Because there’s always a reason to talk about pets…and etymology

I could have written about Zuckerberg today, with the Facebook CEO in the congressional hot seat. His surname literally means “sugar mountain” in German—and I don’t think that’ll be the next Farmville or Candy Crush any time soon.

I thought to write about raid, which the FBI did to Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen on Monday. Raid originates as a Scottish variant on road.

Instead, I settled on pet. April 11th is, apparently, National Pet Day, “celebrating pets and encouraging adoption” since 2005, according to the organizer’s website. The day, as quirky and numerous as these random unofficial holidays are in our social media feeds, also invites some welcome etymological escapism.

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My pet, Hugo.

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I still have a “dream” (repost)

Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. In honor of the great leader we lost far too soon, I wanted to repost a piece* on the origin of a word whose legacy is indelibly his: dream. 

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“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” (Wikimedia Commons)

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Mesomerica, squirrels, and puffy leather bags: an etymological Easter basket

Did you get any chocolate bunnies or eggs in your Easter basket—or just a bunch of black jellybeans as some sort of April Fools’ prank?

Well, I’ve got you covered with plenty of timely etymological goodies for this double holiday.

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Etymologies are like a bowl of jellybeans—you enjoy them more than you think you do. Every time. (Pixabay)

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Taking an etymological “census”

The Trump administration has added a controversial citizenship question to the 2020 US census. Opponents have quickly criticized and sued over the move, arguing it will deter immigrants from responding, not only resulting in an accurate count of the population but also violating the very US constitution.

Let’s survey the origin of census.

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A taking of the Roman census, 2nd century BCE (Novaroma/Louvre). Back then, you came to the census-taker, they didn’t come knocking on your door (or now, email).

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Trimming back the etymological “mustache”

All eyes on John Bolton…’s mustache.

The former US ambassador to the UN is now Donald Trump’s third National Security Advisor. Political observers are quick to comment on Bolton’s hawkish foreign policy—and quip on his bristly whiskers.

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A hawk with a mustache. (Wikimedia Commons)

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Catch up with Mashed Radish

This past week has been a kind of High Holidays of etymological trivia.

March 14th marked Pi Day:

Pi Day inevitably makes us hungry for actual pie, apparently named for the piebald magpie.

March 15th marks the Ides of March, which has all bewaring, quoting Shakespeare, and wondering, “Why isn’t the ‘Ide‘ of March anyways?”

Then, we have St. Patrick’s Day, which I’m celebrating way out in Ballina, a charming river town in County Mayo, with some Irish language contributions to English (trousers!) and, ah, sure, some whiskey.

Meanwhile, I’ve been busy working on some other projects I think you’ll enjoy—and find quite useful.

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What’s up with that “-er” in “ouster”?

The big news of the day is that Donald Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—and all the headlines are describing his ouster or running some language of him being ousted. Where do this journalistic go-to term for “dismissal” come from?

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So many ousters, so little time. (Screenshot by me.)

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We can “retaliate,” but can we “taliate”?

Yesterday, Trump signed off on his new steel and aluminum tariffs, carving out exemptions for Canada and Mexico. But other trading partners, especially in Europe, are still threatening retaliation, a trade-warring word—and focus of today’s etymology.

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The Code of Hammurabi, the original retaliation (Wikimedia Commons)

The legal talons of talio

English first exacts retaliation in the 16th century, when it variously referred to a “requital” or “repayment.”

Today, such reprisals are always vengeful, returning an injury or insult, like for like. But the very earliest instances of retaliation in the mid-1500s were positive, naming the repayment of a service, favor, or kindness. This may be due to confusion with retail.

The verb retaliate appears in the record by the early 1600s.

But there’s no benign retaliation in retaliation’s root: the Latin retaliare, essentially meaning “to retaliate” in the modern English sense of the word. The verb, apparently, features re-, a reciprocal “back” that doubles down on its base, talio, a legal term for “punishment similar and equal to the injury sustained”—or, an eye for eye, as ancient Hebrew law formulated this principle of retaliatory justice found yet earlier in Babylonian codes.

The Romans called it lex talionis, or “law of retaliation.” English borrowed the term as talion in the early 1400s.

The deeper origins of Latin’s talio aren’t exactly clear, but the word seems to be a form of talis, “such, “such like,” “of such kind.” English, as far as the record shows, never had a taliate, but if it did, it would mean, well, “retaliate.” The prefix re- in retaliate seems to simply intensify the sense.

Other etymologists have proposed other roots, though, with Eric Partridge suggesting Celtic cognates meaning “pay” (e.g., Old Irish, tale) and Walter Skeat pointing to the Sanskrit (tul, “lift,” and tula, “balance, equality”). 

Tallying a taliate

English does have an obscure verb talliate, “to tax” or, more properly, “to impose tallage.” Tallage was a kind of tax levied in feudal Norman times, a word whose ultimate Latin root, taliare, provides detail, entail, tailor, tally, and, yes, retail.

Taliare means “to cut,” extended to “allot,” from talea, a “staff,” “rod,” or “stick,” like a twig cut off from a larger branch. If English did have a taliate, we might expect it to mean “to cut (off).”

While we may have no taliate, the similar-looking talliate, if etymologically unrelated, does obtain, as threats of retaliation for Trump’s tariffs promise to talliate US exports abroad. 

m ∫ r ∫

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If it weren’t for trade, there’d be no “tariff”

The word tariff goes all the way back to Arabic.

Economists, businesspersons, and politicians of all stripes are pushing back against Donald Trump’s plan to impose stiff, new aluminum and steel tariffs, or “taxes imposed on imported goods,” in an effort to lower the trade deficit. They are concerned the shortsighted policy will increase costs on US consumers and hurt the economies of close trading parts, like Canada and Germany, triggering a trade war.

If it weren’t for trade, however, we’d have a massive deficit in our vocabularyincluding tariff. Let’s have a look at the etymology of this economic word of the moment.

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In the 16th century, a tariff could refer to mathematical tables not unlike those we once had to use to calculate logarithms. (Pixabay)

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Why do we say “second” and not “twoth”?

Thanks in large part to the impassioned activism of the #NeverAgain movement, the news hasn’t moved on from the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, as it has too often in recent massacres in the US. The pressure is staying on gun control, keeping the Second Amendment to the US Constitution in the hot seat.

The Second Amendment is also in this post’s etymological hot seat. I’m not debating its constitutional interpretation, though. I’m debating why we say second and not twoth.   

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The second hand is really the third hand on a clock, which has no first hand. (Pixabay

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