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.

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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Potato, batata

You say potato, etymologists say batata. It’s National Potato Day in Ireland, so let’s dig up the roots of the beloved spud.


English cultivates its potato from the Spanish patata, a variant form of batata. But the batata is actually the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), completely unrelated to what we commonly refer to as the potato.

That’s a lot of potatoes.

Christopher Columbus is credited with bringing batata to Spain – and into the Spanish language – at the end of the 15th century. The crop and word thereafter spread throughout Europe and, thanks to Portuguese traders, to many parts of Africa and Asia.

Batatas, or sweet potatoes. Image by Troy Stoi courtesy of www.freeimages.com.

The word batata comes from an indigenous Central American language, perhaps from Haitian Taíno, the language of the self-same people who inhabited much of the pre-Columbian Caribbean and Florida. Taíno also gives English the word hurricane, a word much on the minds of many along the Southeast coast today.

In English, the earliest record of potato comes from English naval commander and notorious slave-trader John Hawkins in his 1565 travel writings: “These potatoes be the most delicate rootes that may be eaten, and doe far exceede our passeneps or carets.” Batata, meanwhile, is attested in translation by the 1570s, noted as a “victaill of muche substaunce.”

Then, in the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors brought back what we now familiarly refer to as the potato (Solanum tuberosum) from the Peruvian Andes, where it was known as papa. Papa is a word for “potato” in Quechuan, a language also ultimately responsible for the words jerky, guanine, and Coke.

Potatoes share an etymological root with batatas, but not a botanical one. Unlike batatas, potatoes are technically stem, not root, vegetables. Image by Nadia Arai courtesy of www.freeimages.com

This plant especially proliferated in England, Ireland, and the US. In 1597, English botanist John Gerard discussed “Virginia potatoes,” thanks to the vegetable’s erroneous associations with Sir Walter Raleigh, who, according to tradition, first planted the tuber in Ireland. Sir Francis Drake and that same John Hawkins also compete for this title; the actual, direct source is unclear .

In the early record, it can be hard to tell whether writers are referring to the batata or the potato. But potato took over as the generic term for such tubers by the early 1700s, with the distinguishing sweet potato emerging by the mid-1700s.

Potato or batata, the English language definitely didn’t call the whole thing off.

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“Tory”: How the conquest of Ireland named the UK Conservative Party

With Michael Gove throwing in his hat and Boris Johnson throwing in his towel, the post-Brexit scramble for Tory – or Conservative – leadership was thrown into confusion this week in the UK. This chaos is fitting, if we look to history of Tory, a word embroiled in many conflicts of its own.

Tory story 

In its conquest of Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries, England massively dispossessed the Irish of their land – among other depravations. Out of need, pride, and retaliation, some Irish turned to outlawry, plundering and killing English settlers and soldiers. By 1646, in the wake of a bloody rebellion, the English mocked these ‘Catholic, marauding bog-trotters, these savage, moss-trooper highwaymen,’ with a nickname: “tories.”

Documented in the Irish State Papers nearly a century prior, the term tory meant “outlaw” or “robber.” It derives from the Irish tóraí, from tóir “to pursue.” (Older forms, depending on your transliteration, include tóruighe, a “pursuer” or “searcher,” via tóirighim, “I pursue.”) Etymologists connect these forms to older Celtic and Indo-European bases meaning “running up to” and “to turn” or “roll.”

By 1679-80, this Tory, now with a capital T, was slung at the so-called Exclusioners, who were opposed to the succession of James, Duke of York, to the Crown. James was Catholic. What better way to attack his supporters – and stop, God forbid, any restoration of Irish land – than link them with those wild Irish tories? And what better way for the Tories to hit back than with Whig, those Protestant yokels and bumpkins? The origin of whig is uncertain, but some think it originally mean “horse driver” in Scottish Gaelic.

Many of these Yorkist Tories formed a new political party in 1689: the Tories. It was born of a longer tradition of royalism – of championing the power of the Church of England – going back to the English Civil War. Tory officially named the English Conservative Party until 1830, though, despite many changes in their political platform since, the term is still used informally today (as it is in Canada). During the American Revolution, Tories were colonists loyal to the British crown. During the American Civil, Confederates called Union sympathizers in their midsts Tories.

For many in Britain today, the etymology of Tory, that “bandit,” is mot juste, from conservatives who feel Gove stole leadership from Johnson to Remainers who feel Brexiters stole the UK from the EU. And while the meaning of our words change, our politics are as messy as ever. Perhaps we should look to that older root of Tory, “to pursue,” and apply it less to fighting and more to solutions.

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“Boxer”: A true original

Last week, the world lost Muhammad Ali. In and outside the ring, he lived up to his larger-than-life nickname: The Greatest. As we remember his life and legacy, let’s have a few rounds with the etymology of the sport he championed: boxing.

There’s a present inside. Image by Jean Scheijen.


The Oxford English Dictionary first records boxing – “the action of fighting with the fists” – surprisingly late for a sport well-documented in antiquity. The dictionary cites an essay in Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s Spectator in 1711 which urges regular physical exercise alongside mental exertion. To that end, the writer extols a form of classical, calisthenic shadow-boxing, or sciamachy, involving weighted sticks: “This opens the chest, exercises the limbs, and gives a man all the pleasures of boxing, without the blows.”

Boxing was popular – and deadly – in ancient Rome, but the sport died out after the fall of the empire. Some look to the rise of Christianity, others sword-based combat, as possible explanations. A bout isn’t recorded in England until 1681 when a lord matched up his butler and his butcher, apparently, in a bare-knuckle fight. (The butcher is said to have won.) English Prizefighter James Figg helped to popularize the sport in the early 1700s, his pupil Jack Broughton soon after helped to codify it.

Now, The Spectator’s “blows” is the operative word if we referee boxing’s origins. Boxing, as you can imagine, takes it corner from box, a verb first meaning “to strike” or “beat” by the early 16th century (and since narrowed to its sporting sense). This box is from an earlier noun, a “buffet,”  “cuff,” or “blow,” found as early as 1300 and now surviving largely in a box on the ears.

Scholars see in English’s box some tempting etymological contenders: the Middle Dutch boke, Middle German buc, and Danish bask all mean a “blow.” But these comparisons are no knockouts. Most scholars conclude box is probably a native English word that imitates the sound of a punch. Walter Skeat sees box as a variant of pash, another echoic term for a combat “blow.”

Some philologists suggest box may be a playful extension of Christmas box, a container that once collected tips for servants and apprentices. In one early iteration of the custom, this box was an earthenware vessel broken open around the holiday, its contents then shared among the workers. (We can imagine a young employee asking a workmate, “Want a present?” But his fellow is only rewarded with a box on the arm. “There’s no prize if you don’t smash open the box!”) On the first weekday after Christmas, various workers received a Christmas box on this so-called Boxing Day.

The receptacle box takes its name from the box tree, as early containers were fashioned from its wood. The name of the dog breed, originating in Germany, nods to the historically pugnacious temperament of a boxer, whose shorts are remembered in the loose-fitting underwear, boxer shorts. In 1900, a Chinese secret society attempted an uprising against foreigners. English roughly, if not erroneously, rendered the group’s Chinese name as “the Righteous Harmony Fists,” or boxers, hence the Boxer Rebellion.

If boxing so originates as English onomatopoeia, it’s an apt etymology for Muhammad Ali: He was a true original, who we will remember for winning with his words as much as with his fists.

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What’s up with all those letters we don’t say in “Leicester”?

Against all odds, the Leicester City Football Club clinched England’s Premier League title on Monday. Far and wide, millions of lovers of football – and Cinderella stories – cheered the unlikely champions. And as many, perhaps, learned how to pronounce the name of this club and city. Leicester, in spite of its extra characters, sounds like the name Lester, which is derived, in fact, from this very Leicester.

Why do we pronounce Leicester like “Lester”? Or, for my readers not interested in sports, Gloucester like “Gloster”? (I can still feel my nerdy shame when an English teacher corrected my mispronunciation of this King Lear character.) Oxford English Dictionary offers: “The history of the form written -cester, of which only -ster is pronounced (in Worcester, Bicester, etc.), is obscure; the written form is perhaps of French or medieval Latin origin.” Economy, generally speaking, is ultimately behind the pronunciation, historical inertia behind the spelling, I imagine.

While we can’t explain for certain the peculiar pronunciation of –cester, we can explain where it comes from.

Cester: phonetic cheshire cats and linguistic underdogs 

From roughly 40 to 400 AD, Rome ruled much of Great Britain. Over 1500 years later, its footprint still shows. Ancient Roman military fortifications, for example, have endured not only in their physical remains, but in place names as well. Latin called these sites castra, a plural noun meaning a “camp,” which we might liken to military bases today.

A diminutive form of castra, castellum, a kind of “fort,” gives English castle. The ultimate origin of Latin’s castrum is unclear, though many connect it to castrate via a root meaning, yep, “to cut off.” The surname Castro, as in Fidel, is a notable Spanish cognate, as is alcazar,  from an Arabic rendering  of castrumal-qasr 

Old English borrowed Latin’s castra as ceaster. (Old Welsh did as cair.) Anglo-Saxon records show ceaster in combination with original Celtic names for tribes and topography. As early as the 10th century, Leicester, for instance, is recorded as Ligora-ceastre; the first element preserves either the Celtic name of the tribe or for the river there when the Romans marched in around 47 A.D.

For a time, ceaster, pronounced more like its now-obsolete descendant, chester, stood on its own word as a word “town,” especially a former Roman-occupied castra. But English largely remembers ceaster as a toponymic suffix, variously adapted as -caster (Lancaster), –chester (Manchester, ), –cester (Leicester), and in other place names like Exeter and Cheshire. Each of these former Roman encampments, again, likely preserve Celtic roots in their first elements: Lancaster may have meant “camp on the Lune River”; Manchester, “on the breast-like hill”; Exeter, “on the Exe River.” Cheshire, meanwhile, is “chester shire.”

For all the Latinate -cester’s that occupy its place names, the English language, like Leicester, is itself something of an underdog story. It survived once stronger (or at least better-funded clubs) on its historical pitch, from Norse to Latin to French. But then again, the Anglo-Saxons themselves were a visiting team: Celtic, too, as we also see in the likes of Leicester, played hard as well.

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Beyond the etymological “pale”

Today, my wife and I are bidding farewell to Southern California to greet our new home: Dublin, Ireland. We’ll actually be staying in Oxford, England first until the Irish government finishes processing our work visas.

(Nope, it’s not the sun, I’m sure you’re wondering: I’m going to miss fish tacos the most. And family, of course.)

So, to mark the occasion, I wanted to take a break from my regular newsy musings to look into the history of a word long associated with my new home – and really only surviving the expression beyond the pale.


In the English of the late 1300s, a pale was a “stake,” the wooden sort driven into the ground – or impaled into Dracula’s heart. Stakes can make a “fence,” a fence can mark a “boundary,” and a boundary can demarcate a “territory,” as pale all came to name.

Historically, England controlled a number of regions known as the English pale. The earliest pale in the record encompassed modern-day Calais, France; the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates this to the 1450s. About a century later, the English pale also included southern Scotland – and, most notoriously, the greater Dublin, Ireland area. This territory became known simply as the Pale. (Imperial Russia later had a Pale, too, which confined where Jews could live.)

Many claim beyond the pale referred to the ‘wild’ regions outside of English jurisdiction in Ireland, hence the expression’s meaning of “outside the bounds of acceptable behavior.” The OED, however, does not actually date the phrase – first attested in “beyond the pale of expedience” – until 1720. This is significantly later than the pale’s Irish reference, making this origin story a rather contemptuous bit of folk etymology.

So, beyond the pale is metaphorical – and has been. In the 1480s, Caxton, who brought the printing press to England, used pale in translation for a professional “domain” or “field.” (Caxton was referencing monks and abbots, it so happens.) We might think of beyond the pale as, originally, “out of one’s area of expertise.”

English ultimately drove pale into its ground from the Latin pālus, a “stake.” The ancient Romans also used a pālus as a wooden sword to practice fighting – and, imitating an enemy soldier, as a post in the ground to practice their fighting on. English derives impale, palisade, and pole from the root. Travail and travel –  appropriately enough, at least for the latter, so we’re hoping – are also related, but those origins are beyond the pale of this post.

Pale, as in pale skin, is not related, though my own complexion will soon lose much of its Southern California sunburn, thankfully, in its new climes.

Now, etymologists think Latin’s pālus is ultimately formed from the verb pangere, “to fix,” as one fixes a pale into the ground. Incredibly, this verb also yields peace, rooted in the sense of a pact fastening two parties together.

“Fastened together”: that, I think, aptly describes my wife and me as we venture into our new pales, so to speak, in a country whose rich linguistic traditions will certainly inspire many a Mashed Radish post ahead.

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And the Oscar goes to…Boycott?

All eyes are on the big name at the Academy Awards tonight: Boycott.

Yes, this year, the Oscars are in the spotlight not as much for who’s nominated, but for who’s not. Spike Lee, Will Smith, and Jada Smith are boycotting Hollywood’s big night to protest the conspicuous lack of diversity in the actors and filmmakers the Academy nominated in its top categories, trending in social media as #OscarsSoWhite.

Like the top prize, the Oscar, or “God’s spear,” as I discussed in a previous post on the award’s name, boycott derives from a name.


First cited in 1880, boycott, as the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology elucidates:

is an allusion to Captain Charles Boycott, 1832-1897, an English land agent over Irish tenant farmers, who refused to lower rents in hard times and was subjected to an organized campaign by local people who refused to have any dealings with him…The practice was widely instituted towards others and the term was quickly adopted by newspapers in almost all European and many non-European languages.

Barnhart goes on to provide examples of the adoption, which notably includes the Japanese boikotto.

Boycott‘s ostracism featured tenants’ refusal to work his farms and businesspersons’ refusal to trade with him. The eponym later extended to various protestatory refusals, such as like the one we are seeing this Oscar night.

What a way to be remembered, huh? As we saw recently, Bork was borked. Boycott was boycotted. And I don’t think we really want to give him one of those golden statuettes.

A -cott-age industry?

Boycott inspired girlcott, a boycott carried out by women (who must have felt the word was simply mansplaining protests).

The Oxford English Dictionary dates this playful formation, girlcott, to  1884. It features -cott as an early example of a “libfix”,  a term coined by linguist Arnold Zwicky for this fun and fascinating phenomenon we see in inventions like Snowzilla or Carmageddon, both of which make people take a staycation. This -cott, like –zilla, –(a)geddon, –cation, and –splain doesn’t have an inherent meaning like the suffix -ness or -ly do, for example, but is liberated from a word and affixed to new coinages. Hence, Zwicky’s libfixBoycott is a family name, likely taken from where the family’s from in England.

This -cott, of course, should not be confused with mascot (a French term for “talisman” that may be relate to mask), ascot (named for Ascot, a city near Windsor, Berkshire in England remembered for the fashions worn at a big race held there), or Epcot (the Disney World theme park, “Experimental Prototype of Community of Tomorrow”).

If you support Trump’s recent call to boycott Apple over its refusal to decrypt a phone used by one of the San Bernardino’s shooters, as I recently touched on in my post on crypt, you might want to…orangecott it?

And #OscarsSoWhite, to circle back, might not seek to boycott the red carpet but blackcott it – or diversitycott it.

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Last week, President Obama announced that he is normalizing relations with Cuba. This means we will be giving one word quite a bit of attention in the days ahead: embargo. Policy-wise, I’ll leave that matter to the experts, but we can give it some etymological attention here.

"Embargo." Doodle by me.
“Embargo.” Doodle by me.


The United States’ trade embargo with Cuba has been in place since 1960. This may be quite a long time by modern standards, but the word embargo has been in place in the English language for centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests it in 1602 in a passage referring to an “Imbargo with Spaine.” 

It’s not surprising that Spain comes up in the early days of embargo, for it’s a word of Spanish origin. The Spanish Empire, you may recall, dominated the 16th century in many ways. Their extensive holdings included possessions in the Netherlands, which you may not always recall, if you’re like me. In the 1550s, Catholic Spain felt threatened by English Protestantism, to put it simplistically, and so barred English cloth imports to the Netherlands. England retaliated by barring Dutch imports. This conflict, of course, escalated over the ensuing decades, coming to a head most famously in the Spanish Armada. (Spanish Word Histories and Mysteries, 2007)

Various ships and trade may have been embargoed during this historical stretch, but embargo‘s passage into English certainly was not.

This Spanish embargo, generally meaning a “prohibition,” is formed from the verb embargar, “to restrain,” “seize,” or “impede.” This verb, etymologists propose, comes from a Late Latin *imbarricāre, which breaks down to “a putting of a bar in the way,” according to Walter Skeat. If we take the Latin apart further, we end up with in– (“in”) and *barra.  We don’t know where this *barra comes from, in spite of efforts to link it to a Celtic root referring to the “bushy tops” of trees.

No Bars Barred 

We do believe, however, that *barra, referred to–wait for it–a “bar.” If we look to English, lots of things can bar one’s way, so what was this Latin “bar” like?

Perhaps it was like a barrier, a derivative which English gets from the French. Barriers come in all shapes in sizes, such as those bars–or partitions–used in courts of law to variously set off judges, legal practitioners of different standing, and trial participants from the public. The phrase called to the bar and barrister are so derived, though these two in particular refer to practices at the Inns of Court at London.

This concept of a partition is also behind the bar you go to be served up a drink, perhaps from a barrel, which some suggest could be related to bar on the basis of cask construction. Barrel may also be behind barricade; the OED cites “casks filled with earth, paving stones, etc.” used in Parisian streets during 16th-century riots. Bars are rod-like, too, such as those put baddies who stole bars of gold behind bars, where, the cliché goes, you don’t want to drop a bar of soap.

Sports looked to bars as well, from raise the bar, which I believe refers to literally elevating the challenge in a high-jump, to the no holds barred said of certain wrestling matches.


Latin’s *imbarricāre may have also inspired the word embarrass. Passing into English through the French, the word may be from the Italian imbarazzare or Spanish embarazar, to put someone within “bars,” as Ernest Weekley see its. The OED, however, proposes the Spanish owes itself to the Portuguese baraço, a “cord,” “apparently originally with reference to animals being restrained by a cord.”

Whether leashed or barred, a person is thusly impeded. Its principal early meanings in English and French, though, point to causing someone confusion and perplexity. Over time, such confusion and perplexity were transferred to a sense of putting someone in an awkward or uncomfortable situation. By the mid-1800s, we see it referring to the feelings of humiliation and foolishness we associate with the word to today.

The French verb from which English more immediately picked up this embarrass–embarrasser–was “probably first used in the Spanish Netherlands,” pointing us back again to that Spanish Empire. Yet again, the impact of the Spanish Empire–from the word embargo to the embargoed island of Cuba, officially freed from Spain in 1902–is felt far and wide, indeed.

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In 1780, the 12th Earl of Derby instituted an annual horse race at the Epsom Downs near Epsom, England. It was called the Epsom Derby, so named from his title. This earldom is so named, of course, for Derby, the shire or town in England. For my readers outside of the UK, Derby is well north of London and Epsom is a bit south of the capital. So, the race was not run in Derby but is named, ultimately, after Derby.

Ready for a ride and race, the 12th Earl of Derby. Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.

Stateside, the derby lives on most famously in the Kentucky Derby. Indeed, Epsom Downs notes more than 140 races worldwide have adopted the toponym–not to mention the borrowings seen in roller derbies and demolition derbies. The Kentucky Derby itself is famous for its hats, although the derby hat, American English for the bowler hat, is no longer at the peak of its popularity, if you will.

Magritte’s “The Son of Man,” a derby-donned self-portrait. Image courtesy http://www.renemagritte.org.

The bowler is named for the surname of its creator, so why the US usage of derby that emerges in the 19th century? Etymologists speculate that the derby is perhaps named for those worn by the “famous sportsmen, the Earls of Derby” (Partridge) at the races.


Whence the name Derby?

The jury is out, but their verdict favors that Derby comes from the Old English Deorby (also recorded as Deoraby, and much later, the variant Darby). If this is so, the place name may be a compound of deor (“deer”) and by, from the Scandinavian byr, a “village” or “town.” You might recognize this by in bylaw, a local law, from the Old Norse. By the by, the preposition by was also used in place names, so the English by and Scandinavian by experienced some cross-influence.

If we hunt down deer further, we find generic Germanic roots for “animal.” If we run deeper into the woods, we find the Proto-Indo-European *dheusom, “breathing creature.” The base *dheu is hypothesized to mean “breath,” “smoke,” and “dust.” By‘s way goes back to a Germanic root *bu, “to dwell,” related to the Proto-Indo-European *bheu, “to dwell, “to grow,” and that be-all and end-all, “to be.”

So, if you’re at the Derby, live it up. No, literally, live it up and enjoy the Kentucky “Breath-Be.” OK, I might be chomping at the etymological bit, but run with it, will you?

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Fast Mash

  • Tornado is first attested as ternado in the late 16th-c. 
  • First referred to tropical Atlantic thunderstorms; sense of rotating funnel clouds came about in 1700-1800s 
  • Probably a bad borrowing by navigators/seamen/travelers from Spanish tronada (thunderstorm, related to English thunder)
  • Later forms flipped the and the r, probably under the influence of Spanish tornar (turn, related to English turn)

One thing is certain: A tornado wreaked destruction on Moore, OK just over a week ago. As I have been following the news of such tremendous loss and damage, of such profound recovery and resilience, I couldn’t help but wonder about the origin of tornado, trivial and petty as my musings seem in the face of the disaster. It turns out, no pun intended, that its origin isn’t quite  so certain.


In 1589, as documented by the OED, Richard Hakluyt—an English geographer, writer, and ardent champion of English colonial expansion, particularly in North America—wrote in his Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation*:

The 4.day we had terrible thunder and lightning, with exceeding great gusts of raine called Ternados.

The word took a number of different forms over the next centuries, including tornathoturnado, and tournatho, settling into its current spelling by the 1800s. And, the OED notes, navigators used the word to refer to torrential, gusty tropical thunderstorms in the Atlantic. In the 17th-c., these navigators used the term to name the entire season in which such storms were common, although this usage is now obsolete,  though we do say “tornado season” in the States.

Overtime, the rain and thunder elements receded while that of rotation and wind ascended. The turn, so to speak, seems to take place in the early 1600s. The OED documents the following from Samuel Purchas, an English cleric and complier of travel accounts, in his Pilgrimes (1625):

We met with winds which the Mariners call The Turnadoes, so variable and vncertaine, that sometime within the space of one houre, all the two and thirtie seuerall winds will blow. These winds were accompanied with much thunder and lightning, and with extreme rayne.

The OED observes that the rise of spellings using u and -or– seems to correspond with usages that emphasize the storm’s windy whirling. Indeed, in the early 1700s, the word was naming rotatory storms in West Africa and, in the late 1800s, the narrow-pathed funnel-clouds we know all too well in the Midwest and South today.

It fascinates me to end how new experiences, new concepts, new contact—with different lands and different people—necessitates new language. But seldom do we invent new terms out of thin air. We steal, we borrow, we appropriate, we adapt. And English has proven itself particularly adept at this.

So, where was tornado ultimately taken from?

While -ado certainly betokens Spanish or Portuguese (where it functions as the past participle ending of certain verbs, from the Latin -atus; cf. French -ade, as in paradecrusade, and many others), neither tornado nor any its previous forms shows up in those languages. So, etymologists posit a few things:

  1. The word was a “mangled borrowing” from Spanish tronada (thunderstorm, from the verb tronar and Latin tonare, to thunder. English thunder is related.).
  2. The o‘s and r‘s got flipped, a little thing called metathesis (pretty and *purty, ask and *aks)
  3. This flipping was influenced by Spanish tornar, which means to turn, return. This verb is from Latin, tornare, to turn on a lathe, from tornus, a lathe. English turn is related.

Yes, I totally had to look up what, exactly, a lathe is. And this completes a full turn: tornadoes destroy, lathes  help rebuild.

*Speaking of whirlwinds, the full title of  Hakluyt’s afore-quoted book is:

The Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation: Made by Sea or Over Land to the Most Remote and Farthest Distant Quarters of the Earth at Any Time within the Compasse of These 1500 Years: Divided into Three Several Parts According to the Positions of the Regions Whereunto They Were Directed; the First Containing the Personall Travels of the English unto Indæa, Syria, Arabia … the Second, Comprehending the Worthy Discoveries of the English Towards the North and Northeast by Sea, as of Lapland … the Third and Last, Including the English Valiant Attempts in Searching Almost all the Corners of the Vaste and New World of America … Whereunto is Added the Last Most Renowned English Navigation Round About the Whole Globe of the Earth

And you thought all those subtitles so in vogue today were bad. In all fairness, though, I’d venture that  writers of those early texts didn’t conceive of such cumbersome titles as titles, but previews or outlines. Perhaps proto-blurbs or proto-tables of contents. Interesting plural #ftw. Self-reference #ftw.

m ∫ r ∫