The travails of “travel”

Long security lines have been beleaguering travelers across America’s airports, making the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) scramble to unlace its shoes, take out its laptop, and bin its personal affects. Travel can be quite the travail – all too painfully true, if we give the word travel an etymological screening.

Travel

Originally, travel was travail. They were the same word, both referring to “extremely hard labor” and “toil.” Travail is documented in the mid-13th century, wrought from the French travail, “suffering” or “painful effort.” (In English, travail was applied to childbirth by the end of the 1200s.) It doesn’t get any easier from here, though.

Romance-language philologists think French’s travail develops from the Late Latin *trepālium, literally “an instrument with three stakes.” The first part of this compound features trēs (“three”), the second part pālus (“stake”), which we also see in the pale of beyond the pale.  This trepālium may have been some sort of a torture device, inflicting its misery three stakes at a time. Extreme exertion can feel like torture, as the sense of trepālium apparently so developed.

Walter Skeat suggests an alternative origin for travail, though: the Latin *travāre, “to make or build with beams, pen, shackle, put an obstacle in one’s way, and so cause embarrassment and trouble,” as he glosses it. He cites a similar sense development in embarrass. Skeat then traces *travāre in Latin’s trabes, a “beam” or “piece of timber,” which, incidentally, he anchors in the very Indo-European root that ultimately yields the word torture.

Over the course of the 14th century, travail began to refer to going on a journey, which was a back-breaking undertaking in the Middle Ages. Travail changed its shape, form, and sense to arrive at the travel we know today – though, when it comes to modern airplane travel, it can feel like nothing has changed at all.

I think we now know why Frost really took the road less travelled by: He had TSA PreCheck. And that can make all the difference.

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“Recipe”: it’s just what the doctor ordered

Worried about a culinary emergency this US Thanksgiving? Panicking about your menu? Sending out an SOS to Butterball’s Turkey Talk-line? Fear not: follow your recipes. It’s just what the doctor ordered, etymologically speaking.

Recipe.jpg
Take with food. “Recipe.” Doodle by me.

Recipe

English vocabulary owes a great deal to Latin, as we know, especially as filtered through French. But there are some Latin words – as Latin words – hiding right under our noses. Take recipe. It means “take.” It’s a Latin verb, pure and simple. Well, technically speaking, it’s the 2nd-person singular imperative of recipere. This word had various meanings, but, for our purposes here, will consider “take in” or “take back.”

In the Middle Ages, physicians headed their prescriptions with the Late Latin recipe, followed by a list of ingredients and instructions. So, recipe signified: “Take (the following substances as prescribed).” Over time, doctors abbreviated this recipe as ℞ –now often Rx – still used today to begin prescriptions and as a pharmaceutical symbol more generally. As David Sacks notes in his alphabet history Letter Perfect, “The x represents what was once a fancy crossbar [cf. ], inked onto the R’s tail as an identifying sign at the prescription’s start.”

Recipe is first recorded in the 1300s as a verb. By the 1500s, we see the word used as a noun, extended to cooking by a century later, where it has since prevailed. We can easily see how a recipe‘s ingredients and instructions jumped from medicine to cooking. Via French, the Latin recipere also formulated receipt, which was also used early on for medical prescriptions. This was superseded by its monetary sense, which emerges in the late 1500s.

Receivereception, and recipient are other words derived from Latin’s recipere. Literally, this recipere joins re-, “back,” and capere, “to take,” both of which densely populate the English language. But, with the recipes done and the food on the table, the only thing the Thanksgiving chef may want to “take back” is a stiff drink.  That’s one prescription I know I’ll be refilling this holiday.

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Rosary

Rowan County clerk Kim Davis has again grabbed headlines. As we learned after his historic visit to the United States, the Pontiff privately met with her and gave her two rosaries. Their sub rosa meeting raised many questions, including one for me: Why do we call it a rosary?

"Roses" Ball point pen on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Roses.” Ball point pen on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Rosary

When Catholics pray the rosary, they recite a structured series of prayers contemplating important events – or “mysteries” – in the life of Jesus and his mother, Mary. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests this usage in 1531, though Catholic tradition originates the practice in a vision of Mary by Saint Dominic in 1214.

For most, rosary probably evokes its particular prayer beads. These help devotees keep count of the prayer sequence, thereby freeing their minds to meditate on those mysteries. The OED attests this transferred rosary by 1548.

An earlier citation of rosary provides important clues to the development of the word. The OED cites rosarie as early as 1387: a “coin made in imitation of the silver penny of Edward I (1272-1307) by European mints.” On one side of this counterfeit currency was a bust wearing a chaplet or garland, often made of flowers – especially roses. (Another counterfeit penny circulated in Ireland at this time was called a mitre, named for its imprint of this episcopal headgear.) 

Prayer “garden”

Rosary derives from the Latin rosārium. In Classical Latin, the word names a “rose garden,” with its root, rosa, meaning “rose.” In Medieval Latin, rosārium also named a “garland” as well as a “series of prayers” or the very “string of beads” we associate the word with today. A kind of garland wreathing the head, a chaplet also refers to a particular section of the rosary along with other devotional prayers aided by beads.  

So, why roses? Well, the OED records rosary used as a title for a “book of devotion,” especially including rosary prayers, in 1525. Medieval scholars note some important metaphors for art in the Middle Ages and antiquity. Writing, for instance, was likened to ploughing a field. Collecting poems or prayers, furthermore, was like cultivating a garden or arranging a bouquet. We see this in the etymology of the word anthology, which literally means “a gathering of flowers” in ancient Greek. Latin rendered this as a florilegium, meaning the same. So, a rosary is like a “garden” of prayers, as the Online Etymology Dictionary sums it up.

Of course, symbolic associations of roses in Catholicism certainly add strength to the connection between roses and Mary, prayers to whom constitute 53 of a rosary’s beads. Philologist Eric Partridge notes that Medieval Latin used rosārium for a “rose garland for crowning the Virgin.” The resemblance between a garland and a rosary – a string of beads does look like a string of flowers – may further strengthen the connection.

Today, many of us might have a different sort of rose in mind: Roseburg, home to a community college that was visited with a horrific mass shooting yesterday. This may leave many praying their rosaries, but we’re going to need a lot more than prayers to do anything about gun violence.

Roses_Brooklyn Ball Point Pen on Paper_Scribblem ∫ r ∫