We had a lot of interesting words in the news this week (some more polite than others). Here’s a news review with—what else?—an etymological twist.
Both mathematically and etymologically, zero has Indian roots. As a word, it’s first attested in 1604, passing into English, via French and Italian, from the Medieval Latin zephirum. The Latin zephirum, in turn, is from the Arabic sifr, “null” or “empty,” a transliteration of the Sanskrit sunya-s, “empty place, desert, naught, cipher.” The Arabic sifr also gives us the doublet cipher, evidenced by 1400.
While the ancient Babylonians, Mayans, and Chinese had developed a concept of zero as a placeholder, it was ancient Indians during the Gupta Empire (320–550 CE) who had the truly revolutionary insight that zero was also a number—that nothing was something.
Among many other choice—and extremely profane—words he unloaded this week, White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci sent people to the dictionaries when he said, speaking of President Trump: “I can’t afford to be a sycophant to you, sir. I have to talk to you straight, as a friend…”
A sycophant, or a servile flatterer, literally means “fig-shower.” In ancient Greek, a sykophantes was someone who made an obscene gesture called a “fig,” featuring the thumb placed between two fingers and thought to resemble a fig. The fig, or sykon in ancient Greek, was itself thought to look like the vulva when the fruit was cut open, and so became an offensive slang term.
In ancient Greek and English (mid-1500s), sycophant originally referred to “informer” or “slanderer.” Why informers were called “fig-showers” is unclear, but one theory is that ancient Greek politicians eschewed the fig gesture themselves but encouraged their followers to mock their opponents with it. The modern sense of sycophant is attested by 1575 in English.
The Senate failed to pass a “skinny repeal” (i.e., pared down) of Obamacare after a parliamentary circus last night. Mark Peters gives us the skinny on this skinny in the Boston Globe, with an assist from Ben Zimmer, who finds skinny used in congressional contexts in the 1980s.
As for the history of skinny itself, here’s what I had to say about it for Mental Floss last year:
The OED gives the first attestation of skinny—as we think of (or aspire to) this adjective today—to Shakespeare’s Banquo addressing the witches in Macbeth: “You seem to understand me,/By each at once her choppy finger laying/ Upon her skinny lips.” Earlier, skinny was more literal: “covered by skin,” as the dictionary glosses. The OED finds an older but rarer usage: “ioynge in skinnes” or “gloriouse skinny,” a way to comment on one’s attractiveness by their youthful integument.
But we all know beauty is only skin-deep. The OED cites this proverb in a poem by Sir Thomas Overbury written in the 1610s: “All the carnall Beautie of my wife, is but skinne-deepe.”
Think venti skinny pumpkin-spice lattes are trendy? A New York Times advertisement marketed skinny, or “low-calorie,” shakes, malteds, parfaits, and hot chocolates in 1969. Suppose your skinny jeans are hip? A heading in a 1915 edition of The Waterloo Times-Tribune read: “Skinny clothes in vogue this year.” The article continued: “The correctly dressed man for 1915 will display a ‘quick fit’. Fashion has decreed that the tight fitting clothes of the past year shall become more so.”
To many, John McCain proved his reputation for being a political “maverick” by breaking with Republicans to vote down the shambolic skinny healthcare repeal.
McCain’s nickname namesake is Samuel Maverick, a 19th-century Texas cattle owner who didn’t brand his calves. As the Oxford English Dictionary quotes the August 1869 Overland Monthly, a California-based magazine which boasted such contributors as Ambrose Bierce, Willa Cather, Jack London, and Mark Twain:
One Maverick formerly owned such immense herds that many of his animals unavoidably escaped his rouanne in the spring, were taken up by his neighbors, branded and called ‘mavericks’. The term eventually spread over the whole State, and is in use now, not only to denote a waif thus acquired, but any young animal. No great drove can sweep through this mighty unfenced State without drawing a wake of these ‘mavericks’.
Maverick first named an “unbranded cattle” before taking a cue from an “independent-minded individualist” like Samuel Maverick. His grandson, US Congressman Maury Maverick, as it happens, gives us the first known use of gobbledegook, which he used to characterize the “long” and “pompous” jargon of government of officials, as I explained for Oxford Dictionaries in 2015.
The Boy Scouts of America had their annual jamboree this week, the young men regaled by all crass egotism of President Trump.
The Boy Scouts have used it for their “large rallies” since 1919–20, but it’s found in American English for a “noisy party” since 1868—and a few years earlier in the game of euchre for a hand containing the highest cards.
The deeper origins of jamboree are obscure. The Barnhart Etymological Dictionary suggests a coinage based on jam (“mass of people”) and shivaree, a “mock serenade made by beating on pans,” an American English variant of charivari. Ernest Weekley points to boree, an obsolete term for a “rustic dance,” from the French bourrée. Other suggestions point to Hindu, Swahili, and Aboriginal roots.