Etymology of the Day: Pester

Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? When we pester someone, we annoy them with repeated questions or requests. And anyone who’s driven children on a long road trip might reasonably assume pester is related to pest. But au contraire. Etymology can be such a pest. 

pester.jpg
These pasterns are clearly not pestered. Image from pixabay.com.

Continue reading “Etymology of the Day: Pester”

Why do we call them “falcons”?

The falcon probably takes its name from the “sickle” shape of its beak, talons, or wings.

This Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons will take on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI in Houston, Texas. I’ve previously taken on the etymology of patriot, which ultimately derives from the Greek word for “father” and, curiously, didn’t always carry a positive connotation in English. But what the origin of the word falcon?

hawk-1882885_1280.jpg
Ready for flight…or to reap some grain? Image courtesy of pixabay.com.

A bird, or sickle, in the hand…

Falcon stooped on English in the mid 1200s. The Oxford English Dictionary firsts falcon, as faukun, in The Owl and the Nightingale, dated to around 1250. In this poem, the titular birds sharply debate which of them is the superior avian. (The nightingale accuses the owl of laying an egg in a falcon’s nest, the medieval version of Deflategate, I suppose.) 

The English falcon swoops in from the Old French faucon, which flies from the Late Latin falcōnem, all referring to the bird of prey. The nominative, or subject case, form of falcōnem was falcō, presumably derived from falx, “a sickle.” The falcon’s beak, talons, or possibly the sharp curve of its outspread wings resemble this farming blade, apparently.

Falx also gives English falcate, “curved like a sickle,” falchion, a machete-like sword, and, speaking big names of the US South, the surname Faulkner (“falconer”).

sickle.jpg
The sickle is used for harvesting or reaping grain crops. Image courtesy of pixabay.com.

Continue reading “Why do we call them “falcons”?”

Turkey (repost)

As Thanksgiving approaches, I’m busy giving thanks with some family visiting Ireland from the states. So, I thought I would dish up this post from the archives on the holiday’s main attraction: the origin of “turkey.”

It turns out the bird and the country don’t just make for junior high geography jokes or World War I mnemonics. They’re actually connected–dare I say–at the thigh. Well, sort of.

Turkey

Originally, turkey–or turkey-cock (attested in 1541) and turkey-hen, back when our intimacy with where our food comes from necessitated such distinctions–referred to the guinea fowl, a bird native to sub-Saharan Africa.

The guinea fowl (or guineafowl), courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica Online and Index Open.

According to some historians, these African guinea fowl made their way into Europe during the Middle Ages through the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which controlled much of North Africa, southern Europe, and the Middle East. So-called “turkey merchants” traded the birds and other goods and wares.

In the early 16th-century, Spanish conquistadors imported into Europe what we now think of as the turkey, domesticated by the Aztecs in Mexico as early as 800 BC, through the Turkish-dominated Mediterranean, whereupon English-speaking peoples misidentified this bird with the African guinea fowl. (Apparently, corn was also known as turkey corn or turkey wheat due to the same Turkey-by-way-of-Spain-by-way-of-the-New-World channel.) The English name for the American bird stuck, even after the Portuguese brought back–and correctly distinguished from its distant American cousin–guinea fowl from West Africa. Cookbooks from the late 1500s and early 1600s provide evidence that the turkey was already a centerpiece at English feasts, including Christmas.  As for why we came to eat turkey for Christmas and Thanksgiving, Slate offers a digestible bit of food anthropology here.

The Ancient Greeks called the guinea fowl μελεαγρίς, apparently a reference to the Meliagrides, sisters of the Argonaut Meleager, leader of the famed Calydonian boar hunt. Upon Meleager’s tragic death, his sisters were changed into guinea hens. Father of modern taxonomy Carl Linnaeus used the name to classify the genus of the North American bird (Meleagris gallopavo), while the name also identifies a common species of the African guinea fowl (Numida meleagris).

Talking turkey

As for the Turkish? They call the bird hindi. It means “Indian,” and is probably from the French poulet d’inde, or “chicken from India.” Lest we forget, those European explorers–um, conquerors and colonists–did think the New World was Asia. Hence, the West Indies. Hindi and Indian? Yes, they are related. 

And as for TurkeyTurkey is named for the Turks. Romans in the Middle Ages called it Turcus and the Greeks, Tourkos. These come from the Persian national name turk, which folklore glosses as “strength,” but can mean “beautiful youth,” “barbarian,” or “robber.” There is an early Chinese word, tu-kin, referring to a people in the mountains of east-central Asia, who may be connected to ancient ancestors of the Turks.

None of this may be turkey shoot, except for cold turkeyCold turkey–suddenly and completely withdrawing from drugs, originally heroin (and later chocolate), including the intense symptoms therein–is attested in 1910, 1921, or 1936, depending on your source. Thanksgiving leftovers testify that cold turkey requires very little work, thus the original sense of “without preparation.” A cold shoulder (of mutton) is related, “considered a poor man’s dish and thus, perhaps, something one would set out for an unwanted guest with deliberate intention to convey displeasure,” the Online Etymology Dictionary delightfully observes. But let’s not leave our Canadian friends out, where Parson notes cold turkey refers to door-to-door selling or salesmen, perhaps for the same low-prep reasons. 

As for “talking turkey,” Parson defines it as talking “business” or “sense,” with turkey standing for “the substantial and succulent part of a (Christmas) dinner.”

Oh, and that thing dangling from the turkey’s neck? That’s called a wattle. It’s a fleshy caruncle. Birds (and other animals) also have dewlaps and snoods. Apparently, when we named the anatomy of birds, Linnaeus left the room and Dr. Suess took his place. Folds of skin: bon appetit, right?

Whatever’s on your table and whatever you are celebrating this week, enjoy your holiday, give thanks, be safe, and, by all means, avoid fleshy caruncles.

m ∫ r ∫

Inside the etymological cave of “cub”

After a 108-year drought, the Chicago Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series. The team fought their way back to victory over the Tribe with all the ferocity and tenacity of their ursine namesake – or at least when that cub comes of age. In honor of the champions, let’s have a peek into the etymological cave of cub.

Cub

The official mascot of the Chicago Cubs is a young bear cub. The Chicago Daily News nicknamed the team the Cubs in 1902, as they’ve been called ever since. But previously, the club was known as the White Stockings, Colts, and even the Orphans.

In the English language, cub didn’t refer to young bears but young foxes. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates the word back to 1530. It was soon after extended to the young of other animals, like lions, tigers, and bears, who were originally called whelps. We can trace its metaphorical use for an “undeveloped youth” to Shakespeare, “apprentice” or “beginner” to Mark Twain.

While cub appears relatively late in English, its origin is obscure. Many etymologists have attempted a connection to the Old Irish cuib, a “dog,” but the historical record doesn’t quite bear this out. If this is the case, the Irish-based cub would be cognate to canine, cynic, hound, and other Indo-European words for dogs. Others have linked it to the Old Norse kobbi, a “seal,” from a base sense of a shapeless “block” or “stump,” alluding to the clumsy lump that is a newborn seal. This kobbi is related to a Germanic base for “cup” and “head” (think kopf). The Old Norse theory, involving that blobby, baby seal, also resonates with the old myth that baby bears were born without any form and had to be licked into shape by their mothers. 

While the etymology of cub may be obscure, the Chicago Cubs have proven this season that they are anything but – even if it took over a century.

m ∫ r ∫

“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.

800px-accipiter_nisus_9194
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.

m ∫ r ∫

Of gods and dung: the origins of “ammonia”

Scientists know ammonia as:

Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 11.56.41 AM

Ancient Egyptians also knew ammonia with their own, equally complex symbols:

Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 11.57.33 AM.png

Well, in a manner of speaking. Or writing. The story of the word ammonia is one of modern science and ancient history – and of camel dung and supreme deities.

Ammonia

Swedish chemist Torbern Bergman coined ammonia in 1782 when he identified the substance as the gas that can be obtained from sal ammoniac. Previously, ammonia was called spirit of hartshorn in English, as it was distilled from the nitrogen-laden horns and hooves of animals, which is much more pleasant than other sources of the chemical.

Literally meaning “salt of Ammon,” sal ammoniac is a crystalline salt which was once derived from the dung of camels, apparently. (And you thought ammonia smelled bad.) Ancient Libya had a shrine to Jupiter Ammon. Worshippers would hitch their camels to pay their respects as they passed through the area, known as Ammonia. Meanwhile, their camels would pour their own libations: chemically rich excrement. Enterprising, and adventurous, individuals collected the soiled sands to produce sal ammoniac.

Following their conquest of Northern Africa, the Romans mapped their king of the gods, Jupiter, onto an Egyptian supreme deity, Amun. The Greeks rendered Amun as Ammon, which the Romans adapted for Jupiter Ammon.

Amun was often depicted with a ram’s horn, which paleontologists later thought resembled the spiraling shells of an extinct mollusk, the ammonite. The name Amun, whose hieroglyph is featured above, may derive from a word meaning “invisible” or “hidden” – not unlike the very gas in which his name surprisingly lives on.

m ∫ r ∫

“Harambe”: Collective outcry or collective action?

This week, I wasn’t the only one who looked to etymology to process the death of Harambe, the lowland gorilla killed at the Cincinnati Zoo after a child found his way into the silverback’s enclosure. “Harambe,” thousands have posted on social media, means “pulling together” or “working together” in Swahili. How fitting, they’ve concluded, using the silverback’s name to call for wildlife conversation, plead for cultural unity in the face of the ensuing and fractious outrage, or rib the many hot-takes the news inspired online. But a closer look at the history of the gorilla’s name may just teach us a thing or two about collective outcry.

Harambe

Harambe, a variant of harambee, indeed literally means “Let us all pull together” in Swahili, the lingua franca of East Africa. Though this Bantu tongue claims an estimated 100 million speakers, there aren’t extensive Swahili dictionaries on the web (that I can read at least), let alone etymological ones. The Free Dictionary explains harambee was used as a work chant, the heave-ho of the East African Coast. Laborers, presumably, together muscled a massive load with each call of Harambee!

In Kenya, this interjection took on special significance. After achieving independence from Britain in the 1960s, the new government, led by the Kenya Africa National Union, used Harambee to motivate a developing nation, the slogan emerging from a deeper tradition of community organization and fundraising, or harambee.

Today, Kenya features harambee as its official motto and in its coat of arms. And Harambee schools, secondary institutions funded solely through the efforts of the community, showcase how the word has evolved to mean “self-help.” As Oxford Dictionaries noteharambee more generally names or describes a “charitable fundraiser” in East African English.

In 1983, singer Rita Marley, widow of Bob Marley, released “Harambe,” a track on Harambe (Working Together for Freedom). “Harambe Harambe Rastaman say Harambe / Harambe Harambe The Higher One Say Harambe,” Marley refrains. Her harambe is a greater call for unity and empowerment in the face of the African diaspora.

Dan Van Coppenolle heard Marley’s track while exercising in 1999, as the retired educator told CNN. Moved by the concept, he later submitted Harambe to a Texan zoo’s naming contest for the baby, now late, gorilla. (We can only imagine that such a contest today would yield the much less dignified Gorilla McGorillaface.)

While the origin of Harambe is a rallying cry, its also reminds us that there is a difference between collective outcry and collective action. How fitting for the cultural moment, indeed.

m ∫ r ∫

“Bison”: a word nearly driven to extinction

Last week, the US declared the bison its national mammal. This thundering ungulate makes for a powerful choice, both literally and symbolically: American settlers nearly brought this brawny bovine, whose massive herds once roamed the Great Plains and were so central to many Native American cultures, to near extinction. The name bison, appropriately enough, tells a similar tale.

bison-1561043
The American bison. Image courtesy of Shannon Sims

Bison

Originally, the bison was a type of wild ox found throughout Europe, even in England. It’s now found only in the forests of Lithuania. In antiquity, this bison was also associated with the now-extinct aurochs or urus. Humans, clearly, have not been kind to the bison.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds its earliest evidence of bison in a Latin form, bisontes, in the late 1300s, but the word, along with the animal, then disappears from the record. It resurfaces in the 1600s, especially in historical texts like the King James Bible and classical translations. Come the 1690s, European explorers applied bison, also first in Latin form, to its new-world counterpart, Bison bison, where the word now largely roams.

Bison indeed derives from the Latin bison. English either borrowed it directly or from a French intermediary. But the word was probably not a native species to the Latin. Rome likely borrowed its word for this roamer from a Germanic source, which historical linguists represent in *wisand, itself likely migrating from a Balto-Slavic home.

Germanic languages helped populate this *wisand’s herd, including the Old English wesend. This word is as extinct as the mammal from the Isles. Except for an unlikely cognate: weasel. The bison and weasel certainly make for the sort of odd couple we’d only expect to find in a Disney movie, but their names, some etymologists believe, share a common root that notes the musky odor they emit, especially when rutting. Literally, they are the “stinking animals.”

Now, the US uses bison interchangeably with buffalo for its majestic mammal, though buffalo technically names the American bison’s distant Asian and African brethren. (Buffalo comes from the Greek, βούβαλος  or boubalos, originally used of antelopes.) They’re very different species, but these early Europeans dubbed Bison bison “buffalo” based on the likeness between the old- and new-world bovines. And well before they even used bison, in fact: the OED dates the earliest American buffalo usage to the 1630s.

The story of the word bison issues its own powerful, if small, reminder: the extinction of wildlife is even registered in language. Let’s be sure bison is never entered as “obsolete” in the dictionary. A good way to start is by keeping your distance, literally and symbolically, from wildlife, if we are to learn from a recent episode in Yellowstone National Park.

m ∫ r ∫