The 13.4 million-file leak called the Paradise Papers are exposing the offshore, tax-avoiding dealings by some of the world’s richest companies and people, from Facebook to the Queen of England. Boosted by alliteration and allusion to last year’s Panama Papers, the BBC explains the paradise name:
The Paradise Papers name was chosen because of the idyllic profiles of many of the offshore jurisdictions whose workings are unveiled, including Bermuda, the HQ of the main company involved, Appleby. It also dovetails nicely with the French term for a tax haven—paradis fiscal.
But why do we call tropical islands like Bermuda paradise?
The end of the world loves ancient Greek and the Bible.
Threats between North Korea and President Trump this week made many of us fear were approaching the brink of a nuclearcatastrophe—among other, stronger and more colorful terms like armageddon. Well, not even the prospect of the end of the world can shake the etymological curiosity of this blogger. Why not go out with a little word nerdery and find out where our English’s apocalyptic vocabulary comes from?
We lost yet another great this year: Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer, songwriter, and poet who passed away at 82. Cohen was perhaps best known for his much storied and much covered song, “Hallelujah.” In honor of the legendary artist, let’s pay tribute to the etymology of one of his most defining words.
Hallelujah is an interjection used as an expression of worship: “Praise the Lord!” The Oxford English Dictionary first records it in the 1535 Coverdale Bible, the first complete Modern English translation of the Bible. The term mainly appears in the Psalms, which originally were religious songs. The English Hallelujah renders its Hebrew root, hallĕlū-yāh, among other transliterations: “praise God.” The Greek, and later Latin, rendition of the Hebrew also gave English alleluia, which is attested far earlier, in Old English.
The Hebrew hallĕlū-yāh comprises two elements. The first, hallĕlū,is the plural imperative of hallēl, “to praise, extol, celebrate.” A plural imperative directs more than two people to perform an action, which is why many older Bibles translate hallelujah as “Praise ye the Lord!” (Today, we just use the pronoun you for both one you and more than one you, but English used to have ye to refer to two or more people.) According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the Hebrew hallēl is imitative, a word for “praise” derived from the sound of an exalting trill.
The second element yāh is a shortened form of Yahweh. The history of Yahweh is a complex one, involving both deep religious beliefs and deep structures of Semitic languages. To put it simplistically, for many Jews, both now and in the past, the name of God was believed too holy to utter. So, sacred texts would render the name as YHWH, known as the Tetragrammaton (Greek for “four letters”), which scholars later vocalized as Yahweh or Jehovah. Some think YHWH itself may come from a root verb hāwāh, “to be,” making Yahweh literally mean “he that is” or “the self-existing.”
It can be difficult to reconcile Cohen’s dirgeful, cold, and broken hallelujah with its exclamatory, worshipful origin – though difficulty is at the very core of Cohen’s entire artistic project. But perhaps the raw, naked, and ancient etymology of hallelujah well captures the emotional energy of Cohen’s most famous song: a searching and yearning for some bigger meaning, which he finds in the self-existing sound, in a literal hallelujah. “I’ll stand before the Lord of Song,” he sang, “With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”
Apple turned many heads this week when it announced it’s scrapping the headphone jack in the iPhone 7. The jack, that little socket you plug your headphones into and sometimes the word for the plug itself, has had a good run: It’s a durable bit of technology dating back to the 19th century. But why we call it a jack is much, much older.
A jack of all trades
Since at least the late 1300s, jack has been naming all sorts of mechanical devices. One prominent contrivance is the Jack of the clock, simply called Jack at the end of 1400s. This was a little, mechanized man who strikes the bells on old clocks. Other early jacks include a turner of a roasting spit, a wooden frame for sawing, and various rollers and winches. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds all these uses in the 1580s.
Many such jack technologies proliferated in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, like the lifting-jack, which we still use, essentially, in changing a flat tire today. This is why we jack up, or “raise,” prices. Jack was first used of telephony, at least according to the OED’s account, in 1891, referring to that special electrical socket Apple is obsolescing. Plugging this socket is a jack plug, or now just jack, attested by 1931. Headphone actually predates both of these, appearing by 1882.
Early on, many of these jacks replaced the work of a man. Think of Jack of the clock, whose automatized timekeeping saved the services of some clocktower attendant in addition to providing an impressive, ornamental display of technological progress. During this period of history, Jack was a widespread nickname for any old regular guy. (We do this today with our Average Joe, Dear John,and even hip-hop’s New Jack.) And so the various tools and technologies took the name of the man they stood in for: Jack.
Jacks are truly an everyman in the English language. We see them in jackass, jack of all trades, jack-o’-lantern, lumberjack, Union Jack, you don’t know jack, and jackpot, whose jack, as I previously discussed, answers to the card suit.
Jack today, gone tomorrow
Now, in English, Jack has long been a pet form of the name John, historically one of the most common first names for men. We have evidence for it in the 1300s. Some think this Jack was a homegrown nickname, but most etymologists think Jack actually comes from the French name Jacques, also used as a familiar, often contemptuous name for a common man or peasant.
Jacques is ultimately a French form of name Jacob: Latin’s Iacōbus yields Jacques (and James),the Greek Ἰάκωβος (Iakobos)yields Iacōbus, and the Hebrew יַעֲקֹב (Ya’akōbh, among other renderings)supplies all of the above.
Scholars have given a few interpretations to the meaning of Jacob. One isthat it comes from the Hebrew word for “heel” (ʿaqeb, approximately) also carrying a sense of “to follow.” For this, they point to the biblical Jacob, younger twin to Esau. The Book of Genesis describes his birth: “And after that came his brother out, and his hand took hold on Esau’s heel; and his name was called Jacob.”
But in a later passage, Jacob takes on a more metaphorical meaning. When Jacob cheats his brother out of his birthright, Esau cries: “Is not he rightly named Jacob? for he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing.” Here, Jacob means “supplant.”
Jacob supplanted Esau. Jack supplanted Jacob. The mechanical jack supplanted Jack the workman. And Apple’s AirPods are supplanting the headphone jack.It’s as if the technology was etymologically bound to be replaced.
Now, speaking of the Pope, if you’re in D.C., New York, or Philadelphia this week, you may want to snag some papal swag. Perhaps an “I (mitre) the pope” t-shirt? Seeking a humbler pontificate, Pope Francis might prefer his zucchettoover his mitre(or miter), but, if he truly wants to build bridges, he should put on that special high, arched, and cleft ceremonial headdress. For the etymology of mitre bridges – or should I say, weaves together – the microscopic, the macroscopic, and just about everything in between.
Papal hats and baseball caps
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), English first dons mitre in Wycliffe’s Bible during the late 1300s. In one passage, mitre refers to the “ceremonial turban of a high priest,” from which we eventually inherit today’s term for this episcopal headgear.
But historically, mitre wore many hats. Even in other passages of Wycliffe’s Bible we see other meanings the word had in its French, Latin, and, ultimately, Greek sources. As Liddell and Scott observe, the Ancient Greek μίτρα (mitra) was a “headband worn by Greek women to tie up their hair.” It was also a “Persian headdress or turban.” Principally, though, a mitra was a “belt or girdle worn around the waist beneath the cuirass.”
The OED also historically observes the mitre as“an Asian headdress,” curiously adding, “the wearing of which by men was regarded by the Greeks and Romans as a mark of effeminacy.” Speaking of turbans and curious associations, childhood friends of Yogi Berra, whom we lost this week, once “watched a feature [film] that had a Hindu fakir, a snake charmer who sat with his legs crossed and wore a turban on his head,” explains the Society for American Baseball Research. “When the yogi got up, he waddled and one of the boys joked that he walked like Lawdie. From then on Berra was known as Yogi.” (Lawdie was his Italian parents’ pronunciation of his given name, Lawrence).
Driving cells, driving cars
Now, some suppose that Greek’s μίτραis derived from another Greek word, μίτος(mitos), “a thread of the warp” in weaving. The American Heritage Dictionaryof Indo-European Roots (AHD) sees a common thread for mitra and mitosin the Proto-Indo-European root *mei-, “to tie.”
German scientists spun the Greek mitos into mitosis and mitochondrion. By 1887, Walther Flemming likened to threads the chromosomes he observed during the process of what he called mitosis. In 1898, Carl Benda saw the chain-like engines of cells, which he dubbed mitochondria, as “thread granules.” The name of another German scientist – Rudolf Diesel – is remembered in the name of a different kind of engine, the manipulation of which scandalized Volkswagen this week.
Looking to the heavens
Fibers can be tied together. So can people, forming a “contract” or “friendship,” as the AHD glosses the Indo-Iranian descendant of *mei-, *mitram. This concept, sacred to ancient peoples (not to mention modern ones, too), was “divinized as a god,” the AHD goes on. Specifically, *mitram was represented in the Persian Mithras, the god of light, and the Vedic Mitra, also associated with the sun. Buddhists await the Maitreya, a future bodhisattva, successor to the Buddha and the Sanskrit root shared by Mitra.
Jordan Shipley observes that we see sacred bonds also formed in the Judaic tradition, viz. the covenants struck between Noah and Moses and God, respectively. The kingly title of rulers, Mithridates,is considered a theophoric form of Mithras.
The name of a current ruler, Vladimir Putin, who made headlines by asking to meet with Barack Obama next week, is from the Old Church Slavonic Vladimirŭ, meaning “ruling peace,” ironically enough, many might say. The Slavic *mirŭ is believed to mean “commune,” “joy,” or “peace,” according to the AHD, a sense preserved in Russian’s mir. For the connecting sense, think “bound together,” a lesson that would behoove our world leaders.
Out of this world, huh? That would be Mir, as in the former space station, named for this Russian word for “peace” and “world.”
Whew! Some of my connections may be a bit threadbare. But mitre, if etymology is any measure, turns out to be not only a Catholic word, but a truly catholic word as well.
In “Clerk (Part I),” we saw how the meaning of the English clerk has changed over the centuries. We also saw that this clerk ultimately derives from the Greek κλῆρος (kleros), an “inheritance” or “lot,” used in Greek texts of the Bible. So, what does “inheritance” or “lot” have to do with clergy, anyway? Scholars point to two Biblical usages of κλῆρος (kleros).
Chapter and verse
The first is in Deuteronomy 18.2, where God is described as the “inheritance” of the Levites. All the ancient tribes of Israel, as it goes, were promised land except for the Levites. They were the priests. They were temple assistants. The original clerks, if you will. Due to their sacred, sacerdotal responsibilities, they weren’t allotted any land. Instead, they lived off the tithings the other landed tribes provided them.
The second is in Acts 1.17. Here, Judas is described as one of the “number” of the 12 apostles and “shared in” the ministry. After Jesus’ resurrection and Judas hanged himself, the apostles needed to replace him to carry out their ministry. The apostles cast lots between two other disciples, Barsabbas and Matthias. The “lot fell” to Matthias. So close, Barsabbas.
And how did Ancient Greeks draw lots? Well, this κλῆρος(kleros) was literally a little “twig,” “wood chip,” “potsherd,” or, according to Liddell and Scott, even a “clod of earth.” Liddell and Scott point us to Homeric usages: Men would mark their lots, or little shards, and toss them into a helmet. Then, someone would shake the helmet and the first that fell out was the winning lot.
As the twig is bent
If we want to break apart κλῆρος(kleros) into smaller pieces, Proto-Indo-Europeanists direct us to *kel-, “to strike” or “cut,” with “derivatives referring to something broken or cut off” like a “twig” or “piece of wood,” to quote the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD). The AHD notes a number of other interesting derivates of *kel–, including the Germanic hilt and Hilda, the Celtic claymore, and the Italic gladiator. Apparently, the twig is mightier than the sword. Aside from clerk,Greek descendants also include clone, calamity, and iconoclast.
For as much as the word clerk has branched out, etymology and Kim Davis do have one thing in common: they both cite the Bible.
Plumb derives from Latin, plumbum, which meant “lead,” possibly from an ancient Iberian language, reflecting the source of lead for Romans and Greeks
In construction, a plumb is a string fixed with a weight, often made out of lead, and was used as a reference for vertical lines; thus, out of plumb, among other expressions
Nautically, a similar technology measured the depth of water; thus, plumbing the depths
A plumber was originally a worker in lead and later referred to those who work with plumbing pipes, originally made out of lead
Plunge and plummet are related
My mind’s been in the gutter. In the plumbing, more accurately. Well, technically, it’s my friend’s mine that’s gone cloacal. But I guess I started it. Prompted by my recent nautical-metrical streak, he requested plumb, adding: “I shudder to think of the implications that etymology may have for toilet repair professionals.” You asked for it, Shane. It’s actually pretty interesting.
Plumb has many pipes. Today, perhaps we know it best as plumbing thedepths, both figuratively and literally. And there’s a good reason we say that. On the sea, a plumb–also called a plummet–comprises a rope with a weight fixed to one end. It, well, plumbs the depths of the water. In fathoms, I suspect.
On land, a plumb–or a plumb line or plumb-bob–similarly comprised some string with a weight. It is a tool used in the building crafts as a vertical reference. Just as a level establishes a horizontal plane, so a plumb establishes the vertical or the perpendicular. The technology, apparently, dates back to ancient Egypt.
If you ever tinkered around in your grandfather’s garage or got stuck in an antique mall with your grandmother, you might recognize the plumb-bob in its more recent, pointed form:
So, when something’s out of plumb? It’s not exactly vertical. When something’s plumbin the middle? It’s there, downright and square. When a person shows a lot of aplomb, they are assured, steadfast. That comes from the French à plomb, “to the plumb line” or “according to the plummet”: poised, straight, and balanced.
Now, these plumbs were frequently made out of lead, whose Latin word was plumbum. Thus the element’s chemical symbol, Pb. (Speaking of Roman lead, some ancient wines were even made by boiling grapes in lead pots, which added a sweetness to the vintage. Indeed, “sugar of lead” is another name for lead acetate.)
Latin’s plumbum could also refer to “rulers” for drawing vertical lines and the pencils used to draw them. And it could refer to pipes. Yes, plumbing pipes.
Did you catch this in the New York Times last Friday? It was a correction, originally appearing on Friday, September 27 in section A2:
An obituary on Sept. 20 about Hiroshi Yamauchi, the longtime president of Nintendo, included a quotation from a 1988 New York Times article that inaccurately described the Nintendo video game Super Mario Bros. 2. The brothers Mario and Luigi, who appear in this and other Nintendo games, are plumbers, not janitors.
But why are plumbers called so, anyways?
The Latin plumbum could refer to pipes because the Romans did use the malleable and durable metal in many of its water pipes. (The effects of lead poisoning in ancient Roman, from what I can tell, have been overstated, however.) Many of these pipes are famous for their inscriptions, bearing the names of the manufacturer, owner, and sometimes even the emperor himself, designed to prevent theft:
Originally, then, a plumber was a lead worker and plumbing was leadwork. The OED first attests the word in a compound, plumber house, in 1385, in the form of Plomberhous. Not too much later, a plumber came to signify “a person who fits or repairs the pipes (originally made of lead), fittings, and other apparatus relating to the water supply, sanitation, heating, etc., for a building” (OED).
But just in case you ever thought the OED was too starchy, it does have an entry for “plumber’s butt” and “plumber’s crack” (as well as Britain’s related “builder’s bum”). Yes, somebody had to–or got to, depending on how you want to look at it–define “plumber’s crack” as:
…the top of the buttocks and the cleft between them, as revealed when a person bends over or crouches down, or by low-cut or ill-fitting trousers…
And the definitive record of the English language attests “plumber’s butt” in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1990.
Indeed, plumb enjoys a colorful life: In jazz slang, plumbing once referred to trumpets and trombones. In political jargon, plumbing refers to plugging up government leaks, thanks especially to Watergate, although the metaphor is much older. More jocularly, one’s plumbing can refer to what why we, well, need plumbing. And plumbum oscillans? It’s mock Latin, according to Partridge’s Slang, for “lead-swinging,” US naval officers’ playful term for “malingering” or “blatantly idling.” That’s my kind of slang: nerdy and Latinate.
And we have plunging neckline (attested, 1949) and take the plunge (1835).Or plummeting stock markets. (The sense of “falling rapidly” appears in the 1930s, probably from aviators). These, too, ultimately drain to plumbum.
So, can we plumb Latin’s plumb any deeper?
There is no certain origin for Latin’s plumbum. It might come from an ancient Iberian language; the OED notes that “lead came to the Greeks and Romans from Spain.” Shipley adds that “lead was mined in Spain as early as 2000 B.C.” And it’s probably related to Ancient Greek’s word for “lead,” μόλυβδος, or molybdos. Word-wise, that’s about as deep as this one sinks, far as I can tell.
But the metaphor of the plumb seems nearly as old as the technology itself. The Book of Amos in the Old Testament, which scholars believe was composed some time between the 8th and 6th centuries BC, features some rather dire consequences for being out of plumb with God. According to the “Vision of the Plummet,” Amos relates:
Then the Lord God showed me this: he was standing by a wall, plummet in hand. The Lord asked me, “What do you see, Amos?” And when I answered, “A plummet,” the Lord said:
“See, I will lay the plummet in the midst of my people Israel; I will forgive them no longer. The high places of Isaac shall be laid waste, and the sanctuaries of Israel made desolate; I will attack the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”
Um, ancient Israelites, I suppose the least of your worries is about how dense this plumb metaphor actually is.
Anyways, I speak often of etymology as “going down the rabbit hole.” But for those who grew up in the ’80s, perhaps we could swap out Lewis Carroll for Super Mario Bros. Sometimes a good word origin is like a “warp zone,” taking us to different worlds, one improbable pipe at a time.