A “shocking” etymology

There are a lot of words and yet there are no words to describe how so many are feeling after Donald Trump upset Hillary Clinton for the presidency on Tuesday night. But one word, for so many reasons, recurs: shock.

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The original “shocker”? Watch your step. “Lakebed with Tree Stumps,” courtesy of freeimages.com

Shock

The word shock originally referred to a military clash. The Oxford English Dictionary first attests the noun and verb forms of the word in the 1560s, used of the collision of two forces in a charge. Isn’t that apt, America?

Such a collision is sudden and violent, hence shock’s various metaphorical extensions. Scientists had taken up the word shock by 1614. Come the 1650s, shock was naming a general “damage blow,” whether to one’s personal beliefs or to a society’s foundational institutions. Fifty years later, shock was in use in its modern sense of “disturbed surprise.” Medical shock is recorded by 1805, a shocker 1824, shell shock 1915, and culture shock by 1940.

Etymologists generally trace shock to the French choc (“violent attack”) and choquer (“strike against”). Indeed, at the D-Day Beaches in Normandy, visitors can follow a route called Le Choc (“the onslaught, the impact”) to view sites of the American offensive starting on June 6, 1944.

But from here, the origin of shock is unclear. Some suppose the French choquer comes from a Germanic root for a “jolt” or “swing” and could be imitative of shaking, which word is possibly related. Others consider the Old French chope, a “tree stump,” which one might stumble over before crashing to the ground, apparently.

English has other shock words, etymologically unrelated but perhaps still instructive. Like a shock of hair, all too fitting for the president-elect . Or a shock of wheat, barley, or oats – sheaves of grain stacked upright, able to stand because they support each other so bundled. Together.

And maybe that’s a welcome bit of “shock” therapy.

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Why do we call a tie a “draw”?

In his autobiography, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “If he lost the main battle, he returned upon you, and regained so much of it as to make it a drawn one.” Here, Jefferson is describing a legislative fight over land tenure, but some pundits might think it well characterizes Donald Trump’s performance in the second presidential debate. This quote isn’t just timely, though: It also points to the origin of why we call “ties” draws.

Draw

By the Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) reckoning, the earliest record of draw, as in a contest that ends with no winner, comes in reference to an 1856 US chess match. Over the next few decades, writers marked off draw with quotes or italics, which shows the word was novel. The word was familiar by the 1870s.

This draw is short for draw-game, which the OED finds for a “tie” by 1825. A draw-game, in turn, is a variation on a drawn battle or drawn match. The OED dates drawn match to a 1610 letter from English diplomat Sir Dudley Carleton: “It concluded, as it is many times in a cock pit, with a drawn match; for nothing was in the end put to the question.” (Before pilots occupied them, game-cocks fought in cockpits.)

Why such a battle or match is characterized as “drawn” is unclear: Indeed, etymology often ends in draws. Drawn may be clipped from withdrawn, as in fighters who have withdrawn from the battlefield. Withdraw, “to take back or away,” features an old and original sense of the preposition with, “against,” even though it now, ironically enough, means “together.” Draw, meanwhile, is related to drag. And withdraw itself might be a calque, or loan translation, of Latin’s retrahere, “to retract.”

With some seeing the debate – set up as a town hall with drawn voters, so to speak – as a draw, we’ll see whether or not many GOP politicians continue withdrawing their support from Trump following the leak of his lewd comments. Either way, it certainly feels like none of us are winners when a presidential debate has to be dragged down so low.

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“Hoax”: just a little etymological hocus-pocus

Hillary Clinton keeps hitting Donald Trump over his claim that climate change is a hoax. While hoax is Clinton’s word, Trump did tweet that the Chinese created climate change to hurt US manufacturing. That’s a bit of magical thinking, shall we say, especially if we consider the roots of the word hoax (not to mention science).

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“By the virtue of hocus pocus…” A frontispiece from an early magic book, the 1635 Hocus Pocus Junior: The Anatomy of Legerdemain, or the Art of Juggling. Image from the Library of Congress.

Hoax

English has been pulling off hoaxes since the very end of the 18th century. The Oxford English Dictionary first cites the word as a verb in 1796, entered into Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: “Hoaxing, bantering, ridiculing. Hoaxing a quiz; joking an odd fellow. University wit.” The noun form emerges in the following decade, and has since connoted a fraud involving an elaborate or mischievous fabrication or fiction.

Most etymologists suppose that hoax develops out of hocus, which was a 17th-century noun and verb for “trick” – and later a criminal term for “drugging” someone, especially by means of liquor. Hocus is shortened from hocus pocus, used as a nickname for a “juggler” since the 1620s. Today, we admire jugglers for their deft hands and ball skills, but historically, jugglers were jesters and magicians, hence their – and ultimately the word hoax’s – association with various tricks. 

An Anglican bishop, John Tillotson, attempted some lexical legerdemain in his 1694 etymology for hocus pocus: “In all probability those common juggling words of hocus pocus are nothing else but a corruption of hoc est corpus, by way of ridiculous imitation of the priests of the Church of Rome in their trick of Transubstantiation.” In the Latin liturgy, a priest blesses the Eucharistic host qua sacrificial body of Jesus Christ by saying Hoc est corpus, or Hoc est corpus meum: “This is my body.” Devout Catholics believe the host actually becomes the body of Christ, which may help you appreciate Tillotson’s dig on his Christian counterparts. 

Hocus pocus, more likely, was just sham or dog Latin, words invented by these 17th-century performers to sound like Latin, perhaps playing with this prestige language of learning to lend an air of antique mystique to their act. Hocus-pocus was used of “jugglers” by 1624, as the magical formula by 1632. Hiccius doccius was another fakus Latinus magical formula the early conjurors used.

Hocus pocus may have pulled some other words out of its hat, too, like hokey-pokey, a slang variation for “hocus pocus” in the mid-1800s and a name for a cheap ice cream some decades after. (The origin of the dance is a bit more turned around.) And hokum – originally theater slang for “melodramatic speech,” now “nonsense,” which describes so much of what we’ve heard this election – apparently blends hocus-pocus and bunkum.

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Race, sex, and underwear: the debated origins of “shimmy”

The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump gave us plenty to talk about, including a number of words themselves: stamina, cyber, temperament, braggadocious, and, thanks to some since-viral shoulder shaking from Clinton, shimmy.

After a Trumpian word salad late in the debate, Clinton issued a “Whoo! OK!” accompanied by a wide grin and a shoulder shimmy. Her shimmy served as a playful, though pointed, dismissal of Trump’s charges. But the etymological – and cultural – past of the word shimmy is much more complicated.

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Some Americans may have called this chemise, made from cotton ca. 1856, a “shimmy.” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

A not so shimmering history?

The shimmy originated as a jazz dance involving a spirited shaking of the body, often while doing a foxtrot. The Oxford English Dictionary first finds record of it in 1917 as the shimme-sha-wabble. It next records it in a 1918 edition of the British Dancing Times, which described it as a “very, very crude” dance, a “n–r dance, of course, and it appears to be a slow walk with a frequent twitching of the shoulders” (censoring mine). And as a 1922 reference in the London Weekly Dispatch reminds us, the shimmy  was often prohibited, deemed obscene for its sexual suggestiveness: “‘Shimmy’ banned in New York…The Chicago camel-walk, scandal, balconnades, and shimmy dances must cease.” We should remember, too, the dance’s racial associations when it come these bans.

By 1925, shimmy was extended to vibrations in general, though especially to the “wheel wobble” of cars and airplanes.

The origin of shimmy as a word is less clear. It’s often considered to be a US dialectical variant of chemise, mistaken as a plural. (This error, innocent enough, has precedent. Pea was thought to be the singular of pease, cherry of cherise, though both pease and cherise were originally the singular forms of the words.) The shimmy variant dates to the 1830s.

Way back in Old English, a chemise (then, cemes) was a shirt, particularly a kind of undergarment like a smock, used for warmth and sweat absorption. Chemise has also been long associated with lingerie, which adds to the historic raciness of the shimmy dance.

Looks like a shirt, sounds like a shimmer

Now, the history of chemise in English is long and complex, in part coming directly from Latin and in part from French (where the word was also used of book coverings). The ultimate origin is the Latin camisa, a kind of sleeping garment. The ancient Romans may have borrowed the word – and apparently, the garb – from a Germanic word that also shows up in hame, an archaic word for a “covering” or a “skin,” especially a snake’s slough. 

We shouldn’t overlook, though, the role sound symbolism might have played in the origin of shimmy. The dance’s fast, quivering motion no doubt evokes shimmer; shiver, shake, shudder, shatter and other sh– words, in all their speedy trembling, also come to mind. (Linguists refer to these sound-meaning clusters as phonesthemes.) Shimmer itself comes from the same root as shine, from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning the same.

For Clinton supporters and meme-makers at least , Clinton’s shimmy made for a lighter and looser – perhaps even shimmering – moment in otherwise tense, heated, and heavy-hitting debate.

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Fascist baskets? The controversial origin of “basket”

At a recent fundraiser, Hillary Clinton turned heads when she remarked “you could put half of Trump’s supporters in what I call the basket of deplorables.” As political analysts consider the gaffe’s political fallout, the internet churns out hashtags and memes, and linguists inspect the odd usage of deplorables, etymologists are weighing a different controversy: the origin of the word basket

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Trying to declutter etymology: “Basket.” Image by Jean Scheijen, courtesy of freeimages.com

Basket

Writing in the first century AD, the Roman poet Martial quipped:

Barbara de pictis veni bascauda Britannis;
Sed me iam mavolt dicere Roma suam.

As one translation renders the epigram: “I, a barbarian basket, came from the painted Britons; but now Rome claims me for her own.” The Romans, it would seem, greatly admired Celtic wickerwork – and Martial, apparently, even liked to anthropomorphize it.

Etymologists have long cited this passage for the origin of basket, which isn’t woven into the English written record until the 1200s. They claim bascauda is a Latinization of a Celtic word Romans borrowed following contact between the two ancient cultures.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) takes issue with this theory, though. First, modern Celtic languages have basket words (e.g., Irish bascaed), but the record suggests they are actually loaned from English’s basket. Second, the dictionary is skeptical about the shift from Latin’s bascauda, a “bathing tub” or “brass vessel,” to English’s wicker basket.

But Ernest Weekley and Anatoly Liberman rebuff the OED’s skepticism. Weekley observes that canister, usually made of metal, is from the Latin for “wicker basket,” as it happens. Liberman explains that tunnel comes from a Germanic root for “cask.”

And how do make sense of the Old French baschoe, a “large wooden container”? This word, which yields the Anglo-French bascat, appears to evolve from Latin’s bascauda. Anyways, Liberman says bascauda probably meant a “large tub made of wood or wicker for washing goblets during or after a meal, rather than a bronze vessel.” 

So, it seems the Romans borrowed some woodworking technology from the Celts (consider the origin of car). They called this particular, tub-like container the bascauda. French fashioned this into baschoe, later morphing into bascat as the word made it way into English basket. And -et, a diminutive suffix we saw in the origin of target, helps explain how a “large wooden container” shrank down to something you’d take to a picnic.

As for bascauda? This could be related to fasces, a “bundle,” an important Roman symbol of authority and origin of the word fascism – the very sort of intolerant ideology Hillary Clinton tried, and failed, to call out with her “basket of deplorables” comment.

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Looms, lilies, and lifespans: The metaphorical stamina of “stamina”

In recent campaigning, Donald Trump has been claiming Hillary Clinton “lacks the physical and mental stamina” to do the work of the presidency. His attacks in no way stand up to the facts, but one thing that does “stand up” is stamina, at least etymologically speaking.

A well-planted metaphor

The Oxford English Dictionary first attests stamina (in Latin form) in 1542, when it referred to the “natural constitution” of an organism, a kind of inborn vitality determining how long it would live and its capacity for resisting disease and hardship. Around 1676, stamina, now as an English word, was naming the “rudiments” or “essential qualities” of an organism, later extended figuratively, say, to an institution or movement. By 1726, as found in the letters of Jonathan Swift, stamina jumped to physical “vigor,” especially in the sense of withstanding the likes of illness and fatigue. Come the 1800s, it reached “moral and intellectual robustness and endurance.”

Originally, stamina was a plural noun both in English and Latin, its source. The singular is stamen. (English has been using stamina in the singular since the 18th century.) We are familiar with stamen in botanical contexts: it’s the part of the plant that makes the pollen. Flemish anatomist Adriaan van den Spiegel is credited for first employing it in this modern, scientific sense in 1633. And thanks to English Bishop John Wilkins, stamen pollinated the English tongue as such by 1668.

We should note, though, that centuries earlier, Pliny, the Roman scholar, lent Latin’s stamen to the lily’s prominent pollen producer; Hesychius of Alexandria, a Greek lexicographer, used its Greek counterpart (στῆμα, stoma) of plants early on as well.

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The lily’s stamens, or “stamina.” Image by Mira Pavlakovic, courtesy of freeimages.com.

Common “threads”

So, what’s the common thread? Well, it’s just that. Latin’s stamen means “thread,” specifically the “thread of the warp in the upright loom.” The warp acts as a kind of foundation for the weave, which points us to stamen’s literal, base meaning: “that which stands.” Stand is the keyword here, as stamen and stand are ultimately cousins, sharing an ancient ancestor in *sta-, “stand.” This root is a mind-bogglingly prolific root, seen in Afghanistan, establish, obstacle, steed, and system, to name a paltry few derivatives.

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The vertical threads are the warp, which the Romans called the “stamen.” Image by Tom Pickering, courtesy of freeimages.com.

Pliny, apparently, saw the lily’s stamen as a “thread,” as did van den Spiegel again many years later. But the ancient Romans also saw their mythology in stamen. They used stamen for the “thread of life spun by the Fates,” imagined as three sisters who spun, measured, and cut the threads that controlled the lives and destinies of humanity. In the 18th century, English writers enjoyed using stamen in this very sense, also broadening it to one’s “inborn vitality” much like we saw in the history of stamina.

And the common thread for all of English’s stamina and stamen is metaphor. A plant stamen can resemble a thread. The rudiments of an entity, that early stamina, are its foundation: the warp of a weave. And stamina was once understood as one’s inherent makeup, measuring out how long one would live, like those threads of the Fates.

In the 2016 election, nothing has seem fated – except for the stamina we’ve all shown in making it this far in what continues to be an unprecedented presidential campaign.

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Behind the name of the next US president: “Hillary” or “Donald”

…and then there were two: Hillary and Donald. A week after Donald Trump accepted his party’s nomination for president, Hillary accepted hers, the first woman to be nominated by a major political party in US history. 

Running up to the big day in November, we’ll be hearing  a lot of these two names. So, what sort of etymological qualifications do Hillary and Donald bring to the White House?

Hillary

The name Hillary broke its own glass ceiling, onomastically speaking: It was originally a male name. According to Oxford’s Dictionary of First Names, Hillary comes from a medieval form of the Late Latin masculine name, Hilarius.

The Latin Hilarius means “cheerful.” It was formed from hilaris and taken from the Greek hilaros (ἱλαρός), also meaning “cheerful.” Greek’s hilaros is related to hilaos, “gracious” or “kindly.”

There may be a yet deeper root for these Latin and Greek descriptors, if we look to Proto-Indo-European: *sel-, which the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots defines as “of good mood” and “to favor.” This root yields solace and silly, which originally meant “happy” and “prosperous.”

The name Hillary spread thanks to a 4th-century Gallo-Roman theologian, now saint, Hilarius of Poitiers. English observers honor St. Hilarius’ feast day on January 13, when one can celebrate Hilary-mass to usher in Hilary-tide. The timing of this feast was also used to mark court and academic sessions, hence Hilary term, at Oxford and Dublin.

By the late 19th century, Hillary became more popular  (and since exclusively so) for females. The double L spelling is a North Americanism.

Hilarius is a short way from hilarious, but this adjective is actually a late formation in the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary attributes it to Sir Walter Scott in 1823, when it meant, like its Latin and Greek forebears, “cheerful.” It soon characterized a “boisterous joy,” extended to and settling on “extremely funny” by 1925.

Donald

Sometimes with affection, sometimes with ridicule, and often with irony, Donald Trump often goes just by his first name: The Donald. Like his mother (and one of his golf courses), the name Donald hails from Scotland.

Donald is an Anglicized form of the Scottish Gaelic Domhnall. (The mh is pronounced more like a V. Domhnall also has its cousins across the Celtic languages.) Oxford’s Dictionary of First Names notes that the English spelling Donald was a misinterpretation of the original Gaelic and influenced by Germanic names that end with a D, like Ronald.

The Gaelic Domhnall literally means “world ruler.” Philologists think the ancient Celtic form was *dub-no-walos. This joins *dubno-, “world,” from an Indo-European root meaning “deep,” like the earth or ground, hence “world.” *Walos is anchored in *wal-, “to be strong,” seen in Latin-derived words like valor and value.

In the Middle Ages, many Scottish kings took the name Donald, as did St. Donald of Ogilvy, near Angus today. Clan Donald, also MacDonald (“son of Donald”), remains a major clan in the Scottish Highlands. 

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The origins of Hillary and Donald are fitting in their own ways, aren’t they? Many want a wonkish Hillary Clinton to be more “cheerful,” a complaint others see as tinctured with sexism. As for Donald? Well, many can imagine he might just start taking down his buildings’ “Trump” signs to display some Celtic etymology instead.

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“Feisty”: you can blame it on the dog

As many are describing it, last night’s debate between Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in Brooklyn, New York was “feisty.”

I’ve read others characterize the candidates’ sharp exchanges as a “dogfight” and full of “hot air,” but these descriptions are just as “feisty,” if we look to the surprising etymology of this word.

Into the woods

While the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests feisty in American English in 1896, an early usage in Horace Kephart’s 1913 book, Our Southern Highlanders, is telling: “’Feisty’… ‘means when a feller’s allers wigglin’ about, wantin’ ever’body to see him, like a kid when the preacher comes.’”

Kephart’s attention-seeking usage of feisty anticipates “fussy” and “fidgety,” an early meaning of  fidgety we might owe to the Appalachian culture of the Smoky Mountains, where his novel is set. Today, the “lively” and “aggressive” feisty still expresses this excitability, though the word has since evolved to focus on a kind of readiness to fight – and, if my ears are any measure, is said of women more than men. In his slang lexicography, Jonathon Green indeed records feisty as 20th-century U.S. slang for a “flirtatious, showy, and unscrupulous woman,” which also, perhaps, calls back Kephart’s early usage.

Barking up the etymological tree

For the etymology of feisty, we need to travel farther south, where a feist named a “small dog used in hunting small game (such as squirrels),” as the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary explains. The United Kennel Club, among others, officially registers the treeing feist and mountain feist today.

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This mountain feist is on the hunt. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Other variants of feist include fist, ficefyce, and even foist, if we look to a 1770 reference by George Washington. In March of that year, George Washington wrote in his diary: “Countess a hound bitch after being confind got loose and was lined before it was discovered by my Water dog once and a small foist looking yellow cur twice.”

I find it reassuring to know that even America’s legendary first president couldn’t completely control his dogs.

Leashed up on feist, of course, was English’s prolific adjectival suffix, -y.

In spite of their size, small dogs like feists have big personalities. Their quick energy, sharp barks, and often skittish behavior indeed suggest the kind of lively, aggressive temperament we associate with feisty. And, returning to Kephart,  feisty also evokes the squirmy restlessness, say, of a terrier less interested in one’s lap than what’s out the window.

As for the indie artist Feist, the moniker comes from her last name. Her first name is Leslie.

Send the dog out back

Now, feist takes its name from a fisting hound, dog, or cur, evidenced as early as the 1530s. Get your mind out of the gutter, but not completely: This fist, a verbal adjective, means “to break wind.”

The OED documents this fist in the 15th century, referring to the action – and aftermath of – flatulence. A fisting dog, then, was “stinky,” but not, as the record suggests, because it needed a bath.

Jonathon Green notes two historic explanations for why this flatulent fist became associated with dogs: Wentworth and Flexner’s American Slang Dictionary  maintain “the dog was so named because one’s own smells could be blamed on it,” while in the 19th century  it was suggested that “such dogs were not much bigger than a man’s fist.”

It’s unclear whether the “clenched hand” fist is actually related to “broken wind” fist, though the OED does cross-reference the former in the latter’s etymology.

For the deeper origins of fist, etymologists hypothesize an Old English verb *fistan and noun *fist, with widespread cognates in Germanic languages and a root in the Proto-Germanic *fistiz. Some philologists actually connect fist to its still-lingering counterpart fart through a root, *perd-, which is really just a Proto-Indo-European fart noise. (We can also thank this root for partridge, whose windy winging  I’ve discussed at Oxford Dictionaries).

Like fart, I suspect fist is ultimately a Germanic onomatopoeic whoopee cushion, so to speak. But whatever origin we ultimately blame fist on, I can’t blame you for, er, leaving the room when the TV debates get too feisty this long and heated presidential campaign season.

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Why is something “hermetically” sealed?

As the 2016 presidential campaign heats up, so do the attacks.

Campaigning for his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, days before the New Hampshire primaries, Bill Clinton characterized her opponent, Bernie Sanders, as so cut off from reality that it’s as if he’s living in a “hermetically sealed box.”

Talk about feeling the Bern.

Such a box is “airtight,” as we know. But why do we call such a seal a hermetic seal? It turns out the former president drew his fire – er, etymological fire– from alchemy.

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A floor tile of Hermes Trismegistus from the Siena Cathedral in Italy. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Hermetic

Neoplatonists and other early mystics identified the Egyptian god, Thoth, with the Greek god, Hermes, and called him Hermes Trismegistus, a god of science and art. They also believed Hermes Trismegistus authored the esoteric Corpus Hermeticum, among other names. This was a body of writings on philosophical and theosophical topics, including such magical ones as bringing statues to life. His name means “Hermes Thrice-Great.”

The Corpus Hermeticum essentially founded Western alchemy, whose metal-melting distillations required completely sealing off glass tubes. The invention of this process – and its name – alchemists credited to Hermes Trismegistus, who knew the secrets of their occult art. In Medieval Latin, Hermes was rendered into an adjective hermeticus, yielding English’s hermetical and hermetic.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds records of various hermetic terminology in the 17th century. Both Hermes’ seal and hermetically are dated to English clergyman Thomas Tymme’s 1605 translation of 16th-century French physician Joseph du Chesne’s The Practice of Chymicall and Hermeticall Physicke.

For Hermes’ seal, Tymme writes: “Hermes seale…take the red hote tonges, and therewith wring or nippe the toppe close together; whereby it shall be closed as if it had no vent before.” Tymme uses the adverbial form in a different passage: “A smal cappe or cover, with his receiver, strongly and well luted, hermetically closed rounde about.” Such seals were usually achieved through soldering, welding, or fusion. “Hermetic seal” and “hermetically sealed” as such the OED dates later in the 1600s.

Tymme’s work, it’s worth noting, also provides the OED’s earliest evidence for the word chemistry. And alchemy, so much the precursor to modern chemistry, was once known as the hermetic science.

Now, the ultimate origin of the Greek Hermes is sealed off to us, so to speak. The god’s name, though, also lives on in another English words: hermaphrodite. In Greek mythology, Hermes and Aphrodite had a son, the handsome Hermaphroditos. The water nymph Salmacis fell so deeply in love with him, according to one version of the myth, that she wished the two joined into one. The gods granted her wish, hence this word variously applied to something or someone with both male and female parts.

Folk etymology erroneously connects the Hermes to hermeneutic, I’ll add while we’re on the topic. That word derives from the Greek for “interpreter.”

So, the phrase hermetically sealed looks to alchemy for its origin – so, too, I suspect, will some of the presidential candidates as they try to push on for the nomination after the New Hampshire results come in.

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