An etymological stroke of “genius”

Over the weekend, President Trump took to Twitter to defend his sanity and intelligence:

Meeting with alarm and mockery alike, his unusual phrase “very stable genius” went viral. This sense of genius—an exceptionally intelligent or talented person—dates back to the 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Drawing on the earlier work of Francis Galton, American psychologist Lewis Terman classified a score above 140 as near genius or genius on his 1916 Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test, historical basis of modern IQ scales. These now use language like very superior or extremely high for scores at or above 130, as genius is tricky to define scientifically. Etymologically, however, it’s a different story.

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An etymological “epiphany”

You know those 12 Days of Christmas we’re always partridge-in-a-pear-treeing about? They end on January 5th, or Twelfth Night, when many celebrants end their yuletide festivities by taking down the decorations.

As its name suggests, Twelfth Night is the 12th night after Christmas and the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, which many Christians traditionally observe on January 6th. The Shakespearean comedy takes its name from the Twelfth Night holiday, but what is this Epiphany?

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El Greco’s Adoration of the Magi (Wikimedia Commons)

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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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“Superstition”: an unlucky etymology?

It’s Friday the 13th—a day of bad luck, if you are superstitious person, and a great occasion to look at the origin of the word superstition.

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Got that #FridayFeeling? (Pixabay)

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A Brief History of “X”

Yesterday, Apple unveiled the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, and iPhone X, which the company is pronouncing “iPhone Ten.” Ten years ago, Apple transformed the smartphone landscape—and our very lives, for better or worse—with its first very iPhone, hence the Roman numeral X, or 10, in its new mobile moniker. Let’s take a quick look at the history of X, from its birth as a letter and numeral to its spread into everything from Jesus to algebra.

The Roman Numeral X

As noted, X corresponds to the number 10 in Roman numerals. We know the ancient Romans adapted their notational system from the Etruscans, but the deeper roots of the symbols themselves are obscure.

One theory thinks the numerals evolved out of basic tally marks. The Roman numeral I (1) was a simple notch, with every fifth one double-notched, yielding V (5) and every tenth crossed into an X (10).

Another theory thinks the numerals emerged from hand-counting. I represents one finger and V a full hand. If you hold out your hand, you can see how the gap between the thumb and index finger might resemble a V. Hold out two hands for 10 and you can imagine how two V’s, stacked on top of each other, can look like an X.

Whatever their origin, the form of the symbols were adapted to the existing letters in the Latin alphabet—which included letter X.

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Roman numerals marking a seating entrance in the Coliseum (Romewise). 

The Letter X

The ancient Greeks added letter X—called chi, its 22nd letter and our 24th—when they borrowed the Phoenician alphabet. Originally, X represented a kh sound, but certain regional alphabets took to using the symbol as a convenient shorthand for frequent ks combinations in the language. The Etruscans also adopted this convention—and later the Romans, which ultimately made its way into the sound and shape of English’s own X.

The Christ X

The Greek chi is the first letter in Χριστός (Khristos), source of Christ. This epithet literally means “anointed,” a translation of the Semitic messiah; rubbing oil on heads of kings, priests, and other important figures was an ancient custom used to consecrate them.

The second letter Χριστός is rho—ρ and source of r—and together Χριστός was abbreviated to its initial in old manuscripts. This digraph became the Christogram ☧, symbolizing Jesus on various Christian materials and imagery. The shorter shorthand of X for Christ also appears in Xmas, i.e., Christmas, which has been in use since the 1500s. That letter X also resemble a cross, so central to the Christian belief system, further underscores its association with Jesus Christ.

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A chi-rho Christogram from a fourth-century sarcophagus (Wikimedia Commons).

The Kiss X

For Christians, Christ—and his symbol X—evoke faith and fidelity, and apparently medieval Christians, few of whom were literate, used X to sign documents as a token of their veracity.

This custom would also appear related to the modern use of X as a signature or in checkboxes, though we should never underestimate that this practice could just be because X is a distinctive and easy-to-form shape to make. Consider how we have X marks spots, dating to at least the early 1800s, which would seem to originate simply from, well, X marking spots.

Important documents were also sometimes signed with X and sealed with a kiss, and eventually the X-as-kiss emerged in letters and, now, text messages. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites a letter by naturalist Gilbert White in 1763: “I am with many a xxxxxxx and many a Pater noster and Ave Maria, Gil. White.” Others think White’s X’s signified blessings, with an 1894 letter from Winston Churchill to his mother marking the earliest known use of the kiss X: “Please excuse bad writing as I am in an awful hurry. (Many kisses.) xxx WSC.”

The Algebraic X

X has been standing in for unknown mathematical quantities (variables) since the 17th century, a practice adopted from the French. The OED first cites it in English polymath (pun intended) Jonas Moore’s 1660 mathematical treatise, Arithmetic.

Why X? Contrary to a popular 2012 TED Talk, the OED offers:

The introduction of x, y, z as symbols of unknown quantities is due to Descartes (Géométrie, 1637), who, in order to provide symbols of unknowns corresponding to the symbols a, b, c of knowns, took the last letter of the alphabet, z, for the first unknown and proceeded backwards to y and x for the second and third respectively. There is no evidence in support of the hypothesis that x is derived ultimately from the mediæval transliteration xei of šay’ ‘thing’, used by the Arabs to denote the unknown quantity, or from the compendium for Latin res ‘thing’ or radix ‘root’ (resembling a loosely-written x), used by mediæval mathematicians.

X-tensions

The algebraic X is also responsible for the X in X-ray, a translation of the German X-strahlen (literally “X-beams”). German scientist Wilhelm Röntgen discovered them in 1895 and, taking a page from mathematics, so designated because he didn’t fully understand them.

The “unknown” X also produces that “indefinable quality” of the X-factor, which dates back all the way to the 1930s.

X’s sense of mystery probably led to X’s wide use in naming, from the X-Files to SpaceX, with X here conjuring up a sense of possibility, of wonder. Its associations with words like extreme and extra further lend it to so much branding (e.g., Xbox, Yukon XL, UberX). Names like Gas-X and Clean-X play with X as ex, or “former,” with X perhaps additionally calling up advanced technology, thanks to the letter’s “unknown” (read futuristic) resonances.

The unknown is also uncertain, which produces the X in Generation X, first used in the 1950s for a “generation of young people about whose future there is uncertainty.” Later uses of Generation X play upon valences of X as anxious or edgy for this supposedly disaffected post-Boomer population.

X is also a prominent sound in sex. Perhaps advertisers subliminally take advantage of this connection, but the XXX for pornographic content appears to come from the use of X for motion picture ratings for adult films. (I suspect the choice of X here prudishly alludes to the letter’s connotations with “wrong.”)

XXX, finally, was also used for the potency of various beers in the 19th century, likely leading to the trope of XXX for strong booze in cartoons.

***

Due to some upcoming wedding celebrations (I’m honored to be marrying my sister- and soon-to-be brother-in-law this weekend), Mashed Radish will taking Friday off.

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Taking a hit of etymology for 4/20

It’s April 20, or as many marijuana enthusiasts know it well, 4/20. Today, especially when the clocks strike 4:20pm, many people will light a joint or smoke a bowl in celebration of the herb. Contrary to all the myths about police codes, the number 420 is variously used to refer to marijuana thanks to a group of Bay Area high-schoolers who would meet at a campus statue after school at 4:20pm to get high and hunt for a secret patch where marijuana plants were growing. The time later went on to become a codeword for marijuana or getting high itself.

That’s the origin of 420. But what about the origins of the day’s honoree, marijuana, and some of its many related terms? I think this calls for a hit of etymology.

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In the etymological weeds? (Pixabay)

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Pens, penance, and pancakes: the origin of shrove

tShrove, as in Shrove Tuesday, and the related word shrift, as in short shrift, ultimately derive from the Latin scrībere, “to write.”

For Francophones and many speakers of American English, today is Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday,” a day of gorging and gamboling before the solemn and abstemious Christian season of Lent. But a lot of other Anglophones will know today as Shrove Tuesday.  What is this rare and unusual word shrove, and where does it come from?

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Can my penance be pancakes? Image from pixabay.com.

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Why do we call the end of the world “doomsday”?

The original doom wasn’t only about last judgments. 

This week, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reset its Doomsday Clock, a long-running warning against humanity’s own self-destruction, to two and half minutes to metaphorical midnight. It hasn’t been this close to midnight since 1953, after the US and Russia both tested H-bombs. Oy.

Nuclear weapons, climate change, rising nationalism, and yes, Donald Trump, are all pushing us closer to our own ruin, according to the Bulletin. So, let’s fritter away our remaining precious moments with a little etymology: Why is it called doomsday?

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Facing impending doom, you’d think we humans would have have better “judgment.” Image courtesy of pixabay.com

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The true meaning of “Kris Kringle”

The Santa Claus figure, who brings children gifts each Christmas in many Western cultures, goes by many names: Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Pere Noel, Grandfather Frost, to name a few. But one name, Kris Kringle, doesn’t originally refer to any Santa at all. 

Kris Kringle

The Oxford English Dictionary first attests Kris Kringle in James Watson’s 1830s Annals of Philadelphia: “Every father in his turn remembers the excitements of his youth in Belsh-nichel and Christ-kinkle nights.”

In Pennsylvania Dutch communities, Belsh-nichel, literally either “fur Nicholas” or “flog Nicholas,” is a mysterious, and terrifying, Christmas gift-giver who wears fur and carries a switch. For good children, Belsh-nichel brings candies. For naughty youngsters, he brings his switch down onto their backs.

Christ-kinkle, source of Kris Kringle, is also a Santa Claus character for the Pennsylvania Dutch. But originally, Kris Kringle is a name for that other central figure, and namesake, of Christmas: the Christ Child.

Kris is from the German for Christ, and Christ is from the Greek for “to rub” or “smear” oil, which anointed the likes of prophets, priests, kings – and Jesus the Christ, or Jesus the Anointed One. Kringle, if we reverse some sound changes and strip away a diminutive suffix in the Pennsylvania German language, goes back to kind, which means “child” in German. The English kind as in humankind, kind of, or “nice” – is related. Kind shares a deeper root with kin and oh-so-many other words, from a Proto-Germanic root meaning “family,” in turn from the prolific Proto-Indo-European root *gen-, “to produce.” 

In a number of European and Latin American cultures, the annual Christmas gift-giver isn’t Santa Claus but the Christ Child himself. Indeed, he goes by Christkind in a number of Germanic-language cultures, including in southwestern Germany, where many of the Pennsylvania Dutch hail from. (Nor should we forget Santa Claus ultimately traces back to the Dutch Sinter Niklaas, “Saint Nicholas,” a fourth-century Greek bishop whom Christians came to honor as the patron saint of children.)

For the Pennsylvania Dutch – and then the broader, Christian, English-speaking, North American culture – time merged a tradition of Santa Claus with the language of Baby Jesus: Kris Kringle. And so, if you’re one who is concerned that commercialism has made us blind to the “true meaning of Christmas,” Kris Kringle may offer a little etymological reminder. 

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“Gossip”: a baptism by etymology?

Did you hear about Brad and Angelina? Of course you did. Their divorce is hardly gossip: It’s news, thanks to the stature the celebrities have in our culture. But, as we do gossip about why the power couple split up, we’d be wise to remember the impact #Brangelexit will have on their children, especially as public as it is. And it’s the children, ironically, that’s the etymological subject of so much gossip.

What all the gossip is about

Back in Old English, a gossip was a godsibb, a person who sponsored a child’s baptism. We call them godparents today, and in Christian tradition, this person professed faith on behalf of the child during baptism (infants can’t talk) and ensured its spiritual upbringing should the parents prove unwilling or unable.

Godsibb joins God, as we see with godfather and godmother, and sibb, an Old English word that meant “akin.” So, a godsibb is related to the baptized child not in blood, but in God. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) actually finds record of godsibb in 1014, a compound formation paralleled in other Scandinavian languages (cf. Old Norse guð-sefe).

The form and meaning of godsibb clearly changed over the centuries. By the late 1300s, a gossip was referring to any “familiar acquaintance” or “friend,” likely due to the sense of godsibb as a close but non-blood relation. By the mid 1500s, when the modern shape of the word begins to settle, gossip extended to a “person who engages in idle chatter.” The earliest form, accord to the OED, comes as gossip-like in 1566.

Now, such a chatterer usually referred to a woman, a stereotype that stays with us today – but this may be because, as evidence in the early 17th century shows, a gossip was a “woman’s friend invited to a birth.” Presumably, such friends enjoyed some small talk during the downtime.

To gossip, or “chat idly,” emerges by 1627, and gossip, the talk of such an idle chatter, by 1811. Over the 19th century, the reputation of gossip becomes less favorable, taking on its shades of “groundless rumors.” And gossip column far predates today’s tabloids, found all the way back in 1859.

“My brothers and sisters”

God is an old, old word of Germanic origin, though its deeper etymological roots are quite disputed. Some find God in the Proto-Indo-European *gheu-, “to call or invoke,” others in another root of the same form, *gheu-, “to pour,” as the ancients did their libations.

And the Old English sibb was also a noun meaning “kinship” and “peace,” a unity we can imagine being enjoyed by close relations. And a sibling is such a “kin” or “relative.” But this word died out after Old English, only resuscitated in the early 20th century as a technical term in cultural anthropology and genetics. Indo-European scholars take sibb back to a Germanic base, *sibja, “one’s own,” from *swe-, the Proto-Indo-European root that also gives English the word self.

After their divorce, let’s hope Brad and Angelina find some way to make sib, or “make peace” as the expression once went, for the sake of all their children. 

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