A mix of Hurricane Ophelia and Saharan dust storms turned the sun an ominous red over much of the UK earlier this week. It also caused the sky to look an eerie yellow or, as many commented, sepia. And this fancy color word, as it turns out, has a very cuttle-y, and very un-cuddly, origin.
A trend has spread on social media following the many and disturbing allegations of sexual assault and rape against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein: me too, which tens of thousands women are posting to express that they, too, have been assaulted or harassed.
The little word, too, so simply yet powerfully bringing attention to how pervasive, and pernicious, sexual violence against women is. For today’s post, let’s put the etymological spotlight on it.
It’s Friday the 13th—a day of bad luck, if you are superstitious person, and a great occasion to look at the origin of the word superstition.
After some players took a knee during the national anthem, US Vice President Mike Pence abruptly left a football game between the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers this Sunday. But many aren’t seeing his move as a un-dignifying departure—but a political stunt, a word whose ultimate origins are, shall we say, a bit stunted.
Gun. It’s such a cruelly simple word for a terrorizing technology that is senselessly and needlessly claiming too many American lives—59 alone, as we witnessed in the horrific massacre in Las Vegas this week. Where does this deadly word derive from?
On the blog, I normally zoom in on words that are hogging our headlines. This post, though, I’m stuck on a word—two actually, and a proper noun at that—that have been far too much neglected. I’m talking about Puerto Rico, where millions of Americans are struggling to survive the devastating blow of Hurricane Maria.
Used in military and football slang, the phrase take a knee dates back to at least 1960.
This past weekend, millions of viewers witnessed American football players, among other athletes and celebrities, “take a knee” during the playing of the US national anthem ahead of kickoff. The kneelers, among others who stayed in locker-rooms or locked arms in solidarity, were defying US President Donald Trump’s recent remarks profanely calling for athletes protesting the anthem and flag by refusing to stand to be “fired.”
With #TakeAKnee (and #TakeTheKnee, though Google Trends identifies take a knee as much a more popular search) taking off online, millions more of us witnessed the gesture, and expression, “take a knee” take on a new meaning in the broader public consciousness—and lexicon.
Today’s etymology comes by special request—or rather, acute observation—of Barbara, a loyal reader I had the great pleasure to meet in Ireland this week. Baffle came up in casual conversation and she, owing in no small part to her wise and inspiring 89 years as an educator and intellect, wondered, as we word nerds always do: Where does the word baffle come from?
Well, Barbara, the origin of baffle is quite…baffling.
Of Knights and Noise
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first finds baffle in Edward Hall’s 1548 Chronicle, which traces the history of the houses of York and Lancaster from Henry IV to Henry VIII. For Hall, baffle meant “to disgrace publicly,” used especially of perjured knights. As he writes in his chapter on Henry VIII:
He was content, that the Scottes shoulde Baffull hym, whiche is a great reproache amonge the Scottes, and is vsed when a man is openly periured, and then they make of hym an Image paynted reuersed, with hys heles vpwarde, with hys name, wonderyng cryenge and blowing out of hym with hornes.
This usage has lead some etymologists to suspect baffle is a variation or corruption of the Scottish bauchle, “to subject to disgrace.” This verb is possibly based on the adjective bauch, “weak, poor, abashed, tasteless,” which might come from the Old Norse bágr, “uneasy, poor” or bagr, “awkward, clumsy.”
Near the end of the 1500s, though, a different sense of baffle emerges: “to cheat, bewilder, foil,” from which the modern meaning (i.e., perplex, thwart) settles in by 1670s. The verb, in its “forestalling” sense, yields the noun baffler/baffle in the mid-to-late 1800s, referring to various kinds of shielding devices (e.g., a sound baffle).
This baffle has directed etymologists to the Old French beffler (deceive, mock) and bafouer (deceive, abuse, hoodwink, etc.), two forms that might arise from beffe, “mockery.” And beffe? Perhaps Old French owes this to our good, ole etymological friend, onomatopoeia: Baf!, an interjection of disgust along the lines of Bah! or Pooh! Maybe the Scots bauchle and French bafouer are related—or maybe they aren’t and just got confused.
Etymology, yes, can be so baffling, but baf! Sometimes it can also just be so simple.
Thanks very much for the suggestion, Barbara. If you ever have a suggestion or if a certain word ever tickles your curiosity, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
m ∫ r ∫
Toys “R” Us, the world’s largest toy store chain, filed for bankruptcy protections today. Debt and online shopping aren’t great for playtime, it turns out—but etymology certainly is. This post, let’s have a quick look at the origins of bankrupt.
Bankrupt: trading in metaphors
Borrowed into English from French, bankrupt comes from the Italian phrase banca rotta, or banco rotto in the masculine, literally a “broken bench.”
The bench here refers to a market stall where merchants would count and exchange money, and it’s said that, once upon a time, people would break up their stalls if they had become insolvent. The Italian phrase itself, though, may have actually just started out as a figurative expression.
The Italian banco goes back to a Germanic root, with some basic meaning of “table,” that also gives English the word bench and is connected to the geological bank in, say, sandbank. First used as a table for counting and exchanging money, bank was metaphorically extended to the financial institutions we call banks today.
Rotto, meanwhile, goes back to the Latin rumpere, “to break” or “burst.” The Latin verb’s past participial form is ruptus, which we can see in other derivatives like abrupt, corrupt, interrupt, erupt, and rupture. This form also helps explains English spelling of bankrupt, as well as its French intermediary, bancque roupte.
As for when bankrupt entered the language, the Oxford English Dictionary finds a bankrupt (insolvent person) in 1533, to bankrupt in 1552, and bankrupt as an adjective in 1565. Various figurative extensions of bankrupt (e.g., a person bankrupt of honor) are found shortly thereafter. Bankruptcy emerges just a little later in the 1630s—or some nearly 400 years if you’re Toys “R” Us.
Yesterday, Apple unveiled the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, and iPhone X, which the company is pronouncing “iPhone Ten.” Ten years ago, Apple transformed the smartphone landscape—and our very lives, for better or worse—with its first very iPhone, hence the Roman numeral X, or 10, in its new mobile moniker. Let’s take a quick look at the history of X, from its birth as a letter and numeral to its spread into everything from Jesus to algebra.
The Roman Numeral X
As noted, X corresponds to the number 10 in Roman numerals. We know the ancient Romans adapted their notational system from the Etruscans, but the deeper roots of the symbols themselves are obscure.
One theory thinks the numerals evolved out of basic tally marks. The Roman numeral I (1) was a simple notch, with every fifth one double-notched, yielding V (5) and every tenth crossed into an X (10).
Another theory thinks the numerals emerged from hand-counting. I represents one finger and V a full hand. If you hold out your hand, you can see how the gap between the thumb and index finger might resemble a V. Hold out two hands for 10 and you can imagine how two V’s, stacked on top of each other, can look like an X.
Whatever their origin, the form of the symbols were adapted to the existing letters in the Latin alphabet—which included letter X.
The Letter X
The ancient Greeks added letter X—called chi, its 22nd letter and our 24th—when they borrowed the Phoenician alphabet. Originally, X represented a kh sound, but certain regional alphabets took to using the symbol as a convenient shorthand for frequent ks combinations in the language. The Etruscans also adopted this convention—and later the Romans, which ultimately made its way into the sound and shape of English’s own X.
The Christ X
The Greek chi is the first letter in Χριστός (Khristos), source of Christ. This epithet literally means “anointed,” a translation of the Semitic messiah; rubbing oil on heads of kings, priests, and other important figures was an ancient custom used to consecrate them.
The second letter Χριστός is rho—ρ and source of r—and together Χριστός was abbreviated to its initial Xρ in old manuscripts. This digraph became the Christogram ☧, symbolizing Jesus on various Christian materials and imagery. The shorter shorthand of X for Christ also appears in Xmas, i.e., Christmas, which has been in use since the 1500s. That letter X also resemble a cross, so central to the Christian belief system, further underscores its association with Jesus Christ.
The Kiss X
For Christians, Christ—and his symbol X—evoke faith and fidelity, and apparently medieval Christians, few of whom were literate, used X to sign documents as a token of their veracity.
This custom would also appear related to the modern use of X as a signature or in checkboxes, though we should never underestimate that this practice could just be because X is a distinctive and easy-to-form shape to make. Consider how we have X marks spots, dating to at least the early 1800s, which would seem to originate simply from, well, X marking spots.
Important documents were also sometimes signed with X and sealed with a kiss, and eventually the X-as-kiss emerged in letters and, now, text messages. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites a letter by naturalist Gilbert White in 1763: “I am with many a xxxxxxx and many a Pater noster and Ave Maria, Gil. White.” Others think White’s X’s signified blessings, with an 1894 letter from Winston Churchill to his mother marking the earliest known use of the kiss X: “Please excuse bad writing as I am in an awful hurry. (Many kisses.) xxx WSC.”
The Algebraic X
X has been standing in for unknown mathematical quantities (variables) since the 17th century, a practice adopted from the French. The OED first cites it in English polymath (pun intended) Jonas Moore’s 1660 mathematical treatise, Arithmetic.
Why X? Contrary to a popular 2012 TED Talk, the OED offers:
The introduction of x, y, z as symbols of unknown quantities is due to Descartes (Géométrie, 1637), who, in order to provide symbols of unknowns corresponding to the symbols a, b, c of knowns, took the last letter of the alphabet, z, for the first unknown and proceeded backwards to y and x for the second and third respectively. There is no evidence in support of the hypothesis that x is derived ultimately from the mediæval transliteration xei of šay’ ‘thing’, used by the Arabs to denote the unknown quantity, or from the compendium for Latin res ‘thing’ or radix ‘root’ (resembling a loosely-written x), used by mediæval mathematicians.
The algebraic X is also responsible for the X in X-ray, a translation of the German X-strahlen (literally “X-beams”). German scientist Wilhelm Röntgen discovered them in 1895 and, taking a page from mathematics, so designated because he didn’t fully understand them.
The “unknown” X also produces that “indefinable quality” of the X-factor, which dates back all the way to the 1930s.
X’s sense of mystery probably led to X’s wide use in naming, from the X-Files to SpaceX, with X here conjuring up a sense of possibility, of wonder. Its associations with words like extreme and extra further lend it to so much branding (e.g., Xbox, Yukon XL, UberX). Names like Gas-X and Clean-X play with X as ex, or “former,” with X perhaps additionally calling up advanced technology, thanks to the letter’s “unknown” (read futuristic) resonances.
The unknown is also uncertain, which produces the X in Generation X, first used in the 1950s for a “generation of young people about whose future there is uncertainty.” Later uses of Generation X play upon valences of X as anxious or edgy for this supposedly disaffected post-Boomer population.
X is also a prominent sound in sex. Perhaps advertisers subliminally take advantage of this connection, but the XXX for pornographic content appears to come from the use of X for motion picture ratings for adult films. (I suspect the choice of X here prudishly alludes to the letter’s connotations with “wrong.”)
XXX, finally, was also used for the potency of various beers in the 19th century, likely leading to the trope of XXX for strong booze in cartoons.
Due to some upcoming wedding celebrations (I’m honored to be marrying my sister- and soon-to-be brother-in-law this weekend), Mashed Radish will taking Friday off.