Are you feeling a little hazy after 4/20? Maybe from some purple haze? No, no, I’m sure you were just listening to the Jimi Hendrix song. Well, you’re not alone, as the etymology of hazy is itself quite hazy.
The latest Star Wars move, Rogue One, is out this week. The director, Gareth Edwards explained that its title functions as a military call sign, like Air Force One, and alludes to the Rogue Squadron and Rogue Group, an important troop of Rebel fighters in the original Star Wars films. (Rogue One features Rebel spies.) Edwards also said the title nods to the fact that his movie is the “rogue” one: the first standalone Star Wars film outside the main storyline.
So that’s how Rogue One came to be so called, in part. But how did rogue get its name?
A rogue operation
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first documents rogue, as roge, in 1489, when it referred to a “vagrant.” Over the course of the 16th century, the sense of rogue shifted. By the 1560s, it referred to a “scoundrel,” by the 1590s an “endearingly mischievous, rascally person,” and by the early 1600s an abusive term for a “servant.”
Rogue was a favorite of Shakespeare: He used rogue, to various degrees of insult and endearment, over 100 times in his plays. Perhaps the most famous example comes from Prince Hamlet: “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!”
Rogue has since shed its beggarly rags and servant’s uniform. Today, rogue can name a kind of maverick who breaks with the establishment or conventional wisdom for some righteous, if rebellious, cause. We can trace the modern sense of rogue back to the phrase rogue elephant, which, by 1835, referred to an “elephant living apart from the herd and having savage or destructive tendencies,” as the OED defines it.
Up until the 1830s, rogues were lowly louts, so why would we specifically call elephants rogue? Rogue elephant, as the OED observes, may have been influenced by a phrase in Sinhalese, spoken in Sri Lanka: hora aliyā, “thievish or restive elephant.” Rogue, originally, indeed decried thieves. And in the beginning of the 1800s, rogue was also referring to wayward horses. Underlying these senses of rogue, then, is an idea of “trickiness” and “unruliness,” whether of petty criminals or strong-willed beasts.
Rogue elephants inspired the expression to go rogue, also first used of the pachyderm in 1905. Speakers transferred the behavior of rogue elephant and going rogue to other animals – including humans, of course – in the early 20th century. These phrases subsequently pushed rogue towards senses of “aberrant” and “undisciplined,” a short step away from its more positive sense of “bad boy” today. The term rogue hero, documented by 1899, may have further helped nudge rogue along.
The etymology of rogue, fittingly, has itself gone rogue, shall we say. We simply don’t know where it comes from and it doesn’t seem like it wants to be pinned down. There are several theories, though:
- Rogue could have been shortened from roger, thieves’ slang for an “itinerant beggar who pretended to be a poor scholar from Oxford or Cambridge,” according to the OED. Perhaps this roger, first attested in 1536, could have derived from slang uses of the name Roger. While the meaning of roger fits rogue, the timeline and pronunciation pose problems.
- Rogue could have come from Latin’s rogāre, “to ask,” seen in English words like interrogate and abrogate. Here, etymologists cite classical examples where the noun form, rogātor, was used for “beggar.” Perhaps Latin’s rogāre influenced the aforementioned slang, roger, or English in some way borrowed the term directly?
- Rogue could have derived from a Celtic word, such as the Breton rog, meaning “haughty.” It’s unclear, though, how the “arrogance” of rog became the original “mendicancy” of rogue.
- Middle French had rogue, meaning “arrogant,” apparently not from the Breton rog but from a Scandinavian root, like the Old Norse hrōkr, “arrogant.” (Philologist Walter Skeat notes that hrōkr literally meant “rook,” a particularly noisy kind of crow.The OED, meanwhile, points to the Old Icelandic hroki, “the heap above the brim of a full vessel, hence “overbearing.”) Most etymologists dismiss this etymology, though some add that the spelling of the French rogue may have influenced the English.
Even etymologies need to rebel sometimes, it seems.
m ∫ r ∫
The creepy crown craze – involving people dressed up as evil clowns frightening, threatening, and sometimes even attacking others – has spread from South Carolina all across the globe. But what about this word clown: Where did it spread from?
The word clown hasn’t been terrorizing the English language for as long as we might think but, creepily, we aren’t quite sure where it comes from. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests the word in 1563, when a clown – or cloyne, as it’s first recorded – was a “rustic” or “peasant.” The lowly status of such a countryman, alas, was soon associated with ignorance and boorishness in the eyes of city folk.
On Shakespeare’s stage, clowns were “fools” and “jesters.” We see them as comical country bumpkins in such plays as The Merchant of Venice (Launcelot Gobbo), As You Like It (Touchstone), Twelfth Night (Feste), and even in Antony and Cleopatra, where it’s a clown who smuggles in the asp in a basket of figs for the titular queen’s suicide.
It’s not until the 1720s we see clowns as the circus performers that entertain – and horrify us – today.
While the origin of clown is obscure, two theories have prevailed. The first, usually attributed to Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson, is that clown comes from Latin’s colōnus, a “farmer” or “settler.” You might see colony in this noun – and you’d be right. The base verb, colere, “to till,” was a productive crop, yielding words like culture and cultivate. Most etymologists have dismissed this theory.
The other, favored theory looks to Scandinavian sources like the Icelandic klunni, a “clumsy, boorish fellow,” and North Frisian klönne, for roughly the same. At base for these, and their other Germanic cognates, are words for “clots,” “clods,” and “lumps,” whose thick, rough, clumpy masses stuck as an epithet for foolish, bungling fellows.
But Anatoly Lieberman, in a recent post on his Oxford Etymologist blog, finds this prevailing Scandinavian theory to be, well, a bit clownish. Lieberman seriously doubts a word like clown would have been borrowed from a Scandinavian language in Early Modern English. Instead, he reconsiders the long-snubbed Latin explanation, citing, by way of a 1940s Dublin philologist, a Professor T. F. O’Rahilly, who notes Fingal husbandmen were nicknamed collounes. As Liberman concludes:
Colloun must have been the Anglo-French reflex of Latin colōnus ‘farmer.’ It is not unlikely that this word was imported to England from Ireland…If O’Rahilly was right, clown does go back to colōnus, but via Irish…But what about the Germanic words cited in connection with clown? Perhaps they need not be dismissed as irrelevant, but no evidence points to their currency in Elizabethan England, while the Irish route looks real.
Great. There may be no snakes in Ireland, but, etymologically speaking, there are clowns. Well, those creepy clowns have been sighted here, too.
m ∫ r ∫
“An intermittent hot spring, throwing up water, etc. in a fountain-like column.” No, this isn’t a description of how a lot of Brits are feeling, still queasy from Brexit, after their team’s knockout loss to Iceland in the Euro football tournament last night. It’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the word geyser, one of the few modern words English borrowed from Icelandic.
“Modern” is key to the history of geyser. From the late 700s to the early 1000s, the Vikings, whose Old Norse tongue was ultimately parent to the Icelandic language, invaded the British Isles – and their native tongues, leaving its mark in everyday words like sky, egg, knife, and they. But geyser is a much more recent loanword.
In 1763, Britain’s long-running Annual Register included this account: “Geyser, a wonderful spring in the valley of Haukedal, is but a few miles from Skaalholt.” The entry goes on to describe the “terrible noise, like the discharge of small arms” of the “surprising phenomenon” which “happens once a day.” It credits its description to a Mr. Olav, who encountered it in 1746.
This geyser is Geysir, the proper name of a particular geyser, the country’s own Old Faithful, in the Haukadalur valley in southwest Iceland. English generalized the term for this geological feature by 1780. Come the 1850s, English was using geyser for figurative gushes.
And “gush” is key to the etymology of Geysir. The name literally means “The Gusher,” related to the Icelandic geysa and Old Norse gøysa, “to gush.” (Old Icelandic had gjós-æðr, a “gush vein,” or “artery.”) English’s gush is cognate, as is gust, gut, font, funnel, various iterations of the Latin root in infuse, and, incredibly, futile. The Indo-European root is *gheu-, “to pour.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots notes that some scholars think this “pour” was in reference to libations, which could make it the long-troubling source of the word god.
In today’s Icelandic, a geyser is a goshver, which looks like gusher. But as far as I can tell, this word actually joins gos (“eruption”; an eldgos is a “volcanic eruption,” or “fire eruption”) and hver, a term for a “hot spring” that originally meant “kettle” or “cauldron.”
In a land of so much geothermal activity, there are subtle but important distinctions between different types of geysers based on temperature. According to Richard S. William’s Icelandic-English Glossary of Selected Geoscience Terms, hverir are hot springs over 70ºC, laugar are warm springs between 30-70ºC, and volgrur are lukewarm springs under 30ºC.
Today though, Iceland should forget such distinctions and celebrate their historic performance in the UEFA Euro 2016 with the full force of their country’s own Great Geysir.
m ∫ r ∫
The 2016 presidential campaign yet again proves to be quite the horserace, if etymology has its say.
After an anti-Trump super PAC made use of a nude photo of Trump’s wife, Melania, in a political ad during last week’s Utah caucuses, Donald Trump threatened he would “spill the beans” on fellow Republican candidate Ted Cruz’s wife. As lexicographer Ben Zimmer recently explained, the expression spill the beans actually originates in U.S. horse-racing.
Then, the pro-Trump National Enquirer accused Cruz of extramarital affairs. Cruz responded by pinning the “garbage” allegations on “Donald Trump and his henchmen.”
Today, as we see Cruz imply, a henchman – or henchperson, as language writer Stan Carey has observed – does his boss’s dirty work. But historically, a henchman may have gotten their hands dirty with a very different kind of business. See, the best we can tell, the hench in henchman is all about horses.
From groom to goon
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites henchman in 1360, when, taking the Medieval Latin form of hengestmannus, the word appeared in official financial records during Edward III’s reign. Then, a henchman named a kind of “squire” or “page” who attended on a royal or noble figure on foot – or, more important to the origin of the word, horseback – during a procession. (The two henchmen noted in the OED’s earliest accounts were apparently named “Mustard” and “Garlic.”)
Henchman appears to join man to hengest, an Old English word that named a “horse,” “stallion,” or “gelding.” For the compound, philologist Walter Skeat identifies relatives in the Icelandic hestvörðr (“horse-ward) and Swedish hingstridare (“horse-rider”). Hengest itself has widespread Germanic cognates, which some Indo-European scholars reconstruct in the Proto-Germanic *hangistaz, “best at springing,” rooted in a Proto-Indo-European base for “to spring.”
But right after 1200, hengest flees the written record except as an element in various proper names associated with Hengist, the alleged war-name of the Jutish conqueror of Kent in the 5th century. And, while Skeat cites Nordic kin, the OED notes no compound counterpart for henchman in other Germanic languages.
The origin of henchman does some raise questions, even if we have a good hunch about it.
In the late 14th-century, Henry IV, then the Earl of Derby, added henchmen (henksman and hensman in the historic documentation) to his retinue on an important expedition. English royalty thereafter variously enlisted henchmen for royal service until Queen Elizabeth abolished them in 1565. Henchman itself flees English after the 1650s until Sir Walter Scott (re)popularized the word.
Editing Edmund Burt’s 1754 Letters in the North of Scotland, Scott encountered hanchman, which Burt describes as a personal attendant “at the Haunch” of a Highland chief, a kind of gillie. At that time, Scottish pronounced hanchman something like henchman, which spelling Scott used when he employed the word in his Lady of the Lake for a “follower.”
So, as the OED wonders, did Burt just coin hanchman or actually revive the obsolete term? As philologist Ernest Weekly offers, “There may be no real connection to the [Modern English] word.”
After Scott, henchman spread into politics. The OED cites it as a “stout political supporter” by 1839, noting it started showing the “unscrupulous” (if not outright “nefarious”) character Ted Cruz conveyed in American English by the end of the 19th century.
Does hench the henchman ultimately come from the, er, horse‘s mouth? Possibly, but it’s not crystal clear. Just like the outcome of the presidential race: Will all these spilled beans and henchmen open up a lane for another political term rooted in horse-racing, the dark horse candidate? John Kasich seems to be betting on it.
m ∫ r ∫
- The ultimate origins of risk are unknown, but many have been suggested
- The word enters English in the 1660s from French risque, in turn from a similar Italian form based on riscare (to run into danger); this is from postclassical Latin risicum, attested even then in commercial contexts
- In Romance languages during the Middle Ages, risk appears in maritime contexts, denoting the possibility of damage to seaborne merchandise
- Though highly disputed, one suggestion is that risk comes from Latin resecāre (cut off), which gave Spanish risco, a cliff or crag, thus posing danger to ships carrying goods
- Another suggestion is that risk actually comes from Icelandic ráðask (to counsel oneself regarding an attack), a military term brought into Latin, with sound changes, due to Norse attacks on the continent
Risks: Adolescents and businesspeople know them well. As do standup comedians, career changers, and credit card companies—or lovers of the board game Risk, invented, incidentally, by French director Albert Lamorisse, who rose to acclaim with his classic short film, The Red Balloon. Indeed, artists know risks, as do etymologists, a fact that become particularly apparent in the origin of, well, risk.
As the OED puts it, the origin of risk is “much debated,” and, from my rooting around, I found four possible routes: Latin, Norse, Arabic, and Greek. In this first of two posts, I’ll focus on the Latin and Norse possibilities.
While the distant origins of risk are disputed, its more recent story is not. In the 1660s, English picked up risque (the related risqué enters later) directly from the French, and it signified “danger or inconvenience, predictable or otherwise” (OED). The French took the term from the Italian risco or riscio. The noun comes from riscare, meaning “to run into danger.” There is evidence of the postclassical Latin risicum—and a host of other spellings—in the 12th and 13th centuries, all “in commercial contexts” with sense of “hazard” or “danger,” the OED notes. From ancient wheeling and dealing to “risk analysis” and “risk aversion,” risk has enjoyed a robust economic life.
At this juncture, risk either runs into a dead end, or into a number of different directions, depending on how you want to look at it.
Some have traced postclassical Latin’s risicum back to classical Latin’s resecāre (to cut off). Think intersection, secant, section, and possibly even sex. (Let’s talk about sex…another time.) There is much doubt about this particular etymology, but the suggestion does takes us to some interesting places.
So, what could be “cut off” about risks? In the middle of the 19th century, Friedrich Diez assayed an explanation in his Etymological Dictionary of the Romance Languages. I came across the following passage (quoted in its original German, and which Skeat cites, in fact, for his entry of risk) in the same Magnússon article I probed in my discussion of bask. I had my good friend and German scholar. Matthew, translate it for me.
A little context, first. Diez anchors his etymology in the Spanish risco, a steep and abrupt rock like a crag, from the verb arriscar (go against a rock), from the past participle risco (cut off):
Span.: ar-riscar, ar-riesgar; Portug.: riscar, arriscar; French: risquer, to place in danger, to dare. Substantives: Ital.: risico, risco; Span.: riesgo; French: risque danger. Span.: risco means cliff, steep (rock)face, and this leads to rescare, to cut off, so that one thinks of a steep height as something shorn off: no differently do the Swed. skär cliff and skära cut off relate to each other. Risco could also be a sailing expression, first denoting the dangerous crags, then the danger, for which the separate form riesgolater emerged. Also corresponding thereto are New Provençal rezegue danger, rezegá cut off, Milanese resega saw and danger, verbs resegà to saw and to dare, which can only come from rescare. Portuguese risca stroke (cut), riscar to cancel [lit. to strike out –trans.] are also to be included in this category.
So, by this reasoning, cliffs are “cut off,” and thus pose dangers to sailing vessels and the merchandise they had on board. Language historians cast much doubt on Diez’ jump from risk to rescare, but the maritime context of the word definitely stands.
We’ve seen the early commercial context of risk, much of which commerce was (and remains) waterborne. The OED cites an interesting range of Middle-Aged cognates of risk with maritime valences, with the words carrying the sense of “possibility of damage to merchandise when transported by the sea”:
- Walloon (French-speaking subculture in Belgium) resicq, risicq
- Old Occitan (Provençal, language of the troubadours) rezegue
- Catalan (a Romance language in Spain) risc
- Spanish picks up the form and broadens it to “conflict,” “disagreement”
- Dutch borrows the word with risco (evidenced in other forms in the Spanish Netherlands, a historical territory new to me), German with Risiko
Geographically, these cognates form something of a spine traveling up from the Mediterranean up through Western Europe. But, if Magnússon has his say, the direction of travel is quite the other way around.
Recall that in Old Norse -sk was a reflexive verbal suffix. It -self’ed verbs, if you will. Magnússon argues that risk, featuring this same suffix, actually comes from an Icelandic word. (OK, I’m going to say Norse, since I feel it encompasses better a very closely related language family and makes more historical sense.) The word is ráðask, formed on ráða (counsel), and it means, according to Mr. Magnússon, to “counsel oneself,” “make up one’s mind,” “betake oneself” (notice the rare betake, meaning “go to”) , “to venture,” or “to risk.”
Here’s what Magnússon has to say on ráðask, emphasizing not the maritime but the military:
In the reflexive form the word occurs most commonly in the sense to risk a charge, an attack on the enemy, and is the technical word for that kind of action. The standing military phrase for to attack is ráðask á…to counsel one’s self on (onward), ráðask á fjandmennia to counsel one’s on (against) the enemy. As, on the other hand, the standing phrase for to risk a thing, the result of which is doubtful, is ráðask í to counsel one’s self into, to risk undertaking, to venture.
Magnússon goes on to argue that ráðask generates the Latin riscus, losing its middle syllable like bask did and undergoing (in his opinion) a straightforward vowel change.
But why would Latin ever borrow the word? He speculates:
I think it is very probable that the word got into the Low Latin from the Northmen, who not only ravaged the coasts of the Romance nations, but also won lands from them and settled there. In this manner I account for the derivation of risk.
Magnússon argues that Diez’ etymology is unlikely, particularly on the grounds that only Spanish has risco for “cliff” and that boats were less likely to meet danger in sharp cliffs than in rocks hidden underwater along the shore. I think both of these reasons are persuasive. Alas, his own case is unlikely as well. I find the variety and prevalence of Romance forms compelling. Further, while bask may have loss the ð in baðask, English still has bathe, already close cousin to baða, whence Icelandic gets baðask. And, given the cultural contact between Scandinavian and other Europeans, I find it a stretch that Latin would have been the sole point of propagation for ráðask, in the form of riscus (which means in my dictionaries “box”), without any intervening forms.
But such are the risks we run in etymology–for, after all, language is foremost business of speech, and can’t exactly leave its record written on the air.
Risk has yet more stories to tell. Next week, we’ll look into its Arabic and Greek possibilities.
m ∫ r ∫
- Bask comes from Old Norse, baðask (bathe oneself), with middle syllable lost
- The Scandinavian word joins baða (bathe) and reflexive verbal suffix –sk (self)
- Suffix –sk traces back to Proto-Indo-European *swe– (self) via Old Norse pronoun sik
- In 1300s, bask meant “to wallow/bathe,” but especially in blood; evolved to refer to “in sunshine” and metaphorical sunshine
I took our kayak out this weekend. In the middle of Lake of the Isles, I stopped paddling to bask in the summer sun—and in Minneapolis’ lovely mix of city and nature. And then it hit me: bask. I knew I forgot to include something in last week’s post on self and other. It was the word bask. And its final two letters, –sk. It turns out that there’s a lot going on in the little word.
Old Norse—the North Germanic language of the Vikings, runes, and sagas, and parent of close siblings Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish—had sik, a reflexive pronoun. A reflexive pronoun, you may be familiar, refers to its own antecedent. In English, think myself or yourself or themselves. And, ultimately, self-referential sik can claim its spot in the selfsame bloodline as self: It, too, derives from the prolific Proto-Indo-European *swe- we studied last post.
Over time, the Old Norse sik became contracted to -sk. (Speech loves economy, nah mean?) This functioned as a reflexive suffix tacked onto the end of verbs. In bask, –sk was suffixed onto baða, or bathe, to form baðask. (Bathe and baða, kissing cousins, you can see.) And, in everyday mouths, the middle syllable got swallowed, eventually yielding bask. Busk, parent of bustle, features the same suffix: “to busy oneself.” From extended contact with the Danes, violent and peaceful, English borrowed quite the array of words, including everyday words such as sky and they.
Etymologically, bask means to bathe oneself. The form of the word today disguises its compounds; the root verb and reflexive suffix have become what some call “opaque.” I recommend you treat yourself to some more disguised compounds (such as bridal or blackmail) as described by preeminent English etymologist Anatoly Liberman. Oh, he also has a killer weekly etymology blog, The Oxford Etymologist.
“Bask in the doneness”—or blood
So, somewhere in the 1300s, baðask looses its middle and enters the language as basken. Yes, it loses one sound but picks up another. The –en marks the infinitive form (to bask), and makes it grammatical in Middle English. Almost all of English’s inflections eventually fell off, making the language abnormally uninflected for an Indo-European language. At this point, basken wasn’t always so clean or sunny. It could be straight bloody. Basken frequently meant to wallow or be suffused not just in warm liquid, but in blood.
Check out these gruesome early attestations from the OED. In 1393, John Gower wrote:
The child lay bathed in her blood..And for the blode was hote and warme He basketh him about therinne.
I don’t know what is going on here. But isn’t it pleonastic—using more words than necessary—to use him after a form of bask, the word already reflexive? Maybe it is in Icelandic, but the semantic value of -sk is lost on English ears.
Later, in 1528, poet John Skelton wrote:
Basked and baththed in their wylde burblyng..blode.
Geez, this is like Macbeth walked into the set of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. A vertiable bloodbath. I mean, blood does really get everywhere.
Speaking of Shakespeare, he is credited with the first attestation of bask‘s brighter meanings, i.e., basking in “the genial warmth” (OED) of sunlight or fire. Says the attending lord Jaques merrily in As You Like It (2.7):
A fool, a fool, I met a fool i’th’ forest, / A motley fool—a miserable world!— / As I do live by food, I met a fool, / Who laid him down and basked in the sun, / And railed on Lady Fortune in good terms, / In good set terms, and yet a motley fool.
From here, bask starts living a more figurative life: basking in the metaphorical “‘sunshine’ of love, favour, glory,” (OED). Or, my favorite, “doneness.”
During a discussion of the writing process, a professor once shared a story about helping her son revise and edit an essay he was writing. Even after several rounds with the red pen, she said she kept suggesting changes here, rewordings there. He replied, “Mom, at some point, you have to bask in the doneness.” Yes, at some point, things are just done. And I can’t think of a better way to describe the feeling of finishing an essay or article.
“An undoubted Scandinavian immigrant”
Smitten by Old Norse’s ability to render verbs reflexive, I did some more digging—and fell down quite the delightful rabbit hole in Icelandic language and literature scholar Eiríkr Magnússon’s 1874 “On SK and SH In English Terminations” (Cambridge; Harvard).
In this, he parses the suffix -sk in Icelandic, which has remained remarkably close to Old Norse. Apparently, –sk also functioned as reciprocal suffix (hittask, to hit each other, or meet) and as a passive suffix (kallask, to be called). It could also be suffixed to adjectives, adding “individuality and intensity” (p. 280). He writes that nið means “contumely” or “shame”, while niðskr means “shamefully stingy.”
But, more to our purposes here, he offers his own explanation for why bask came to be associated with the sun. This is why I love the stuff of etymology:
In ancient times it was a common custom throughout Scandinavia for people to have hot-air baths at their houses. The custom the Scandinavians doubtless adopted from the Fins, who bathe in the same manner to this day. The heated bath-house was called baðstofa, bathing stove, a word which in Iceland signifies the warmest room in the house, the sitting-room, although the use of it for bathing purposes has long since been abandoned. The hot air being the element in which it was common and customary to effect bathing by a languid repose, the tendency to repeat on a hot summer’s day the habits of the bath-room brought the phraseology of one element into the other. Hence, the common phrase at baðask í sólinni. The reflexive form, baðask, I take to be the immediate source of bask brought about by the process first of dropping the dental aspirate, ð, which, phonetically speaking, is a weak and evanescent element in the word, and the contracting ba–ask into bask. Here, I think it must be conceded, we have to deal with an undoubted Scandinavian immigrant. (pp. 281-282)
I’m guessing these hot-air baths are akin to saunas, which indeed the Nordic are famed for. But below is an image of an Icelandic baðstofa, or living/sitting/common room. I love the sleeping dog.