Some things just don’t change. Today’s presidential candidates would fit right into Ancient Rome – both in name and action. See, the etymology of candidate turns out to be quite illuminating.

Have trouble tying a Double Windsor? Try a toga. “Cicero Denounces Cataline,” fresco,  Cesare Maccari, 1882-1888. Image from Wikimedia Commons and inspired by Mary Beard’s SPQR.    


The Oxford English Dictionary first cites candidate in 1609, where it appears in the second edition of Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabeticall: “Candidate, a suiter for, or one elect for a place.”

Scholars consider Cawdrey’s work, a list of “hard words” borrowed into English, especially from Latin and Greek, the first English-language dictionary. English previously had bilingual dictionaries (e.g., Latin-English); general-purpose dictionaries, famously Samuel Johnson’s in the 18th century, followed later.

Now, with candidate, English is wearing a Latin word, candidātus,  which literally means “wearing white.” See, in ancient Rome, a candidate – called a candidātus – wore a white toga. In her engrossing new work, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, Mary Beard explains:

Everyday Roman clothing – tunics, cloaks, and even occasionally trousers – was much more varied and colourful…Togas, however, were the formal, national dress: Romans could define themselves as the gens togata, ‘the race that wears the toga’, while some contemporary outsiders occasionally laughed at this strange, cumbersome garment. And togas were white, with the addition of a purple border for anyone who held public office. In fact, the modern word ‘candidate’ derives from the Latin candidatus, which means ‘whitened’ and refers to the specially whitened togas that Romans wore during election campaigns, to impress voters. In a world where status needed to be on show, the niceties of dress went even further: there was a also a broad purple stripe on senators’ tunics, worn beneath the toga, and a slightly narrower one if you were the next rank down in Roman society, an ‘equestrian’ or ‘knight’, and special shoes for both ranks.

And you thought flag pins were ostentatious.

Many argue that the whiteness of the robes emphasize the candidates’ purity of character, but I think it’s more about the optics. Some thing just don’t change.

The Oxford Classical Dictionary sheds yet more light on candidātus:

Officially named petitor (his rivals were therefore styled competitores), he was called candidatus because he wore a whitened toga when greeting electors in the forum. A slave (nomenclator) reminded him of the names of the electors, and he had a crowd of partisans (sectatores) from the plebs including his own freedman and other clients, whose numbers were taken as an index of his likely success…In the late republic these activities frequently began a full year before the election…

Some things really just don’t change. Except for “he” and “his,” fortunately.

Underneath candidate’s folds

The root verb behind candidātus is candere, “to be shining white.” (With the exception of Ben Carson, you might say this verb also describes the field of candidates quite well.) The verb also produced candidus, which variously meant “white,” “bright,” “clear,” “happy,” and, anticipating English’s own candid, “frank.”

Candid is also cited in English in the early  1600s, its modern sense of “straight-forward” emerging by the end of the century. This connection between candidate and candid, of course, creates for some delicious ironies on the campaign trail. Candid camera comes surprisingly early, recorded in 1929.

Other cognates of candidate include: candlecandelabra, and chandelierincandescentincendiary, and incense. Candere could also mean “to burn white,” ultimately explaining its connection to incense and incendiary – which we can apply to that one candidate who’s taken the traditional toga…and set it on fire.

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Inside the “establishment”

As the candidates run for the US presidency, there’s one word many are running against (and from): establishment. We see the term especially used for the mainstream Republican party, though Bernie Sanders is increasingly positioning himself against a Democratic establishment. What established this word establishment, etymologically speaking?

I suppose you should put on some good shoes if you want to be left standing in this anti-establishment campaign. “Establishment.” Doodle by me, shoes by Florsheim.


The English language first sets up establishment in the late 15th century. Early on, establishment named a “settled arrangement,” particularly a legal one. In the tumultuous wake of the Reformation in the 1600s, the word often appeared in religious contexts, such as the establishment of a church sanctioned by the state. Come the 1700s and 1800s, we see the word referring to the Church Establishment, or simply the Establishment, like the Church of England.

(We can also speak of disestablishing a church. If we support such disestablishment, we are disestablishmentarians, advocating disetablishmentarianism. And if we oppose disetablishmentarianism? Why, we back antidisetablishmentarianism. All of this centers on late 19th-century efforts to disestablish the Church of England as the official state church. The record for antidisetablishmentarianism really just cites it as a very long word and not one with meaningful or widespread use outside of grade-school know-it-alls.)

In the 1900s, establishment’s power widened, with early references to “the dominant social order” cited in the 1920s and 1930s. The textbook citation for the modern establishment, however, comes from journalist Henry Fairlie in 1955. In London’s The Spectator, Fairlie commented:

By the ‘Establishment’ I do not mean only the centres of official power—though they are certainly part of it—but rather the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised.

Later, across the Atlantic, liberal Republicans – associated with elite, East Coast institutions like Wall Street and Harvard, sometimes called Rockefeller Republicans – were disparaged as the “Eastern Establishment” in the 1960s, perhaps anticipating the pejorative currency of the term that surged with the Tea Party in the 2000s.

At the core of establishment is establish, of course. Dated to the late 1300s, the English word has French footing: establir, which variously meant “to set up.” We can take this establir back to Latin, French’s lexical establishment. Latin had stabilīre, “to make stable,” grounded in the same root of English’s own stable: stabilis, “steady,” “secure,” or, for the lack of better gloss, “stable.” And standing tall in stable is the root verb, stāre, “to stand.” This verb, stārealso yields a great many English words, like station and constant. A stable for horses ultimately comes from stabulum, also related to this “standing” stem of stā-

This 2016 race is definitely shifting the political ground, leaving us all wondering – etymology aside – just how stable the establishment will prove to be.

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Why do we “endorse” candidates?

Sarah Palin made news this week with her endorsement of U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump. Her endorsement raised a number of questions, we could say. Not the least of which, most certainly, is the etymological one. Why’s it called endorse?

Did you make it payable to the Mashed Radish? “Endorse.” Doodle by me. 


We endorse candidates because we endorse checks, essentially. Money indeed plays an obscene role in politics, but I’m just talking about the word’s history here.

By the late 1300s, endorse meant “to write on the back of something,” as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it, particularly a financial document like a bill or a check. When we endorse a check, we sign our names on the back of it. It’s an act of verification, of vouching. Hence the metaphorical endorsement, cited by the mid 1800s. In the early 1900s, the word further shifted towards a more general sense of “to declare approval” (OED).

Today, political figures, celebrities, organizations, and newspapers, especially, make endorsements of candidates. I wasn’t able to track down exactly when newspapers started doing so, but The New York Times first endorsed Abraham Lincoln in 1860:

A Mr. Lincoln, of Illinois, familiarly known as “Old Abe,” age 51, height six feet seven, by profession Rail-Splitter, is to be our next president. The thing seems pretty sure.

“Back” to its roots

Endorse was originally endosse in Middle English. The word was loaned from the French endosser and, ultimately, from that great lexical lender, Latin. Now, medieval Latin had indorsāre. Much like the early endorse, this verb was used for writing commentary on the back of legal documents – the Microsoft Word “Track Changes” of the day, I suppose. In the 1500s, English shaped endosse into indorse and endorse so the word conformed to its Latin roots. The latter form eventually prevailed.

Latin’s indorsāre bears two parts: in-, here signifying “on,” and dorsum, “back.” Some scholars have attempted to root Latin’s dorsum in an earlier form that fuses de- and versum, “turned away from,” but most don’t back this up.

Though the ultimate origin of dorsum remains unknown, it has its descendants. A dorsal fin is on the back of a dolphin, say. From French’s dos (French fashioned dorsum as dos), a dossier can amass quite a number of documents, whose bulge can resemble a back when so bundled, apparently. And when you dance the do-si-do,  you maneuver “back-to-back,” such is the meaning of French’s dos-à-dos that originated this term – and the delicious Girl Scout cookie, which is something I think we can all endorse.

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Flying, flap-eared pigs?

I wanted to point you to some other pieces I have around the web. You’re forewarned: Some strong language lies ahead.

A few weeks back, I had a post on the OxfordWords blog: Pigdoghog, and other etymologies from the farm.” As I note:

We’ve left the farm and have wandered into the woods to discover where some very basic and common animal words came from – fundamental words like dog and pig, which number among some of the first children learn to read, even say.

We just don’t really know where this group of everyday words comes from, which is nothing short of fascinating.

I also have two pieces up on Strong Language. The first is “When fucks fly.” In this post, I ask the big questions: “What exactly is a flying fuck? And why does this fuck fly?”

Today, I published a piece that grew out of my new project, Shakespeare Confidential. This piece, “Great Moments in Swearing: The Taming of the Shrew,” gives you, you flap-eared knave, some sweary tips:

So, if you’re looking for some choice words, take a page from Petruccio’s playbook: Add some color, er, choler. Just avoid this whole “taming” and “shrew” business.

Stay tuned for more etymology and, if you’re following Shakespeare Confidential, my post on The Taming of the Shrew.

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Dismantling “mantle”

I’ve been thinking about the word mantle recently. During the latest Republican debate, Donald Trump trumpeted that he “will gladly accept the mantle of anger” about the problems, at least in his and his supporters’ view, that the US faces.

Meanwhile, the Iran deal went into effect after “the country followed through with its promises to dismantle large sections of its nuclear program,” the New York Times reported.

What’s going on with this word mantle?

Anger? Nuclear power? This mantel, related to mantle, is much cozier. Doodle by me.


Like clothes strewn across a teenager’s bedroom, mantle is all over the place in English. It’s a symbol of authority. It’s a mostly solid layer of super-hot rock constituting over 80% of Earth’s volume. It’s a poetic way to describe blushing. If you switch around some letters, it’s even that piece of wood over your fireplace where you display various knickknacks, objets d’art, and pictures of your family, if you remember to put them back up whenever they come over.

But at its root and in its earliest meanings, a mantle is a cloak. English donned mantle twice in its history. Very early on, English – like a younger brother wanting to look cool in his older sibling’s clothes, and probably without asking first – borrowed the word from Latin. In Old English, mantle was mentel, among other forms, and referred to a “loose, sleeveless cloak,” as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) glosses it.

Later, after the Normans conquered England, English added the word once again to its wardrobe from the French mantel. As we know well on this blog, the French also derives from the Latin.

And the Latin etymon? Mantellum. It also means “cloak.”

Mantle pieces 

Some have argued mantellum is connected to some similar Latin words: mantēlium and mantēle, with various meanings of “napkin,” “hand-towel,” and “table-cloth.” Others have argued that the word is actually a diminutive form of some mantus or mantum. Eric Partridge proposes a Basque source, such as mantar, a “chemise” or “plaster.” (We saw Basque once before in an old post on bay, as in the body of water.) Wiktionary, meanwhile, posits a Gaulish root meaning “trodden road.” I’m not quite sure about the connecting sense with that one.

So, our knowledge of mantle‘s origin isn’t quite snug. But most dictionaries do suggest a possible Celtic origin. Unifying all the various words we’ve seen is some sense of a covering. Originally, a cloth-y fabrication, apparently.

Metaphor fashioned quite a bit out of this “cloak.” The geological mantle cloaks the Earth’s core, a usage dated to the 1930s. A blush mantles one’s cheek. Walter Skeat helps us out for a fireplace’s mantel, a variant of mantle: “In old fire-places, the mantel slopes forward like a hood, to catch the smoke.” The earlier form was mantiltre in Middle English, a manteltree, the covering piece made from timber. So, a mantel once cloaked the fireplace, the feature a mere ornamental vestige today.

As for Trump’s mantle of anger? (I would think that that would be more like a tight-fitting Kevlar vest.)  The OED dates this metaphor for an important duty or position, particularly as assumed from a predecessor, to the 1650s: It was “originally used with allusion to the passing of Elijah’s mantle to Elisha, understood allegorically.” Trump: real estate mogul, Republican frontrunner, prophet? Oh my.

And dismantle? This word derives from the French desmanteller, “to take the cloak off [of somebody].” (We saw similar sartorial assaults with the etymology of robe.) It was used, however, as a military metaphor, “to raze” or “tear down [fortress walls],” just as it did when it first appeared in English in the late 1500s. This desmanteller joins des- (“away”) and manteler (“to cloak”).

The Romance languages, we think, shortened mantellum into some words you might know well. French hemmed it to manteau, a “cloak,” which appears in portmanteau, a kind of “traveling bag with two compartments.”  To manteau French adds porte, a command “to carry,” originally issued to a court official to transport a prince’s mantle. Now, thanks to Lewis Carroll, a portmanteau word names a blend, like brunch, fusing “breakfast” and “lunch.” Spanish, meanwhile, tailored it to manta, a kind of “blanket,” which might well describe a manta ray.

Like the cloak it originally names, mantle is quite the versatile piece in the closet, lexically speaking.

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Introducing Shakespeare Confidential

So, I’ve started a new yearlong project. Shakespeare died in 1616. I’m going to read everything he wrote in 2016 and write about it.

I’m calling it Shakespeare Confidential. It’s going to be accessible, personal, and human, so don’t worry if Shakespeare feels Greek to you. You can find it – and follow it – at and @bardconfidensh.

I will be continuing to blog about word origins here, of course. I imagine there will be some fruitful cross-pollination, too, as I’m tracking words of interest during my reading of the Bard’s corpus. Like froward. I read The Taming of the Shrew first for Shakespeare Confidential and this curious word features quite prominently.

If you enjoy my writing here, please do follow and share my new blog.

As always, I so appreciate your readership and fellow word nerdom. It’s what motivates me. That and a particularly juicy etymology, no doubt!

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This week, we lost two greats to cancer: David Bowie and Alan Rickman. Their passing so sudden, the news hit many hard, but cancer, as so many know too well, can be such a creeping foe. In its own small way, the etymology of cancer bears this out.

“Cancer.” Doodle by me.


Cancer spread into English from French and Latin, both taking the forms cancer. Latin’s cancer is ultimately connected to Greek’s καρκίνος (karkinos)As in its root tongues, the word cancer has had several meanings: “sore” or “ulcer,” the constellation Cancer and sign of the Zodiac, and, unifying these, “crab.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest English record of cancer comes in the late 1300s and is astrological, referring to the fourth sign of the Zodiac, representing the constellation Canceror the crab. The sign’s symbol, ♋, is said to depict the claws of a crab.

Hercules, so it goes, crushed a crab while fighting the Hydra. To honor the slain crustacean, Hera, that hater of Hercules, placed the crab among the stars, whose form clusters Cancer’s stars, at least to the ancient imagination.

In the early 1400s, English sees a reference to cancer, meaning “crab,” though the creature is likened to disease, in particular ulcers and sores, such were the early meanings of the word. References to tumors appear by the 1500s at least. It seems to me that something approaching a more modern sense begins to emerge in the late 1600s.

While cancer has a very specific medical meaning today, long has it named a spreading and creeping medical malignancy. And ancient, too, is the crab-like depiction of cancer (or the sorts of sores the word denoted in early healthcare).  As the Barnhart etymology dictionary explains:

The sense of a spreading sore developed, according to the Greek physician Galen, from the resemblance of the swollen veins surrounding the sore to the legs of a crab.

Galen was an influential and physician working in 2nd century CE – and should now have ruined crab legs for you.

The Latin and Greek roots of cancer also cause other English words. Canker is the oldest. It’s cited in early Old English and was associated with ulcers. Via a French form, chancre, especially allied with venereal lesions, comes in the late 1500s. As does carcinoma, which shows its Greek roots (karkinos) more conspicuously. Like carcinogen, a mid-19th century word formed on carcinoma. (Carcinogen, we saw not too long ago, ruined bacon for you.)

As for the deeper origins of cancer and karkinosIndo-Europeanists diagnose *kar-, a root hypothesized to mean “hard” – and indeed related to English’s very hard. These ancient words for crab, so it goes, are named for their hard, outer shell. (This root also produced a Greek word for “rule” and “strength,”  preserved in the suffix -cracy, as in democracy.)

To put it very mildly, cancer is hard. Really effin’ hard. But that hasn’t stopped us from searching for its Hercules. Indeed, in his final State of the Union address this past week, US President Barack Obama announced a mission to find a cure for cancer – a new moonshot. Which is metaphorically apt for our etymological purposes here, for, perhaps somewhere beyond the constellation Cancer, live on Ziggy Stardust and Alexander Dane.

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What is the “jack” in “jackpot”?

Most people – normal folks, I imagine – are excited by the size of the Powerball jackpot: It has reached a record $1.5 billion at the time I write this. (I’ve already had to revise it up from $1.4 billion since I began this post.)

But nerd that I am, I am wowed by the word jackpot. To me, its etymology holds the real prize. (But, you know, if you gave me any winning numbers, I probably wouldn’t turn them down or anything.)

You don’t know jack. “Jackpot.” Doodle by me.


As you probably guessed, jackpot is a simple compound, joining jack and pot. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites jackpot in an 1881 edition of the Harvard Lampoon. Originally, this jackpot was won not in lottery games but in poker, specifically a version of draw poker known as Jack Pots.

In Jack Pots, players cannot open the betting unless they have a pair of jacks or better. If no one opens, players get a new hand and re-ante, which can accumulate into some large prizes. Hence the figurative jackpots in slots and lottos.

The jack in jackpot, then, refers to the card. This jack, if we again look to the OED, has long named the rank. The dictionary cites jack as “the knave of trumps in the game of all-fours” as early as the 1670s. Among other meanings, a knave was once “a male servant,” “commoner,” or “peasant.” (Apparentlyjack eventually trumped knave following confusion between the abbreviation for knave, Kn, and king, K.)

As for pot? Once more according to the OED, a pot has been used in gambling slang for “a large sum of money” so staked or bet since 1823, for “the betting pool” in U.S. cards, especially poker, since 1847.

Now, I spent a lot of time playing Euchre over lunch in high school (and drinks in college). In this game, jacks are top trump and called bowers. The jack of the trump suit is the right bower, the jack of the same color the left bower. I always thought of these bowers in the castle sense, the left and right hazily evoking some sort of turret, I foolishly supposed. But no, this bower is actually from the German Bauer, which is a “farmer” or “peasant” – as we saw, a knave in English, or a jack, as Jack was once a name commonly associated with peasants.

Now that’s what I call hitting the etymological jackpot.

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“They”: Singular present, Scandinavian past

On January 8, the American Dialect Society (ADS) voted for they used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun for its Word of the Year for 2015.” As its official announcement continues:

They was recognized by the society for its emerging use as a pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she.

To address the problem of this binary, creations such as zie just haven’t caught on. Indeed, they is already in the language.

Singular they (and its inflected forms) has also been a point of more general contention, often decried by purists as ungrammatical. Take Every student passed their examEvery is singular but their is plural. This disagreement drives some grammar scolds crazy, but we do it naturally all the time. Even Chaucer and Shakespeare did it. The alternative, traditionally just his, is gender-exclusive while his or her is cumbersome – and, for many, also gender-exclusive, hence the ADS’s vote.

Professor Dennis Baron and linguist Gretchen McCulloch both have excellent pieces in support of this singular they, whose history – and controversy – is much older than you may think. I really recommend you check out their pieces.

But as this is an etymology blog, I wanted to take a quick moment to marvel at the etymology of they. Caution: a little more linguistic nitty-gritty lies ahead.

A partial declension of English third-person singular pronouns. We could add himself, herself, itself, and…themself? “They.” Doodle by me.


They is English’s third-person personal pronoun, along with their and them. If I see Jack and Jill falling down the hill, I can refer to them as theyThey is what many linguists refer to as a function word. Its role is grammatical. I don’t want to get too wonky here, but contrast they to a lexical item like iPhone, a coined noun, or victor, taken from Latin. (Indeed, so many of the words I study here are nouns, verbs, and adjectives borrowed from Latin, which is why they is so incredible to me, as we’ll see.) Grammatically speaking, they is just operating on a deeper level in the language, suffice it to say.

But they, amazingly, is not native to English. Starting in the late 700s and ending in the early 1000s, Vikings invaded England in three major waves. The two peoples – and their two languages – got really close. So close, in fact, that the Scandinavian form (think Old Norse) for they, þei, displaced Old English’s hīe. (For its possessive and object forms, Old English used hiera and him.) The adoption was complete by the end of the Middle English period, Albert Baugh and Thomas Cable note in their History of the English Language.

Now, Old English’s he was , she waso, and it was hit, so the Scandinavian-based they might have been a welcome source of distinction from hīe. Also, Scandinavian languages, like English, are Germanic languages, so their shared history also helps the uptake. But nevertheless, as Baugh and Cable put it: “Such parts of speech are not often transferred from one language to another.” Because such function words as they are operating so deep in the structure of the language, they are more resistant to change.

But we’re not done! English’s present plural of to beare, may also have been influenced by Scandinavian forms. Again, Baugh and Cable:

When we remember that in the expression they are both the pronoun and the verb are Scandinavian we realize once more how intimately the language of the invaders has entered into English.

For those with non-binary gender identities, he or she can feel like an invasion, which, at least to the long, etymological view from this one writer, makes singular they all the more powerful.

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Element, O, P? The elements of “element”

Last post, I discussed how the four, newly confirmed elements are named. But what about the very word element? How did it get its name? Its etymology may not be so, er, elementary.

Building blocks and ABCs? It’s elementary. “Element.” Doodle by me.

The development of element

In English, the earliest record of element names the four elements: earth, air, water, and fire, which ancient and medieval philosophers believed made up the whole of the physical universe. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds record of such usages as early as the 1300s.

The OED also finds, I should note, some early evidence of element that might refer to celestial bodies, suggesting that the word may have had multiple meanings even in its cradle.

We now know, of course, that the universe is composed of so much more than earth, air, water, and fire – and in a completely different manner. Though, if you stop to think about it, humans have discovered 118 elements, 24 of which are synthetic. That’s really not a whole lot of stuff making up the universe as we know it. And most of it actually just hydrogen.

Anyways, we might well say the the discovery of those four new elements – ununtrium, ununpentium, ununseptium, and ununoctium – owes a lot to those old theories, if we take the long view. And the four classical elements show their influence not only on the development of modern chemistry but also on Modern English, seen in the expressions in or out of (one’s) elements. See, each of the four elements was considered to be the natural realm for respective living beings. Think: birds in the air, fish in the sea. This usage, as the OED documents, dates back to the end of the 16th century.

Now, the OED first credits the modern chemical usage of element to Cornish scientist Humphry Davy (who also gets credit for the metallic suffix -ium, as we saw last post) in his lectures, Elements of Agricultural Chemistry, compiled in 1813. According to an 1815 edition of the work, Davy states:

By methods of analysis dependent on chemical and electrical instruments discovered in late times, it has been ascertained that all the varieties of material substances may be resolved into a comparatively small number of bodies, which, as they are not capable of being decompounded, are considered in the present state of chemical knowledge as elements. The bodies incapable of decomposition at present known are forty-seven.

I love that Davy’s lectures are called Elements of Agricultural Chemistry. And he even opens his lectures by observing that the “doctrines” of agricultural chemistry “have not yet been collected into any elementary treatises.” These examples aptly show that element and its derivative forms had already long been enjoying many senses outside of material contexts.

The ABCs of element 

OK, so what do we know about the etymological elements of element? The English word passes into English from the French element, which developed from Latin’s elementumLike English’s own element, this word could refer to a lot of things, including the notion of a “first principle.” As the OED describes it, Latin’s elementum is a “word of which the etymology and primary meaning are uncertain…”

This uncertainty has lead to a number of curious hypotheses. While noting its ultimately obscure origin, Eric Partridge wonders if elementum may have developed from *eligmentum, formed on “ēligere, to choose (the fundamental substance or basic principle) from (a welter of physical phenomenon).”

Meanwhile, Earnest Klein, also noting the obscure origin, suggests one proposal, *elepantum, is “most probable.” This *elepantum, so it’s argued, meant “ivory letter,” loaned from the Greek ἐλέϕας – “elephant” or “ivory,” and source of elephant – but altered by some Etruscan influence.

Ivory letters? Surely Klein means letters carved into (or possibly from?) ivory. The ivory component of this argument may be lacking tusks, but the letter part is important.

For Latin’s elementum could also refer to that building block of reading and writing: a “letter,” as in a letter of the alphabet. English features the metaphor, too. We don’t just learn our ABCs in elementary school. We also learn the ABCs of computer programming or basketball, say.

Scholars are also certain that Latin’s elementum is actually a translation of the Greek στοιχεῖον (stokheion), a word with equally many meanings.

For this word, I consulted Liddell and Scott’s Greek dictionary, and they gloss it as “one of row,” referring to, in the singular, “the shadow of the gnomon (of a sundial)” as well as “a letter.” In the plural, the word referred to the classical “elements” (a usage to attributed Plato) as well “rudiments” in the more general sense. At root is στοῖχος (stoikhos), a “row” or “rank,” source of English’s stoichiometry, speaking of chemistry.

But why the form elementum for that Greek  stokheionCarefully sound out the first three syllables of the word. Does it sound like letters lm, and n?  Was elementum a way of referring to the Roman alphabet via its second half, viz. alphabet (from Greek, referring to its first two letters, alpha and beta) or abecedarium (from post-classical Latin, joining a later Roman alphabet’s first three)?

But, then again, why the second half? Seems a bit fanciful, no?

Well, esteemed etymologist Anatoly Liberman thinks there may just be something to this, including the fancy. Through a series of sound changes beyond our element here, Liberman makes the case that elementum is an alteration of alimenta, “food” or “sustenance,” with each letter in the alphabetic sequence “nourishing” the next. (For  alimenta, think English’s alimentary). The resulting elementum additionally punned on lm, and n. And all as a sort of act of fancy on the part of some scholar. As Liberman puts it:

To put it differently, elementum was not derived from an identifiable root with the help of a suffix but coined whole to gloss Greek stoikheon…Some grammarian must have taken alimenta ~ *olimenta and changed it into elementa (the singular elementum postdates the plural).

This means Latin was first using elementa to refer to “letters,” later figuring other “rudiments” or “first principles” with the term  and then back-forming the singular, elementum.

Further efforts have attempted to link elementum to Semitic roots, including the ancient Canaanite alphabet, but these theories are certainly not easy as ABC.

Whether or not element ultimately imitates the recitation of any letters is up for debate, but one thing is for sure: its Latin and Greek references to the ABCs proves element is pretty elementary, in a manner of speaking, after all.

m ∫ r ∫