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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Because there’s always a reason to talk about pets…and etymology

I could have written about Zuckerberg today, with the Facebook CEO in the congressional hot seat. His surname literally means “sugar mountain” in German—and I don’t think that’ll be the next Farmville or Candy Crush any time soon.

I thought to write about raid, which the FBI did to Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen on Monday. Raid originates as a Scottish variant on road.

Instead, I settled on pet. April 11th is, apparently, National Pet Day, “celebrating pets and encouraging adoption” since 2005, according to the organizer’s website. The day, as quirky and numerous as these random unofficial holidays are in our social media feeds, also invites some welcome etymological escapism.

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My pet, Hugo.

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Some etymological—and political—lessons of “condemn”

The word condemn is surprisingly related to the Irish word for “poem.” 

White supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday, leading to the death of three people, including Heather Heyer, a counter-protester driven down by an Ohio terrorist with neo-Nazi sympathies. It took President Trump a woeful two days to directly condemn this violence and hate—and even then, his “strongest possible terms” left many wanting. In the wake of these horrid events, today’s post will focus on the origin of the word condemn.

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Condemn, as in to “declare a building unfit for use,” first appears in the 18th century. (Pixabay

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10 Catty Etymologies for International Cat Day

From German hangovers to Iraqi silks, the English language loves its cats.

It’s International Cat Day, founded, apparently, in 2002 by the International Fund for Animal Welfare. So, take a break from cat pics and vids online today and enjoy some cat-themed etymologies. Catymologies? Yeah, no, yeah…I think I have to.

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Curiosity may have killed the cat, but I’m pretty etymology never did. (Pixabay)

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The sneaky, slinking roots of “mooch”

Mooch may ultimately derive from an old Indo-European root meaning “darkness” or “silence.” 

The new White House Communications Director, Anthony Scaramucci, drew many people to dictionaries last week for his distinctive surname. Scaramucci is indeed related to scaramouch, “cowardly braggart,” originating as a stock character in Italian comedy and familiar to most of us from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. As I discussed in an earlier post, the Italian scaramuccia gives English skirmish and scrimmage.

As if Scaramucci weren’t already colorful enough, Trump’s new Comms man also goes by the nickname the Mooch. Mooch, here, is taken from the pronunciation of his last name—although the word’s sense of “sponging” or “scrounging” are a bit ironic for a man who spent his career up to this point as a financier. So, where does this mooch come from, anyways?

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Under the cover of…mooch? (Pixabay)

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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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“Tory”: How the conquest of Ireland named the UK Conservative Party

With Michael Gove throwing in his hat and Boris Johnson throwing in his towel, the post-Brexit scramble for Tory – or Conservative – leadership was thrown into confusion this week in the UK. This chaos is fitting, if we look to history of Tory, a word embroiled in many conflicts of its own.

Tory story 

In its conquest of Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries, England massively dispossessed the Irish of their land – among other depravations. Out of need, pride, and retaliation, some Irish turned to outlawry, plundering and killing English settlers and soldiers. By 1646, in the wake of a bloody rebellion, the English mocked these ‘Catholic, marauding bog-trotters, these savage, moss-trooper highwaymen,’ with a nickname: “tories.”

Documented in the Irish State Papers nearly a century prior, the term tory meant “outlaw” or “robber.” It derives from the Irish tóraí, from tóir “to pursue.” (Older forms, depending on your transliteration, include tóruighe, a “pursuer” or “searcher,” via tóirighim, “I pursue.”) Etymologists connect these forms to older Celtic and Indo-European bases meaning “running up to” and “to turn” or “roll.”

By 1679-80, this Tory, now with a capital T, was slung at the so-called Exclusioners, who were opposed to the succession of James, Duke of York, to the Crown. James was Catholic. What better way to attack his supporters – and stop, God forbid, any restoration of Irish land – than link them with those wild Irish tories? And what better way for the Tories to hit back than with Whig, those Protestant yokels and bumpkins? The origin of whig is uncertain, but some think it originally mean “horse driver” in Scottish Gaelic.

Many of these Yorkist Tories formed a new political party in 1689: the Tories. It was born of a longer tradition of royalism – of championing the power of the Church of England – going back to the English Civil War. Tory officially named the English Conservative Party until 1830, though, despite many changes in their political platform since, the term is still used informally today (as it is in Canada). During the American Revolution, Tories were colonists loyal to the British crown. During the American Civil, Confederates called Union sympathizers in their midsts Tories.

For many in Britain today, the etymology of Tory, that “bandit,” is mot juste, from conservatives who feel Gove stole leadership from Johnson to Remainers who feel Brexiters stole the UK from the EU. And while the meaning of our words change, our politics are as messy as ever. Perhaps we should look to that older root of Tory, “to pursue,” and apply it less to fighting and more to solutions.

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Etymology on the streets

I haven’t even been settled for a week and I’m already in love with my new city, Dublin. The people and culture are absolutely wonderful, of course, but the etymology is world-class. Even something as simple as taking out my dog surprises me with lexical delights, like this utility marker I noticed on a recent walk:

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is Irish for “water.” (Signage in Ireland is widely bilingual, in case you didn’t know.) You probably better know uisce, however, in a more distilled form: whiskey.

English ultimately borrowed (and shortened) whiskey from the Irish uisge beatha, literally “water of life.” The development of the form whiskey doesn’t exactly walk a straight line, if you will. The Oxford English Dictionary first cites “whisky” in 1715 in an apt passage from the Book of Scottish Pasquils: “Whiskie shall put our brains in a rage.” (Tell me about it.) Earlier forms in the 18th century include usquebea and usquebaugh, apparently variants of iskie bae, dated much earlier to the 1580s. Today, the United States and Ireland largely spell the spirits whiskey, while England and Scotland favor whisky, hence the distinction in the beverage trade.

Aren’t you just asking for it, Ireland, when even your literal water can’t escape drinking stereotypes? Not so fast, as Barnhart’s dictionary will have it: “The Gaelic word is probably a loan translation of Medieval Latin aqua vitae alcohol, spirits; literally, water of life; in English aqua vitae had been recorded as applying to intoxicating drinks since 1547.” Aqua vitae was originally was used of unrefined alcohol in 15th-century alchemy.

Similarly, French has eau-de-vie, “water of life,” for brandy and the like. Russian vodka derives from voda, meaning “water.” English itself shouldn’t be so quick to judge, either: the very word water is a cognate to uisce, if their common, hypothesized Proto-Indo-European root, *wed- (“water,” “wet”), is correct. The Russian voda is also related to this root.

With etymological discoveries right at my doorstep, it’s hard not to love this Irish uisce – not to be confused with Irish Water, Éirann Uisce, the national utility whose recent charges few have been raising their glasses to.

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But as much as I’m intoxicated by new home, I can’t forget my own roots: I’m still a bourbon guy.

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Music and monarchs: ‘royal’ roots

Yesterday was a big day for royal titles – in some ways glad, in other ways very sad. Queen Elizabeth reached a momentous 90 while Prince shockingly passed away at 57. Both, it turns out, live up to the etymologies of their names, in a manner of speaking.

Queen

At 90, Queen Elizabeth II is the UK’s longest-serving monarch, her rule spanning over 63 years. The word queen, however, has been reigning in the English language for much, much longer.

We have evidence of queen in several Old English manuscripts, where the word appears as cwēn, among other forms. French had a significant impact on Middle English, as we see often on this blog; in this case, it influenced the substitution of qu– for cw– to spell [kw].

Queen is very old, but its meaning has been largely constant, long referring to a “female ruler.” However, as the early record indicates, a queen also named a “woman,” especially a “wife,” suggesting a yet original sense.

A variant form, quean, is also cited in Old English (cwene) for “woman.” While queen was elevated in rank in the language, quean was demoted: the latter went on to name a “hussy” or “prostitute.” The record documents this very important distinction – in sound, spelling, and sense – early on.

Queen and quean have widespread Indo-European cognates. Of particular interest is Greek’s γυνή (gyne), “woman,” which English employs in such words as misogyny and gynecology. The Irish bean sídhe, meanwhile, yields banshee, literally “woman of the elves.” Bean is the queen, here. The Proto-Indo-European root of concern is *gwen, “woman.” 

We see various extensions of queen come Middle English. By the late 1300s, a queen was a general term of endearment for an “honorable woman,” while a century later it stood for the “preeminent woman in a group.” As the chess piece, by 1450s, initially the weakest piece before rule changes coronated her. As the card suit, by the late 1500s. Bees, by the early 1600s; men, of course, originally assumed the queen bee was a he. Quean has long disparaged women; queen disparages a “homosexual man” by the 1890s, though anticipated earlier and perhaps influenced by quean. The Washington Post uses drama queen in 1923.

Elizabeth’s biographer Lord Hurd famously christened the Queen as “the Steadfast,” a suitable title, too, for the long and largely consistent etymology of queen.

Prince

Fans of Prince will certainly agree with the etymology of the icon’s forename. The word ultimately derives from the Latin princeps, an adjective that literally means “taking the first place,” hence “foremost” or “chief.”  Princeps joins prīmus (“first”) and a root of capere, “to take.” (Princeps then came to the English via French.)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Augustus took on the unofficial title princeps when he became emperor of Rome. This was an effort to appear more republican and less regal, as princeps figured in titles such as princeps cīvitātis, “first person of the city.”  

As its Roman record anticipates, prince once wielded yet more power than it already does in modern-day English: a prince was once in fact a “king.” Evidenced in the early 1200s, a prince was more generally a “sovereign ruler” or “person of chief authority,” largely, though not exclusively, male. As the OED explains, prince named the former rulers of Wales’ various states by the end of the 1200s. This started the tradition of titling the heir-apparent of the English monarch as the “Prince of Wales” – and thereby fixing the word to the eldest son of the king or queen, as we now know the word. The OED notes that other European languages followed suit in so narrowing prince.

Other notable princes include the Prince of Peace, applied to Jesus Christ by 1375. His counterpart, the Prince of Darkness, was formerly known as the Prince of this World, which, perhaps curiously, predates Prince of Peace by at least 50 years.

Principle and principal are derived from Latin’s princeps. The former is from Latin’s principium, literally a “first part,” and developed into “fundamental belief” or “foundational basis.” Principals have been bringing naughty students into their offices in public schools since 1827 (as “college president,” much earlier); the Latin principalis, “first in importance,” explains the English term.

While it’s easy to mistake principle and principal, there’s certainly no mistaking that Prince was truly a king of pop music. (Prince and Michael Jackson will just have to hash it out in the heavens.)

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Beyond the etymological “pale”

Today, my wife and I are bidding farewell to Southern California to greet our new home: Dublin, Ireland. We’ll actually be staying in Oxford, England first until the Irish government finishes processing our work visas.

(Nope, it’s not the sun, I’m sure you’re wondering: I’m going to miss fish tacos the most. And family, of course.)

So, to mark the occasion, I wanted to take a break from my regular newsy musings to look into the history of a word long associated with my new home – and really only surviving the expression beyond the pale.

Pale

In the English of the late 1300s, a pale was a “stake,” the wooden sort driven into the ground – or impaled into Dracula’s heart. Stakes can make a “fence,” a fence can mark a “boundary,” and a boundary can demarcate a “territory,” as pale all came to name.

Historically, England controlled a number of regions known as the English pale. The earliest pale in the record encompassed modern-day Calais, France; the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates this to the 1450s. About a century later, the English pale also included southern Scotland – and, most notoriously, the greater Dublin, Ireland area. This territory became known simply as the Pale. (Imperial Russia later had a Pale, too, which confined where Jews could live.)

Many claim beyond the pale referred to the ‘wild’ regions outside of English jurisdiction in Ireland, hence the expression’s meaning of “outside the bounds of acceptable behavior.” The OED, however, does not actually date the phrase – first attested in “beyond the pale of expedience” – until 1720. This is significantly later than the pale’s Irish reference, making this origin story a rather contemptuous bit of folk etymology.

So, beyond the pale is metaphorical – and has been. In the 1480s, Caxton, who brought the printing press to England, used pale in translation for a professional “domain” or “field.” (Caxton was referencing monks and abbots, it so happens.) We might think of beyond the pale as, originally, “out of one’s area of expertise.”

English ultimately drove pale into its ground from the Latin pālus, a “stake.” The ancient Romans also used a pālus as a wooden sword to practice fighting – and, imitating an enemy soldier, as a post in the ground to practice their fighting on. English derives impale, palisade, and pole from the root. Travail and travel –  appropriately enough, at least for the latter, so we’re hoping – are also related, but those origins are beyond the pale of this post.

Pale, as in pale skin, is not related, though my own complexion will soon lose much of its Southern California sunburn, thankfully, in its new climes.

Now, etymologists think Latin’s pālus is ultimately formed from the verb pangere, “to fix,” as one fixes a pale into the ground. Incredibly, this verb also yields peace, rooted in the sense of a pact fastening two parties together.

“Fastened together”: that, I think, aptly describes my wife and me as we venture into our new pales, so to speak, in a country whose rich linguistic traditions will certainly inspire many a Mashed Radish post ahead.

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