Taking an etymological “census”

The Trump administration has added a controversial citizenship question to the 2020 US census. Opponents have quickly criticized and sued over the move, arguing it will deter immigrants from responding, not only resulting in an accurate count of the population but also violating the very US constitution.

Let’s survey the origin of census.

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A taking of the Roman census, 2nd century BCE (Novaroma/Louvre). Back then, you came to the census-taker, they didn’t come knocking on your door (or now, email).

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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.

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A hawk with a mustache. (Wikimedia Commons)

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What’s up with that “-er” in “ouster”?

The big news of the day is that Donald Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—and all the headlines are describing his ouster or running some language of him being ousted. Where do this journalistic go-to term for “dismissal” come from?

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So many ousters, so little time. (Screenshot by me.)

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We can “retaliate,” but can we “taliate”?

Yesterday, Trump signed off on his new steel and aluminum tariffs, carving out exemptions for Canada and Mexico. But other trading partners, especially in Europe, are still threatening retaliation, a trade-warring word—and focus of today’s etymology.

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The Code of Hammurabi, the original retaliation (Wikimedia Commons)

The legal talons of talio

English first exacts retaliation in the 16th century, when it variously referred to a “requital” or “repayment.”

Today, such reprisals are always vengeful, returning an injury or insult, like for like. But the very earliest instances of retaliation in the mid-1500s were positive, naming the repayment of a service, favor, or kindness. This may be due to confusion with retail.

The verb retaliate appears in the record by the early 1600s.

But there’s no benign retaliation in retaliation’s root: the Latin retaliare, essentially meaning “to retaliate” in the modern English sense of the word. The verb, apparently, features re-, a reciprocal “back” that doubles down on its base, talio, a legal term for “punishment similar and equal to the injury sustained”—or, an eye for eye, as ancient Hebrew law formulated this principle of retaliatory justice found yet earlier in Babylonian codes.

The Romans called it lex talionis, or “law of retaliation.” English borrowed the term as talion in the early 1400s.

The deeper origins of Latin’s talio aren’t exactly clear, but the word seems to be a form of talis, “such, “such like,” “of such kind.” English, as far as the record shows, never had a taliate, but if it did, it would mean, well, “retaliate.” The prefix re- in retaliate seems to simply intensify the sense.

Other etymologists have proposed other roots, though, with Eric Partridge suggesting Celtic cognates meaning “pay” (e.g., Old Irish, tale) and Walter Skeat pointing to the Sanskrit (tul, “lift,” and tula, “balance, equality”). 

Tallying a taliate

English does have an obscure verb talliate, “to tax” or, more properly, “to impose tallage.” Tallage was a kind of tax levied in feudal Norman times, a word whose ultimate Latin root, taliare, provides detail, entail, tailor, tally, and, yes, retail.

Taliare means “to cut,” extended to “allot,” from talea, a “staff,” “rod,” or “stick,” like a twig cut off from a larger branch. If English did have a taliate, we might expect it to mean “to cut (off).”

While we may have no taliate, the similar-looking talliate, if etymologically unrelated, does obtain, as threats of retaliation for Trump’s tariffs promise to talliate US exports abroad. 

m ∫ r ∫

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Why do we say “second” and not “twoth”?

Thanks in large part to the impassioned activism of the #NeverAgain movement, the news hasn’t moved on from the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, as it has too often in recent massacres in the US. The pressure is staying on gun control, keeping the Second Amendment to the US Constitution in the hot seat.

The Second Amendment is also in this post’s etymological hot seat. I’m not debating its constitutional interpretation, though. I’m debating why we say second and not twoth.   

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The second hand is really the third hand on a clock, which has no first hand. (Pixabay

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The etymological “plea” of “please”

One of the most moving responses to Parkland, Florida, site of just latest mass school shooting in the US, has been a single word: please.

David Hogg, 17-year-old survivor of the massacre at his high school, has emerged as a forceful voice of a burgeoning youth movement for gun reform. Speaking to CNN, Hogg exhorted: “Please! We are children. You guys are, like, the adults. Take action, work together, come over your politics, and get something done.”

Lori Alhadeff lost her 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, to the gunmen. Before CNN’s cameras, her unimaginable grief boiled into a stirring admonition: “President Trump, please do something! Do something. Action! We need it now! These kids need safety now!”

These are powerful pleas of please—and two words joined together by a common root.

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A please resounding like a gavel to order. Plea originates as a term for a “lawsuit,” a form of the same Latin verb that gives us please. (Pixabay)

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Etymology, with an “eagle” eye

Maybe in some parallel universe it wasn’t the Philadelphia Eagles who won Super Bowl LII. No, not the New England Patriots but the Philadelphia Ernes. For erne was the usual word for “eagle” in Old English, and in my hypothetical Twilight Zone, French and Latin didn’t sack Anglo-Saxon like so many blitzing linebackers.

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Etymologically, the Philadelphia Eagles main team color isn’t midnight green. It’s “dark brown” or “black.” (Pixabay)

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Yes, the “dress” in “address” is what you think it is.

President Trump delivers his first State of the Union address tonight. Let’s briefly address the etymology of this term for a “formal speech.”

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Still waiting for a State of the Union where the speaker is wearing a dress…or whatever the hell she damn well pleases. (Pixabay)

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An etymological slice of “pie”

It’s National Pie Day, according to the internet powers that be. Well, we have to treat ourselves to just a little etymological slice of pie, don’t we?

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Mmm…pie. (Pixabay)

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An etymological stroke of “genius”

Over the weekend, President Trump took to Twitter to defend his sanity and intelligence:

Meeting with alarm and mockery alike, his unusual phrase “very stable genius” went viral. This sense of genius—an exceptionally intelligent or talented person—dates back to the 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Drawing on the earlier work of Francis Galton, American psychologist Lewis Terman classified a score above 140 as near genius or genius on his 1916 Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test, historical basis of modern IQ scales. These now use language like very superior or extremely high for scores at or above 130, as genius is tricky to define scientifically. Etymologically, however, it’s a different story.

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