And the Oscar goes to…Boycott?

All eyes are on the big name at the Academy Awards tonight: Boycott.

Yes, this year, the Oscars are in the spotlight not as much for who’s nominated, but for who’s not. Spike Lee, Will Smith, and Jada Smith are boycotting Hollywood’s big night to protest the conspicuous lack of diversity in the actors and filmmakers the Academy nominated in its top categories, trending in social media as #OscarsSoWhite.

Like the top prize, the Oscar, or “God’s spear,” as I discussed in a previous post on the award’s name, boycott derives from a name.

Boycott

First cited in 1880, boycott, as the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology elucidates:

is an allusion to Captain Charles Boycott, 1832-1897, an English land agent over Irish tenant farmers, who refused to lower rents in hard times and was subjected to an organized campaign by local people who refused to have any dealings with him…The practice was widely instituted towards others and the term was quickly adopted by newspapers in almost all European and many non-European languages.

Barnhart goes on to provide examples of the adoption, which notably includes the Japanese boikotto.

Boycott‘s ostracism featured tenants’ refusal to work his farms and businesspersons’ refusal to trade with him. The eponym later extended to various protestatory refusals, such as like the one we are seeing this Oscar night.

What a way to be remembered, huh? As we saw recently, Bork was borked. Boycott was boycotted. And I don’t think we really want to give him one of those golden statuettes.

A -cott-age industry?

Boycott inspired girlcott, a boycott carried out by women (who must have felt the word was simply mansplaining protests).

The Oxford English Dictionary dates this playful formation, girlcott, to  1884. It features -cott as an early example of a “libfix”,  a term coined by linguist Arnold Zwicky for this fun and fascinating phenomenon we see in inventions like Snowzilla or Carmageddon, both of which make people take a staycation. This -cott, like –zilla, –(a)geddon, –cation, and –splain doesn’t have an inherent meaning like the suffix -ness or -ly do, for example, but is liberated from a word and affixed to new coinages. Hence, Zwicky’s libfixBoycott is a family name, likely taken from where the family’s from in England.

This -cott, of course, should not be confused with mascot (a French term for “talisman” that may be relate to mask), ascot (named for Ascot, a city near Windsor, Berkshire in England remembered for the fashions worn at a big race held there), or Epcot (the Disney World theme park, “Experimental Prototype of Community of Tomorrow”).

If you support Trump’s recent call to boycott Apple over its refusal to decrypt a phone used by one of the San Bernardino’s shooters, as I recently touched on in my post on crypt, you might want to…orangecott it?

And #OscarsSoWhite, to circle back, might not seek to boycott the red carpet but blackcott it – or diversitycott it.

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Sloth

One does not need an excuse to talk about sloths. These slow-moving tree-dwellers wear a goofy smile that says, “Live in the moment.” That or they are silently – joyously – breaking wind.

But I do have a reason, this post. My wife and I are jaunting down to Costa Rica. Move aside, quetzal: It’s the sloth we’re eager to spot. (I imagine they’re not hard to miss.)

Like their cousin, the anteater, the sloth has an apt appellation, despite the sinful associations that tarnishes their otherwise good name.

I find it interesting,  though, that sloths are called so called. Very often, ecologically distinct animals like the sloth, now only found in Central and South America, bear their indigenous names. Like the quetzal, toucan, macaw – or, as I’ve discussed in another travel-inspired posts, the Quechuan condor, llama, and puma.

So, what’s up with sloth? Let’s have a quick look at its etymology.

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A brown-throated three-toed sloth. Image by Stefan Laube from Wikimedia Commons.

Sloth

For the name of the animal, the Oxford English Dictionary first spots sloth in Samuel Purchas’ 1613 Purchas his Pilgrimage.  (You might recall Purchas, whose travel writings are of great historical and lexical importance, from my posts on victim and tornado.) Concerning the sloth, Purchas notes: “The Spaniards call it…the light dog. The Portugals Sloth. The Indians, Hay.” Sloth appears to be a translation of the Portuguese preguiça, from the Latin pigritia, meaning “laziness.” Related is the Spanish perezoso.

Meaning “laziness,” sloth has been long been crawling up the tree of English. The OED cites it in the late 1100s. By the middle of the 1300s, sloth reached its personification as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. This sloth translates the Latin acedia and Greek ἀκηδία. These classical words suggest a spiritual apathy, which I don’t think the smiling sloth is guilty of. A little later, sloth came upon “slowness.”

The word sloth pulls a fast one, etymologically speaking: It joins slow and the noun-forming suffix –th, seen in other, words like stealth and strength (one of which definitely applies to the sloth). Sloth, then, is really just slowth; spelling and vowel changes yield its modern form. This formation surfaces in early Middle English, replacing the Old English slǽwð. In the record, the latter, found as early as the late 800s, clings on as sleuth, no relation to detectives.

From the Germanic-rooted, Old English sláw, slow is also very old in the language, when it originally referred to dullness of wits, not motion. Slow in terms of speed was actually slower to the scene.

Sloth is an epithet not only hung on only our tardigrade edentate, though: the collective term for a group of bears is sloth.

Up to this point, I’ve been a bit lazy myself. Sloths are known by native names, especially down in Brazil, where sloths there are known by the Tupi as ai, which Purchas seems to have documented as hay. Ai imitates the animal’s high-pitched cry – which imitates, too, I hope, our squeal of joy when we get to see a sloth. Not to be confused, of course, with the cry of “Hey, you guys!” in The Goonies’ very own Sloth.

The Mashed Radish will be back in March. Forgive my idleness while I’m away.

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Tales from the “crypt”

Apple’s encryption has been at the center of a heated debate over privacy and security these past weeks. A federal judge ordered the company to unlock the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters last December to aid the FBI’s investigation, but they have not complied: Apple maintains that such decryption would compromise the data of millions of its users. As the fight continues, we’ll see whether Apple will crack – or keep its code. In the meantime, let’s crack the etymological of code of the word at the center of this debate: crypt.

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A 17th-century Italian grotesque ornament drawing. Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art from the Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1934.

Crypto-mania 

Telecommunications has been using encrypt since the 1950s, with encryption appearing shortly thereafter. Decrypt has been in use earlier, however; the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites it in the 1930s to refer more generally to the solution of a cryptogram, “something written in code.” Decrypt’s specifically technological sense followed encrypt.

The OED indicates encrypt and decrypt – these verbs for the conversion of data in and out of codes – were formed after cryptogram, which is dated to the early 1800s. Cryptogram is itself formed after cryptography, a word evidenced all the way back in the 1640s in a reference to Cryptomenytices et Cryptographiae Libri IX. This 1624 text on the art of ciphers (steganography) was written by Gustavus Selenus, a pseudonym, appropriately enough, for Duke August II of Brunswick. Shakespeare’s First Folio was published a year before and, as some will have it, “truthers” claim Selenus’ work reveals Francis Bacon as the true author of the plays.

As we see in cryptogram and cryptography, crypto- has been a not-so-secret word-forming prefix in the English language. The earliest record of the prefix comes in the late 16th century form of cryptoporticus, a reference to the Latin architectural term for a covered, semi-subterranean passageway, usually with windows looking up aboveground.

Nineteenth-century scientists were fond of it: they coined the likes of cryptocephalous and cryptozygous. Cryptozoology joins the “secret” club in the 1960s, though.

Nineteenth-century political and religious leaders liked crypto-, too. We see crypto-Catholic (a secret Catholic) and a whole host of similar conspiratorial coinages: crypto-Christian, crypto-Jesuit, crypto-Jew, crypto-deist, crypto-heretic, even crypto-Fenian, among others. From what I can tell, these formations are indebted to crypto-Calvinism, a 16th German concern about Calvinists acting as Lutherans, the OED tells me. These formations also anticipate the crypto-fascist and crypto-communist (later, just crypto) of the 1920s and 1930s.

Today, I imagine closet has largely outed crypto- in its “secret” appellations, but I could see some currency for crypto-liberal, crypto-conservative, or even crypto-establishment in today’s political climate.

Cryptic crosswords 

Now, crypto- ultimately derives from Greek. Etymologists cite two forms: the Hellenistic Greek κρυπτο- (krypto-), directly responsible for the English prefix, and the more common ancient Greek κρυψι- (krupsi-). Both conceal κρυπτός (kryptos), “hidden,” from a verb, κρύπτειν (kryptein), “to hide.” Indo-European scholars dig yet deeper, reconstructing *krau-, a verb of a similar action.

For the first prefix, krypto, the OED mentions a one-off Greek κρύπτορχος (kryptorkhos), “with undescended testicles”; this –ορχος is related to orchid, the beautiful flowers whose roots suggested testicles to its namers.

Latin fashioned Greek’s kryptos into crypta, an “underground passage” or “covered galley,” possibly even a “vault” or “crypt” in the modern sense. English’s first crypt, which the OED dates at least to 1475, was a “cave” or “cavern,” its meaning of “underground burial place” coming a century or so after. Cryptic begins naming the mysterious in the late 1600s, the crossword puzzle in the late 1900s.

With Morris Travers, chemist William Ramsay fashioned the element krypton in 1898 after the Greek, apparently because this noble gas  was “hidden” in a liquid he was studying. A friend of Ramsay suggested the name Eosium, for the Greek for “dawn” due to the brilliant spectral lines the element emits. The radioactive kryptonite, mined from planet Krypton, may have been so inspired by the element name when it first threatened Superman in the 1940s.

“Hidden” in plain sight

There are yet other cognates of crypt I was very surprised to find hiding in the word: grotto, a “small, pleasant cave” or cave-like place, and undercroft, a “vaulted chamber,” usually under a church. Grotto, via Italian, and undercroft, via Germanic languages, both go back to the Latin crypta.

Grotto and undercroft still evoke for me special places in my Catholic school days. My grade school, St. Mary’s, housed a shrine to its patron saint in a cool, shady cove between school buildings we called the grotto. From what I gather, shrines to Mary were erected by worshippers in grotto-like places, especially along pilgrimage roots. Underneath the church was the undercroft. My school deemed this crypt-like place a great place to house the kindergarten classrooms. These words are charged with powerful memories, peculiar and distinct places they are, with peculiar and distinct names.

Grotto, as indicated, comes from the Italian grotta, which derives grottesca, a kind of “cave painting,” or pittura grottesca. Some speculate these were murals found on the walls in the chambers of Roman buildings, which became known as grotte during their excavation. Grottesca yielded the French crotesque and, ultimately, the English grotesque. At first, a grotesque was a sort of fantastical and pastoral painting of human-animal forms, whose fanciful distortions propelled to the word’s later evolution to “bizarre,” “absurd,” “disturbing” – a term, to bring it full circle, some may use to describe Apple’s refusal to decrypt, others the FBI’s insistence on a backdoor.

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How did “lame duck” take flight?

Technically, President Barack Obama is not a “lame duck” until after the election in November. But with a gridlocked Congress, an unprecedented presidential campaign, and a sudden Supreme Court vacancy, pundits, the press, and politicos have been already quacking the fowl phrase a few months into the president’s final year.

There is even an egregiously false “lame duck” clause making the rounds online; citing Article III Section IV of the Constitution, which does not exist, it claims “the President may not nominate a candidate for the Supreme Court if the vacancy shall occur in the year leading up to an election, when the candidate be a ‘lame duck.'” The phrase lame duck did exist when the constitution was drafted, as we’ll see, but many decades passed before we started using in this way.

So, how did the expression lame duck take flight?

Lame duck

It wasn’t politics that first gave wing to the expression lame duck. It was stock brokering – or rather, bad stock brokering.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) takes lame duck back to 18th-century broker slang for a “defaulter” in the (now) London Stock Exchange. Brokers who cannot pay off their losses, so it goes, are like ducks that can’t walk. Helping to further explain the metaphor, the dictionary cites David Garrick in a prologue to a comedy by Samuel Foote: “Change-Alley bankrupters waddle out lame ducks!” The passage goes on to describe all sorts of colorful terms the papers were apparently using for gamesome folk: “The gaming fools are doves, the knaves are rooks, / Change-Alley bankrupters waddle out lame ducks! But, Ladies, blame not your gaming spouses, / For you, as well as they, have pidgeon-houses!”

This is not the earliest evidence the OED gives for lame duck, though. It first cites a letter written by English scholar and politician Horace Walpole: “Do you know what a Bull, and a Bear, and a Lame Duck, are?” Indeed, the duck is not the only animal in the stock market’s menagerie; stockjobbers have been referring to bears and bulls since the early 1700s. In his letter, Walpole expresses dismay for moneyed interests in conflicts with the Spanish at the time. He goes on to answer his question: “Nay, nor I either; I am only certain they are neither animals nor fowl, but are extremely interested in the new subscription. I don’t believe I apply it right here; but I feel as if I should be a lame duck if the Spaniards take the vessel that has my Altar on board.” (Altar? Walpole famously collected art and historical artifacts, if I reckon correctly. Subscription I assume refers to some sort of financial investment opportunity.)

For all of lame duck’s disability, it definitely winged its way across the pond. The OED finds it in US political contexts as early as a January 1863 edition of the Congressional Globe, deriding the United States Court of Claims: “In no event…could it be greatly obnoxious to the charge of being a receptacle of ‘lame ducks’ or broken down politics.” Lame duck easily jumps from maimed finances to crippled politics.

By the early 1900s, we see lame duck flocking to its current usage, the session after an election before a new office-holder takes their seat. It was used especially of Congress at first. In 1910, the New York Evening Post noted that reporters chattered of the “‘Lame Duck Alley’ …a screened-off corridor in the White House offices, where statesmen who went down in the recent electoral combat may meet.” Ducks, for the good of your name, you should really start avoiding alleyways.

Ratified in 1933, the 20th Amendment to the US Constitution is also known as the Lame Duck Amendment: It ended a president and vice president’s term on January 20 and Congress on January 3, moved up from March 4. This prevents lame ducks from being lamer ducks, shall we say. Also, office-holders just don’t need as much time to get ready for their service as they did centuries back, I imagine.

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A picture from the National Archives of the Joint Resolution ratified as the 20th Amendment. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Lame duck has been used of broken-down ships, commercial enterprises, and persons, more generally. The OED also notes a related expression predating its first citation of lame duck: “to come by the lame post (of news),” to be “behind the times” in the 17th century.

Today, I hear lame duck usually characterizing the powerlessness of a president in a final term. But, in an age when being a politician can be like being a professional fundraiser, a lame duck can reassemble that other national bird: the eagle, for a lame-duck president’s wings aren’t clipped by running for re-election. That is, if your opponents aren’t out hunting.

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A pre-bork, post-Bork?

Mere hours after the news broke that Justice Antony Scalia died over the weekend, the political fight over his sudden vacancy already broke out. Senate Republicans argue the next president should nominate his replacement. Meanwhile, Barack Obama, citing constitutional duties, will submit his pick. Everyone from pundits on cable news to scholars of U.S. history are pointing to various precedents to guide this election-year game-changer.

One U.S. Supreme Court nomination fight getting aired in all this chatter concerns Robert H. Bork, whose legacy may be less jurisprudential than lexical.

Bork

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Robert Bork. Image from Wikimedia Commons

After the retirement of Justice Lewis Powell on June 26, 1987, President Ronald Regan nominated Robert Bork to replace him on the U.S. Supreme Court. Senate Democrats notoriously and publicly blitzed Bork’s nomination. Other liberal-leaning organizations further fueled the characterization of the then-appellate judge as an extremist. His video rental records were even leaked (though his viewing habits were quite vanilla). The Senate rejected Bork’s nomination in a 58-42 vote. (The Senate later confirmed Justice Antony Kennedy in a 97-0, after Douglas Ginsburg withdrew his nomination over concerns of past marijuana use).

Thanks to this heated contest over his failed nomination, Bork was borked, eponymously verbed for “to vilify a nominee, especially in the mass media, in order to prevent their appointment to a public office,” if I may paraphrase the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for this memorable moment in U.S. political slang. Bork can more widely referring to thwarting a person in a similar manner, though it generally stills wears a flag pin, so to speak. This is not be confused with the caricatured interjection, Bork!, of the Muppet Swedish Chef, nor the internet-y slang, borked, meaning “broken.”

William Safire dated the first usage of bork – not long after his very nomination – to The Atlanta -Journal Constitution on August 20, 1987: “Bork’s opponents are in a frenzy. Frenzied mortals amplify some facts and gloss over others. Let’s just hope something enduring results for the justice-to-be, like a new verb: Borked. Dictionaries will say it’s synonymous with ‘maligned’.” Language has indeed memorialized Bork’s last name, though not quite honoring the original intent of this early usage.

Post-Bork, bork had a good deal of currency into the early 1990s but since ebbing, if my ear is any measure. But now, with the Republican-controlled Senate already urging the President not even to nominate Scalia’s successor, we’ll have to see if Bork gets something of a comeuppance: to pre-Bork, perhaps? Then again, blocking a nomination may just backfire – er, bork-fire, shall we say. However it shakes out, the next months in U.S. politics is going to be one cluster-bork, no doubt.

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“Revamp”: A vamped up etymology

There’s been a lot of revamping of late. Twitter has revamped its timeline. Next month, students will take on a revamped SAT. And after New Hampshire, many of the presidential candidates are revamping their campaigns.

We’re familiar with re-, a Latin prefix meaning “again” or “new.” But what the heck is a vamp?

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The vamp, also known as the upper, can refer to other top and front parts of a shoe. Image from Podiatry Today.

Revamp

In short, a vamp is the front and upper part of boot or shoe. So, to revamp literally means “to patch up (some old footwear) with a new vamp.” Doesn’t sound so sexy, huh? But it’s pragmatic, cost-effective, resourceful.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites vamp in the early 1200s when the word referred to a “sock” or “stocking,” specifically the part which covered the foot and ankle. By the end of the 1500s, the verbal vamp appears: “to provide with a new vamp,” hence, “to patch up, mend, refurbish.” Before revamp appears in the early 1800s much in the modern sense we use it today, figurative cobblers would new-vamp in the mid 1600s.

Piano players and other musicians have been vamping since the end of the 1700s. The OED cites this musical term for improvisation in 1789. If you’re improvising an accompaniment, prelude, or the like, you’re sort of patching something together as you go, as the metaphor suggests.

Now, vamp, it turns out, is itself quite vamped. Via Anglo-Norman French, English ultimately fashioned vamp from the Old French avanpié, pieced together from avant (“before”) and pié (“foot”), both derived from Latin. (French uses pied today; English’s own foot is actually related.) So, an avanpié isthe front part of the foot,” fitted later for the footwear it donned. Stitch avant and pié together (compounding), cut off an a (aphesis), snip off a t (elision), form np into mp (assimilation), and voilà: it’s like a a whole new word.

Back in the Middle Ages, knights armored themselves with vambraces or vantbraces, which covered the forearm. These words join avant and bras, the French for “arm.”

Forget reinventing the wheel, er, buying a whole new pair of boots: language really knows how to vamp things up.

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Why is something “hermetically” sealed?

As the 2016 presidential campaign heats up, so do the attacks.

Campaigning for his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, days before the New Hampshire primaries, Bill Clinton characterized her opponent, Bernie Sanders, as so cut off from reality that it’s as if he’s living in a “hermetically sealed box.”

Talk about feeling the Bern.

Such a box is “airtight,” as we know. But why do we call such a seal a hermetic seal? It turns out the former president drew his fire – er, etymological fire– from alchemy.

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A floor tile of Hermes Trismegistus from the Siena Cathedral in Italy. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Hermetic

Neoplatonists and other early mystics identified the Egyptian god, Thoth, with the Greek god, Hermes, and called him Hermes Trismegistus, a god of science and art. They also believed Hermes Trismegistus authored the esoteric Corpus Hermeticum, among other names. This was a body of writings on philosophical and theosophical topics, including such magical ones as bringing statues to life. His name means “Hermes Thrice-Great.”

The Corpus Hermeticum essentially founded Western alchemy, whose metal-melting distillations required completely sealing off glass tubes. The invention of this process – and its name – alchemists credited to Hermes Trismegistus, who knew the secrets of their occult art. In Medieval Latin, Hermes was rendered into an adjective hermeticus, yielding English’s hermetical and hermetic.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds records of various hermetic terminology in the 17th century. Both Hermes’ seal and hermetically are dated to English clergyman Thomas Tymme’s 1605 translation of 16th-century French physician Joseph du Chesne’s The Practice of Chymicall and Hermeticall Physicke.

For Hermes’ seal, Tymme writes: “Hermes seale…take the red hote tonges, and therewith wring or nippe the toppe close together; whereby it shall be closed as if it had no vent before.” Tymme uses the adverbial form in a different passage: “A smal cappe or cover, with his receiver, strongly and well luted, hermetically closed rounde about.” Such seals were usually achieved through soldering, welding, or fusion. “Hermetic seal” and “hermetically sealed” as such the OED dates later in the 1600s.

Tymme’s work, it’s worth noting, also provides the OED’s earliest evidence for the word chemistry. And alchemy, so much the precursor to modern chemistry, was once known as the hermetic science.

Now, the ultimate origin of the Greek Hermes is sealed off to us, so to speak. The god’s name, though, also lives on in another English words: hermaphrodite. In Greek mythology, Hermes and Aphrodite had a son, the handsome Hermaphroditos. The water nymph Salmacis fell so deeply in love with him, according to one version of the myth, that she wished the two joined into one. The gods granted her wish, hence this word variously applied to something or someone with both male and female parts.

Folk etymology erroneously connects the Hermes to hermeneutic, I’ll add while we’re on the topic. That word derives from the Greek for “interpreter.”

So, the phrase hermetically sealed looks to alchemy for its origin – so, too, I suspect, will some of the presidential candidates as they try to push on for the nomination after the New Hampshire results come in.

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Broncos vs. Panthers

In Groundhog vs. Shadow, Punxsutawney Phil easily walked to victory: his shadow didn’t even show up for his wintry wrangling with the woodchuck earlier this week.

But we’ve got a bigger animal fight ahead.

No, I’m not talking about Donkey vs. Elephant – or, at this point in the 2016 presidential campaign, Donkey vs. Donkey and Elephant vs. Elephant. I’m talking about that other great American mascot match: the Denver Broncos vs. the Carolina Panthers.

Yes, Super Bowl 50 is this Sunday, so let’s see how bronco and panther stack up against each other – etymologically speaking.

Bronco

Bronco has been bucking in English since the mid-1800s. Cowboys in the now American Southwest saddled this word from the Mexican Spanish bronco, whose meaning of “rough” or “wild” aptly characterizes this “untamed or half-tamed horse.”

OK, Denver is starting aggressively with some big pass plays, the commentators observe.

Etymologists also note this bronco can describe “rough” wood and, as a noun, refer to “a knot in wood.”

The receivers just couldn’t connect. It’s 3 and out. The Broncos kick.

We aren’t fully sure of the origin of bronco from here, but some suggest Spanish borrowed the word from the Vulgar Latin, *bruncus, meaning “projecting” like a sharp point.

Interception! The Broncos have the ball back. 

This *bruncus may blend broccus (“projecting”) and truncus (“trunk of a tree”). The former is related to broach, the latter trunk.

And Denver converts the interception into a field goal.  

Panther  

Panther has long been stalking English. It appears in Old English, loaned from Latin: panthēra,  originally some kind of spotted big cat like the leopard. Panther was borrowed again in Middle English, this time from French, panthere, though from the same Latin jungle.

Carolina opens conservatively with a few rush plays. 

Now, the Latin derives from the Greek, πάνθηρ (panther), which ancient philologists claimed joins pan (παν-, “all”) and ther (θήρ, “wild beast”). “All beast”? Yes, the panther was once fancied as a composite of many wild animals, a “fabulous hybrid of a lion and a pard,” as the Oxford English Dictionary explains.

Cam Newtown goes long…and it’s first and goal for Carolina!

This mythical panther also “exhaled sweet breath,” the OED continues.

Now a big third and goal here – Carolina has fumbled the ball at the 2 yard line!

But the panther’s sweet breath, emanating whenever it roared, attracts all animals cave. Except for its nemesis, the dragon.

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A detail of the panther (center), scaring off the dragon and trailed by a retinue of other animals, from the 12th Aberdeen Bestiary, held by Aberdeen University. Image from Wikimedia Commons, source from the Aberdeen Bestiary.

The officials rule Carolina has recovered the football.

As fascinating as this “all beast” etymology may be, it’s as fanciful as the creature it conjures up. Scholars believe Greek borrowed its panther from a language in Asia Minor. Many point to the Sanskrit puṇḍárīkas, “tiger” (though one of Skeat’s sources suggests “elephant”). Earnest Klein adds that the Sanskrit literally means “the yellowish (animal),” from a base word meaning “whitish yellow.”

Carolina kicks it in for 3. 

If the etymology of bronco and panther is any measure, it should be a fun Super Bowl. Perhaps Carolina will prove to be bronco-busters, breaking in those untamed horses. Or maybe Denver will make Carolina drink panther piss (or juice or sweat), which is some potent hooch indeed.

I, for one, will be getting ready for a skirmish of my own: Chip vs. Guacamole. And you can gear up with my old post on the origin of Super Bowl.

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Chucking out the “wood” in “woodchuck”

This Groundhog Day, Punxsutawney Phil may be feeling that those Iowa caucuses stole his thunder – er, shadow – with all the attention on political prognostication, not marmot meteorology. But caucuses and groundhogs have more in common than just calendars: both caucus, as we recently saw, and woodchuck, another name for the groundhog, derive from Algonquian languages.

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This woodchuck – also called a groundhog and even a whistlepig – is definitely pondering life’s big questions. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Woodchuck

How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Let’s consult the etymologists.

The answer turns out to be pretty straightforward: None. No, I’m not dismissing the rodent’s timber-tossing abilities: I’m dismissing folk etymology. For the woodchuck has nothing to do with wood, at least as far as its name is concerned.

See, woodchuck, while it looks like a naturally formed compound of wood and chuck, actually derives from Native American languages. Scholars cite the Cree otchek or Ojibwe otchig, among other forms, which were native words for the marten. (Both Cree and Ojibwe are Algonquian languages.) As early as 1674, when the Oxford English Dictionary first cites the word,  traders apparently made sense of the phonetically similar indigenous terms by altering it to the more English-y “woodchuck,” as well as transferring the name to the North American marmot, or groundhog. A variant form is wejack, which also refers to the pekan or fisher, from an Algonquian term that may have further influenced woodchuck.

During the next presidential election cycle, maybe we can take a page from the shared etymological histories of caucus and woodchuck . Forget all the fundraising, debates, campaign rallies, and polls. If the groundhog sees it’s shadow, we’ll have six more weeks of winter and then the Democratic party will – agh, then we’ll just be arguing over which party is associated with a longer winter.

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“Caucus”: a smoke-filled etymology (repost)

Caucus Day has arrived at long last. Today, Iowans will cast the first votes of the 2016 race to the White House. This voting system is quite distinctive, as is the word caucus. So, in honor of the event whose results politicos, pundits, and campaign personnel will read like so many tea leaves, I am republishing an earlier post on the very American and very disputed origin of caucus.

Caucus

The next Speaker of the US House of Representative is courting the Freedom Caucus while the next President of the US is courting the Iowa caucuses. But the importance of the caucus to the American political process isn’t new. The caucus – a meeting of members of a political party or movement, especially to choose a candidate for election or to decide on policy – has long been an important part of the American political process. This is evident even in the history of the very word: some of the first records of caucus involve John Adams, Sam Adams, the Boston Tea Party, and possibly even John Smith and Pocahontas. But, like so much of American democracy, the origin of caucus is subject to debate.

"Captain John Smith." Ink and ballpoint on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
Captain John Smith has an important and complicated place in American history. We might add the origin of “caucus” to that legacy. “Captain John Smith.” Ink and ballpoint on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

A significant and early citation of caucus comes from an entry John Adams made in his diary in 1763. In this entry, Adams writes that he learned the “Caucas Clubb meets at certain Times in the Garret of Tom Daws.”  This private organization  – whose social meetings were even then associated with tobacco and drink, as his notes remark – was influential in pre-Revolutionary politics, including a possible role in the Boston Tea Party.

The Oxford English Dictionary has two citations before Adams’ own in 1763. They give us more insight into the place caucuses held in the colonies, not to mention the historic phonology of the word, especially in the New England region, where the OED concludes it arose:

1760 Boston Gaz. Suppl. 5 May The new and grand Corcas….The old and true Corcas.
1762 O. Thacher in  Proc. Mass. Hist. Soc. (1884). 20 48 The connections and discords of our politicians, corkus-men, plebeian tribes, &c.

The word was “not novel” when English minister and historian William Gordon discussed it in his 1788 “History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment of the Independence of the United States of Americans.” He recalls it as early as the 1720s, though he admits he has “no satisfactory account” of its origins, which largely remains the case today.

But we do have a number of suggestions, some of which are more electable, shall we say, than others.

Caulkers

In Gordon’s own discussion of the word, he notes the Boston caucuses met at “the north end of town, where much of the ship-building business was carried on.” Noting this, philologist John Pickering in 1816 guessed the word originated in a cant term, caulkers, shortened from caulkers’ meetings. Pickering suggests ship caulkers and their vocational brethren were known for their political meetings and activities. Scholars have swiftly dispatched this derivation.

West-Corcus

Pickering is not alone in considering the locations of these meetings, though. In his excellent account of the word, storied American writer and philologist H.L. Mencken notes that the Dictionary of American English suggests caucus “may have derived from the name of a forgotten neighborhood” based on a reference in a Boston newspaper to a meeting in the “West-Corcus in Boston” in 1745. In an interesting thread on the American Dialect Society’s email discussion list, Professor Stephen Goranson finds some wind in this speculation, though he doesn’t fully explain why.

C.A.U.C.U.S.

Pickering surfaces again in 1943, thanks to the scholarship of LeRoy Barret, as we also learn in Mencken’s work. Barret cites an attempt by Pickering to derive caucus from the initials of six members’ surnames: Cooper, Adams, Urann, Coulson, Urann, and Symmes. With characteristic mordancy, Mencken dismisses this initialism in his account of the history of the work:

There is, furthermore, an unhappy tendency among amateur etymologists to derive words from the initials of proper names, often without justification.

Kaukos

Another effort, from the Century Dictionary in 1900, looks to the drink John Adams noted. This origin takes caucus back, via Latin, to a late Greek word, kaukos, a “drinking vessel,” emphasizing the conviviality of meetings and recalling Platonic symposia. Historians, such as William Harris in his own informative piece on this problematic word,¹ have serious doubts about the record of kaukos in itself, not to mention the unlikeliness these colonial Bostonians would have adopted such a recondite word for their club.

The Powhatan cau′-cau-as′u

Some may doubt these secret politickers used Latin or Greek names, but they may have taken Native American ones. According to the OED, philologist and Algonquian scholar James H. Trumbull suggested in the Proceedings of the American Philological Association in 1872 that caucus has a

possible derivation from an Algonquin word cau′-cau-as′u, which occurs in Capt. Smith’s  Virginia 23, as Caw-cawaassough ‘one who advises, urges, encourages’, from a verb meaning primarily ‘to talk to’, hence ‘to give counsel, advise, encourage’, and ‘to urge, promote, incite to action’. For such a derivation there is claimed the general suitability of the form and sense, and it is stated that Indian names were commonly taken by clubs and secret associations in New England; but there appears to be no direct evidence.

Of all the etymological candidates for caucus, this one gets the most votes, though no nominee is ever perfect.

Caucus, then, may may come from the Algonquian spoken by the Powhatan peoples in what is now Virginia. The very political concept, too, may well have native roots. As the late Classics professor William Harris sums up in his: “And so it turns out that CAUCUS is a truly American word.”American English is indeed indebted to the very language of the peoples the colonists eradicated, to be frank. But so, too, in many complex ways we may struggle to comprehend or acknowledge, is American democracy.

¹ I did observe that Professor Harris states that Captain Smith married Pocahontas. She married John Rolfe. I felt the inaccuracy was worth noting.

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