adjective agreeable, however, still preserves this word’s original notion of “pleasing.” And when food, say, does not agree with you, you are also getting a taste – or distaste – for the word’s historical meaning.

Now, the French verb agréer reaches its own kind of accord. The word brings together two parties: à gré, an expression meaning “favorably” or “according to one’s pleasure,” as Walter Skeat glosses them. Here, this à means “to,” while gré means “pleasure,” “goodwill,” or simply “will.”

Live gree or die hard

The French gré shows up in some other English words, if you dig around in the OED. In fact, it shows up as gree, “favor” or “goodwill,” now an archaic Middle English borrowing from the French and largely loaned in phrases such as in gree, with good greeout of gree, or to make gree. It shows up, too, in maugre, also an archaic word – signifying “ill will” as well as “in spite of” – taken from a French expression that ultimately joins mal (“bad”) and that same gré.

If there is a mal gré, surely there is a bon gré? Indeed. French has de bon gré (“willingly”). It even has the expression bon gré mal gré, “like it or not” or “willy-nilly,” which English once borrowed as bongre maugre, a fun sort of slant-rhyming reduplication.

So, we’ve seen many degrees of gré(No, the –gree in degree is not related, though degrees were a hot topic at the Paris talks.) But where does it come from? The French gré ultimately develops from Latin’s grātus“pleasing” or “grateful.” This same grātus graced us with gracegratitudegrateful, and congratulate.

The Paris Agreement is not perfect, to be sure, but I think these cousins of agreement apply well here. And doing nothing about climate change would be, um, a disgrace.

m ∫ r ∫ 

Gerbils (and etymology) will bring us all together

For this post, I thought about writing on the etymology of demagogue or bigotry, which have been much in the ether lately, thanks especially to Donald Trump. But I thought twice, important as these words are right now.

I thought twice because I wanted to write on something a bit more positive and, well, fun than many of my previous posts. I thought twice, too, because I wanted to highlight a surprising point of connection between the West and Middle East: gerbils. Yes, gerbils.


See, the name of this common critter, twitching their little noses across so many children’s bedrooms or elementary classrooms, actually derives from Arabic.

Attested by the Oxford English Dictionary in an 1849 text on mammals, English borrowed gerbil from the French gerbille. The French, in turn, adopted it from the New Latin gerbillus, formed as a scientific usage. (Many gerbils fall under the genus Gerbillus). This gerbillus is a diminutive form of gerbo, a variant of jerboaGerbil, then, means “little jerboa.”


Jerboa? Have you not met the jerboa?

Meet the Jerboa. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Attested much earlier than gerbil in a 1662 translation of his ambassadorial travels in the Middle East by German scholar Adam Olearius, the jerboa is a very different rodent from the gerbil. But the two do share a native habitat where Arabic has historically been spoken. And the two also share an Arabic root for their names: yarbūʿ (جربوع), which can mean “flesh of the loins” or “loin muscle” as well as refer to the animal itself. The name, we can imagine, suggests the animal’s “jumping powers,” as Ernest Weekley offers.

The words gerbil and jerboa may have had their bedding in English for some time, but it was not until the 1950s-60s that they became pets for English-speaking people. Apparently, they came to the US as research animals in the 1950s, soon after giving up their laboratory pellets for empty toilet paper rolls; they were adopted in the UK, so it goes, in the 1960s.

Left and right, East and West, Muslim* and Christian? Perhaps the eccentric cuteness of the jerboa – and this surprising connection between the English and Arabic languages– is just what we need to jump our many divides during these times.

Except in my state of California (as well as in Hawaii), where you’re not allowed to have gerbils. C’mon, California, I thought we were better than these kinds of bans.

*Of course, not all people who are Muslim speak Arabic and not all people who speak Arabic are Muslims, but I think you get my idea.

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Common word, uncommon power: behind “ban”

Donald Trump is once again making headlines – and turning heads. As his campaign issued in a news release this week:

Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.

In their coverage of it, many in the press and on social media are referring to Trump’s provocative proclamation as a “ban” on Muslims.

This little word ban seems simple enough, but, like so much of language (and politics), the reality is, it’s much more complicated.


The word ban definitely had free entry into the English language, so to speak. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records ban in Old English, which had the verb bannan. This verb meant “to summon by proclamation,” especially “to arms,” as the OED explains. In the late 1200s, ban shifted to “curse,” conveying its modern and more general sense of “prohibit” by the 1800s. In the late 1950s and 1960s, nuclear disarmament campaigners were often called ban-the-bomb campaigners, which movement created the peace symbol, as I recently discussed.

English also has the noun ban. Evidenced by the late 1200s and traveling into English from the French, this ban originally named a “public proclamation,” also especially to arms. Among its many meanings, the French ban, from the late Latin bannum, signified a “banishment,” which is indeed an etymologically related word. Showing another form of the noun, a marriage banns preserves the word’s proclamatory origins.

Shaping each other over the course of their development, both ban’s were ultimately admitted into French,  Latin, and English from a Germanic source. Historical linguists reconstruct a Proto-Germanic *bannan, “to proclaim (under penalty or with a threat).” We can understand then, its early military senses; think proscription. At the core of this *bannan might be a more basic sense of “to announce publicly.”  

Now, Old Norse, a Germanic language, also presents a cognate: banna,  “to curse.” Probably borrowed in some early dialects thanks to the Viking conquests of England, etymologists suppose this banna pushed ban towards the sense of “prohibition” the word denotes today.

Indo-Europeanists hypothesize a deeper root in the Proto-Indo-European *bha-, “to speak,” source of a great many Latin and Greek derivatives, such as fame and phone, respectively.

Ban, with abandon

Banishment is not the only word related to ban. Abandon comes from a French expression,  à bandon, which means “under one’s control” or “willingly,” with bandon‘s “power” deriving from that earlier sense of “proclamation.” This explains reckless abandon, and we can understand the development of “to surrender” if we imagine another person in control.

Something contraband is literally “against the proclamation,” if we look to its Latin roots. It comes to English via the Italian for “unlawful dealing.” We can thank Italian, too, for bandit, from a word for “outlaw” (literally, someone “banished.”) 

Again, all of these words come from Latin forms, probably as loaned from some Germanic origin.

The banality of…communal kitchens 

During this presidential race, Trump’s incendiary language have now become, well, almost banal – another word related to ban.

As we saw, Old French had ban, which, among its other meanings, referred to a kind of militia, or “assemblage of military vassals,” as the OED glosses it. The men were commanded to serve by “proclamation,” or a ban. Again, think edict.

For its sense development in French, philologist Eric Partridge offers the French adjectival form banal, “of or for obligatory service,” hence “merely obligatory,” hence “commonplace.” It may have unfolded a bit differently, though. This banal also could convey “open to the whole community” (Barnhart), such as “things like ovens or mills that belonged to feudal serfs, or else compulsory military service,” as the Online Etymology Dictionary. Something “communal” can be viewed as “everyday,” and thus “common” or “trite.”

ban, as we’ve seen, is all about language: it originates as a public announcement. But these early proclamations, these early bans, had a lot of power and consequence, as they commanded men to fight. Whether we are sending out a tweet or running a campaign for the office of the presidency of the United States, we might heed the etymological lesson of ban with our many and instantaneous outlets for our pronouncements.  Words have a lot of power. Words have a lot of consequence.

m ∫ r ∫ 

Remembering “victim”

As The New York Times reported in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting in the US:

Including the worst mass shooting of the year, which unfolded horrifically on Wednesday in San Bernardino, Calif., a total of 462 people have died and 1,314 have been wounded in such attacks this year, many of which occurred on streets or in public settings, the databases indicate.

“More than one a day,” the paper starkly observes.

As we search for the killers’ motives in an effort understand this ruinous pattern, we turn, too, to the victims – these 462 victims – taken from their families.

Does the origin of this word victim have anything to teach us?


First, a disclaimer. In the wake of so much senseless death and violence, the original meaning of victim in the English language can seem just simply cruel. I in know way intend to disrespect any victims or their families based on its historical definition. On the contrary, I feel that the history of the word only reminds us that 462 is not a statistic – it’s a tragedy, it’s an emergency.

The word victim originally referred to a very different kind of victim: an animal sacrifice. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites the word at the very end of the 1400s, when victim occurs in religious contexts and names a “living creature killed and offered as a sacrifice to some deity or supernatural power.”

Providing an important clue to the word’s development, the OED also cites Samuel Purchas’ 1613 Purchas his Pilgrimage, a sort of Anglo-Christian travelogue:

Of sacrificing there were from the beginning two kinds, the one called Gifts or oblations of things without life: the other Victims (so our Rhemists have taught us to English the word Victima) slaine sacrifices of birds and beasts.

In the late 1500s and early 1600s, the Rhemists – who were exiled English Catholics in Douai, France and who may have viewed themselves as victims, in the later sense of the word, of religious persecution – rendered a pro-Catholic and Latin-heavy translation of the Bible in the wake of the Reformation. This is known as the Douay-Reims Bible.

(As a lexical aside, Purchas’ verbal use of English strikes me as a wonderfully English-y move and quite apt for the passage.)

This victim derives directly from the Latin victima, which, like its Rhemist gloss, refers to an “animal sacrifice” and “sacrifice” more generally. The ultimate origin of victima is not so clear, but etymologists have attempted several connections.

Previously, I’ve assumed this victima was related to vincere, “to conquer,” whose participial form is victus (“conquered”). This verb gives the English language victorvictoryconvictconvince, and invincible, among others. I’m in good company: In his Fasti, Ovid (poetically) explains that victima is so named for the animal sacrifice killed by the right-hand of the victor (dextrā victrice, “with a victorious right-hand”). This stands in contrast to hostia, sacrifices slain by the hostile  enemy who has been conquered. Ovid’s etymology advances no further than the resemblance of the forms.

The likes of Barnhart and Klein have suggested victim may be cognate to the Gothic weihs, “holy,” and the Germanic weihen, “to consecrate,” even proposing possible Sanskrit kin. The American Heritage Dictionary points to a Proto-Indo-European *weik, “consecrated” or “holy,” noting it appears “[i]n words connected with magic and religious notions in Germanic (German Weihnacht(en), Christmas), and perhaps Latin.”

Further efforts even connect the root to English’s own witchwile, and guile, but where this Latin victima ultimately came from is indeed beguiling.

By the middle of the 1600s, victim begins referring to people – not sacrificed but put to death or tortured, the OED explains, with shades of oppression and injustice. Over the course of the 1700s, victim lessens in intensity, used also to refer to persons suffering more generally. Hence, the victim of a crime or disease.

A victim mentality?

In the context of the 462 victims lost this year (so far, we must sadly qualify), let’s hope the word victim never lessens in its intensity for us.

Etymology, obviously, doesn’t stop such violence. But language does matter, as we’ve seen in our public discourse. What constitutes terrorism? Who gets called a terrorist and who gets called a loner? What does it mean to refer to a long gun instead of an assault rifle? Why must the very name Syed set so many people off? What are the consequences of the phrase radical Islam?

So, today, when I look to the history of the word victim, I see victim as a tragic sacrifice made in vain to some nameless hate, to some evil, existential chaos – as well as to our own collective inaction. And while  Proto-Indo-European roots are speculative, perhaps at least even the faintest connection to “holy” can remind us of the sacredness of human lives. All 462 of them.

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