From dinner to disarray: the origin of “mess”

Originally, we didn’t make messes. We ate them. 

In his presser yesterday, Trump claimed: “To be honest, I inherited a mess. It’s a mess. At home, and abroad — a mess.” Clearly, he was describing his own news conference, which was a hot one, because the facts just don’t back him up. But Trump does raise an interesting etymological question: Where do we inherit the word mess from?

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Mess: Get it whiles it’s hot. Image courtesy of pixabay.com.

On the table

English first serves up mess around 1300. Back then, it named “food for one meal.” The word comes into English from the Old French mes (Modern French metsand, before it, the Latin missus, a “portion of food” or “a course at dinner.” This etymological idea of “a serving” explains why we use mess as a general term for some loose “quantity,” particularly food, e.g., a mess of greens.

In Latin, missus literally means something “placed” or “put” – here, food on the table. The root verb is mittere, which shifted from “send” in Classical Latin to “place or put” in the language’s later years. Mittere has also delivered bundles of English words, from mass and mission to commit and promise

Getting into a “mess”

Over the centuries, mess lost its Michelin stars, so to speak. By the 1400s, mess referred to goopy foods like porridge, hence the biblical idiom mess of pottage.  (Today, we might recognize such a mess as the pasty gruel often plated up to ravenous children in the hellish summer camps of TV and movies.) This sense lead to a kind of “mixed, liquid slop fed to animals” in the 1700s. Alexander Pope, as an early instance, mocks metaphorical hogs chowing down on mess in his 1738 “Epilogue to the Satires.”

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What a mess: “Nine out of ten orphans can’t tell the difference.” Image courtesy of frinkiac.com, from The Simpsons, Season 4/Episode 1, “Kamp Krusty.”

And it’s from this notion of a nasty, mushy mixture that we get the modern mess: the senses of “jumble,” “confusion,” and “untidiness” emerge in the written record around the 1810s. Offshoots like mess up, make a mess of, and messy appear by the 1830-40s. To mess around, playfully or idly, is attested by the 1850s. Sexually? We’ve been messing around since at least the 1890s. 

“Mess” mates

The food sense of mess, though, kept cooking. In the 1400s, mess also referred to “a company of people who took their meal together,” especially military personnel in groups of four. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare mentions “a mess of Russians,” referring not to all the controversies surrounding the Trump administration, but to the four noble lovers in disguise.

From “dining companion,” mess later extended to the food and building where soldiers ate, thus compounds like mess bag, mess cook, messmate, mess hall, and hot mess.

Not-so-hot, new slang

Yes, a hot mess was a originally a warm meal, especially a soft, porridge-like mixture (as we previously saw) ladled out in mess halls. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a figurative use of in a hot mess, or “in a challenging situation,” in the 1860s. And the modern slang hot mess, “someone or something in extreme confusion or disorder,” has first been found from one P.J. Conlon in an 1899 Monthly Journal International Association Machinists: “Verily, I say unto you, the public is a hot mess.” Nowadays, hot serves to intensify the sense of messiness.

Merriam-Webster Associate Editor Emily Brewster has more on the history of hot mess – ever the apt phrase in our political moment, no matter what Trump wants to tell us, or himself – in her terrific video.

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Miscreants, quarry, and records: changes of “heart”

On Valentine’s Day, hearts are everywhere. Candy hearts. Heart emoji. Every imaginable sort of heart-shaped chocolate, greeting card, decorative banner, bric-a-brac. Hearts even swell in our words – and not just the likes sweetheart or, depending on how feel about the holiday, heartsick. I grant you no quarry, you discordant, incredulous, myocardial miscreant! Yes, these words also have the word “heart” at their etymological heart.

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Record comes from the Latin recordari, “to remember,” literally “to call back to heart.”

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The many “sist”-ers of persist and resist

Persist and resist come from a very active, and in many ways activist, Latin verb. 

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said after he silenced his colleague, Elizabeth Warren, when she was opposing now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions during his confirmation.

But McConnell’s words spectacularly backfired: Nevertheless, she persisted has since become a rousing, much-memed feminist slogan, fitting perfectly alongside the anti-Trump rally cry, Resist.

And persist fits etymologically alongside resist, too. They share a common root: Latin’s sistere, “to take a stand.”

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Sistere is one Latin verb that won’t back down in the English language.  Image by Michael Kaufmann/freeimages.com.

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Issuing an etymological “executive order”

Executive, first found in Middle English, goes all the way back to Latin, but it’s not until the presidency of Abraham Lincoln that we see executive order

Since taking office, President Trump has issued eight executive orders. As his most controversial directive, the travel ban, goes to court, let’s go into the history of the word executive and the phrase executive order.

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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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What is the “tray” in “betray”?

Betray shares its root with treason and tradition

Over concerns of its wisdom, justness, and legality, acting US attorney general Sally Yates nobly defied President Trump’s executive order banning immigrants, including refugees and visa-holders, from seven Muslim-majority countries. On Monday night, Trump fired her, claiming Yates “betrayed the Department of Justice.” It’s a strong, and deeply ironic, choice of words here, to say the least, but where does the word betray come from?

The tray in betray comes from a Latin verb meaning “to hand over.” Image courtesy of pixabay.com.
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The tray in betray comes from a Latin verb meaning “to hand over.” Image courtesy of pixabay.com

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The 2016 “Etymology of the Year”

The mouth of Donald Trump excited a tremendous – er, huge – amount of etymological activity on Mashed Radish in 2016. But there’s one that easily trumped them all: the word trump itself, the winner of my first annual “Etymology of the Year.”

Trump

In early modern English, trump meant “to cheat” or “deceive.” This verb, first found in the 1480s, comes from the French tromper, meaning the same as the English. The origin is unclear, but some have suggested the French used tromper, which could also mean “to play the horn,” as an idiom for mockery. Various fraudsters, the theory goes, once blew horns to attract people to their swindles. The verb shows up in trompe l’oeil, “trick of the eye,” referring, especially, to optical illusions in visual art.

The French tromper, as its brassy connections already suggested,  is indeed related to English’s own trumpet, of which trump is itself the earlier variation. In a painful irony to many, the last trump, based on a translation from the Greek, was once the term for the sound of the trumpet that raised the dead for judgment at the end of the world, according to the New Testament. Trump may have also influenced the use of trunk for an elephant’s snout.

Another instrument, the trombone, shares a deeper, Germanic source with trumpet, from a root which imitates a sudden blast of sound. And drum may additionally be related, or at least formed in a similar fashion. The “deceitful” trump later produced trumpery, whose meaning of “trickery” inspired a sense of “goods that are showy but cheap,” further extended as an adjective for “trifling” or “trashy.”

Now, the Trump family surname was at one point modified from Drumpf, much to the amusement of comedian John Oliver during the presidential campaign. Drumpf is a Germanic name, and could be connected to the root for drum. Trump, unchanged, is a surname from the French Trompeor, rooted in the same tromper and meaning a “maker of trumpets.” 

Trump cards, meanwhile, are played from a different etymological hand. This trump is believed to be a corruption of triumph, once the name of a card game. A triumph, or “great achievement,” comes from the Latin triumpus, which was a procession a military general lead into Rome after a big victory. Its origin is also unclear, but a possible source may be the Greek thriambos (θρίαμβος), referring to a hymn in honor of the fertility god Dionysus, frequently associated with his cult of ecstatic hedonism. The deeper root of the Greek thriambos may be a kind of triple-time march-step.

Loud and brassy noise, deception and showiness, elephants, Ancient Roman victory tours, games, cultish followings? There’s only one etymology that could possibly bring all these Trumpian elements together – and that’s trump.

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Santa’s reindeer: an etymological herd

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.

Dasher

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.”

Dancer

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.”   

Prancer

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.

Vixen

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. 

Comet

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.

Cupid

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

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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An etymology goes “rogue”

The latest Star Wars move, Rogue One, is out this week. The director, Gareth Edwards explained that its title functions as a military call sign, like Air Force One, and alludes to the Rogue Squadron and Rogue Group, an important troop of Rebel fighters in the original Star Wars films. (Rogue One features Rebel spies.) Edwards also said the title nods to the fact that his movie is the “rogue” one: the first standalone Star Wars film outside the main storyline.

So that’s how Rogue One came to be so called, in part. But how did rogue get its name?

A rogue operation

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first documents rogue, as roge, in 1489, when it referred to a “vagrant.” Over the course of the 16th century, the sense of rogue shifted. By the 1560s, it referred to a “scoundrel,” by the 1590s an “endearingly mischievous, rascally person,” and by the early 1600s an abusive term for a “servant.”

Rogue was a favorite of Shakespeare: He used rogue, to various degrees of insult and endearment, over 100 times in his plays. Perhaps the most famous example comes from Prince Hamlet: “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!”

Rogue has since shed its beggarly rags and servant’s uniform. Today, rogue can name a kind of maverick who breaks with the establishment or conventional wisdom for some righteous, if rebellious, cause. We can trace the modern sense of rogue back to the phrase rogue elephant, which, by 1835, referred to an “elephant living apart from the herd and having savage or destructive tendencies,” as the OED defines it.

Up until the 1830s, rogues were lowly louts, so why would we specifically call elephants rogue? Rogue elephant, as the OED observes, may have been influenced by a phrase in Sinhalese, spoken in Sri Lanka: hora aliyā, “thievish or restive elephant.” Rogue, originally, indeed decried thieves. And in the beginning of the 1800s, rogue was also referring to wayward horses. Underlying these senses of rogue, then, is an idea of “trickiness” and “unruliness,” whether of petty criminals or strong-willed beasts.

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Going rogue: teenage rebellion, elephant style? Image by Alan Rainbow, courtesy of freeimages.com.

Rogue elephants inspired the expression to go rogue, also first used of the pachyderm in 1905. Speakers transferred the behavior of rogue elephant and going rogue to other animals – including humans, of course –  in the early 20th century. These phrases subsequently pushed rogue towards senses of “aberrant” and “undisciplined,” a short step away from its more positive sense of “bad boy” today. The term rogue hero, documented by 1899, may have further helped nudge rogue along. 

Rogue agents

The etymology of rogue, fittingly, has itself gone rogue, shall we say. We simply don’t know where it comes from and it doesn’t seem like it wants to be pinned down. There are several theories, though:

  1. Rogue could have been shortened from roger, thieves’ slang for an “itinerant beggar who pretended to be a poor scholar from Oxford or Cambridge,” according to the OED. Perhaps this roger, first attested in 1536, could have derived from slang uses of the name Roger. While the meaning of roger fits rogue, the timeline and pronunciation pose problems.

  2. Rogue could have come from Latin’s rogāre, “to ask,” seen in English words like interrogate and abrogate. Here, etymologists cite classical examples where the noun form, rogātor, was used for “beggar.” Perhaps Latin’s rogāre influenced the aforementioned slang, roger, or English in some way borrowed the term directly?

  3. Rogue could have derived from a Celtic word, such as the Breton rog, meaning “haughty.” It’s unclear, though, how the “arrogance” of rog became the original “mendicancy” of rogue.

  4. Middle French had rogue, meaning “arrogant,” apparently not from the Breton rog but from a Scandinavian root, like the Old Norse hrōkr, “arrogant.” (Philologist Walter Skeat notes that hrōkr literally meant “rook,” a particularly noisy kind of crow.The OED, meanwhile, points to the Old Icelandic hroki, “the heap above the brim of a full vessel, hence “overbearing.”) Most etymologists dismiss this etymology, though some add that the spelling of the French rogue may have influenced the English.

Even etymologies need to rebel sometimes, it seems.

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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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