Gushing like a “geyser”: modern loan, old faithful

“An intermittent hot spring, throwing up water, etc. in a fountain-like column.” No, this isn’t a description of how a lot of Brits are feeling, still queasy from Brexit, after their team’s knockout loss to Iceland in the Euro football tournament last night. It’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the word geyser, one of the few modern words English borrowed from Icelandic.

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Gushing with tears or cheers? Depends on who you were rooting for. “The erupting Great Geysir.” (c) 2000 by Dieter Schweizer.  

Geyser

“Modern” is key to the history of geyser. From the late 700s to the early 1000s, the Vikings, whose Old Norse tongue was ultimately parent to the Icelandic language, invaded the British Isles – and their native tongues, leaving its mark in everyday words like sky, egg, knife, and they. But geyser is a much more recent loanword.

In 1763, Britain’s long-running Annual Register included this account: “Geyser, a wonderful spring in the valley of Haukedal, is but a few miles from Skaalholt.” The entry goes on to describe the “terrible noise, like the discharge of small arms” of the “surprising phenomenon” which “happens once a day.” It credits its description to a Mr. Olav, who encountered it in 1746.

This geyser is Geysir, the proper name of a particular geyser, the country’s own Old Faithful, in the Haukadalur valley in southwest Iceland. English generalized the term for this geological feature by 1780. Come the 1850s, English was using geyser for figurative gushes.

And “gush” is key to the etymology of Geysir. The name literally means “The Gusher,” related to the Icelandic geysa and Old Norse gøysa, “to gush.” (Old Icelandic had gjós-æðr, a “gush vein,” or “artery.”) English’s gush is cognate, as is gust, gut, font, funnel, various iterations of the Latin root in infuse, and, incredibly, futile. The Indo-European root is *gheu-, “to pour.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots notes that some scholars think this “pour” was in reference to libations, which could make it the long-troubling source of the word god.

In today’s Icelandic, a geyser is a goshver, which looks like gusher. But as far as I can tell, this word actually joins gos (“eruption”; an eldgos is a “volcanic eruption,” or “fire eruption”) and hver, a term for a “hot spring” that originally meant “kettle” or “cauldron.”

In a land of so much geothermal activity, there are subtle but important distinctions between different types of geysers based on temperature. According to Richard S. William’s Icelandic-English Glossary of Selected Geoscience Terms, hverir are hot springs over 70ºC, laugar are warm springs between 30-70ºC, and volgrur are lukewarm springs under 30ºC.

Today though, Iceland should forget such distinctions and celebrate their historic performance in the UEFA Euro 2016 with the full force of their country’s own Great Geysir.

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“Leave”: a big, fat, sticky mess. Literally.

The result of the “Brexit” referendum is historic: Britain has voted to leave the European Union. The very word leave has made its own history, too: It originally meant “to remain.”

Leave, or what “remains”

Historically, we can consider leave a contronym: a word that means its opposite, like cleave, dust, and sanction. In the earliest record, leave meant “to leave behind,” as in one’s family or property in death. By the 1200s, we see its sense shift and broaden to “leave behind” a place (as one also does in death), hence “to go away” and “depart.”

English’s leave is from the Old English lǽfan, a causative verb that meant “to have a remainder” or “to cause or allow to remain,” as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it. (Think “what is left.”)

Surprisingly, leave is also related to live and life, which, as the Brexit underscores, is a big, fat, sticky mess. Quite literally, if English’s Proto-Indo-European (PIE) forebears are correct: the root *leip- means “to stick” and “fat.” In Greek, this root became λίπος (lipos), “grease” or “fat,” yielding the English lipid and liposuction.

In the Germanic languages, the PIE *leip-, with its underbelly of “adherence,” connoted “continuance,” hence the strange jump to life, live, and liver, once believed to make the body’s blood. The root also produced the Germanic base for “remnant” and “remain,” ancestor to the Old English lǽfan.

Ernest Klein, in his etymological dictionary, cites some other curious descendants of *leip-: the Albanian for “eye boogers,” the Latin for “bleary-eyed” (and, in part, “celibate”), and the Old Slavonic for “bird-lime.”

What, exactly, Britain’s vote to leave leaves behind, well, remains to be seen. In the meantime, if markets and politics are any measure, the Brexit seems to be living up to its ancient etymology.

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Cleveland Cavaliers: a bunch of “hacks”?

On the court, the Cleveland Cavaliers are champions, bringing the first major sports title to the Ohio city in 52 years with their 93-89 victory over the Golden State Warriors in an exciting Game 7 of the NBA finals. But in the etymology books, the Cleveland Cavaliers are, well, “hacks.”

Cavalier

English first borrowed cavalier from the Spanish cavaliero, among other forms, which named a “horseman,” especially a “knight.” The word is first attested around 1470. Over the next few centuries, English rendered the word according to its French form, cavalier. The French and Spanish are a short trot away from the earlier Italian, cavaliere, from the Late Latin caballarius, a “horseman” or “rider.”

The Latin root is caballus, essentially a street word for “horse” that eventually supplanted the classical equus. This explains the words for “horse” in Latin’s daughter languages, e.g., the Spanish caballo. Early records describe a caballus as a “work horse” or “pack horse,” hence “nag,” “jade,” or “hack.” Growing out of figurative senses of “worn out,” jaded and hackneyed also derive from the latter two terms. Cavalry, cavalcade, chivalry, and chevalier are also in caballuss stable, so to speak.

Scholars agree that Latin’s caballus is a loan word. Pointing to an Old Slavic cognate, kobyla, some think it comes from a Balkan source for a “gelding.” Focusing on its many Celtic cognates, others posit a Gaulish root. Ultimately, caballus is one etymology that won’t break.

By the end of the 1500s, cavalier specifically referred to a “gentleman trained at arms,” as the Oxford English Dictionary documents. By the 1640s, Cavalier nicknamed the swaggering gallants who fought for Charles I in his war against their epithetical counterparts, the Parliamentary Roundheads. Their swash-buckling was associated with recklessness, hence cavaliers attributive use for “careless” by 1657, associated with a “haughty” and “disdainful” attitude a century later.

Now, the Cleveland Cavaliers took their name in 1970, when the city’s Plain Dealer held a contest to christen the new NBA expansion team. Jerry Tomko submitted the winning name, explaining that cavaliers “represent a group of daring, fearless men, whose life’s pact was never surrender, no matter what the odds.” Tomko’s description is apt for the 2015-16 NBA champions, who’ve proven – to their fans and their city – that they are definitely not tired, old horses.

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“Soda”: An etymological “headache”?

This week, Philadelphia became the first major American city to tax soda and other sugar-added beverages. Supporters tout the levy as a remedy for health problems and school funding. Opponents see it as an illegal overreach of the nanny state and a real headache for the beverage industry. This split will surely play out in court – just as it might, quite literally, in the very etymology of the word soda.

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Refreshing…or head-splitting? “Salsosa soda,” (c) 2006 Luigi Rignanese. 

Soda‘s fountain

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites soda in a 1558 translation of a French medical guide. The manual lists soda as an ingredient in an ointment for hair removal, noting that this soda was obtained from the ashes of grass and used by glassmakers. It also mentions a Venetian soda in a later passage on soap preparation.

Venetian soap and medicinal grass? (It’s no wonder Coke so closely guards its secret formula). Originally, soda was indeed obtained from the ashes of plants, specifically salt-rich marine flora like saltwort, featured above. The alkaline derivative, now largely produced artificially, has long been used in soap and glass.

Problem and solution? 

Now, most etymologists agree that soda comes from the Medieval Latin or Italian soda, but they dispute its deeper roots. The OED is conservative on the matter, leaving its origin unknown. Others philologists enjoy a bit more of a sugar high. Skeat and Weekly look to the Latin solidus, “solid,” characterizing the hard products yielded by saltwort plants. Italian eventually contracted this solidus into soda, they write.  Skeat goes on to trace the Spanish form of soda, sosa, back to the Latin sal, “salt,” relate to salsa and sausage.

The Barnhart Etymology Dictionary maintains soda ultimately derives from the Arabic, suwwad, the name for a kind of saltwort, which was exported from North Africa to Sicily in the Middle Ages. Suwwad, the dictionary notes, is related to sawad, “black,” referring to the color of a variety of the plant. The dictionary concludes Italian directly borrowed the word, as evidenced as early as the 1300s.

Other scholars, apparently chugging Mountain Dew, have proposed the Arabic suda, “headache.” Some even gloss the word as a “splitting headache,” derived from a verb meaning “to split.” The saltwort plant, as the theory goes, was used to cure such headaches. Latin borrowed the medicine and word as sodanum, a “headache remedy,” thence shortened  and spread as soda. It’s a fizzy etymology, but one that most scholars agree has gone flat.

Soda products

In the 18th and 19th centuries, chemists were, well, effervescent about soda. They injected the soda-derived sodium bicarbonate into water, calling it soda water by 1802. This was shortened to soda by 1834. Pop – named for the sound of the cork when the beverage was originally served and preferred in many dialects, including my own – is attested even earlier, in 1812. The OED dates soda-pop to 1863. Today’s soda features carbonic acid, among other additives; baking soda, however, preserves its chemical and linguistic connection to sodium bicarbonate.

In 1807, Humphry Davy isolated an element from caustic soda and so named it sodium. He used the symbol Na as a nod to natrium, a name proposed by his contemporary, Jacob  Berzelius. Berzelius was inspired by natron, a naturally occurring soda-solution whose name is related to the Greek nitro and may itself have deeper Middle Eastern roots.

In 1933, Eugene O’Neill debuted his comedy, Ah, Wilderness! In the play, a character asks,  “Ever drink anything besides sodas?” The OED cites this usage as the earliest record we have specifically for the modern “drink” or “glass of” soda. It’s a question that still has a sharp bite today. But the answer may not be what Philadelphia has in mind: “Beer and sloe-gin. Fizz and Manhattans.”

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Orlando

Orlando: The name of this central Florida city, even as it mourns, now stands as a symbol of American resilience and resolve against hate and terror. And the origin of its name, if we look to its deeper etymology, only underscores its strength.

The City Beautiful, the city lore 

Orlando was first known as Jernigan, after Aaron Jernigan, a white man who settled in this Seminole territory in 1843. By 1857, the town changed its name to Orlando following the demise of its original namesake’s reputation.

In Orlando, Florida: A Brief History, James Clark relates several tales explaining why Orlando took this new name. Three are particularly popular.

First, it is said the town honors Orlando Reeves, who died in a fight against the Seminoles by Lake Eola, which sits near the city’s center. There is no record, though, of this legendary Reeves. There is, however, an Orlando Rees, who is subject of a second tale. Rees ran a sugar plantation outside the city but headed into modern-day Orlando after the Seminoles were said to have burned down his home. Lore likely folded these two tales together.

A third story looks to one of literature’s most famous Orlandos: Shakespeare’s As You Like It. (In this pastoral comedy, Orlando flees into the forest from his murderous brother, whose life he later saves, and wins his true love Rosalind’s hand in marriage.) According to this account, the area reminded early resident and Shakespeare admirer, Judge James Speer, of the magical French forest in the play.

“Famous” legends, literature, and lands 

We don’t know for certain how the city Orlando got its name, but we do know how the name Orlando did. According to the Oxford Dictionary of First Names, Orlando is the Italian form of Roland. This name reaches back to another figure of legend, literature, and lore: the Frankish hero and nephew of Charlemagne, Roland, celebrated for his bravery, if rashness, on the battlefield and loyal friendship to Oliver. He is remembered in the medieval epic poem, La Chanson de Roland, considered one of the earliest and founding works of French literature.

Another Roland is remembered in the tale of Childe Rowland, who ventured to the Dark Tower to rescue his sister. Shakespeare, Robert Browning, and Stephen king also famously riffed on the folk story to various lengths.

Roland is a Frankish name. Frankish was a West Germanic language once spoken by the Franks in their extensive territories in first-millennial Europe. The tribe lends its name to a surprising range of modern words, as previously discussed on this blog.

Further deriving from Old High German, the name Roland literally means “(having) a famous land.” It joins hrōd, “fame,” and land, “land” or “territory.” We’ve seen the Germanic hrōd in other names: Roger, “famous spear,” and Robert, “bright in fame.” It’s also in Roderick, “famous rule,” and Rudolph, “fame-wolf.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European roots suggests a Proto-Indo-European base of *kar-, “to praise loudly” or “extol.”

Whether named for an historic Orlando or Shakespeare’s Orlando, the name of the city remembers how it has survived past conflicts (complicated as some of those conflicts may have been). And the name will continue living up to its deeper roots in Roland – truly a “famous land” deserving of our extolment, especially its gay and Latin-American community, a living testament to the power of pride in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting ever witnessed on American soil.

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What is the “pall” pallbearers bear?

Muhammad Ali will be laid to rest in his hometown, Louisville, Ky., today. The distinguished boxer will have some distinguished pallbearers for his memorial processional, including actor Will Smith alongside Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson, fellow champions in the ring. But what is this pall that they will be bearing?

Pallbearer

Today, pallbearers carry the coffin at a funeral. But historically, they held the four corners of a pall, or the cloth spread over the coffin. This tradition originated in the Middle Ages, apparently, though the custom of covering the dead is ancient. According to some accounts, pallbearers held the pall in place as other men or a vehicle bore the casket to a church. Others indicate pallbearers carried the pall into a church and ceremonially touched or held it during a service.

The funeral pall has been draping the English language since the 1400s but the word is documented in Old English as pæll. This pall originally referred to a rich cloth, often purple, that robed high-ranking persons or covered a church altar, where they are still in use today.

Old English derives its pæll from the Latin pallium, a “covering” or “cloak.” In Ancient Rome, pallia, to use the Latin plural, first referred to the cloaks worn by Greek philosophers, later by Christians who eschewed the native toga. Latin’s pallium is related to palla, a “robe,” “cloak,” or “mantle,” but the ultimate origin is obscure.

By the 1500s, we see pall transferred from rich robes and altar cloths to general coverings. By the 1700s, the cloth’s associations with funerals cast a pall of darkness and gloominess over the word. Pale, pallor, and appalled are unrelated; these derive from the Latin pallēre, “to be pale,” whose Indo-European root means, oddly enough, “dark-colored.”

The Oxford English Dictionary specifically attests pallbearer by 1707, while the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology notes the word shifted to its current sense of coffin-bearing by the early 1900s.

Muhammad Ali’s passing definitely casts its pall, but his legacy will need no bearer: It stands on it own, like a champion raising his gloves in victory.

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“Boxer”: A true original

Last week, the world lost Muhammad Ali. In and outside the ring, he lived up to his larger-than-life nickname: The Greatest. As we remember his life and legacy, let’s have a few rounds with the etymology of the sport he championed: boxing.

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There’s a present inside. Image by Jean Scheijen.

Box

The Oxford English Dictionary first records boxing – “the action of fighting with the fists” – surprisingly late for a sport well-documented in antiquity. The dictionary cites an essay in Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s Spectator in 1711 which urges regular physical exercise alongside mental exertion. To that end, the writer extols a form of classical, calisthenic shadow-boxing, or sciamachy, involving weighted sticks: “This opens the chest, exercises the limbs, and gives a man all the pleasures of boxing, without the blows.”

Boxing was popular – and deadly – in ancient Rome, but the sport died out after the fall of the empire. Some look to the rise of Christianity, others sword-based combat, as possible explanations. A bout isn’t recorded in England until 1681 when a lord matched up his butler and his butcher, apparently, in a bare-knuckle fight. (The butcher is said to have won.) English Prizefighter James Figg helped to popularize the sport in the early 1700s, his pupil Jack Broughton soon after helped to codify it.

Now, The Spectator’s “blows” is the operative word if we referee boxing’s origins. Boxing, as you can imagine, takes it corner from box, a verb first meaning “to strike” or “beat” by the early 16th century (and since narrowed to its sporting sense). This box is from an earlier noun, a “buffet,”  “cuff,” or “blow,” found as early as 1300 and now surviving largely in a box on the ears.

Scholars see in English’s box some tempting etymological contenders: the Middle Dutch boke, Middle German buc, and Danish bask all mean a “blow.” But these comparisons are no knockouts. Most scholars conclude box is probably a native English word that imitates the sound of a punch. Walter Skeat sees box as a variant of pash, another echoic term for a combat “blow.”

Some philologists suggest box may be a playful extension of Christmas box, a container that once collected tips for servants and apprentices. In one early iteration of the custom, this box was an earthenware vessel broken open around the holiday, its contents then shared among the workers. (We can imagine a young employee asking a workmate, “Want a present?” But his fellow is only rewarded with a box on the arm. “There’s no prize if you don’t smash open the box!”) On the first weekday after Christmas, various workers received a Christmas box on this so-called Boxing Day.

The receptacle box takes its name from the box tree, as early containers were fashioned from its wood. The name of the dog breed, originating in Germany, nods to the historically pugnacious temperament of a boxer, whose shorts are remembered in the loose-fitting underwear, boxer shorts. In 1900, a Chinese secret society attempted an uprising against foreigners. English roughly, if not erroneously, rendered the group’s Chinese name as “the Righteous Harmony Fists,” or boxers, hence the Boxer Rebellion.

If boxing so originates as English onomatopoeia, it’s an apt etymology for Muhammad Ali: He was a true original, who we will remember for winning with his words as much as with his fists.

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“Harambe”: Collective outcry or collective action?

This week, I wasn’t the only one who looked to etymology to process the death of Harambe, the lowland gorilla killed at the Cincinnati Zoo after a child found his way into the silverback’s enclosure. “Harambe,” thousands have posted on social media, means “pulling together” or “working together” in Swahili. How fitting, they’ve concluded, using the silverback’s name to call for wildlife conversation, plead for cultural unity in the face of the ensuing and fractious outrage, or rib the many hot-takes the news inspired online. But a closer look at the history of the gorilla’s name may just teach us a thing or two about collective outcry.

Harambe

Harambe, a variant of harambee, indeed literally means “Let us all pull together” in Swahili, the lingua franca of East Africa. Though this Bantu tongue claims an estimated 100 million speakers, there aren’t extensive Swahili dictionaries on the web (that I can read at least), let alone etymological ones. The Free Dictionary explains harambee was used as a work chant, the heave-ho of the East African Coast. Laborers, presumably, together muscled a massive load with each call of Harambee!

In Kenya, this interjection took on special significance. After achieving independence from Britain in the 1960s, the new government, led by the Kenya Africa National Union, used Harambee to motivate a developing nation, the slogan emerging from a deeper tradition of community organization and fundraising, or harambee.

Today, Kenya features harambee as its official motto and in its coat of arms. And Harambee schools, secondary institutions funded solely through the efforts of the community, showcase how the word has evolved to mean “self-help.” As Oxford Dictionaries noteharambee more generally names or describes a “charitable fundraiser” in East African English.

In 1983, singer Rita Marley, widow of Bob Marley, released “Harambe,” a track on Harambe (Working Together for Freedom). “Harambe Harambe Rastaman say Harambe / Harambe Harambe The Higher One Say Harambe,” Marley refrains. Her harambe is a greater call for unity and empowerment in the face of the African diaspora.

Dan Van Coppenolle heard Marley’s track while exercising in 1999, as the retired educator told CNN. Moved by the concept, he later submitted Harambe to a Texan zoo’s naming contest for the baby, now late, gorilla. (We can only imagine that such a contest today would yield the much less dignified Gorilla McGorillaface.)

While the origin of Harambe is a rallying cry, its also reminds us that there is a difference between collective outcry and collective action. How fitting for the cultural moment, indeed.

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