Confirmation hearings of US Supreme Court nominees—like Neil Gorsuch’s this week in the Senate—give obscure judicial terms a rare moment in the public spotlight. Consider super precedent, who fights baddies with the power of past decisions. Or stare decisis, which sounds like a long-lost sister to Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” And then there’s Chevron deference. Clearly, that means refueling your tank at a Chevron gas station over any of its competitors, right?
The earliest record of sleazy likens the human brain to beer left out in the sun.
On Capitol Hill yesterday, FBI Director James Comey confirmed that his agency is probing Russian interference in the 2016 US election. During his hearing, Denny Heck, a Democratic representative for Washington, commented on the state of the investigation: “We’re not indicting anyone, merely laying out some of the evidence and the facts, dirty though they be, sleazy though they be.”
Heck isn’t alone in using sleazy for political effect, though: It’s been a favorite modifier of politicians and political journalists since at least the 1980s. But where does this word sleazy come from?
From bother and trousers to slogan and slew, the English language has Irish etymology galore.
We’re all Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, as we like to say, but so too are many of our words – and not just the more obvious ones like leprechaun or shamrock. There are many other everyday words whose Irish origins may just surprise you. You might even say there’s a whole slew of them:
We don’t know where the word Ides comes from or why the Ancient Romans used plural words for singular dates. Thanks, Caesar.
Today is the Ides of March, when Julius Caesar was notoriously assassinated in 44BC. Shakespeare immortalized the date when his soothsayer warned in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar: “Beware the ides of March” (1.2.19). Both of these are true: Caesar was killed on March 15 and a seer, according to ancient historians, did caution him the Roman ruler about the date, though didn’t exactly say Shakespeare’s famous words. But why is this day called the Ides and if it’s just one day, why don’t we call it an Ide?
The roots of coverage span from medieval fire prevention to famous Scottish diaries.
On Monday, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that 24 million Americans will lose coverage over the next decade under the Republican plan to replace Obamacare. Let’s follow up on last week’s look at insurance by reading over the etymological terms of coverage.
The wordage of coverage
Insurance-wise, coverage refers to “all the risks covered by the terms of an insurance contract,” as Merriam-Webster defines it. This use, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds, is first recorded in the 1912 Agents’ Records from Hartford, Connecticut: “There will be nineteen policyholders disillusionized and disgusted with the limited coverage contract.” I suspect there will be many, many more such policyholders today.
This coverage, though, may not have been English’s first go at the word. The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology notes that coverage named “a charge for a booth at fair” as early as 1642. The Online Etymology Dictionary puts it even earlier, in the mid 1400s. I had trouble tracking down any further information about this word, though it certainly calls ups the modern sense of “paying a cover” to see a band or get into a club.
Coverage’s basic plan, as you probably guessed, is the word cover plus -age. What is this -age? It’s all over English: beverage, bondage, breakage, luggage, marriage, message, orphanage, and signage, to name a mere few. The suffix forms mass and abstract nouns as well as denotes action or condition. In recent years, it’s enjoyed some more humorous productivity. There was a lot of ‘Tweetage’ when the Oscars flubbed the Best Picture winner. People got into some serious ‘bracketage’ when the NCAA release its 2017 March Madness basketball rankings. This –age is from French, reshaped from the Latin, noun-forming suffix –aticum.
As for cover, it’s been covering a lot of different ideas in the English language for a long time. The OED cites cover for “to shield, protect, shelter” as early as 1275. By 1300 we have “to conceal,” revealing cover’s connection to covert. A batch of religious citations around 1340 shows cover applied to clothes and caps. And come 1382, cover was covering pots with lids and spreading jams over bread. The noun cover is early, too, referring especially to concealing/protective outer layers by 1300.
The sense of cover behind insurance coverage (to defray costs, to meet or compensate a liability or risk, to protect by insurance) emerges in the record by the 1820s. Here, the OED cites The Journal of Sir Walter Scott, which the legendary author kept, in extraordinary and often heart-wrenching detail, from 1825 until he died in 1832. On March 23, 1828, Scott writes that payment for his Tales from a Grandfather “will prettily cover my London journey.” Scott faced some serious financial woes in the late 1820s; his novels saved him from ruin.
For a lecture, say, to cover the extent of some subject is by 1793 while for a newspaper to cover a story is by 1893. To cover, or “defend,” someone in sports? That’s dated to 1907. To cover someone else’s song? 1965. To cover, or “substitute for,” someone’s class? 1970.
Latin’s got it covered
Just as we get -age from French, so too we get cover. It derives from the Old French covrir (cover, protect, conceal, etc.), formed from the Latin cooperire. That looks like cooperate, but the two are not related. And recover, as in “get better,” is from the same Latin root that yields recuperate.
The Latin cooperire meant “to cover entirely.” The co- (related to com-) comes from cum (with), here intensifying a sense of completeness (together > altogether). This operire meant “to close, cover,” opposite of aperire (open). With a different prefix, dis- (away, undo) operire also gives us discover. The original sense of discover in English (1330s) was to betray someone’s secret identity.
The French covrir shows up in some surprising other places. Kerchief? It’s literally from the French for “cover head” (Old French couvrechief). The cloth started out as a women’s head-covering. And curfew, as I previously explored on the blog, means “cover fire” (Old French cuevrefeu). It originally sounded an evening bell in medieval Europe telling townspeople to put out their fires to prevent bigger conflagrations.
With the CBO’s score for the healthcare plan, many Republicans might be scrambling to cover their heads and put out the fires – or else too many more Americans, having lost their coverage, will be coughing into handkerchiefs.
m ∫ r ∫
Insurance ultimately comes from the Latin securus, “free from care.”
Health insurance was front and center this week as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan debuted his contentious plan to repeal Obamacare. As Washington continues to deal with the political complexities of health insurance, let’s deal with the etymological complexities of the word insurance.
What do rum and capybaras have in common? Why, the origin of Panama.
A huge thanks to the many people who filled out the Mashed Radish reader survey. I received some incredibly instructive feedback. And as you may have noticed, I’ve already been acting on some of it with my short “Etymologies of the Day” I’m posting during the workweek in addition to my feature posts. Let me know what you think of these at my email, on Twitter, or in the comments section below.
I’ve also randomly selected a survey respondent, who got to choose the etymology for today’s post. Her name’s Maïra – who runs a lovely blog featuring art, Arabic song and poetry, and other cultural reflections. She was curious about the origin of Panama.
One of the earliest recorded instances of wiretapping involves an anecdote about how Confederate general John Hunt Morgan bet a Union soldier two cigars if he could spell the word Lebanon.
In a series of shocking tweets this weekend, President Trump, providing absolutely zero evidence, said President Obama wiretapped his phones during the 2016 campaign. The word wiretapping evokes Watergate and Cold War espionage, but its roots goes back a century earlier. For before we tapped telephones, we tapped telegraphs.
The original pioneers were “foot soldiers” who cleared the way for the rest of the army.
This past Monday, US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos described historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.” Her statement came under immediate fire, though, as HBCUs were formed due to a profound lack of choice black students faced under Jim Crow segregation laws. In the spirit of education, let’s learn a little history about the origin of the word pioneer.
tShrove, as in Shrove Tuesday, and the related word shrift, as in short shrift, ultimately derive from the Latin scrībere, “to write.”
For Francophones and many speakers of American English, today is Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday,” a day of gorging and gamboling before the solemn and abstemious Christian season of Lent. But a lot of other Anglophones will know today as Shrove Tuesday. What is this rare and unusual word shrove, and where does it come from?