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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The cutthroat origin of “massacre”

Another day, another mass shooting in the US. The latest massacre—by the latest man wielding an assault weapon—claimed the lives of 26 worshippers at a church in a small town in Texas. Today, as we try to make sense of another needless tragedy, let’s make sense of the etymology of this grisly word, massacre.

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Orlando

Orlando: The name of this central Florida city, even as it mourns, now stands as a symbol of American resilience and resolve against hate and terror. And the origin of its name, if we look to its deeper etymology, only underscores its strength.

The City Beautiful, the city lore 

Orlando was first known as Jernigan, after Aaron Jernigan, a white man who settled in this Seminole territory in 1843. By 1857, the town changed its name to Orlando following the demise of its original namesake’s reputation.

In Orlando, Florida: A Brief History, James Clark relates several tales explaining why Orlando took this new name. Three are particularly popular.

First, it is said the town honors Orlando Reeves, who died in a fight against the Seminoles by Lake Eola, which sits near the city’s center. There is no record, though, of this legendary Reeves. There is, however, an Orlando Rees, who is subject of a second tale. Rees ran a sugar plantation outside the city but headed into modern-day Orlando after the Seminoles were said to have burned down his home. Lore likely folded these two tales together.

A third story looks to one of literature’s most famous Orlandos: Shakespeare’s As You Like It. (In this pastoral comedy, Orlando flees into the forest from his murderous brother, whose life he later saves, and wins his true love Rosalind’s hand in marriage.) According to this account, the area reminded early resident and Shakespeare admirer, Judge James Speer, of the magical French forest in the play.

“Famous” legends, literature, and lands 

We don’t know for certain how the city Orlando got its name, but we do know how the name Orlando did. According to the Oxford Dictionary of First Names, Orlando is the Italian form of Roland. This name reaches back to another figure of legend, literature, and lore: the Frankish hero and nephew of Charlemagne, Roland, celebrated for his bravery, if rashness, on the battlefield and loyal friendship to Oliver. He is remembered in the medieval epic poem, La Chanson de Roland, considered one of the earliest and founding works of French literature.

Another Roland is remembered in the tale of Childe Rowland, who ventured to the Dark Tower to rescue his sister. Shakespeare, Robert Browning, and Stephen king also famously riffed on the folk story to various lengths.

Roland is a Frankish name. Frankish was a West Germanic language once spoken by the Franks in their extensive territories in first-millennial Europe. The tribe lends its name to a surprising range of modern words, as previously discussed on this blog.

Further deriving from Old High German, the name Roland literally means “(having) a famous land.” It joins hrōd, “fame,” and land, “land” or “territory.” We’ve seen the Germanic hrōd in other names: Roger, “famous spear,” and Robert, “bright in fame.” It’s also in Roderick, “famous rule,” and Rudolph, “fame-wolf.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European roots suggests a Proto-Indo-European base of *kar-, “to praise loudly” or “extol.”

Whether named for an historic Orlando or Shakespeare’s Orlando, the name of the city remembers how it has survived past conflicts (complicated as some of those conflicts may have been). And the name will continue living up to its deeper roots in Roland – truly a “famous land” deserving of our extolment, especially its gay and Latin-American community, a living testament to the power of pride in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting ever witnessed on American soil.

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Remembering “victim”

As The New York Times reported in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting in the US:

Including the worst mass shooting of the year, which unfolded horrifically on Wednesday in San Bernardino, Calif., a total of 462 people have died and 1,314 have been wounded in such attacks this year, many of which occurred on streets or in public settings, the databases indicate.

“More than one a day,” the paper starkly observes.

As we search for the killers’ motives in an effort understand this ruinous pattern, we turn, too, to the victims – these 462 victims – taken from their families.

Does the origin of this word victim have anything to teach us?

Victim

First, a disclaimer. In the wake of so much senseless death and violence, the original meaning of victim in the English language can seem just simply cruel. I in know way intend to disrespect any victims or their families based on its historical definition. On the contrary, I feel that the history of the word only reminds us that 462 is not a statistic – it’s a tragedy, it’s an emergency.

The word victim originally referred to a very different kind of victim: an animal sacrifice. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites the word at the very end of the 1400s, when victim occurs in religious contexts and names a “living creature killed and offered as a sacrifice to some deity or supernatural power.”

Providing an important clue to the word’s development, the OED also cites Samuel Purchas’ 1613 Purchas his Pilgrimage, a sort of Anglo-Christian travelogue:

Of sacrificing there were from the beginning two kinds, the one called Gifts or oblations of things without life: the other Victims (so our Rhemists have taught us to English the word Victima) slaine sacrifices of birds and beasts.

In the late 1500s and early 1600s, the Rhemists – who were exiled English Catholics in Douai, France and who may have viewed themselves as victims, in the later sense of the word, of religious persecution – rendered a pro-Catholic and Latin-heavy translation of the Bible in the wake of the Reformation. This is known as the Douay-Reims Bible.

(As a lexical aside, Purchas’ verbal use of English strikes me as a wonderfully English-y move and quite apt for the passage.)

This victim derives directly from the Latin victima, which, like its Rhemist gloss, refers to an “animal sacrifice” and “sacrifice” more generally. The ultimate origin of victima is not so clear, but etymologists have attempted several connections.

Previously, I’ve assumed this victima was related to vincere, “to conquer,” whose participial form is victus (“conquered”). This verb gives the English language victorvictoryconvictconvince, and invincible, among others. I’m in good company: In his Fasti, Ovid (poetically) explains that victima is so named for the animal sacrifice killed by the right-hand of the victor (dextrā victrice, “with a victorious right-hand”). This stands in contrast to hostia, sacrifices slain by the hostile  enemy who has been conquered. Ovid’s etymology advances no further than the resemblance of the forms.

The likes of Barnhart and Klein have suggested victim may be cognate to the Gothic weihs, “holy,” and the Germanic weihen, “to consecrate,” even proposing possible Sanskrit kin. The American Heritage Dictionary points to a Proto-Indo-European *weik, “consecrated” or “holy,” noting it appears “[i]n words connected with magic and religious notions in Germanic (German Weihnacht(en), Christmas), and perhaps Latin.”

Further efforts even connect the root to English’s own witchwile, and guile, but where this Latin victima ultimately came from is indeed beguiling.

By the middle of the 1600s, victim begins referring to people – not sacrificed but put to death or tortured, the OED explains, with shades of oppression and injustice. Over the course of the 1700s, victim lessens in intensity, used also to refer to persons suffering more generally. Hence, the victim of a crime or disease.

A victim mentality?

In the context of the 462 victims lost this year (so far, we must sadly qualify), let’s hope the word victim never lessens in its intensity for us.

Etymology, obviously, doesn’t stop such violence. But language does matter, as we’ve seen in our public discourse. What constitutes terrorism? Who gets called a terrorist and who gets called a loner? What does it mean to refer to a long gun instead of an assault rifle? Why must the very name Syed set so many people off? What are the consequences of the phrase radical Islam?

So, today, when I look to the history of the word victim, I see victim as a tragic sacrifice made in vain to some nameless hate, to some evil, existential chaos – as well as to our own collective inaction. And while  Proto-Indo-European roots are speculative, perhaps at least even the faintest connection to “holy” can remind us of the sacredness of human lives. All 462 of them.

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From “numb” to “nimble”

In his remarks in the immediate aftermath of the massacre at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore. last week, President Obama commented on the epidemic of mass shootings in the US: “Somehow, this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We have become numb to this.” Numb – the word is very cautionary and, if we look to its etymology, perhaps instructive.

Numb

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites numb in English’s written record around 1400. Then, the word signified “deprived of physical sensation or of the power of movement, especially through extreme cold.” The OED cites figurative usages for numb – “emotionally deadened, unresponsive, or spent, as the result of grief, shock, fear, etc.” – by the late 1560s, though this was rare until the 19th century.

Numb is a past participle of a much older and once everyday verb in Old English, nim, and is first recorded in the form of nommeNim – or niman, if we consider its infinitive form in Old English – functioned like take, a Scandinavian-based verb that eventually supplanted nim by the 15th century (OED).  As philologist Walter Skeat explains it, numb originally conveyed “taken” or “seized,” which shifted to mean “overpowered,” and then extended to “deprived of sensation.”

But where did that come from? We don’t pronounce it. No one ever did. We did, however, pronounce the phoneme in a word related to numb: nimble. Here, this is called “excrescent,” describing a consonant added between two others. This happens usually to make pronunciation easier. (Try pronouncing nimble without the b. Does the articulation feel a bit more strained to you?) As a result of hypercorrection in English spelling, the b was added to other words ending in m. Crumb, dumb, thumb, and limb are other examples. Anatoly Liberman, the Oxford Etymologist, explains the phenomenon in greater depth on an excellent piece he wrote on English spelling.

Nimble

Now, nimble – attested in a variety of forms in Old English, including numel – joins nim and an instrumental suffix, -le. Nimble is a very old word in the language, first documented to mean “quick at grasping, understanding, or learning” and “quick to seize or take hold of one” (OED). With that suffix -le, the OED goes on, nimble means means “apt to nim.” By the 1400s, we have evidence of its more modern sense of “agile,” or “quick and light in movement.”

We should listen to numb’s etymological lesson and seek to be nimble – in mind and in action – instead.

Coming up, we’ll also take a look at the deeper roots of nim and some surprising words it  related to.

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