“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?”

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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.

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

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The root of “jungle”: It’s a desert out there?

Today in Georgia’s 6th congressional district, a closely watched “jungle primary” is taking place to fill the seat left by Republican Tom Price, who is now the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

In a jungle primary, a more colorful name for a blanket primary, all candidates seeking an office run against each other at once, as opposed to in separate primaries broken out by political party. The top two voters getters, regardless of party, then face off in a runoff election, except in some places like Georgia, where a candidate who gets a majority of votes wins outright.

While Washington state introduced blanket primaries in the 1930s, the phrase jungle primary emerges in the 1980s. The idea is that such a primary is like a cutthroat free-for-all, that “It’s a jungle out here.” But what about the word jungle itself? Where we do get this word from?

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Jungle, a fitting word for politics and etymology. (Pixabay)

Continue reading “The root of “jungle”: It’s a desert out there?”

Etymology of the Day: Skosh

“Some more coffee?”
“Just a skosh more, please.”

“These brownies are so delicious!”
“I add a skosh of cayenne pepper to the batter.”

Skosh is a fun and informal term for a small amount or a little, but its origins are mighty surprising.

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Just a skosh. Image from pixabay.com
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Continue reading “Etymology of the Day: Skosh”

Potato, batata

You say potato, etymologists say batata. It’s National Potato Day in Ireland, so let’s dig up the roots of the beloved spud.

Potato

English cultivates its potato from the Spanish patata, a variant form of batata. But the batata is actually the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), completely unrelated to what we commonly refer to as the potato.

That’s a lot of potatoes.

Christopher Columbus is credited with bringing batata to Spain – and into the Spanish language – at the end of the 15th century. The crop and word thereafter spread throughout Europe and, thanks to Portuguese traders, to many parts of Africa and Asia.

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Batatas, or sweet potatoes. Image by Troy Stoi courtesy of www.freeimages.com.

The word batata comes from an indigenous Central American language, perhaps from Haitian Taíno, the language of the self-same people who inhabited much of the pre-Columbian Caribbean and Florida. Taíno also gives English the word hurricane, a word much on the minds of many along the Southeast coast today.

In English, the earliest record of potato comes from English naval commander and notorious slave-trader John Hawkins in his 1565 travel writings: “These potatoes be the most delicate rootes that may be eaten, and doe far exceede our passeneps or carets.” Batata, meanwhile, is attested in translation by the 1570s, noted as a “victaill of muche substaunce.”

Then, in the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors brought back what we now familiarly refer to as the potato (Solanum tuberosum) from the Peruvian Andes, where it was known as papa. Papa is a word for “potato” in Quechuan, a language also ultimately responsible for the words jerky, guanine, and Coke.

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Potatoes share an etymological root with batatas, but not a botanical one. Unlike batatas, potatoes are technically stem, not root, vegetables. Image by Nadia Arai courtesy of www.freeimages.com

This plant especially proliferated in England, Ireland, and the US. In 1597, English botanist John Gerard discussed “Virginia potatoes,” thanks to the vegetable’s erroneous associations with Sir Walter Raleigh, who, according to tradition, first planted the tuber in Ireland. Sir Francis Drake and that same John Hawkins also compete for this title; the actual, direct source is unclear .

In the early record, it can be hard to tell whether writers are referring to the batata or the potato. But potato took over as the generic term for such tubers by the early 1700s, with the distinguishing sweet potato emerging by the mid-1700s.

Potato or batata, the English language definitely didn’t call the whole thing off.

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If you’re a language lover, you should be obsessed with “Pokémon”

Days after its release, Nintendo’s Pokémon Go, a free mobile augmented reality app, has become nothing short of a worldwide phenomenon. The game maps its cute, battling Pokémon characters onto the real world, which is already causing a host of real-world disruptions. But gamers, technophiles, and Pokémon fanatics aren’t the only ones who should be obsessed with the hit game: word nerds should love it, too. Well, at least the rich linguistics behind the name Pokémon. 

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Screen capture from the Pokémon Go US website. 

Gotta catch ’em all: the rich Japanese linguistics of Pokémon 

Inspired by a love of bug-catching and Game Boy, Satoshi Tajiri launched Pokémon in Japan in 1995. He originally called it Poketto Monsutaa, or “Pocket Monsters,” referring to the capsule-like balls the game’s trainers use to catch its many creatures, known as Pokémon. (Pokémon is the singular and plural form of the word. Their names often feature some creative etymologies all their own.) Apparently, a competing media franchise, Monsters in My Pocket, forced Poketto Monsutaa into its now-familiar portmanteau, Pokémon, which blends the first elements of the words in accordance with Japanese phonology.

But Poketto Monsutaa isn’t just a Japanese “attempt” at English, or Engrish, as some deride it. Many consider this Pocket Monsters an instance of wasei-eigo, literally “made-in-Japan English.” This special and complex class of words resemble loanwords in that they draw on foreign words, but Japanese speakers re-fashion this source material for whole new purposes. A classic example now familiar in English is salaryman, or sarariman, a white-collar worker whose income is based on a salary. Other examples include baby car (bebika), a “stroller”; skinship (sukinshippu), “affectionate physical contact”; and in-key (in ki), a useful and economical term for “locking one’s key in one’s car.” There are many hundreds more, each filtered through katakana, the syllabary Japanese uses for foreign, technical, and scientific words as well as for emphasis and naming.

Wasei-eigo emerges in part after the rush of English into Japan following the Meiji period in the latter half of the 19th century. Today, many in advertising, marketing, business, and media use wasei-eigo to present a modern, Western sensibility popular among some consumers, as Pokémon appears to have done. And while many of these coinages have proven their staying power – indeed, English has “borrowed back” both salaryman and Pokémonwasei-eigo continues to be a site for linguistic innovation and experimentation.

Pokémon Go, meanwhile, is proving its own site for technological innovation and experimentation. And a wildly popular one, too. So much so that Pokémon’s original “Pocket Monsters” may soon no longer refer to the game’s creatures – but to our smartphones.

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Gushing like a “geyser”: modern loan, old faithful

“An intermittent hot spring, throwing up water, etc. in a fountain-like column.” No, this isn’t a description of how a lot of Brits are feeling, still queasy from Brexit, after their team’s knockout loss to Iceland in the Euro football tournament last night. It’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the word geyser, one of the few modern words English borrowed from Icelandic.

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Gushing with tears or cheers? Depends on who you were rooting for. “The erupting Great Geysir.” (c) 2000 by Dieter Schweizer.  

Geyser

“Modern” is key to the history of geyser. From the late 700s to the early 1000s, the Vikings, whose Old Norse tongue was ultimately parent to the Icelandic language, invaded the British Isles – and their native tongues, leaving its mark in everyday words like sky, egg, knife, and they. But geyser is a much more recent loanword.

In 1763, Britain’s long-running Annual Register included this account: “Geyser, a wonderful spring in the valley of Haukedal, is but a few miles from Skaalholt.” The entry goes on to describe the “terrible noise, like the discharge of small arms” of the “surprising phenomenon” which “happens once a day.” It credits its description to a Mr. Olav, who encountered it in 1746.

This geyser is Geysir, the proper name of a particular geyser, the country’s own Old Faithful, in the Haukadalur valley in southwest Iceland. English generalized the term for this geological feature by 1780. Come the 1850s, English was using geyser for figurative gushes.

And “gush” is key to the etymology of Geysir. The name literally means “The Gusher,” related to the Icelandic geysa and Old Norse gøysa, “to gush.” (Old Icelandic had gjós-æðr, a “gush vein,” or “artery.”) English’s gush is cognate, as is gust, gut, font, funnel, various iterations of the Latin root in infuse, and, incredibly, futile. The Indo-European root is *gheu-, “to pour.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots notes that some scholars think this “pour” was in reference to libations, which could make it the long-troubling source of the word god.

In today’s Icelandic, a geyser is a goshver, which looks like gusher. But as far as I can tell, this word actually joins gos (“eruption”; an eldgos is a “volcanic eruption,” or “fire eruption”) and hver, a term for a “hot spring” that originally meant “kettle” or “cauldron.”

In a land of so much geothermal activity, there are subtle but important distinctions between different types of geysers based on temperature. According to Richard S. William’s Icelandic-English Glossary of Selected Geoscience Terms, hverir are hot springs over 70ºC, laugar are warm springs between 30-70ºC, and volgrur are lukewarm springs under 30ºC.

Today though, Iceland should forget such distinctions and celebrate their historic performance in the UEFA Euro 2016 with the full force of their country’s own Great Geysir.

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Cleveland Cavaliers: a bunch of “hacks”?

On the court, the Cleveland Cavaliers are champions, bringing the first major sports title to the Ohio city in 52 years with their 93-89 victory over the Golden State Warriors in an exciting Game 7 of the NBA finals. But in the etymology books, the Cleveland Cavaliers are, well, “hacks.”

Cavalier

English first borrowed cavalier from the Spanish cavaliero, among other forms, which named a “horseman,” especially a “knight.” The word is first attested around 1470. Over the next few centuries, English rendered the word according to its French form, cavalier. The French and Spanish are a short trot away from the earlier Italian, cavaliere, from the Late Latin caballarius, a “horseman” or “rider.”

The Latin root is caballus, essentially a street word for “horse” that eventually supplanted the classical equus. This explains the words for “horse” in Latin’s daughter languages, e.g., the Spanish caballo. Early records describe a caballus as a “work horse” or “pack horse,” hence “nag,” “jade,” or “hack.” Growing out of figurative senses of “worn out,” jaded and hackneyed also derive from the latter two terms. Cavalry, cavalcade, chivalry, and chevalier are also in caballuss stable, so to speak.

Scholars agree that Latin’s caballus is a loan word. Pointing to an Old Slavic cognate, kobyla, some think it comes from a Balkan source for a “gelding.” Focusing on its many Celtic cognates, others posit a Gaulish root. Ultimately, caballus is one etymology that won’t break.

By the end of the 1500s, cavalier specifically referred to a “gentleman trained at arms,” as the Oxford English Dictionary documents. By the 1640s, Cavalier nicknamed the swaggering gallants who fought for Charles I in his war against their epithetical counterparts, the Parliamentary Roundheads. Their swash-buckling was associated with recklessness, hence cavaliers attributive use for “careless” by 1657, associated with a “haughty” and “disdainful” attitude a century later.

Now, the Cleveland Cavaliers took their name in 1970, when the city’s Plain Dealer held a contest to christen the new NBA expansion team. Jerry Tomko submitted the winning name, explaining that cavaliers “represent a group of daring, fearless men, whose life’s pact was never surrender, no matter what the odds.” Tomko’s description is apt for the 2015-16 NBA champions, who’ve proven – to their fans and their city – that they are definitely not tired, old horses.

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Four-leaf etymologies: slew

A good etymology is like finding a four-leaf clover. So often, we stroll through words as if through a field of common trefoil. But sometimes, for reasons I don’t think any of us wholly understand, we chance upon something special hidden in the otherwise ordinary green.

This happened to me for the word slew.

I think my readers are mostly familiar with my writing process here. I listen out for words trending in the ether and see what their etymologies can illuminate about them. Often, they are words in the news. Other times, they follow the rhythm of the calendar – like today, St. Patrick’s Day.

The holiday is a natural occasion to write about some words of Irish origin. Words like leprechaun and shamrock first jump out, of course, but I feel like these words are like hunting for a four-leaf clover. We just never find one when our search is deliberate.

So, I continue through the clover field and stumble upon a word like phony, whose surprisingly Irish etymology I recently plucked. Or boycott, which has Irish roots, too, though in a different manner, as I also discussed not long ago. There are many others: slogan and galore are particularly excellent specimens.

But this time, slew, as in a whole slew of clovers, was my lucky find.

Slew

Slew is so plain and everyday a word to be invisible, taken-for-granted. At first blush, it’s just any old shamrock. But, on closer look, it’s really lovely.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates this unassuming word back to 1839, citing a bit of dialogue in Daniel Thompson’s Green Mountain Boys: “‘And what is still more, he has cut out a road, and drawn up a whole slew of cannon clean to the top of Mount Defiance, which he will have all mounted, and ready to pour hell and thunder down on ‘em in the fort before they dream of it.’”

Slew is a surprisingly recent addition to English, if the OED’s record is any measure. The word derives from the Irish sluagh, which I find in modern Irish as slua, referring to a large group of people: a “crowd” or “multitude.” In Old Irish, the word was slúag or slóg, “army” or “host.” We easily can see how a group of soldiers was extended to a general group of people.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots reconstructs a Proto-Indo-European ancestor for slew: *sloug-, a Celtic and Balto-Slavic root for “help” or “service.”

I imagine a young clansman, perhaps ambling along a clover-covered hillside, when an enemy tribe comes across him. Perhaps he calls out for help, and group of his fellow clansmen come to his aid – much like bellowing a sluagh-ghairm, literally a “war-cry” in Irish. Do you recognize that sluagh? It’s the very same sluagh that gives us slew, appearing in this sluagh-ghairm which English eventually rendered as slogan. Irish and Scottish clans once cried out these sluagh-ghairm as calls to battle.

The OED notes slew starts out in colloquial U.S. English. The character speaking in Thompson’s passage cited above indeed has something a colloquial register, as suggested by “‘em” – and perhaps by the very expression “whole slew.” English at some point borrowed the word from the Irish during the 19th century. And while English has a whole slew of words to express the concept of slew, this Irish borrowing found its special, little plot and sprouted – with four leaves in my lexical opinion – in the great clover field of words in the English language.

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