“Dakota” and “Sioux”: A tale of protest, told in etymology

Since spring, the Standing Rock Sioux have led protests against the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Missouri River and Lake Oahe by their reservation in North Dakota, fearing the oil pipeline could contaminate their water supply and desecrate sacred sites nearby. But this Sunday, their hard-fought efforts met with victory: the US Army Corps of Engineers did not approve an easement for the pipeline to go through the route in question. 

Here’s a look into the origins of Dakota and Sioux, which turn out to be perfect metaphors for this incredible protest:

Friends and foes

The meaning of Dakota, the name and language of a Sioux tribe which also graces two states in the Upper Midwest, is usually given as “friend” or “ally.” The etymology, though, may be a bit more complex. John Koontz, a linguist who specializes in Siouan languages, supposes dakota, or lakota in Lakota dialect, literally means “to be a friend by means of heat.” This “heat” may reference the Seven Council Fires, the confederation of the Sioux tribes, which alludes to “the ceremonial action of the council fires [started for gatherings] in establishing or signifying the friendship among the various Lakota (and Dakota) people.”

The Oxford English Dictionary first attests Dakota in the 1804 Journals of Lewis and Clark. Clark wrote: “This nation call themselves–Dar co tar. The French call them Souex.” Indeed, Sioux, first attested in English in 1761, is shortened from Nadouessioux, which early French explorers adapted from Natowessiwak, the name neighboring Ojibwe peoples gave to the Dakota.

It’s not a kind term, Natowessiwak. The word is pejorative and diminutive, and, according to Koontz, has two meanings: 1) “little snake,” referencing the massasauga, a small rattlesnake; and 2) “little barbarian,” literally “speaker of a foreign language.” It’s not clear which sense is primary, but both meanings belittle the Dakota as outsiders. There is much precedent for this, though: the Greek’s called foreigners barbaroi, a word that imitates the sound of unintelligible language and gives us the word barbarian. And Welsh comes from a Germanic root for “foreigner.” 

The exact etymologies of Dakota and Sioux are uncertain, but they sum up the story of the Standing Rock protests quite powerfully: Through solidarity and community action, the protestors prevailed over many who saw them, and their objections to the pipeline, like some sort of pesky other.

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Why do we call it the president’s “Cabinet”?

With some controversy, President-elect Donald Trump has been assembling his new Cabinet. But new cabinets are for kitchens, right? Why do we call these advisors, who head the executive departments of the US government, a president’s Cabinet?

Cabinet members

In the 16th century, there were two main meanings of cabinet. The first, and earliest, cabinet named a “case” that kept secret valuables, like jewels or letters, safe. This cabinet, later ornamental and fitted with shelves and drawers, became the furniture in our kitchens, bathrooms, TV rooms, and offices.

The other cabinet named a “small, private chamber.” Leaders would meet with political advisors in such places, apparently, to discuss the most sensitive and confidential matters. Over the first half of the 1600s, and by the metaphorical process known as metonymy, cabinet became the official name for the people who met in a such a room to advise a leader.

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A filing cabinet, which the Cabinet of the United States surely has quite a lot of. Image courtesy of freeimages.com.

Cabinet-makers

The Oxford English Dictionary credits the influential polymath Francis Bacon with the earliest recorded use of cabinet in a political context. In “Of Counsel,” an essay first published in 1612, Bacon mused on some of the challenges (“inconveniences”) of giving counsel to a ruler, including the loss of secrecy, undermining of authority, and the risk of betrayal. He then notes:

For which inconveniences, the doctrine of Italy, and practice of France, in some kings’ times, hath introduced cabinet counsels; a remedy worse than the disease.

Bacon was no fan, it seems, of cabinets. But by the time he acceded the English throne in 1625, King Charles is said to have formally introduced a “Cabinet Council” for additional, high-level, and possibly even more secret advisement alongside his Privy Council.

Now, the word cabinet doesn’t explicitly appear in the US Constitution. Article II, Section 2 does state the President

may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices.

On September 11, 1789, George Washington sent his nominations for four such officers to the Senate, which it approved: Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, the first-to-be-confirmed Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph. (Some include Postmaster General Samuel Osgood in this body.)

But it was James Madison, as far as we know, who first referred to these men as “the president’s cabinet,” drawing on what was by then a well-established term in British government. The presidential Cabinet has since expanded, including some name changes, to 15 departments. The most recent department in the cabinet, the Department of Homeland Security, was formed following a different September 11. 

Inside the cabinet

What do we know about the history of the word cabinet? Scholars generally take cabinet to be a diminutive form of cabin: “a little cabin.” Indeed, cabin is no secret in the shape or sound of the word cabinet, but our associations of the word with cupboards and government are so strong that we often don’t connect it to those shelters we escape to in the woods.

Cabin, originally a “temporary shelter” in the late 1300s, derives from the French cabane, “hut,” in turn from Late Latin capanna. Capanna, whose further origins are a mystery, also yields the Spanish cabana. A few have claimed it’s Celtic or Illyrian. And some note cabine referred to a “room for gambling” in an old French dialect. Talk about shady, backroom dealings. 

But how do we reconcile cabinet, the small room, with cabinet, the case and furniture? The French source of cabinet may have been influenced by the Italian gabinetto, a “little cage or basket,” hence a kind of “chest” or “closet.” This gabinetto is a diminutive form of gabbia, which may be ultimately rooted in the Latin cavus, “hollow,” origin of cave and even cage.

And no cabinet member ever wants to be boxed in or in the dark in a president’s administration. As Francis Bacon observed in “Of Counsel”: “The greatest trust between man and man is the trust of giving counsel.”

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“Suffrage”: Cutting through all the noise

Are you tired of all the campaign noise? Are you worried America is splitting into two? Are you saying prayers? Or are you proudly casting your ballot – for a woman who, not 100 years ago, couldn’t have done so herself ? On this US Election Day, the etymology of suffrage, that right to vote so sacrosanct in democracy, wraps all of these feelings into one.

Thoughts and prayers…and votes

The earliest meaning of suffrage in English was “prayers.” These prayers, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests them in the 14th century, were intercessory, or said on behalf on another, especially for the souls of the dead. An earlier variant, suffragies, also referred to such prayers in Middle English.

It’s over the course of the 16th century that suffrage moves towards various senses related to voting. The OED records suffrage as “a vote” cast in favor of some official proposition or candidate by 1535. By 1665, suffrage referred to general “voting” as such. 

But it’s the United States Constitution, which entered into force 1789, where we first find the use of suffrage in its modern sense: “the right to vote.” Article V stipulates that “no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.”

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A screen capture of Article V of the US Constitution, courtesy of the US National Archives. Does it seem the Founding Fathers needed a little help with their apostrophe rules?

Expanding suffrage

By 1822 we have a universal suffragist, who worked to extend franchise. In the middle of the 19th century, suffragists especially referred to those fighting for the right of black men to vote. In the last quarter of the 19th century, the focus of suffragist was on women’s suffrage.

Women’s suffrage as such is first recorded in the name of a Rhode Island organization, the Young Women’s Suffrage Association, listed in James Webster’s 1842 People’s Democratic Guide. As the guide explained its mission:

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A screen capture of The People’s Democratic Guide, courtesy of the Internet Archive

The Young Women’s Suffrage Association, like the Ladies Free Suffrage Association of Rhode Island, whose entry is immediately preceding in the guide, issued a powerful call:

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A screen capture of The People’s Democratic Guide, courtesy of the Internet Archive

Suffragette, a women fighting for her right to vote, appears by 1906. Early on, though, this title was actually associated with violence and militancy

The sound and the fury? 

So, how did suffrage evolve from “prayers” to “the right vote”? It seems that word had two influences: the French suffrage and its origin, the Latin suffrāgium. The Latin root variously denoted a “voting tablet,” “ballot,” “voice,” “vote,” and, yes, “the right to vote.” The “voting” sense of the English suffrage may have been directly borrowed from this source in the 16th century while the earlier notion of “prayers” was taken from an intermediary French form meaning “support.”

It doesn’t stretch the imagination, then, to connect “prayers” and “voting” via the notion of “lending one’s support.” The word vote itself, after all, derives from the Latin vōtum, a “vow” or “wish,” eventually expressed with respect to some decision or person.

And as for the meaning of Latin’s suffrāgium? There are two theories. The first supposes the word joins sub (“under”) and fragor (“crash,” “din”). The idea, apparently, is a vote made under shouts of approval, perhaps not unlike the modern voice vote of aye’s and nay’s. The second thinks suffrāgium could blend that same sub and frangere, “to break,” like a little shard of tile once used to cast ballots.

There is some precedent for this broken tile explanation. The word ostracism indeed derives from the Greek ostrakon, a “tile” or “potsherd” used in votes to banish a person in ancient Athens. And similarly, the Greek kleros, source of clerk, referred to a “twig” used by ancient Greeks to cast lots. 

As it happens, Latin’s fragor, “noise,” is related to frangere, “to break,” and gives English other words like fractionfragment, and fracture. We’ve heard so much noise this 2016 presidential election, and we’ve experienced a lot of breakage. But there’s at least one thing that cuts through, one thing that keeps us together, and that’s exercising our suffrage.    

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Coping with “coups”

Over this past weekend, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan quelled an attempted military coup. While failed, the coup still delivered a harsh “blow” to the country – and lived up to its own etymology.

Coup

A military coup is short for a coup d’état, which literally means a “stroke of state” in French. The “stroke” characterizes a coup’s sudden, usually violent overthrow of a government. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), English has been using the shortened coup since at least 1852, the full French phrase since 1646.

In French, a coup is a widely used term for a “blow,” as in a really hard hit. (The English “hit” might well parallel coup’s versatility.) Other borrowed phrases, like coup de grâce, also feature coup. The word derives from a series of Latin forms, colpus and colapus and colaphus yet before them, ultimately borrowed from the Greek κόλαϕος (kolaphos), a “cuff” or “buffet,” like a box on the ears.

For the origin of the Greek kolaphos, the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots proposes the Proto-Indo-European *kel-, “to strike.” We previously encountered this hypothetical root in the “twiggy lot” of clerk.

Cashing in on coups?

English first borrowed French’s coup in the early 16th century when it referred to a physical “blow” – and when it’s final p was pronounced. It borrowed it again in the 18th century, using it figuratively and, like in French, issuing a lethal coup to that last letter. But English had been using coup in verbal forms since the 14th century. The verbal coup was from the French couper, “to strike,” via that same coup.

Now, cope was a variant of this coup: Starting with “strike,” cope evolved to mean “to engage in combat,” “contend,” and “face successfully.” It then made the metaphorical jump to actions we need to take after a coup: to cope with. The connecting sense is “managing” or “dealing with something,” as one does in a conflict. The OED attests the modern, psychological-shaded cope with in 1934.

In French, couper went on to mean “cut,” making coupon a “piece cut off.” English cut off coupon from French in 1822, when a coupon specifically referred to a certificate attached to a bond which could be cut off and presented as a payment on interest. In 1864, a travel agent, Thomas Cook, extended the sense of coupon to a series of pre-payed tickets a traveller used along different points of a journey (e.g., for a hotel, a meal). English cashed in Cook’s usage for its modern coupon.

A two-door coupe or coupé car is a “cut” car. The term comes from the French carrosse coupé, a “cut carriage,” a kind of shorter, hence “cut,” four-wheel carriage.

Turkey’s coup was no mere political metaphor: Nearly 300 died. And how will Erdoğan cope with the coup dissidents? Not with coupons. And certainly not with coupes. He’s promising to throw some harsh, retributive, and, yes, literal coups of his own.

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“Leave”: a big, fat, sticky mess. Literally.

The result of the “Brexit” referendum is historic: Britain has voted to leave the European Union. The very word leave has made its own history, too: It originally meant “to remain.”

Leave, or what “remains”

Historically, we can consider leave a contronym: a word that means its opposite, like cleave, dust, and sanction. In the earliest record, leave meant “to leave behind,” as in one’s family or property in death. By the 1200s, we see its sense shift and broaden to “leave behind” a place (as one also does in death), hence “to go away” and “depart.”

English’s leave is from the Old English lǽfan, a causative verb that meant “to have a remainder” or “to cause or allow to remain,” as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it. (Think “what is left.”)

Surprisingly, leave is also related to live and life, which, as the Brexit underscores, is a big, fat, sticky mess. Quite literally, if English’s Proto-Indo-European (PIE) forebears are correct: the root *leip- means “to stick” and “fat.” In Greek, this root became λίπος (lipos), “grease” or “fat,” yielding the English lipid and liposuction.

In the Germanic languages, the PIE *leip-, with its underbelly of “adherence,” connoted “continuance,” hence the strange jump to life, live, and liver, once believed to make the body’s blood. The root also produced the Germanic base for “remnant” and “remain,” ancestor to the Old English lǽfan.

Ernest Klein, in his etymological dictionary, cites some other curious descendants of *leip-: the Albanian for “eye boogers,” the Latin for “bleary-eyed” (and, in part, “celibate”), and the Old Slavonic for “bird-lime.”

What, exactly, Britain’s vote to leave leaves behind, well, remains to be seen. In the meantime, if markets and politics are any measure, the Brexit seems to be living up to its ancient etymology.

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“Caucus”: a smoke-filled etymology

The next Speaker of the US House of Representative is courting the Freedom Caucus while the next President of the US is courting the Iowa caucuses. But the importance of the caucus to the American political process isn’t new. The caucus – a meeting of members of a political party or movement, especially to choose a candidate for election or to decide on policy – has long been an important part of the American political process. This is evident even in the history of the very word: some of the first records of caucus involve John Adams, Sam Adams, the Boston Tea Party, and possibly even John Smith and Pocahontas. But, like so much of American democracy, the origin of caucus is subject to debate.

"Captain John Smith." Ink and ballpoint on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
Captain John Smith has an important and complicated place in American history. We might add the origin of “caucus” to that legacy. “Captain John Smith.” Ink and ballpoint on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Caucus

A significant and early citation of caucus comes from an entry John Adams made in his diary in 1763. In this entry, Adams writes that he learned the “Caucas Clubb meets at certain Times in the Garret of Tom Daws.”  This private organization  – whose social meetings were even then associated with tobacco and drink, as his notes remark – was influential in pre-Revolutionary politics, including a possible role in the Boston Tea Party.

The Oxford English Dictionary has two citations before Adams’ own in 1763. They give us more insight into the place caucuses held in the colonies, not to mention the historic phonology of the word, especially in the New England region, where the OED concludes it arose:

1760 Boston Gaz. Suppl. 5 May The new and grand Corcas….The old and true Corcas.
1762 O. Thacher in  Proc. Mass. Hist. Soc. (1884). 20 48 The connections and discords of our politicians, corkus-men, plebeian tribes, &c.

The word was “not novel” when English minister and historian William Gordon discussed it in his 1788 “History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment of the Independence of the United States of Americans.” He recalls it as early as the 1720s, though he admits he has “no satisfactory account” of its origins, which largely remains the case today.

But we do have a number of suggestions, some of which are more electable, shall we say, than others.

Caulkers

In Gordon’s own discussion of the word, he notes the Boston caucuses met at “the north end of town, where much of the ship-building business was carried on.” Noting this, philologist John Pickering in 1816 guessed the word originated in a cant term, caulkers, shortened from caulkers’ meetings. Pickering suggests ship caulkers and their vocational brethren were known for their political meetings and activities. Scholars have swiftly dispatched this derivation.

West-Corcus

Pickering is not alone in considering the locations of these meetings, though. In his excellent account of the word, storied American writer and philologist H.L. Mencken notes that the Dictionary of American English suggests caucus “may have derived from the name of a forgotten neighborhood” based on a reference in a Boston newspaper to a meeting in the “West-Corcus in Boston” in 1745. In an interesting thread on the American Dialect Society’s email discussion list, Professor Stephen Goranson finds some wind in this speculation, though he doesn’t fully explain why.

C.A.U.C.U.S.

Pickering surfaces again in 1943, thanks to the scholarship of LeRoy Barret, as we also learn in Mencken’s work. Barret cites an attempt by Pickering to derive caucus from the initials of six members’ surnames: Cooper, Adams, Urann, Coulson, Urann, and Symmes. With characteristic mordancy, Mencken dismisses this initialism in his account of the history of the work:

There is, furthermore, an unhappy tendency among amateur etymologists to derive words from the initials of proper names, often without justification.

Kaukos

Another effort, from the Century Dictionary in 1900, looks to the drink John Adams noted. This origin takes caucus back, via Latin, to a late Greek word, kaukos, a “drinking vessel,” emphasizing the conviviality of meetings and recalling Platonic symposia. Historians, such as William Harris in his own informative piece on this problematic word,¹ have serious doubts about the record of kaukos in itself, not to mention the unlikeliness these colonial Bostonians would have adopted such a recondite word for their club.

The Powhatan cau′-cau-as′u

Some may doubt these secret politickers used Latin or Greek names, but they may have taken Native American ones. According to the OED, philologist and Algonquian scholar James H. Trumbull suggested in the Proceedings of the American Philological Association in 1872 that caucus has a

possible derivation from an Algonquin word cau′-cau-as′u, which occurs in Capt. Smith’s  Virginia 23, as Caw-cawaassough ‘one who advises, urges, encourages’, from a verb meaning primarily ‘to talk to’, hence ‘to give counsel, advise, encourage’, and ‘to urge, promote, incite to action’. For such a derivation there is claimed the general suitability of the form and sense, and it is stated that Indian names were commonly taken by clubs and secret associations in New England; but there appears to be no direct evidence.

Of all the etymological candidates for caucus, this one gets the most votes, though no nominee is ever perfect.

Caucus, then, may may come from the Algonquian spoken by the Powhatan peoples in what is now Virginia. The very political concept, too, may well have native roots. As the late Classics professor William Harris sums up in his: “And so it turns out that CAUCUS is a truly American word.”American English is indeed indebted to the very language of the peoples the colonists eradicated, to be frank. But so, too, in many complex ways we may struggle to comprehend or acknowledge, is American democracy.

¹ I did observe that Professor Harris states that Captain Smith married Pocahontas. She married John Rolfe. I felt the inaccuracy was worth noting.

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gavel

American political institutions love to sit.

Committees have chairs. Congressional chambers have seats. Courts have benches. Presidents have, well, desks.

They also love metonymy, that “figure of speech in which a thing is represented by something closely associated with it” (Drury, The Poetry Dictionary). Thus we refer to those chairs, seats, benches, and desks as stand-ins–sit-ins?–for the person, position, and power symbolically residing in them. (We saw metonymy at work in scarlet.)

One of the better known governmental metonyms–the gavel–has been making headlines, as the U.S. Supreme Court pounded the gavel on its term this year with some major decisions.  Technically, the nine Justices aren’t themselves pounding the gavel. According to the Supreme Court Historical Society, that’s left to the court’s Crier, who bangs it right at 10am so all rise for the black robes entering the courtroom on days when they hear oral arguments.

The gavel, of course, is used in many a official assembly, and in many a metaphor. Gavels get grabbed. Gavels get passed. Gavels get brought down, gavel-to-gavel.

Night Court’s gavel-wielder, Judge Harry Stone. Image courtesy open.salon.com.

So, where does this gavel come from?

Gavel

The etymology of this ceremonial, attention-getting wooden mallet is ultimately unknown.

Ernest Weekley makes a connection to a German dialectical use of gaffel in the Lower Rhine. He glosses it as “brotherhood” and “friendly society,” seeing a cognate to the English give. Indeed, a now obsolete meaning of the word gavel is “tribute” or “rent.” This gavel is given by the Old English gafol, a “tribute,” indeed related to give via its Anglo-Saxon ancestor, giefan. The usage lives on essentially in gavelkind, a concept Weekley nicely elucidates: a “system” primarily in the county of Kent in England, “by which property is divided equally instead of going to the eldest son” but originally a “form of tenure.”

The Oxford English Dictionary of English Etymology finds the word was first wielded in the 19th century (American dictionaries cite it in 1805) and primarily so in the United States, but otherwise offers no opinion.

Eric Partridge suggests gavel may be “akin to kevel, a hammer for stone-shaping or -breaking, itself [of obscure origin] but [probably] akin to [nautical] kevel, a strong cleat or timber for fasting a vessel’s heavy lines.” He goes on to root this nautical tool’s origin in the Latin clavis, or “key.” Clavicle is a descendant. Word historians give their assent to the gavel’s historical use among masons, so there may something to kevel’s case.  

Others have proposed a line to javelin (cf. Welsh gafl, “fork”) from the Old French for “spear.” French also had javelle, a sort of loose heap of grains, linked to a hypothetical Latin *gabella, possibly from capulus, a “hilt” or “handle,” though primarily “coffin.” This diminutive noun is rooted in capere, “to seize.” And folk etymologies have cited gabble. Indeed, there are some connections, but they extremely tenuous, as the semantic and sound changes are suspect.

It seems the jury is out on gavel.

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