From textiles to testimonies: the origin of “panel”

A panel of jurors was originally a piece of paper on which the names of jurors were listed. 

Last night, we learned Special Counsel Robert Mueller has impaneled a grand jury—which allows prosecutors to subpoena documents and ensures witnesses testify under oath—in his investigation into potential ties between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia.

In the wake of the news, legal and political experts have been fielding the questions: “What does this panel mean for Mueller’s investigation? What does it mean for Trump?” Word nerds like me, meanwhile, are addressing a different query: “What, exactly, is impanel, and where does the word panel come from?”   

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Panel: Before it was wood, it was cloth. (Pixabay)

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The origin of “meddle”: It’s all in the “mix”

Recent reports are revealing that Russian meddling in the 2016 US election was more extensive than initially understood. As investigators continue probing the interference, let’s meddle with the etymology of meddle.

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Meddling in elections is truly nuts. (Pixabay)

Continue reading “The origin of “meddle”: It’s all in the “mix””

The etymological facts on “fake”

Fake news has been very much in the real news this week. Facebook in particular has been in the hot seat for the proliferation of false stories and misinformation over the 2016 presidential campaign. Many fear fake news on the internet and social media not only influenced the election but is also further dividing the American people and eroding the core principles of democracy.

As we get the facts on fake news, let’s have a look at what the word fake might be hiding in its etymology.

Fake

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests the adjective fake, meaning “spurious” or “counterfeit,” in a 1775 letter from William Howe, who rose to Commander-in-Chief of the British Army during the American Revolution. He wrote: “So many artifices have been practiced upon Strangers under the appearance of Friendship, fake Pilots &c., that those coming out with Stores…cannot be put too much on their guard.”

By 1819, fake was a verb used by thieves as slang for “doing (something) for the purpose of deception.” The OED provides a passage from James Hardy Vaux, an English convict who served time in Australian penal colonies and authored A New Vocabulary of the Flash Language, with “flash language” referring to the secret cant criminals used to evade and confuse the authorities. It’s worth quoting Vaux’s entry for fake at length. Fake is:

a word so variously used, that I can only illustrate it by a few examples. To fake any person or place, may signify to rob them; to fake a person, may also imply to shoot, wound, or cut; to fake a man out and out, is to kill him; a man who inflicts wounds upon, or otherwise disfigures, himself, for any sinister purpose, is said to have faked himself; if a man’s shoe happens to pinch, or gall his foot, from its being overtight, he will complain that his shoe fakes his foot sadly; it also describes the doing of any act, or the fabricating any thing, as, to fake your slangs, is to cut your irons in order to escape from custody;to fake your pin, is to create a sore leg, or to cut it, as if accidentally, with an axe, etc., in hopes to obtain a discharge from the army or navy, to get into the doctor’s list, etc.; to fake a screeve, is to write a letter, or other paper; to fake a screw, is to shape out a skeleton or false key, for the purpose of screwing a particular place; to fake a cly, is to pick a pocket; etc., etc., etc.

To fake it emerges in the 1920s as jazz slang for “improvise.” To fake, or “pretend,” is by the 1940s. A fake, meanwhile, appears by the 1820s, a faker by the 1840s. Sports saw its feinting fake by the 1930-40s. And Charles Dickens’s pickpocketing Fagin in Oliver Twist (1838) indeed suggests feague and fake.

The origin of fake, in spite of these incredible citations, is obscure. Many etymologists look to the German fegen (or Dutch vegen), which meant “to sweep,” “clean,” or “polish,” a verb much evidenced as slang terms for “plundering” or “tormenting.” This fegen may have yielded the late 16th-century English word feague, “to beat” or “whip,” which evolved into fake, possibly by means of feak, “to twitch” or “jerk.” The connecting sense between German’s fegen and English’s fake is of sprucing something up to make it look more valuable than it actually is.

The fegen explanation is compelling but problematic, as the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology observes. For the earliest evidence of fake, for “false,” comes from Howe, who was an upper-class man of the military and government, while Vaux was a lower-class, thrice-convicted thief (though impressive man of letters, as his dictionary is considered the first written Australia). Slang typically emerges from the streets, so to speak, and crosses over into mainstream, standard dialect, not the other way around. Barnhart suggests that Howe’s fake and Vaux’s fake may well be different words, both with unknown origins.

As any etymologist worth their salt will tell you, it’s better to leave the origin of a word truly unknown than to traffic in phonies, no matter how much you might want to share them on Facebook.

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A “shocking” etymology

There are a lot of words and yet there are no words to describe how so many are feeling after Donald Trump upset Hillary Clinton for the presidency on Tuesday night. But one word, for so many reasons, recurs: shock.

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The original “shocker”? Watch your step. “Lakebed with Tree Stumps,” courtesy of freeimages.com

Shock

The word shock originally referred to a military clash. The Oxford English Dictionary first attests the noun and verb forms of the word in the 1560s, used of the collision of two forces in a charge. Isn’t that apt, America?

Such a collision is sudden and violent, hence shock’s various metaphorical extensions. Scientists had taken up the word shock by 1614. Come the 1650s, shock was naming a general “damage blow,” whether to one’s personal beliefs or to a society’s foundational institutions. Fifty years later, shock was in use in its modern sense of “disturbed surprise.” Medical shock is recorded by 1805, a shocker 1824, shell shock 1915, and culture shock by 1940.

Etymologists generally trace shock to the French choc (“violent attack”) and choquer (“strike against”). Indeed, at the D-Day Beaches in Normandy, visitors can follow a route called Le Choc (“the onslaught, the impact”) to view sites of the American offensive starting on June 6, 1944.

But from here, the origin of shock is unclear. Some suppose the French choquer comes from a Germanic root for a “jolt” or “swing” and could be imitative of shaking, which word is possibly related. Others consider the Old French chope, a “tree stump,” which one might stumble over before crashing to the ground, apparently.

English has other shock words, etymologically unrelated but perhaps still instructive. Like a shock of hair, all too fitting for the president-elect . Or a shock of wheat, barley, or oats – sheaves of grain stacked upright, able to stand because they support each other so bundled. Together.

And maybe that’s a welcome bit of “shock” therapy.

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“Suffrage”: Cutting through all the noise

Are you tired of all the campaign noise? Are you worried America is splitting into two? Are you saying prayers? Or are you proudly casting your ballot – for a woman who, not 100 years ago, couldn’t have done so herself ? On this US Election Day, the etymology of suffrage, that right to vote so sacrosanct in democracy, wraps all of these feelings into one.

Thoughts and prayers…and votes

The earliest meaning of suffrage in English was “prayers.” These prayers, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests them in the 14th century, were intercessory, or said on behalf on another, especially for the souls of the dead. An earlier variant, suffragies, also referred to such prayers in Middle English.

It’s over the course of the 16th century that suffrage moves towards various senses related to voting. The OED records suffrage as “a vote” cast in favor of some official proposition or candidate by 1535. By 1665, suffrage referred to general “voting” as such. 

But it’s the United States Constitution, which entered into force 1789, where we first find the use of suffrage in its modern sense: “the right to vote.” Article V stipulates that “no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.”

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A screen capture of Article V of the US Constitution, courtesy of the US National Archives. Does it seem the Founding Fathers needed a little help with their apostrophe rules?

Expanding suffrage

By 1822 we have a universal suffragist, who worked to extend franchise. In the middle of the 19th century, suffragists especially referred to those fighting for the right of black men to vote. In the last quarter of the 19th century, the focus of suffragist was on women’s suffrage.

Women’s suffrage as such is first recorded in the name of a Rhode Island organization, the Young Women’s Suffrage Association, listed in James Webster’s 1842 People’s Democratic Guide. As the guide explained its mission:

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A screen capture of The People’s Democratic Guide, courtesy of the Internet Archive

The Young Women’s Suffrage Association, like the Ladies Free Suffrage Association of Rhode Island, whose entry is immediately preceding in the guide, issued a powerful call:

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A screen capture of The People’s Democratic Guide, courtesy of the Internet Archive

Suffragette, a women fighting for her right to vote, appears by 1906. Early on, though, this title was actually associated with violence and militancy

The sound and the fury? 

So, how did suffrage evolve from “prayers” to “the right vote”? It seems that word had two influences: the French suffrage and its origin, the Latin suffrāgium. The Latin root variously denoted a “voting tablet,” “ballot,” “voice,” “vote,” and, yes, “the right to vote.” The “voting” sense of the English suffrage may have been directly borrowed from this source in the 16th century while the earlier notion of “prayers” was taken from an intermediary French form meaning “support.”

It doesn’t stretch the imagination, then, to connect “prayers” and “voting” via the notion of “lending one’s support.” The word vote itself, after all, derives from the Latin vōtum, a “vow” or “wish,” eventually expressed with respect to some decision or person.

And as for the meaning of Latin’s suffrāgium? There are two theories. The first supposes the word joins sub (“under”) and fragor (“crash,” “din”). The idea, apparently, is a vote made under shouts of approval, perhaps not unlike the modern voice vote of aye’s and nay’s. The second thinks suffrāgium could blend that same sub and frangere, “to break,” like a little shard of tile once used to cast ballots.

There is some precedent for this broken tile explanation. The word ostracism indeed derives from the Greek ostrakon, a “tile” or “potsherd” used in votes to banish a person in ancient Athens. And similarly, the Greek kleros, source of clerk, referred to a “twig” used by ancient Greeks to cast lots. 

As it happens, Latin’s fragor, “noise,” is related to frangere, “to break,” and gives English other words like fractionfragment, and fracture. We’ve heard so much noise this 2016 presidential election, and we’ve experienced a lot of breakage. But there’s at least one thing that cuts through, one thing that keeps us together, and that’s exercising our suffrage.    

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“Musket”: the hawkish language of a gadfly?

Former Congressman Joe Walsh caused a stir (and probably a visit from the Secret Service) after he tweeted he’ll be grabbing his “musket” if Donald Trump loses the election. He added, “You in?” Walsh claimed he wasn’t calling for an armed revolution but just using musket as a symbol of protest. Either way, Walsh’s words were quite hawkish – and literally so, if we look to the etymology of musket.

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A call to…hawks? The Eurasian sparrowhawk. Image by Katie Fuller (Bogbumper), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.  

Musket

English first fired off musket in the late 1500s. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests the firearm in 1574, noting that it was the general term for an infantry gun until rifle supplanted it in the 19th century. The word is borrowed from the French mosquet, itself from the Italian moschetto, a “crossbow arrow.” Indeed, early muskets once shot arrows as well as bullets.

But in Italian, moschetto originally referred to the “sparrowhawk.” Both English and French also borrowed moschetto for this bird of prey; musket is a now-archaic term for a “male sparrowhawk.” But moschetto actually takes its name from an altogether different creature. Like its Spanish cousin mosquito, moschetto means “little fly.” It’s a diminutive form of mosca, “fly,” from Latin’s musca. The English midge is a possible cognate of this musca.   

This etymology leaves us with two questions. First, why would a hawk be named after an insect? Many philologists have maintained that the sparrowhawk was called “little fly” because it looks speckled with flies when it’s in flight. Others, though, observe that many small birds have been likened to flies.

Second, why would a gun be likened to a bird? A number of early firearms took the names of birds and beasts. The falconet and saker calibers shot off like swift falcons. Dragoon breathed fire like its mythical namesake. The culverin hissed like its etymological snake. The zumbooruk, mounted on a camel, stung like its Persian root for “hornet.” Musket, then, evolved from “sparrowhawk” to “crossbow arrow” to the “crossbow” itself, extended to the weapon’s technological update, the musket.

Regardless of the outcome, let’s hope that no muskets flare on Election Day – and that Walsh’s words are just the blather of a gadfly.

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A “nasty” little etymology

In the third and final presidential debate last night, Donald Trump – amid his yet more shocking refusal to say whether he’ll accept the election results – called Hillary Clinton “a nasty woman.” Nasty can be such a nasty word. Where does it come from?

Nasty

Nasty starts “fouling” up the English language in the 14th century. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests it in Carleton Brown’s 1390 Religious Lyrics of the 14th Century: “Whon we be nasti, nouȝt at neode, Neore wimmen help, hou schulde we fare?”

Back then, as it still does for some speakers of Black English, nasty meant “filthy” and “dirty.” The word has since made quite a semantic mess, so to speak: “offensive, annoying” (1470s); “unpleasant” (1540s); “repellent (to the senses)” and “lewd” (1600s); and “ill-tempered, spiteful” (1820s). Slang has also widely taken up nasty, from a term for “excellent” to sex-related usages.

For as much use as English has made of nasty, we aren’t certain about its origins. Here are three leading theories:

  1. Nasty comes from the Dutch nestig, “dirty” like a bird’s nest. The source of this word, alas , is also unclear.
  2. Nasty (and nestig) could be related to a Scandinavian source, such as the Swedish naskug, “dirty,” with nask meaning “dirt.” Walter Skeat maintains, though, this dialectical word lost an initial s- and comes from snaska, “to eat like a pig,” that is, greedily and noisily. Snaska, Skeat continues, imitates the sound of such consumption. Middle English has nasky, a variant of nasty, which suggests some Scandinavian word at least reinforced nasty if they’re not immediately related. 
  3. Nasty derives from the Old French nastre, “strange, lowly, bad,” shortened from villenastre, “infamous, ignoble.” Villenastre joins villein (source of villain, a “rustic” that became associated with more nefarious qualities, perhaps not unlike clown) and -aster, a pejorative suffix seen in the likes of poetaster, an “inferior” poet. 

Nasty, it seems, is a nasty little word with a nasty little etymology.

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Why do we call a tie a “draw”?

In his autobiography, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “If he lost the main battle, he returned upon you, and regained so much of it as to make it a drawn one.” Here, Jefferson is describing a legislative fight over land tenure, but some pundits might think it well characterizes Donald Trump’s performance in the second presidential debate. This quote isn’t just timely, though: It also points to the origin of why we call “ties” draws.

Draw

By the Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) reckoning, the earliest record of draw, as in a contest that ends with no winner, comes in reference to an 1856 US chess match. Over the next few decades, writers marked off draw with quotes or italics, which shows the word was novel. The word was familiar by the 1870s.

This draw is short for draw-game, which the OED finds for a “tie” by 1825. A draw-game, in turn, is a variation on a drawn battle or drawn match. The OED dates drawn match to a 1610 letter from English diplomat Sir Dudley Carleton: “It concluded, as it is many times in a cock pit, with a drawn match; for nothing was in the end put to the question.” (Before pilots occupied them, game-cocks fought in cockpits.)

Why such a battle or match is characterized as “drawn” is unclear: Indeed, etymology often ends in draws. Drawn may be clipped from withdrawn, as in fighters who have withdrawn from the battlefield. Withdraw, “to take back or away,” features an old and original sense of the preposition with, “against,” even though it now, ironically enough, means “together.” Draw, meanwhile, is related to drag. And withdraw itself might be a calque, or loan translation, of Latin’s retrahere, “to retract.”

With some seeing the debate – set up as a town hall with drawn voters, so to speak – as a draw, we’ll see whether or not many GOP politicians continue withdrawing their support from Trump following the leak of his lewd comments. Either way, it certainly feels like none of us are winners when a presidential debate has to be dragged down so low.

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A “lewd” awakening

The Washington Post broke the bombshell story with this headline: “Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005.” The candidate’s remarks, as many have rightly noted, aren’t just lewd, for in the video Trump boasts about sexual assault. But it’s this word lewd that has been littering the headlines since – and a word whose origins are quite surprising.

Lewd

Today, lewd means “offensive in a sexual way,” a sense which has come a far way from its roots. Lewd derives from the Old English lǽwede, when it meant “lay,” or a person who is not a member of the clergy. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first finds lewd in a late 9th-century translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

Clerics, unlike many historic laypersons, could read and write, which is why lewd went on to mean “uneducated” or “unlearned” in Middle English. The medieval mind associated this “ignorant” lewdness with “base,” “coarse,” and “vile” behavior, including “licentious” actions. (It had class associations as well.) These meanings emerge by the late 1300s, with Chaucer using lewd for “lascivious” in his Miller’s Prologue around 1386: “Lat be thy lewed dronken harlotrye.”

The deeper roots of lewd are unclear. Some, like Walter Skeat, think the Old English lǽwede is formed from the verb lǽwan, “to betray” or “weaken.” Is one lewd because their lack of education is betrayed, that is, exposed? Is one lewd because enfeeblement is a form of baseness? The sense development here is tricky.

Others, such as the OED, suppose the Old English lǽwede might have been borrowed from a late form of lāicus, a “lay” person, source of English’s own nonclerical lay as well as liturgy. Latin’s lāicus comes from Greek’s λᾱϊκός (laikos), referring to something “of the people” as opposed to the clergy. At root is λᾱός (laos), “the people,” which is featured in the name Nicholas: “victory-people,” which joins laos to nike (νίκη), the word for and goddess of “victory” as well as source of the athletic brand name.

Since the video’s release, politicians, pundits, and public figures have been decrying Trump’s comments. But, ironically enough for the etymology of lewd, many in the evangelical community continue to defend the Republican candidate – including some “un-lewd” clergy themselves.

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“Hoax”: just a little etymological hocus-pocus

Hillary Clinton keeps hitting Donald Trump over his claim that climate change is a hoax. While hoax is Clinton’s word, Trump did tweet that the Chinese created climate change to hurt US manufacturing. That’s a bit of magical thinking, shall we say, especially if we consider the roots of the word hoax (not to mention science).

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“By the virtue of hocus pocus…” A frontispiece from an early magic book, the 1635 Hocus Pocus Junior: The Anatomy of Legerdemain, or the Art of Juggling. Image from the Library of Congress.

Hoax

English has been pulling off hoaxes since the very end of the 18th century. The Oxford English Dictionary first cites the word as a verb in 1796, entered into Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: “Hoaxing, bantering, ridiculing. Hoaxing a quiz; joking an odd fellow. University wit.” The noun form emerges in the following decade, and has since connoted a fraud involving an elaborate or mischievous fabrication or fiction.

Most etymologists suppose that hoax develops out of hocus, which was a 17th-century noun and verb for “trick” – and later a criminal term for “drugging” someone, especially by means of liquor. Hocus is shortened from hocus pocus, used as a nickname for a “juggler” since the 1620s. Today, we admire jugglers for their deft hands and ball skills, but historically, jugglers were jesters and magicians, hence their – and ultimately the word hoax’s – association with various tricks. 

An Anglican bishop, John Tillotson, attempted some lexical legerdemain in his 1694 etymology for hocus pocus: “In all probability those common juggling words of hocus pocus are nothing else but a corruption of hoc est corpus, by way of ridiculous imitation of the priests of the Church of Rome in their trick of Transubstantiation.” In the Latin liturgy, a priest blesses the Eucharistic host qua sacrificial body of Jesus Christ by saying Hoc est corpus, or Hoc est corpus meum: “This is my body.” Devout Catholics believe the host actually becomes the body of Christ, which may help you appreciate Tillotson’s dig on his Christian counterparts. 

Hocus pocus, more likely, was just sham or dog Latin, words invented by these 17th-century performers to sound like Latin, perhaps playing with this prestige language of learning to lend an air of antique mystique to their act. Hocus-pocus was used of “jugglers” by 1624, as the magical formula by 1632. Hiccius doccius was another fakus Latinus magical formula the early conjurors used.

Hocus pocus may have pulled some other words out of its hat, too, like hokey-pokey, a slang variation for “hocus pocus” in the mid-1800s and a name for a cheap ice cream some decades after. (The origin of the dance is a bit more turned around.) And hokum – originally theater slang for “melodramatic speech,” now “nonsense,” which describes so much of what we’ve heard this election – apparently blends hocus-pocus and bunkum.

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