From telegraphs to Twitter: a short history of “wiretapping”

One of the earliest recorded instances of wiretapping involves an anecdote about how Confederate general John Hunt Morgan bet a Union soldier two cigars if he could spell the word Lebanon.

In a series of shocking tweets this weekend, President Trump, providing absolutely zero evidence, said President Obama wiretapped his phones during the 2016 campaign. The word wiretapping evokes Watergate and Cold War espionage, but its roots goes back a century earlier. For before we tapped telephones, we tapped telegraphs.

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Where do the male (♂) and female (♀) symbols come from?

With roots in ancient astrology and alchemy, the male (♂) and female (♀) symbols may ultimately derive from ancient Greek abbreviations for the names of gods.

This week, President Trump rescinded the Obama administration’s “protections for transgender students that had allowed them to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity,” as the New York Times reported

Covering the story, many media outlets have presented images of gender-neutral bathroom signs such as:

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Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant bathroom sign, courtesy of adasigndepot.com
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This symbol, by no means universally embraced by the transgender community, seeks to depict non-binary gender identity by joining the classical sex symbols for male (♂) and female (♀) with a combined male-female one (⚦).

Where do these male (♂) and female (♀) symbols come from, anyway?

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From dinner to disarray: the origin of “mess”

Originally, we didn’t make messes. We ate them. 

In his presser yesterday, Trump claimed: “To be honest, I inherited a mess. It’s a mess. At home, and abroad — a mess.” Clearly, he was describing his own news conference, which was a hot one, because the facts just don’t back him up. But Trump does raise an interesting etymological question: Where do we inherit the word mess from?

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Mess: Get it whiles it’s hot. Image courtesy of pixabay.com.

On the table

English first serves up mess around 1300. Back then, it named “food for one meal.” The word comes into English from the Old French mes (Modern French metsand, before it, the Latin missus, a “portion of food” or “a course at dinner.” This etymological idea of “a serving” explains why we use mess as a general term for some loose “quantity,” particularly food, e.g., a mess of greens.

In Latin, missus literally means something “placed” or “put” – here, food on the table. The root verb is mittere, which shifted from “send” in Classical Latin to “place or put” in the language’s later years. Mittere has also delivered bundles of English words, from mass and mission to commit and promise

Getting into a “mess”

Over the centuries, mess lost its Michelin stars, so to speak. By the 1400s, mess referred to goopy foods like porridge, hence the biblical idiom mess of pottage.  (Today, we might recognize such a mess as the pasty gruel often plated up to ravenous children in the hellish summer camps of TV and movies.) This sense lead to a kind of “mixed, liquid slop fed to animals” in the 1700s. Alexander Pope, as an early instance, mocks metaphorical hogs chowing down on mess in his 1738 “Epilogue to the Satires.”

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What a mess: “Nine out of ten orphans can’t tell the difference.” Image courtesy of frinkiac.com, from The Simpsons, Season 4/Episode 1, “Kamp Krusty.”

And it’s from this notion of a nasty, mushy mixture that we get the modern mess: the senses of “jumble,” “confusion,” and “untidiness” emerge in the written record around the 1810s. Offshoots like mess up, make a mess of, and messy appear by the 1830-40s. To mess around, playfully or idly, is attested by the 1850s. Sexually? We’ve been messing around since at least the 1890s. 

“Mess” mates

The food sense of mess, though, kept cooking. In the 1400s, mess also referred to “a company of people who took their meal together,” especially military personnel in groups of four. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare mentions “a mess of Russians,” referring not to all the controversies surrounding the Trump administration, but to the four noble lovers in disguise.

From “dining companion,” mess later extended to the food and building where soldiers ate, thus compounds like mess bag, mess cook, messmate, mess hall, and hot mess.

Not-so-hot, new slang

Yes, a hot mess was a originally a warm meal, especially a soft, porridge-like mixture (as we previously saw) ladled out in mess halls. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a figurative use of in a hot mess, or “in a challenging situation,” in the 1860s. And the modern slang hot mess, “someone or something in extreme confusion or disorder,” has first been found from one P.J. Conlon in an 1899 Monthly Journal International Association Machinists: “Verily, I say unto you, the public is a hot mess.” Nowadays, hot serves to intensify the sense of messiness.

Merriam-Webster Associate Editor Emily Brewster has more on the history of hot mess – ever the apt phrase in our political moment, no matter what Trump wants to tell us, or himself – in her terrific video.

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Issuing an etymological “executive order”

Executive, first found in Middle English, goes all the way back to Latin, but it’s not until the presidency of Abraham Lincoln that we see executive order

Since taking office, President Trump has issued eight executive orders. As his most controversial directive, the travel ban, goes to court, let’s go into the history of the word executive and the phrase executive order.

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What is the “tray” in “betray”?

Betray shares its root with treason and tradition

Over concerns of its wisdom, justness, and legality, acting US attorney general Sally Yates nobly defied President Trump’s executive order banning immigrants, including refugees and visa-holders, from seven Muslim-majority countries. On Monday night, Trump fired her, claiming Yates “betrayed the Department of Justice.” It’s a strong, and deeply ironic, choice of words here, to say the least, but where does the word betray come from?

The tray in betray comes from a Latin verb meaning “to hand over.” Image courtesy of pixabay.com.
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The tray in betray comes from a Latin verb meaning “to hand over.” Image courtesy of 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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Masses, milk, and metathesis: Following the “crowd”

Crowds are just a bunch of crud, etymologically speaking. 

We’ve been comparing – or, if you’re a certain president, complaining about – crowd sizes of late. One conservative estimate tallies Trump’s inaugural crowd at 250,000, about 1.5 million short of Obama’s in 2009. The Women’s March on January 21, meanwhile, may have drawn over 4.8 million protesters across the globe. So, as we count up the final numbers, let’s look into the origin of the word crowd

Working the crowd

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The original meaning of crowd, “to push on,” got lost in the crowd. Image courtesy of pixabay.com.

As a noun, crowd hasn’t been crowding the English language for very long. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates crowd to 1567, adding that it replaced the usual earlier term, a press, which goes back to the 13th century.

The noun crowd comes from the verb crowd. But this verb originally meant “to press on, hasten, or drive” in Old English.  One would crowd a ship, say, by pushing her off land. The OED has actually dated this usage, incredibly, to 937, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Crowd’s modern sense, “to gather in large numbers closely together,” appears by the beginning of the 1400, and we can easily see how the action pushing and shoving transferred to a thronging multitude.

The Old English crowd – crúdan – is related to the German kroten, “to oppress,” and the Dutch kruien, “to push or drive (e.g., a wheel-barrow).” The OED notes that the verbal crowd is “not known in the early stages of the other [Germanic] languages,” and in English, “was comparatively rare down to 1600.”

The etymological center of crowd is unclear. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, though, traces it back to the Germanic *krudan, from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *greut-, “to compress” or “push.” 

Crowds and whey

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Did the word curd get separated from the crowd? Image courtesy of pixabay.com

One thing that does get compressed, in a manner of speaking, are curds. These little lumps are formed when milk coagulates – and, as a word, curds (and its derivative, curdle) may be formed from the same root as crowd. Some etymologists think speakers flipped around the sounds of the Old English crúdan to get curd, attested in 1362. This flipping process, called metathesis, is a common one in English, among other languages, and has produced words like curl, task, and even bird

For curd/crowd, etymologists point to the Irish gruth, “curds,” which they root in the PIE *greut-. For the meaning of curd as a “crowded” substance, they cite the very chemical action that yields curds, coagulation, as an analogy. This word is skimmed from the Latin cogere, “to curdle, compel, or collect,” literally meaning “to drive together” (com-, “together,” plus agere, “to set in motion,” source of act.)    

I, for one, think curds are delicious, but perhaps you find them to be a bunch of crud. Etymologically, you may not be wrong: Many think crud, by that same process of metathesis, indeed comes from curd. This would mean crud switched the –ur- sound of curd, which switched the –ru– of crowd/crúdan. And so crud ‘returns’ to its original form.

The wrong crowd

Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green finds crud in Scottish English for “thickened or coagulated milk” and in US English for “curdled milk,” perhaps as back-formed from the adjective cruddy. Green also locates crud for “any filthy or disgusting matter” all the way back in the early 16th century. Crud, in some way or another, made it into US military slang for any “disease” or “worthless person” in the 1930s, expanding to “diarrhea,” “a slob,” and “venereal disease” in the 1940s and 1950s. A crud may be one to let slip a little crowd-poison, a euphemism for public flatulence. 

Trump may yet find validation, then. Crowds are crud, etymologically…and when you’re just not drawing the kind of numbers you hoped for.

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Why is it called an “inauguration”?

The etymology of inauguration is one “for the birds.”

Today marks the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States. This historic moment raises lots of questions. Like Why?

Why does the transfer of power take place on January 20? In 1933, Congress ratified the 20th Amendment, which moved up the inauguration from March 4 to January 20. Way back when, new officials required much more time to prepare for their office, creating a very long “lame duck” period after the November elections.

And why do we call it an inauguration? For the origin of this quadrennial word, we’ll have to look to the skies – and Ancient Rome.

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Rowing, rivers, and rulers: 5 “Russian” roots

“Russia” isn’t Russian, the Kremlin was once one of many, and Vladimir Putin would really like what his name literally means. 

With increasing evidence for Russian interference in the US’s 2016 elections, and persistent ambiguity concerning Trump’s relationship with the country, news reports are littered with Kremlin‘s and  Vladimir‘s. And at least etymologically, Russia indeed is the one “steering the ship.” So, let’s have a look at the origins of some of the leading “Russian” words.

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What is the “mail” in “blackmail”?

The origin of blackmail has nothing to do with dark letters.

This week, a sensational yet unverified dossier leaked that alleges Russia has “compromising personal and financial information” it could use to blackmail President-elect Donald Trump. While we wait to learn more about the allegations, let’s get to the bottom of another matter. Where does the word blackmail come from?

Border issues

Since the late 1700s, blackmail has referred to the extortion of money, or other benefits, under the threat of revealing incriminating or damaging facts about someone. But several hundred years ago, blackmail was a much more localized affair, shall we say.

In the 16th century, blackmail was a tribute paid by farmers along the border of Scotland and England to freebooters for protection from their raids. The freebooters are often identified as the Border reivers, descended from both Scottish and English families in the region. They resorted to pillage and plunder, apparently, due to the disruptions and devastations wreaked by the ongoing war between the two peoples in the late Middle Ages. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first dates the term to the 1530s in Robert Pitcairn’s Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland.

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The Border reivers know what you did. A scanned drawing, by George Cattermole, of Border reivers at Gilnockie Tower. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

An etymological “tribute” 

The second part of the compound blackmail, mail, refers to the “tribute” paid to the freebooters. In Middle English, and continuing into Scottish, mail could signify a “tribute,” “rent,” “payment,” or “tax.” It comes down from the Old English mal, variously meaning “agreement,” “bargaining,” “terms,” or “lawsuit,” in turn from the Old Norse mál, “speech” or “agreement.” Indo-European scholars root mal and mál in the Proto-Germanic *mathla- and Proto-Indo-European *mod-, “to meet” or “assemble.” (Mail, as in letters and armor, are unrelated.)

The sense development of mail would seem fairly straightforward, then. When we gather, we talk, and through talking, we make deals, which often concern money, ultimately yielding the mail in blackmail. We can see, too, how the particular and historical extortion of blackmail in the Anglo-Scottish border readily broadened to its modern usage. It’s a Scotsman, too, whom the OED credits for the early expansion of blackmail: philosopher David Hume, in 1774.

Not so black and white

As for the black in blackmail? Some etymologists point to black rent and white rent. Black rent, so the theory goes, could be paid in work, goods, livestock, or produce, the color associated with cattle or the ‘baser’ quality of the forms of payment. White rent, meanwhile, was paid in money, like silver, whose metal was once called “white.” Black rent was an indeed an earlier (1420s) form of blackmail, but the OED enters white rent as a variant of quit-rent, a kind of historical property tax that exempt (quit) renters from other obligations concerning the land under feudal law. Folk etymology probably accounts for the confusion.

More likely, the black in blackmail refers to the “illegal” (black market) or “evil” (black magic) nature of the extortion.

Snail “mail”?

Mail, as “tribute,” does appear in other words, as the OED notes. Now obsolete, they were largely used in Scottish, underscoring the longer life mail enjoyed in the language:

  • Burrow-mail (1400s), a tribute paid by a borough (burrow) to a ruler
  • Grass-mail (1400s), rent for grass or grazing rights
  • Feu-mail (1500s), rent for a leasehold tenement (called a feu, variant of fee)
  • House-mail (1500s), rent on a house
  • Land-male (1300s), rent charged on a piece of land
  • Rental mail (late 1700s), a tautological form which documents the gradual obsolescence of mail
  • Retour mail (1600s), like feu-mail, retour being a Scottish form of return, here referring to a certain legal practice

Today, mail is essentially a fossil word, preserved only by virtue of the currency of blackmail. But a more recent coinage, whitemail, has renewed its lease. Appearing by the 1860s, whitemailing, clearly riffing on blackmailing, is kind of ‘moral extortion,’ e.g., a mother threatens to reveal her son’s smoking to his father unless he relinquishes his cigarettes. More recently, economics has taken up whitemail, in which a companies sells off a lot of stock at a reduced price to thwart a takeover.

And perhaps Trump, based on the threats and incentives he issues to businesses, will occasion a new addition to the -mail family. Orangemail, perhaps? 

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