Today, the 14th of July, marks Bastille Day in France. The holiday commemorates the same date in 1789 when citizens stormed the Bastille—a state prison, armory, and symbol of royal authority in Paris—sparking the French Revolution. But what is a bastille, and where does this word come from?
The survey collected a random sample. The clerk organized the random boxes in the storeroom. She got a weird text message from this random stranger. Can I ask you a random question? He’s so random, like, sometimes he’ll chew gum while drinking coffee. Random kinda seems like a random word, doesn’t it? Where does it come from?
First attested in the early 1300s, random originally referred to “great speed” or “force,” used especially in the phrases to run at random or with great random. Random’s velocity and violence conveyed a sense of impetuousness and rashness. And so by the 1540s, the expression at random rushed towards “without aim or purpose,” a short step from the modern adjective, which settled in by the 1650s.
Random didn’t come into English at random. It derives from the Old French randon, a similar noun denoting “speed, haste, violence, impetuousness,” probably formed from the verb randir, “to run fast, gallop.” The deeper origins of randir aren’t certain, but scholars conjecture the Frankish *rant, “a running.” (Frankish was a West Germanic language spoken by the Franks, a Germanic tribe in late antiquity whose name lives on in France and the adjective frank.) This *rant, and thus random, may be related to the same Germanic root that gives us run.
The statistical random emerges by the 1880s, but the word wasn’t done running. Computing, campus, and teen slang in the 1960–80s helped fashion a random, a “stranger” or “outsider,” sometimes shortened to rando, as well as the informal, often pejorative use of random for “odd, peculiar, unexpected, unfamiliar,” e.g., Don’t go home with that random guy. Definitely run–at the etymological random–from him.
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Around many holiday hearths tonight, families will recite “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” a poem, properly called “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” first published anonymously in 1823 and later claimed by American professor and writer Clement Clarke Moore.
Moore’s verse is considered the source of our names for Santa’s reindeer, excluding their later leader, Rudolph:
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And [St. Nick] whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:
“Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer, and Vixen!
“On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Dunder and Blixem!
As some children are hoping to glimpse Santa’s reindeer across the sky this night before Christmas, let’s have a glimpse at the deeper roots of their high-flying names.
A dasher moves very quickly – or smashes something to little bits, as in one’s hopes for that new iPhone 7 under the Christmas tree. Both senses of the verb to dash are found in the early 1300s, and are connected by an underlying idea of intense energy, whether of force or speed.
The deeper root of dash is unclear. The world may be related to a Scandinavian word for “beat” or “strike,” imitating the sound of dashing something (compare bash, clash, and smash). To dash off a letter appears by the 1720s, and dashing, for “stylish,” emerges in the early 1800s a la “striking.”
Dance enters English in the 1300s from the Old French danser. Its origins, like dash, are also unclear – and somewhat less than graceful, shall we say. Some connect it to the Old High German dansōn, “to stretch out,” as in the limbs. Others suggest the Frankish *dintjan, “to tremble” or “quiver.”
Prancing involves a jaunty and showy movement, and, originally, was often used not of any reindeer but of horses. A few theories try to explain the source of word, which is first attested in the late 1300s. Prance might come from pranse, Danish dialect for “going about in a proud fashion.” Or could be be related to prank, which has variously meant “to dress up” or “parade around,” rooted in a German word for “to show off.” It’s not certain if this prank has any relationship to those mischievous pranks, like getting a bit of coal in your stocking on Christmas.
A vixen is a “female fox,” from the Old English adjective fyxen. The word gives us a glimpse of English past. Historically, some certain southern England dialects replaced word-initial f’s with v’s – not a surprising switch, as the v-sound is what linguistics term the “voiced” form of f. This switch is preserved only in the spelling of few other words, including vane and vat. And the -en is an old, Germanic suffix used to name female animals (e.g., Old English wylfen, a “she-wolf”).
The word fox, appropriately enough, is from a Germanic base that may be related to an Indo-European root for “tail.” And vixen, a disparaging term for an “ill-tempered woman,” appears by the 1570s. Why Moore chose Vixen as a name for this airborne ungulate may be more about rhyme and meter than meaning.
Comets speed across the sky, leaving a spectacular tail in its wake. Their tail, to the ancient Greeks, looked like long hair – and indeed, they called the celestial object κομήτης (kometes), or “long-haired star.” The Greek root is κόμη (koma), “the hair of the head.” Latin, with its comēta, borrowed the term, which coursed into English as early as 1154 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
In Roman mythology, Cupid, depicted with his young wings and arrows, personifies desire and erotic love. His name is the Latin for “desire,” cupīdo, from the verb cupere. The English cupidity denotes an intense “desire for wealth”; concupiscence, for sex.
Donner and Blitzen
In his original A Visit from St. Nicholas, as we saw above, Moore urges on “Dunder and Blixem,” the Dutch for “thunder and lightning.” (Modern Dutch would use Donder and Bliksem.) An 1844 edition of the poem ultimately rendered the Dutch into their German counterparts: Donner and Blitzen. (Blitzen, properly, is “flash.”) Thunder is the English equivalent of Donder and Donner, while English borrowed and shortened blitz from the German Blitzkrieg, whose deadly method of rapid assault literally means “lightning war.” American football took up blitz by the 1960s.
Rudolph is not one of the original reindeer. He came to lead Santa’s cervine crew only in 1939, sparked by the imagination of Robert May, who created his story for Montgomery Ward department stores. Rudolph may be the most famous of the reindeers, but his name, ironically, refers to the glory of his nemesis: Not social isolation, but wolves. Rudolph derives from the Old High German name Hrodulf, “fame-wolf.” The name joins hruod, “fame,” and the Germanic base that gives English wolf.”
For more Christmassy etymologies, see my recent guest posts for Oxford Dictionaries on the soulful origin of wholesome, as well as an older post there covering 12 etymologies of Christmas. Revisit, too, some of Mashed Radish’s tinseled archives, including Christmas, El Niño, chestnut, and Kris Kringle. Happy Holidays!
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In his latest controversy, Donald Trump has been criticizing Khazr and Gazala Khan, whose son died fighting in Iraq. Khazr rebuked Trump in a powerful speech at the Democratic National Convention last week, but Trump’s unseemly response has drawn, yet again, his own sharp rebukes from the likes of John McCain and President Obama.
In these rebukative times (and yes, that’s a word, though rare), it’s hard not to wonder: What does the –buke in rebuke mean, anyways? If some etymologists are right, its origin is quite literally very sharp.
Rebuke has been stinging English since the early 14th century. Back then, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), to rebuke was “to reprimand” and “chide.” Over the centuries, the severity of this reprimanding and chiding intensified, today denoting “condemn” and often paired with sharp.
Rebuke is French in origin. English borrowed it from the Anglo-French rebuker, derived from the Old French rebuchier. The original meaning of rebuker and rebuchier was “to beat back,” as one might an advancing fighter. Many etymological dictionaries maintain that the French rebuchier joins re-, “back,” with buchier, “to strike” or “chop wood.” And so rebuke jumped from a physical counterblow to a verbal one.
In the woods
Now, according to this “wood” theory, the root of all this French “chopping” is busche or bûche: “woods” or “wood,” especially “firewood.” English’s own bush is related. Bush itself is a thicket of Scandinavian (Old Norse buskr), Germanic (Old High German busc), and Romanic (Medieval Latin busca) influences and cognates. All these bush’s appear to be borrowed, ultimately, from West Germanic or Frankish.
The French busche (now bois) also appears in ambush. In Old French, the word was embuscher, “in the woods,” where one might lay an ambush. But not all bush cognates are so violent. Via French-Canadian, Boise, Idaho is named for its “wooded” lands. Bouquet means “little wood.” And an oboe is an English rendition of the French hautbois, the sound of “high wood.” (For haut, think haughty.)
Not out of the woods yet
As noted, there are other theories for the origins of rebuke. Earnest Weekley and Walter Skeat connect rebuke not with the blow of an ax on wood but with a blowing of the cheeks. They cite the French bouche, “mouth.” Skeat goes on to explain rebuke as “to puff back,” hence “to reject,” making rebuke much the same as rebuff, from the Italian word ribuffo, “a blow back.”
On rebuke, the OED concludes that the French buchier (“to beat”) is uncertain in origin. Trump, as many politicians are admonishing, could learn a thing or two from the OED: Staying quiet is definitely one way to avoid rebuke.
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Orlando: The name of this central Florida city, even as it mourns, now stands as a symbol of American resilience and resolve against hate and terror. And the origin of its name, if we look to its deeper etymology, only underscores its strength.
The City Beautiful, the city lore
Orlando was first known as Jernigan, after Aaron Jernigan, a white man who settled in this Seminole territory in 1843. By 1857, the town changed its name to Orlando following the demise of its original namesake’s reputation.
In Orlando, Florida: A Brief History, James Clark relates several tales explaining why Orlando took this new name. Three are particularly popular.
First, it is said the town honors Orlando Reeves, who died in a fight against the Seminoles by Lake Eola, which sits near the city’s center. There is no record, though, of this legendary Reeves. There is, however, an Orlando Rees, who is subject of a second tale. Rees ran a sugar plantation outside the city but headed into modern-day Orlando after the Seminoles were said to have burned down his home. Lore likely folded these two tales together.
A third story looks to one of literature’s most famous Orlandos: Shakespeare’s As You Like It. (In this pastoral comedy, Orlando flees into the forest from his murderous brother, whose life he later saves, and wins his true love Rosalind’s hand in marriage.) According to this account, the area reminded early resident and Shakespeare admirer, Judge James Speer, of the magical French forest in the play.
“Famous” legends, literature, and lands
We don’t know for certain how the city Orlando got its name, but we do know how the name Orlando did. According to the Oxford Dictionary of First Names, Orlando is the Italian form of Roland. This name reaches back to another figure of legend, literature, and lore: the Frankish hero and nephew of Charlemagne, Roland, celebrated for his bravery, if rashness, on the battlefield and loyal friendship to Oliver. He is remembered in the medieval epic poem, La Chanson de Roland, considered one of the earliest and founding works of French literature.
Another Roland is remembered in the tale of Childe Rowland, who ventured to the Dark Tower to rescue his sister. Shakespeare, Robert Browning, and Stephen king also famously riffed on the folk story to various lengths.
Roland is a Frankish name. Frankish was a West Germanic language once spoken by the Franks in their extensive territories in first-millennial Europe. The tribe lends its name to a surprising range of modern words, as previously discussed on this blog.
Further deriving from Old High German, the name Roland literally means “(having) a famous land.” It joins hrōd, “fame,” and land, “land” or “territory.” We’ve seen the Germanic hrōd in other names: Roger, “famous spear,” and Robert, “bright in fame.” It’s also in Roderick, “famous rule,” and Rudolph, “fame-wolf.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European roots suggests a Proto-Indo-European base of *kar-, “to praise loudly” or “extol.”
Whether named for an historic Orlando or Shakespeare’s Orlando, the name of the city remembers how it has survived past conflicts (complicated as some of those conflicts may have been). And the name will continue living up to its deeper roots in Roland – truly a “famous land” deserving of our extolment, especially its gay and Latin-American community, a living testament to the power of pride in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting ever witnessed on American soil.
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Comparisons are apt. Majorities are vast. Experiences are harrowing. Situations are hairy. Competition is stiff. Coffee is strong. Linguists describe this habitual juxtaposition or co-occurence of words as “collocation.” In her indictment of FIFA officials last week, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch used one example in describing the organization’s corruption as “rampant.”
Why do we describe corruption as “rampant”? I searched Google Books and came across an early example of the phrase in John Brown Patterson’s 1828 On the National Character of Athenians and the Causes of those Peculiarities by which it was Distinguished, an essay commissioned for a prize of 100 guineas by the University of Edinburgh to students there:
The national constitution having unfortunately, in great measure, taken for granted the virtue of its administrators, no check was found in the law to the rampant corruption.
The next citation I could find is in an 1836 Edinburgh publication of The Scottish Christian Herald and then in an 1847 London publication of the Wesleyan Methodist Association Magazine. Historically, we should recall, corruption frequently characterized moral depravity. And rampant–well, let’s have a look at the history of this word.
Today, rampant primarily refers to something spreading “unchecked.” Coming into English from the French, the word first appears, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), around 1300, when it frequently collocated with a very different noun: lion, as in “a lion rampant.” (Why does the adjective follow the noun? French generally places its modifiers after the noun. Linguistically, we call this a “postnominal adjective.” This is why we say, well, attorney general, due especially to the influence of Law French on English.)
Rampant originally described animals, particularly lions, “rearing or standing with the forepaws in the air” (OED). The term was especially used in heraldry, as in a lion depicted in rampant attitude on a crest:
A rampant posture was, unsurprisingly, a “ferocious” one. Thus, by the early to mid 1500s, rampant was describing something “fierce” and “in high spirits,” as in a rampant horse (OED). This was then likened to the phenomenon of something “running rampant,” like corruption, today.
The French rampant is formed from the verb ramper, “to climb” or “crawl,” which English eventually elevated into, say, a highway ramp or to ramp something up, among many other usages based on the verb ramp. Rampage, first appearing verbally as rampaging in Scottish dialect as well as the wonderful adjective rampageous, may also be formed on ramp.
The French ramper may derive from the Frankish *hrampon, according to Baumgartner and Ménard. Frankish was a Germanic language, and some etymologists ground this *hrampon in the same Proto-Germanic root that gives English the very un-ferocious rumple and rimple: *hrimp- or *hrump-. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, this *hrimp- is reconstructed in the Proto-Indo-European *(s)kerb-, “to turn” or “bend,” perhaps also responsible for scorch, shrimp, and scrimp, and maybe even the Welsh cromlech.
So, what it so rampant about a rumple? Well, Ernest Klein glosses the Frankish *hrampon as “to contract oneself convulsively.” Climbing and crawling, I suppose we can visualize, involve bodily contortions. Ramper‘s early usages in French may be instructive, as the verb was used of those wriggly reptiles, as well as of quadrupeds more generally, explaining the rearing of “rearing up.”
In FIFA’s case, then, we might understand rampant corruption as very rumpled white collar crime.