Lava: the watery roots of a fiery word

On Hawaii’s Big Island, the Kilauea volcano has been erupting for weeks, its lava consuming whole cars, roads, and homes as it generates deadly vog and laze and heaves lava bombs. More alarms were raised this week as the lava’s molten march risked explosions at a geothermal power station.

But for such a fiery phenomenon, the origin of the word lava is, perhaps ironically, in the wash.

volcano-1784658_1920.jpg
Laundry day? (Pixabay)

Continue reading “Lava: the watery roots of a fiery word”

Advertisements

Trimming back the etymological “mustache”

All eyes on John Bolton…’s mustache.

The former US ambassador to the UN is now Donald Trump’s third National Security Advisor. Political observers are quick to comment on Bolton’s hawkish foreign policy—and quip on his bristly whiskers.

800px-john_r_bolton_at_cpac_2017_by_michael_vadon
A hawk with a mustache. (Wikimedia Commons)

Continue reading “Trimming back the etymological “mustache””

If it weren’t for trade, there’d be no “tariff”

The word tariff goes all the way back to Arabic.

Economists, businesspersons, and politicians of all stripes are pushing back against Donald Trump’s plan to impose stiff, new aluminum and steel tariffs, or “taxes imposed on imported goods,” in an effort to lower the trade deficit. They are concerned the shortsighted policy will increase costs on US consumers and hurt the economies of close trading parts, like Canada and Germany, triggering a trade war.

If it weren’t for trade, however, we’d have a massive deficit in our vocabularyincluding tariff. Let’s have a look at the etymology of this economic word of the moment.

school-683556_1920.jpg
In the 16th century, a tariff could refer to mathematical tables not unlike those we once had to use to calculate logarithms. (Pixabay)

Continue reading “If it weren’t for trade, there’d be no “tariff””

Dirty, rotten “sepia”

A mix of Hurricane Ophelia and Saharan dust storms turned the sun an ominous red over much of the UK earlier this week. It also caused the sky to look an eerie yellow or, as many commented, sepia. And this fancy color word, as it turns out, has a very cuttle-y, and very un-cuddly, origin. 

800px-kalamar
A somewhat sepia-colored sepia. (Wikimedia Commons)

Continue reading “Dirty, rotten “sepia””

What is so “rupt” about “bankrupt”?

Toys “R” Us, the world’s largest toy store chain, filed for bankruptcy protections today. Debt and online shopping aren’t great for playtime, it turns out—but etymology certainly is. This post, let’s have a quick look at the origins of bankrupt.

money-2696236_1920.jpg
“Bankrupt”: literally breaking the bank. (Pixabay)

Bankrupt: trading in metaphors

Borrowed into English from French, bankrupt comes from the Italian phrase banca rotta, or banco rotto in the masculine, literally a “broken bench.”

The bench here refers to a market stall where merchants would count and exchange money, and it’s said that, once upon a time, people would break up their stalls if they had become insolvent. The Italian phrase itself, though, may have actually just started out as a figurative expression.

The Italian banco goes back to a Germanic root, with some basic meaning of “table,” that also gives English the word bench and is connected to the geological bank in, say, sandbank. First used as a table for counting and exchanging money, bank was metaphorically extended to the financial institutions we call banks today.

Rotto, meanwhile, goes back to the Latin rumpere, “to break” or “burst.” The Latin verb’s past participial form is ruptus, which we can see in other derivatives like abrupt, corrupt, interrupt, erupt, and rupture. This form also helps explains English spelling of bankrupt, as well as its French intermediary, bancque roupte.

As for when bankrupt entered the language, the Oxford English Dictionary finds a bankrupt (insolvent person) in 1533, to bankrupt in 1552, and bankrupt as an adjective in 1565. Various figurative extensions of bankrupt (e.g., a person bankrupt of honor) are found shortly thereafter. Bankruptcy emerges just a little later in the 1630s—or some nearly 400 years if you’re Toys “R” Us.

m ∫ r ∫
Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Irma: a storm, and etymology, of terrifying size and power

Floridians are bracing for Irma, one of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean and which has already left extensive destruction in its Caribbean wake—and the origin of the storm’s moniker is all too cruelly appropriate for its wrath and path. 

Screen Shot 2017-09-08 at 9.48.58 AM.png
Hurricane Irma superimposed over the state of Ohio. Screenshot from @jdrudd.

Irma’s sound and fury

According to Oxford’s Dictionary of First Names, the name Irma is a pet form of various names of Germanic origin beginning with the element ermen, meaning “whole, entire, universal.” That’s too apt, as meteorologists are helping us grasp the terrifying size of this monster storm by showing Irma is larger than the whole of the state of Ohio.

Another familiar ermen-based is Emma. Emma was brought to the English-speaking world by Emma of Normandy (985–1052), who gave birth to Edward the Confessor in her marriage to Æthelred the Unready. 

Less immediately familiar is Emmerich, a Germanic name often explained as literally meaning “universal power,” joining to ermen the root rich, “ruler.” This root, via various Germanic and Italic paths, is related to a host of English words, including right, realm, regal, and yes, the very words rich and ruler.

In Medieval Italian, the name Emmerich apparently became Amerigo, famously borne by the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1454–1512). Vespucci demonstrated that the New World—in that old European orientation—was not Asia but its own landmass. A Latinized version of his name gives us America, remembered in both the northern and southern continents and, of course, the U. S. of A.

With a storm like Irma, its seems the whole world is reaching out—whether with thoughts or aid—to everyone affected in the Americas by her winds and waters.

m ∫ r ∫

It’s time for another Friday etymological news roundup

We had a lot of interesting words in the news this week (some more polite than others). Here’s a news review with—what else?—an etymological twist. 

fig-2079166_1920.jpg
Anthony Scaramucci spewed quite the obscenities this week…including the word sycophant? (Pixabay)

Continue reading “It’s time for another Friday etymological news roundup”

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?

foggy-545838_1920.jpg
Under the cover of…mooch? (Pixabay)

Continue reading “The sneaky, slinking roots of “mooch””

Let the prisoner “talk”: the origin of “parole”

Parole comes from the French for “word” or “speech.” 

After nine years in prison, OJ Simpson was granted parole on Thursday, releasing him early from his 33-year sentence for armed robbery. Parole comes with a strict set of terms, conditions, and supervision, of course, but it’s grounded, essentially, in the prisoner’s word of honor that they will uphold the law upon release. Word of honor—this is precisely where the term parole comes from.

800px-trumpeter_taken_prisoner2
Parole, etymologically, is like a fable and, historically, dealt with prisoners of war. Walter Crane’s 1887 illustration of Aesop’s The Trumpeter Taken Prisoner. (Wikimedia Commons)

Continue reading “Let the prisoner “talk”: the origin of “parole””

What’s at “stake” in “attack”

A doublet of the word attach, attack ultimately comes from a Germanic root meaning “stake.” 

London has again faced another terrorist attack, this time from a Welsh man who plowed his van into a group of Muslim people near a mosque in Finsbury Park. As the word attack has become, alas, an all-too familiar one—excepting its application to white extremists—let’s see what me might learn from its etymology.

dunes-989800_1920.jpg
The high and low “stakes” of “attack” (Pixabay).

Continue reading “What’s at “stake” in “attack””