An etymological “epiphany”

You know those 12 Days of Christmas we’re always partridge-in-a-pear-treeing about? They end on January 5th, or Twelfth Night, when many celebrants end their yuletide festivities by taking down the decorations.

As its name suggests, Twelfth Night is the 12th night after Christmas and the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, which many Christians traditionally observe on January 6th. The Shakespearean comedy takes its name from the Twelfth Night holiday, but what is this Epiphany?

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El Greco’s Adoration of the Magi (Wikimedia Commons)

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From watchtowers to cellphone towers: the origins of “alert” and “alarm”

It wasn’t just alarm clocks that went off on New York City cellphones Monday morning. Another noise also pealed: emergency alerts. The message, which The New York Times reports may be the first of its kind, was “an electronic wanted poster” for the since-arrested suspect of recent bombings in the area.

Alerts and alarms haven’t just haven’t advanced in technology, though: these words have also come along way in etymology.

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On high alert? An old, Sardinian watchtower. Image by Patrizio Martorana, courtesy of freeimages.com.

Alert

Both alert and alarm originated as Italian military phrases. Alert is from all’ erta, literally “on the watch” or “to the lookout.” Erta, a “high point,” comes from erto, “steep,” via the Latin ērigere, “to raise.” This verb also yields, among many others, English’s erect, whose sense of “raised up” parallels erto. All’, a contraction of alla, means “to the” or “on the,” ultimately from the Latin preposition ad (“to) and ille (“that,” source of the definite articles in the Romance languages).

French took up the Italian term as à l’erte, later alerte, which meant “watchful” or “vigilant” by the 16th century. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests alert in 1618, though some references in the 1590s use alert as an interjection, e.g., a Castilian soldier “crying Alerto,” suggesting how the term was used a warning cry issued when the enemy was sighted.

And technically, to be on the alert, is etymologically redundant, meaning “on-the-on-the-watch.”

Alarm

Similarly, alarm is from the Italian all’ arme, an interjection and literal call to arms: “To the arms!” Arme derives from the Latin arma, source and meaning of the English arms, or “weapons.” The English name for the body part indeed shares an ancient root with Latin’s arma: the Indo-European root, *ar-, “to fit together.”

Alarm has been ringing out much longer than alert, documented by the OED around the 1400s. The word signaled a general “warning of danger” by the 1570s, specifically a “loud, hurried peal of a bell” by the 1590s. The clock-based alarm is by 1639.

The variant alarum, which may sound familiar to readers of Shakespeare, is thanks to the trilled r’s in some Romance pronunciations of the word, while larum, in a process called aphesis, silenced the initial a. Some speakers may have also confused alarum for a larum

Yesterday’s watchtowers are today’s cellphone towers, calls to arms now calls to law enforcement. The forms of alerts and alarms, as practices and words, have no doubt changed over the centuries, but vigilance – judicious, informed, responsible – seems as called for as ever. 

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citrus, part II

Fast Mash

  • Orange enters English in the 14th-c. from the French orenge (pomme d’orenge) via Spanish naranja, Portuguese laranja, Italian narancia
  • The Romance forms of orange ultimately go back to Arabic naranj, Persian narang, Sanskrit naranga; may be rooted in Tamil (South India) naru, for fragrant
  • Also growing in bunches, grapefruit is indebted to grape, from French graper (gather), from Germanic root *krappon (hook, used to so gather)

Last February, my fiancée and I travelled to Istanbul. Winding through its dense and storied streets, we stopped often to sample foods from street vendors and stalls, such as the savory pastry of börek, sesame-ringed simit, or cups of golden-hued çay, the tea steaming from its tulip-shaped glass.

On one afternoon outing, after my wanderings led us—yet again—through that bustling center of Old Istanbul, the Grand Bazaar, we took a seat a tiny table at a tinier stall just at the market’s perimeter. For refreshment, I stuck with çay, happily substituting my coffee addiction with Turkey’s go-to beverage. (No native is really Turkish coffee in Istanbul.) My fiancée, however, went for something new: freshly squeeze pomegranate juice.

In my traveller’s Turkish, always received warmly, I ordered: “Lütfen bir çay ve bir nar istiyorum.” Literally, please one tea and one pomegranate (juice) I would like.

Turkish is what is called an agglutinative language. That means it forms complex words by “gluing together” individual morphemes. And a morpheme is the smallest grammatical unit in a language.

So, in English, cats has two morphemes: cat and s, which marks the plural. Other languages like Turkish glue a lot more morphemes together than English does. Take istiyorum: in one word, it combines morphemes for verb tense, aspect, person, and number to communicate “I want,” “I am wanting,” or “I would like.”

If I wanted to negate that statement in English, I would say, “I do not want.” I need two new morphemes, in this case two whole words, and I place them in the right order in the expression. But a Turkish person would add a morpheme right smack dab in the middle of the whole word: istemiyorum. It gets really complicated, really fast. And it’s a totally different way of doings things. Cool, right?

Anyways, it’s the Turkish nouns in my drink order that interest me here. Yes, the Turkish çay is related to chai, pronounced the same and ultimately from the Chinese. But I didn’t expect that nar would be related to orange. Though thousands of miles away, with the humble nar I was in fact much closer to home than imagined.

Orange

As lexicographer Eric Partridge put its, “The descent of orange is long, yet clear.” Well, “clear” is his opinion.

In the 14th-century, Middle English picks up orange (and at some point the fruit itself?) from the French orenge (now orange). The French occurred in the phrase pomme d’orenge, taken from a similar Medieval Latin construction. French picked up pomme from Latin’s pomus, which meant fruit and later apple. (Cf. the Dutch oranjeappel and the Scots appil orange.  Also consider French’s pomme de terre, earth-apple, for potato.)

The Latin was taken from the Italian narancia (now arancia), and the form of the word travelled like all the sailors who brought the fruit over from Asia.

Here is a study in some orange (cognates):

  • Provençal, auranja
  • Catalan, taronja
  • Spanish, naranja
  • Portuguese, laranja
  • Italian, narancia/arancia/melarancia
  • Rumanian, naranta
  • Greek, nerantzi

The Spanish naranja seems to be the point of diffusion from orange’s oldest crop: the Arabic naranj, Persian narang, and the Sanskrit naranga (orange tree).

The Sanskrit, in turn, is probably related to terms in two of that subcontinent’s hundreds of other tongues: Tamil’s naram/naru (which Partridge glosses as fragrant) and Tulu’s narengi. It’s not every day one gets to talk about Tamil or Tulu. Both are the in the Dravidian family, a non-Indo-European language primarily spoken in Southern India and Northern Sri Lanka.

At this point, you’re probably seeing nar as a common thread. In Persian, nar named the pomegranate, which fruit and term spread to the Turkic peoples. Hence, a freshly squeezed cup of nar in Istanbul. It was delicious, too.

So, what happened to the and the in English’s orange?

The o- may have been influenced by the southern French city of Orange (later tied up in Dutch royalty and Irish Protestantism). Or or, the French for gold, due to the fruit’s color, from the Latin aurum.

And the n? Perhaps due to something called misdivision, or metanalysis, which happens when words are broken down at the wrong boundary. A few examples illustrate:

  • An apron? Originally, a napron.
  • A newt? An ewte.
  • Nickname? First, an eke name, with eke meaning also or additional.
  • An umpire? More like a noumpre (from French for odd number).
  • And how about one where there is no definite article (a, an)? Tawdry originally comes from St. Audry’s lace.

At some point, the definite articles—as in un naranja, une narange, or una narancia— could have promoted the loss of the initial n. Say them out loud and it’s easy to be convinced.

And here’s just a little more zest in the life of orange from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

The tree’s original range probably was northern India. The Persian orange, grown widely in southern Europe after its introduction in Italy 11c., was bitter; sweet oranges were brought to Europe 15c. from India by Portuguese traders and quickly displaced the bitter variety, but only Modern Greek still seems to distinguish the bitter (nerantzi) from the sweet (portokali “Portuguese”) orange. Portuguese, Spanish, Arab, and Dutch sailors planted citrus trees along trade routes to prevent scurvy. On his second voyage in 1493, Christopher Columbus brought the seeds of oranges, lemons and citrons to Haiti and the Caribbean. Introduced in Florida (along with lemons) in 1513 by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon. Introduced to Hawaii 1792.

How do you like them apple-oranges?

Grapefruit

I like grapefruit. No sugar, too. I buy it. Always pumped for a healthy, colorful, and tart start to the day. But I never get around to it. The apples and bananas are the first to go. Then oranges. Then the pitted fruits and berries. My fruit bowl is left not-so-empty with a grapefruit or two.

As Socrates surely implied, the unreflected grapefruit is not worth eating. So, what is up with the grape in grapefruit, anyways? And what, if anything, do grapes and grapefruit have in common?

Their etymology, that’s what. Grapefruit, called so in 1814 and cousin to the shaddock or pomelo, grows, apparently, like grapes, in bunches and clusters. The Old French grape, referring both the bunch and the individual grape berries, was most likely formed on graper, which meant gather, seize, or catch with a hook. This verb, in turn, probably comes from the Germanic root *krappon, meaning hook. Cramp and crampon are related, as is grapple, which perfectly describes my relationship to the fruit. The tool came to name the action, and the action came to name the result.

Who says you can’t compare apples and oranges—and grapefruits and grapes?

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