Today in Georgia’s 6th congressional district, a closely watched “jungle primary” is taking place to fill the seat left by Republican Tom Price, who is now the Secretary of Health and Human Services.
In a jungle primary, a more colorful name for a blanket primary, all candidates seeking an office run against each other at once, as opposed to in separate primaries broken out by political party. The top two voters getters, regardless of party, then face off in a runoff election, except in some places like Georgia, where a candidate who gets a majority of votes wins outright.
While Washington state introduced blanket primaries in the 1930s, the phrase jungle primaryemerges in the 1980s. The idea is that such a primary is like a cutthroat free-for-all, that “It’s a jungle out here.” But what about the word jungle itself? Where we do get this word from?
We’ve had a lot of big words in the news this week, as we’ve had a lot of big events. One word in particular grabbed headlines as a word, thug, thanks to Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s use of it in reaction to violence in her city this past week.
Since her statements, Baltimore’s mayor has walked back her words, stating they “don’t have thugs in Baltimore.” Etymologically, she she might be wrong, as the origin of thug may literally be present in the very name Baltimore.
Again, I will ultimately point you to the likes of Stamper, Zimmer, Garber, and McWhorter on the evolution of thug, but the Oxford English Dictionary first attests the word (often capitalized) in 1810, naming professional assassins in India who befriended travelers only to murder them, particularly by strangulation. The word is from the Hindi ṭhag and Mahrati (spoken in Western India) ṭhag or ṭhak, naming a “cheat” or “swindler.” We can see how the Thugs’ fundamental deception lends them their name.
Most etymologists stop here, as they are appropriately conservative, given the hypothetical, if methodical, nature of historical reconstruction. But others do speculate that this Hindi ṭhag may come from the Sanskrit sthagati, “he hides,” as Eric Partridge offers.
The Sanskrit sthagatimay be uncovered, if you will, from the Proto-Indo-European (s)teg-, “to cover.” This yielded Latin’s tegere, “to cover,” which is behind integument (“covering”), protect (“cover up”), and detect (“uncover,” and its derivative detective). A toga is also a kind of covering derived from this root. Roofs are coverings, hence tegula, “roof tile,” which gives us tile and Tyler, an English surname and given name for “tile-maker.” Speaking of English, the Germanic languages also took up (s)teg-, giving English thatch and deck. The former was used especially of roofs. The latter bedecks those halls, too.
Roof tiles date back yet before antiquity: they are veritably Jurassic. The stegosaurus, or Greek for “roof lizard,” had armored back plates that resemble roof tiles, if the Greek στέγος(“roof”) is any measure when the creature was named in the 19th century.
No roof? No shelter. No house. This appears to be reflected in Celtic languages. Welsh has ty and Irish tech, both meaning “house.” Another Irish form for “house” is tigh or tí,whichappear in Baile na Tighe Mór or Baile an Tí Mhóir, renderings for “townland of the big house,” a village in southern Ireland whose name you might recognize as Baltimore. (Apologies to my Irish-speaking readers for butchering any of these renderings.) The American city was named for the second Lord Baltimore, Cecil Calvert, first Proprietary Governor of the Province of Maryland and whose family estate is that “big house” in that Irish town.
Etymology does it again—if in its full, tenuous, overwrought glory here at the Mashed Radish. But, of course, the real thugs in Baltimore, the real big house in the big house, that we need to reconsider aren’t the etymological ones.
It’s an American pastime: The party of the president takes a big hit in the midterm elections and the electorate awaits how the president will describe it the next day. Most colorfully, in 2010 Obama described Democratic losses as a “shellacking,” while in 2006, Bush described his party’s as a “thumpin’.” And unlike Christmas, the word drubbing only comes once every two years, as pundits take to the bandwidth and column width for their analysis.
Whatever the characterization, its a now a tradition as American as apple pie, but two of those words, drubbing and shellacking,have travelled far–etymologically, that is–from grains of sand to the amber waves of grain.
Today, a drubbing is primarily a metaphorical “beating,” but historically it referred to real blows dealt in punishment with a cudgel, especially on the soles of the feet, which is a form of corporal punishment known as the bastinado. I know midterms are referenda on incumbents, but jeez, thank goodness etymology isn’t a literal business. Except for poor old Senator Charles Sumner.
To my ears, drub sounds like Germanic stock, so, as we recently saw in the word candy, it’s a nice surprise that our best evidence points to an Arabic origin. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites the word in Thomas Herbert’s 1634 travel writings, A Relation of Some Yeares Trauaile, Begunne Anno 1626. into Afrique and the Greater Asia.
Behind drub, according to this etymological route, is the Arabic ḑaraba, meaning much the same, “to beat,” especially “to bastinado,” yielding a verbal noun ḑarb, a “beating” or a “blow.” Turkish or North African variations, perhaps including a simple metathesis, may have utlimately yielded the English iteration.
Wiktionary, however, puts forth an alternative etymology. It suggests drub is from a Kentish dialectical form going back to the Old English drepan, “to strike,” from the Proto-Indo-European *dhrebh-, “to crush” or “grind to pieces.”
Shellacking, too, takes us to the Middle East, but it doesn’t just stop there.
Shellac is a compound of shell and lac, entering English as a 1713 translation of the French laque en écailles, “lac in thin plates.” Lac, related to lacquer and a variant, lake, is a dark-red resin secreted and encrusted on trees in India, among other locations, by a female bug, Kerria laccia.The resin was scraped from the tree bark and processed as a dye in the East. Later, it was dissolved in alcohol particularly for use in gramophone records and as a varnish in the West.
It is probably as a varnish that we get the sense of shellacking as a “beating.” Shellac was used as a finish for furniture and other woodcrafts, so to be shellacked was “to be finished” (and in a period of US slang, “wasted” or “plastered”). And so we can see its figurative leap.
Lac probably entered the West from the Persian lak or Arabic lakk, passed down from the Hindi lākh. The Hindi, in turn, is from the Sanskrit lākshā, ultimately meaning “red dye.” It could also name the insect or plant wherefrom the dye was obtained. So greatly do the insects number on the trees, apparently, that their swarm may have yielded a term for “100,000,” as in a Hindi lākhof rupees–a great number of rupees. The connection between this term and lākshā is not certain, however.
The Sanskrit lākshā may have had an earlier form, rākshā, which could point to a Proto-Indo-European *reg, “dye” (American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots). In Sanskrit, the root also plucked out raga, a kind of melodic basis for improvisation in Indian classical music. Rather synesthestically, the sense of color connected with “dye” was transferred to a notion of color and mood associated with sound.
In Greek, *reg- became associated with rugs or blankets, eventually giving English the rather useful term regolith: that loose layer of rock, soil, and dust covering on the surfaces of bodies. I’m sure the scientists who landed the Philae space probe on Comet 67P were very mindful of the regolith.
Rolling with the Punches
Shellacking is colorful term with a colorful root, but perhaps raga reminds us of the importance of sound here. The real power of shellacking and drubbing does not lie in their origins or histories. It’s in their sound: Drubbing and shellacking sound imitative and suggestive of the hits they deliver, yet they pack a punch without thrashing too hard. They are forceful without being final, giving the drubbed and shellacked a way to acknowledge they lost without losing face, as if getting up from the ground and dusting themselves off.
Some etymologies drive the point home perfectly–and others have a way of bringing it all together.
Such is the case with the word loot, which has surfaced–and I think in an insidiously racialized manner–amid the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. Its origin, however, is far, far away from the American Midwest.
Loot derives from the Hindi lut, meaning “spoil,” “booty,” or “plunder,” and was taken into English as a result of British colonialism in the Indian subcontinent.
The word is first attested in 1788 in a glossary of Indian words–The Indian vocabulary: to which is prefixed the Forms of impeachment. It was designed to aid Englishmen in understanding native words used in the impeachment of a British governor, William Hastings, accused of corruption in his post in India.
It’s attested again in 1839 in the erstwhile British publication Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine:
The annals of the Pindarry war show how easily a marauding force, held together solely by the hope of spoil, is collected in India. The famous freebooting leader, Ameer Khan (lately dead), on being asked how he contrived to keep together the various tribes and religions found in the ranks of his motley followers, said that he always found the talismanic gathering-word ‘Loot’ (plunder), a sufficient bond of union in any part of India; and in those devastating hordes of cavalry, the Cossacks and Bashkirs would find a similarity not only in habits and pursues, but even in name, the term Cosak being in common use throughout the north of India to indicate a predatory horseman.
Putting aside the rather invidious characterization of indigenous populations, the passage describes one, Amir Khan, a Pathan freebooter in northern India who wielded control over an army of tribal mercenaries. Often commissioned by allies, he would sic his soldiers on enemies, securing their services through the promise of loot–the spoils of war. Khan eventually surrendered to British forces. And, as the author points out, Cossack shouldindeed evoke the horseback militiamen in southern Russia/Ukraine: They take their name from the Turkish kazak, “free man” or “wanderer.” Kazakhstan is cognate. But we’ll get back to Russia in a moment.
Another Anglo-Indian glossary–this one the famed, 1886 Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive–gives us a little more information on this lut.
According to it, the Hindi lut is taken from its parent language, the Sanskrit lotra,meaning “to rob.” A variant, loptra, is suggested, as well as the word lunt. Lotra, in turn, is from the Sanskrit root lup or rup, “to break.” Other colloquial terms included looty and lootiewallah for “plunderer.”
From here, historical linguistics point us back to the Proto-Indo-European *reup-, “to snatch.” And this root has been much in the news, so to speak.
A volcanic eruption appears imminent in Iceland and clashes are erupting in Africa over Ebola quarantines. Erupt is ultimately from the Latin rumpere (like lup/rup, “break,” “burst,” “split”), traced back to *reup-. Interrupt, corrupt, and bankrupt, among others, are also so derived.
Russian convoys in Ukraine have been disruptive (another example), to say the least. More sanctions were threatened to hurt their rubles. Indeed, ruble is also believed to be from *reup-, from a Slavic root for “hew” or “chop,” referring to the way specific amounts of currency were historically cut off from silver bars.
And many are still feeling bereaved over the death of Robin Williams. Bereave–andits base, reave–are from a Germanic iteration of *reup-for “rob.” Via a French borrowing, rob itself is derived from this as well.
Maybe all this makes you just want to surrender to your bathrobe. But you might want to rip that off, too. Like rob, robe is French via the same Germanic root for rob, here referring to “clothes taken as booty.” And rip? Yep, that’s ultimately from *reup-, too.
Ah! What are we to do? Perhaps play with your dog Rover or sate your curiosity and marvel at the astonishing feat of the Mars Rover? Nope. It’s inescapable. Via a Dutch term for “sea-robber” or “pirate,” rover, cognate to reave, is also looted from that same Proto-Indo-European *reup-.