How a “bubble” becomes a “bill”

A legislative bill ultimately comes from the Latin bulla, “bubble,” later likened to round “seals” authenticating important documents.  

After drafting it in secrecy, Republican senators released their healthcare bill to repeal Obamacare on Thursday, already being criticized for its steep cuts to Medicaidand tax cuts for the wealthy. As we debate the bill, let’s take a closer look at the origin of this most legislative of words.

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Seal attached to the Royal Letters Patent of Henry VI, 1442 (King’s College, Cambridge). Wax impressions of seals were attached by cords or parchment to authenticate documents, sometimes literally sealing them like modern envelope glue, King’s College explains.

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Review: Barnhart’s Never-finished Political Dictionary of the 21st Century

As my regular readers know well, I tend to focus on the origins of everyday words that are timely, seasonal, or buzzing in the news. My selections, more often than not, come from politics—and, these days, it seems they’re almost exclusively from or about Trump. Not that I’m alone.

Take Barnhart’s Never-finished Political Dictionary of the 21st Century (Lexik House, 2016), lexicographer David K. Barnhart’s second collection of such political terms and which he kindly sent me a copy for review. Barnhart may be a familiar name to my readers: His brother, Robert Barnhart, created The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, one of my go-to resources. (You wouldn’t want to play Scrabble at their house. Their father, Clarence, was an accomplished lexicographer, too, best known for editing the Thorndike-Barnhart graded dictionaries.)

In his Election-day Edition of his Never-finished Political Dictionary, Barnhart enters over 50 terms based on Trump alone: Trumpanzee (“a supporter of Donald J. Trump”), the Trump effect (“the influence of Donald J. Trump on a political race”), Trumpertantrum (think temper tantrum), Trumpian, Trumpism, Trumpista (“a person who enthusiastically supports the policies of Donald J. Trump”), Trump-tastic (“wonderful in a way that reflects Trumpian splendor”), and the list goes on. Clinton only reaches half that number, and Bernie-related terms don’t even crack a dozen. Politically—and linguistically—we are in the Trump era.

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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?

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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”).

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

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From grain to gain: the origin of “emolument”

There is growing concern about conflicts of interests between Donald Trump’s businesses and presidency. These conflicts may violate Article 1, Section 9 of the US Constitution, the anti-aristocratic and anti-bribery “Emoluments Clause”:

No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

Constitutional lawyers can explain why Trump’s international business ties may break this obscure clause, but what does this obscure word emolument mean, and where does it come from?

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Emoluments: caught grain-handed? “Cornmeal breading,” image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Emolument

An emolument, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it, is “profit or gain arising from station, office, or employment.” It also once more generally referred to a “reward,” “salary,” “advantage,” or “benefit.” The Barnhart Etymological Dictionary dates it to 1435, citing the Proceedings of the Privy Council. (The Privy Council has advised the English monarchy since the late 1300s.)    

Entering into English from French, emolument ultimately derives from the Latin emolumentum, a “profit” or “gain,” especially one brought about by effort or exertion. Many etymologists conjecture, though, that the original sense of emolumentum was a “payment to a miller for grinding corn,” hence “profit.” The expression grist to/for the mill is grounded in a similar metaphor.

If this theory is correct, the root Latin is emolere, literally “to grind out.” Emolere fuses e– (a form of ex, “out of”) with molere, “to grind.” The latter, molere, is cognate to a host of other English words, including meal (grain) and mallet. Their Proto-Indo-European ancestor *mel-, “to crush” or “grind,” thus describes how a mallet can make meal.

Other etymologies, including Skeat and the OED’s, derive  Latin’s emolumentum from a similar-looking but different verb: emoliri, “to accomplish” with physical effort, or “work out.” The base of this emoliri is moles, a “mass” or “pile,” which chemistry borrowed in molecule and mole.

Grains, whether cereal or chemical, are little bits, but presidential emoluments? That’s a big deal.

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The etymological facts on “fake”

Fake news has been very much in the real news this week. Facebook in particular has been in the hot seat for the proliferation of false stories and misinformation over the 2016 presidential campaign. Many fear fake news on the internet and social media not only influenced the election but is also further dividing the American people and eroding the core principles of democracy.

As we get the facts on fake news, let’s have a look at what the word fake might be hiding in its etymology.

Fake

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests the adjective fake, meaning “spurious” or “counterfeit,” in a 1775 letter from William Howe, who rose to Commander-in-Chief of the British Army during the American Revolution. He wrote: “So many artifices have been practiced upon Strangers under the appearance of Friendship, fake Pilots &c., that those coming out with Stores…cannot be put too much on their guard.”

By 1819, fake was a verb used by thieves as slang for “doing (something) for the purpose of deception.” The OED provides a passage from James Hardy Vaux, an English convict who served time in Australian penal colonies and authored A New Vocabulary of the Flash Language, with “flash language” referring to the secret cant criminals used to evade and confuse the authorities. It’s worth quoting Vaux’s entry for fake at length. Fake is:

a word so variously used, that I can only illustrate it by a few examples. To fake any person or place, may signify to rob them; to fake a person, may also imply to shoot, wound, or cut; to fake a man out and out, is to kill him; a man who inflicts wounds upon, or otherwise disfigures, himself, for any sinister purpose, is said to have faked himself; if a man’s shoe happens to pinch, or gall his foot, from its being overtight, he will complain that his shoe fakes his foot sadly; it also describes the doing of any act, or the fabricating any thing, as, to fake your slangs, is to cut your irons in order to escape from custody;to fake your pin, is to create a sore leg, or to cut it, as if accidentally, with an axe, etc., in hopes to obtain a discharge from the army or navy, to get into the doctor’s list, etc.; to fake a screeve, is to write a letter, or other paper; to fake a screw, is to shape out a skeleton or false key, for the purpose of screwing a particular place; to fake a cly, is to pick a pocket; etc., etc., etc.

To fake it emerges in the 1920s as jazz slang for “improvise.” To fake, or “pretend,” is by the 1940s. A fake, meanwhile, appears by the 1820s, a faker by the 1840s. Sports saw its feinting fake by the 1930-40s. And Charles Dickens’s pickpocketing Fagin in Oliver Twist (1838) indeed suggests feague and fake.

The origin of fake, in spite of these incredible citations, is obscure. Many etymologists look to the German fegen (or Dutch vegen), which meant “to sweep,” “clean,” or “polish,” a verb much evidenced as slang terms for “plundering” or “tormenting.” This fegen may have yielded the late 16th-century English word feague, “to beat” or “whip,” which evolved into fake, possibly by means of feak, “to twitch” or “jerk.” The connecting sense between German’s fegen and English’s fake is of sprucing something up to make it look more valuable than it actually is.

The fegen explanation is compelling but problematic, as the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology observes. For the earliest evidence of fake, for “false,” comes from Howe, who was an upper-class man of the military and government, while Vaux was a lower-class, thrice-convicted thief (though impressive man of letters, as his dictionary is considered the first written Australia). Slang typically emerges from the streets, so to speak, and crosses over into mainstream, standard dialect, not the other way around. Barnhart suggests that Howe’s fake and Vaux’s fake may well be different words, both with unknown origins.

As any etymologist worth their salt will tell you, it’s better to leave the origin of a word truly unknown than to traffic in phonies, no matter how much you might want to share them on Facebook.

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And the Oscar goes to…Boycott?

All eyes are on the big name at the Academy Awards tonight: Boycott.

Yes, this year, the Oscars are in the spotlight not as much for who’s nominated, but for who’s not. Spike Lee, Will Smith, and Jada Smith are boycotting Hollywood’s big night to protest the conspicuous lack of diversity in the actors and filmmakers the Academy nominated in its top categories, trending in social media as #OscarsSoWhite.

Like the top prize, the Oscar, or “God’s spear,” as I discussed in a previous post on the award’s name, boycott derives from a name.

Boycott

First cited in 1880, boycott, as the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology elucidates:

is an allusion to Captain Charles Boycott, 1832-1897, an English land agent over Irish tenant farmers, who refused to lower rents in hard times and was subjected to an organized campaign by local people who refused to have any dealings with him…The practice was widely instituted towards others and the term was quickly adopted by newspapers in almost all European and many non-European languages.

Barnhart goes on to provide examples of the adoption, which notably includes the Japanese boikotto.

Boycott‘s ostracism featured tenants’ refusal to work his farms and businesspersons’ refusal to trade with him. The eponym later extended to various protestatory refusals, such as like the one we are seeing this Oscar night.

What a way to be remembered, huh? As we saw recently, Bork was borked. Boycott was boycotted. And I don’t think we really want to give him one of those golden statuettes.

A -cott-age industry?

Boycott inspired girlcott, a boycott carried out by women (who must have felt the word was simply mansplaining protests).

The Oxford English Dictionary dates this playful formation, girlcott, to  1884. It features -cott as an early example of a “libfix”,  a term coined by linguist Arnold Zwicky for this fun and fascinating phenomenon we see in inventions like Snowzilla or Carmageddon, both of which make people take a staycation. This -cott, like –zilla, –(a)geddon, –cation, and –splain doesn’t have an inherent meaning like the suffix -ness or -ly do, for example, but is liberated from a word and affixed to new coinages. Hence, Zwicky’s libfixBoycott is a family name, likely taken from where the family’s from in England.

This -cott, of course, should not be confused with mascot (a French term for “talisman” that may be relate to mask), ascot (named for Ascot, a city near Windsor, Berkshire in England remembered for the fashions worn at a big race held there), or Epcot (the Disney World theme park, “Experimental Prototype of Community of Tomorrow”).

If you support Trump’s recent call to boycott Apple over its refusal to decrypt a phone used by one of the San Bernardino’s shooters, as I recently touched on in my post on crypt, you might want to…orangecott it?

And #OscarsSoWhite, to circle back, might not seek to boycott the red carpet but blackcott it – or diversitycott it.

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