A country, a hat, a palindrome – “Panama”!

What do rum and capybaras have in common? Why, the origin of Panama.

A huge thanks to the many people who filled out the Mashed Radish reader survey. I received some incredibly instructive feedback. And as you may have noticed, I’ve already been acting on some of it with my short “Etymologies of the Day” I’m posting during the workweek in addition to my feature posts. Let me know what you think of these at my email, on Twitter, or in the comments section below.

I’ve also randomly selected a survey respondent, who got to choose the etymology for today’s post. Her name’s Maïra – who runs a lovely blog featuring art, Arabic song and poetry, and other cultural reflections. She was curious about the origin of Panama.

panama hat.jpg
A panama hat, which actually comes from Ecuador. Image from pixabay.com.

Continue reading “A country, a hat, a palindrome – “Panama”!”


Etymologists are wary of March Madness.

No, it’s not the term bracketology, describing the art, science, and ritual of filling out one’s tournament bracket, which word induces many a cringe. (I, for one, find it to be a perfectly fine coinage.) It’s the inevitable utterance, “There goes my bracket,” issued in resignation when an upset fells one’s lovingly, inevitably wrought bracket.

See, we avert our eyes, for a bracket is, etymologically speaking, a “codpiece.”


Bracket (16th century) took the form bragget in Old English, referring to a “support in architecture” (Weekley). Skeat specifies it as a “corbel”–not the champagne (that’s with a k), nor Microsoft’s typeface, but one of these:

A Venetian corbel, courtesy of Wikipedia.

This bragget comes from the French braguette, meaning “codpiece” or “codpiece armor.” (How important you are, little r: Je voudrais un café et une braguette). As Skeat explains, bracket was “[s]o named from the resemblance to the front part of a pair of breeches, as formerly made.” In the 15th century, men wore separate hose, one for each leg, along with drawers. The crotch, though, needed a bit more protection and concealment. Enter the codpiece. Protection and concealment gave way to fashion statements, and the codpiece served to, emphasize, shall we say. Imagine, if you will, the above corbel in profile.

Forget Warren Buffet’s billion-dollar bracket contest.  Tied with its little bow, I think Henry VIII’s beats out anything even David Bowie could offer within this “winning bracket”:

Henry VIII keeping a straight face. Image courtesy of The Daily Mail online.

The French braguette is a diminutive of brague (14th century), or “pants” or “breeches,” believed to be Gaulish in origin, perhaps in the form of *braca. Speaking of Gaulish, learn a little bit more about Gaulish and other Celtic languages on my latest guest post at Lexicolatry.

Even in the Romance languages, though, the codpiece was used as an architectural metaphor. Brague also referred to a “mortise.” And Spanish, for example, has bragueta, naming both “codpiece” and “bracket.”

Borrowing from the proposed Celtic origin, Latin has bracae for “pants” and Germanic forms (such as Old English’s brec, whence “breeches”) are traced back to a Proto-Germanic *brokiz, maybe from a Proto-Indo-European root for “break” (*bhreg-). Partridge attempts a Proto-Indo-European *brac-, “to encircle” or “gird on.” Perhaps there is an argument for this, given that early codpiece technology featured a kind of belt the wearer strapped on.

How about those typographical brackets: [ ], { }, ( ), and < >, among others? These are “from resemblance to some double supports in carpentry,” as Weekley tells us. The ODEE dates the usage back to the 18th century, noting that, in the 17th century, they were called braces. Believed to have influenced senses of bracket, brace we can trace back to the Latin brachhium, for “arm,” from Greek brakhion, for the same.

As for the origins of the kinds of tournament bracket we see in the NCAA, Slate magazine points us to an 1851 London Chess tournament. Below is a diagram of from the competition, as Howard Staunton provides in his 1873 account, The Chess Tournament. I think the image gives us an effective visual etymology, if you will:


Linguist and language commentator Ben Zimmer gives us more on “brackets.”

I suppose the real winner in all this is the human imagination–and its ability to add little spice or color to something as mundane into as, you know, that thing-y that holds up that bookshelf on your wall. 

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socks & cardinals

Fast Mash

  • Sock, attested as socc as far back as 725, is from the Latin, soccus, meaning “slipper,” which may come from a yet more Ancient Greek word for some type of early footwear
  • Cardinal, as in “fundamental” and numbers, comes from Latin’s cardo (hinge)
  • The adjective form of the noun, cardinalis, gave us the name for the Catholic dignitary, occupying a pivotal position in the church, and whose scarlet robes inspired the name of the bird

First off, take a minute to check out (and follow) Lexicolatry, a fun and informed project run out of Ireland by Eddie, a linguaphile reading the OED and blogging about it, one word at a time. He graciously invited me to guest-post about breakfast, which I adapted from my own. And it’s not just leftovers–it also includes fresh goetta.

Second, I want to thank all my new followers and re-tweeters of late. For the isolation we fear it can cause, social media is also so good at building community. You can’t throw a digital dictionary without hitting a word nerd online.

The leaves may not change much out here in Southern California, but the air is crisp and cool on the coast, and the World Series is on TV. Whoever you are rooting for, I can’t help but root for sock and cardinal. (Permission to groan like you would at a bad call from an ump.)


They get holes, they get stinky, they get mismatched, they get mysteriously gobbled up by the dryer. Some can’t stand to sleep in them (moi), others can’t stand to sleep without them. Socks are fussy, but, as a word, sock is hard to quibble with.

The word is attested as socc (synonym for slebescoh in Old English, or “slip shoe”) as far back as 725, when, according to the OED, it referred to a “light, low-heeled shoe.” It’s from the Latin soccus, which meant “slipper.” Germanic languages variously darned it, including German’s own Socke. Latin’s soccus may derive from Ancient Greek’s sykchos, which the Online Etymology Dictionary glosses as a “kind of footwear from Phrygian or another Asiatic language.”Think modern day Turkey. The word’s older meanings indeed point to sock’s evolution of form, function, and fashion, including the world’s ostensibly oldest known pair, made in Egypt somewhere between 250-420 AD. The divided toe was designed for sandals:

oldest known socks

At least Big Bird, Germans, and Garrison Keillor would have been right at home in them.


Latin had cardo, a multifunctional word which meant “pivot and socket,” “hinge,” “turning point,” “axis,” “pole,” or “boundary,” among other meanings. In its adjective form, cardinalis, a mechanical metaphor was already at work, signifying “principal” or “fundamental”–literally, “on which something hinges or depends,” as the OED puts it. Hence, cardinal virtues, winds, sins, numbers (so-called because, according to Percyvall in 1591, all the rest depend on them). This adjective gave its blessing to its ecclesiastical sense: a principal dignitary in the Catholic Church, next in rank to the pope and among whom the pope is chosen. It is after cardinals’ red vestures the Northern bird species was named by early colonists.  

And why do cardinals wear red? According to the College of Cardinals, the red cap cardinals don, called a biretta, is:

…red as a sign of the dignity of the office of a cardinal, signifying that you are ready to act with fortitude, even to the point of spilling your blood, for the increase of the Christian faith…

I bet many fans of the Redbirds feel the same way right now.

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