“Raccoon”: an etymological show of hands?

Earlier this week, a raccoon dramatically scaled a skyscraper in St. Paul, Minnesota. Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) captured the event—and the attention and hearts of the internet. The #MPRRaccoon, as it came to be called, eventually summited the building, where it was caught and released into the wild, but not before going viral first. 

This courageous climber truly lived up to its name, though, for the ultimate origin of the word raccoon its all about the hands.

Continue reading ““Raccoon”: an etymological show of hands?”

The etymological network of “net”

Say the phrase the net today, and surely the first thing that springs to mind is the internet. It even sounds outdated, conjuring up fossil browsers like Netscape, as we mostly just refer to the technology as the internet or being online.

Net does survive in the expression net neutrality, the principle that internet service providers should treat all traffic the same—and rules about which the US Federal Communication Commissions (FCC) repealed last week to great objection. The term was coined by Tim Wu, a professor of media law at Cornell University, in 2003, when net was a more relevant term.

Incredible, though, isn’t it, how the net more immediately calls up email, Twitter, or cat videos than it does, you know, an actual net that catches fish or a soccer ball? How did we get here?

Nothing but net. (Pixabay)

Continue reading “The etymological network of “net””

“Harambe”: Collective outcry or collective action?

This week, I wasn’t the only one who looked to etymology to process the death of Harambe, the lowland gorilla killed at the Cincinnati Zoo after a child found his way into the silverback’s enclosure. “Harambe,” thousands have posted on social media, means “pulling together” or “working together” in Swahili. How fitting, they’ve concluded, using the silverback’s name to call for wildlife conversation, plead for cultural unity in the face of the ensuing and fractious outrage, or rib the many hot-takes the news inspired online. But a closer look at the history of the gorilla’s name may just teach us a thing or two about collective outcry.


Harambe, a variant of harambee, indeed literally means “Let us all pull together” in Swahili, the lingua franca of East Africa. Though this Bantu tongue claims an estimated 100 million speakers, there aren’t extensive Swahili dictionaries on the web (that I can read at least), let alone etymological ones. The Free Dictionary explains harambee was used as a work chant, the heave-ho of the East African Coast. Laborers, presumably, together muscled a massive load with each call of Harambee!

In Kenya, this interjection took on special significance. After achieving independence from Britain in the 1960s, the new government, led by the Kenya Africa National Union, used Harambee to motivate a developing nation, the slogan emerging from a deeper tradition of community organization and fundraising, or harambee.

Today, Kenya features harambee as its official motto and in its coat of arms. And Harambee schools, secondary institutions funded solely through the efforts of the community, showcase how the word has evolved to mean “self-help.” As Oxford Dictionaries noteharambee more generally names or describes a “charitable fundraiser” in East African English.

In 1983, singer Rita Marley, widow of Bob Marley, released “Harambe,” a track on Harambe (Working Together for Freedom). “Harambe Harambe Rastaman say Harambe / Harambe Harambe The Higher One Say Harambe,” Marley refrains. Her harambe is a greater call for unity and empowerment in the face of the African diaspora.

Dan Van Coppenolle heard Marley’s track while exercising in 1999, as the retired educator told CNN. Moved by the concept, he later submitted Harambe to a Texan zoo’s naming contest for the baby, now late, gorilla. (We can only imagine that such a contest today would yield the much less dignified Gorilla McGorillaface.)

While the origin of Harambe is a rallying cry, its also reminds us that there is a difference between collective outcry and collective action. How fitting for the cultural moment, indeed.

m ∫ r ∫


If you’re reading this at work, at least your boss won’t be catching you shopping. Yes, it’s Cyber Monday, the Internet’s Black Friday. This online retail event was created by some very smart marketers in 2005. The word cyber was created, too, in its own way, by a very smart person and not too long ago. But its etymological inspiration is much older.

Talk about web navigation. “Cyber.” Doodle by me.  


Ironically yet fittingly, the once futuristic-sounding cyber already seems a bit dated. Ironically, because it’s a relatively young word. Fittingly, because, as technology swiftly changes today, so, too, does its language.

Cyber is a back-formation of cybernetics, used by American mathematician Norbert Wiener in his 1948 Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Put (not so) simply, cybernetics studies the self-regulating systems at work in complex organisms and machines.

Shortened from this cybernetics as early as the 1960s, cyber– was liberally prefixed to various phenomena of the computer age.  A prominent and influential example, cyberspace was coined by science fiction author William Gibson in 1982. Another author, Bruce Bethke, dreamed up cyberpunk in 1983.

But the cybercafe and cybersex of the 1990s – and many other neologisms that mushroomed during that decade – seem like curios of the past. I would guess that the ubiquity of the Internet – and everything we do on and through fast-changing technology – renders the descriptive prefix, well, obsolete.

Interestingly, cyberattack, cyber-security, and cyber warfare, still maintain currency. Cyber-bullying, too. These, perhaps, have staying power due to their widespread governmental and institutional usage. And Cyber Monday, of course, has turned 15.

While cyber may sound ancient today, its roots are in fact ancient. Via the connecting sense of guiding a system, Wiener’s cybernetics is formed on the Greek κυβερνήτης, or kybernetes, meaning “steersman,” “helmsman,” or “pilot,” as Liddell and Scott gloss it. This noun is rooted in the verb κυβερνᾶν, or  kybernan, “to steer (a ship).” Wiener may have been influenced by cybernétiquecoined by French scientist André-Marie Ampère for the “science of government.” (The scientific unit, the ampere, remembers him, too.)

The Greek kybernetes sailed into Latin as gubernator, hence gubernatorial. After passing into French, Latin’s gubernator eventually yielded English’s own govern and governor. The metaphorical pilot-as-leader is documented early on in all languages. So, if your boss finds you checking out on Amazon this Cyber Monday, just say how it showcases your executive experience.

m ∫ r ∫