From watchtowers to cellphone towers: the origins of “alert” and “alarm”

It wasn’t just alarm clocks that went off on New York City cellphones Monday morning. Another noise also pealed: emergency alerts. The message, which The New York Times reports may be the first of its kind, was “an electronic wanted poster” for the since-arrested suspect of recent bombings in the area.

Alerts and alarms haven’t just haven’t advanced in technology, though: these words have also come along way in etymology.

On high alert? An old, Sardinian watchtower. Image by Patrizio Martorana, courtesy of


Both alert and alarm originated as Italian military phrases. Alert is from all’ erta, literally “on the watch” or “to the lookout.” Erta, a “high point,” comes from erto, “steep,” via the Latin ērigere, “to raise.” This verb also yields, among many others, English’s erect, whose sense of “raised up” parallels erto. All’, a contraction of alla, means “to the” or “on the,” ultimately from the Latin preposition ad (“to) and ille (“that,” source of the definite articles in the Romance languages).

French took up the Italian term as à l’erte, later alerte, which meant “watchful” or “vigilant” by the 16th century. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests alert in 1618, though some references in the 1590s use alert as an interjection, e.g., a Castilian soldier “crying Alerto,” suggesting how the term was used a warning cry issued when the enemy was sighted.

And technically, to be on the alert, is etymologically redundant, meaning “on-the-on-the-watch.”


Similarly, alarm is from the Italian all’ arme, an interjection and literal call to arms: “To the arms!” Arme derives from the Latin arma, source and meaning of the English arms, or “weapons.” The English name for the body part indeed shares an ancient root with Latin’s arma: the Indo-European root, *ar-, “to fit together.”

Alarm has been ringing out much longer than alert, documented by the OED around the 1400s. The word signaled a general “warning of danger” by the 1570s, specifically a “loud, hurried peal of a bell” by the 1590s. The clock-based alarm is by 1639.

The variant alarum, which may sound familiar to readers of Shakespeare, is thanks to the trilled r’s in some Romance pronunciations of the word, while larum, in a process called aphesis, silenced the initial a. Some speakers may have also confused alarum for a larum

Yesterday’s watchtowers are today’s cellphone towers, calls to arms now calls to law enforcement. The forms of alerts and alarms, as practices and words, have no doubt changed over the centuries, but vigilance – judicious, informed, responsible – seems as called for as ever. 

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“Revamp”: A vamped up etymology

There’s been a lot of revamping of late. Twitter has revamped its timeline. Next month, students will take on a revamped SAT. And after New Hampshire, many of the presidential candidates are revamping their campaigns.

We’re familiar with re-, a Latin prefix meaning “again” or “new.” But what the heck is a vamp?

The vamp, also known as the upper, can refer to other top and front parts of a shoe. Image from Podiatry Today.


In short, a vamp is the front and upper part of boot or shoe. So, to revamp literally means “to patch up (some old footwear) with a new vamp.” Doesn’t sound so sexy, huh? But it’s pragmatic, cost-effective, resourceful.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites vamp in the early 1200s when the word referred to a “sock” or “stocking,” specifically the part which covered the foot and ankle. By the end of the 1500s, the verbal vamp appears: “to provide with a new vamp,” hence, “to patch up, mend, refurbish.” Before revamp appears in the early 1800s much in the modern sense we use it today, figurative cobblers would new-vamp in the mid 1600s.

Piano players and other musicians have been vamping since the end of the 1700s. The OED cites this musical term for improvisation in 1789. If you’re improvising an accompaniment, prelude, or the like, you’re sort of patching something together as you go, as the metaphor suggests.

Now, vamp, it turns out, is itself quite vamped. Via Anglo-Norman French, English ultimately fashioned vamp from the Old French avanpié, pieced together from avant (“before”) and pié (“foot”), both derived from Latin. (French uses pied today; English’s own foot is actually related.) So, an avanpié isthe front part of the foot,” fitted later for the footwear it donned. Stitch avant and pié together (compounding), cut off an a (aphesis), snip off a t (elision), form np into mp (assimilation), and voilà: it’s like a a whole new word.

Back in the Middle Ages, knights armored themselves with vambraces or vantbraces, which covered the forearm. These words join avant and bras, the French for “arm.”

Forget reinventing the wheel, er, buying a whole new pair of boots: language really knows how to vamp things up.

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Last week, well over 700 people tragically died in a stampede in Mina, a neighborhood outside Mecca where Muslims carry out a symbolic stoning as part of the Hajj. This stampede occurred in the deserts of Western Asia, but the word stampede originates near the deserts of the American West.

Mortar and Pestle_Ink on Paper_doodle
“Mortar and pestle.” Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), English took to stampede in 1823. It is first cited as a verb describing a herd of cattle becoming panic-stricken and taking flight. The earliest record the OED finds is in The Austin Papers, firsthand documents left behind by Moses and Stephen F. Austins’ efforts to settle Texas. The capital of the Lone Start State still remembers their name.

English took stampede from the Mexican Spanish estampida, a special usage of estampido, a “crash,” “bang,” “boom,” or “uproar.” With the initial e dropped by a process called aphesis, early forms of stampede show its Spanish origins still settling in: stampado, stampedostampido, and stompado. The latter, stompado, also appears in an early passage illustrating the sonic intensity that inspired the Spanish word. In his 1826 novel, Francis BerrianOr the Mexican PatriotTimothy Flint writes of wild horses:

Instantly, this prodigious multitude, and there were thousands of them, took what the Spanish call “stompado.” With a trampling like the noise of thunder, or still more like that of an earthquake, a noise that was absolutely appalling, they took to their heels, and were all in a few moments in the verdant depths of the plains, and we saw them no more.

As we so sadly saw in Mina, human stampedes don’t have “verdant depths of the plains” to flee to.

The connection of stampedes to humans occurred quickly, evidenced in the OED very soon after its original usage appears. Stampedes have also referred to gold rushes, rodeos, and, at US political conventions, rushes to nominate “the candidate who seems likely to win,” (OED) which clearly remains to be seen in the current race for the White House.


Many scholars place the Spanish estampido in the Provençal estampar, “to stamp,” as in “to press” or “pound.” The word is common across the Romance languages, believed to have been borrowed from a Germanic root, *stamp-. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots sees this ultimately as a nasalized form of a Proto-Indo-European root, *stebh-, a “post” or “stem” in noun form, “to place firmly on” or “to fasten” in verb form. Staff, staplestepstoop, and stump are also considered derivatives – as is stamp, as you probably originally guessed.

Like its Romance cognates, stamp has taken on a variety of meanings over the centuries. Today, stamp likely evokes postage or foot-pounding for English speakers. But the earliest record we have for stamp in the language actually refers to mortar and pestles. The OED has evidence for a form of stamp as early as 1000, a verb meaning “to bray in a mortar.” As the OED helps us out,  the sense is “to pound” or “beat to a pulp.”

Let’s look not to the process but the product of a mortar and pestle, which has, for so long along our greater human pilgrimage, helped create medicine and nourishment – something that the many wounded in the stampede, or the many who have lost a loved one in it, well deserve.

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We need to talk about dinosaurs.

There’s been a lot of big compound nouns in the news lately: ceasefires, outbreaks, airstrikes. But none has been bigger than the Dreadnoughtus: 85-feet long, 30-feet tall, and an I’m-still-growing 130,000 pounds, this newly discovered dinosaur is believed to be among the largest land animals to have ever lived (New York Times).

This behemoth–scientifically, Dreadnoughtus schrani–takes it name from the compound dreadnought, aptly meaning, “fearing nothing.”

You may be familiar with dreadnought as the name for a class of big, British battleships, appearing in 1906 but revived, according to Ernest Weekley, from a specific Dreadnought of the Royal Navy in 1596. We can cite a yet earlier Dreadnought warship, however, in 1573.

Less fearful–and familiar–is the 19th-century dreadnought outerwear: a “thick coat worn in rough weather” (Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology [ODEE]) typically made of wool and also known as a “fearnought.”

That’s some rough weather.


The word dreadnought, you can see, seems a simple enough compound of dread and nought, but each element its own little surprise.  We’ll start with dread.

Dread is from the Old English adrædan, “to fear,” an old word dating back to the 12th century.

What happened to the initial a? It was lost in a process called aphesis, like in How ’bout that?, as we saw in my post on mad. This adrædan was from an earlier word, ondrædan. The first partond-, a variant of and-, meant “in,” “on,” or “against.” Cognate to anti- and ante-, this and– is also part of answer, whose literal parts add up to “swear against.” The Proto-Indo-European source of this prolific prefix is *ant-, “front” or “forehead,” so-called, I gather, because when you face me, your forehead is opposite mine. Words are physical things, see?

The second part, the -rædan? The jury’s out.

The ODEE says its a West Germanic base of obscure origin. Weekley maintains it is cognate to the Old Norse, hræda, “to frighten.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD) links it to rædan, “to advise” or “counsel”–and, interestingly, ultimate source of the English read. At root, the AHD goes on, is the Proto-Indo-European *re(i), “to count” or “reason.” (We’ll duly treat read and *re(i) at a later date.) 

If this latter hypothesis is correct, then, dread originates in a sense of “something that should be counseled against.” Dreadful: You know, like, going for a swim right after eating.

And dreadlocks? You probably associate them with Rastafarianism, but they are indeed found throughout the world and history, from Peru to Egypt to India, often associated with ascetic devotion to God. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, dreadlocks is first attested in 1960, joining dread and lock, with:

the style supposedly based on that of East African warriors. So called from the dread they presumably aroused in beholders, but Rastafarian dread (1974) also has a sense of “fear of the Lord,” expressed in part as alienation from contemporary society.

Dinosaurs? Warships? Heavy coats? Cultural and religious treatment of hair? Reading? Yep, that’s precisely what a good etymology can connect.

Nought is next.

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It’s not just me? You, too, were recently reflecting on the comedic stylings of Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt’s ’90s sitcom Mad About You?  Oh, no. That’s right. Maybe mad is on your mind because you’ve been gearing up for the American college basketball extravaganza, March Madness. Sorry, Paul. For more on the origins of “March Madness,” this old Slate piece sum its up.

I’ve been mad about mad, though, because of my recent musings on its counterpart, angry

A semantic aside. I could say “My fiancée is so mad at me right now” or “My fiancée is so angry at me right now.” Both work just fine. However, I don’t think we can interchange madness and anger. We reserve the latter for the emotion, while the former is the domain of the insane. What determines this? Well, it’s all semantics, I guess.

Anyways, what is this mad about?


We get mad from the Old English, mād, aphetic for gemǣd, from gemǣded, past participle of an undocumented or lost verb. (Aphesis, you may remember from fray, is the loss of an initial vowel. How ’bout that?) Perhaps this verb, as Skeat maintains, is gemǣdan, “to drive mad.”

Madness–or “insanity,” being “out of one’s mind,” “foolishness”–is indeed the earliest sense of the word mad, which the OED documents as emerging in the 1300s. This mād threw out the usual Old English adjective for the matter, wōd, though it appeared in the compound mādmōd, “folly.” Think mad mood

But how do we get from “insane” to “angry”?

The OED cites a range of meanings that help tell the story. Mad referred to aggressive animals, such as those with rabies (~1275), or persons who are “extravagantly or wildly foolish” and “ruinously impudent” (~1300). The OED notes we shouldn’t turn over any stones because the earliest attestation of mad is “rabid.” It has no priority, with all the mad‘s cropping up around the same, approximate 1300 mark.

Mad also described being “carried away by or filled with enthusiasm” (~1325) or being “crazy” and “mentally unbalanced” (~1330, probably earlier). And, by about 1400, it described being “beside oneself with anger.”

And mad cow disease, attested in 1988, harkens back to earliest meanings of “berserk” behaviors.

Mutant Roots

The key to mad, then, is the intensely foolish or excited behavior displayed in insanity or anger. This speaks to how madness, in both its forms, makes us different, something other than our ‘normal’ selves–it speaks to how it changes us.

Indeed, “change” may well be the ancient root of mad. Gemǣded is probably passed down from gamaidaz (OED, ʒamaiðaz), whose middle, maid/maið, points to the Proto-Indo-European *mei, “to change.” Shipley also glosses for this root “move away,” “exchange,” and “arrange for services.” He notes that this root was expanded to *meig-, *mein-, and *meit-. The first explains derivatives like migrate. The second common and municipal. The third mutate and mutual. (All of these are from Latin.)

The nature of the change is a bit more specific in the Germanic descent into madness. Gothic has gamaiths/gamaids, meaning “crippled” or “maimed.” Icelandic shows meiða for the same. Old High German presents gimeit/gameit for “foolish” or “vain.”

Focusing on the injury angle, Partridge attempts to connect mad to this very maim. The jury is out on this maim. It is likely a Romance form but could be connected to the Germanic forms for “hurt” like Icelandic’s meiða or the Proto-Indo-European mait-/mai- (to cut, to hew). 

Another aside. We get mayhem from maim. It was a variant that emerged as a late-1400s French legal term: “the infliction of physical injury on a person,  so as to impair or destroy that person’s capacity for self-defence” (OED). Mangle is cognate as well.

It’s a Mad World

Mad is an active moonlighter, if you will. We have “as mad as a hatter,” referring “to the effects of mercury poisoning sometimes formerly suffered by hatmakers as a result of the use of mercurous nitrate in the manufacture of felt hats” (OED, as with all ensuing references).

Let’s not leave out the others. We have as mad as (a):

  • Ajax
  • brush
  • buck
  • goose
  • hornet
  • (March) hare
  • meat ax & cut snake (Australia, New Zealand)
  • tup (a ram, whose sexual connotations are probably not lost on users of the expression)
  • (wet) hen
Lewis Carroll’s Hatter with his equally mad companion, the March Hare, along with Alice and the Dormouse. Maybe there is something in the tea. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

And mad gives me occasion for a little Ohio pride (I come from the Buckeye state), as two Ohio newspaper are given the first OED attestations for mad money and mad scientist.  For the latter, the Newark Daily Advocate published in 1893: “Nerving myself for the blow, I felled the mad scientist dead at my feet.” For the former, good old Lima News printed in 1922: “The 1922 girl ‘squirrels’ or hides, a few dollar bills known as ‘mad money’.”

Then we have mad‘s use as “cool” in US jazz slang, emerging in the 1940s and reemerging to refer to something abundant or in excess in the 1990s, e.g., “The DJ had mad skills.”

Mad: a small, everyday word made up of three simple sounds. It does a lot with little. I give it mad props for that.

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