What’s up with that “-er” in “ouster”?

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?

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So many ousters, so little time. (Screenshot by me.)

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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.

Meddling in elections is truly nuts. (Pixabay)

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Who knew the word “insurance” was so complicated?

Insurance ultimately comes from the Latin securus, “free from care.” 

Health insurance was front and center this week as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan debuted his contentious plan to repeal Obamacare. As Washington continues to deal with the political complexities of health insurance, let’s deal with the etymological complexities of the word insurance.

Health insurance is about as far from carefree as it gets – unless we look to its etymology. Image from pixabay.com.

Continue reading “Who knew the word “insurance” was so complicated?”

Fascist baskets? The controversial origin of “basket”

At a recent fundraiser, Hillary Clinton turned heads when she remarked “you could put half of Trump’s supporters in what I call the basket of deplorables.” As political analysts consider the gaffe’s political fallout, the internet churns out hashtags and memes, and linguists inspect the odd usage of deplorables, etymologists are weighing a different controversy: the origin of the word basket

Trying to declutter etymology: “Basket.” Image by Jean Scheijen, courtesy of freeimages.com


Writing in the first century AD, the Roman poet Martial quipped:

Barbara de pictis veni bascauda Britannis;
Sed me iam mavolt dicere Roma suam.

As one translation renders the epigram: “I, a barbarian basket, came from the painted Britons; but now Rome claims me for her own.” The Romans, it would seem, greatly admired Celtic wickerwork – and Martial, apparently, even liked to anthropomorphize it.

Etymologists have long cited this passage for the origin of basket, which isn’t woven into the English written record until the 1200s. They claim bascauda is a Latinization of a Celtic word Romans borrowed following contact between the two ancient cultures.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) takes issue with this theory, though. First, modern Celtic languages have basket words (e.g., Irish bascaed), but the record suggests they are actually loaned from English’s basket. Second, the dictionary is skeptical about the shift from Latin’s bascauda, a “bathing tub” or “brass vessel,” to English’s wicker basket.

But Ernest Weekley and Anatoly Liberman rebuff the OED’s skepticism. Weekley observes that canister, usually made of metal, is from the Latin for “wicker basket,” as it happens. Liberman explains that tunnel comes from a Germanic root for “cask.”

And how do make sense of the Old French baschoe, a “large wooden container”? This word, which yields the Anglo-French bascat, appears to evolve from Latin’s bascauda. Anyways, Liberman says bascauda probably meant a “large tub made of wood or wicker for washing goblets during or after a meal, rather than a bronze vessel.” 

So, it seems the Romans borrowed some woodworking technology from the Celts (consider the origin of car). They called this particular, tub-like container the bascauda. French fashioned this into baschoe, later morphing into bascat as the word made it way into English basket. And -et, a diminutive suffix we saw in the origin of target, helps explain how a “large wooden container” shrank down to something you’d take to a picnic.

As for bascauda? This could be related to fasces, a “bundle,” an important Roman symbol of authority and origin of the word fascism – the very sort of intolerant ideology Hillary Clinton tried, and failed, to call out with her “basket of deplorables” comment.

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“Redeeming” etymological features

Towering over the city, arms outstretched, is Christ the Redeemer. Built in the 1920s, this 100-foot statute of Jesus Christ is an icon of Rio de Janeiro and the 2016 Olympics Games it’s hosting. But if we were speaking the English of the Middle Ages, we’d be calling this monument by another, less pious-sounding name: Christ the Ransomer.

Christ the Redeemer is not trying to accept your money. “Christ on Corcovado Mountain.” Image by Artyominc via Wikimedia Commons.

From money…

Latin had a verb, redimere, literally “to buy back.” The verb had a lot of purchasing power, so to speak, but one of its most basic meanings was “to buy the release of a slave from captivity.” As a verb, redimere joins red-, a combining form of re-, “back,” and emere, “to buy,” and takes a noun form of redemptio. This emere also yields many other English words, from assume, example, and exempt to premium, sample, and even vintage.

Now, redemptio underwent some changes in French, some obvious and some not-so-obvious. Through some serious smushing, redemptio became ransom. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites ransom as early as 1225, referring to “a sum of money paid for pardon from an offense.” By 1325, we see the modern sense of ransom (i.e., with respect to hostages). It’s right around this time when we also see redemption, then meaning, like its original Latin, “freeing a prisoner, captive, or slave by payment.” Redemption, as you can tell, experienced a much less dramatic evolution in French, coming into English from the Anglo-Norman redempcioun.

By the late 1300s and early 1400s, we see ransom and ransomer emerge as Christian theological terms: “deliverance from sin and damnation by Jesus Christ.” Redeem and redemptor appear by 1438. Redeemer, which form now prevails, is attested by 1475. French may have anticipated the eventual distinction between ransom and redemption, as redempcioun was first used for Jesus Christ’s spiritual redemption.

…to metaphor

But why the monetary metaphor? In Christian belief, Jesus Christ sacrificed his life to save humanity from sin. We can understand this as a kind of transaction: He pays for humanity’s sins with his life, he releases mankind from the captivity of evil and damnation with the payment or concession of his life. They say money is the root of all evil. For Christians, money metaphors are apparently the root of all salvation, too.

Over the centuries, we stretched redeem out to its other familiar senses. By the late 1400s, redeem was signifying “to restore,” specifically “to a former, better state” by the late 1500s. The 17th century witnesses redeem “making amends.” It’s not until 1897, according to the OED, that redeem starts cashing in, say, coupons. The usage is American in origin.

Now, many economists question whether hosting the Olympic Games actually pays off. (Some might even say it’s a ransom payment for global attention.) But this summer, after political scandal, recession, and Zika, Brazil may not be looking for any monetary redemption per se. Instead, it may be looking up to its iconic Redeemer, and back to the history of the word, for a more metaphorical redemption – in the eyes of its people and in of the world. So far, it’s looking pretty auspicious for Rio 2016.

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wreak havoc

Fast Mash

  • Havoc comes from Anglo-Norman crier havok (cry havoc)
  • Havok is from Old French havot (pillaging, plunder)
  • Was a military signal for soliders to start plundering; first attested in English in late 14th-c.
  • Wreak has been around for nearly 1300 years; early on, meant drive out and later, avenge
  • Came to mean inflict destruction around early 1800s
  • Probably ultimately related to Proto-Indo-European root, *werg- (confer work, urge, organ)

In the wake of the Boston Bombings, popular linguist Ben Zimmer, et alia, engaged thoughtful discussion of the language we use to describe tragedies. (His considerations of “Boston Strong” and usage of “surreal” are worthwhile.) I couldn’t help but think of these discussions after too many  tornadoes bulldozed their way through the Midwest these past weeks. Disasters at the hand of man are one thing,  and disasters at the whim of nature are another. But both are hard to put into words. Destruction, in so many ways, is ineffable. Yet, as Ben Zimmer and others observe, we do tend to rely on certain words when these  situations befall us.

As far as the tornadoes and other natural disasters are concerned, the phrase wreak havoc strikes me as particularly common. I googled “tornadoes wreak havoc” and turned up no shortage of news headlines featuring iterations of the phrase:

" tornadoes wreak havoc"  headlines
“tornadoes wreak havoc” headlines

So, as I do here at Mashed Radish, I can’t help but ask: What are these words wreak and havoc all about, etymologically speaking?


Aside from the phrase wreak havoc, havoc is perhaps most familiar in another, cry havoc. Take you back to your sophomore English class? I thought so. As Antony graphically soliloquizes after Caesar’s assassination in Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julis Caesar:

And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial. (III.1.273-278)

Havoc was quite literally “Havoc!”: a military cry that signaled soldiers to start pillaging and plundering, or, in the words of the OED, spoliation. Indeed, the OED‘s first attestation is from 1385, and it appears in The Black Book Admiralty, which compiled admiralty law:

 Item, qe nul soit si hardy de crier havok sur peine davoir la test coupe.

If any of my readers are versant in this French, I’d love your translation. Something about crying havoc and heads being chopped off.

 So, cry havoc comes pretty directly from the Anglo-Norman crier havok (same sense). Havok is an alteration of the  Old French, havot, which meant pillage or plunder

A quick history lesson might be in order here. In 1066, WIlliam II, Duke of Normandy, conquered England, starting a line of Norman Kings who ruled until 1154. (Although the whole  French-English royal lineage, holdings, ancestry, houses, and what-have-you continues to complicate matters. I was never good at the monarchy stuff.) Anglo-Norman, first a Northern French dialect and later distinct from French, was the language of power and gentry during this time in England. Boy, did it bring a hell of a lot French (and therefore Latin) words into the English vocabulary. Including crier havok.

I couldn’t find out why the Anglo-Norman and English took on the final consonant sound, [k]. The phoneme is technically called a voiceless velar stop, and, in havoc, is aspirated. (Put your hand in front of your mouth as you say the word. You can feel the your breath as you pronunce the final sound. Thus, aspirated.) It so happens that haddock (the fish) underwent the same thing, coming from the French hadot. And havoc has been variously spelled havok, havock, and havocke. Why did it end up as havoc? English orthography can be as complicated as the English monarchy. Perhaps the influence of other nouns like panic? A combination of accident and convention? Who’s to say.

So, what about this French havot? The OED, conservatively, deems its origin unknown. It might be related to the Latin habēre (have, possess), which gives us habitat and habit, among others. Does this also give us have in English? Despite appearances, we get that word from the Germanic *haben-, whose Latin cognate is actually capere. (There is a something hugely significant to historical linguistics called Grimm’s law which explains this, worthy of its own discussion in a separate post.) And that Latin capere has given English everything from capable to conceive. Its roots are in the Proto-Indo-European *kap-, which means to grasp. 

This same hypothetical root (*kap-) is also related to hawk, as in the bird of prey. Hawk is Germanic in origin, and it, too, might have been the source of havocHawk‘s earlier forms indeed resemble havochavek and hafoc, close to the Welsh hafog of today (also meaning havoc). Still yet in this mix of forms and cognates, havot could be related to the French haver, as Skeat argues. The verb means to hook up or seize and is kin to the German Haft (seizure, or detainment today).

Whatever the case may be, havoc already took on the general sense of destruction by the 15th-c. The cause became the effect, if you will. The order, the outcome. The call, the consequence.



One can make havoc. One can play havoc with. But, more often than not, one wreaks havoc—and typically upon or on something.  This little word, wreak, has changed quite a bit over time. I count 24 separate meanings of wreak in the OED dating back nearly 1300 years. Most of these are obsolete. Some were rare to begin with. And many meanings had a life that spanned nearly 1000 years. Now, wreak havoc (or harm, destruction, etc.) seems to have stuck around.

Here are some highlights from the OED:

  • To drive, press, or force out | The earliest attestation is in 725, as based on old, 8th-c. manuscript of a Latin-Anglo-Saxon Glossary edited by J.H. Hessels in 1890. You can  even see Hessels’ work online.  Here’s a screen shot of the entry of interest. Look at line 214 (Torquet, uuraec):
    "torquet, uuraec"
    “torquet, uuraec”

I am guessing torquet means “he twists, distorts, torments” in Latin, although I would think expellit or exprimit would make more sense. Again, the Latin meaning likely changed. too. Also, we have good example of why “double-U” is so called.

  • To give vent to, upon | Common mid-1500s, but here it is, first in an Old-English rendering of Genesis and next in Chaucer’s 1385 The Legend of Good Women:

Þas folc slean, cynn on ceastrum mid cwealmþrea and his torn wrecan.

He schal nat ryghtfully his yre wreke

  • To punish or harm
  • To avenge, to revenge (common between 1200-1600) | Just for some more Old English, here is this usage in a version of Beowulf. The middle phrase is readable:

Selre bið æghwæm, þæt he his freond wrece, þonne he fela murne.

  • Rarely: To bestow or spend on someone; to rescue some from woe; to gratify oneself
  • To inflict vengeance on someone (common after early 1800s)
  • To cause harm (as in wreak havoc) |  Shelley uses it in this way in 1817 in his poem Laon and Cythna:

With thee..will I seek Through their array of banded slaves to wreak Ruin upon the tyrants.

The first attestation of wreak havoc that the OED quotes is from Agatha Christie’s 1926 The Murder or Roger Ackroyd. It’s usage is metaphoric, and almost as funny as Dan Aykroyd:

Annie is not allowed to wreak havoc with a dustpan and brush.

So, wreak comes from the Old English wrecan, which has many Germanic cognates. Historical linguists root it in the Proto-Germanic *wrekanan, in turn rooted in the Proto-Indo-European *werg- (work, do)This little guy birthed a pretty big family, from urge (Latin) and ergonomic and organ (Greek) to work (Germanic).  

Also related to wreak is wrack (originally, wrecked ship, from the Dutch;). So is wreck (originally, floatsam, from Old Norse). Today, it describes disorganized people and car crashes.

Related, too, is the fascinating wretch. This latter word meant despicable person and exile in Old English, but is akin to the German, Recke, which means knight, warrior, hero.  The knight errant, famous for his feats, but more so for his lonely wandering? That seems to be driving this fairly radical sense evolution. Now, besides the somewhat humorous and fairy tale-ish wretched, the word mostly hangs around in the lyrics to the hymn, Amazing Grace. Puts a new if subtle spin on what the lyrics are getting at, wouldn’t you say?

Effable Inversions

In light of their earlier meanings, wreak havoc displays interesting inversions when we consider that it so frequently describes natural destruction. (That and what children do to your living room.) Havoc begins as a call for men to plunder and evolves to signify the aftermath of severe weather events. Wreak, too, has much of its history as a vengeful act of man but comes to mean a violent act of nature.

Such inversions aren’t so surprising. Through language, we anthropomorphize, we metaphorize. We say our dogs are happy. We talk bodies of knowledge and fields of study. Perhaps in attributing human qualities to the natural world—and I believe we do this subconsciously in everyday language and deliberately in the language of story and art—we render just a bit more comprehensible the incomprehensible. Does wreak havoc play with images of the natural world, of some divine being, punishing man? Religion and myth might say so. Does wreak havoc try to give motive to the randomness of nature and the accident of human experience? Psychology might agree.

Whatever the case may  be, wreak havoc helps move the ineffable closer to our lips.

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