After Ivanka Trump told CBS that “I don’t know what it means to be complicit,” Merriam-Webster helped her out with its definition: “Helping to commit a crime or do wrong in some way.” The dictionary, whose lexicographical sick burns have been lighting up Twitter, observed that complicit also trended back in March, used by Saturday Night Live as the name of a perfume in parody of the president’s daughter.
In its look at complicit,Merriam-Webster noted that the word, which it first attests in 1856, is likely a back-formation of complicity, notoriously defined in the late 17th-century as “a consenting or partnership in evil.” But what are the deeper roots of complicity? Let’s unfold them.
In his presser yesterday, Trump claimed: “To be honest, I inherited a mess. It’s a mess. At home, and abroad — a mess.” Clearly, he was describing his own news conference, which was a hot one, because the facts just don’t back him up. But Trump does raise an interesting etymological question: Where do we inherit the word mess from?
On the table
English first serves up mess around 1300. Back then, it named “food for one meal.” The word comes into English from the Old French mes (Modern French mets) and, before it, the Latin missus,a “portion of food” or “a course at dinner.” Thisetymological idea of “a serving” explains why we use mess as a general term for some loose “quantity,” particularly food, e.g., a mess of greens.
In Latin, missus literally means something “placed” or “put” – here, food on the table. The root verb is mittere, which shifted from “send” in Classical Latin to “place or put” in the language’s later years. Mittere has also delivered bundles of English words, from massand mission to commit and promise.
Getting into a “mess”
Over the centuries, mess lost its Michelin stars, so to speak. By the 1400s, mess referred to goopy foods like porridge, hence the biblical idiom mess of pottage.(Today, we might recognize such a mess as the pasty gruel often plated up to ravenous children in the hellish summer camps of TV and movies.) This sense lead to a kind of “mixed, liquid slop fed to animals” in the 1700s. Alexander Pope, as an early instance, mocks metaphorical hogs chowing down on mess in his 1738 “Epilogue to the Satires.”
And it’s from this notion of a nasty, mushy mixture that we get the modern mess: the senses of “jumble,” “confusion,” and “untidiness” emerge in the written record around the 1810s. Offshoots like mess up, make a mess of, and messy appear by the 1830-40s. Tomess around, playfully or idly, is attested by the 1850s. Sexually? We’ve been messing around since at least the 1890s.
The food sense of mess, though, kept cooking. In the 1400s, mess also referred to “a company of people who took their meal together,” especially military personnel in groups of four. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare mentions “a mess of Russians,” referring not to all the controversies surrounding the Trump administration, but to the four noble lovers in disguise.
From “dining companion,” mess later extended to the food and building where soldiers ate, thus compounds like mess bag, mess cook, messmate, messhall, and hot mess.
Not-so-hot, new slang
Yes, a hot mess was a originally a warm meal, especially a soft, porridge-like mixture (as we previously saw) ladled out in mess halls. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a figurative use of in a hot mess, or “in a challenging situation,” in the 1860s. And the modern slang hot mess, “someone or something in extreme confusion or disorder,” has first been found from one P.J. Conlon in an 1899 Monthly Journal International Association Machinists: “Verily, I say unto you, the public is a hot mess.” Nowadays, hot serves to intensify the sense of messiness.
Merriam-Webster Associate Editor Emily Brewster has more on the history of hot mess – ever the apt phrase in our political moment, no matter what Trump wants to tell us, or himself – in her terrific video.
For the third consecutive year, the Scripps National Spelling Bee crowned co-champions. This year, Jairam Jagadeesh Hathwar correctly spelled Feldenkrais, sharing thetop orthographical prize with Nihar Saireddy Janga, who spelled Gesellschaft. Where do these words come from – and what do they mean, anyways?
Feldenkrais is a trademarked name “for a system of aided body movements intended to increase bodily awareness and ease tension,” as Merriam-Webster, the official dictionary of the bee, explains it. This form of somatic education takes its name from Moshé Pinchas Feldenkrais, an Israeli scientist born in what is now the Ukraine, who designed and founded the Feldenkrais Method.
First theorized by German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies, Gesellschaft is “a rationally developed mechanistic type of social relationship characterized by impersonally contracted associations between persons,” according to Merriam-Webster. Gesellschaft characterizes the more modern, impersonal, and institutional relationships of modern society, compared to the more personal, traditional, and rural ones of Gemeinschaft.
Literally translated as “companionship” but used in the sense of “society,” Gesellschaft joins the German geselle, a “companion,” “associate,” or “fellow (guildsman),” with the noun-forming suffix –schaft, related to English’s own -ship, as in, well, companionship. The suffix, at root, means “state” or “condition,” ultimately cognate to the word shape.
To ace the shape of these words, Hathwar and Janga no doubt mastered the orthographical equivalent of Feldenkrais.
Kephart’s attention-seeking usage of feisty anticipates “fussy” and “fidgety,” an early meaning of fidgety we might owe to the Appalachian culture of the Smoky Mountains, where his novel is set. Today, the “lively” and “aggressive” feisty still expresses this excitability, though the word has since evolved to focus on a kind of readiness to fight – and, if my ears are any measure, is said of women more than men. In his slang lexicography, Jonathon Green indeed records feisty as 20th-century U.S. slang for a “flirtatious, showy, and unscrupulous woman,” which also, perhaps, calls back Kephart’s early usage.
Other variants of feist include fist, fice, fyce, and even foist, if we look to a 1770 reference by George Washington. In March of that year, George Washington wrote in his diary: “Countess a hound bitch after being confind got loose and was lined before it was discovered by my Water dog once and a small foist looking yellow cur twice.”
I find it reassuring to know that even America’s legendary first president couldn’t completely control his dogs.
Leashed up on feist, of course, was English’s prolific adjectival suffix, -y.
In spite of their size, small dogs like feists have big personalities. Their quick energy, sharp barks, and often skittish behavior indeed suggest the kind of lively, aggressive temperament we associate with feisty. And, returning to Kephart, feisty also evokes the squirmy restlessness, say, of a terrier less interested in one’s lap than what’s out the window.
As for the indie artist Feist, the moniker comes from her last name. Her first name is Leslie.
Send the dog out back
Now, feist takes its name from a fisting hound, dog, or cur, evidenced as early as the 1530s. Get your mind out of the gutter, but not completely: This fist, a verbal adjective, means “to break wind.”
The OED documents this fist in the 15th century, referring to the action – and aftermath of – flatulence. A fisting dog, then, was “stinky,” but not, as the record suggests, because it needed a bath.
Jonathon Green notes two historic explanations for why this flatulent fist became associated with dogs: Wentworth and Flexner’s American Slang Dictionary maintain “the dog was so named because one’s own smells could be blamed on it,” while in the 19th century it was suggested that “such dogs were not much bigger than a man’s fist.”
It’s unclear whether the “clenched hand” fist is actually related to “broken wind” fist, though the OED does cross-reference the former in the latter’s etymology.
For the deeper origins of fist, etymologists hypothesize an Old English verb *fistan and noun *fist, withwidespreadcognates in Germanic languages and a root in the Proto-Germanic *fistiz. Some philologists actually connect fist to its still-lingering counterpart fart through a root, *perd-, which is really just a Proto-Indo-European fart noise. (We can also thank this root for partridge, whose windy winging I’ve discussed at Oxford Dictionaries).
Like fart, I suspect fist is ultimately a Germanic onomatopoeic whoopee cushion, so to speak. But whatever origin we ultimately blame fist on, I can’t blame you for, er, leaving the room when the TV debates get too feisty this long and heated presidential campaign season.