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?
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.
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.
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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.
A panel of jurors was originally a piece of paper on which the names of jurors were listed.
Last night, we learned Special Counsel Robert Mueller has impaneled a grand jury—which allows prosecutors to subpoena documents and ensures witnesses testify under oath—in his investigation into potential ties between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia.
In the wake of the news, legal and political experts have been fielding the questions: “What does this panel mean for Mueller’s investigation? What does it mean for Trump?” Word nerds like me, meanwhile, are addressing a different query: “What, exactly, is impanel, and where does the word panel come from?”
A legislative bill ultimately comes from the Latin bulla, “bubble,” later likened to round “seals” authenticating important documents.
After drafting it in secrecy, Republican senators released their healthcare bill to repeal Obamacare on Thursday, already being criticized for its steep cuts to Medicaid—and tax cuts for the wealthy. As we debate the bill, let’s take a closer look at the origin of this most legislative of words.
Scandal ultimately comes from the Greek for a “spring trap.”
With smoke continuing to billow from the White House over the Trump-Russia investigation, there’s something else in the air: the word scandal. What’s the etymological fire behind this word?
You’re on a train or at a cafe. A juicy bit of conversation catches your ear. You pretend to mind your book or your phone. Secretly, though, you go on eavesdropping. Does our auditory snooping actually have anything to do with the eaves of our houses? In fact, it has everything to do with them, etymologically speaking.
Sarah Palin made news this week with her endorsement of U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump. Her endorsement raised a number of questions, we could say. Not the least of which, most certainly, is the etymological one. Why’s it called endorse?
We endorse candidates because we endorse checks, essentially. Money indeed plays an obscene role in politics, but I’m just talking about the word’s history here.
By the late 1300s, endorse meant “to write on the back of something,” as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it, particularly a financial document like a bill or a check. When we endorse a check, we sign our names on the back of it. It’s an act of verification, of vouching. Hence the metaphorical endorsement, cited by the mid 1800s. In the early 1900s, the word further shifted towards a more general sense of “to declare approval” (OED).
Today, political figures, celebrities, organizations, and newspapers, especially, make endorsements of candidates. I wasn’t able to track down exactly when newspapers started doing so, but The New York Times first endorsed Abraham Lincoln in 1860:
A Mr. Lincoln, of Illinois, familiarly known as “Old Abe,” age 51, height six feet seven, by profession Rail-Splitter, is to be our next president. The thing seems pretty sure.
“Back” to its roots
Endorse was originally endosse in Middle English. The word was loaned from the French endosser and, ultimately, from that great lexical lender, Latin. Now, medieval Latin had indorsāre. Much like the early endorse, this verb was used for writing commentary on the back of legal documents – the Microsoft Word “Track Changes” of the day, I suppose. In the 1500s, English shaped endosse into indorse and endorse so the word conformed to its Latin roots. The latter form eventually prevailed.
Latin’s indorsāre bears two parts: in-, here signifying “on,” and dorsum, “back.” Some scholars have attempted to root Latin’s dorsum in an earlier form that fuses de- and versum, “turned away from,” but most don’t back this up.
Though the ultimate origin of dorsum remains unknown, it has its descendants. A dorsal fin is on the back of a dolphin, say. From French’s dos (French fashioned dorsum as dos), a dossier can amass quite a number of documents, whose bulge can resemble a back when so bundled, apparently. And when you dance the do-si-do, you maneuver “back-to-back,” such is the meaning of French’s dos-à-dos that originated this term – and the delicious Girl Scout cookie, which is something I think we can all endorse.
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County clerk Kim Davis went back to work yesterday after being released from jail over her refusal to issue same-sex marriage licenses in Rowan Co., Ky. Let’s have a closer look at her job description. Etymologically, that is.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first records clerk in the late 900s. Way back then, it took the forms of cleric and clerc, among other forms, and referred to “an ordained minister” in the Christian Church. During the Middle Ages, literacy was largely the domain of the clergy, whose very name is also related to clerk, as are cleric and clerical. These clerks often put their literacy to use for various secular purposes, helping with accounts, records, and other transactions that required their book learning.
So, by the 1200s, a clerk more generally came to describe “a person who could read and write.” Thus, Chaucer writes of the Clerk of Oxenford, a “scholar” from Oxford. Alas, his tale is not of a dictionary, but of marriage, fittingly enough. This sense of clerk remains in a law clerk, say, who helps a judge research an issue or write her opinions.
By the 1500s, with the further spread of literacy, clerk took off its collar. The term came to refer to “an officer in charge of the records, correspondence, and accounts” of an organization, as the OED observes. Such record-keeping is demanded of administrative or office work, which is why we might call it clerical work. Today, this term can take a pejorative tone, ironically enough for the rare and specialized ability that literacy historically was. Now that’s a clerical error, no?
This record-keeping sense of clerk also continues today in county clerk. A county clerk in the US is often in charge of the county’s vital records, such as birth and death certificates and marriage licenses, as we’ve seen (or not) in Kim Davis’s case.
Records, correspondence, accounts? The books? Shops have those, and so shops have clerks. The OED documents this clerk, a North American usage for a “shop-assistant,” by 1790. Today’s retail clerk can have a thankless job, if the hellish depiction of it in Kevin Smith’s indie film Clerks is any measure – once again ironic, given the history of the word.
“Lots” of Clerks
So, there have been a lot of clerks over the years. If we consider that language is constantly changing and the meanings of words evolve, this is the “lot” of clerk.
Whether borrowed directly or through French, all of the clerkly words we’ve seen thus far – clergy, clerk, cleric, and clerical, not to mention the name and surname Clark – derive from Late Latin’s clēricus, a “priest” or “clergyman.” The word is technically a substantive adjective, meaning “of or belonging to the clērus.” Clērus means, well, “clergy.”
This Latin term was used in early church writings, as was Ecclesiastical Greek before it, from which Latin took this clērus. Ecclesiastical Greek had κληρικός (klerikos), itself a term for the “clergy.” Literally, however, it meant “pertaining to an inheritance.” As Liddell and Scott explain, the root of this κληρικός (klerikos) is κλῆρος (kleros), a “lot,” as in “drawn by lots.” The term also was applied to “an allotment of land,” especially conquered foreign lands portioned out to citizens. English’s very own lot shares a similar sense development.
What could “inheritance” and “lot” possibly have to do with Christian ministry? We’ll pick it up next post.
I have a new post up on the OxfordWords blog, “Background checks: everyday words with legal origins.” From nude to innuendo, a great number of common words have a surprisingly legal record. Here’s my bit on mayhem:
Dating back to the 15th century, mayhem historically denoted a criminal offense. As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it, mayhem was ‘the infliction of physical injury on a person, so as to impair that person’s capacity for self-defence.’ In the late 1800s, American English expanded mayhem to ‘violent behaviour’ more generally, but it’s not until 1976 that the OED cites its modern usage for ‘chaos’ and ‘disorder.’ Mayhem emerged as a variant of maim, rooted in an Old French word for ‘to injure’ or ‘to cripple’ and which perhaps also supplied mangle. The ultimate origins of both mayhem and maim are unknown, but scholars have suggested roots in Indo-European verbs for ‘to cut’ and ‘to change’.