It’s April 20, or as many marijuana enthusiasts know it well, 4/20. Today, especially when the clocks strike 4:20pm, many people will light a joint or smoke a bowl in celebration of the herb. Contrary to all the myths about police codes, the number 420 is variously used to refer to marijuana thanks to a group of Bay Area high-schoolers who would meet at a campus statue after school at 4:20pm to get high and hunt for a secret patch where marijuana plants were growing. The time later went on to become a codeword for marijuana or getting high itself.
That’s the origin of 420. But what about the origins of the day’s honoree, marijuana, and some of its many related terms? I think this calls for a hit of etymology.
With intelligence and wit, Jones offers the surprising origins and developments of 100 everyday words, from affiliate to zombie. Each selection is pithy and engaging, making The Accidental Dictionary an ideal book to pick up whenever you need a funny yet informative break or burst of inspired word-nerdom. But I think you’ll find, like me, that the word histories Jones’ has curated – and his infectious enthusiasm for them – are hard to put down.
There aren’t many etymological stories that begin with the sublimation of a sulphite mineral, but there is at least one. It just happens also to be the story behind one of the most familiar words in the English language. So brace yourself—here comes the science bit.
When a substance changes directly from a solid into a gas with no intermediate liquid phase, that’s sublimation. It’s the same process that turns dry ice into a thick white fog without leaving pools of liquid carbon dioxide everywhere—but that’s not to suggest that sublimation is all about cheap special effects.
Back in Ancient Egypt, the mineral stibnite was heated to produce, via sublimation, a fine smoky vapour that left a layer of sooty powder on any surface with which it came into contact. The Egyptians then collected this powder (antimony trisulphide, should you really want to know) and mixed it with animal grease to produce a thick black paste that could be then used as a kind of eye shadow. Different coloured eye shadows could be made by crushing, grinding or sublimating different chemicals—galena, a lead ore, produced a rich grey colour, malachite produced a dark green—but no matter the raw ingredients, the name of this cosmetic paste was always the same: kohl, a term derived from an ancient Arabic word meaning ‘stain’ or ‘paint’.
Now, here comes the language bit. In Arabic, the definite article, ‘the’, is a prefix, al–. That’s the same al– found in names like Algeria (‘the islands’), Allah (‘the god’), and Alhambra (‘the red castle’), as well as words like alkali (‘the ashes’), almanac (‘the calendar’) and algebra (more on that in another chapter), and it gave the Ancient Egyptians’ eye shadow the name al-kohl. The chemists and alchemists of the Middle Ages then stumbled across this term in their ancient textbooks, and began applying it to any fine powder produced likewise by sublimation—and it is in this sense that the word alcohol first appeared in English in the mid 1500s.
But to all those chemists and alchemists, sublimation was more than just a way of accentuating your eyes. Instead, it was a way of extracting the purest, most absolute essence of something, and it wasn’t long before they began applying the same techniques and ideas—not to mention the same word—to liquids.
The concentrated, intensified liquors that could be produced by refining and distilling fluids ultimately came to be known as alcohol as well, and because one of the fluids these early experiments were carried out on happened to be wine, by the mid nineteenth century the term had become particularly associated with so-called ‘alcohol of wine’—namely the alcoholic content of intoxicating liquor. Eventually, this meaning, and its associations with alcoholic spirits and beverages, established itself as the way in which the word was most widely used, while its ancient associations with sublimation and Egyptian cosmetics dropped into relative obscurity.
Today is National Coffee Day. Tomorrow is International Coffee Day. But for java junkies like myself, every day is coffee day. Here’s a fresh cup of some tasty coffee-related etymologies.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests coffee in 1598. Some etymologists have linked coffee to Kaffa, the Ethiopian region where coffee was first grown. But the word actually appears to derive from the Arabic qahwah, which may have originally meant “wine.” Some basic meaning of “brew” might explain the sense development. The OED notes that the root of this qahwah is a verb, qahiya, “to have no appetite,” which coffee and wine lovers will agree is absolutely preposterous. The Turkish kahveh , borrowed from the Arabic, influenced the spelling and pronunciation of coffee in its many European cognates (e.g., café).
In Italian, espresso literally means “pressed out,” alluding to how the strong, dark drink is produced under stream pressure. English has been sipping espresso since 1945. And don’t feel too bad if you’ve been called out for pronouncing espresso with an x: the English express is essentially the same word as espresso, from the Latin exprimere, “to push out.”
US speakers shortened latte from caffè latte (1840s) in the late 1980s. It’s Italian for “milk coffee.” Café au lait and café con leche are the respective French and Spanish equivalents. Lait, leche, and latte are all poured from Latin’s lac, which also gives English the words lactate and even lettuce. The Greek cousin of lac is seen in galaxias, literally “milky circle,” hence Milky Way and galaxy. Coffee is truly of cosmic proportions.
A caffè macchiatto is a “stained coffee,” as it’s espresso served with just a spot of hot or foamed milk. In Italian, macchia means “spot” or “blemish,” from the Latin macula for the same. Something that’s immaculate, then, is the etymological opposite of a macchiato. But like latte, both caffè macchiatto and the abbreviated macchiatto have been tasting immaculate on English-speaking lips since the 1980s.
The color of a cappuccino, apparently, resembles the brown hoods of the Capuchin monks. These friars indeed take theirname from the distinctive “hooded cloaks,” or capuccio or capuche in Italian, they wear. These words come from the Latin Latin cappa, source of cap, cape, escape, chapel, and even a capella. The word was served up in English, according to the OED, by 1948, when author Robert O’Brien described the beverage as “gray, like the robe of a capuchin monk.” Brown? Gray? Whatever the case, cappuccino makes for a truly beautiful color.
The word coffee may or may not hail from Kaffa, but mocha indeed comes from Mokha,the Red Sea coastal city in Yemen and historically important marketplace for coffee. Mocha coffee, now associated with the addition of chocolate to a latte, has been delighting English speakers since 1773.
A café Americano is espresso with added hot water – a term that wasn’t intended as a compliment when Central American Spanish started using the term in the 1950s. The description stereotypes an American taste for a milder cup of joe. Perhaps a coffee snob will agree that the americano makes for an inferior cup, but any proper coffee addict will never turn down a good americano – or coffee-inspired word origin.
This Sunday, Pope Franciscanonized Mother Teresa as a saint, joining her with 10,000 other such holy figures in the Catholic Church. That’s a lot of saints, but canonize is still a relatively rare word. So, why is this process called canonization?
To canonize is to place a deceased person in the Church’s canon of saints. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites this canonize around 1380. We can think of this canon, sometimes known as a calendar, as a kind of list; a saint’s placement on this register only takes place by official decree and according to the rules of the church. Indeed, canon means “rule” or “law,” originally of the church. This usage of canon, again as the OED dates it, is found in Old English by 890.
While influenced by French in Middle English, the Old English canon comes from the Latin canon, a “rule” or “standard,” taken from the Greek κανών (kanon, meaning the same). (Medieval Latin had canonizāre, the immediate source of canonize.)If we dig deeper, we find that both the Latin canon and Greek kanon are metaphorical in origin: Latin canna and Greek κάννα (kanna) literally mean “reed.” A reed, as we might understand it, is like a proto-measuring rod. It sets a regular length, which can be used as a model, a standard, a rule for something, hence, its application to law.
The words cane, cannon, and canyon – reeds are tubular – are all related to canon. Generic canon, that is, secular rules or standards, is evidenced by the late 1500s and early 1600s. The canon of literature, at least according to the OED’s account, is found by the 1920s, anticipated by earlier such usages of canon in the mid-1800s. The secular canon, we should note, takes a page from the religious: Since the 1380s canon has also been referring to an authoritative list of books of the Christian Bible.
Excepting its secular extensions, canon connotes Christianity. But the more ancient story of its Latin and Greek roots are anything but. Most etymologists agree that the Latin canna and Greek kanna sprouted up on Semitic shores. As the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology explains it, canon ultimately grew out of the Babylonian-Assyrian qanū, “reed.” This, in turn, is from the Sumerian – yes, Sumerian – gin, likewise meaning “reed.” Cognates include the Hebrew qāneh and the Arabic qanāh.
As Catholics observe Mother Teresa’s new place in the canon of saints, her canonization adds to the long life of a very well-traveled metaphor indeed.
This week, Philadelphia became the first major American city to tax soda and other sugar-added beverages. Supporters tout the levy as a remedy for health problems and school funding. Opponents see it as an illegal overreach of the nanny state and a real headache for the beverage industry. This split will surely play out in court – just as it might, quite literally, in the very etymology of the word soda.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites soda in a 1558 translation of a French medical guide. The manual listssoda as an ingredient in an ointment for hair removal, noting that this soda was obtained from the ashes of grass and used by glassmakers. It also mentions a Venetian soda in a later passage on soap preparation.
Venetian soap and medicinal grass? (It’s no wonder Coke so closely guards its secret formula). Originally, soda was indeed obtained from the ashes of plants, specifically salt-rich marine flora like saltwort, featured above. The alkaline derivative, now largely produced artificially, has long been used in soap and glass.
Problem and solution?
Now, most etymologists agree that soda comes from the Medieval Latin or Italian soda, but they dispute its deeper roots. The OED is conservative on the matter, leaving its origin unknown. Others philologists enjoy a bit more of a sugar high. Skeat and Weekly look to the Latin solidus, “solid,” characterizing the hard products yielded by saltwort plants. Italian eventually contracted this solidus into soda, they write. Skeat goes on to trace the Spanish form of soda, sosa, back to the Latin sal, “salt,” relate to salsa and sausage.
The Barnhart Etymology Dictionary maintains soda ultimately derives from the Arabic, suwwad, the name for a kind of saltwort, which was exported from North Africa to Sicily in the Middle Ages. Suwwad, the dictionary notes, is related to sawad, “black,” referring to the color of a variety of the plant. The dictionary concludes Italian directly borrowed the word, as evidenced as early as the 1300s.
Other scholars, apparently chugging Mountain Dew, have proposed the Arabic suda, “headache.” Some even gloss the word as a “splitting headache,” derived from a verb meaning “to split.” The saltwort plant, as the theory goes, was used to cure such headaches. Latin borrowed the medicine and word as sodanum, a “headache remedy,” thence shortened and spread as soda. It’s a fizzy etymology, but one that most scholars agree has gone flat.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, chemists were, well, effervescent about soda. They injected the soda-derived sodium bicarbonate into water, calling it soda water by 1802. This was shortened to soda by 1834. Pop – named for the sound of the cork when the beverage was originally served and preferred in many dialects, including my own – is attested even earlier, in 1812. The OED dates soda-pop to 1863. Today’s soda features carbonic acid, among other additives; baking soda, however, preserves its chemical and linguistic connection to sodium bicarbonate.
In 1807, Humphry Davy isolated an element from caustic soda and so named it sodium. He used the symbol Na as a nod to natrium, a name proposed by his contemporary, Jacob Berzelius. Berzelius was inspired by natron, a naturally occurring soda-solution whose name is related to the Greek nitro and may itself have deeper Middle Eastern roots.
In 1933, Eugene O’Neill debuted his comedy, Ah, Wilderness!In the play, a character asks, “Ever drink anything besides sodas?” The OED cites this usage as the earliest record we have specifically for the modern “drink” or “glass of” soda. It’s a question that still has a sharp bite today. But the answer may not be what Philadelphia has in mind: “Beer and sloe-gin. Fizz and Manhattans.”
For this post, I thought about writing on the etymology of demagogue or bigotry, which have been much in the ether lately, thanks especially to Donald Trump. But I thought twice, important as these words are right now.
I thought twice because I wanted to write on something a bit more positive and, well, fun than many of my previous posts. I thought twice, too, because I wanted to highlight a surprising point of connection between the West and Middle East: gerbils. Yes, gerbils.
See, the name of this common critter, twitching their little noses across so many children’s bedrooms or elementary classrooms, actually derives from Arabic.
Attested by the Oxford English Dictionaryin an 1849 text on mammals, English borrowed gerbil from the French gerbille. The French, in turn, adopted it from the New Latin gerbillus, formed as a scientific usage. (Many gerbilsfall under the genus Gerbillus). This gerbillus is a diminutive form of gerbo, a variant of jerboa. Gerbil, then, means “little jerboa.”
The words gerbil and jerboa may have had their bedding in English for some time, but it was not until the 1950s-60s that they became pets for English-speaking people. Apparently, they came to the US as research animals in the 1950s, soon after giving up their laboratory pellets for empty toilet paper rolls; they were adopted in the UK, so it goes, in the 1960s.
Left and right, East and West, Muslim* and Christian? Perhaps the eccentric cuteness of the jerboa – and this surprising connection between the English and Arabic languages– is just what we need to jump our many divides during these times.
Last post, we saw that the math in aftermath has nothing to do with numbers. But two other words I’ve recently covered, numb and nimble, may indeed be all about them, if we do some etymological accounting of the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root, *nem-.
To review, both numb and nimble derive from an Old English verb, nim, functioning much like today’s take, which supplanted it in Middle English. For the ancient root of this nim, Indo-European scholars have reconstructed the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *nem-, which meant “to assign,” “to allot,” or, like nim, “to take,” thanks to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots’ gloss. (Compare the nominal use of take in English). This root evolved in some interesting ways across some of the Indo-European languages, eventually emerging in some other English words. Let’s start with Greek.
Heaven and earth
Angus Deaton won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Economics. A rare astronomical event, the Super Blood Moon, recently captivated us all. Both economy and astronomy derive from Greek: The former literally means “household management,” astronomy “star arrangement.” Ancient Greek had νόμος (nomos), with widely various meanings of “law,” “custom,” “usage,” and even “song.” But these, according to the great philological work of Liddell and Scott, were metaphorical usages of nomos’ earliest meaning: “a feeding-place for cattle” and, by extension, “pasture” and “food.”
How do we get from the earth to the stars? Nomos is formed from a verb νέμειν (nemein), also deriving from that PIE *nem–, meaning “to deal out,” “distribute,” or “manage.” The connecting sense is of something allotted, as for a particular purpose, like a pasture or a dwelling, which one then must maintain, or something divided up in a particular way, as in a melody or a constellation.
The Greek nemein exacts further etymological dues, so to speak, in nemesis. In ancient Greece, this word named an important concept, personified in the form of the goddess Nemesis. Liddell and Scott’s Greek lexicography is again helpful in defining the word (emphasis original): nemesis is “distribution of what is due; hence, a righteous assignment of anger, wrath at anything unjust, just resentment,” particularly “indignation at undeserved good fortune.”
In these days of extreme inequality, whose complexity and urgency Angus Deaton is measuring, some might say we could use a little nemesis in the historic sense of the word. Of course, we have plenty of nemeses in today’s sense, which the Oxford English Dictionary dates as a North American usage in the 1930s.
Now, let’s wander to ancient Rome. Certain people have a roaming allotment, shall we say; people whose flocks or herds graze far and wide for their pasture. We might call them nomads. The Romans did, originally referring to certain Arabic pastoral tribes, the Nomades, or Numidians. The name is ultimately num – I mean taken – from that Greek nomos.
Economists, we know, are quiet adept with numbers. The word number, from the Latin numerus and picking up a b (much in the way a word like numb did) as it passed into English from the French, might also derive from that PIE *nem-. The innumerable meanings of this derivative in English are simply too many in number to enumerate; you might never be number after that math.
Last week, Donald Trump’s hot air inspired our look into bombast, where, for all of his bluster and braggadocio, we ultimately discovered the soft padding of cotton. They say all politics is local, but the etymology of cotton is global.
Cotton cropped up in Middle English (coton) during the late 14th century, taking the word from the French coton. The Oxford English Dictionary comments that cotton‘s “early use in Europe was for the padding of jerkins* worn under mail, and the stuffing of cushions, mattresses, etc.”
Other Romance languages show parallel forms, but it appears the French picked up the word from the Spanish coton. The Spanish, in turn, threaded the word from Arabic. Yes, you should thank Arabic quṭn(قُطُن)for the 100% cotton in your tighty-whities. But you might want to pack an extra pair, as we may be traveling all the back way to that home of the finest of thread counts, Egypt.
See, some etymologists speculate that the Arabic qutn was borrowed from an Egyptian source. Philologist Eric Partridge directs us to the Egyptian phrase “khet enshen.”
Khet names a “plant,” “tree,” or “shrub,” while en means “of” and shen, “hair,” yielding “hair plant,” hence the cotton plant. Cotton is now sounding an awful lot like another feature of Trump: his combover.
* A jerkin was a tight-fitting sleeveless jacket, often made of leather. An acton was such a padded one worn under armor. The word derives from the Spanish algodón, ultimately deriving from the Arabic al (“the”) and quṭn. (“cotton”).
Last week, we ran the etymological race. We saw the word was connected to error, which goes back to the Latinverb “to wander,” among other meanings. This made me wonder, an errand involves some kind of wandering about, does it not? And for that matter, something racy, something “risqué” and “spirited,” surely suggests the action and speed of running, no? Etymologies are a curious and illogical business.
A boss sends out an errand boy for soy lattes. A couple braves parking lots for Sunday errands. As far as the written record is concerned, this sense of the word begins emerging in the middle of the 17th century. Originally, however, errand enjoyed a bit more status. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests the word all the way back in the 9th century, where it signified a “message repeated to a third party,” especially a petition or a prayer. In Old English, errand took the form ǽrende,which has cousins across the Germanic languages.
Now, fetching the ultimate origin of the word may be a fool’s errand–or, as an older expression goes, a sleeveless one. Some etymologists have connected ǽrendeto another Old English word ár, “messenger,” but the connection is troublesome.
A racy comment, a racy ad, a racy photograph, a racy…wine? As the OED attests, racy originally referred to wine back in the mid-1600s, as it described, in reference to the grapes’ soil, “having a distinctively strong taste or odour; piquant, pungent, or flavorful.” By the end of the 17th century, racy was also tasting of more general meanings of characteristically “spirited” and “invigorating.” By 1901, racy‘s liveliness was specifying something more “daring,” “suggestive,” and “slightly indecent,” as the OED offers.
Racy joins race and the suffix –y. Different grapes have different skin colors, if you will, just like different races do. (Oh, if it were only with wine where color mattered.) This race, a “breed of grape” with a characteristic flavor of its soil, is a specialized sense of that race. The OED takesrace back to the middle 1500s, when it denoted a “group of people, animals, or plants, connected by common descent or origin.” The ethnic sense, especially in reference to the distinctive physical features, was just as problematic a term when it appeared in the mid to late 1700s.
For all the problems racism has caused–and continues to, if we look most recently to Baltimore–we know that race is a biologically groundless concept. This holds true for race‘s etymology, too, appropriately enough. Race passes into English from the French, which adopted the word from the Italian razza, a late 14th-century word meaning “kind” or “species.” From here, a number of ideas have been proposed: ratio, which may have meant “species” in medieval Latin; the Old French haraz (later haras), naming a special enclosure for horses kept just for breeding, generalized to a breed; the Arabic ras, “head (of cattle)” or “origin”; and the Germanic raiza, a “line.”
As errand and racy show, sometimes the joy of etymology isn’t in crossing the finish line.