In one of my recent Weekly Word Watches for the Oxford Dictionaries blog, I highlighted bitcoin, the cryptocurrency whose valuation continues to skyrocket.
As I explain in the article, the bit in bitcoin – a coinage attributed to its mysterious creator(s) Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008 – was shortened from binary digit in 1948. Binary digits are those 1’s and 0’s that make our computers work.
And thanks to the success of bitcoin, other cryptocurrencies have also branded themselves as coins, such as Dogecoin and Peercoin, suggesting -coin is becoming a productive combining signifying a digital currency.
But what of the word coin itself? Its origins transports us back to some of the earliest days of writing.
Sexual assault scandals, mass shootings, military coups, tax cuts for the rich, trophy elephants, the impending devastation of climate change, the looming threat of nuclear war—there are reams and reams of heavy news right now.
So, I think we could use something that brings us all together. Sorry, I don’t have any puppy videos, but I do have the next best thing: etymology. Let’s allow ourselves a nice, distracting break from the news with the globe-trotting roots of ream.
Another day, another mass shooting in the US. The latest massacre—by the latest man wielding an assault weapon—claimed the lives of 26 worshippers at a church in a small town in Texas. Today, as we try to make sense of another needless tragedy, let’s make sense of the etymology of this grisly word, massacre.
With House Republicans unveiling sweeping tax cuts in a bill this week, I figured it was a good time to repost this piece on the etymology of tax from 2014. Over three years later, I still find it incredible that tax comes from the same Latin root that gives us task,taste, and taxi.
With allegations against Harvey Weinstein mounting, many more women are coming forward to accuse others—from prominent figures like director James Toback to everyday men divulged in the powerful #MeToo stories—of sexual assault and harassment. These men, as we might say, are pigs. But if we look to origin of the word harass, we might say they are dogs.
Today’s etymology comes by special request—or rather, acute observation—of Barbara, a loyal reader I had the great pleasure to meet in Ireland this week. Baffle came up in casual conversation and she, owing in no small part to her wise and inspiring 89 years as an educator and intellect, wondered, as we word nerds always do: Where does the word baffle come from?
Well, Barbara, the origin of baffle is quite…baffling.
Of Knights and Noise
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first finds baffle in Edward Hall’s 1548 Chronicle, which traces the history of the houses of York and Lancaster from Henry IV to Henry VIII. For Hall, baffle meant “to disgrace publicly,” used especially of perjured knights. As he writes in his chapter on Henry VIII:
He was content, that the Scottes shoulde Baffull hym, whiche is a great reproache amonge the Scottes, and is vsed when a man is openly periured, and then they make of hym an Image paynted reuersed, with hys heles vpwarde, with hys name, wonderyng cryenge and blowing out of hym with hornes.
This usage has lead some etymologists to suspect baffle is a variation or corruption of the Scottish bauchle, “to subject to disgrace.” This verb is possibly based on the adjective bauch, “weak, poor, abashed, tasteless,” which might come from the Old Norse bágr, “uneasy, poor” or bagr, “awkward, clumsy.”
Near the end of the 1500s, though, a different sense of baffle emerges: “to cheat, bewilder, foil,” from which the modern meaning (i.e., perplex, thwart) settles in by 1670s. The verb, in its “forestalling” sense, yields the noun baffler/baffle in the mid-to-late 1800s, referring to various kinds of shielding devices (e.g., a sound baffle).
This baffle has directed etymologists to the Old French beffler (deceive, mock) and bafouer (deceive, abuse, hoodwink, etc.), two forms that might arise from beffe, “mockery.” And beffe? Perhaps Old French owes this to our good, ole etymological friend, onomatopoeia: Baf!, an interjection of disgust along the lines of Bah! or Pooh! Maybe the Scots bauchle and French bafouer are related—or maybe they aren’t and just got confused.
Etymology, yes, can be so baffling, but baf! Sometimes it can also just be so simple.
Thanks very much for the suggestion, Barbara. If you ever have a suggestion or if a certain word ever tickles your curiosity, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Toys “R” Us, the world’s largest toy store chain, filed for bankruptcy protections today. Debt and online shopping aren’t great for playtime, it turns out—but etymology certainly is. This post, let’s have a quick look at the origins of bankrupt.
Bankrupt: trading in metaphors
Borrowed into English from French, bankrupt comes from the Italian phrase banca rotta,or banco rotto in the masculine, literally a “broken bench.”
The bench here refers to a market stall where merchants would count and exchange money, and it’s said that, once upon a time, people would break up their stalls if they had become insolvent. The Italian phrase itself, though, may have actually just started out as a figurative expression.
The Italian banco goes back to a Germanic root, with some basic meaning of “table,” that also gives English the word bench and is connected to the geological bank in, say, sandbank. First used as a table for counting and exchanging money, bank was metaphorically extended to the financial institutions we call banks today.
Rotto, meanwhile, goes back to the Latin rumpere, “to break” or “burst.” The Latin verb’s past participial form is ruptus, which we can see in other derivatives like abrupt, corrupt, interrupt, erupt, and rupture. This form also helps explains English spelling of bankrupt, as well as its French intermediary, bancqueroupte.
As for when bankrupt entered the language, the Oxford English Dictionary finds a bankrupt (insolvent person) in 1533, to bankrupt in 1552, and bankrupt as an adjective in 1565. Various figurative extensions of bankrupt (e.g., a person bankrupt of honor) are found shortly thereafter. Bankruptcy emerges just a little later in the 1630s—or some nearly 400 years if you’re Toys “R” Us.
With North Korea accelerating its nuclear weaponry and the threat of US military action looming, diplomacy feels more urgent than ever. Etymology may be wishful thinking, but let’s examine the origins of the diplomacy—so we won’t be as extinct as the diplodocus.
There’s only one way to describe the rain deluging Houston, Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey this week: torrential. Nearly thirty inches have already fallen over parts of the city as of Monday night, and 20 more inches are still expected.
The frequent co-occurrence of these two words, torrential and rain, is called collocation by linguists, and we’ve seen it before in my post on rampant, which is so often coupled with corruption. We’re also seeing collocation at work in Houston’s catastrophic flooding.
But how about the word torrential itself? Where does it come from?