Your Friday etymological news roundup

Today, rather than zoom in on the origin of any one noteworthy word, let’s round up the etymologies of some of the top words buzzing in this week’s news:

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The origin of “meddle”: It’s all in the “mix”

Recent reports are revealing that Russian meddling in the 2016 US election was more extensive than initially understood. As investigators continue probing the interference, let’s meddle with the etymology of meddle.

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Meddling in elections is truly nuts. (Pixabay)

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How a “bubble” becomes a “bill”

A legislative bill ultimately comes from the Latin bulla, “bubble,” later likened to round “seals” authenticating important documents.  

After drafting it in secrecy, Republican senators released their healthcare bill to repeal Obamacare on Thursday, already being criticized for its steep cuts to Medicaidand tax cuts for the wealthy. As we debate the bill, let’s take a closer look at the origin of this most legislative of words.

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Seal attached to the Royal Letters Patent of Henry VI, 1442 (King’s College, Cambridge). Wax impressions of seals were attached by cords or parchment to authenticate documents, sometimes literally sealing them like modern envelope glue, King’s College explains.

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What’s at “stake” in “attack”

A doublet of the word attach, attack ultimately comes from a Germanic root meaning “stake.” 

London has again faced another terrorist attack, this time from a Welsh man who plowed his van into a group of Muslim people near a mosque in Finsbury Park. As the word attack has become, alas, an all-too familiar one—excepting its application to white extremists—let’s see what me might learn from its etymology.

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The high and low “stakes” of “attack” (Pixabay).

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Review: Words at the Threshold by Lisa Smartt

When her father was dying, Lisa Smartt noticed he was using poetic and at times nonsensical language, speaking of green dimensions, an upcoming art show, and angels who told him he only had three days left. Stirred by his speech and drawing on her linguistics background, Smartt dedicated four years to analyzing over 1,500 utterances made by people at the threshold of death. “Do consistent patterns emerge in the language of the end of life? And if so, what exactly are those patterns and how might they track the path of consciousness?” she asks in Words at the Threshold: What We Say As We’re Nearing Death (New World Library, 2017), the intriguing results of her inquiry. The publisher kindly sent me a copy for review.

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One “mean” etymology

Mean originally meant “in common.” If only that actually described US healthcare. 

Despite previously praising the House Republican healthcare bill as a “great plan” in a public ceremony in May, Donald Trump told senators this week that the bill was “mean, mean, mean.” Where does this common little word mean come from?

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You’re a mean one,  Mr. American Health Care Act. (A.V. Club). 

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The origin of “cloud” is very down to earth

Last week, fired FBI director James Comey testified that President Trump asked him to “lift the cloud” cast by the ongoing investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia. This cloud, though, isn’t blowing over—something also true of the surprising origin of the word cloud.

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This cloud looks like…a pile of rocks. (Pixabay)

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Not above the law: The origin of “loyalty”

Being loyal isn’t always legalexcept when it comes to etymology. 

In written testimony to the Senate, fired FBI director James Comey described an encounter with President Trump in January that Trump needed and expected “loyalty” from Comey. This word loyalty, though, isn’t just at the center of an incredible legal and political drama: It’s at the heart of an etymological one, too. 

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Blind loyalty is very different from blind justice. (Pixabay)

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Review: Barnhart’s Never-finished Political Dictionary of the 21st Century

As my regular readers know well, I tend to focus on the origins of everyday words that are timely, seasonal, or buzzing in the news. My selections, more often than not, come from politics—and, these days, it seems they’re almost exclusively from or about Trump. Not that I’m alone.

Take Barnhart’s Never-finished Political Dictionary of the 21st Century (Lexik House, 2016), lexicographer David K. Barnhart’s second collection of such political terms and which he kindly sent me a copy for review. Barnhart may be a familiar name to my readers: His brother, Robert Barnhart, created The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, one of my go-to resources. (You wouldn’t want to play Scrabble at their house. Their father, Clarence, was an accomplished lexicographer, too, best known for editing the Thorndike-Barnhart graded dictionaries.)

In his Election-day Edition of his Never-finished Political Dictionary, Barnhart enters over 50 terms based on Trump alone: Trumpanzee (“a supporter of Donald J. Trump”), the Trump effect (“the influence of Donald J. Trump on a political race”), Trumpertantrum (think temper tantrum), Trumpian, Trumpism, Trumpista (“a person who enthusiastically supports the policies of Donald J. Trump”), Trump-tastic (“wonderful in a way that reflects Trumpian splendor”), and the list goes on. Clinton only reaches half that number, and Bernie-related terms don’t even crack a dozen. Politically—and linguistically—we are in the Trump era.

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How the word “climate” has changed

Rooted in a Greek verb meaning “to slope,” climate originally referred to seven latitudinal zones spanning the Earth.  

On Thursday, President Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement, a 2015 landmark effort to combat climate change joined by nearly 200 countries—minus Syria, Nicaragua, and, now, the US. Where does the word climate come from it, and how has it changed over the years? 

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Climate is all about “slopes”: temperatures up, Earth down. (Pixabay)

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