The 2017 “Etymology of the Year”: The Fake Origins of “Covfefe”

While some casual observers speculated if covfefe would win Word of the Year, lexicographers duly noted that the presidential typo for coverage, if creating a curious cultural moment, lacked any meaningful use to genuinely merit any such award.

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Screenshot from the New York Times

I think covfefe does deserve a different prize, however: my second annual Etymology of the Year.

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“Armageddon,” “catastrophe,” and other “apocalyptic” word origins

The end of the world loves ancient Greek and the Bible.

Threats between North Korea and President Trump this week made many of us fear were approaching the brink of a nuclear catastrophe—among other, stronger and more colorful terms like armageddon. Well, not even the prospect of the end of the world can shake the etymological curiosity of this blogger. Why not go out with a little word nerdery and find out where our English’s apocalyptic vocabulary comes from?

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Mushroom cloud from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki (Wikimedia Commons)

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Lions, chameleons, and shih-tzus, oh my!: 12 “lion” etymologies

Liger is much older than you think. Tigon is even older.

Earlier this week, I let the etymological cat out of the bag for International Cat Day. Today, I keep with the feline theme for World Lion Day. Yes, these national/international days can get gimmicky—except where they raise money for wildlife conservation. But I really can’t resist a reason to explore words that come from the lion’s den, so to speak. Here are the origins of 12 lion-related words, with a few bits of other beastly lexical trivia scattered throughout:

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How we got “sacked”

Yes, getting sacked does originally involve bags. 

Just ten days into his new role as White House Communications Director, Anthony “the Mooch” Scaramucci was sacked, as a number of British headlines having been putting his firing while General John Kelly takes over as Trump’s Chief of Staff.

Where does this expression, getting sacked, come from?

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You’re fired! (Pixabay)

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Channeling the roots of “channel”

The word channel may have a secret back channel to a Semitic or Arabic root. 

When it comes to Russia, Trump just can’t change the channel. The Washington Post reported last Friday that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser, talked about setting up a secret back channel of communications with Russia this past December. As Washington adds this latest scandal to its Trump-Russia investigations, let’s channel the etymology of channel.

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The roots, er, reeds, of “channel.” (Pixabay)

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“Hallelujah”: word of praise, lord of song

We lost yet another great this year: Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer, songwriter, and poet who passed away at 82. Cohen was perhaps best known for his much storied and much covered song, “Hallelujah.” In honor of the legendary artist, let’s pay tribute to the etymology of one of his most defining words.

Hallelujah

Hallelujah is an interjection used as an expression of worship: “Praise the Lord!” The Oxford English Dictionary first records it in the 1535 Coverdale Bible, the first complete Modern English translation of the Bible. The term mainly appears in the Psalms, which originally were religious songs. The English Hallelujah renders its Hebrew root, hallĕlū-yāh, among other transliterations: “praise God.” The Greek, and later Latin, rendition of the Hebrew also gave English alleluia, which is attested far earlier, in Old English. 

The Hebrew hallĕlū-yāh comprises two elements. The first, hallĕlū, is the plural imperative of hallēl, “to praise, extol, celebrate.” A plural imperative directs more than two people to perform an action, which is why many older Bibles translate hallelujah as “Praise ye the Lord!” (Today, we just use the pronoun you for both one you and more than one you, but English used to have ye to refer to two or more people.) According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the Hebrew hallēl is imitative, a word for “praise” derived from the sound of an exalting trill.

The second element yāh is a shortened form of Yahweh. The history of Yahweh is a complex one, involving both deep religious beliefs and deep structures of Semitic languages. To put it simplistically, for many Jews, both now and in the past, the name of God was believed too holy to utter. So, sacred texts would render the name as YHWH, known as the Tetragrammaton (Greek for “four letters”), which scholars later vocalized as Yahweh or Jehovah. Some think YHWH itself may come from a root verb hāwāh, “to be,” making Yahweh literally mean “he that is” or “the self-existing.”

It can be difficult to reconcile Cohen’s dirgeful, cold, and broken hallelujah with its exclamatory, worshipful origin – though difficulty is at the very core of Cohen’s entire artistic project. But perhaps the raw, naked, and ancient etymology of hallelujah well captures the emotional energy of Cohen’s most famous song: a searching and yearning for some bigger meaning, which he finds in the self-existing sound, in a literal hallelujah. “I’ll stand before the Lord of Song,” he sang, “With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”

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Why do we call them headphone “jacks”?

Apple turned many heads this week when it announced it’s scrapping the headphone jack in the iPhone 7. The jack, that little socket you plug your headphones into and sometimes the word for the plug itself, has had a good run: It’s a durable bit of technology dating back to the 19th century. But why we call it a jack is much, much older.

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Jack and jack plug. Image by Pascal Thauvin, courtesy of freeimages.com.

jack of all trades

Since at least the late 1300s, jack has been naming all sorts of mechanical devices. One prominent contrivance is the Jack of the clock, simply called Jack at the end of 1400s. This was a little, mechanized man who strikes the bells on old clocks. Other early jacks include a turner of a roasting spit, a wooden frame for sawing, and various rollers and winches. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds all these uses in the 1580s.

Many such jack technologies proliferated in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, like the lifting-jack, which we still use, essentially, in changing a flat tire today. This is why we jack up, or “raise,” prices. Jack was first used of telephony, at least according to the OED’s account, in 1891, referring to that special electrical socket Apple is obsolescing. Plugging this socket is a jack plug, or now just jack, attested by 1931. Headphone actually predates both of these, appearing by 1882.

Early on, many of these jacks replaced the work of a man. Think of Jack of the clock, whose automatized timekeeping saved the services of some clocktower attendant in addition to providing an impressive, ornamental display of technological progress. During this period of history, Jack was a widespread nickname for any old regular guy. (We do this today with our Average Joe, Dear John, and even hip-hop’s New Jack.) And so the various tools and technologies took the name of the man they stood in for: Jack.

Jacks are truly an everyman in the English language. We see them in jackass, jack of all trades, jack-o’-lantern, lumberjack, Union Jack, you don’t know jack, and jackpot, whose jack, as I previously discussed, answers to the card suit.

Jack today, gone tomorrow

Now, in English, Jack has long been a pet form of the name John, historically one of the most common first names for men. We have evidence for it in the 1300s. Some think this Jack was a homegrown nickname, but most etymologists think Jack actually comes from the French name Jacques, also used as a familiar, often contemptuous name for a common man or peasant.

Jacques is ultimately a French form of name Jacob: Latin’s Iacōbus yields Jacques (and James), the Greek Ἰάκωβος (Iakobos) yields Iacōbus, and the Hebrew יַעֲקֹב (Ya’akōbh, among other renderings) supplies all of the above.

Scholars have given a few interpretations to the meaning of Jacob. One is that it comes from the Hebrew word for “heel” (ʿaqeb, approximately) also carrying a sense of “to follow.” For this, they point to the biblical Jacob, younger twin to Esau. The Book of Genesis describes his birth: “And after that came his brother out, and his hand took hold on Esau’s heel; and his name was called Jacob.” 

But in a later passage, Jacob takes on a more metaphorical meaning. When Jacob cheats his brother out of his birthright, Esau cries: “Is not he rightly named Jacob? for he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing.” Here, Jacob means “supplant.”

Jacob supplanted Esau. Jack supplanted Jacob. The mechanical jack supplanted Jack the workman. And Apple’s AirPods are supplanting the headphone jack. It’s as if the technology was etymologically bound to be replaced.      

Pulling “rabbit” out of the etymological hat

Christianity, in many ways, originates with Easter: Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead is a cornerstone of the faith. The Easter Bunny, most maintain, originates in German folklore involving a rabbit that delivered colored eggs to good little girls and boys. And the holiday’s bunnies, chicks, and eggs, of course, have longed served as symbols of fertility, rebirth, and new life. But what about the word rabbit?

Down the rabbit hole

Some of my favorite etymologies concern those simple, everyday words whose origins we simply don’t know. Over at Oxford Dictionaries, I recently wrote about a number of them, including dog. Yes, dog; we just don’t know what, er, etymological tree it’s barking up. We can add to this list rabbit, another commonplace word for a commonplace animal whose origins are obscure.

Here’s the problem with rabbit: there is apparently no native Celtic or Germanic word for this animal, as the critter was not native to northern Europe. These early cultures had a word for hare, no doubt, but not the rabbit. Now, I can’t quite tell you the difference between the rabbit and the hare, but the lexicon of our Indo-European ancestors certainly registered them.

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A rabbit, wondering that’s the etymology of its name it hears lurking in the brush. Image from http://www.freeimages.com/photographer/jeffreyvb-33973.

We have record of rabbit by the late 14th century. Origins have been proposed like, well, rabbits. But, in his excellent An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology, professor and philologist Anatoly Liberman easily dispatches with many of the early ones, including: the Hebrew for “copulate,” the same Latin root that yields rabies, the Greek for “creeper,” and even the name Robert.

But the picture gets more complicated when we consider robett, the word for rabbit in Walloon, a Romance language spoken in parts of Belgium and France (and, for a time, in Wisconsin). This cognate, though now considered borrowed from Flemish, has led many etymologists to seek a Romance root for rabbit, including in the French râble (“back and loin of the rabbit”) and the Spanish rabo (“tail”). Liberman traps these hypotheses, as tempting as they may look.

Instead, Liberman looks to a structure used in Germanic animal names, including German’s Robbe (“seal”) and the Icelandic robbi (“sheep, ram”): r + vowel + b. He also roots robin, whose name has been of equally problematic origin, in this structure. Onto this base was added a French suffix along the lines of -et or –ot.

As Liberman nicely sums it up: “Rabbit is a Germanic noun with a French suffix.”

But what does r-b mean?  Speakers of ancient Germanic languages apparently – and arbitrarily – had  this sound complex available as vehicle for naming animals of all sizes and stripes. And the French -et  or -ot signifies diminutives. So, a rabbit, if Liberman is correct, is some sort of little animal-type thingy.

Liberman puts rabbit into the bigger picture for us: “Rabbits were well known in the British Isles by the year 1200, but the word rabbit surfaced two centuries later. Most likely, speakers of English coined many words for the new animal. They are all lost, while rabbit has survived. The sound complex r-b in the name of the rabbit has no parallels outside Germanic.”

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The hare is larger and has longer ears than the rabbit does, among other differences. The Easter Bunny can be frightening enough. But the Easter Hare? Eesh. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

In the rabbit warren 

English does have other words in its leporine lexicon, though. Coney was an earlier name for “rabbit,” attested by the early 13th century though largely displaced by the 19th century; its historic pronunciation, rhyming with honey, yielded some coarse slang. Coney ultimately derives from the French conil, which, in turn, comes from the Latin cunīculus.

But, like English’s own rabbit, cunīculus was not a native term for the Romans. Historians, even ancient historians, note that Spaniards introduced rabbits to the Romans. In Spanish, rabbit is conejo, though this develops from the Latin; etymologists suggest an ultimately Iberian origin for the word.

Some claim, though it’s disputed, the very name Spain means “land of rabbits,” from a Phoenician root for the “hyrax,” cognate, from what I gather, to Hebrew’s šāpān. The King James Bible uses coney, in fact, to translate the name for this creature that looks like a rodent but is not related.

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The rock hyrax, actually related to elephants, not rabbits. Image from http://www.freeimages.com/photographer/revi82-62142.

Bunny hops onto the scene last. The OED cites it as a “pet name for a rabbit” by 1606, from bun. Documented a few decades earlier, bun originally named a “squirrel” or a “rabbit,” leading some to a Scottish word referring to “tail.” But the ultimate origin is unknown – which, for an etymology nerd like me, is like candy in my Easter basket. Just no Peeps, please.

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horse

A horse is a horse, of course, of course. Unless you’re American Pharoah, who coursed the Belmont Stakes last Saturday for the first Triple Crown in 37 years. This three-year-old colt clearly isn’t just any old horse. But etymologically, a horse is a course. Well, not of course, but maybe.

“Horse.” Ballpoint on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Horse

Horses may race young, but the word horse runs old: The Oxford English Dictionary records horse (as hors) all the way back to around 825. Etymologists take the word back to the Proto-Germanic root for the animal, *horso-, hitching it there. But some ride off into a further sunset: the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *kers-, “to run.” This root equipped Latin with currere (“to run”), which, in turn, saddled English with all sorts of words: carchargecorridorcurrentcursordiscourseintercourse, and, of course, course, among others. A horse is a course, of course of course.

Yet Ernest Klein suggests that a different feature defined horse. He suggests that horse may come from the Proto-Germanic *hrossa-, from the pre-Germanic *qru-ta-s, formed on a “lost verb,” “to jump,” from a PIE root meaning the same. If this is the case, horse, then, is “the jumping animal.”

Wild Horses

Old English also had a horse of a different etymological color: eoha word cognate to equus, the Classical Latin for “horse” and source of equine and equestrian. At root is the PIE *ekwo-, “horse,” which also stables the Greek ἵππος (hippos, producing hippopotamus, “river horse” and Philip, “fond of horses.”) Like horse “the jumper” or horse “the runner,”  *ekwo may itself be named for something characteristically equine, as it perhaps derives from the PIE adjective *oku-, “swift.”

The hippopotamus is the “river horse.” Likenesses also give us the sea-horse. And the whale-horse, or walrus, if folk etymology has its way. Walrus comes from the Dutch walrus. The wal- component is indeed related to whale, but the rus– part (cf. German words for horse, like German’s own Ross, hence the name) is probably not etymologically (not to mention zoologically) sound. Etymologists cite confusion between some Scandinavian words naming certain types of whales and the walrus.

While the Greeks may have likened the hippopotamus to a river horse, the ancient Egyptians thought of it as a water-ox, or the p-ehe-mau, which Hebrew probably shaped into behemoth. Fittingly enough, for hippos do have a pretty mean reputation in the wild.

Ancient Egyptian also had pr-ʿo, “great house,” a title given to those kings also of great reputation, pharaohs, partial namesake of American Pharoah. American Pharoah has little in common with walrus–other than being mammals and have a name shaped in error. It all runs full circle. You know, like a racecourse.

Speaking of horses, look out soon for another review of a new title from Skyhorse Publishing, Holy Cow! by Boze Hadleigh, a book about expressions of animal origin, which includes a whole section on horses.

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Easter

For me, a good word origin is like discovering an Easter egg, hidden in plain sight yet holding a sweet surprise inside. What surprise might the word Easter hold in its shell?

Easter

Any hunt for the origin of Easter points back to the Venerable Bede (~672-735). He was an English monk, scholar, and translator. Perhaps his greatest legacy is his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a critical and primary source of knowledge on Anglo-Saxon history. Inter alia, his work did much to elevate the English language as a vehicle of scholarship.

Bede also scratched much velum on cosmology, astronomy, and chronology, and it is on these topics in his De Temporum Ratione, or The Reckoning of Time (ca. 735) where we see the earliest attempt to derive Easter. In a passage attempting to explain the Anglo-Saxon names of the months of the year, Bede writes, as translated from the Latin by Faith Wallis:

Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.  Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.

The opening of Bede’s “De Temporum Ratione.” Image courtesy of the University of Glasgow.

According to Bede, Eostre was an Anglo-Saxon goddess whose festival was celebrated at the vernal equinox. The problem, though, is that we can’t find confirmation of this pagan Eostre elsewhere. But as the Oxford English Dictionary asks, why would Bede invent a god to account for Christian one?

Only German and English use “Easter” to name the Christian festival. European languages–including manyScandinavian ones–use terms derived from Jewish Passover, such as Pascha. You may recognize this in the derivative paschal. This passed into Romance languages from the Latin, before that Greek and Aramaic, and ultimately from the Hebrew, pésakh (or pesah). The root–the triconsonantal root, if you’re familiar with Semitic verb structures–is p-s-ḥ (פסח) and means, in essence, “to pass over”–to jump, to skip (Wiktionary).

Nevertheless, Jacob Grimm–whose impressive and influential career included a comprehensive dictionary of the German language; groundbreaking linguistic research, including his formulation of Grimm’s law; and editing what we refer to as Grimm’s Fairy Tales–puts a lot of eggs in the basket of a Proto-Indo-European goddess of the dawn, *Ostara. He based much of argument on the grounds of linguistic reconstruction and etymological cognates.

New Dawns

While *Ostara is dubious yet possible, Grimm’s hunt doesn’t exactly turn up empty-basketed. For, the Easter cognates point back to a Proto-Germanic *austra-, source of the English east (as in the direction), and further back to Proto-Indo-European *aus“to shineor “clear” and “bright.” They live on in words like Australia, aurora, and the chemical symbol for goldAu (from aurum), all from Latin iterations.

We see, then, at root of Easter, a shining sunrise in the east. For the Easter believers, this Eostre was goddess of spring, of dawn, of fertility, whose festival was celebrated at the vernal equinox.

New beginnings: That’s what all the Easter symbolism–Christian or pagan–is about, isn’t? With its old root, Easter preserves a new dawn, literal and symbolic.

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