While some casual observers speculated if covfefe would win Word of the Year, lexicographers duly noted that the presidential typo for coverage, if creating a curious cultural moment, lacked any meaningful use to genuinely merit any such award.
Some recent US political events have thrust two interesting idioms in the headlines: waiting for the other shoe to drop and pass the buck. Thinking of a writing post on the expressions, I started doing some research online. Then, much to my pleasure, I remembered I had an entire book dedicated to them: Andrew Thompson’s Hair of the Dog to Paint the Town: The Curious Origins of Everyday Sayings and Fun Phrases (Ulysses Press, 2017). The publisher kindly sent me a copy for review.
Thompson traces waiting for the other shoe to drop backto urban, industrial America:
Wait for the other shop to drop began with the American manufacturing boom in the late 19th century. In large cities like New York, apartment housing became more common. These dwellings were all built with similar designs, with bedrooms typically located above one another. It was common to be awoken late at night by a neighbor removing their shoes in the apartment above. The person below would often wake when the first shoe dropped on the floor and made a loud bang. Already disturbed, the other person would then wait for the inevitable noise of the other shoe hitting the floor.
The past few weeks have bombarded us with breaking news out of Washington, dishing up scoop after scoop on President Trump’s ongoing scandals. But for as much it can feel like the White House is breaking, why do we call it breaking news?
Back in my heyday, we’ve heard our fathers so often begin some boast of long-lost glory. The heyday of the train, the heyday of radio, the heyday of the flip-phone – each of these remembers some technological golden age of yore. Perhaps you’ve wondered: What is the hey– in heyday? As it turns out, we’re questioning the wrong part of the word.
Are we there yet?Are we there yet?Are we there yet? When we pester someone, we annoy them with repeated questions or requests. And anyone who’s driven children on a long road trip might reasonably assume pester is related to pest. But au contraire. Etymology can be such a pest.
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?
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.
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.
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 beinga 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?
Earlier this week, heavy storms and flooding toppled the famous Pioneer Cabin Tree, a giant sequoia whose trunk cars once drove through, in California’s Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Before it was carved out in the 1880s to attract tourists, a forest fire had already hollowed out part of its trunk, apparently resembling a log cabin, hence the nickname Pioneer Cabin Tree. But why do we call this kind of tree a sequoia?
In 1847, Austrian botanist Stephan Endlicher, while reorganizing and reclassifying plant species at the University of Vienna, created a new genus, which he calledSequoia. Endlicher’s Sequoia originally referred to redwoods, a close cousin to what we now know as and call the giant sequoia, or Sequoiadendron giganteum.
The common and long-running explanation is that Endlicher chose Sequoia to honor Sequoyah (1770-1843), a Tuskegee-born Cherokee silversmith who invented the Cherokee syllabary, which allowed for reading and writing in his native Cherokee tongue. Put simplistically, a syllabary uses written symbols to represent all the different syllables in a language, whereas an alphabet uses symbols to stand for all of the individual sounds. In Cherokee, for instance, Sequoyah wrote his name ᏎᏉᏯ, each symbol standing in for the syllables making up his name: Se-quo-ya. Sequoyah’s name comes from the Cherokee, Sikwayi, whose meaning and origin is unknown.
Sequoyah’s invention is a truly impressive, rare, and consequential feat, but author Gary Lowe thinks this etymology is quite the tall tale. Endlicher doesn’t mention Sequoyah anywhere in his papers and notes, but he was a philologist, including publishing a linguistic text on Chinese. Lowe ultimately roots the Sequoyah origin to an anonymous submission of an article in an 1856 edition of the agricultural magazine, The Country Gentleman. The author associates the name Sequoia with Sequoyah, for whom he concludes, approvingly, the giant tree was named. Subsequent writers and editors took up, and spread, this association, assuming Endlicher intended the name on the basis of his linguistic reputation. And so the explanation stuck.
One after the other
Lowe thinks Endlicher actually named Sequoia after the Latin verb sequor, to follow, source of words like sequence. Two other botanists, in fact, looked to the same sequor in the late 19th-century. The first suggested Endlicher picked Sequoia because the name followed in sequence after its original genus name, Taxodium; the second because redwoods followed after its extinct forbears. Lowe, rather, concludes Endlicher supplied Sequoia because the number of seeds its cones produce completes a larger sequence relative to those in its scientific suborder.
As far as the record is concerned, Europeans first encountered coast redwoods in 1769 – and the giant sequoia not until 1833. In the 1850s, British botanist John Lindley dubbed these trees Wellingtonia giganteum, honoring the Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington, famed for his defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. “This sat poorly with the Americas,” as Doug Harper at the Online Etymology Dictionary diplomatically sums it up, though Wellingtonia persists in British English. French botanist Joseph Decaisne reclassified the tree under Endlicher’s Sequoia in 1854, and it wasn’t until 1939 that the American botanist John Bucholz determined giant sequoias were a distinct genus from the coast redwood. Bucholz nodded to Endlicher with his new name, Sequoiadendron giganteum. (Dendron comes from the Greek for “tree,” giganteum from the Greek for “giant.”)
Names aside, there is no controversy when it comes to the majesty of sequoias, reaching hundreds of feet in the air and spanning thousands of year in age. Perhaps we can honor the likes of Pioneer Cabin Tree more directly, more immediately, more simply, and look to a name the great American naturalist John Muir once used for the sequoia: Big Tree.
My wife and I are enjoying a long weekend in beautiful Barcelona, a city graced with the dreamy and daring architecture of Antoni Gaudí. Many like to claim that English gets its word gaudy thanks to the architect’s distinctive style. Gaudí looks and sounds like gaudy. Some may even characterize his works as gaudy. But this etymology is as fanciful as Gaudi’s buildings.
Gaudí was born in 1852. English has been using the adjective gaudy since the early 1500s. That takes care of this bit of folk etymology. But just as Gaudí’s structures are exuberant in shape, texture, and color, so the origin of gaudy enjoys its own “exuberant” origins.
A gaudy once named a larger ornamental bead on Catholic rosaries. This word (1434) is a variant or mistaken plural of gaud (1390), which also named a “trinket” or “bauble.” Ornamental beads lead to ornamental gewgaws, which lead to the adjective gaudy for something “excessively ornate.” This usage is attested by the late 16th century. Earlier in the century, gaudy signified “luxurious” fare but also something “full of trickery” – and such merry-making indeed points us to the deeper roots of the word.
Gaud, the prayer bead, ultimately seems to come from the Latin gaudium, “joy.” In the saying of the Rosary, gaudies marked the so-called Joyful Mysteries, or gaudia in Latin, a set of prayers associated with the early life of Jesus Christ. At the root of gaudium is gaudēre, “to rejoice” or “be merry.” Filtered through French, the -joice in rejoice also comes from gaudēre, as does joy, enjoy, and perhaps even the word jewel. Indo-European philologists root Latin’s gaudēre in *gau-, “to rejoice,” although the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots notes it carried the special sense of “to have religious fear or awe” – an experience some have before Gaudí’s work.
Gaudy is also featured in the archaic word gaudy-green, a “yellowish green” that gets its color from dye made out of the weld plant. This gaudy appears to come from the Old French gaude, meaning “weld,” but perhaps its bright, flashy color influenced the ostentation we associate with gaudy.
And as for the name Gaudí? The origin of the family name is unclear, but some think that it comes from the French gaudir, “to enjoy” – which is from the very same Latin root gaudēre. So, it turns out that Gaudí didn’t lend his name to gaudy, but that gaudy, in an etymological manner of speaking, lent its name to Gaudí. Now that’s whimsical.
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.
“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.