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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 ∫
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 vocabulary—including tariff. Let’s have a look at the etymology of this economic word of the moment.
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.
One of the most moving responses to Parkland, Florida, site of just latest mass school shooting in the US, has been a single word: please.
David Hogg, 17-year-old survivor of the massacre at his high school, has emerged as a forceful voice of a burgeoning youth movement for gun reform. Speaking to CNN, Hogg exhorted: “Please! We are children. You guys are, like, the adults. Take action, work together, come over your politics, and get something done.”
Lori Alhadeff lost her 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, to the gunmen. Before CNN’s cameras, her unimaginable grief boiled into a stirring admonition: “President Trump, please do something! Do something. Action! We need it now! These kids need safety now!”
These are powerful pleas of please—and two words joined together by a common root.