An etymological tricolor: red, white, and blue

Today, Americans celebrate their brave declaration of independence from British rule on July 4th, 1776 with plenty of red, white, and blue, the colors of its star-spangled banner.

As a nickname for the flag of the United States, the red, white, and blue is found by 1853. But what about those individuals words red, white, and blue? Let’s have a look at their origins, whose ancients roots make the US’s 242 years as a nation this year look ever so young.

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Its flag may be red, white, and blue, but the US is properly a land of many colors. (Pixabay)

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An etymological “epiphany”

You know those 12 Days of Christmas we’re always partridge-in-a-pear-treeing about? They end on January 5th, or Twelfth Night, when many celebrants end their yuletide festivities by taking down the decorations.

As its name suggests, Twelfth Night is the 12th night after Christmas and the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, which many Christians traditionally observe on January 6th. The Shakespearean comedy takes its name from the Twelfth Night holiday, but what is this Epiphany?

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El Greco’s Adoration of the Magi (Wikimedia Commons)

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Spelacchio, Yankee Swap, and Boxing Day: Some holiday etymologies

Over on the Oxford Dictionaries blog, I’ve written some pieces that will get you in the holiday spirit.

For my latest Weekly Word Watch, I featured the Italian word spelacchio:

The official Christmas tree of the city of Rome, imported from the Italian Alps at a cost of over £42,000, has been shedding its needles, so much so that locals have nicknamed the not-so-evergreen evergreen spelacchio, meaning ‘mangy’ or ‘threadbare’. The word appears to derive from roots meaning ‘out of hair’ (pelo, hair, cf. depilatory).

Spelacchio inspired a hashtag – even its own Twitter account.

 And just as quickly as it was a term of derision, spelacchio became a term of endearment, with Romans leaving Christmas cards for the ‘balding’ tree. How very 2017, spelacchio. How very 2017, indeed.

I also explored the origins of the names of popular gift exchanges, like Yankee Swap, which has a surprising connection to Walt Whitman:

In a standard Yankee Swap gift exchange, each merrymaker brings a wrapped gift (often thematic and price-capped) to a party and draws numbers to determine what order when they get to pick from the pool. The first to draw opens the gift for all to see, and subsequent players can then pick from the remaining items or steal an already opened gift, all vying to end the festivities with a gift they like.

Many myths surround the lexical beginnings of the Yankee Swap. One commonly claims the name is taken from a Civil War tradition of swapping Union Army prisoners of war, dubbed Yankees, for their Confederate counterparts over Christmas. Another puts forth the theory that immigrants in New York City were bemused by all the locals exchanging little gifts – Yankees, swapping – with one another throughout the Christmas season. (Yankee has its own fascinating and complicated history, but we’ll save that story for another time.)

Clever, but only true insofar as Yankee Swap hails from America, as its name would suggest.

Thankfully, word sleuth Peter Jensen Brown has done some deep digging and found that the phrase Yankee Swap was first used in reference to a stereotypic American appetite for trading. In a review of his own masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, the great poet Walt Whitman sings of ‘the Yankee swap’ as one of the ‘essences of American things’ alongside George Washington and the Constitution. Brown also finds a Scottish magazine describing the purported American love of the barter and bargain:

Every thing is a matter of serious calculation with your genuine Yankee.  He won’t give away even his words – if another should have occasion for them.  He will ‘swap’ any thing with you; ‚trade’ with you, for any thing; but is never the man to give anything away, so long as there is any prospect of doing better with it.

Brown hasn’t pinned down when it was first called a Yankee Swap, but he finds evidence for a festive and ‘old fashioned swapping party’ in an 1899 New York Tribune article as well as an extensive description in 1901 of a ‘swap party’ in a magazine, Table Talk:

In this day of craze for novel entertainments the more nonsensical the scheme the greater the enjoyment seemingly. As illustration the function very inelegantly designated as ‘The Swap Party.’ Why not the word ‘exchange’ instead nobody knows, but at all events it has become very popular alike with old and young.

Read the rest of the article for the lexical history of the Secret Santa and White Elephant traditions. Here’s some extra content that didn’t make the original article:

Kris Kindle and Kris Kringle

Secret Santa appears to be an American phrase and custom adopted elsewhere in the world. You may also hear the exchange going by the equally alliterative but less culturally connotative Secret Snowflake.

And in Ireland, for example, you may hear colleagues conducting a Kris Kringle or Kris Kindle around the office. These alternative appellations for a secret santa originate in German words like Christkind’l, literally ‘Christ child’, who’s the seasonal gift-giver in many European and Latin American countries.

Some German-speaking immigrants to early Pennsylvania in the US spoke a dialect that became Pennsylvanian Dutch. They had Chris-krinkle, a Santa Claus figure whose name comes from Christkind’l and becomes Kris Kringle by1830.

Boxing Day

Finally, a little Christmas bonus — and this one to educate the Americans. Observed as a bank holiday the first weekday after Christmas Day, the UK-originating Boxing Day has nothing to do with fisticuffs. The OED first cites it in 1833 and roots the name in the tradition of the Christmas box, dated to 1611 in a gloss on a similar French custom, tirelire. This container, or box, historically collected tips for various servants and apprentices. It was often an earthenware vessel, broken open when full and its contents shared among workers.

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Mashed Radish on Grammar Girl

Mashed Radish is taking the week off for the US holiday of Thanksgiving, though I may sprinkle in a little etymology here and there as time permits.

In the meantime, enjoy the latest episode of the award-winning educational podcast, Grammar Girl. Its host and creator, the incredible Mignon Fogarty, reads an article I wrote for Oxford Dictionaries on the many side words in the English language. The episode opens with the fascinating roots of bailiwick, to boot. 

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10 words with surprising Irish roots

From bother and trousers to slogan and slew, the English language has Irish etymology galore

We’re all Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, as we like to say, but so too are many of our words – and not just the more obvious ones like leprechaun or shamrock. There are many other everyday words whose Irish origins may just surprise you. You might even say there’s a whole slew of them:

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The gob- in gobstopper comes from an Irish word for “mouth.” (Pixabay)

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Pens, penance, and pancakes: the origin of shrove

tShrove, as in Shrove Tuesday, and the related word shrift, as in short shrift, ultimately derive from the Latin scrībere, “to write.”

For Francophones and many speakers of American English, today is Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday,” a day of gorging and gamboling before the solemn and abstemious Christian season of Lent. But a lot of other Anglophones will know today as Shrove Tuesday.  What is this rare and unusual word shrove, and where does it come from?

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Can my penance be pancakes? Image from pixabay.com.

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How the word, and title, “president” took its seat

In Latin, president literally means “the one who sits before.”

Presidents’ Day, officially called Washington’s Birthday, has been a US federal holiday since 1879, honoring the country’s first president – and subsequent ones – around his date of birth, February 22. But where does the word president come from, and why, exactly, did the US settle on president for its commander-in-chief?

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Miscreants, quarry, and records: changes of “heart”

On Valentine’s Day, hearts are everywhere. Candy hearts. Heart emoji. Every imaginable sort of heart-shaped chocolate, greeting card, decorative banner, bric-a-brac. Hearts even swell in our words – and not just the likes sweetheart or, depending on how feel about the holiday, heartsick. I grant you no quarry, you discordant, incredulous, myocardial miscreant! Yes, these words also have the word “heart” at their etymological heart.

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Record comes from the Latin recordari, “to remember,” literally “to call back to heart.”

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Santa’s reindeer: an etymological herd

Around many holiday hearths tonight, families will recite “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” a poem, properly called “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” first published anonymously in 1823 and later claimed by American professor and writer Clement Clarke Moore.

Moore’s verse is considered the source of our names for Santa’s reindeer, excluding their later leader, Rudolph:

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And [St. Nick] whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:
“Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer, and Vixen!
“On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Dunder and Blixem!

As some children are hoping to glimpse Santa’s reindeer across the sky this night before Christmas, let’s have a glimpse at the deeper roots of their high-flying names.

Dasher

A dasher moves very quickly – or smashes something to little bits, as in one’s hopes for that new iPhone 7 under the Christmas tree. Both senses of the verb to dash are found in the early 1300s, and are connected by an underlying idea of intense energy, whether of force or speed.

The deeper root of dash is unclear. The world may be related to a Scandinavian word for “beat” or “strike,” imitating the sound of dashing something (compare bash, clash, and smash). To dash off a letter appears by the 1720s, and dashing, for “stylish,” emerges in the early 1800s a la “striking.”

Dancer

Dance enters English in the 1300s from the Old French danser. Its origins, like dash, are also unclear – and somewhat less than graceful, shall we say. Some connect it to the Old High German dansōn, “to stretch out,” as in the limbs. Others suggest the Frankish *dintjan, “to tremble” or “quiver.”   

Prancer

Prancing involves a jaunty and showy movement, and, originally, was often used not of any reindeer but of horses. A few theories try to explain the source of word, which is first attested in the late 1300s. Prance might come from pranse, Danish dialect for “going about in a proud fashion.” Or could be be related to prank, which has variously meant “to dress up” or “parade around,” rooted in a German word for “to show off.” It’s not certain if this prank has any relationship to those mischievous pranks, like getting a bit of coal in your stocking on Christmas.

Vixen

A vixen is a “female fox,” from the Old English adjective fyxen. The word gives us a glimpse of English past. Historically, some certain southern England dialects replaced word-initial f’s with v’s – not a surprising switch, as the v-sound is what linguistics term the “voiced” form of f. This switch is preserved only in the spelling of few other words, including vane and vat. And the -en is an old, Germanic suffix used to name female animals (e.g., Old English wylfen, a “she-wolf”).

The word fox, appropriately enough, is from a Germanic base that may be related to an Indo-European root for “tail.” And vixen, a disparaging term for an “ill-tempered woman,” appears by the 1570s. Why Moore chose Vixen as a name for this airborne ungulate may be more about rhyme and meter than meaning. 

Comet

Comets speed across the sky, leaving a spectacular tail in its wake. Their tail, to the ancient Greeks, looked like long hair – and indeed, they called the celestial object κομήτης (kometes), or “long-haired star.” The Greek root is κόμη (koma), “the hair of the head.” Latin, with its comēta, borrowed the term, which coursed into English as early as 1154 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Cupid

In Roman mythology, Cupid, depicted with his young wings and arrows, personifies desire and erotic love. His name is the Latin for “desire,” cupīdo, from the verb cupere. The English cupidity denotes an intense “desire for wealth”; concupiscence, for sex.

Donner and Blitzen

In his original A Visit from St. Nicholas, as we saw above, Moore urges on “Dunder and Blixem,” the Dutch for “thunder and lightning.” (Modern Dutch would use Donder and Bliksem.) An 1844 edition of the poem ultimately rendered the Dutch into their German counterparts: Donner and Blitzen. (Blitzen, properly, is “flash.”) Thunder is the English equivalent of Donder and Donner, while English borrowed and shortened blitz from the German Blitzkrieg, whose deadly method of rapid assault literally means “lightning war.” American football took up blitz by the 1960s.

Rudolph

Rudolph is not one of the original reindeer. He came to lead Santa’s cervine crew only in 1939, sparked by the imagination of Robert May, who created his story for Montgomery Ward department stores. Rudolph may be the most famous of the reindeers, but his name, ironically, refers to the glory of his nemesis: Not social isolation, but wolves. Rudolph derives from the Old High German name Hrodulf, “fame-wolf.” The name joins hruod, “fame,” and the Germanic base that gives English wolf.”

For more Christmassy etymologies, see my recent guest posts for Oxford Dictionaries on the soulful origin of wholesome, as well as an older post there covering 12 etymologies of Christmas. Revisit, too, some of Mashed Radish’s tinseled archives, including Christmas, El Niño, chestnut, and Kris Kringle. Happy Holidays! 

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The etymological stuff of “stuffing”

Many of us will be stuffing ourselves with stuffing this Thanksgiving holiday. But we won’t be going for seconds of the original stuffing, if we consider the etymology of this delicious dish.

Knowing one’s stuff 

Today, stuff can refer to just about anything: belongings, information, material. But in the 1330s, stuff protected knights: It was the quilted material they wore under their chain mail. Come the 1400s, stuff named military equipment, stock, stores, and provisions. Various trades applied stuff to their working materials, and by the late 1580s, stuff became a generic word for “things.”

The verb stuff follows a similar development. In the 1380s, Chaucer used stuff for “furnishing a place with stock or stores.” Stuff also could “equip an army or fort with military equipment” in the early 1400s. Eaters were being stuffed with food by the 1430s, as were birds by cooks. Over the following century, stuff expanded to include “filling,” “packing,” or “cramming” something.

As for that scrumptious stuffing we plate up on Thanksgiving? The Oxford English Dictionary attests the culinary term by 1538, citing The Dictionary of Sir Thomas Elyot, the first English dictionary of Classical Latin. In an apt coincidence, Elyot defined the word fartile: “stuffynge, or that wherewith any foule is crammed or franked.” Many feasters call this signature Thanksgiving side dressing, but the term can depend on your regional dialect and whether you cooked it in or out of the bird.

That’s the stuff

We know stuff, originally stoffe or stof, comes from the Old French estoffe (“textile material”) and estoffer (“to furnish” or “stock” and possible source of stifle). From here, the etymology isn’t clear. Many scholars think the words came into northern France from the Old High German *stopfôn, “to plug with tow or oakum,” loose fibers obtained when old rope is untwisted. And this *stopfôn may be borrowed from the Latin *stuppāre, “to stop up (with tow or oakum).” The suspected root is stuppa, “coarse flax” or “hemp,” which also yields the English noun and verb stop.

So, the ropy material stuppa was used a stopper, borrowed as a Germanic verb for “plug,” adapted in French as a fabric padding. When the word entered English, speakers likened “stopping, plugging, and padding” to “stocking something up,” first armor and armies and later birds and bellies. In English, literal stuff grew to all sorts of figurative stuff,  so useful was this catch-call term for the “things” that makes something up.

Thanks to all that stuffing, it’s not old ropes were loosening on Thanksgiving, though. It’s our belts. Happy Thanksgiving! 

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