What is the “feck” in “feckless”?

Heads up: strong language ahead.

Comedian Samantha Bee sparked controversy this week when she called Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt” for her political complicity. The obscene remark, which Bee has since apologized for, had some wryly observing: why is everyone up in arms over feckless?

I think feckless and cunt are due for the etymological treatment.

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This balloon has lost all its feck. (Pixabay)

Continue reading “What is the “feck” in “feckless”?”

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“Hallelujah”: word of praise, lord of song

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

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.”

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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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What is the “pall” pallbearers bear?

Muhammad Ali will be laid to rest in his hometown, Louisville, Ky., today. The distinguished boxer will have some distinguished pallbearers for his memorial processional, including actor Will Smith alongside Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson, fellow champions in the ring. But what is this pall that they will be bearing?

Pallbearer

Today, pallbearers carry the coffin at a funeral. But historically, they held the four corners of a pall, or the cloth spread over the coffin. This tradition originated in the Middle Ages, apparently, though the custom of covering the dead is ancient. According to some accounts, pallbearers held the pall in place as other men or a vehicle bore the casket to a church. Others indicate pallbearers carried the pall into a church and ceremonially touched or held it during a service.

The funeral pall has been draping the English language since the 1400s but the word is documented in Old English as pæll. This pall originally referred to a rich cloth, often purple, that robed high-ranking persons or covered a church altar, where they are still in use today.

Old English derives its pæll from the Latin pallium, a “covering” or “cloak.” In Ancient Rome, pallia, to use the Latin plural, first referred to the cloaks worn by Greek philosophers, later by Christians who eschewed the native toga. Latin’s pallium is related to palla, a “robe,” “cloak,” or “mantle,” but the ultimate origin is obscure.

By the 1500s, we see pall transferred from rich robes and altar cloths to general coverings. By the 1700s, the cloth’s associations with funerals cast a pall of darkness and gloominess over the word. Pale, pallor, and appalled are unrelated; these derive from the Latin pallēre, “to be pale,” whose Indo-European root means, oddly enough, “dark-colored.”

The Oxford English Dictionary specifically attests pallbearer by 1707, while the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology notes the word shifted to its current sense of coffin-bearing by the early 1900s.

Muhammad Ali’s passing definitely casts its pall, but his legacy will need no bearer: It stands on it own, like a champion raising his gloves in victory.

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Dos niños: Christmas, weather, and nursery words

What do El Niño and Christmas have in common? It’s not just the unseasonable weather much of the US is experiencing this holiday, though my drought-stricken state of California is getting a much needed White Christmas in the Sierras. No, this weather pattern and Christian holiday also share a crib, etymologically speaking.

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A common etymological crib. “El Niño.” Doodle by me.

El Niño

Spanish speakers will readily recognize el niño as “the child” or “the boy.” In the case of the proper noun El Niño, it’s a very special little boy, at least to Christians: El Niño de Navidad, the Christ Child.

But to many people who don’t speak Spanish, El Niño means some weird weather. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration explains it: “The term El Niño refers to the large-scale ocean-atmosphere climate interaction linked to a periodic warming in sea surface temperatures across the central and east-central Equatorial Pacific.”

But what does this have to do with baby Jesus? South Americans – and many sources specify Peruvian fishermen as early as the 1600s – noted the warm waters of the weather phenomenon occurring during December. Hence, the association between the weather event and Christmas.

Christmastime, then, can bring Dos Niños. 

Baby talk 

As for the origin of the Spanish noun niño (and its feminine form, of course, niña)? Etymologists are pretty sure it’s ultimately a baby or nursery word, expressing the noises babies first babble or the sounds parents and caretakers present to their children. Like mama and papa, which the excellent linguist John McWhorter recently had a fascinating piece on over at The Atlantic.

I think it’s neat  – if, of course, arbitrary, given the accidents of language and society – that two so very complex systems affecting so many millions of people across the globe – one meteorological and climatological, the other cultural and religious – share this little bit of baby talk: niño.

Well, it’s been another great year of word origins. Thanks, everyone, for your interest and support. I’m looking forward to another year ahead. It’s a presidential election year in the US, so I’m sure it’ll be a good one.

The Mashed Radish will be back in 2016. Happy Holidays!

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