Irma: a storm, and etymology, of terrifying size and power

Floridians are bracing for Irma, one of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean and which has already left extensive destruction in its Caribbean wake—and the origin of the storm’s moniker is all too cruelly appropriate for its wrath and path. 

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Hurricane Irma superimposed over the state of Ohio. Screenshot from @jdrudd.

Irma’s sound and fury

According to Oxford’s Dictionary of First Names, the name Irma is a pet form of various names of Germanic origin beginning with the element ermen, meaning “whole, entire, universal.” That’s too apt, as meteorologists are helping us grasp the terrifying size of this monster storm by showing Irma is larger than the whole of the state of Ohio.

Another familiar ermen-based is Emma. Emma was brought to the English-speaking world by Emma of Normandy (985–1052), who gave birth to Edward the Confessor in her marriage to Æthelred the Unready. 

Less immediately familiar is Emmerich, a Germanic name often explained as literally meaning “universal power,” joining to ermen the root rich, “ruler.” This root, via various Germanic and Italic paths, is related to a host of English words, including right, realm, regal, and yes, the very words rich and ruler.

In Medieval Italian, the name Emmerich apparently became Amerigo, famously borne by the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1454–1512). Vespucci demonstrated that the New World—in that old European orientation—was not Asia but its own landmass. A Latinized version of his name gives us America, remembered in both the northern and southern continents and, of course, the U. S. of A.

With a storm like Irma, its seems the whole world is reaching out—whether with thoughts or aid—to everyone affected in the Americas by her winds and waters.

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The etymological folds of “diplomacy”

With North Korea accelerating its nuclear weaponry and the threat of US military action looming, diplomacy feels more urgent than ever. Etymology may be wishful thinking, but let’s examine the origins of the diplomacy—so we won’t be as extinct as the diplodocus.

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Double plates used for military diplomas in ancient Rome (Brigham Young University)

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Millennials are killing…the word “millennial”?

Alex Cwalinski brings the production qualities of This American Life and the curiosity of The Smithsonian Magazine to his podcast about travel, Go. For his latest episode, Cwalinksi looked at how millennials are changing the travel industry—including, flatteringly, interviewing me.

I spoke to Cwalinski about how the word millennial itself has changed. Head over to his website or download his show wherever you get your podcasts to check it out, and be sure to get lost in some of his other, excellent episodes while you’re there. In the meantime, here’s a little teaser about the origin of millennial:

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Brunch, millennial-style? (Pixabay)

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Search: etymology of the day

Via Old French cerchier, search goes back to the Latin circare, literally “to go round.” The verb is formed from circus, source of and meaning circle.

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(Pixabay)

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“Torrential”: a cruelly ironic etymology

There’s only one way to describe the rain deluging Houston, Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey this week: torrential. Nearly thirty inches have already fallen over parts of the city as of Monday night, and 20 more inches are still expected.

The frequent co-occurrence of these two words, torrential and rain, is called collocation by linguists, and we’ve seen it before in my post on rampant, which is so often coupled with corruption. We’re also seeing collocation at work in Houston’s catastrophic flooding.

But how about the word torrential itself? Where does it come from?

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Torrential is like a torrent, originally said of streams. (Pixabay)

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Safari: Etymology of the day

Safari was borrowed in the 1850s from the Swahili safari, meaning “journey” or “expedition,” in turn from the Arabic safar, “journey” or “tour.” 

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(Pixabay)

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The etymological elements of “arsenic”

Researchers concluded this week that nearly 60 million people in Pakistan are at risk of drinking water with “alarmingly high” levels of arsenic, the contamination leaching into groundwater from rock.

The poisonous qualities of arsenic, a semi-metal, and its various compounds have long been known to (and sometimes disregarded by) humans—as has the word. As we work to ensure clean water for Pakistan, let’s look into the etymology of arsenic.

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Orpiment, the historic arsenic, glittering on quartz. (Wikimedia Commons)

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Rucksack: Etymology of the day

First recorded in the 1850s, a rucksack is a “backpack”—literally. The word is borrowed from German, with the ruck from a regional word for back, Rücken, related to ridge.

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(Pixabay)

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Hamper: Etymology of the day

A laundry hamper, first attested in 1392, is shortened from hanaper, a case for a hanap, an old term for a precious goblet or drinking vessel. Its deeper roots are French and Frankish. The verb hamper, “to impede,” is apparently unrelated.

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It’s a long way from dirty socks. (Steve Hannaford)

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Looking directly at the—origin—of “eclipse”

A total solar eclipse will stretch across the United States today from Oregon to South Carolina. As umbraphiles look up at the eerie splendor of the rare astronomical event, I can’t help but look down—in my etymological dictionaries. Where does the word eclipse come from?

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During an eclipse, the sun is ever so…delinquent. (Pixabay)

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