The chaos of “gas”

We’ve been sick with the word gas lately.

First, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad horrifically attacked, not for the first time, his own people with chemical weapons, likely sarin gas. Then, he “fake-newsed” the horrific act by calling it a fabrication. Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer—bizarrely, perversely—told reporters Hitler never gassed his people like Assad did before apologizing for his profoundly wrong statement.

It’s hard to make sense of this all, so—as this blog does in its own meager way—let’s try to make sense of it with the etymology of the word gas

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The original “Mannequin” Challenge

For all its motionlessness, the Mannequin Challenge has really had some legs. Since early October, the viral trend, which films people frozen in various poses as if mannequins, has taken over our social media feeds – and workspaces and public places. But why are mannequins called mannequins? That’s a challenge for etymology.    

Little men, and women

In the 1987 rom-com Mannequin, an odd-jobbing struggling artist falls in love with a  department-store mannequin. Such a situation would not have been so unusual nearly a hundred years earlier, when mannequin entered the English language. The word comes from the French and originally named a “live model of clothes,” especially an attractive young woman. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests this usage in an 1893 edition of Illinois’ Decatur Review.

By the 1930s, mannequin donned its current sense: articulated models of humans that display clothes in various stores. For this development, the OED cites Mary Brooks Picken, Scranton-based fashion expert and prolific author, who defined mannequin in her 1939 Language of Fashion: Dictionary and Digest of Fabric, Sewing and Dress as the “model of human figure for display of garments, hats, furs, etc.” The French, ever fashion-forward, had already been using such models in the 19th century.

But the shift in mannequin, from person to dummy, is no innovation. Back in the 1530s, English borrowed a similar word: manikin. This manikin, from the Dutch mannekijn and manneken, named a small representation of a person, like those jointed, wooden figures that artists and clothing makers used. The word also doubled as an insult, used to taunt a man as puny or insignificant. Dutch’s manneken also provided French with its mannequin, later lifted by English, as we saw.

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Manikins. Or should that be menikin? The Dutch manneken is source of the English manikin (1530s) and the French mannequin, which English borrowed in the late 1890s. Image by Jean Scheijen, courtesy of freeimages.com.

Next of -kin

In Dutch, manneken literally means “little man,” hence the small models of the human form. The first part, clearly, is cognate to English’s man, a Germanic word with a rich and complex etymology all its own. The second part is a diminutive suffix, also of Germanic origin, that crops up in a few other English words.

Names like Dickens, Jenkins, Perkins, Watkins, and Wilkins feature the suffix, likely as adoptions or imitations of Dutch and Flemish names, the OED observes. A napkin is a “little nape,” or “tablecloth.” A firkin is a “little cask,” technically a quarter of a barrel. A lambkin is a “young lamb.” A bumpkin may come from the Dutch for “little tree” or “little barrel,” which apparently suggests a humorous shortness and stumpiness that came to characterize yokels. (English speakers, cruelly enough, liked to apply bumpkin to the Dutch themselves, the very source of the word). Some etymologists think gherkin, the pickle, and jerkin, the sleeveless jacket, display the diminutive suffix. And -kin, though it has no etymological connection to the word, also influenced the shape and sound of pumpkin.

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If a lambkin means “little lamb,” does a “ramekin”mean a “little ram”? The OED hasn’t ruled that out. Image by Alice Carrier, courtesy of freeimages.com.

Speaking of food, a ramekin, from the French ramequin and Flemish rammeken before it, was originally a kind of dish made of toasted cheese and bread, often baked and served in individual portions in a small dish, which came to be called a ramekin. Etymologists aren’t sure about its origin; some connect the first component of the word, ram-, to a Germanic word for “cream,” “cheese,” or even, wildly,  ram, the animal. The second part is, indeed, probably akin to -kin.

Mannequin may mean “little man,” but the Mannequin Challenge, defying its etymology, shows how one little idea can become a huge phenomenon.

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Pulling “rabbit” out of the etymological hat

Christianity, in many ways, originates with Easter: Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead is a cornerstone of the faith. The Easter Bunny, most maintain, originates in German folklore involving a rabbit that delivered colored eggs to good little girls and boys. And the holiday’s bunnies, chicks, and eggs, of course, have longed served as symbols of fertility, rebirth, and new life. But what about the word rabbit?

Down the rabbit hole

Some of my favorite etymologies concern those simple, everyday words whose origins we simply don’t know. Over at Oxford Dictionaries, I recently wrote about a number of them, including dog. Yes, dog; we just don’t know what, er, etymological tree it’s barking up. We can add to this list rabbit, another commonplace word for a commonplace animal whose origins are obscure.

Here’s the problem with rabbit: there is apparently no native Celtic or Germanic word for this animal, as the critter was not native to northern Europe. These early cultures had a word for hare, no doubt, but not the rabbit. Now, I can’t quite tell you the difference between the rabbit and the hare, but the lexicon of our Indo-European ancestors certainly registered them.

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A rabbit, wondering that’s the etymology of its name it hears lurking in the brush. Image from http://www.freeimages.com/photographer/jeffreyvb-33973.

We have record of rabbit by the late 14th century. Origins have been proposed like, well, rabbits. But, in his excellent An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology, professor and philologist Anatoly Liberman easily dispatches with many of the early ones, including: the Hebrew for “copulate,” the same Latin root that yields rabies, the Greek for “creeper,” and even the name Robert.

But the picture gets more complicated when we consider robett, the word for rabbit in Walloon, a Romance language spoken in parts of Belgium and France (and, for a time, in Wisconsin). This cognate, though now considered borrowed from Flemish, has led many etymologists to seek a Romance root for rabbit, including in the French râble (“back and loin of the rabbit”) and the Spanish rabo (“tail”). Liberman traps these hypotheses, as tempting as they may look.

Instead, Liberman looks to a structure used in Germanic animal names, including German’s Robbe (“seal”) and the Icelandic robbi (“sheep, ram”): r + vowel + b. He also roots robin, whose name has been of equally problematic origin, in this structure. Onto this base was added a French suffix along the lines of -et or –ot.

As Liberman nicely sums it up: “Rabbit is a Germanic noun with a French suffix.”

But what does r-b mean?  Speakers of ancient Germanic languages apparently – and arbitrarily – had  this sound complex available as vehicle for naming animals of all sizes and stripes. And the French -et  or -ot signifies diminutives. So, a rabbit, if Liberman is correct, is some sort of little animal-type thingy.

Liberman puts rabbit into the bigger picture for us: “Rabbits were well known in the British Isles by the year 1200, but the word rabbit surfaced two centuries later. Most likely, speakers of English coined many words for the new animal. They are all lost, while rabbit has survived. The sound complex r-b in the name of the rabbit has no parallels outside Germanic.”

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The hare is larger and has longer ears than the rabbit does, among other differences. The Easter Bunny can be frightening enough. But the Easter Hare? Eesh. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

In the rabbit warren 

English does have other words in its leporine lexicon, though. Coney was an earlier name for “rabbit,” attested by the early 13th century though largely displaced by the 19th century; its historic pronunciation, rhyming with honey, yielded some coarse slang. Coney ultimately derives from the French conil, which, in turn, comes from the Latin cunīculus.

But, like English’s own rabbit, cunīculus was not a native term for the Romans. Historians, even ancient historians, note that Spaniards introduced rabbits to the Romans. In Spanish, rabbit is conejo, though this develops from the Latin; etymologists suggest an ultimately Iberian origin for the word.

Some claim, though it’s disputed, the very name Spain means “land of rabbits,” from a Phoenician root for the “hyrax,” cognate, from what I gather, to Hebrew’s šāpān. The King James Bible uses coney, in fact, to translate the name for this creature that looks like a rodent but is not related.

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The rock hyrax, actually related to elephants, not rabbits. Image from http://www.freeimages.com/photographer/revi82-62142.

Bunny hops onto the scene last. The OED cites it as a “pet name for a rabbit” by 1606, from bun. Documented a few decades earlier, bun originally named a “squirrel” or a “rabbit,” leading some to a Scottish word referring to “tail.” But the ultimate origin is unknown – which, for an etymology nerd like me, is like candy in my Easter basket. Just no Peeps, please.

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