Why do we say “second” and not “twoth”?

Thanks in large part to the impassioned activism of the #NeverAgain movement, the news hasn’t moved on from the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, as it has too often in recent massacres in the US. The pressure is staying on gun control, keeping the Second Amendment to the US Constitution in the hot seat.

The Second Amendment is also in this post’s etymological hot seat. I’m not debating its constitutional interpretation, though. I’m debating why we say second and not twoth.   

clock-692416_1920.jpg
The second hand is really the third hand on a clock, which has no first hand. (Pixabay

Continue reading “Why do we say “second” and not “twoth”?”

The etymological “plea” of “please”

One of the most moving responses to Parkland, Florida, site of just latest mass school shooting in the US, has been a single word: please.

David Hogg, 17-year-old survivor of the massacre at his high school, has emerged as a forceful voice of a burgeoning youth movement for gun reform. Speaking to CNN, Hogg exhorted: “Please! We are children. You guys are, like, the adults. Take action, work together, come over your politics, and get something done.”

Lori Alhadeff lost her 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, to the gunmen. Before CNN’s cameras, her unimaginable grief boiled into a stirring admonition: “President Trump, please do something! Do something. Action! We need it now! These kids need safety now!”

These are powerful pleas of please—and two words joined together by a common root.

hammer-719068_1920.jpg
A please resounding like a gavel to order. Plea originates as a term for a “lawsuit,” a form of the same Latin verb that gives us please. (Pixabay)

Continue reading “The etymological “plea” of “please””

“Musket”: the hawkish language of a gadfly?

Former Congressman Joe Walsh caused a stir (and probably a visit from the Secret Service) after he tweeted he’ll be grabbing his “musket” if Donald Trump loses the election. He added, “You in?” Walsh claimed he wasn’t calling for an armed revolution but just using musket as a symbol of protest. Either way, Walsh’s words were quite hawkish – and literally so, if we look to the etymology of musket.

800px-accipiter_nisus_9194
A call to…hawks? The Eurasian sparrowhawk. Image by Katie Fuller (Bogbumper), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.  

Musket

English first fired off musket in the late 1500s. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests the firearm in 1574, noting that it was the general term for an infantry gun until rifle supplanted it in the 19th century. The word is borrowed from the French mosquet, itself from the Italian moschetto, a “crossbow arrow.” Indeed, early muskets once shot arrows as well as bullets.

But in Italian, moschetto originally referred to the “sparrowhawk.” Both English and French also borrowed moschetto for this bird of prey; musket is a now-archaic term for a “male sparrowhawk.” But moschetto actually takes its name from an altogether different creature. Like its Spanish cousin mosquito, moschetto means “little fly.” It’s a diminutive form of mosca, “fly,” from Latin’s musca. The English midge is a possible cognate of this musca.   

This etymology leaves us with two questions. First, why would a hawk be named after an insect? Many philologists have maintained that the sparrowhawk was called “little fly” because it looks speckled with flies when it’s in flight. Others, though, observe that many small birds have been likened to flies.

Second, why would a gun be likened to a bird? A number of early firearms took the names of birds and beasts. The falconet and saker calibers shot off like swift falcons. Dragoon breathed fire like its mythical namesake. The culverin hissed like its etymological snake. The zumbooruk, mounted on a camel, stung like its Persian root for “hornet.” Musket, then, evolved from “sparrowhawk” to “crossbow arrow” to the “crossbow” itself, extended to the weapon’s technological update, the musket.

Regardless of the outcome, let’s hope that no muskets flare on Election Day – and that Walsh’s words are just the blather of a gadfly.

m ∫ r ∫

Orlando

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.

m ∫ r ∫

What is the “math” in “aftermath”?

We’ve seen some startling statistics in the aftermath of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College: There is a gun for nearly every person in the US, where we average about a mass shooting every day,  which we have taken essentially zero action on. Etymologically speaking, though, aftermath has nothing to do with numbers. Let’s do the math in the word aftermath.

meadow
“Math.” Sharpie and colored pencil on paper. Doodle by me.

Aftermath

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first records aftermath at the end of the 15th century. Back then, it referred to “a second crop or new growth of grass after the first has been mown or harvested.” For, this math meant “a mowing” or “the portion of the crop that has been mowed.” It is found very early in Old English, taking the form of mæþ. As you may recall, the symbol þ, called “thorn,” represented the unvoiced th sound (as in thick) in Old English.

By the 1650s, the OED continues, aftermath was signifying “a period or state of affairs following a significant event, especially when that event is destructive or harmful.” By the 1670s, the word was more generally referring to the “unwelcome consequence or effect” of such an event.

This math is related to meadmeadow, and mow.  Indo-European scholars have rooted this family of words in a Proto-Indo-European root, *mē-, “to cut down grass or grain with sickle or scythe.” In the US these days, though, the Grim Reaper has swapped out his scythe for a gun.

meadow_scribblesm ∫ r ∫

From “numb” to “nimble”

In his remarks in the immediate aftermath of the massacre at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore. last week, President Obama commented on the epidemic of mass shootings in the US: “Somehow, this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We have become numb to this.” Numb – the word is very cautionary and, if we look to its etymology, perhaps instructive.

Numb

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites numb in English’s written record around 1400. Then, the word signified “deprived of physical sensation or of the power of movement, especially through extreme cold.” The OED cites figurative usages for numb – “emotionally deadened, unresponsive, or spent, as the result of grief, shock, fear, etc.” – by the late 1560s, though this was rare until the 19th century.

Numb is a past participle of a much older and once everyday verb in Old English, nim, and is first recorded in the form of nommeNim – or niman, if we consider its infinitive form in Old English – functioned like take, a Scandinavian-based verb that eventually supplanted nim by the 15th century (OED).  As philologist Walter Skeat explains it, numb originally conveyed “taken” or “seized,” which shifted to mean “overpowered,” and then extended to “deprived of sensation.”

But where did that come from? We don’t pronounce it. No one ever did. We did, however, pronounce the phoneme in a word related to numb: nimble. Here, this is called “excrescent,” describing a consonant added between two others. This happens usually to make pronunciation easier. (Try pronouncing nimble without the b. Does the articulation feel a bit more strained to you?) As a result of hypercorrection in English spelling, the b was added to other words ending in m. Crumb, dumb, thumb, and limb are other examples. Anatoly Liberman, the Oxford Etymologist, explains the phenomenon in greater depth on an excellent piece he wrote on English spelling.

Nimble

Now, nimble – attested in a variety of forms in Old English, including numel – joins nim and an instrumental suffix, -le. Nimble is a very old word in the language, first documented to mean “quick at grasping, understanding, or learning” and “quick to seize or take hold of one” (OED). With that suffix -le, the OED goes on, nimble means means “apt to nim.” By the 1400s, we have evidence of its more modern sense of “agile,” or “quick and light in movement.”

We should listen to numb’s etymological lesson and seek to be nimble – in mind and in action – instead.

Coming up, we’ll also take a look at the deeper roots of nim and some surprising words it  related to.

m ∫ r ∫