Donald Trump is coming up on his first one hundred days in office, a conventional measure of the initial success of a new president going back to FDR. But with a thwarted agenda, palace intrigue, and some self-inflicted wounds, Trump is pushing backagainst the meaningfulness of this traditional 100-day benchmark. What’s a hundred days, after all? he’s asking. Etymologically, Trump may just have a point: The word hundred is a little trickier to reckon than you may think.
Let the games begin! No, the quadrennial contest we call the US presidential election has long been underway. That other event occurring every four years, the summer Olympic Games, officially kicks off tonight in Rio de Janeiro.
As the games begin, where does “game” begin?
English has long been playing games. The word is found in several Old English texts, where it takes the form gamen and variously refers to “amusement,” “pleasure,” “enjoyment,” “sport,” and yes, even “lovemaking.”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Sir Philip Sidney mentioned Olympian games in the 1580s. But over a decade later, a translation of the French Ieux Olympiques yielded “th’ Olympick games,” which has since prevailed. Earlier, Latin had Olympicum certāmen, and Greek, the language of those original contests in 776 BC, had Ὀλυμπικός ἀγών (Olympikos agon). Latin’s certāmen and Greek’s ἀγώνboth carry a sense of “struggle” or “contest.”
Over time, the Old English gamen shed its final -en, as it was likely confused as a suffix. Game is clearly Germanic in origin, with cognates in Old High German, Old Icelandic, Old Danish, and other old tongues. All these games share a sense of “something that causes delight and joy.”
But the deeper roots of game are, appropriately enough, contested. One theory is that game is related to the German gumpen, “to jump” or “hop,” whose ultimate source may denote some kind of vigorous, irregular movement (OED). The German gumpen might be the source of English’s own jump – another everyday word, first documented only in the 1500s, whose origin is also disputed.
Another theory looks to an extinct East Germanic language, Gothic, which had gaman. This gaman meant “partner” or “fellowship.” Some explain gaman as a compound: ga–, a prefix indicating collective nouns, plus man, “man,” rendering gaman as “together people.”
While this etymology may not win a gold medal, it certainly captures the spirit of the Olympics. The games bring world-class athletes together and promote worldwide unity –people, together, a welcome event in this otherwise overly-eventful summer.
Including the worst mass shooting of the year, which unfolded horrifically on Wednesday in San Bernardino, Calif., a total of 462 people have died and 1,314 have been wounded in such attacks this year, many of which occurred on streets or in public settings, the databases indicate.
“More than one a day,” the paper starkly observes.
As we search for the killers’ motives in an effort understand this ruinous pattern, we turn, too, to the victims – these 462 victims – taken from their families.
Does the origin of this word victim have anything to teach us?
First, a disclaimer. In the wake of so much senseless death and violence, the original meaning of victim in the English language can seem just simply cruel. I in know way intend to disrespect any victims or their families based on its historical definition. On the contrary, I feel that the history of the word only reminds us that 462 is not a statistic – it’s a tragedy, it’s an emergency.
The word victim originally referred to a very different kind of victim: an animal sacrifice. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites the word at the very end of the 1400s, when victim occurs in religious contexts and names a “living creature killed and offered as a sacrifice to some deity or supernatural power.”
Providing an important clue to the word’s development, the OED also cites Samuel Purchas’ 1613 Purchas his Pilgrimage, a sort of Anglo-Christian travelogue:
Of sacrificing there were from the beginning two kinds, the one called Gifts or oblations of things without life: the other Victims (so our Rhemists have taught us to English the word Victima) slaine sacrifices of birds and beasts.
In the late 1500s and early 1600s, the Rhemists – who were exiled English Catholics in Douai, France and who may have viewed themselves as victims, in the later sense of the word, of religious persecution – rendered a pro-Catholic and Latin-heavy translation of the Bible in the wake of the Reformation. This is known as the Douay-Reims Bible.
(As a lexical aside, Purchas’ verbal use of English strikes me as a wonderfully English-y move and quite apt for the passage.)
This victim derives directly from the Latin victima, which, like its Rhemist gloss, refers to an “animal sacrifice” and “sacrifice” more generally. The ultimate origin of victima is not so clear, but etymologists have attempted several connections.
Previously, I’ve assumed this victima was related to vincere, “to conquer,” whose participial form is victus (“conquered”). This verb gives the English language victor, victory, convict, convince, and invincible, among others. I’m in good company: In his Fasti,Ovid (poetically) explains that victima is so named for the animal sacrifice killed by the right-hand of the victor (dextrā victrice, “with a victorious right-hand”). This stands in contrast to hostia, sacrifices slain by the hostile enemy who has been conquered. Ovid’s etymology advances no further than the resemblance of the forms.
The likes of Barnhart and Klein have suggested victim may be cognate to the Gothic weihs, “holy,” and the Germanic weihen, “to consecrate,” even proposing possible Sanskrit kin. The American Heritage Dictionary points to a Proto-Indo-European *weik–, “consecrated” or “holy,” noting it appears “[i]n words connected with magic and religious notions in Germanic (German Weihnacht(en), Christmas), and perhaps Latin.”
Further efforts even connect the root to English’s own witch, wile, and guile, but where this Latin victima ultimately came from is indeed beguiling.
By the middle of the 1600s, victim begins referring to people – not sacrificed but put to death or tortured, the OED explains, with shades of oppression and injustice. Over the course of the 1700s, victim lessens in intensity, used also to refer to persons suffering more generally. Hence, the victim of a crime or disease.
A victim mentality?
In the context of the 462 victims lost this year (so far, we must sadly qualify), let’s hope the word victim never lessens in its intensity for us.
Etymology, obviously, doesn’t stop such violence. But language does matter, as we’ve seen in our public discourse. What constitutes terrorism? Who gets called a terrorist and who gets called a loner? What does it mean to refer to a long gun instead of an assault rifle? Why must the very name Syed set so many people off? What are the consequences of the phrase radical Islam?
So, today, when I look to the history of the word victim, I see victim as a tragic sacrifice made in vain to some nameless hate, to some evil, existential chaos – as well as to our own collective inaction. And while Proto-Indo-European roots are speculative, perhaps at least even the faintest connection to “holy” can remind us of the sacredness of human lives. All 462 of them.
It’s not just me? You, too, were recently reflecting on the comedic stylings of Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt’s ’90s sitcom Mad About You? Oh, no. That’s right. Maybe mad is on your mind because you’ve been gearing up for the American college basketball extravaganza, March Madness. Sorry, Paul. For more on the origins of “March Madness,” this old Slate piece sum its up.
I’ve been mad about mad, though,because of my recent musings on its counterpart, angry.
A semantic aside. I could say “My fiancée is so mad at me right now” or “My fiancée is so angry at me right now.” Both work just fine. However, I don’t think we can interchange madness and anger. We reserve the latter for the emotion, while the former is the domain of the insane. What determines this? Well, it’s all semantics, I guess.
Anyways, what is this mad about?
We get mad from the Old English, mād, aphetic for gemǣd, from gemǣded, past participle of an undocumented or lost verb. (Aphesis, you may remember from fray, is the loss of an initial vowel. How ’bout that?) Perhaps this verb, as Skeat maintains, is gemǣdan, “to drive mad.”
Madness–or “insanity,” being “out of one’s mind,” “foolishness”–is indeed the earliest sense of the word mad, which the OED documents as emerging in the 1300s. This mād threw out the usual Old English adjective for the matter, wōd, though it appeared in the compound mādmōd, “folly.” Think mad mood.
But how do we get from “insane” to “angry”?
The OED cites a range of meanings that help tell the story. Mad referred to aggressive animals, such as those with rabies (~1275), or persons who are “extravagantly or wildly foolish” and “ruinously impudent” (~1300). The OED notes we shouldn’t turn over any stones because the earliest attestation of mad is “rabid.” It has no priority, with all the mad‘s cropping up around the same, approximate 1300 mark.
Mad also described being “carried away by or filled with enthusiasm” (~1325) or being “crazy” and “mentally unbalanced” (~1330, probably earlier). And, by about 1400, it described being “beside oneself with anger.”
And mad cow disease, attested in 1988, harkens back to earliest meanings of “berserk” behaviors.
The key to mad, then, is the intensely foolish or excited behavior displayed in insanity or anger. This speaks to how madness, in both its forms, makes us different, something other than our ‘normal’ selves–it speaks to how it changes us.
Indeed, “change” may well be the ancient root of mad. Gemǣded is probably passed down from gamaidaz (OED, ʒamaiðaz), whose middle, maid/maið, points to the Proto-Indo-European *mei, “to change.” Shipley also glosses for this root “move away,” “exchange,” and “arrange for services.” He notes that this root was expanded to *meig-, *mein-, and *meit-. The first explains derivatives like migrate. The second common and municipal. The third mutate and mutual. (All of these are from Latin.)
The nature of the change is a bit more specific in the Germanic descent into madness. Gothic has gamaiths/gamaids, meaning “crippled” or “maimed.” Icelandic shows meiða for the same. Old High German presents gimeit/gameit for “foolish” or “vain.”
Focusing on the injury angle, Partridge attempts to connect mad to this very maim. The jury is out on this maim. It is likely a Romance form but could be connected to the Germanic forms for “hurt” like Icelandic’s meiða or the Proto-Indo-European mait-/mai- (to cut, to hew).
Another aside. We get mayhem from maim. It was a variant that emerged as a late-1400s French legal term: “the infliction of physical injury on a person, so as to impair or destroy that person’s capacity for self-defence” (OED). Mangle is cognate as well.
It’s a Mad World
Mad is an active moonlighter, if you will. We have “as mad as a hatter,” referring “to the effects of mercury poisoning sometimes formerly suffered by hatmakers as a result of the use of mercurous nitrate in the manufacture of felt hats” (OED, as with all ensuing references).
Let’s not leave out the others. We have asmad as (a):
meat ax & cut snake (Australia, New Zealand)
tup (a ram, whose sexual connotations are probably not lost on users of the expression)
And mad gives me occasion for a little Ohio pride (I come from the Buckeye state), as two Ohio newspaper are given the first OED attestations for mad money and mad scientist. For the latter, the NewarkDaily Advocate published in 1893: “Nerving myself for the blow, I felled the mad scientist dead at my feet.” For the former, good old LimaNews printed in 1922: “The 1922 girl ‘squirrels’ or hides, a few dollar bills known as ‘mad money’.”
Then we have mad‘s use as “cool” in US jazz slang, emerging in the 1940s and reemerging to refer to something abundant or in excess in the 1990s, e.g., “The DJ had mad skills.”
Mad: a small, everyday word made up of three simple sounds. It does a lot with little. I give it mad props for that.