“Stunt”: a real “stumper” of an etymology

After some players took a knee during the national anthem, US Vice President Mike Pence abruptly left a football game between the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers this Sunday. But many aren’t seeing his move as a un-dignifying departurebut a political stunt, a word whose ultimate origins are, shall we say, a bit stunted.

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Stunt‘s long jump back to sports. (Pixabay)

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“Taking a knee”: Simple phrase, powerful—and changing—meaning

Used in military and football slang, the phrase take a knee dates back to at least 1960. 

This past weekend, millions of viewers witnessed American football players, among other athletes and celebrities, “take a knee” during the playing of the US national anthem ahead of kickoff. The kneelers, among others who stayed in locker-rooms or locked arms in solidarity, were defying US President Donald Trump’s recent remarks profanely calling for athletes protesting the anthem and flag by refusing to stand to be “fired.”

With #TakeAKnee (and #TakeTheKnee, though Google Trends identifies take a knee as much a more popular search) taking off online, millions more of us witnessed the gesture, and expression, “take a knee” take on a new meaning in the broader public consciousness—and lexicon.

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Review: Sports Talk by Colin McNairn

You don’t really have a choice over whether or not you like sports if you speak English. All bets are off, bad break, curveball, down to the wire, get the ball rolling, grandstanding, level playing field, take the bait, track record—expressions taken from sports are everywhere and everyday in English, so much so that we forget many of these clichés, idioms, and tropes even come from sports in the first place.

Take at the drop of a hat, or “without delay or good reason.” According to Colin McNairn in his new book, Sports Talk: How It Has Penetrated Our Everyday Language (FriesenPress, 2017):

The hat in the expression is likely of the kind that was frequently used, back in the 19th century, to signal the start of a race, a fight or other competition. The person charged with getting the contest started would, typically, doff his hat, hold it at arms-length, and then suddenly lower the straightened arm, hat in hand, in a downward sweeping motion, which would signal the official start.

Or did you realize that down to the wire, or “until the last possible moment,” comes from horse-racing? McNairn explains that the wire here refers to ones “strung above the finish line of North American racecourses so that, in a close race, it was easier for the track judge to determine which horse finished first.”

In Sports Talk, McNairn covers, blow-by-blow, a whopping 650 expressions derived from over 35 sports sports ranging from football to frisbee, with some history, trivia, anecdotes, and quotes on the sidelines. The author—whose first book, In A Manner of Speaking, I also reviewed—kindly sent me a copy.

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Why do we call them “falcons”?

The falcon probably takes its name from the “sickle” shape of its beak, talons, or wings.

This Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons will take on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI in Houston, Texas. I’ve previously taken on the etymology of patriot, which ultimately derives from the Greek word for “father” and, curiously, didn’t always carry a positive connotation in English. But what the origin of the word falcon?

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Ready for flight…or to reap some grain? Image courtesy of pixabay.com.

A bird, or sickle, in the hand…

Falcon stooped on English in the mid 1200s. The Oxford English Dictionary firsts falcon, as faukun, in The Owl and the Nightingale, dated to around 1250. In this poem, the titular birds sharply debate which of them is the superior avian. (The nightingale accuses the owl of laying an egg in a falcon’s nest, the medieval version of Deflategate, I suppose.) 

The English falcon swoops in from the Old French faucon, which flies from the Late Latin falcōnem, all referring to the bird of prey. The nominative, or subject case, form of falcōnem was falcō, presumably derived from falx, “a sickle.” The falcon’s beak, talons, or possibly the sharp curve of its outspread wings resemble this farming blade, apparently.

Falx also gives English falcate, “curved like a sickle,” falchion, a machete-like sword, and, speaking big names of the US South, the surname Faulkner (“falconer”).

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The sickle is used for harvesting or reaping grain crops. Image courtesy of pixabay.com.

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Gushing like a “geyser”: modern loan, old faithful

“An intermittent hot spring, throwing up water, etc. in a fountain-like column.” No, this isn’t a description of how a lot of Brits are feeling, still queasy from Brexit, after their team’s knockout loss to Iceland in the Euro football tournament last night. It’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the word geyser, one of the few modern words English borrowed from Icelandic.

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Gushing with tears or cheers? Depends on who you were rooting for. “The erupting Great Geysir.” (c) 2000 by Dieter Schweizer.  

Geyser

“Modern” is key to the history of geyser. From the late 700s to the early 1000s, the Vikings, whose Old Norse tongue was ultimately parent to the Icelandic language, invaded the British Isles – and their native tongues, leaving its mark in everyday words like sky, egg, knife, and they. But geyser is a much more recent loanword.

In 1763, Britain’s long-running Annual Register included this account: “Geyser, a wonderful spring in the valley of Haukedal, is but a few miles from Skaalholt.” The entry goes on to describe the “terrible noise, like the discharge of small arms” of the “surprising phenomenon” which “happens once a day.” It credits its description to a Mr. Olav, who encountered it in 1746.

This geyser is Geysir, the proper name of a particular geyser, the country’s own Old Faithful, in the Haukadalur valley in southwest Iceland. English generalized the term for this geological feature by 1780. Come the 1850s, English was using geyser for figurative gushes.

And “gush” is key to the etymology of Geysir. The name literally means “The Gusher,” related to the Icelandic geysa and Old Norse gøysa, “to gush.” (Old Icelandic had gjós-æðr, a “gush vein,” or “artery.”) English’s gush is cognate, as is gust, gut, font, funnel, various iterations of the Latin root in infuse, and, incredibly, futile. The Indo-European root is *gheu-, “to pour.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots notes that some scholars think this “pour” was in reference to libations, which could make it the long-troubling source of the word god.

In today’s Icelandic, a geyser is a goshver, which looks like gusher. But as far as I can tell, this word actually joins gos (“eruption”; an eldgos is a “volcanic eruption,” or “fire eruption”) and hver, a term for a “hot spring” that originally meant “kettle” or “cauldron.”

In a land of so much geothermal activity, there are subtle but important distinctions between different types of geysers based on temperature. According to Richard S. William’s Icelandic-English Glossary of Selected Geoscience Terms, hverir are hot springs over 70ºC, laugar are warm springs between 30-70ºC, and volgrur are lukewarm springs under 30ºC.

Today though, Iceland should forget such distinctions and celebrate their historic performance in the UEFA Euro 2016 with the full force of their country’s own Great Geysir.

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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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Broncos vs. Panthers

In Groundhog vs. Shadow, Punxsutawney Phil easily walked to victory: his shadow didn’t even show up for his wintry wrangling with the woodchuck earlier this week.

But we’ve got a bigger animal fight ahead.

No, I’m not talking about Donkey vs. Elephant – or, at this point in the 2016 presidential campaign, Donkey vs. Donkey and Elephant vs. Elephant. I’m talking about that other great American mascot match: the Denver Broncos vs. the Carolina Panthers.

Yes, Super Bowl 50 is this Sunday, so let’s see how bronco and panther stack up against each other – etymologically speaking.

Bronco

Bronco has been bucking in English since the mid-1800s. Cowboys in the now American Southwest saddled this word from the Mexican Spanish bronco, whose meaning of “rough” or “wild” aptly characterizes this “untamed or half-tamed horse.”

OK, Denver is starting aggressively with some big pass plays, the commentators observe.

Etymologists also note this bronco can describe “rough” wood and, as a noun, refer to “a knot in wood.”

The receivers just couldn’t connect. It’s 3 and out. The Broncos kick.

We aren’t fully sure of the origin of bronco from here, but some suggest Spanish borrowed the word from the Vulgar Latin, *bruncus, meaning “projecting” like a sharp point.

Interception! The Broncos have the ball back. 

This *bruncus may blend broccus (“projecting”) and truncus (“trunk of a tree”). The former is related to broach, the latter trunk.

And Denver converts the interception into a field goal.  

Panther  

Panther has long been stalking English. It appears in Old English, loaned from Latin: panthēra,  originally some kind of spotted big cat like the leopard. Panther was borrowed again in Middle English, this time from French, panthere, though from the same Latin jungle.

Carolina opens conservatively with a few rush plays. 

Now, the Latin derives from the Greek, πάνθηρ (panther), which ancient philologists claimed joins pan (παν-, “all”) and ther (θήρ, “wild beast”). “All beast”? Yes, the panther was once fancied as a composite of many wild animals, a “fabulous hybrid of a lion and a pard,” as the Oxford English Dictionary explains.

Cam Newtown goes long…and it’s first and goal for Carolina!

This mythical panther also “exhaled sweet breath,” the OED continues.

Now a big third and goal here – Carolina has fumbled the ball at the 2 yard line!

But the panther’s sweet breath, emanating whenever it roared, attracts all animals cave. Except for its nemesis, the dragon.

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A detail of the panther (center), scaring off the dragon and trailed by a retinue of other animals, from the 12th Aberdeen Bestiary, held by Aberdeen University. Image from Wikimedia Commons, source from the Aberdeen Bestiary.

The officials rule Carolina has recovered the football.

As fascinating as this “all beast” etymology may be, it’s as fanciful as the creature it conjures up. Scholars believe Greek borrowed its panther from a language in Asia Minor. Many point to the Sanskrit puṇḍárīkas, “tiger” (though one of Skeat’s sources suggests “elephant”). Earnest Klein adds that the Sanskrit literally means “the yellowish (animal),” from a base word meaning “whitish yellow.”

Carolina kicks it in for 3. 

If the etymology of bronco and panther is any measure, it should be a fun Super Bowl. Perhaps Carolina will prove to be bronco-busters, breaking in those untamed horses. Or maybe Denver will make Carolina drink panther piss (or juice or sweat), which is some potent hooch indeed.

I, for one, will be getting ready for a skirmish of my own: Chip vs. Guacamole. And you can gear up with my old post on the origin of Super Bowl.

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soccer

Fast Mash

  • According to the OED, soccer originates in 1875 at Oxford University, but borrowed from Rugby School, as university/school slang for “association football,” named for the Football Association that first codified universal rules for football in England
  • The slang is called the Oxford -er, which abridged a word an added –er; other examples include rugger for “rugby,” footer for “football,” ekker for “exercise,” and memugger for “memorial”

With 32 national teams competing on the pitch and millions of fans rooting them on, the World Cup is a truly global event, rallying behind the great, border-breaking banner that is football. Except for that pesky soccer. The term, of course, is primarily used in North American English, though has currency in South Africa and other countries, like the Philippines, where English is spoken. Its place in seems Australia mixed, if I am judge (and don’t let me be judge). But before you cry out “American exceptionalism,” you might want to know how thoroughly English the word is in origin.

Soccer

It’s a well-known story. In the middle of the 19th-century, English schools and universities were playing various forms of football, each with their own “house rules.” By the time young men left their public schools for university, they were all speaking different dialects on the field, to so to speak. To address this, Cambridge developed its own official rules in 1848, and Sheffield later in the 1850s. But these rules were still school-exclusive or regional. So, in 1863, 11 representatives from different schools and clubs met at the Freemason’s Tavern in London to form the Football Association (FA). The FA drafted an official, universal set of rules. Not all clubs signed on, and so the sport we call rugby–named for Rugby School–went its own way. This FA style of football became known as, naturally, “association football” to distinguish it precisely from the other forms, such as rugby football.

But, if you’ve ever walked down the halls of a high school or a university, surely you’ve heard the young adults using their own idiosyncratic way of speaking, their own cant, their own slang. It signals, deepens, and preserves their bond, their identity, their social group. Groups centered around very structured and intensive activities–sports or music are preeminent examples–can feature especially well-developed slang or argot. This, apparently, was particularly true on the campuses of late-1800s England, such as Oxford University, home to something now known as the Oxford “-er.”

According to Eric Partridge in his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, this Oxford “-er”:

…began late in 1875 and came from Rugby School…By this process, the original word is changed and gen[erally] abridged; then ‘-er’ is added. Thus, ‘memorial’ > memugger, the ‘Radcliffe’ Camera > ‘the Radder…Occ[asionally] the word is pluralised, where the origin ends in ‘s’: as in ‘Adders,’ Addison’s Walk, ‘Jaggers,’ Jesus College. This -er has got itself into gen[erally] upper-middle-class s[lang].

So, association gets shortened to its –soc- component, and, with the addition of –er, we get soccer. It was variously pronounced as socca (a common feature for British English, known as non-rhoticity) and spelled as socker. Why soc? Well, otherwise we’d be playing assers or some such. English footballer Charles Wreford Brown is given credit for popularizing the term.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology offers some offer examples of this Oxonian “-er”: along with soccer was footer (“football”) and rugger (“rugby football”); bedder referred to the “bedroom”; ekker, “exercise”; fresher, a “freshman”; and tosher, “an unattached student at Oxford.”

Stateside, the first American football game was played–something like rugby and football, I mean soccer–in 1869, and the term “football” for it was already gaining currency. So, why did soccer stick in the States? I speculate:  For one, there was need for the term, leaving use of “football” for the gridiron descendant of the game. And perhaps class and status take the field, too. The schools where the sport was codified were elite and prestigious, and the slang used therein upper and upper-middle-class, as Partridge notes above. I suppose, then, we must think about the socioeconomic status of the British colonists whose exported the game to the colonies, but we’ll save that for another match.

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