An etymological “epiphany”

You know those 12 Days of Christmas we’re always partridge-in-a-pear-treeing about? They end on January 5th, or Twelfth Night, when many celebrants end their yuletide festivities by taking down the decorations.

As its name suggests, Twelfth Night is the 12th night after Christmas and the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, which many Christians traditionally observe on January 6th. The Shakespearean comedy takes its name from the Twelfth Night holiday, but what is this Epiphany?

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El Greco’s Adoration of the Magi (Wikimedia Commons)

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The 2017 “Etymology of the Year”: The Fake Origins of “Covfefe”

While some casual observers speculated if covfefe would win Word of the Year, lexicographers duly noted that the presidential typo for coverage, if creating a curious cultural moment, lacked any meaningful use to genuinely merit any such award.

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Screenshot from the New York Times

I think covfefe does deserve a different prize, however: my second annual Etymology of the Year.

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Spelacchio, Yankee Swap, and Boxing Day: Some holiday etymologies

Over on the Oxford Dictionaries blog, I’ve written some pieces that will get you in the holiday spirit.

For my latest Weekly Word Watch, I featured the Italian word spelacchio:

The official Christmas tree of the city of Rome, imported from the Italian Alps at a cost of over £42,000, has been shedding its needles, so much so that locals have nicknamed the not-so-evergreen evergreen spelacchio, meaning ‘mangy’ or ‘threadbare’. The word appears to derive from roots meaning ‘out of hair’ (pelo, hair, cf. depilatory).

Spelacchio inspired a hashtag – even its own Twitter account.

 And just as quickly as it was a term of derision, spelacchio became a term of endearment, with Romans leaving Christmas cards for the ‘balding’ tree. How very 2017, spelacchio. How very 2017, indeed.

I also explored the origins of the names of popular gift exchanges, like Yankee Swap, which has a surprising connection to Walt Whitman:

In a standard Yankee Swap gift exchange, each merrymaker brings a wrapped gift (often thematic and price-capped) to a party and draws numbers to determine what order when they get to pick from the pool. The first to draw opens the gift for all to see, and subsequent players can then pick from the remaining items or steal an already opened gift, all vying to end the festivities with a gift they like.

Many myths surround the lexical beginnings of the Yankee Swap. One commonly claims the name is taken from a Civil War tradition of swapping Union Army prisoners of war, dubbed Yankees, for their Confederate counterparts over Christmas. Another puts forth the theory that immigrants in New York City were bemused by all the locals exchanging little gifts – Yankees, swapping – with one another throughout the Christmas season. (Yankee has its own fascinating and complicated history, but we’ll save that story for another time.)

Clever, but only true insofar as Yankee Swap hails from America, as its name would suggest.

Thankfully, word sleuth Peter Jensen Brown has done some deep digging and found that the phrase Yankee Swap was first used in reference to a stereotypic American appetite for trading. In a review of his own masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, the great poet Walt Whitman sings of ‘the Yankee swap’ as one of the ‘essences of American things’ alongside George Washington and the Constitution. Brown also finds a Scottish magazine describing the purported American love of the barter and bargain:

Every thing is a matter of serious calculation with your genuine Yankee.  He won’t give away even his words – if another should have occasion for them.  He will ‘swap’ any thing with you; ‚trade’ with you, for any thing; but is never the man to give anything away, so long as there is any prospect of doing better with it.

Brown hasn’t pinned down when it was first called a Yankee Swap, but he finds evidence for a festive and ‘old fashioned swapping party’ in an 1899 New York Tribune article as well as an extensive description in 1901 of a ‘swap party’ in a magazine, Table Talk:

In this day of craze for novel entertainments the more nonsensical the scheme the greater the enjoyment seemingly. As illustration the function very inelegantly designated as ‘The Swap Party.’ Why not the word ‘exchange’ instead nobody knows, but at all events it has become very popular alike with old and young.

Read the rest of the article for the lexical history of the Secret Santa and White Elephant traditions. Here’s some extra content that didn’t make the original article:

Kris Kindle and Kris Kringle

Secret Santa appears to be an American phrase and custom adopted elsewhere in the world. You may also hear the exchange going by the equally alliterative but less culturally connotative Secret Snowflake.

And in Ireland, for example, you may hear colleagues conducting a Kris Kringle or Kris Kindle around the office. These alternative appellations for a secret santa originate in German words like Christkind’l, literally ‘Christ child’, who’s the seasonal gift-giver in many European and Latin American countries.

Some German-speaking immigrants to early Pennsylvania in the US spoke a dialect that became Pennsylvanian Dutch. They had Chris-krinkle, a Santa Claus figure whose name comes from Christkind’l and becomes Kris Kringle by1830.

Boxing Day

Finally, a little Christmas bonus — and this one to educate the Americans. Observed as a bank holiday the first weekday after Christmas Day, the UK-originating Boxing Day has nothing to do with fisticuffs. The OED first cites it in 1833 and roots the name in the tradition of the Christmas box, dated to 1611 in a gloss on a similar French custom, tirelire. This container, or box, historically collected tips for various servants and apprentices. It was often an earthenware vessel, broken open when full and its contents shared among workers.

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The etymological network of “net”

Say the phrase the net today, and surely the first thing that springs to mind is the internet. It even sounds outdated, conjuring up fossil browsers like Netscape, as we mostly just refer to the technology as the internet or being online.

Net does survive in the expression net neutrality, the principle that internet service providers should treat all traffic the same—and rules about which the US Federal Communication Commissions (FCC) repealed last week to great objection. The term was coined by Tim Wu, a professor of media law at Cornell University, in 2003, when net was a more relevant term.

Incredible, though, isn’t it, how the net more immediately calls up email, Twitter, or cat videos than it does, you know, an actual net that catches fish or a soccer ball? How did we get here?

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Nothing but net. (Pixabay)

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Book review: The Story of “Be” by David Crystal

’Tis the season for ’tis the season, that yuletide cliché stuffing headlines and ad copy like so many Christmas stockings.

This season, though, I got to thinking about ’tis itself, that old-timey-sounding contraction of it is. In one of his latest books, The Story of Be: A Verb’s-Eye View of the English Language (Oxford University Press, 2017), the great and prolific David Crystal explains:

For students of English literature, the usage that probably most attracts attention is the combination of is with a preceding reduced form of it, to produce ’tis. There are over 1,400 instances in Shakespeare, for example. The spelling varies, especially in the use of the apostrophe (t’is, ti’s), and often showing no apostrophe at all. In Middle English, the pronoun is sometimes used twice: as it tis.

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From wedges to windfalls: the origin of “coin”

In one of my recent Weekly Word Watches for the Oxford Dictionaries blog, I highlighted bitcoin, the cryptocurrency whose valuation continues to skyrocket.

As I explain in the article, the bit in bitcoin – a coinage attributed to its mysterious creator(s) Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008 – was shortened from binary digit in 1948. Binary digits are those 1’s and 0’s that make our computers work.

And thanks to the success of bitcoin, other cryptocurrencies have also branded themselves as coins, such as Dogecoin and Peercoin, suggesting -coin is becoming a productive combining signifying a digital currency.

But what of the word coin itself? Its origins transports us back to some of the earliest days of writing.

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Not an actual bitcoin. (Pixabay)

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“Calling to mind” the roots of the word “monument”

As Confederate monuments are coming down across American cities, President Trump is taking action to cut back national monuments in the American wilderness. This week, he announced efforts to slash the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah.

The move is meeting with demonstrations and admonitions from environmentalists and Native Americans, among others, as well as legal challenges in court. But the two sides do have one thing in common: monument, demonstration, and admonition all come from the same Latin root.

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Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming, the nation’s first. (Pixabay)

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Why are moments called watershed?

On Thursday, New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand commented on the ongoing allegations of sexual harassment against prominent men in politics and entertainment, notably including Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor just this week:

I think we are in a watershed moment where it’s going to be an important change for our women, for our daughters, for men and for society about what we deem is acceptable. And in the world we live in today, we won’t tolerate abuse of power and position in any form from anyone.

Across chambers, and across the aisle, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan echoed Gillibrand’s sentiments and language to National Public Radio: “We are having a watershed moment in this country. I think this is a defining moment in this country. And I think it needs to be a defining moment in this country.”

We so often describe “defining moments” of “important change” as “watershed moments.” But what it so pivotal about a watershed?

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Which way will the water go? (Pixabay)

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“Slur”: an etymology dragged in mud

At a White House event yesterday honoring Navajo code talkers, President Trump called Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas,” as he has on many past occasions. Native American leaders, among so many others, are rightly decrying the disparaging remarks as a racial slur, as it drags native peoples into the mud—and literally so, if we look to the etymology of slur.

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Slur is something you may have originally encountered on the farm. (Pixabay)

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Mashed Radish on Grammar Girl

Mashed Radish is taking the week off for the US holiday of Thanksgiving, though I may sprinkle in a little etymology here and there as time permits.

In the meantime, enjoy the latest episode of the award-winning educational podcast, Grammar Girl. Its host and creator, the incredible Mignon Fogarty, reads an article I wrote for Oxford Dictionaries on the many side words in the English language. The episode opens with the fascinating roots of bailiwick, to boot. 

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