The “best” and “worst” of 2016

As the new year fast approaches, we like to look back on the best – and worst – of the previous year. Twenty-sixteen did great work of the latter category, which is why I chose 2016 as the ‘word’ of the year on Slate. But why is best called “best” and what makes worst “worst”? Let’s have a look back on the origin of these two yearend favorites.

You ‘supplete’ me

English forms comparative adjectives by adding -er or more (faster, more furious) and superlative adjectives with -est or most (fastest, most furious). Except when it doesn’t. Good and bad present us with a curious exception: good/better/best and bad/worse/worst. Linguists call this irregularity “suppletion,” as an unrelated form fills, or supplies, a gap in a grammatical paradigm.

We especially see suppletion in verbs: Take went as the past tense of go, for instance, or try your tongue at any number of everyday Romance language verbs (aller/vais). And while we may treat all suppletive forms as irregular, we can’t consider all irregular forms as suppletive. Teeth and geese are irregular plurals (viz. adding -s/-es to the end of a word), but they actually follow a regular pattern of making words plural that English has long since lost.

Good jobs

Good – from the Old English god, with no apparent relation to the divine beings – ultimately traces back to Germanic and Indo-European roots for “fitting” and “suitable.” And it would have been fitting if the word good‘s degrees of comparison, following the regular paradigm, were gooder and goodest, but, alas, good (and well) use better and best.

English gets better (Old English, betera) and best (betst) from old and widespread comparative and superlative forms of a Germanic base, *bat-, meaning “good.” This root  also provides boot, “advantage” or “profit,” now only surviving in the phrase to boot, or “additionally.” This boot, unrelated to the footwear, may have influenced a pirate’s booty, but no further etymological connection is certain.

So, better and best, while themselves irregular forms for good, display a regular pattern for expressing comparison in English. Better, to put it very simply, adds -er to its root adjective. Best adds -est.

Bad boys

Now, badder and baddest – which, in spite of grammar scolds, enjoy some dialectical and colloquial currency today – were once normal forms of bad. (The origin of bad is a big question mark. Some point to the Old English bæddel, “hermaphrodite” or “effeminate man,” a derogatory term, which, thankfully, is outdated.) In Middle English, bad began supplanting evil and ill as the go-to descriptor for something “not good.” Evil and ill, meanwhile, used worse and worst for their comparatives and superlatives. As bad rose, it took worse and worst with it.

Like better and best, worse (Old English wyrsa) and worst (wyrresta) also come from the regular comparative and superlative forms of a Germanic root, adding -er and -est to *wers-, “to entangle.” This same root provides war; an “entanglement” causes confusion, a meaning which intensified over time. And the s in worse actually preserves a really old form of the Germanic source of -er (*-izon; -est < -isto). This makes a form like worser a double comparative; again, in spite of language peevers, worser was once a common and acceptable form. (Bestest, a double superlative, has been used for humorous emphasis since the 1750s.)

For better or worse

It turns out that it’s not better/best and worse/worst that are the grammatical ‘problem.’ As their etymologies show, they follow a pattern, leaving good and bad as the true troublemakers. But why would English even do this in the first place?

For one thing, English isn’t alone. Latin, along with many other Indo-European languages, shows suppletion in its “good” and “bad” trios: bonus/melior/optimus and malus/peior/pessimus, respectively.

For another, it just the way it is. Language is messy – and so are its speakers. As etymologist Anatoly Liberman sums it up best: “Good needed a partner meaning ‘more than good’ and better offered its services. We would have preferred ‘gooder,’ but our indomitable ancestors chose to do their work the hard way.”

It couldn’t’ve been any worse, I suppose.

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The 2016 “Etymology of the Year”

The mouth of Donald Trump excited a tremendous – er, huge – amount of etymological activity on Mashed Radish in 2016. But there’s one that easily trumped them all: the word trump itself, the winner of my first annual “Etymology of the Year.”

Trump

In early modern English, trump meant “to cheat” or “deceive.” This verb, first found in the 1480s, comes from the French tromper, meaning the same as the English. The origin is unclear, but some have suggested the French used tromper, which could also mean “to play the horn,” as an idiom for mockery. Various fraudsters, the theory goes, once blew horns to attract people to their swindles. The verb shows up in trompe l’oeil, “trick of the eye,” referring, especially, to optical illusions in visual art.

The French tromper, as its brassy connections already suggested,  is indeed related to English’s own trumpet, of which trump is itself the earlier variation. In a painful irony to many, the last trump, based on a translation from the Greek, was once the term for the sound of the trumpet that raised the dead for judgment at the end of the world, according to the New Testament. Trump may have also influenced the use of trunk for an elephant’s snout.

Another instrument, the trombone, shares a deeper, Germanic source with trumpet, from a root which imitates a sudden blast of sound. And drum may additionally be related, or at least formed in a similar fashion. The “deceitful” trump later produced trumpery, whose meaning of “trickery” inspired a sense of “goods that are showy but cheap,” further extended as an adjective for “trifling” or “trashy.”

Now, the Trump family surname was at one point modified from Drumpf, much to the amusement of comedian John Oliver during the presidential campaign. Drumpf is a Germanic name, and could be connected to the root for drum. Trump, unchanged, is a surname from the French Trompeor, rooted in the same tromper and meaning a “maker of trumpets.” 

Trump cards, meanwhile, are played from a different etymological hand. This trump is believed to be a corruption of triumph, once the name of a card game. A triumph, or “great achievement,” comes from the Latin triumpus, which was a procession a military general lead into Rome after a big victory. Its origin is also unclear, but a possible source may be the Greek thriambos (θρίαμβος), referring to a hymn in honor of the fertility god Dionysus, frequently associated with his cult of ecstatic hedonism. The deeper root of the Greek thriambos may be a kind of triple-time march-step.

Loud and brassy noise, deception and showiness, elephants, Ancient Roman victory tours, games, cultish followings? There’s only one etymology that could possibly bring all these Trumpian elements together – and that’s trump.

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Santa’s reindeer: an etymological herd

Around many holiday hearths tonight, families will recite “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” a poem, properly called “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” first published anonymously in 1823 and later claimed by American professor and writer Clement Clarke Moore.

Moore’s verse is considered the source of our names for Santa’s reindeer, excluding their later leader, Rudolph:

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And [St. Nick] whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:
“Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer, and Vixen!
“On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Dunder and Blixem!

As some children are hoping to glimpse Santa’s reindeer across the sky this night before Christmas, let’s have a glimpse at the deeper roots of their high-flying names.

Dasher

A dasher moves very quickly – or smashes something to little bits, as in one’s hopes for that new iPhone 7 under the Christmas tree. Both senses of the verb to dash are found in the early 1300s, and are connected by an underlying idea of intense energy, whether of force or speed.

The deeper root of dash is unclear. The world may be related to a Scandinavian word for “beat” or “strike,” imitating the sound of dashing something (compare bash, clash, and smash). To dash off a letter appears by the 1720s, and dashing, for “stylish,” emerges in the early 1800s a la “striking.”

Dancer

Dance enters English in the 1300s from the Old French danser. Its origins, like dash, are also unclear – and somewhat less than graceful, shall we say. Some connect it to the Old High German dansōn, “to stretch out,” as in the limbs. Others suggest the Frankish *dintjan, “to tremble” or “quiver.”   

Prancer

Prancing involves a jaunty and showy movement, and, originally, was often used not of any reindeer but of horses. A few theories try to explain the source of word, which is first attested in the late 1300s. Prance might come from pranse, Danish dialect for “going about in a proud fashion.” Or could be be related to prank, which has variously meant “to dress up” or “parade around,” rooted in a German word for “to show off.” It’s not certain if this prank has any relationship to those mischievous pranks, like getting a bit of coal in your stocking on Christmas.

Vixen

A vixen is a “female fox,” from the Old English adjective fyxen. The word gives us a glimpse of English past. Historically, some certain southern England dialects replaced word-initial f’s with v’s – not a surprising switch, as the v-sound is what linguistics term the “voiced” form of f. This switch is preserved only in the spelling of few other words, including vane and vat. And the -en is an old, Germanic suffix used to name female animals (e.g., Old English wylfen, a “she-wolf”).

The word fox, appropriately enough, is from a Germanic base that may be related to an Indo-European root for “tail.” And vixen, a disparaging term for an “ill-tempered woman,” appears by the 1570s. Why Moore chose Vixen as a name for this airborne ungulate may be more about rhyme and meter than meaning. 

Comet

Comets speed across the sky, leaving a spectacular tail in its wake. Their tail, to the ancient Greeks, looked like long hair – and indeed, they called the celestial object κομήτης (kometes), or “long-haired star.” The Greek root is κόμη (koma), “the hair of the head.” Latin, with its comēta, borrowed the term, which coursed into English as early as 1154 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Cupid

In Roman mythology, Cupid, depicted with his young wings and arrows, personifies desire and erotic love. His name is the Latin for “desire,” cupīdo, from the verb cupere. The English cupidity denotes an intense “desire for wealth”; concupiscence, for sex.

Donner and Blitzen

In his original A Visit from St. Nicholas, as we saw above, Moore urges on “Dunder and Blixem,” the Dutch for “thunder and lightning.” (Modern Dutch would use Donder and Bliksem.) An 1844 edition of the poem ultimately rendered the Dutch into their German counterparts: Donner and Blitzen. (Blitzen, properly, is “flash.”) Thunder is the English equivalent of Donder and Donner, while English borrowed and shortened blitz from the German Blitzkrieg, whose deadly method of rapid assault literally means “lightning war.” American football took up blitz by the 1960s.

Rudolph

Rudolph is not one of the original reindeer. He came to lead Santa’s cervine crew only in 1939, sparked by the imagination of Robert May, who created his story for Montgomery Ward department stores. Rudolph may be the most famous of the reindeers, but his name, ironically, refers to the glory of his nemesis: Not social isolation, but wolves. Rudolph derives from the Old High German name Hrodulf, “fame-wolf.” The name joins hruod, “fame,” and the Germanic base that gives English wolf.”

For more Christmassy etymologies, see my recent guest posts for Oxford Dictionaries on the soulful origin of wholesome, as well as an older post there covering 12 etymologies of Christmas. Revisit, too, some of Mashed Radish’s tinseled archives, including Christmas, El Niño, chestnut, and Kris Kringle. Happy Holidays! 

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The true meaning of “Kris Kringle”

The Santa Claus figure, who brings children gifts each Christmas in many Western cultures, goes by many names: Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Pere Noel, Grandfather Frost, to name a few. But one name, Kris Kringle, doesn’t originally refer to any Santa at all. 

Kris Kringle

The Oxford English Dictionary first attests Kris Kringle in James Watson’s 1830s Annals of Philadelphia: “Every father in his turn remembers the excitements of his youth in Belsh-nichel and Christ-kinkle nights.”

In Pennsylvania Dutch communities, Belsh-nichel, literally either “fur Nicholas” or “flog Nicholas,” is a mysterious, and terrifying, Christmas gift-giver who wears fur and carries a switch. For good children, Belsh-nichel brings candies. For naughty youngsters, he brings his switch down onto their backs.

Christ-kinkle, source of Kris Kringle, is also a Santa Claus character for the Pennsylvania Dutch. But originally, Kris Kringle is a name for that other central figure, and namesake, of Christmas: the Christ Child.

Kris is from the German for Christ, and Christ is from the Greek for “to rub” or “smear” oil, which anointed the likes of prophets, priests, kings – and Jesus the Christ, or Jesus the Anointed One. Kringle, if we reverse some sound changes and strip away a diminutive suffix in the Pennsylvania German language, goes back to kind, which means “child” in German. The English kind as in humankind, kind of, or “nice” – is related. Kind shares a deeper root with kin and oh-so-many other words, from a Proto-Germanic root meaning “family,” in turn from the prolific Proto-Indo-European root *gen-, “to produce.” 

In a number of European and Latin American cultures, the annual Christmas gift-giver isn’t Santa Claus but the Christ Child himself. Indeed, he goes by Christkind in a number of Germanic-language cultures, including in southwestern Germany, where many of the Pennsylvania Dutch hail from. (Nor should we forget Santa Claus ultimately traces back to the Dutch Sinter Niklaas, “Saint Nicholas,” a fourth-century Greek bishop whom Christians came to honor as the patron saint of children.)

For the Pennsylvania Dutch – and then the broader, Christian, English-speaking, North American culture – time merged a tradition of Santa Claus with the language of Baby Jesus: Kris Kringle. And so, if you’re one who is concerned that commercialism has made us blind to the “true meaning of Christmas,” Kris Kringle may offer a little etymological reminder. 

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An etymology goes “rogue”

The latest Star Wars move, Rogue One, is out this week. The director, Gareth Edwards explained that its title functions as a military call sign, like Air Force One, and alludes to the Rogue Squadron and Rogue Group, an important troop of Rebel fighters in the original Star Wars films. (Rogue One features Rebel spies.) Edwards also said the title nods to the fact that his movie is the “rogue” one: the first standalone Star Wars film outside the main storyline.

So that’s how Rogue One came to be so called, in part. But how did rogue get its name?

A rogue operation

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first documents rogue, as roge, in 1489, when it referred to a “vagrant.” Over the course of the 16th century, the sense of rogue shifted. By the 1560s, it referred to a “scoundrel,” by the 1590s an “endearingly mischievous, rascally person,” and by the early 1600s an abusive term for a “servant.”

Rogue was a favorite of Shakespeare: He used rogue, to various degrees of insult and endearment, over 100 times in his plays. Perhaps the most famous example comes from Prince Hamlet: “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!”

Rogue has since shed its beggarly rags and servant’s uniform. Today, rogue can name a kind of maverick who breaks with the establishment or conventional wisdom for some righteous, if rebellious, cause. We can trace the modern sense of rogue back to the phrase rogue elephant, which, by 1835, referred to an “elephant living apart from the herd and having savage or destructive tendencies,” as the OED defines it.

Up until the 1830s, rogues were lowly louts, so why would we specifically call elephants rogue? Rogue elephant, as the OED observes, may have been influenced by a phrase in Sinhalese, spoken in Sri Lanka: hora aliyā, “thievish or restive elephant.” Rogue, originally, indeed decried thieves. And in the beginning of the 1800s, rogue was also referring to wayward horses. Underlying these senses of rogue, then, is an idea of “trickiness” and “unruliness,” whether of petty criminals or strong-willed beasts.

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Going rogue: teenage rebellion, elephant style? Image by Alan Rainbow, courtesy of freeimages.com.

Rogue elephants inspired the expression to go rogue, also first used of the pachyderm in 1905. Speakers transferred the behavior of rogue elephant and going rogue to other animals – including humans, of course –  in the early 20th century. These phrases subsequently pushed rogue towards senses of “aberrant” and “undisciplined,” a short step away from its more positive sense of “bad boy” today. The term rogue hero, documented by 1899, may have further helped nudge rogue along. 

Rogue agents

The etymology of rogue, fittingly, has itself gone rogue, shall we say. We simply don’t know where it comes from and it doesn’t seem like it wants to be pinned down. There are several theories, though:

  1. Rogue could have been shortened from roger, thieves’ slang for an “itinerant beggar who pretended to be a poor scholar from Oxford or Cambridge,” according to the OED. Perhaps this roger, first attested in 1536, could have derived from slang uses of the name Roger. While the meaning of roger fits rogue, the timeline and pronunciation pose problems.

  2. Rogue could have come from Latin’s rogāre, “to ask,” seen in English words like interrogate and abrogate. Here, etymologists cite classical examples where the noun form, rogātor, was used for “beggar.” Perhaps Latin’s rogāre influenced the aforementioned slang, roger, or English in some way borrowed the term directly?

  3. Rogue could have derived from a Celtic word, such as the Breton rog, meaning “haughty.” It’s unclear, though, how the “arrogance” of rog became the original “mendicancy” of rogue.

  4. Middle French had rogue, meaning “arrogant,” apparently not from the Breton rog but from a Scandinavian root, like the Old Norse hrōkr, “arrogant.” (Philologist Walter Skeat notes that hrōkr literally meant “rook,” a particularly noisy kind of crow.The OED, meanwhile, points to the Old Icelandic hroki, “the heap above the brim of a full vessel, hence “overbearing.”) Most etymologists dismiss this etymology, though some add that the spelling of the French rogue may have influenced the English.

Even etymologies need to rebel sometimes, it seems.

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The original “Mannequin” Challenge

For all its motionlessness, the Mannequin Challenge has really had some legs. Since early October, the viral trend, which films people frozen in various poses as if mannequins, has taken over our social media feeds – and workspaces and public places. But why are mannequins called mannequins? That’s a challenge for etymology.    

Little men, and women

In the 1987 rom-com Mannequin, an odd-jobbing struggling artist falls in love with a  department-store mannequin. Such a situation would not have been so unusual nearly a hundred years earlier, when mannequin entered the English language. The word comes from the French and originally named a “live model of clothes,” especially an attractive young woman. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests this usage in an 1893 edition of Illinois’ Decatur Review.

By the 1930s, mannequin donned its current sense: articulated models of humans that display clothes in various stores. For this development, the OED cites Mary Brooks Picken, Scranton-based fashion expert and prolific author, who defined mannequin in her 1939 Language of Fashion: Dictionary and Digest of Fabric, Sewing and Dress as the “model of human figure for display of garments, hats, furs, etc.” The French, ever fashion-forward, had already been using such models in the 19th century.

But the shift in mannequin, from person to dummy, is no innovation. Back in the 1530s, English borrowed a similar word: manikin. This manikin, from the Dutch mannekijn and manneken, named a small representation of a person, like those jointed, wooden figures that artists and clothing makers used. The word also doubled as an insult, used to taunt a man as puny or insignificant. Dutch’s manneken also provided French with its mannequin, later lifted by English, as we saw.

puppet-1420033
Manikins. Or should that be menikin? The Dutch manneken is source of the English manikin (1530s) and the French mannequin, which English borrowed in the late 1890s. Image by Jean Scheijen, courtesy of freeimages.com.

Next of -kin

In Dutch, manneken literally means “little man,” hence the small models of the human form. The first part, clearly, is cognate to English’s man, a Germanic word with a rich and complex etymology all its own. The second part is a diminutive suffix, also of Germanic origin, that crops up in a few other English words.

Names like Dickens, Jenkins, Perkins, Watkins, and Wilkins feature the suffix, likely as adoptions or imitations of Dutch and Flemish names, the OED observes. A napkin is a “little nape,” or “tablecloth.” A firkin is a “little cask,” technically a quarter of a barrel. A lambkin is a “young lamb.” A bumpkin may come from the Dutch for “little tree” or “little barrel,” which apparently suggests a humorous shortness and stumpiness that came to characterize yokels. (English speakers, cruelly enough, liked to apply bumpkin to the Dutch themselves, the very source of the word). Some etymologists think gherkin, the pickle, and jerkin, the sleeveless jacket, display the diminutive suffix. And -kin, though it has no etymological connection to the word, also influenced the shape and sound of pumpkin.

custard-1319318
If a lambkin means “little lamb,” does a “ramekin”mean a “little ram”? The OED hasn’t ruled that out. Image by Alice Carrier, courtesy of freeimages.com.

Speaking of food, a ramekin, from the French ramequin and Flemish rammeken before it, was originally a kind of dish made of toasted cheese and bread, often baked and served in individual portions in a small dish, which came to be called a ramekin. Etymologists aren’t sure about its origin; some connect the first component of the word, ram-, to a Germanic word for “cream,” “cheese,” or even, wildly,  ram, the animal. The second part is, indeed, probably akin to -kin.

Mannequin may mean “little man,” but the Mannequin Challenge, defying its etymology, shows how one little idea can become a huge phenomenon.

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“Orbit”: Of the earth, out of this world

John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, left Earth yesterday at the age of 95. In his honor, let’s gaze at orbit – a word whose origin turns out to be much more down to earth.

Leaving a mark

As part of Project Mercury, John Glenn orbited Earth three times aboard the Friendship 7 in 1962. But almost 600 years earlier, the word orbit wasn’t even a verb. It didn’t even refer to space, in fact.

When orbit entered English’s lexical orbit in the late 1300s, it named the “eye socket.” The word came from the French orbite, in turn from the Medieval Latin orbita, which named the same anatomical structure. This is why doctors use orbital to refer to the eye socket.

But the etymology of orbit gets yet earthier: The older meaning of orbita in Latin was a “track or rut made by a wheel in the ground.” This orbita, speaking of John Glenn, could also refer to leaving an “impression” or “mark.” How do we get from our eyes on the ground and in our heads to our eyes in the heavens?

Not rocket science. Just metaphor.

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In orbiting the Earth, John Glenn truly left his mark. The original meaning of orbit in Latin was a “track made by a wheel in the ground.” Image by Vasant Dave, courtesy of freeimages.com.

“Circular” logic?

Latin’s orbita traces back to another noun, orbis, which denoted many “circular” objects: rings, disks, spheres, globes. Periods and cycles also have a circularity, and orbis named them, too – as it did, even way back in its original Latin, the path a heavenly body took across the sky and, yes, the eye socket. (Heavenly bodies were thought to encircle Earth, and eye sockets are a spherical encasement of the eyeball.) The deeper root of orbis is unknown.

So, when English developed its astronomical sense of orbit in the mid-1600s, it borrowed the word orbit again, this time straight from Latin. There are some important differences, though. For most Ancient Romans, celestial orbis and orbita referred to the circuit of planets, moons, suns, and stars as they revolved around Earth, while the English orbit has come to name the elliptical path an astronomical body takes around a more massive one as the result of gravity.

Out of this world

The Oxford English Dictionary attests orbit as a verb in 1946, and the expressions in orbit and out of orbit about a century before. And “out of orbit” is what exorbitant literally means.

More precisely, exorbitant derives from the Latin exorbitāre, “to go off track,” joining ex- (“out of”) with that original, “track” sense of orbita. The Romans used exorbitāre in legal contexts, referring to some action that went beyond the scope of the law. English adopted this meaning, too, in the 1400s, but over the following centuries, exorbitant designated behaviors that deviated from the norm, hence “excessive.”

John Glenn definitely exceeded norms, but only in some of the most impressive, inspiring, and heroic ways the United States has ever witnessed. He was a veteran of World War II and the Korean War. He was a US Senator, representing Ohio. At aged 77, he was the oldest person to go into space. He was a loyal husband of 73 years. And he was humble, lifelong supporter of science, wonder, and curiosity.

Glenn’s orbit was, in so many ways, out of this world.

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“Dakota” and “Sioux”: A tale of protest, told in etymology

Since spring, the Standing Rock Sioux have led protests against the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Missouri River and Lake Oahe by their reservation in North Dakota, fearing the oil pipeline could contaminate their water supply and desecrate sacred sites nearby. But this Sunday, their hard-fought efforts met with victory: the US Army Corps of Engineers did not approve an easement for the pipeline to go through the route in question. 

Here’s a look into the origins of Dakota and Sioux, which turn out to be perfect metaphors for this incredible protest:

Friends and foes

The meaning of Dakota, the name and language of a Sioux tribe which also graces two states in the Upper Midwest, is usually given as “friend” or “ally.” The etymology, though, may be a bit more complex. John Koontz, a linguist who specializes in Siouan languages, supposes dakota, or lakota in Lakota dialect, literally means “to be a friend by means of heat.” This “heat” may reference the Seven Council Fires, the confederation of the Sioux tribes, which alludes to “the ceremonial action of the council fires [started for gatherings] in establishing or signifying the friendship among the various Lakota (and Dakota) people.”

The Oxford English Dictionary first attests Dakota in the 1804 Journals of Lewis and Clark. Clark wrote: “This nation call themselves–Dar co tar. The French call them Souex.” Indeed, Sioux, first attested in English in 1761, is shortened from Nadouessioux, which early French explorers adapted from Natowessiwak, the name neighboring Ojibwe peoples gave to the Dakota.

It’s not a kind term, Natowessiwak. The word is pejorative and diminutive, and, according to Koontz, has two meanings: 1) “little snake,” referencing the massasauga, a small rattlesnake; and 2) “little barbarian,” literally “speaker of a foreign language.” It’s not clear which sense is primary, but both meanings belittle the Dakota as outsiders. There is much precedent for this, though: the Greek’s called foreigners barbaroi, a word that imitates the sound of unintelligible language and gives us the word barbarian. And Welsh comes from a Germanic root for “foreigner.” 

The exact etymologies of Dakota and Sioux are uncertain, but they sum up the story of the Standing Rock protests quite powerfully: Through solidarity and community action, the protestors prevailed over many who saw them, and their objections to the pipeline, like some sort of pesky other.

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Why do we call it the president’s “Cabinet”?

With some controversy, President-elect Donald Trump has been assembling his new Cabinet. But new cabinets are for kitchens, right? Why do we call these advisors, who head the executive departments of the US government, a president’s Cabinet?

Cabinet members

In the 16th century, there were two main meanings of cabinet. The first, and earliest, cabinet named a “case” that kept secret valuables, like jewels or letters, safe. This cabinet, later ornamental and fitted with shelves and drawers, became the furniture in our kitchens, bathrooms, TV rooms, and offices.

The other cabinet named a “small, private chamber.” Leaders would meet with political advisors in such places, apparently, to discuss the most sensitive and confidential matters. Over the first half of the 1600s, and by the metaphorical process known as metonymy, cabinet became the official name for the people who met in a such a room to advise a leader.

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A filing cabinet, which the Cabinet of the United States surely has quite a lot of. Image courtesy of freeimages.com.

Cabinet-makers

The Oxford English Dictionary credits the influential polymath Francis Bacon with the earliest recorded use of cabinet in a political context. In “Of Counsel,” an essay first published in 1612, Bacon mused on some of the challenges (“inconveniences”) of giving counsel to a ruler, including the loss of secrecy, undermining of authority, and the risk of betrayal. He then notes:

For which inconveniences, the doctrine of Italy, and practice of France, in some kings’ times, hath introduced cabinet counsels; a remedy worse than the disease.

Bacon was no fan, it seems, of cabinets. But by the time he acceded the English throne in 1625, King Charles is said to have formally introduced a “Cabinet Council” for additional, high-level, and possibly even more secret advisement alongside his Privy Council.

Now, the word cabinet doesn’t explicitly appear in the US Constitution. Article II, Section 2 does state the President

may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices.

On September 11, 1789, George Washington sent his nominations for four such officers to the Senate, which it approved: Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, the first-to-be-confirmed Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph. (Some include Postmaster General Samuel Osgood in this body.)

But it was James Madison, as far as we know, who first referred to these men as “the president’s cabinet,” drawing on what was by then a well-established term in British government. The presidential Cabinet has since expanded, including some name changes, to 15 departments. The most recent department in the cabinet, the Department of Homeland Security, was formed following a different September 11. 

Inside the cabinet

What do we know about the history of the word cabinet? Scholars generally take cabinet to be a diminutive form of cabin: “a little cabin.” Indeed, cabin is no secret in the shape or sound of the word cabinet, but our associations of the word with cupboards and government are so strong that we often don’t connect it to those shelters we escape to in the woods.

Cabin, originally a “temporary shelter” in the late 1300s, derives from the French cabane, “hut,” in turn from Late Latin capanna. Capanna, whose further origins are a mystery, also yields the Spanish cabana. A few have claimed it’s Celtic or Illyrian. And some note cabine referred to a “room for gambling” in an old French dialect. Talk about shady, backroom dealings. 

But how do we reconcile cabinet, the small room, with cabinet, the case and furniture? The French source of cabinet may have been influenced by the Italian gabinetto, a “little cage or basket,” hence a kind of “chest” or “closet.” This gabinetto is a diminutive form of gabbia, which may be ultimately rooted in the Latin cavus, “hollow,” origin of cave and even cage.

And no cabinet member ever wants to be boxed in or in the dark in a president’s administration. As Francis Bacon observed in “Of Counsel”: “The greatest trust between man and man is the trust of giving counsel.”

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