What is the “tray” in “betray”?

Betray shares its root with treason and tradition

Over concerns of its wisdom, justness, and legality, acting US attorney general Sally Yates nobly defied President Trump’s executive order banning immigrants, including refugees and visa-holders, from seven Muslim-majority countries. On Monday night, Trump fired her, claiming Yates “betrayed the Department of Justice.” It’s a strong, and deeply ironic, choice of words here, to say the least, but where does the word betray come from?

The tray in betray comes from a Latin verb meaning “to hand over.” Image courtesy of pixabay.com.
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The tray in betray comes from a Latin verb meaning “to hand over.” Image courtesy of pixabay.com

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Why do we call the end of the world “doomsday”?

The original doom wasn’t only about last judgments. 

This week, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reset its Doomsday Clock, a long-running warning against humanity’s own self-destruction, to two and half minutes to metaphorical midnight. It hasn’t been this close to midnight since 1953, after the US and Russia both tested H-bombs. Oy.

Nuclear weapons, climate change, rising nationalism, and yes, Donald Trump, are all pushing us closer to our own ruin, according to the Bulletin. So, let’s fritter away our remaining precious moments with a little etymology: Why is it called doomsday?

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Facing impending doom, you’d think we humans would have have better “judgment.” Image courtesy of pixabay.com

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Masses, milk, and metathesis: Following the “crowd”

Crowds are just a bunch of crud, etymologically speaking. 

We’ve been comparing – or, if you’re a certain president, complaining about – crowd sizes of late. One conservative estimate tallies Trump’s inaugural crowd at 250,000, about 1.5 million short of Obama’s in 2009. The Women’s March on January 21, meanwhile, may have drawn over 4.8 million protesters across the globe. So, as we count up the final numbers, let’s look into the origin of the word crowd

Working the crowd

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The original meaning of crowd, “to push on,” got lost in the crowd. Image courtesy of pixabay.com.

As a noun, crowd hasn’t been crowding the English language for very long. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates crowd to 1567, adding that it replaced the usual earlier term, a press, which goes back to the 13th century.

The noun crowd comes from the verb crowd. But this verb originally meant “to press on, hasten, or drive” in Old English.  One would crowd a ship, say, by pushing her off land. The OED has actually dated this usage, incredibly, to 937, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Crowd’s modern sense, “to gather in large numbers closely together,” appears by the beginning of the 1400, and we can easily see how the action pushing and shoving transferred to a thronging multitude.

The Old English crowd – crúdan – is related to the German kroten, “to oppress,” and the Dutch kruien, “to push or drive (e.g., a wheel-barrow).” The OED notes that the verbal crowd is “not known in the early stages of the other [Germanic] languages,” and in English, “was comparatively rare down to 1600.”

The etymological center of crowd is unclear. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, though, traces it back to the Germanic *krudan, from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *greut-, “to compress” or “push.” 

Crowds and whey

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Did the word curd get separated from the crowd? Image courtesy of pixabay.com

One thing that does get compressed, in a manner of speaking, are curds. These little lumps are formed when milk coagulates – and, as a word, curds (and its derivative, curdle) may be formed from the same root as crowd. Some etymologists think speakers flipped around the sounds of the Old English crúdan to get curd, attested in 1362. This flipping process, called metathesis, is a common one in English, among other languages, and has produced words like curl, task, and even bird

For curd/crowd, etymologists point to the Irish gruth, “curds,” which they root in the PIE *greut-. For the meaning of curd as a “crowded” substance, they cite the very chemical action that yields curds, coagulation, as an analogy. This word is skimmed from the Latin cogere, “to curdle, compel, or collect,” literally meaning “to drive together” (com-, “together,” plus agere, “to set in motion,” source of act.)    

I, for one, think curds are delicious, but perhaps you find them to be a bunch of crud. Etymologically, you may not be wrong: Many think crud, by that same process of metathesis, indeed comes from curd. This would mean crud switched the –ur- sound of curd, which switched the –ru– of crowd/crúdan. And so crud ‘returns’ to its original form.

The wrong crowd

Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green finds crud in Scottish English for “thickened or coagulated milk” and in US English for “curdled milk,” perhaps as back-formed from the adjective cruddy. Green also locates crud for “any filthy or disgusting matter” all the way back in the early 16th century. Crud, in some way or another, made it into US military slang for any “disease” or “worthless person” in the 1930s, expanding to “diarrhea,” “a slob,” and “venereal disease” in the 1940s and 1950s. A crud may be one to let slip a little crowd-poison, a euphemism for public flatulence. 

Trump may yet find validation, then. Crowds are crud, etymologically…and when you’re just not drawing the kind of numbers you hoped for.

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Why is it called an “inauguration”?

The etymology of inauguration is one “for the birds.”

Today marks the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States. This historic moment raises lots of questions. Like Why?

Why does the transfer of power take place on January 20? In 1933, Congress ratified the 20th Amendment, which moved up the inauguration from March 4 to January 20. Way back when, new officials required much more time to prepare for their office, creating a very long “lame duck” period after the November elections.

And why do we call it an inauguration? For the origin of this quadrennial word, we’ll have to look to the skies – and Ancient Rome.

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Rowing, rivers, and rulers: 5 “Russian” roots

“Russia” isn’t Russian, the Kremlin was once one of many, and Vladimir Putin would really like what his name literally means. 

With increasing evidence for Russian interference in the US’s 2016 elections, and persistent ambiguity concerning Trump’s relationship with the country, news reports are littered with Kremlin‘s and  Vladimir‘s. And at least etymologically, Russia indeed is the one “steering the ship.” So, let’s have a look at the origins of some of the leading “Russian” words.

Continue reading “Rowing, rivers, and rulers: 5 “Russian” roots”

What is the “mail” in “blackmail”?

The origin of blackmail has nothing to do with dark letters.

This week, a sensational yet unverified dossier leaked that alleges Russia has “compromising personal and financial information” it could use to blackmail President-elect Donald Trump. While we wait to learn more about the allegations, let’s get to the bottom of another matter. Where does the word blackmail come from?

Border issues

Since the late 1700s, blackmail has referred to the extortion of money, or other benefits, under the threat of revealing incriminating or damaging facts about someone. But several hundred years ago, blackmail was a much more localized affair, shall we say.

In the 16th century, blackmail was a tribute paid by farmers along the border of Scotland and England to freebooters for protection from their raids. The freebooters are often identified as the Border reivers, descended from both Scottish and English families in the region. They resorted to pillage and plunder, apparently, due to the disruptions and devastations wreaked by the ongoing war between the two peoples in the late Middle Ages. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first dates the term to the 1530s in Robert Pitcairn’s Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland.

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The Border reivers know what you did. A scanned drawing, by George Cattermole, of Border reivers at Gilnockie Tower. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

An etymological “tribute” 

The second part of the compound blackmail, mail, refers to the “tribute” paid to the freebooters. In Middle English, and continuing into Scottish, mail could signify a “tribute,” “rent,” “payment,” or “tax.” It comes down from the Old English mal, variously meaning “agreement,” “bargaining,” “terms,” or “lawsuit,” in turn from the Old Norse mál, “speech” or “agreement.” Indo-European scholars root mal and mál in the Proto-Germanic *mathla- and Proto-Indo-European *mod-, “to meet” or “assemble.” (Mail, as in letters and armor, are unrelated.)

The sense development of mail would seem fairly straightforward, then. When we gather, we talk, and through talking, we make deals, which often concern money, ultimately yielding the mail in blackmail. We can see, too, how the particular and historical extortion of blackmail in the Anglo-Scottish border readily broadened to its modern usage. It’s a Scotsman, too, whom the OED credits for the early expansion of blackmail: philosopher David Hume, in 1774.

Not so black and white

As for the black in blackmail? Some etymologists point to black rent and white rent. Black rent, so the theory goes, could be paid in work, goods, livestock, or produce, the color associated with cattle or the ‘baser’ quality of the forms of payment. White rent, meanwhile, was paid in money, like silver, whose metal was once called “white.” Black rent was an indeed an earlier (1420s) form of blackmail, but the OED enters white rent as a variant of quit-rent, a kind of historical property tax that exempt (quit) renters from other obligations concerning the land under feudal law. Folk etymology probably accounts for the confusion.

More likely, the black in blackmail refers to the “illegal” (black market) or “evil” (black magic) nature of the extortion.

Snail “mail”?

Mail, as “tribute,” does appear in other words, as the OED notes. Now obsolete, they were largely used in Scottish, underscoring the longer life mail enjoyed in the language:

  • Burrow-mail (1400s), a tribute paid by a borough (burrow) to a ruler
  • Grass-mail (1400s), rent for grass or grazing rights
  • Feu-mail (1500s), rent for a leasehold tenement (called a feu, variant of fee)
  • House-mail (1500s), rent on a house
  • Land-male (1300s), rent charged on a piece of land
  • Rental mail (late 1700s), a tautological form which documents the gradual obsolescence of mail
  • Retour mail (1600s), like feu-mail, retour being a Scottish form of return, here referring to a certain legal practice

Today, mail is essentially a fossil word, preserved only by virtue of the currency of blackmail. But a more recent coinage, whitemail, has renewed its lease. Appearing by the 1860s, whitemailing, clearly riffing on blackmailing, is kind of ‘moral extortion,’ e.g., a mother threatens to reveal her son’s smoking to his father unless he relinquishes his cigarettes. More recently, economics has taken up whitemail, in which a companies sells off a lot of stock at a reduced price to thwart a takeover.

And perhaps Trump, based on the threats and incentives he issues to businesses, will occasion a new addition to the -mail family. Orangemail, perhaps? 

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“Sequoia”: a giant-sized controversy

Earlier this week, heavy storms and flooding toppled the famous Pioneer Cabin Tree, a giant sequoia whose trunk cars once drove through, in California’s Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Before it was carved out in the 1880s to attract tourists, a forest fire had already hollowed out part of its trunk, apparently resembling a log cabin, hence the nickname Pioneer Cabin Tree. But why do we call this kind of tree a sequoia?

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The Pioneer Cabin Tree, also known as the Tunnel Tree, in 2006. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

American originals

In 1847, Austrian botanist Stephan Endlicher, while reorganizing and reclassifying plant species at the University of Vienna, created a new genus, which he called Sequoia. Endlicher’s Sequoia originally referred to redwoods, a close cousin to what we now know as and call the giant sequoia, or Sequoiadendron giganteum.

The common and long-running explanation is that Endlicher chose Sequoia to honor Sequoyah (1770-1843), a Tuskegee-born Cherokee silversmith who invented the Cherokee syllabary, which allowed for reading and writing in his native Cherokee tongue. Put simplistically, a syllabary uses written symbols to represent all the different syllables in a language, whereas an alphabet uses symbols to stand for all of the individual sounds. In Cherokee, for instance, Sequoyah wrote his name ᏎᏉᏯ, each symbol standing in for the syllables making up his name: Se-quo-ya. Sequoyah’s name comes from the Cherokee, Sikwayi, whose meaning and origin is unknown.

Sequoyah’s invention is a truly impressive, rare, and consequential feat, but author Gary Lowe thinks this etymology is quite the tall tale. Endlicher doesn’t mention Sequoyah anywhere in his papers and notes, but he was a philologist, including publishing a linguistic text on Chinese. Lowe ultimately roots the Sequoyah origin to an anonymous submission of an article in an 1856 edition of the agricultural magazine, The Country Gentleman. The author associates the name Sequoia with Sequoyah, for whom he concludes, approvingly, the giant tree was named. Subsequent writers and editors took up, and spread, this association, assuming Endlicher intended the name on the basis of his linguistic reputation. And so the explanation stuck.

One after the other

Lowe thinks Endlicher actually named Sequoia after the Latin verb sequor, to follow, source of words like sequence. Two other botanists, in fact, looked to the same sequor in the late 19th-century. The first suggested Endlicher picked Sequoia because the name followed in sequence after its original genus name, Taxodium; the second because redwoods followed after its extinct forbears. Lowe, rather, concludes Endlicher supplied Sequoia because the number of seeds its cones produce completes a larger sequence relative to those in its scientific suborder. 

Among giants

As far as the record is concerned, Europeans first encountered coast redwoods in 1769 – and the giant sequoia not until 1833. In the 1850s, British botanist John Lindley dubbed these trees Wellingtonia giganteum, honoring the Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington, famed for his defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. “This sat poorly with the Americas,” as Doug Harper at the Online Etymology Dictionary diplomatically sums it up, though Wellingtonia persists in British English. French botanist Joseph Decaisne reclassified the tree under Endlicher’s Sequoia in 1854, and it wasn’t until 1939 that the American botanist John Bucholz determined giant sequoias were a distinct genus from the coast redwood. Bucholz nodded to Endlicher with his new name, Sequoiadendron giganteum. (Dendron comes from the Greek for “tree,” giganteum from the Greek for “giant.”)

Names aside, there is no controversy when it comes to the majesty of sequoias, reaching hundreds of feet in the air and spanning thousands of year in age. Perhaps we can honor the likes of Pioneer Cabin Tree more directly, more immediately, more simply, and look to a name the great American naturalist John Muir once used for the sequoia: Big Tree.

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“Names in the News” at Nameberry

Guest-blogging on Nameberry 

Back in September, I started guest-blogging on Nameberry, a leading baby name website created by name experts Pamela Redmond Satran and Linda Rosenkrantz. Alongside an active forum, thematic lists of baby names, and a daily blog, Nameberry features a searchable database of over 50,000 names, including trends on their popularity.

As a word nerd, I particularly like the quick info Nameberry provides on the meaning and origin of names – and I use it as a springboard for my “Names in the News” posts on the site. Each month, I round up a list of some of the biggest, and most interesting, names that made the headlines the previous month and suss out the surprises in their etymologies. Last December, for instance, Kirk Douglas turned 100 while Mariah Carey couldn’t have been happier to turn a new page on 2017 after her New Year’s Eve performance. What do the names Kirk and Mariah mean, and what might their origins reveal about their current moment? Read my latest, and catch up on previous months, over at Nameberry.

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New Year’s “resolutions”: an etymology not meant to last

“New year, new me,” as so many of us are starting out 2017, resolved to lose weight, save money, or variously better ourselves and lives. Historians trace the practice of making self-improving resolutions in observance of the new year all the way back to ancient Babylon. But why do we call them resolutions?

Resolution

The Oxford English Dictionary first finds the phrase New Year’s resolution in American author and minister Edward Everett Hale’s 1850 Margaret Percival in America: “I am here, ready, from this moment to obey. It shall be my New Year’s resolution,” says the titular Margaret, forswearing some friends leading her astray from the (apparently) better judgment of her priest and church. Such a resolution – an action one has resolved, or firmly decided, to do – is much older, dating to the late 1400s.

But the earlier meanings of resolution and resolve don’t sound so, well, resolute: Back in 1390s, the words were used in scientific contexts for “breaking a substance down into its component parts.” Intensified by the prefix re- (“back”), resolution and resolve come form the Latin verb solvere, meaning “to loosen,” among many other extended senses. (The deeper, Indo-European root, *se-lu-, suggests something like “loosened apart.”) Chemistry still shows the ‘etymological’ sense of Latin’s solvere: A solution, loosely, is a kind of uniform mixture of one substance completely dissolved in another. Indeed, dissolve is the first of this word family to appear in written English, used for “melt” in the 1380s.

But in math and more generally, a solution is something that seems far from “broken down”: It’s an answer. What  gives? There’s a metaphor to this madness: When we take something apart (literally solving it), we can see how it works; this helps us to better understand its fundamental nature (figuratively solving it). And when we truly know something, we can thus make a determined – a resolute – decision. Looseness becomes firmness. 

This January, if you miss a day at the gym and worry your New Year’s resolution is falling apart, look to etymology for some encouragement. Sometimes it’s in breaking down that we build ourselves back up.

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