Because there’s always a reason to talk about pets…and etymology

I could have written about Zuckerberg today, with the Facebook CEO in the congressional hot seat. His surname literally means “sugar mountain” in German—and I don’t think that’ll be the next Farmville or Candy Crush any time soon.

I thought to write about raid, which the FBI did to Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen on Monday. Raid originates as a Scottish variant on road.

Instead, I settled on pet. April 11th is, apparently, National Pet Day, “celebrating pets and encouraging adoption” since 2005, according to the organizer’s website. The day, as quirky and numerous as these random unofficial holidays are in our social media feeds, also invites some welcome etymological escapism.

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My pet, Hugo.

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Persian pleasure gardens, the Christian afterlife, and tropical tax havens: the origins of “paradise”

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?

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For the etymological paradise, we need to look to different sands. (Pixabay)

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The sneaky, slinking roots of “mooch”

Mooch may ultimately derive from an old Indo-European root meaning “darkness” or “silence.” 

The new White House Communications Director, Anthony Scaramucci, drew many people to dictionaries last week for his distinctive surname. Scaramucci is indeed related to scaramouch, “cowardly braggart,” originating as a stock character in Italian comedy and familiar to most of us from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. As I discussed in an earlier post, the Italian scaramuccia gives English skirmish and scrimmage.

As if Scaramucci weren’t already colorful enough, Trump’s new Comms man also goes by the nickname the Mooch. Mooch, here, is taken from the pronunciation of his last name—although the word’s sense of “sponging” or “scrounging” are a bit ironic for a man who spent his career up to this point as a financier. So, where does this mooch come from, anyways?

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Under the cover of…mooch? (Pixabay)

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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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10 words with surprising Irish roots

From bother and trousers to slogan and slew, the English language has Irish etymology galore

We’re all Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, as we like to say, but so too are many of our words – and not just the more obvious ones like leprechaun or shamrock. There are many other everyday words whose Irish origins may just surprise you. You might even say there’s a whole slew of them:

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The gob- in gobstopper comes from an Irish word for “mouth.” (Pixabay)

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An etymology goes “rogue”

The latest Star Wars move, Rogue One, is out this week. The director, Gareth Edwards explained that its title functions as a military call sign, like Air Force One, and alludes to the Rogue Squadron and Rogue Group, an important troop of Rebel fighters in the original Star Wars films. (Rogue One features Rebel spies.) Edwards also said the title nods to the fact that his movie is the “rogue” one: the first standalone Star Wars film outside the main storyline.

So that’s how Rogue One came to be so called, in part. But how did rogue get its name?

A rogue operation

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first documents rogue, as roge, in 1489, when it referred to a “vagrant.” Over the course of the 16th century, the sense of rogue shifted. By the 1560s, it referred to a “scoundrel,” by the 1590s an “endearingly mischievous, rascally person,” and by the early 1600s an abusive term for a “servant.”

Rogue was a favorite of Shakespeare: He used rogue, to various degrees of insult and endearment, over 100 times in his plays. Perhaps the most famous example comes from Prince Hamlet: “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!”

Rogue has since shed its beggarly rags and servant’s uniform. Today, rogue can name a kind of maverick who breaks with the establishment or conventional wisdom for some righteous, if rebellious, cause. We can trace the modern sense of rogue back to the phrase rogue elephant, which, by 1835, referred to an “elephant living apart from the herd and having savage or destructive tendencies,” as the OED defines it.

Up until the 1830s, rogues were lowly louts, so why would we specifically call elephants rogue? Rogue elephant, as the OED observes, may have been influenced by a phrase in Sinhalese, spoken in Sri Lanka: hora aliyā, “thievish or restive elephant.” Rogue, originally, indeed decried thieves. And in the beginning of the 1800s, rogue was also referring to wayward horses. Underlying these senses of rogue, then, is an idea of “trickiness” and “unruliness,” whether of petty criminals or strong-willed beasts.

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Going rogue: teenage rebellion, elephant style? Image by Alan Rainbow, courtesy of freeimages.com.

Rogue elephants inspired the expression to go rogue, also first used of the pachyderm in 1905. Speakers transferred the behavior of rogue elephant and going rogue to other animals – including humans, of course –  in the early 20th century. These phrases subsequently pushed rogue towards senses of “aberrant” and “undisciplined,” a short step away from its more positive sense of “bad boy” today. The term rogue hero, documented by 1899, may have further helped nudge rogue along. 

Rogue agents

The etymology of rogue, fittingly, has itself gone rogue, shall we say. We simply don’t know where it comes from and it doesn’t seem like it wants to be pinned down. There are several theories, though:

  1. Rogue could have been shortened from roger, thieves’ slang for an “itinerant beggar who pretended to be a poor scholar from Oxford or Cambridge,” according to the OED. Perhaps this roger, first attested in 1536, could have derived from slang uses of the name Roger. While the meaning of roger fits rogue, the timeline and pronunciation pose problems.

  2. Rogue could have come from Latin’s rogāre, “to ask,” seen in English words like interrogate and abrogate. Here, etymologists cite classical examples where the noun form, rogātor, was used for “beggar.” Perhaps Latin’s rogāre influenced the aforementioned slang, roger, or English in some way borrowed the term directly?

  3. Rogue could have derived from a Celtic word, such as the Breton rog, meaning “haughty.” It’s unclear, though, how the “arrogance” of rog became the original “mendicancy” of rogue.

  4. Middle French had rogue, meaning “arrogant,” apparently not from the Breton rog but from a Scandinavian root, like the Old Norse hrōkr, “arrogant.” (Philologist Walter Skeat notes that hrōkr literally meant “rook,” a particularly noisy kind of crow.The OED, meanwhile, points to the Old Icelandic hroki, “the heap above the brim of a full vessel, hence “overbearing.”) Most etymologists dismiss this etymology, though some add that the spelling of the French rogue may have influenced the English.

Even etymologies need to rebel sometimes, it seems.

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Why do we call it the president’s “Cabinet”?

With some controversy, President-elect Donald Trump has been assembling his new Cabinet. But new cabinets are for kitchens, right? Why do we call these advisors, who head the executive departments of the US government, a president’s Cabinet?

Cabinet members

In the 16th century, there were two main meanings of cabinet. The first, and earliest, cabinet named a “case” that kept secret valuables, like jewels or letters, safe. This cabinet, later ornamental and fitted with shelves and drawers, became the furniture in our kitchens, bathrooms, TV rooms, and offices.

The other cabinet named a “small, private chamber.” Leaders would meet with political advisors in such places, apparently, to discuss the most sensitive and confidential matters. Over the first half of the 1600s, and by the metaphorical process known as metonymy, cabinet became the official name for the people who met in a such a room to advise a leader.

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A filing cabinet, which the Cabinet of the United States surely has quite a lot of. Image courtesy of freeimages.com.

Cabinet-makers

The Oxford English Dictionary credits the influential polymath Francis Bacon with the earliest recorded use of cabinet in a political context. In “Of Counsel,” an essay first published in 1612, Bacon mused on some of the challenges (“inconveniences”) of giving counsel to a ruler, including the loss of secrecy, undermining of authority, and the risk of betrayal. He then notes:

For which inconveniences, the doctrine of Italy, and practice of France, in some kings’ times, hath introduced cabinet counsels; a remedy worse than the disease.

Bacon was no fan, it seems, of cabinets. But by the time he acceded the English throne in 1625, King Charles is said to have formally introduced a “Cabinet Council” for additional, high-level, and possibly even more secret advisement alongside his Privy Council.

Now, the word cabinet doesn’t explicitly appear in the US Constitution. Article II, Section 2 does state the President

may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices.

On September 11, 1789, George Washington sent his nominations for four such officers to the Senate, which it approved: Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, the first-to-be-confirmed Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph. (Some include Postmaster General Samuel Osgood in this body.)

But it was James Madison, as far as we know, who first referred to these men as “the president’s cabinet,” drawing on what was by then a well-established term in British government. The presidential Cabinet has since expanded, including some name changes, to 15 departments. The most recent department in the cabinet, the Department of Homeland Security, was formed following a different September 11. 

Inside the cabinet

What do we know about the history of the word cabinet? Scholars generally take cabinet to be a diminutive form of cabin: “a little cabin.” Indeed, cabin is no secret in the shape or sound of the word cabinet, but our associations of the word with cupboards and government are so strong that we often don’t connect it to those shelters we escape to in the woods.

Cabin, originally a “temporary shelter” in the late 1300s, derives from the French cabane, “hut,” in turn from Late Latin capanna. Capanna, whose further origins are a mystery, also yields the Spanish cabana. A few have claimed it’s Celtic or Illyrian. And some note cabine referred to a “room for gambling” in an old French dialect. Talk about shady, backroom dealings. 

But how do we reconcile cabinet, the small room, with cabinet, the case and furniture? The French source of cabinet may have been influenced by the Italian gabinetto, a “little cage or basket,” hence a kind of “chest” or “closet.” This gabinetto is a diminutive form of gabbia, which may be ultimately rooted in the Latin cavus, “hollow,” origin of cave and even cage.

And no cabinet member ever wants to be boxed in or in the dark in a president’s administration. As Francis Bacon observed in “Of Counsel”: “The greatest trust between man and man is the trust of giving counsel.”

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Fascist baskets? The controversial origin of “basket”

At a recent fundraiser, Hillary Clinton turned heads when she remarked “you could put half of Trump’s supporters in what I call the basket of deplorables.” As political analysts consider the gaffe’s political fallout, the internet churns out hashtags and memes, and linguists inspect the odd usage of deplorables, etymologists are weighing a different controversy: the origin of the word basket

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Trying to declutter etymology: “Basket.” Image by Jean Scheijen, courtesy of freeimages.com

Basket

Writing in the first century AD, the Roman poet Martial quipped:

Barbara de pictis veni bascauda Britannis;
Sed me iam mavolt dicere Roma suam.

As one translation renders the epigram: “I, a barbarian basket, came from the painted Britons; but now Rome claims me for her own.” The Romans, it would seem, greatly admired Celtic wickerwork – and Martial, apparently, even liked to anthropomorphize it.

Etymologists have long cited this passage for the origin of basket, which isn’t woven into the English written record until the 1200s. They claim bascauda is a Latinization of a Celtic word Romans borrowed following contact between the two ancient cultures.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) takes issue with this theory, though. First, modern Celtic languages have basket words (e.g., Irish bascaed), but the record suggests they are actually loaned from English’s basket. Second, the dictionary is skeptical about the shift from Latin’s bascauda, a “bathing tub” or “brass vessel,” to English’s wicker basket.

But Ernest Weekley and Anatoly Liberman rebuff the OED’s skepticism. Weekley observes that canister, usually made of metal, is from the Latin for “wicker basket,” as it happens. Liberman explains that tunnel comes from a Germanic root for “cask.”

And how do make sense of the Old French baschoe, a “large wooden container”? This word, which yields the Anglo-French bascat, appears to evolve from Latin’s bascauda. Anyways, Liberman says bascauda probably meant a “large tub made of wood or wicker for washing goblets during or after a meal, rather than a bronze vessel.” 

So, it seems the Romans borrowed some woodworking technology from the Celts (consider the origin of car). They called this particular, tub-like container the bascauda. French fashioned this into baschoe, later morphing into bascat as the word made it way into English basket. And -et, a diminutive suffix we saw in the origin of target, helps explain how a “large wooden container” shrank down to something you’d take to a picnic.

As for bascauda? This could be related to fasces, a “bundle,” an important Roman symbol of authority and origin of the word fascism – the very sort of intolerant ideology Hillary Clinton tried, and failed, to call out with her “basket of deplorables” comment.

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Behind the name of the next US president: “Hillary” or “Donald”

…and then there were two: Hillary and Donald. A week after Donald Trump accepted his party’s nomination for president, Hillary accepted hers, the first woman to be nominated by a major political party in US history. 

Running up to the big day in November, we’ll be hearing  a lot of these two names. So, what sort of etymological qualifications do Hillary and Donald bring to the White House?

Hillary

The name Hillary broke its own glass ceiling, onomastically speaking: It was originally a male name. According to Oxford’s Dictionary of First Names, Hillary comes from a medieval form of the Late Latin masculine name, Hilarius.

The Latin Hilarius means “cheerful.” It was formed from hilaris and taken from the Greek hilaros (ἱλαρός), also meaning “cheerful.” Greek’s hilaros is related to hilaos, “gracious” or “kindly.”

There may be a yet deeper root for these Latin and Greek descriptors, if we look to Proto-Indo-European: *sel-, which the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots defines as “of good mood” and “to favor.” This root yields solace and silly, which originally meant “happy” and “prosperous.”

The name Hillary spread thanks to a 4th-century Gallo-Roman theologian, now saint, Hilarius of Poitiers. English observers honor St. Hilarius’ feast day on January 13, when one can celebrate Hilary-mass to usher in Hilary-tide. The timing of this feast was also used to mark court and academic sessions, hence Hilary term, at Oxford and Dublin.

By the late 19th century, Hillary became more popular  (and since exclusively so) for females. The double L spelling is a North Americanism.

Hilarius is a short way from hilarious, but this adjective is actually a late formation in the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary attributes it to Sir Walter Scott in 1823, when it meant, like its Latin and Greek forebears, “cheerful.” It soon characterized a “boisterous joy,” extended to and settling on “extremely funny” by 1925.

Donald

Sometimes with affection, sometimes with ridicule, and often with irony, Donald Trump often goes just by his first name: The Donald. Like his mother (and one of his golf courses), the name Donald hails from Scotland.

Donald is an Anglicized form of the Scottish Gaelic Domhnall. (The mh is pronounced more like a V. Domhnall also has its cousins across the Celtic languages.) Oxford’s Dictionary of First Names notes that the English spelling Donald was a misinterpretation of the original Gaelic and influenced by Germanic names that end with a D, like Ronald.

The Gaelic Domhnall literally means “world ruler.” Philologists think the ancient Celtic form was *dub-no-walos. This joins *dubno-, “world,” from an Indo-European root meaning “deep,” like the earth or ground, hence “world.” *Walos is anchored in *wal-, “to be strong,” seen in Latin-derived words like valor and value.

In the Middle Ages, many Scottish kings took the name Donald, as did St. Donald of Ogilvy, near Angus today. Clan Donald, also MacDonald (“son of Donald”), remains a major clan in the Scottish Highlands. 

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The origins of Hillary and Donald are fitting in their own ways, aren’t they? Many want a wonkish Hillary Clinton to be more “cheerful,” a complaint others see as tinctured with sexism. As for Donald? Well, many can imagine he might just start taking down his buildings’ “Trump” signs to display some Celtic etymology instead.

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The home of the “brave”

This presidential cycle, America seems more polarized than ever. But on the July Fourth holiday, we can all put aside our divisions and stand together in this home of the brave. As it turns out, the origin of the very word brave tells its own story of conflict – and in the end, perhaps a kind unity after all.

Brave roots, some not-so brave meanings 

Among its earliest meanings in English, brave didn’t mean “valorous.” It meant “showy,” “handsome,” or “finely dressed.” The Oxford English Dictionary attests these meanings in the mid-16th century. But come the early 17th century, the word had shaded towards a general sense of “excellent,” then its modern “courageous” and “intrepid.”

Brave has long been a starred-and-striped word. English borrowed it from the French brave, where it meant both “splendid” and “valiant.” (Think chivalrous cavaliers.) The French, in turn, was influenced by the Italian bravo, where this spangled adjective also meant “bold,” as well as by Spanish, which conveyed “wild” and “savage” with its bravo.

The further ancestry of brave may not be so easy to see – or so gallantly streaming. Some suggest brave is a variation on the Latin barbarus, meaning “foreigner.” Others, on pravus, “crooked” or “depraved,” hence “savage,” likely characterizing the ferocity of outsiders and enemies. (Note that depraved itself features the root pravus.)

Meanwhile, Walter Skeat insisted brave derives from the same Celtic root he believed gave English brag, citing breagh, or “fine.” Skeat also notes some competing theories in his sources, including Old Dutch and Swedish words.

Whatever the source of the word, the sense of brave seems to have developed from “wild” to “bold” to “showy” to “courageous,” apparently on the basis of outward demonstrations and displays. (Sounds pretty American to me, huh?)

Cognates to brave include bravado, bravura, and bravo! And the reason some called Native Americans braves didn’t have to do as much with any valor white traders or settlers observed: its thank to the French brave, which we should remember also connoted “savage.”

Brave‘s new world

Words, like Americans, are immigrants, coming from countries and tongues afar. Words, like Americans, are contradictory, teeming with conflicted and conflicting ideas, values, and experiences. And words, like Americans, can forget their deeper roots and stories.

But on Independence Day, Americans commemorate the beginning of its nation, its experiment. And I, as one American citizen, think that it’s fitting that the etymology of brave is obscure. There is bloodshed in its past. There are foreigners and outsiders. Yet there is also change and progress in the word’s meaning, from “flashy” to “fearless.”

The exact origins of brave have been lost to that melting pot of time, history, and memory. Regardless of our divisions, we are Americans – in the home of the brave, stars, stripes, sins, successes, and all.

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