Taking an etymological “census”

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.

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A taking of the Roman census, 2nd century BCE (Novaroma/Louvre). Back then, you came to the census-taker, they didn’t come knocking on your door (or now, email).

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An etymological stroke of “genius”

Over the weekend, President Trump took to Twitter to defend his sanity and intelligence:

Meeting with alarm and mockery alike, his unusual phrase “very stable genius” went viral. This sense of genius—an exceptionally intelligent or talented person—dates back to the 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Drawing on the earlier work of Francis Galton, American psychologist Lewis Terman classified a score above 140 as near genius or genius on his 1916 Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test, historical basis of modern IQ scales. These now use language like very superior or extremely high for scores at or above 130, as genius is tricky to define scientifically. Etymologically, however, it’s a different story.

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“Superstition”: an unlucky etymology?

It’s Friday the 13th—a day of bad luck, if you are superstitious person, and a great occasion to look at the origin of the word superstition.

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Got that #FridayFeeling? (Pixabay)

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A Brief History of “X”

Yesterday, Apple unveiled the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, and iPhone X, which the company is pronouncing “iPhone Ten.” Ten years ago, Apple transformed the smartphone landscape—and our very lives, for better or worse—with its first very iPhone, hence the Roman numeral X, or 10, in its new mobile moniker. Let’s take a quick look at the history of X, from its birth as a letter and numeral to its spread into everything from Jesus to algebra.

The Roman Numeral X

As noted, X corresponds to the number 10 in Roman numerals. We know the ancient Romans adapted their notational system from the Etruscans, but the deeper roots of the symbols themselves are obscure.

One theory thinks the numerals evolved out of basic tally marks. The Roman numeral I (1) was a simple notch, with every fifth one double-notched, yielding V (5) and every tenth crossed into an X (10).

Another theory thinks the numerals emerged from hand-counting. I represents one finger and V a full hand. If you hold out your hand, you can see how the gap between the thumb and index finger might resemble a V. Hold out two hands for 10 and you can imagine how two V’s, stacked on top of each other, can look like an X.

Whatever their origin, the form of the symbols were adapted to the existing letters in the Latin alphabet—which included letter X.

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Roman numerals marking a seating entrance in the Coliseum (Romewise). 

The Letter X

The ancient Greeks added letter X—called chi, its 22nd letter and our 24th—when they borrowed the Phoenician alphabet. Originally, X represented a kh sound, but certain regional alphabets took to using the symbol as a convenient shorthand for frequent ks combinations in the language. The Etruscans also adopted this convention—and later the Romans, which ultimately made its way into the sound and shape of English’s own X.

The Christ X

The Greek chi is the first letter in Χριστός (Khristos), source of Christ. This epithet literally means “anointed,” a translation of the Semitic messiah; rubbing oil on heads of kings, priests, and other important figures was an ancient custom used to consecrate them.

The second letter Χριστός is rho—ρ and source of r—and together Χριστός was abbreviated to its initial in old manuscripts. This digraph became the Christogram ☧, symbolizing Jesus on various Christian materials and imagery. The shorter shorthand of X for Christ also appears in Xmas, i.e., Christmas, which has been in use since the 1500s. That letter X also resemble a cross, so central to the Christian belief system, further underscores its association with Jesus Christ.

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A chi-rho Christogram from a fourth-century sarcophagus (Wikimedia Commons).

The Kiss X

For Christians, Christ—and his symbol X—evoke faith and fidelity, and apparently medieval Christians, few of whom were literate, used X to sign documents as a token of their veracity.

This custom would also appear related to the modern use of X as a signature or in checkboxes, though we should never underestimate that this practice could just be because X is a distinctive and easy-to-form shape to make. Consider how we have X marks spots, dating to at least the early 1800s, which would seem to originate simply from, well, X marking spots.

Important documents were also sometimes signed with X and sealed with a kiss, and eventually the X-as-kiss emerged in letters and, now, text messages. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites a letter by naturalist Gilbert White in 1763: “I am with many a xxxxxxx and many a Pater noster and Ave Maria, Gil. White.” Others think White’s X’s signified blessings, with an 1894 letter from Winston Churchill to his mother marking the earliest known use of the kiss X: “Please excuse bad writing as I am in an awful hurry. (Many kisses.) xxx WSC.”

The Algebraic X

X has been standing in for unknown mathematical quantities (variables) since the 17th century, a practice adopted from the French. The OED first cites it in English polymath (pun intended) Jonas Moore’s 1660 mathematical treatise, Arithmetic.

Why X? Contrary to a popular 2012 TED Talk, the OED offers:

The introduction of x, y, z as symbols of unknown quantities is due to Descartes (Géométrie, 1637), who, in order to provide symbols of unknowns corresponding to the symbols a, b, c of knowns, took the last letter of the alphabet, z, for the first unknown and proceeded backwards to y and x for the second and third respectively. There is no evidence in support of the hypothesis that x is derived ultimately from the mediæval transliteration xei of šay’ ‘thing’, used by the Arabs to denote the unknown quantity, or from the compendium for Latin res ‘thing’ or radix ‘root’ (resembling a loosely-written x), used by mediæval mathematicians.

X-tensions

The algebraic X is also responsible for the X in X-ray, a translation of the German X-strahlen (literally “X-beams”). German scientist Wilhelm Röntgen discovered them in 1895 and, taking a page from mathematics, so designated because he didn’t fully understand them.

The “unknown” X also produces that “indefinable quality” of the X-factor, which dates back all the way to the 1930s.

X’s sense of mystery probably led to X’s wide use in naming, from the X-Files to SpaceX, with X here conjuring up a sense of possibility, of wonder. Its associations with words like extreme and extra further lend it to so much branding (e.g., Xbox, Yukon XL, UberX). Names like Gas-X and Clean-X play with X as ex, or “former,” with X perhaps additionally calling up advanced technology, thanks to the letter’s “unknown” (read futuristic) resonances.

The unknown is also uncertain, which produces the X in Generation X, first used in the 1950s for a “generation of young people about whose future there is uncertainty.” Later uses of Generation X play upon valences of X as anxious or edgy for this supposedly disaffected post-Boomer population.

X is also a prominent sound in sex. Perhaps advertisers subliminally take advantage of this connection, but the XXX for pornographic content appears to come from the use of X for motion picture ratings for adult films. (I suspect the choice of X here prudishly alludes to the letter’s connotations with “wrong.”)

XXX, finally, was also used for the potency of various beers in the 19th century, likely leading to the trope of XXX for strong booze in cartoons.

***

Due to some upcoming wedding celebrations (I’m honored to be marrying my sister- and soon-to-be brother-in-law this weekend), Mashed Radish will taking Friday off.

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Spurious: Etymology of the Day

Spurious, now meaning “false,” originally described children born out of wedlock—or, more crudely, bastards. It comes from the Latin spurius, an “illegitimate child,” itself possibly of Etruscan origin. The ancient Romans also commonly used Spurius as a given name for such offspring.

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Flat-Earthers have longed presented spurious evidence for their theories, those bastards. (Wikimedia Commons).

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How we got “sacked”

Yes, getting sacked does originally involve bags. 

Just ten days into his new role as White House Communications Director, Anthony “the Mooch” Scaramucci was sacked, as a number of British headlines having been putting his firing while General John Kelly takes over as Trump’s Chief of Staff.

Where does this expression, getting sacked, come from?

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You’re fired! (Pixabay)

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The dramatic roots of “explode”

In Ancient Rome, theatergoers would drive actors they didn’t like off stage by clapping very loudly. The custom ultimately gives us the word explode.

Last Friday, after seven years decrying Obamacare, House Republicans pulled their bill to replace it. It was an explosive event, and, from President Trump, it met with an ‘explosive’ response: “I’ve been saying for the last year and a half that the best thing we can do politically speaking is let Obamacare explode. It is exploding now.”

Trump went on to use forms of explode five more times in his official remarks, and took the word to Twitter the following morning.

With its vivid imagery of a loud and fiery combustion, explode is, policy aside, an effective word choice. We might even call explode “dramatic”which would be quite fitting for the etymology of the word.

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An etymological explosion. (Pixabay)

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Why isn’t it the “Ide” of March?

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?

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The Ides originally marked the full moon each month. (Pixabay)

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Etymology of the Day: Butter

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Image from pixabay.com.

Butter is a bread-and-butter vocabulary word, but it may have spread all the way from ancient Scythia.

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Why is it called an “inauguration”?

The etymology of inauguration is one “for the birds.”

Today marks the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States. This historic moment raises lots of questions. Like Why?

Why does the transfer of power take place on January 20? In 1933, Congress ratified the 20th Amendment, which moved up the inauguration from March 4 to January 20. Way back when, new officials required much more time to prepare for their office, creating a very long “lame duck” period after the November elections.

And why do we call it an inauguration? For the origin of this quadrennial word, we’ll have to look to the skies – and Ancient Rome.

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