Etymology, with an “eagle” eye

Maybe in some parallel universe it wasn’t the Philadelphia Eagles who won Super Bowl LII. No, not the New England Patriots but the Philadelphia Ernes. For erne was the usual word for “eagle” in Old English, and in my hypothetical Twilight Zone, French and Latin didn’t sack Anglo-Saxon like so many blitzing linebackers.

Etymologically, the Philadelphia Eagles main team color isn’t midnight green. It’s “dark brown” or “black.” (Pixabay)

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What is so “rupt” about “bankrupt”?

Toys “R” Us, the world’s largest toy store chain, filed for bankruptcy protections today. Debt and online shopping aren’t great for playtime, it turns out—but etymology certainly is. This post, let’s have a quick look at the origins of bankrupt.

“Bankrupt”: literally breaking the bank. (Pixabay)

Bankrupt: trading in metaphors

Borrowed into English from French, bankrupt comes from the Italian phrase banca rotta, or banco rotto in the masculine, literally a “broken bench.”

The bench here refers to a market stall where merchants would count and exchange money, and it’s said that, once upon a time, people would break up their stalls if they had become insolvent. The Italian phrase itself, though, may have actually just started out as a figurative expression.

The Italian banco goes back to a Germanic root, with some basic meaning of “table,” that also gives English the word bench and is connected to the geological bank in, say, sandbank. First used as a table for counting and exchanging money, bank was metaphorically extended to the financial institutions we call banks today.

Rotto, meanwhile, goes back to the Latin rumpere, “to break” or “burst.” The Latin verb’s past participial form is ruptus, which we can see in other derivatives like abrupt, corrupt, interrupt, erupt, and rupture. This form also helps explains English spelling of bankrupt, as well as its French intermediary, bancque roupte.

As for when bankrupt entered the language, the Oxford English Dictionary finds a bankrupt (insolvent person) in 1533, to bankrupt in 1552, and bankrupt as an adjective in 1565. Various figurative extensions of bankrupt (e.g., a person bankrupt of honor) are found shortly thereafter. Bankruptcy emerges just a little later in the 1630s—or some nearly 400 years if you’re Toys “R” Us.

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From textiles to testimonies: the origin of “panel”

A panel of jurors was originally a piece of paper on which the names of jurors were listed. 

Last night, we learned Special Counsel Robert Mueller has impaneled a grand jury—which allows prosecutors to subpoena documents and ensures witnesses testify under oath—in his investigation into potential ties between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia.

In the wake of the news, legal and political experts have been fielding the questions: “What does this panel mean for Mueller’s investigation? What does it mean for Trump?” Word nerds like me, meanwhile, are addressing a different query: “What, exactly, is impanel, and where does the word panel come from?”   

Panel: Before it was wood, it was cloth. (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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The “Bureau” of Etymological Investigation

A week out, Donald Trump’s firing of James Comey, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), has only raised more questions than it answers. In the meantime, let’s put the word bureau under an etymological investigation.

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Rowing, rivers, and rulers: 5 “Russian” roots

“Russia” isn’t Russian, the Kremlin was once one of many, and Vladimir Putin would really like what his name literally means. 

With increasing evidence for Russian interference in the US’s 2016 elections, and persistent ambiguity concerning Trump’s relationship with the country, news reports are littered with Kremlin‘s and  Vladimir‘s. And at least etymologically, Russia indeed is the one “steering the ship.” So, let’s have a look at the origins of some of the leading “Russian” words.

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Why do we call it the president’s “Cabinet”?

With some controversy, President-elect Donald Trump has been assembling his new Cabinet. But new cabinets are for kitchens, right? Why do we call these advisors, who head the executive departments of the US government, a president’s Cabinet?

Cabinet members

In the 16th century, there were two main meanings of cabinet. The first, and earliest, cabinet named a “case” that kept secret valuables, like jewels or letters, safe. This cabinet, later ornamental and fitted with shelves and drawers, became the furniture in our kitchens, bathrooms, TV rooms, and offices.

The other cabinet named a “small, private chamber.” Leaders would meet with political advisors in such places, apparently, to discuss the most sensitive and confidential matters. Over the first half of the 1600s, and by the metaphorical process known as metonymy, cabinet became the official name for the people who met in a such a room to advise a leader.

A filing cabinet, which the Cabinet of the United States surely has quite a lot of. Image courtesy of


The Oxford English Dictionary credits the influential polymath Francis Bacon with the earliest recorded use of cabinet in a political context. In “Of Counsel,” an essay first published in 1612, Bacon mused on some of the challenges (“inconveniences”) of giving counsel to a ruler, including the loss of secrecy, undermining of authority, and the risk of betrayal. He then notes:

For which inconveniences, the doctrine of Italy, and practice of France, in some kings’ times, hath introduced cabinet counsels; a remedy worse than the disease.

Bacon was no fan, it seems, of cabinets. But by the time he acceded the English throne in 1625, King Charles is said to have formally introduced a “Cabinet Council” for additional, high-level, and possibly even more secret advisement alongside his Privy Council.

Now, the word cabinet doesn’t explicitly appear in the US Constitution. Article II, Section 2 does state the President

may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices.

On September 11, 1789, George Washington sent his nominations for four such officers to the Senate, which it approved: Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, the first-to-be-confirmed Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph. (Some include Postmaster General Samuel Osgood in this body.)

But it was James Madison, as far as we know, who first referred to these men as “the president’s cabinet,” drawing on what was by then a well-established term in British government. The presidential Cabinet has since expanded, including some name changes, to 15 departments. The most recent department in the cabinet, the Department of Homeland Security, was formed following a different September 11. 

Inside the cabinet

What do we know about the history of the word cabinet? Scholars generally take cabinet to be a diminutive form of cabin: “a little cabin.” Indeed, cabin is no secret in the shape or sound of the word cabinet, but our associations of the word with cupboards and government are so strong that we often don’t connect it to those shelters we escape to in the woods.

Cabin, originally a “temporary shelter” in the late 1300s, derives from the French cabane, “hut,” in turn from Late Latin capanna. Capanna, whose further origins are a mystery, also yields the Spanish cabana. A few have claimed it’s Celtic or Illyrian. And some note cabine referred to a “room for gambling” in an old French dialect. Talk about shady, backroom dealings. 

But how do we reconcile cabinet, the small room, with cabinet, the case and furniture? The French source of cabinet may have been influenced by the Italian gabinetto, a “little cage or basket,” hence a kind of “chest” or “closet.” This gabinetto is a diminutive form of gabbia, which may be ultimately rooted in the Latin cavus, “hollow,” origin of cave and even cage.

And no cabinet member ever wants to be boxed in or in the dark in a president’s administration. As Francis Bacon observed in “Of Counsel”: “The greatest trust between man and man is the trust of giving counsel.”

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“Border crisis” may be the noun phrase of the American moment. Not too long ago, I looked at the origin of crisis in a different border battle. But the word border itself may be having something of its own etymological crisis.


Border, attested in the geographic sense in the 1500s, is first documented in the English of the 14th century, traced to the French bordure, referring to an “edge,” frequently of a shield. Indeed, bordure still refers to the edge of shield in heraldry. The French term is widespread in the Romance languages and may be from a Romanic root *bordus.

This is where the borders get blurred, because border may abut the same origin as board.

Board is from the Old English bord. This bord had two meanings: 1) a plank, or a material board; and 2) the side of a ship, an edge. These words and their origins get confusing and confused. They may ultimately be the same word; they may not. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology casts doubt on a common origin, while the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots grounds them in the same source.

From the first, we get things like cardboard and cupboardTables were made of boards, where food was eaten, hence room and board. Important people gather around tables for important meetings, and thus we have school board and the boardroom. Thus, board meaning table, food, or a certain collection of people functions as form of metonymy, which has graced us with its presence quite a bit lately (cf. gavel and sekw).  Seaboard retains the meaning of “edge,” and I couldn’t have typed this without my keyboard.

“Old Mother Hubbard / Went to the cupboard / To give the poor dog a bone”: from the Sarah Catherine Martin’s “The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog,” first published in England in 1805. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This board may have built bordello, from the French bordel, a “small hut,” from borde, a kind of wooden “hovel.” The word, obviously, came to refer to a brothel.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology takes this board back to a Germanic base, *borðam, formed on *breð-. The root meaning is glossed as “board.”

From the second board, we get things like starboard and to board a planeStarboard has nothing to do with stars, as the first element is related to the word steerLarboard had to walk the plank for port; its first element may be connected to load. This board goes back to a Germanic base, *borðaz.

This Germanic *borðaz may have taken up as the Romanic *bordus we saw before. French developed bord (also, bort) for “side of a ship” but also as “plank,” confusing the already confused Old English bord, which could mean “side of a ship” and “plank.” Eesh. This is partly why it’s hard to sort the boards out.


One side of the border are those, like the Oxford scholars, who keep the boards separate. On the other, we have scholars of the American Heritage Dictionary who join them way back in the Proto-Indo-European *bherdh-, “to cut.”

Both board and border, as American Heritage surveys the territory, were descended from the root’s Germanic heir, *burdam, which is proposed to mean “plank,” “board,” and “table,” returning us right back to our drawing board.  Planks, boards, tables, ship sides–all cut from wood. Edges, borders–the cutting off point, so to speak.

Board may play its games, but bordersas well see all too often, whether in North American, Eastern Europe, or the Middle East, are certainly no board games.

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American political institutions love to sit.

Committees have chairs. Congressional chambers have seats. Courts have benches. Presidents have, well, desks.

They also love metonymy, that “figure of speech in which a thing is represented by something closely associated with it” (Drury, The Poetry Dictionary). Thus we refer to those chairs, seats, benches, and desks as stand-ins–sit-ins?–for the person, position, and power symbolically residing in them. (We saw metonymy at work in scarlet.)

One of the better known governmental metonyms–the gavel–has been making headlines, as the U.S. Supreme Court pounded the gavel on its term this year with some major decisions.  Technically, the nine Justices aren’t themselves pounding the gavel. According to the Supreme Court Historical Society, that’s left to the court’s Crier, who bangs it right at 10am so all rise for the black robes entering the courtroom on days when they hear oral arguments.

The gavel, of course, is used in many a official assembly, and in many a metaphor. Gavels get grabbed. Gavels get passed. Gavels get brought down, gavel-to-gavel.

Night Court’s gavel-wielder, Judge Harry Stone. Image courtesy

So, where does this gavel come from?


The etymology of this ceremonial, attention-getting wooden mallet is ultimately unknown.

Ernest Weekley makes a connection to a German dialectical use of gaffel in the Lower Rhine. He glosses it as “brotherhood” and “friendly society,” seeing a cognate to the English give. Indeed, a now obsolete meaning of the word gavel is “tribute” or “rent.” This gavel is given by the Old English gafol, a “tribute,” indeed related to give via its Anglo-Saxon ancestor, giefan. The usage lives on essentially in gavelkind, a concept Weekley nicely elucidates: a “system” primarily in the county of Kent in England, “by which property is divided equally instead of going to the eldest son” but originally a “form of tenure.”

The Oxford English Dictionary of English Etymology finds the word was first wielded in the 19th century (American dictionaries cite it in 1805) and primarily so in the United States, but otherwise offers no opinion.

Eric Partridge suggests gavel may be “akin to kevel, a hammer for stone-shaping or -breaking, itself [of obscure origin] but [probably] akin to [nautical] kevel, a strong cleat or timber for fasting a vessel’s heavy lines.” He goes on to root this nautical tool’s origin in the Latin clavis, or “key.” Clavicle is a descendant. Word historians give their assent to the gavel’s historical use among masons, so there may something to kevel’s case.  

Others have proposed a line to javelin (cf. Welsh gafl, “fork”) from the Old French for “spear.” French also had javelle, a sort of loose heap of grains, linked to a hypothetical Latin *gabella, possibly from capulus, a “hilt” or “handle,” though primarily “coffin.” This diminutive noun is rooted in capere, “to seize.” And folk etymologies have cited gabble. Indeed, there are some connections, but they extremely tenuous, as the semantic and sound changes are suspect.

It seems the jury is out on gavel.

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*sekw- (part ii)

Last post, we saw how *sekw-, a Proto-Indo-European root for “follow,” makes for a surprising connection between such words as soccersectarian, and second. This root still has some tricks up its sleeve, though, for it weaves the thread between medieval fabrics…

…and the classic board game Clue.

One of the many iterations of Clue’s lustily lethal Miss Scarlet. Image courtesy of

Scarlet has many associations: letters, fevers, pimpernels, Johansson’s, cardinals, royalty. But I don’t that textiles are one we typically make. At least anymore.


The word scarlet is from the Old French escarlate, which, in turn, is handed down from Medieval Latin’s scarlatumBoth forms named did name scarlet as a color, but they originally referred to fabrics and cloths that were often dyed this vivid color. In his discursive dictionary of English word origins, Jordan Shipley notes:

[English] “scarlet” is roundabout from Arabic, which had borrowed [Latin] ‘sigillatum’ to apply to a shorn cloth, which might be blue, green, or brown as well as the brilliant red that survived in the word because it was the “the king’s color.”

The Arabic Shipley refers to is siqillat (variously transliterated) and referred to rich cloth. More specifically, Ezra Klein defines the Arabic siqillat as “tissue adorned with seals” and Eric Partridge offers “a fabric decorated with seals.” Many etymologists see the Persian saqirlat (also variously transliterated) as an intermediary vehicle between Latin and Arabic.

The Latin sigillatum he refers to means “adorned with little figures” or “patterns in relief,” literally meaning “sealed.” It is a diminutive form of signum, “sign,” “seal,” “figure,” or “symbol,” among other meanings. The English derivatives of signum are legion: assignmentsignaldesignatesignature, significantensign, and consign, among so many other active words and forms. Ernest Weekley offers this tidbit on sign: “Earliest sense as verb as to mark with the cross, and most of our ancestors ‘signed’ their letters in the same way, instead of ‘subscribing’ their names.”

For sign, all signs point back to (OK, the best signs we know of point back to) that Proto-Indo-European *sekw-. The literal interoperation of signum is offered as “mark to be followed” or “standard to be followed.” Which leads us to *sekw-, or, more specifically, a suffixed form of *sekw-no.

Sign, Sealed, Delivered

Embroidered patterns? Brilliant colors? These were expensive and labor-intensive, so it’s no surprise that scarlet became associated with nobility. But the source of the dye might be a bit humbling, as the sources of many dyes are. Scarlet was obtained from a dye known as kermes, named for the insect named for the oak tree it inhabited. More specifically, as Wikipedia puts it, the dye is “derived from the dried bodies of female bodies of insects.” This kermes–likely originating from a Sanskrit word for “worm”–is the source of other luxurious English color words crimson and carmine. Speaking of worms, vermilion, another brilliant red hue, is from the Latin vermiculus, “little worm,” named for the cochineal insect the dye was obtained from.

But how do we account for this Latin to Arabic and back, if that indeed be the (still hypothetical) case? Trade, linguistic and cultural contact, luxury textiles, and metonymy, a figure of speech using a salient feature of an object to name it (like a tongue for a language). So, perhaps the Latin sigillatus somewhere in Asia Minor was used of fine, embroidered textiles, was borrowed by speakers of Persian and neighboring Arabic speakers, who applied it to the fine textiles, siqillat in some form or another, and somewhere along the way the colors of the rich cloths became defining features, with opulent scarlet jumping out due to royalty reasons, the name gradually receding from the cloth to the color, making its way back into Medieval Latin as scarlatum, reshaped by the Latin’s daughters, and sticking around in English as scarlet after all these many years. Hypothetical, y’know?

Weaving It All Together

The Latin sign pushed out the native English word for it, represented by the Old English tacen and cognate to the word “to teach.” And, in its own singular way, a poetic passage manages to weave all our concerns here together: In Arthurian tales, the maiden Elaine gives Lancelot a token (as was the chivalrous wont) of her love, a “sleeve of scarlet, broidered with great pearls,” as Tennyson versifies it in his famed Idylls of the King. He wears it during a jousting tournament, but only because Guinevere is there. Her love unrequited, Elaine later dies of a broken heart, and she is floated down the Thames back to Camelot, a story also inspiring Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, a Miss Scarlet in her own, very, very non-Clue way.

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