The travails of “travel”

Long security lines have been beleaguering travelers across America’s airports, making the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) scramble to unlace its shoes, take out its laptop, and bin its personal affects. Travel can be quite the travail – all too painfully true, if we give the word travel an etymological screening.


Originally, travel was travail. They were the same word, both referring to “extremely hard labor” and “toil.” Travail is documented in the mid-13th century, wrought from the French travail, “suffering” or “painful effort.” (In English, travail was applied to childbirth by the end of the 1200s.) It doesn’t get any easier from here, though.

Romance-language philologists think French’s travail develops from the Late Latin *trepālium, literally “an instrument with three stakes.” The first part of this compound features trēs (“three”), the second part pālus (“stake”), which we also see in the pale of beyond the pale.  This trepālium may have been some sort of a torture device, inflicting its misery three stakes at a time. Extreme exertion can feel like torture, as the sense of trepālium apparently so developed.

Walter Skeat suggests an alternative origin for travail, though: the Latin *travāre, “to make or build with beams, pen, shackle, put an obstacle in one’s way, and so cause embarrassment and trouble,” as he glosses it. He cites a similar sense development in embarrass. Skeat then traces *travāre in Latin’s trabes, a “beam” or “piece of timber,” which, incidentally, he anchors in the very Indo-European root that ultimately yields the word torture.

Over the course of the 14th century, travail began to refer to going on a journey, which was a back-breaking undertaking in the Middle Ages. Travail changed its shape, form, and sense to arrive at the travel we know today – though, when it comes to modern airplane travel, it can feel like nothing has changed at all.

I think we now know why Frost really took the road less travelled by: He had TSA PreCheck. And that can make all the difference.

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Winning words: “Feldenkrais” and “Gesellschaft”

For the third consecutive year, the Scripps National Spelling Bee  crowned co-champions. This year, Jairam Jagadeesh Hathwar correctly spelled Feldenkrais, sharing the top orthographical prize with Nihar Saireddy Janga, who spelled Gesellschaft. Where do these words come from – and what do they mean, anyways?


Feldenkrais is a trademarked name “for a system of aided body movements intended to increase bodily awareness and ease tension,” as Merriam-Webster, the official dictionary of the bee, explains it. This form of somatic education takes its name from Moshé Pinchas Feldenkrais, an Israeli scientist born in what is now the Ukraine, who designed and founded the Feldenkrais Method.


First theorized by German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies, Gesellschaft is “a rationally developed mechanistic type of social relationship characterized by impersonally contracted associations between persons,” according to Merriam-Webster.  Gesellschaft characterizes the more modern, impersonal, and institutional relationships of modern society, compared to the more personal, traditional, and rural ones of Gemeinschaft.

Literally translated as “companionship” but used in the sense of “society,” Gesellschaft joins the German geselle, a “companion,” “associate,” or “fellow (guildsman),” with the noun-forming suffix –schaft, related to English’s own -ship, as in, well, companionship. The suffix, at root, means “state” or “condition,” ultimately cognate to the word shape.

To ace the shape of these words, Hathwar and Janga no doubt mastered the orthographical equivalent of Feldenkrais.

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Why is an economy or system “rigged”?

While it’s increasingly unlikely that he will win his party’s nomination this summer, Senator Bernie Sanders promises to take his fiery message all the way to the Democratic convention. “The economy is rigged,” he protests at his packed and impassioned rallies. “The system is rigged,” he cries in political interviews. But why is rigged  – “manipulated or fixed in an illegal or improper manner” – rigged?

“I know their tricks well.” A 19th-century lithograph of the thimblerig by John Doyle. Image courtesy of


We might reasonably suppose rigged has nautical roots. A ship, after all, is rigged with ropes, knots, masts, and sails. The intricate and complicated apparatus of rigging seems like a natural metaphor for other phenomena, like elections or prices, that have been artfully fixed.

As tempting as the connection may be, Bernie’s rigged is actually first found in financial contexts. (With Scandinavian roots, nautical rigging is unrelated.) The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites several key usages in an 1826 edition of The Times: “This was one of the very best ‘rigged’ Companies that ever were introduced into the share-market.” A rigged stock, the dictionary explains, was a publicly listed one whose value was increased or decreased through illegal, improper, or contrived methods. The news article provides additional examples that help illustrate the development of rigged. Note the verb and noun forms: “Very few shares were paid upon in the Company, as it was intended to ‘rig’ them in the market. The ‘rig’ failed.”

Auctions were also rigged. As the OED records, a rig was “a fraudulent auction,” specifically one of worthless goods at which genuine bidding is encouraged by spurious bids made by associates of the auctioneer.” For this rig, the OED first cites the English magazine Atheneum in 1825: “The goods, where there is a rig, whether furniture or otherwise, are generally either damaged, or got up on purpose, in a shabby but showy way.” This rig is telling, as it highlights the trickery and deceit involved in the term. For it is precisely this sense of “trickery” and “deceit” that hatched rigged.

Tricks are for kings

Originally, a rig was a “scheme,” “swindle,” “trick,” or “prank.” The OED records rig as a colloquialism dated as early as 1640, as a verb about a century later. It’s featured in thimblerig, a 19th-century version of the shell game or three-card Monte that used three thimbles and a pea for its con.

The ultimate origin of this rig, however, eludes us. The OED does suggest it may be related to reak, English dialect for “a prank” or “playful trick” usually found in the phrase to play reaks and attested in the 16th century. And to play reaks might be a variation of to play rex: “to behave like a lord or master.” (Rex is “king” in Latin.) To play tricks, then, is a kind of power move.

An alternative theory for reak is freak, which referred to various “caprices” well before it was extended to its current sense of “abnormality.” (The etymological nature of freak is unknown.) Walter Skeat, meanwhile, supposed rig was connected to rickets and wriggle.

If the delegate math is any measure, Bernie Sanders might not find validation for his campaign against rigged systems in the Democratic nomination. But, aside from the groundswell of support his campaign has inspired in many young and independent voters, the etymology of rigged, with its roots in financial fraud and tyrannical tricks, is some consolation.

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Metymology? Mashed Radish turns three

Oh yeah: I missed a few important milestones recently.

Mashed Radish turned three earlier this month. Politics inspired quite a few posts – Donald Trump especially – this past year. While politics may divide us, a shared love of words certainly brings us together. Like animals, which also prompted quite a lot of writing. You know, I think this blog could definitely do with more animal posts.

I’ve also reached over 10,000 followers. Wow. Gosh. Thanks, everyone, for your continued – or new – interest, readership, comments, and support.

Speaking of support, I’ve a third milestone comping up which I’ll be sure not to miss: my second wedding anniversary. I really need to thank my wife for all the support she’s given and sacrifices (yes, etymologies have their costs) she’s made for this project.

Now, how’d the first two pass me by? Well, I moved to Dublin, for one. For another, my head’s been absolutely stuffed with Shakespeare, whose complete works I’ve been reading and writing about at Shakespeare Confidential. I’ve also been regularly contributing to Slate’s Lexicon ValleyStrong Language, and Oxford Dictionaries. Etymologies open doors to the past, as I like to say. And, if three years is any measure, to the future as well.

But I can’t sign off without a word origin, can I? So, how about a quick etymology of etymology?


We actually have evidence of the word etymology in a Latin form in Old English, though we see it Anglicized around the late 1300s, early 1400s . English gets the word in part from French (ethimologie) and in part directly from Latin (etymologia). Latin, in turn, borrowed the word from the Greek ἐτυμολογία (etymologia). If you’ll allow me to jump over some intermediary derived forms, the Greek ultimately joins ἐτεός (eteos, “true”) and λόγος (logos, “word”). Some think the Greek eteos is related to the Old English soð (“truth”), which, if you’ve been reading your Shakespeare, you might recognize in soothsayer or the mild oath For sooth! 

Historically then, we can understand etymology as the analysis of a word on the basis of its literal, or true, meaning. We should be careful not to commit the etymological fallacy, however, which posits that only the original meaning of a word is its right sense. Wrong. Words change. That’s in part why I love etymology. But we don’t want to be too, too careful, because I think we can glean insights in those ancient meanings still relevant to us today – and because I wouldn’t have a blog with a third anniversary to mark!

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“Bison”: a word nearly driven to extinction

Last week, the US declared the bison its national mammal. This thundering ungulate makes for a powerful choice, both literally and symbolically: American settlers nearly brought this brawny bovine, whose massive herds once roamed the Great Plains and were so central to many Native American cultures, to near extinction. The name bison, appropriately enough, tells a similar tale.

The American bison. Image courtesy of Shannon Sims


Originally, the bison was a type of wild ox found throughout Europe, even in England. It’s now found only in the forests of Lithuania. In antiquity, this bison was also associated with the now-extinct aurochs or urus. Humans, clearly, have not been kind to the bison.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds its earliest evidence of bison in a Latin form, bisontes, in the late 1300s, but the word, along with the animal, then disappears from the record. It resurfaces in the 1600s, especially in historical texts like the King James Bible and classical translations. Come the 1690s, European explorers applied bison, also first in Latin form, to its new-world counterpart, Bison bison, where the word now largely roams.

Bison indeed derives from the Latin bison. English either borrowed it directly or from a French intermediary. But the word was probably not a native species to the Latin. Rome likely borrowed its word for this roamer from a Germanic source, which historical linguists represent in *wisand, itself likely migrating from a Balto-Slavic home.

Germanic languages helped populate this *wisand’s herd, including the Old English wesend. This word is as extinct as the mammal from the Isles. Except for an unlikely cognate: weasel. The bison and weasel certainly make for the sort of odd couple we’d only expect to find in a Disney movie, but their names, some etymologists believe, share a common root that notes the musky odor they emit, especially when rutting. Literally, they are the “stinking animals.”

Now, the US uses bison interchangeably with buffalo for its majestic mammal, though buffalo technically names the American bison’s distant Asian and African brethren. (Buffalo comes from the Greek, βούβαλος  or boubalos, originally used of antelopes.) They’re very different species, but these early Europeans dubbed Bison bison “buffalo” based on the likeness between the old- and new-world bovines. And well before they even used bison, in fact: the OED dates the earliest American buffalo usage to the 1630s.

The story of the word bison issues its own powerful, if small, reminder: the extinction of wildlife is even registered in language. Let’s be sure bison is never entered as “obsolete” in the dictionary. A good way to start is by keeping your distance, literally and symbolically, from wildlife, if we are to learn from a recent episode in Yellowstone National Park.

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The etymological pivot of “pivot”

All eyes are on Donald Trump to see if he will pivot to a more presidential bearing now that he’s the presumptive nominee of the Republican party. But who am I kidding? All eyes have been on the businessman.

My etymological eyes, however, have been on pundits’ and reporters’ go-to term for Trump’s potential repositioning: pivot. Where does this word come from?

The blades of scissors pivot on the central pin. Just be sure to keep these away from Trump’s hair. Image by Alessandro Paiva from


Originally, a pivot was a “hinge pin” or “fulcrum”: a central rod around which a mechanism turns. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first documents the word in the compound pivot shears (“pevet-sheres”) by the very end of the 14th century. By the mid 1700s, pivot itself pivoted from mechanism to metaphor for any central part or person of an operation. The word has since been swiveling in military contexts, linguistics, sports, math, and even Japanese poetry. Come the 1830-40s, we find both the adjective pivotal (“crucial”) and the verb pivot.

As a verb today, pivot often expresses a very particular action: a swift and strategic turn on the spot, or, better yet, pivot . At least since the late 1890s according to the OED, basketball players have been so pivoting, with one foot pivoting on the floor, the other maneuvering for the best path to the basket. President Obama, for example, has been pursuing a foreign policy “Pivot to Asia,” shifting interests and investments away from the Middle East to East Asia and the Pacific.

Now, English’s pivot derives from the French pivot, also naming a “pivot,” though the record shows figurative extensions early on; one usage references a kind of dance. But from here, etymologists have oscillated on the word’s deeper origins.

Some look to the Spanish púa (“sharp point”), Catalan piu (“spindle”), and Occitan pivèu (“pivot,” in the earlier mechanical sense of the word). Perhaps, as Barnhart notes, all these pivot on the Old Provençal pua, the “tooth of a comb,” emerging from a pre-Celtic Indo-European *puga, a “point” or “peak.” A related form is the Latin pūgiō: a “dagger.”

Others, like Skeat, consider the Italian piva, a “pipe,” ultimately from Latin’s pipare, “to chirp like a bird,” and source of English’s own pipe. Italian, Weekley observes, also has a diminutive pivolo, a “peg,” “dibble,” and “penis.” The latter requires little of the imagination for its explanation.

We don’t know the ultimate origin of pivot, but, for many, its proposed roots may still apply to Trump’s presumptive nomination. Many on the right worry his nomination will be a lethal dagger to their party and principles. Many on the left – and right and center – think he’s a not so diminutive pivolo. But as divided as American politics may be, we can all agree Trump will definitely be relying on the teeth of a comb to keep his hair coiffed for the next phase of the campaign, regardless of whether or not he pivots.

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Etymology on the streets

I haven’t even been settled for a week and I’m already in love with my new city, Dublin. The people and culture are absolutely wonderful, of course, but the etymology is world-class. Even something as simple as taking out my dog surprises me with lexical delights, like this utility marker I noticed on a recent walk:

uisce grate.JPG

is Irish for “water.” (Signage in Ireland is widely bilingual, in case you didn’t know.) You probably better know uisce, however, in a more distilled form: whiskey.

English ultimately borrowed (and shortened) whiskey from the Irish uisge beatha, literally “water of life.” The development of the form whiskey doesn’t exactly walk a straight line, if you will. The Oxford English Dictionary first cites “whisky” in 1715 in an apt passage from the Book of Scottish Pasquils: “Whiskie shall put our brains in a rage.” (Tell me about it.) Earlier forms in the 18th century include usquebea and usquebaugh, apparently variants of iskie bae, dated much earlier to the 1580s. Today, the United States and Ireland largely spell the spirits whiskey, while England and Scotland favor whisky, hence the distinction in the beverage trade.

Aren’t you just asking for it, Ireland, when even your literal water can’t escape drinking stereotypes? Not so fast, as Barnhart’s dictionary will have it: “The Gaelic word is probably a loan translation of Medieval Latin aqua vitae alcohol, spirits; literally, water of life; in English aqua vitae had been recorded as applying to intoxicating drinks since 1547.” Aqua vitae was originally was used of unrefined alcohol in 15th-century alchemy.

Similarly, French has eau-de-vie, “water of life,” for brandy and the like. Russian vodka derives from voda, meaning “water.” English itself shouldn’t be so quick to judge, either: the very word water is a cognate to uisce, if their common, hypothesized Proto-Indo-European root, *wed- (“water,” “wet”), is correct. The Russian voda is also related to this root.

With etymological discoveries right at my doorstep, it’s hard not to love this Irish uisce – not to be confused with Irish Water, Éirann Uisce, the national utility whose recent charges few have been raising their glasses to.

uisce bill.jpg

But as much as I’m intoxicated by new home, I can’t forget my own roots: I’m still a bourbon guy.

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Why do we “clinch” a nomination?

And then there was one. Ted Cruz and John Kasich have ended their presidential campaigns after Donald Trump trounced them in the Indiana primary. Just over 200 delegates shy of securing it outright, Trump has virtually clinched the Republican party’s nomination for president. But why do we say that: to clinch a nomination?

A clinched nail. Image used with permission from The English Woodworker


Outside of political contests, we often use clinch in sports. Leicester City, for example, recently clinched the Premier League championship. Stateside, a team clinches a spot in the playoffs. In these contexts, clinch means “to make certain.” But as early as the 16th century, we didn’t clinch wins: we clinched nails.

After hammering a nail through a plank, a worker bends back the point to fasten it securely in the wood. This is called clinching, and lends itself easily to metaphor. By the early 1700s, the Oxford English Dictionary evidences clinch as a way to express “to settle decisively” – to wrap it up, drive it home, firm and final, like a clinched nail.

After exchanging blows, boxers clinch when they grapple up close, clasping their gloves. This pugilistic clinch is in use by the mid-1800s. We once clinched our hands and fingers, too, but today, we largely say we clench our fists (and teeth, jaws, and butts). Clinch, word historians note, is actually a variant of this clench. The latter probably evolved out of cling, which is found in Old English; you can see how cling’s sense of “adherence” anticipates the “interlocking” clench. Together, this cluster of clinch, clench, and cling ultimately derive from a Germanic base, with cognates widespread in the language family.

Except for builders, we don’t really associate clinch with nails today. But Donald Trump’s all-but-guaranteed clinching of the nomination does evoke nails for many in the Republican party: Will Donald Trump, #NeverTrump-ers fear, clinch the nails into the coffin of the GOP as we know it?

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What’s up with all those letters we don’t say in “Leicester”?

Against all odds, the Leicester City Football Club clinched England’s Premier League title on Monday. Far and wide, millions of lovers of football – and Cinderella stories – cheered the unlikely champions. And as many, perhaps, learned how to pronounce the name of this club and city. Leicester, in spite of its extra characters, sounds like the name Lester, which is derived, in fact, from this very Leicester.

Why do we pronounce Leicester like “Lester”? Or, for my readers not interested in sports, Gloucester like “Gloster”? (I can still feel my nerdy shame when an English teacher corrected my mispronunciation of this King Lear character.) Oxford English Dictionary offers: “The history of the form written -cester, of which only -ster is pronounced (in Worcester, Bicester, etc.), is obscure; the written form is perhaps of French or medieval Latin origin.” Economy, generally speaking, is ultimately behind the pronunciation, historical inertia behind the spelling, I imagine.

While we can’t explain for certain the peculiar pronunciation of –cester, we can explain where it comes from.

Cester: phonetic cheshire cats and linguistic underdogs 

From roughly 40 to 400 AD, Rome ruled much of Great Britain. Over 1500 years later, its footprint still shows. Ancient Roman military fortifications, for example, have endured not only in their physical remains, but in place names as well. Latin called these sites castra, a plural noun meaning a “camp,” which we might liken to military bases today.

A diminutive form of castra, castellum, a kind of “fort,” gives English castle. The ultimate origin of Latin’s castrum is unclear, though many connect it to castrate via a root meaning, yep, “to cut off.” The surname Castro, as in Fidel, is a notable Spanish cognate, as is alcazar,  from an Arabic rendering  of castrumal-qasr 

Old English borrowed Latin’s castra as ceaster. (Old Welsh did as cair.) Anglo-Saxon records show ceaster in combination with original Celtic names for tribes and topography. As early as the 10th century, Leicester, for instance, is recorded as Ligora-ceastre; the first element preserves either the Celtic name of the tribe or for the river there when the Romans marched in around 47 A.D.

For a time, ceaster, pronounced more like its now-obsolete descendant, chester, stood on its own word as a word “town,” especially a former Roman-occupied castra. But English largely remembers ceaster as a toponymic suffix, variously adapted as -caster (Lancaster), –chester (Manchester, ), –cester (Leicester), and in other place names like Exeter and Cheshire. Each of these former Roman encampments, again, likely preserve Celtic roots in their first elements: Lancaster may have meant “camp on the Lune River”; Manchester, “on the breast-like hill”; Exeter, “on the Exe River.” Cheshire, meanwhile, is “chester shire.”

For all the Latinate -cester’s that occupy its place names, the English language, like Leicester, is itself something of an underdog story. It survived once stronger (or at least better-funded clubs) on its historical pitch, from Norse to Latin to French. But then again, the Anglo-Saxons themselves were a visiting team: Celtic, too, as we also see in the likes of Leicester, played hard as well.

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