The long, etymological trek of “caravan”

A so-called caravan has arrived at the US border after trekking thousands of miles across Mexico from Central America. Now numbering in the hundreds, the people, including many women and children, are seeking asylum in the US from violence back home.

Caravan came to prominence earlier in April after Donald Trump tweeted an ominous reference to the group as it made its way to the border. The term has since spread in the media reporting on the migration news.

The asylum seekers have, indeed, come a long way in their efforts to find some safety—and so, too, has the word caravan travelled from afar.

A modern desert caravan (Pixabay)

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How a “bubble” becomes a “bill”

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 Medicaidand 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.

Seal attached to the Royal Letters Patent of Henry VI, 1442 (King’s College, Cambridge). Wax impressions of seals were attached by cords or parchment to authenticate documents, sometimes literally sealing them like modern envelope glue, King’s College explains.

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Etymology of the Day: Pester

Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? When we pester someone, we annoy them with repeated questions or requests. And anyone who’s driven children on a long road trip might reasonably assume pester is related to pest. But au contraire. Etymology can be such a pest. 

These pasterns are clearly not pestered. Image from

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“Orbit”: Of the earth, out of this world

John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, left Earth yesterday at the age of 95. In his honor, let’s gaze at orbit – a word whose origin turns out to be much more down to earth.

Leaving a mark

As part of Project Mercury, John Glenn orbited Earth three times aboard the Friendship 7 in 1962. But almost 600 years earlier, the word orbit wasn’t even a verb. It didn’t even refer to space, in fact.

When orbit entered English’s lexical orbit in the late 1300s, it named the “eye socket.” The word came from the French orbite, in turn from the Medieval Latin orbita, which named the same anatomical structure. This is why doctors use orbital to refer to the eye socket.

But the etymology of orbit gets yet earthier: The older meaning of orbita in Latin was a “track or rut made by a wheel in the ground.” This orbita, speaking of John Glenn, could also refer to leaving an “impression” or “mark.” How do we get from our eyes on the ground and in our heads to our eyes in the heavens?

Not rocket science. Just metaphor.

In orbiting the Earth, John Glenn truly left his mark. The original meaning of orbit in Latin was a “track made by a wheel in the ground.” Image by Vasant Dave, courtesy of

“Circular” logic?

Latin’s orbita traces back to another noun, orbis, which denoted many “circular” objects: rings, disks, spheres, globes. Periods and cycles also have a circularity, and orbis named them, too – as it did, even way back in its original Latin, the path a heavenly body took across the sky and, yes, the eye socket. (Heavenly bodies were thought to encircle Earth, and eye sockets are a spherical encasement of the eyeball.) The deeper root of orbis is unknown.

So, when English developed its astronomical sense of orbit in the mid-1600s, it borrowed the word orbit again, this time straight from Latin. There are some important differences, though. For most Ancient Romans, celestial orbis and orbita referred to the circuit of planets, moons, suns, and stars as they revolved around Earth, while the English orbit has come to name the elliptical path an astronomical body takes around a more massive one as the result of gravity.

Out of this world

The Oxford English Dictionary attests orbit as a verb in 1946, and the expressions in orbit and out of orbit about a century before. And “out of orbit” is what exorbitant literally means.

More precisely, exorbitant derives from the Latin exorbitāre, “to go off track,” joining ex- (“out of”) with that original, “track” sense of orbita. The Romans used exorbitāre in legal contexts, referring to some action that went beyond the scope of the law. English adopted this meaning, too, in the 1400s, but over the following centuries, exorbitant designated behaviors that deviated from the norm, hence “excessive.”

John Glenn definitely exceeded norms, but only in some of the most impressive, inspiring, and heroic ways the United States has ever witnessed. He was a veteran of World War II and the Korean War. He was a US Senator, representing Ohio. At aged 77, he was the oldest person to go into space. He was a loyal husband of 73 years. And he was humble, lifelong supporter of science, wonder, and curiosity.

Glenn’s orbit was, in so many ways, out of this world.

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“Soda”: An etymological “headache”?

This week, Philadelphia became the first major American city to tax soda and other sugar-added beverages. Supporters tout the levy as a remedy for health problems and school funding. Opponents see it as an illegal overreach of the nanny state and a real headache for the beverage industry. This split will surely play out in court – just as it might, quite literally, in the very etymology of the word soda.

Refreshing…or head-splitting? “Salsosa soda,” (c) 2006 Luigi Rignanese. 

Soda‘s fountain

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites soda in a 1558 translation of a French medical guide. The manual lists soda as an ingredient in an ointment for hair removal, noting that this soda was obtained from the ashes of grass and used by glassmakers. It also mentions a Venetian soda in a later passage on soap preparation.

Venetian soap and medicinal grass? (It’s no wonder Coke so closely guards its secret formula). Originally, soda was indeed obtained from the ashes of plants, specifically salt-rich marine flora like saltwort, featured above. The alkaline derivative, now largely produced artificially, has long been used in soap and glass.

Problem and solution? 

Now, most etymologists agree that soda comes from the Medieval Latin or Italian soda, but they dispute its deeper roots. The OED is conservative on the matter, leaving its origin unknown. Others philologists enjoy a bit more of a sugar high. Skeat and Weekly look to the Latin solidus, “solid,” characterizing the hard products yielded by saltwort plants. Italian eventually contracted this solidus into soda, they write.  Skeat goes on to trace the Spanish form of soda, sosa, back to the Latin sal, “salt,” relate to salsa and sausage.

The Barnhart Etymology Dictionary maintains soda ultimately derives from the Arabic, suwwad, the name for a kind of saltwort, which was exported from North Africa to Sicily in the Middle Ages. Suwwad, the dictionary notes, is related to sawad, “black,” referring to the color of a variety of the plant. The dictionary concludes Italian directly borrowed the word, as evidenced as early as the 1300s.

Other scholars, apparently chugging Mountain Dew, have proposed the Arabic suda, “headache.” Some even gloss the word as a “splitting headache,” derived from a verb meaning “to split.” The saltwort plant, as the theory goes, was used to cure such headaches. Latin borrowed the medicine and word as sodanum, a “headache remedy,” thence shortened  and spread as soda. It’s a fizzy etymology, but one that most scholars agree has gone flat.

Soda products

In the 18th and 19th centuries, chemists were, well, effervescent about soda. They injected the soda-derived sodium bicarbonate into water, calling it soda water by 1802. This was shortened to soda by 1834. Pop – named for the sound of the cork when the beverage was originally served and preferred in many dialects, including my own – is attested even earlier, in 1812. The OED dates soda-pop to 1863. Today’s soda features carbonic acid, among other additives; baking soda, however, preserves its chemical and linguistic connection to sodium bicarbonate.

In 1807, Humphry Davy isolated an element from caustic soda and so named it sodium. He used the symbol Na as a nod to natrium, a name proposed by his contemporary, Jacob  Berzelius. Berzelius was inspired by natron, a naturally occurring soda-solution whose name is related to the Greek nitro and may itself have deeper Middle Eastern roots.

In 1933, Eugene O’Neill debuted his comedy, Ah, Wilderness! In the play, a character asks,  “Ever drink anything besides sodas?” The OED cites this usage as the earliest record we have specifically for the modern “drink” or “glass of” soda. It’s a question that still has a sharp bite today. But the answer may not be what Philadelphia has in mind: “Beer and sloe-gin. Fizz and Manhattans.”

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What is the “hench” in “henchman”?

The 2016 presidential campaign yet again proves to be quite the horserace, if etymology has its say.

After an anti-Trump super PAC made use of a nude photo of Trump’s wife, Melania, in a political ad during last week’s Utah caucuses, Donald Trump threatened he would “spill the beans” on fellow Republican candidate Ted Cruz’s wife. As lexicographer Ben Zimmer recently explained, the expression spill the beans actually originates in U.S. horse-racing.

Then, the pro-Trump National Enquirer accused Cruz of extramarital affairs. Cruz responded by pinning the “garbage” allegations on “Donald Trump and his henchmen.”

Today, as we see Cruz imply, a henchman – or henchperson, as language writer Stan Carey has observeddoes his boss’s dirty work. But historically, a henchman may have gotten their hands dirty with a very different kind of business. See, the best we can tell, the hench in henchman is all about horses.

Should we call them “henches”?  Image from

From groom to goon 

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites henchman in 1360, when, taking the Medieval Latin form of hengestmannus, the word appeared in official financial records during Edward III’s reign. Then, a henchman named a kind of “squire” or “page” who attended on a royal or noble figure on foot – or, more important to the origin of the word, horseback – during a procession. (The two henchmen noted in the OED’s earliest accounts were apparently named “Mustard” and “Garlic.”)

Henchman, then, probably began an ordinary “groom” but later rose in rank, a social mobility that the words constable, marshal, and groom itself also enjoyed.

Henchman appears to join man to hengest, an Old English word that named a “horse,” “stallion,” or “gelding.” For the compound, philologist Walter Skeat identifies relatives in the Icelandic hestvörðr (“horse-ward) and Swedish hingstridare (“horse-rider”). Hengest  itself has widespread Germanic cognates, which some Indo-European scholars reconstruct in the Proto-Germanic *hangistaz, “best at springing,” rooted in a Proto-Indo-European base for “to spring.”

But right after 1200, hengest flees the written record except as an element in various proper names associated with Hengist, the alleged war-name of the Jutish conqueror of Kent in the 5th century. And, while Skeat cites Nordic kin, the OED notes no compound counterpart for henchman in other Germanic languages.

The origin of henchman does some raise questions, even if we have a good hunch about it.

In the late 14th-century, Henry IV, then the Earl of Derby, added henchmen (henksman and hensman in the historic documentation) to his retinue on an important expedition. English royalty thereafter variously enlisted henchmen for royal service until Queen Elizabeth abolished them in 1565. Henchman itself flees English after the 1650s until Sir Walter Scott (re)popularized the word.

Editing Edmund Burt’s 1754 Letters in the North of Scotland, Scott encountered hanchman, which Burt describes as a personal attendant “at the Haunch” of a Highland chief, a kind of  gillie. At that time, Scottish pronounced hanchman something like henchman, which spelling Scott used when he employed the word in his Lady of the Lake for a “follower.”

So, as the OED wonders, did Burt just coin hanchman or actually revive the obsolete term? As philologist Ernest Weekly offers, “There may be no real connection to the [Modern English] word.”

After Scott, henchman spread into politics. The OED cites it as a “stout political supporter” by 1839, noting it started showing the “unscrupulous” (if not outright “nefarious”) character Ted Cruz conveyed in American English by the end of the 19th century.

Does hench the henchman ultimately come from the, er, horse‘s mouth? Possibly, but it’s not crystal clear. Just like the outcome of the presidential race: Will all these spilled beans and henchmen open up a lane for another political term rooted in horse-racing, the dark horse candidate? John Kasich seems to be betting on it.

For more on horse-y etymologies, see my posts on horse and derby.

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Whales, antelopes, monsters, & pigs: a deep dive into the many names for the orca

This week, Sea World announced that it’s ending its controversial captive orca breeding programOrca, killer whale, blackfish: this inspiring cetacean has known many names in English. Let’s take a deep dive into their origins.


Popularly, the orca goes by the “killer whale,” which has been in use, often just as “killer” early on, since the 1720s. In spite of the ferocity that inspired the animal’s name, many, knowing the sea mammal as a highly intelligent, social, and matrilineal creature, have objected to the murderous moniker of killer whale, working to popularize its scientific name, orca, instead.

For marine biologists, the orca is the Orcinus orca, previously Delphinus orca or Orca gladiator, again suggesting the bellicose behaviors the creature’s names have historically highlighted. For this scientific usage of orca, we can thank the Father of Taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, who looked to Latin for his nomenclature system in the 18th century. (We can also thank Linnaeus for lemur and larva, whose spooky roots I explored this past Halloween.) In general, however, orca has been swimming English waters since at least the 1650s.

In Latin, orca refers to a “kind of whale.” My sources aren’t much more specific on what kind of whale, exactly, but, in the record, orca has named a variety of fierce and formidable cetaceans. Perhaps orca displayed a similar generality in Latin.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and philologist Ernest Klein take Latin’s orca back to the Greek ὄρυξ (oryx). As far as I can tell, this oryx named a “pickax” as well as a kind of North African “antelope,”  related to a verb for “to dig up.” English, too, has oryx, so naming a genus of antelopes whose horns are indeed very long, straight, and pickax-like.

While the OED doesn’t further elaborate on the semantics of Greek’s oryx, Klein comments that this oryx also denoted a kind of whale. Perhaps the orca’s dorsal fin was seen to to cut through the surface of the water like an pickax? Both sources, moreover, observe that Latin’s “whale” orca was influenced by another orca in the language, this one a kind of “vat” or “vessel.”

Does the orca’s dorsal fin resemble a pickax? Image from

Latin’s orca inspired Italian’s orca and French’s orque, which variously named large, whale-like, and often fabulous sea monsters. These three together, the OED comments, influenced English’s orc, an earlier name for orca. The dictionary dates it to the 16th-century, perhaps as early as the 1520s.

English has other orcs, however, though bearing no etymological relation to the whale. As a name for the vicious, ogre-like monsters, the English orc derives from the Italian orco, a “man-eating giant,” from the Latin Orcus, one of the language’s name for “Hell” or its gods. Old English also had an orc; this one meant “demon,” which in part inspired Tolkien when he popularized these creatures in his fantasies. The Old English orc appears to be unrelated to the Latin, though they resonate devilishly well. Our word ogre may also be derived from Latin’s Orcus.

There is still yet an earlier name for this largest of the dolphins and its kin: the grampus, which roams similar waters, date-wise, to orc. As is, grampus looks like a Latin word. It is, but we’ll have to keep swimming to find it. Through quite the series of sound changes in English and French before it, grampus ultimately derives from the Medieval Latin craspicis, literally a “great fish” or “fat fish,” as the OED glosses it; craspicis joins crassus, “thick” and piscis, “fat.”

Speaking of piscis, sound changes, and dolphins, the  origin of English porpoise can be hard to see clearly through the choppy, murky water of language evolution. For “dolphin,” later Latin had porcopiscis, “pig fish,” joining that same piscis with porcus, “pig.” The earlier word in English, though, was mereswine, or “sea pig.” Oh, what wondrous creatures there are in the ocean of language!

But lest I forget, there is one other name for the orca that I can’t neglect: blackfish, inspired, obviously, by the animal’s appearance. Hence, Blackfish, the powerful exposé of Sea World’s captive orcas, which, in no small part, helped inspire the pressure on Sea World to end its captive breeding program.

The orca may have many names, but I think we can all agree to call Sea World’s decision a very good one.

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Why is something “hermetically” sealed?

As the 2016 presidential campaign heats up, so do the attacks.

Campaigning for his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, days before the New Hampshire primaries, Bill Clinton characterized her opponent, Bernie Sanders, as so cut off from reality that it’s as if he’s living in a “hermetically sealed box.”

Talk about feeling the Bern.

Such a box is “airtight,” as we know. But why do we call such a seal a hermetic seal? It turns out the former president drew his fire – er, etymological fire– from alchemy.

A floor tile of Hermes Trismegistus from the Siena Cathedral in Italy. Image from Wikimedia Commons


Neoplatonists and other early mystics identified the Egyptian god, Thoth, with the Greek god, Hermes, and called him Hermes Trismegistus, a god of science and art. They also believed Hermes Trismegistus authored the esoteric Corpus Hermeticum, among other names. This was a body of writings on philosophical and theosophical topics, including such magical ones as bringing statues to life. His name means “Hermes Thrice-Great.”

The Corpus Hermeticum essentially founded Western alchemy, whose metal-melting distillations required completely sealing off glass tubes. The invention of this process – and its name – alchemists credited to Hermes Trismegistus, who knew the secrets of their occult art. In Medieval Latin, Hermes was rendered into an adjective hermeticus, yielding English’s hermetical and hermetic.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds records of various hermetic terminology in the 17th century. Both Hermes’ seal and hermetically are dated to English clergyman Thomas Tymme’s 1605 translation of 16th-century French physician Joseph du Chesne’s The Practice of Chymicall and Hermeticall Physicke.

For Hermes’ seal, Tymme writes: “Hermes seale…take the red hote tonges, and therewith wring or nippe the toppe close together; whereby it shall be closed as if it had no vent before.” Tymme uses the adverbial form in a different passage: “A smal cappe or cover, with his receiver, strongly and well luted, hermetically closed rounde about.” Such seals were usually achieved through soldering, welding, or fusion. “Hermetic seal” and “hermetically sealed” as such the OED dates later in the 1600s.

Tymme’s work, it’s worth noting, also provides the OED’s earliest evidence for the word chemistry. And alchemy, so much the precursor to modern chemistry, was once known as the hermetic science.

Now, the ultimate origin of the Greek Hermes is sealed off to us, so to speak. The god’s name, though, also lives on in another English words: hermaphrodite. In Greek mythology, Hermes and Aphrodite had a son, the handsome Hermaphroditos. The water nymph Salmacis fell so deeply in love with him, according to one version of the myth, that she wished the two joined into one. The gods granted her wish, hence this word variously applied to something or someone with both male and female parts.

Folk etymology erroneously connects the Hermes to hermeneutic, I’ll add while we’re on the topic. That word derives from the Greek for “interpreter.”

So, the phrase hermetically sealed looks to alchemy for its origin – so, too, I suspect, will some of the presidential candidates as they try to push on for the nomination after the New Hampshire results come in.

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Why do we “endorse” candidates?

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?

Did you make it payable to the Mashed Radish? “Endorse.” Doodle by me. 


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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Bringing home the “bacon”

Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) caused many to flinch about flitch when it declared bacon and other processed meats carcinogenic. The actual report, of course, is more complicated than just that – unlike the etymology of bacon, which is fairly straightforward, even if a bit backwards, shall we say.

"Bacon." Doodle by me.
“Bacon.” Doodle by me.


English has been enjoying bacon since the early 1300s, naming fresh and especially cured flesh from the backs and sides of pigs. In the US, a strip of bacon is typically meat from the belly, but the back cuts fried up in many other cultures’ kitchens gives us an important taste of the word’s roots.

Bacon comes into English from the Old French bacon, perhaps via the Medieval Latin bacō.  From here, historical linguists find cognates in other Germanic languages, stripping the word from the Proto-Germanic *bakon-, which is ultimately cognate with English’s own “back.”

Cut as it is from the pig, this back-y bacon has thus been associated more generally with the body, à la skin or hide, yielding expressions such as to save one’s bacon and to sell one’s bacon.

Now, bacon-maniacs might turn to some 17th-century bacon-wrapped insults to express their feelings on the WHO’s report: bacon-brainsbacon-fed, and baconslicer all once denigrated rustic simpletons, the Oxford English Dictionary records. The meat, so it goes, was once a key foodstuff for peasants.

And it is this very connection – that cured pork was really the only meat available to most families in the Middle Ages – that has led to one common origin story for the expression bring home the bacon. Rewards for marital devotion in 12th-century England, greased-pig contests, the luxury of pork in early colonial America? These are other explanations, but Michael Quinion, among others, notes that the first evidence of the expression comes in 1906 in reference to a famous boxing match.

Whatever the particular origins of bringing home the bacon, one thing’s for sure: for bacon-lovers, the WHO has issued some fighting words.

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