Why is an economy or system “rigged”?

While it’s increasingly unlikely that he will win his party’s nomination this summer, Senator Bernie Sanders promises to take his fiery message all the way to the Democratic convention. “The economy is rigged,” he protests at his packed and impassioned rallies. “The system is rigged,” he cries in political interviews. But why is rigged  – “manipulated or fixed in an illegal or improper manner” – rigged?

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“I know their tricks well.” A 19th-century lithograph of the thimblerig by John Doyle. Image courtesy of www.albion-prints.com.

Rigged

We might reasonably suppose rigged has nautical roots. A ship, after all, is rigged with ropes, knots, masts, and sails. The intricate and complicated apparatus of rigging seems like a natural metaphor for other phenomena, like elections or prices, that have been artfully fixed.

As tempting as the connection may be, Bernie’s rigged is actually first found in financial contexts. (With Scandinavian roots, nautical rigging is unrelated.) The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites several key usages in an 1826 edition of The Times: “This was one of the very best ‘rigged’ Companies that ever were introduced into the share-market.” A rigged stock, the dictionary explains, was a publicly listed one whose value was increased or decreased through illegal, improper, or contrived methods. The news article provides additional examples that help illustrate the development of rigged. Note the verb and noun forms: “Very few shares were paid upon in the Company, as it was intended to ‘rig’ them in the market. The ‘rig’ failed.”

Auctions were also rigged. As the OED records, a rig was “a fraudulent auction,” specifically one of worthless goods at which genuine bidding is encouraged by spurious bids made by associates of the auctioneer.” For this rig, the OED first cites the English magazine Atheneum in 1825: “The goods, where there is a rig, whether furniture or otherwise, are generally either damaged, or got up on purpose, in a shabby but showy way.” This rig is telling, as it highlights the trickery and deceit involved in the term. For it is precisely this sense of “trickery” and “deceit” that hatched rigged.

Tricks are for kings

Originally, a rig was a “scheme,” “swindle,” “trick,” or “prank.” The OED records rig as a colloquialism dated as early as 1640, as a verb about a century later. It’s featured in thimblerig, a 19th-century version of the shell game or three-card Monte that used three thimbles and a pea for its con.

The ultimate origin of this rig, however, eludes us. The OED does suggest it may be related to reak, English dialect for “a prank” or “playful trick” usually found in the phrase to play reaks and attested in the 16th century. And to play reaks might be a variation of to play rex: “to behave like a lord or master.” (Rex is “king” in Latin.) To play tricks, then, is a kind of power move.

An alternative theory for reak is freak, which referred to various “caprices” well before it was extended to its current sense of “abnormality.” (The etymological nature of freak is unknown.) Walter Skeat, meanwhile, supposed rig was connected to rickets and wriggle.

If the delegate math is any measure, Bernie Sanders might not find validation for his campaign against rigged systems in the Democratic nomination. But, aside from the groundswell of support his campaign has inspired in many young and independent voters, the etymology of rigged, with its roots in financial fraud and tyrannical tricks, is some consolation.

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“Feisty”: you can blame it on the dog

As many are describing it, last night’s debate between Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in Brooklyn, New York was “feisty.”

I’ve read others characterize the candidates’ sharp exchanges as a “dogfight” and full of “hot air,” but these descriptions are just as “feisty,” if we look to the surprising etymology of this word.

Into the woods

While the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests feisty in American English in 1896, an early usage in Horace Kephart’s 1913 book, Our Southern Highlanders, is telling: “’Feisty’… ‘means when a feller’s allers wigglin’ about, wantin’ ever’body to see him, like a kid when the preacher comes.’”

Kephart’s attention-seeking usage of feisty anticipates “fussy” and “fidgety,” an early meaning of  fidgety we might owe to the Appalachian culture of the Smoky Mountains, where his novel is set. Today, the “lively” and “aggressive” feisty still expresses this excitability, though the word has since evolved to focus on a kind of readiness to fight – and, if my ears are any measure, is said of women more than men. In his slang lexicography, Jonathon Green indeed records feisty as 20th-century U.S. slang for a “flirtatious, showy, and unscrupulous woman,” which also, perhaps, calls back Kephart’s early usage.

Barking up the etymological tree

For the etymology of feisty, we need to travel farther south, where a feist named a “small dog used in hunting small game (such as squirrels),” as the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary explains. The United Kennel Club, among others, officially registers the treeing feist and mountain feist today.

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This mountain feist is on the hunt. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Other variants of feist include fist, ficefyce, and even foist, if we look to a 1770 reference by George Washington. In March of that year, George Washington wrote in his diary: “Countess a hound bitch after being confind got loose and was lined before it was discovered by my Water dog once and a small foist looking yellow cur twice.”

I find it reassuring to know that even America’s legendary first president couldn’t completely control his dogs.

Leashed up on feist, of course, was English’s prolific adjectival suffix, -y.

In spite of their size, small dogs like feists have big personalities. Their quick energy, sharp barks, and often skittish behavior indeed suggest the kind of lively, aggressive temperament we associate with feisty. And, returning to Kephart,  feisty also evokes the squirmy restlessness, say, of a terrier less interested in one’s lap than what’s out the window.

As for the indie artist Feist, the moniker comes from her last name. Her first name is Leslie.

Send the dog out back

Now, feist takes its name from a fisting hound, dog, or cur, evidenced as early as the 1530s. Get your mind out of the gutter, but not completely: This fist, a verbal adjective, means “to break wind.”

The OED documents this fist in the 15th century, referring to the action – and aftermath of – flatulence. A fisting dog, then, was “stinky,” but not, as the record suggests, because it needed a bath.

Jonathon Green notes two historic explanations for why this flatulent fist became associated with dogs: Wentworth and Flexner’s American Slang Dictionary  maintain “the dog was so named because one’s own smells could be blamed on it,” while in the 19th century  it was suggested that “such dogs were not much bigger than a man’s fist.”

It’s unclear whether the “clenched hand” fist is actually related to “broken wind” fist, though the OED does cross-reference the former in the latter’s etymology.

For the deeper origins of fist, etymologists hypothesize an Old English verb *fistan and noun *fist, with widespread cognates in Germanic languages and a root in the Proto-Germanic *fistiz. Some philologists actually connect fist to its still-lingering counterpart fart through a root, *perd-, which is really just a Proto-Indo-European fart noise. (We can also thank this root for partridge, whose windy winging  I’ve discussed at Oxford Dictionaries).

Like fart, I suspect fist is ultimately a Germanic onomatopoeic whoopee cushion, so to speak. But whatever origin we ultimately blame fist on, I can’t blame you for, er, leaving the room when the TV debates get too feisty this long and heated presidential campaign season.

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Why is something “hermetically” sealed?

As the 2016 presidential campaign heats up, so do the attacks.

Campaigning for his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, days before the New Hampshire primaries, Bill Clinton characterized her opponent, Bernie Sanders, as so cut off from reality that it’s as if he’s living in a “hermetically sealed box.”

Talk about feeling the Bern.

Such a box is “airtight,” as we know. But why do we call such a seal a hermetic seal? It turns out the former president drew his fire – er, etymological fire– from alchemy.

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A floor tile of Hermes Trismegistus from the Siena Cathedral in Italy. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Hermetic

Neoplatonists and other early mystics identified the Egyptian god, Thoth, with the Greek god, Hermes, and called him Hermes Trismegistus, a god of science and art. They also believed Hermes Trismegistus authored the esoteric Corpus Hermeticum, among other names. This was a body of writings on philosophical and theosophical topics, including such magical ones as bringing statues to life. His name means “Hermes Thrice-Great.”

The Corpus Hermeticum essentially founded Western alchemy, whose metal-melting distillations required completely sealing off glass tubes. The invention of this process – and its name – alchemists credited to Hermes Trismegistus, who knew the secrets of their occult art. In Medieval Latin, Hermes was rendered into an adjective hermeticus, yielding English’s hermetical and hermetic.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds records of various hermetic terminology in the 17th century. Both Hermes’ seal and hermetically are dated to English clergyman Thomas Tymme’s 1605 translation of 16th-century French physician Joseph du Chesne’s The Practice of Chymicall and Hermeticall Physicke.

For Hermes’ seal, Tymme writes: “Hermes seale…take the red hote tonges, and therewith wring or nippe the toppe close together; whereby it shall be closed as if it had no vent before.” Tymme uses the adverbial form in a different passage: “A smal cappe or cover, with his receiver, strongly and well luted, hermetically closed rounde about.” Such seals were usually achieved through soldering, welding, or fusion. “Hermetic seal” and “hermetically sealed” as such the OED dates later in the 1600s.

Tymme’s work, it’s worth noting, also provides the OED’s earliest evidence for the word chemistry. And alchemy, so much the precursor to modern chemistry, was once known as the hermetic science.

Now, the ultimate origin of the Greek Hermes is sealed off to us, so to speak. The god’s name, though, also lives on in another English words: hermaphrodite. In Greek mythology, Hermes and Aphrodite had a son, the handsome Hermaphroditos. The water nymph Salmacis fell so deeply in love with him, according to one version of the myth, that she wished the two joined into one. The gods granted her wish, hence this word variously applied to something or someone with both male and female parts.

Folk etymology erroneously connects the Hermes to hermeneutic, I’ll add while we’re on the topic. That word derives from the Greek for “interpreter.”

So, the phrase hermetically sealed looks to alchemy for its origin – so, too, I suspect, will some of the presidential candidates as they try to push on for the nomination after the New Hampshire results come in.

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Inside the “establishment”

As the candidates run for the US presidency, there’s one word many are running against (and from): establishment. We see the term especially used for the mainstream Republican party, though Bernie Sanders is increasingly positioning himself against a Democratic establishment. What established this word establishment, etymologically speaking?

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I suppose you should put on some good shoes if you want to be left standing in this anti-establishment campaign. “Establishment.” Doodle by me, shoes by Florsheim.

Establishment

The English language first sets up establishment in the late 15th century. Early on, establishment named a “settled arrangement,” particularly a legal one. In the tumultuous wake of the Reformation in the 1600s, the word often appeared in religious contexts, such as the establishment of a church sanctioned by the state. Come the 1700s and 1800s, we see the word referring to the Church Establishment, or simply the Establishment, like the Church of England.

(We can also speak of disestablishing a church. If we support such disestablishment, we are disestablishmentarians, advocating disetablishmentarianism. And if we oppose disetablishmentarianism? Why, we back antidisetablishmentarianism. All of this centers on late 19th-century efforts to disestablish the Church of England as the official state church. The record for antidisetablishmentarianism really just cites it as a very long word and not one with meaningful or widespread use outside of grade-school know-it-alls.)

In the 1900s, establishment’s power widened, with early references to “the dominant social order” cited in the 1920s and 1930s. The textbook citation for the modern establishment, however, comes from journalist Henry Fairlie in 1955. In London’s The Spectator, Fairlie commented:

By the ‘Establishment’ I do not mean only the centres of official power—though they are certainly part of it—but rather the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised.

Later, across the Atlantic, liberal Republicans – associated with elite, East Coast institutions like Wall Street and Harvard, sometimes called Rockefeller Republicans – were disparaged as the “Eastern Establishment” in the 1960s, perhaps anticipating the pejorative currency of the term that surged with the Tea Party in the 2000s.

At the core of establishment is establish, of course. Dated to the late 1300s, the English word has French footing: establir, which variously meant “to set up.” We can take this establir back to Latin, French’s lexical establishment. Latin had stabilīre, “to make stable,” grounded in the same root of English’s own stable: stabilis, “steady,” “secure,” or, for the lack of better gloss, “stable.” And standing tall in stable is the root verb, stāre, “to stand.” This verb, stārealso yields a great many English words, like station and constant. A stable for horses ultimately comes from stabulum, also related to this “standing” stem of stā-

This 2016 race is definitely shifting the political ground, leaving us all wondering – etymology aside – just how stable the establishment will prove to be.

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What is the “quag” in “quagmire”?

Not too many people would say they love politicians. Late-night talk show hosts and word nerds, however, are notable exceptions, ever drawing from the endless well of political speech. Recently, quagmire has taken the political – and lexical – limelight, thanks especially to Bernie Sanders’ use of it at the first Democratic debate this past week in Las Vegas, as Ben Zimmer has analyzed over at Vocabulary.com.

Let’s step – cautiously – into the origin of quagmire: Its roots just may be hard to extricate.

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There’s been a lot of ‘chatter’ on “quagmire,” and not just from the chattering classes. “Chattering Teeth.” Ink, ballpoint, and sharpie on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Quagmire

Quagmire has been stuck in English since 1566, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Back then, it referred to an “area of wet, boggy land that gives way under foot.” Thanks to how hard it can be to extricate oneself from a quagmire, its metaphorical extension is documented not long after in 1577.

Growing up, my dad loved characterizing my puerile indiscretions, if I’m to be generous, as having “mush for brains.” Perhaps he was just channeling his inner bard. Shakespeare used quagmire for something “soft, flabby, or yielding” (OED) when Talbot threatens in Henry IV of Frenchmen to “make a Quagmire of [their] mingled brains.”

Another term – and etymological clue – for quagmire is a “quaking bog,” for a bog’s ground quakes, or shakes, underfoot. Philologists like Walter Skeat, Ernest Weekly, Eric Partridge, and Ernest Klein see quagmire as nothing more than quakemire, a form of quagmire attested in the late 1500s. This makes quagmire a compound of quake and mire.

Quag is indeed a regional variant of quake, from the Old English cwacian and cweccan, which variously signified quaking, shaking, and trembling, sometimes of the teeth in fear, other times of weapons in fighting. Its ultimate origin is unknown. Many suggest that it is imitative. Can you hear quivering or shaking in quake?

Swamp things

As the OED offers, however, quag might be a variant of a different word: quab, a “marsh” or “bog.” Appearing in the early 1400s, this quab is reconstructed in the Old English *cwabba, which itself might just mean “to quake.” Like quake, the origin of *cwabba is unknown, but it also might be echoic. Here, the lends a bubbling and gurgling sound effect, fitting for a swamp. English has had other quabs: the word has named, if on an obscure and rare basis, certain kinds of fish as well as sea cucumbers. Historical linguistics note connections to slimy critters (e.g., toads) in other Indo-European languages, suggesting, as the OED does, a root in “something slimy, flabby, or quivering,” certainly not out of place in swamplands.

Speaking of swamplands, mire, meanwhile, is Scandinavian in origin, emerging in Middle English and related to the Old Norse mýrr, a “bog” or “swamp.” The word is cognate to English’s own moss. Both mire and moss are taken back to an Indo-European root for swampy ground and wet vegetation found there, the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots explains.  The metaphorical mire is evidenced by the end of the 1300s.

Etymologically, we may not find terra firmwith quagmire, but, when it comes to the ‘muck’ of politics, this word works on so many levels.

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