From soda ads to ancient military strongholds, this week featured many newsworthy names. Let’s have a look at a few—and, as always, their origins.
Yesterday, British Prime Minister Theresa May triggered—as so many media outlets reported it—Article 50, which begins a two-year process of negotiations culminating in the UK’s exit, or Brexit, from the European Union. Let’s pull the etymological trigger on this truly historic word.
Disaster has been averted. This week, consumer goods conglomerate Unilever announced it was hiking its prices on British supermarkets in response to the plummeting pound. But Tesco, the biggest supermarket chain in the UK, refused to pay. Unilever stopped deliveries, leaving such staples like Marmite – Britain’s iconic, love-it-or-hate-it, savory, salty yeast paste – to dwindle to dangerously low levels. After both Unilever and Tesco saw their stock prices drop, though, the two companies came to a resolution – and #Marmitegate came to an end.
What does Marmite mean, anyways, and where does the name come from?
In the late 19th century, German chemist Justus Liebig found a way to render brewer’s yeast into a foodstuff. In 1902, Britain’s Marmite Food Company brought the extract to market, originally advertising the dark, sticky paste for use in stews and soups, which could be cooked in a marmite. A marmite is a large, usually earthenware stockpot with a cover, like the one Marmite has displayed on its packaging from the start:
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests marmite as marmet in 1581, noting the cookware was commonly hung over fires in the West Midlands. Marmite as such emerges by 1805, commonly employed by soldiers, who later used it slang for pot-like “bombs” during World War I.
The English marmite comes from the French marmite, a “cooking pot.” (English may have borrowed the word into the language on two occasions, as the OED’s different regional and military citations suggest.) But the origin of this French marmite, attested in the late 1300s, is obscure. Some, however, including France’s own National Center for Textual and Lexical Resources, have a theory: it comes from a different meaning of marmite, a “hypocrite.”
A hypocrite? Love it or hate it, the idea is that a marmite hides what’s cooking inside just as a hypocrite conceals their true character. Apparently, this marmite literally means “murmuring cat,” joining marmotter (an onomatopoeic word for “mumble, mutter, murmur”) and mite, a term for a “cat.”
The OED, for one, is not convinced by this etymology – though some may joke a mumbling cattiness is as iconically British as Marmite itself.
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With Michael Gove throwing in his hat and Boris Johnson throwing in his towel, the post-Brexit scramble for Tory – or Conservative – leadership was thrown into confusion this week in the UK. This chaos is fitting, if we look to history of Tory, a word embroiled in many conflicts of its own.
A Tory story
In its conquest of Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries, England massively dispossessed the Irish of their land – among other depravations. Out of need, pride, and retaliation, some Irish turned to outlawry, plundering and killing English settlers and soldiers. By 1646, in the wake of a bloody rebellion, the English mocked these ‘Catholic, marauding bog-trotters, these savage, moss-trooper highwaymen,’ with a nickname: “tories.”
Documented in the Irish State Papers nearly a century prior, the term tory meant “outlaw” or “robber.” It derives from the Irish tóraí, from tóir “to pursue.” (Older forms, depending on your transliteration, include tóruighe, a “pursuer” or “searcher,” via tóirighim, “I pursue.”) Etymologists connect these forms to older Celtic and Indo-European bases meaning “running up to” and “to turn” or “roll.”
By 1679-80, this Tory, now with a capital T, was slung at the so-called Exclusioners, who were opposed to the succession of James, Duke of York, to the Crown. James was Catholic. What better way to attack his supporters – and stop, God forbid, any restoration of Irish land – than link them with those wild Irish tories? And what better way for the Tories to hit back than with Whig, those Protestant yokels and bumpkins? The origin of whig is uncertain, but some think it originally mean “horse driver” in Scottish Gaelic.
Many of these Yorkist Tories formed a new political party in 1689: the Tories. It was born of a longer tradition of royalism – of championing the power of the Church of England – going back to the English Civil War. Tory officially named the English Conservative Party until 1830, though, despite many changes in their political platform since, the term is still used informally today (as it is in Canada). During the American Revolution, Tories were colonists loyal to the British crown. During the American Civil, Confederates called Union sympathizers in their midsts Tories.
For many in Britain today, the etymology of Tory, that “bandit,” is mot juste, from conservatives who feel Gove stole leadership from Johnson to Remainers who feel Brexiters stole the UK from the EU. And while the meaning of our words change, our politics are as messy as ever. Perhaps we should look to that older root of Tory, “to pursue,” and apply it less to fighting and more to solutions.
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“An intermittent hot spring, throwing up water, etc. in a fountain-like column.” No, this isn’t a description of how a lot of Brits are feeling, still queasy from Brexit, after their team’s knockout loss to Iceland in the Euro football tournament last night. It’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the word geyser, one of the few modern words English borrowed from Icelandic.
“Modern” is key to the history of geyser. From the late 700s to the early 1000s, the Vikings, whose Old Norse tongue was ultimately parent to the Icelandic language, invaded the British Isles – and their native tongues, leaving its mark in everyday words like sky, egg, knife, and they. But geyser is a much more recent loanword.
In 1763, Britain’s long-running Annual Register included this account: “Geyser, a wonderful spring in the valley of Haukedal, is but a few miles from Skaalholt.” The entry goes on to describe the “terrible noise, like the discharge of small arms” of the “surprising phenomenon” which “happens once a day.” It credits its description to a Mr. Olav, who encountered it in 1746.
This geyser is Geysir, the proper name of a particular geyser, the country’s own Old Faithful, in the Haukadalur valley in southwest Iceland. English generalized the term for this geological feature by 1780. Come the 1850s, English was using geyser for figurative gushes.
And “gush” is key to the etymology of Geysir. The name literally means “The Gusher,” related to the Icelandic geysa and Old Norse gøysa, “to gush.” (Old Icelandic had gjós-æðr, a “gush vein,” or “artery.”) English’s gush is cognate, as is gust, gut, font, funnel, various iterations of the Latin root in infuse, and, incredibly, futile. The Indo-European root is *gheu-, “to pour.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots notes that some scholars think this “pour” was in reference to libations, which could make it the long-troubling source of the word god.
In today’s Icelandic, a geyser is a goshver, which looks like gusher. But as far as I can tell, this word actually joins gos (“eruption”; an eldgos is a “volcanic eruption,” or “fire eruption”) and hver, a term for a “hot spring” that originally meant “kettle” or “cauldron.”
In a land of so much geothermal activity, there are subtle but important distinctions between different types of geysers based on temperature. According to Richard S. William’s Icelandic-English Glossary of Selected Geoscience Terms, hverir are hot springs over 70ºC, laugar are warm springs between 30-70ºC, and volgrur are lukewarm springs under 30ºC.
Today though, Iceland should forget such distinctions and celebrate their historic performance in the UEFA Euro 2016 with the full force of their country’s own Great Geysir.
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The result of the “Brexit” referendum is historic: Britain has voted to leave the European Union. The very word leave has made its own history, too: It originally meant “to remain.”
Leave, or what “remains”
Historically, we can consider leave a contronym: a word that means its opposite, like cleave, dust, and sanction. In the earliest record, leave meant “to leave behind,” as in one’s family or property in death. By the 1200s, we see its sense shift and broaden to “leave behind” a place (as one also does in death), hence “to go away” and “depart.”
English’s leave is from the Old English lǽfan, a causative verb that meant “to have a remainder” or “to cause or allow to remain,” as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it. (Think “what is left.”)
Surprisingly, leave is also related to live and life, which, as the Brexit underscores, is a big, fat, sticky mess. Quite literally, if English’s Proto-Indo-European (PIE) forebears are correct: the root *leip- means “to stick” and “fat.” In Greek, this root became λίπος (lipos), “grease” or “fat,” yielding the English lipid and liposuction.
In the Germanic languages, the PIE *leip-, with its underbelly of “adherence,” connoted “continuance,” hence the strange jump to life, live, and liver, once believed to make the body’s blood. The root also produced the Germanic base for “remnant” and “remain,” ancestor to the Old English lǽfan.
Ernest Klein, in his etymological dictionary, cites some other curious descendants of *leip-: the Albanian for “eye boogers,” the Latin for “bleary-eyed” (and, in part, “celibate”), and the Old Slavonic for “bird-lime.”
What, exactly, Britain’s vote to leave leaves behind, well, remains to be seen. In the meantime, if markets and politics are any measure, the Brexit seems to be living up to its ancient etymology.