Back in my heyday, we’ve heard our fathers so often begin some boast of long-lost glory. The heyday of the train, the heyday of radio, the heyday of the flip-phone – each of these remembers some technological golden age of yore. Perhaps you’ve wondered: What is the hey– in heyday? As it turns out, we’re questioning the wrong part of the word.
Insurance ultimately comes from the Latin securus, “free from care.”
Health insurance was front and center this week as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan debuted his contentious plan to repeal Obamacare. As Washington continues to deal with the political complexities of health insurance, let’s deal with the etymological complexities of the word insurance.
On Valentine’s Day, hearts are everywhere. Candy hearts. Heart emoji. Every imaginable sort of heart-shaped chocolate, greeting card, decorative banner, bric-a-brac. Hearts even swell in our words – and not just the likes sweetheart or, depending on how feel about the holiday, heartsick. I grant you no quarry, you discordant, incredulous, myocardial miscreant! Yes, these words also have the word “heart” at their etymological heart.
Betray shares its root with treason and tradition.
Over concerns of its wisdom, justness, and legality, acting US attorney general Sally Yates nobly defied President Trump’s executive order banning immigrants, including refugees and visa-holders, from seven Muslim-majority countries. On Monday night, Trump fired her, claiming Yates “betrayed the Department of Justice.” It’s a strong, and deeply ironic, choice of words here, to say the least, but where does the word betray come from?
The origin of blackmail has nothing to do with dark letters.
This week, a sensational yet unverified dossier leaked that alleges Russia has “compromising personal and financial information” it could use to blackmail President-elect Donald Trump. While we wait to learn more about the allegations, let’s get to the bottom of another matter. Where does the word blackmail come from?
Since the late 1700s, blackmail has referred to the extortion of money, or other benefits, under the threat of revealing incriminating or damaging facts about someone. But several hundred years ago, blackmail was a much more localized affair, shall we say.
In the 16th century, blackmail was a tribute paid by farmers along the border of Scotland and England to freebooters for protection from their raids. The freebooters are often identified as the Border reivers, descended from both Scottish and English families in the region. They resorted to pillage and plunder, apparently, due to the disruptions and devastations wreaked by the ongoing war between the two peoples in the late Middle Ages. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first dates the term to the 1530s in Robert Pitcairn’s Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland.
An etymological “tribute”
The second part of the compound blackmail, mail, refers to the “tribute” paid to the freebooters. In Middle English, and continuing into Scottish, mail could signify a “tribute,” “rent,” “payment,” or “tax.” It comes down from the Old English mal, variously meaning “agreement,” “bargaining,” “terms,” or “lawsuit,” in turn from the Old Norse mál, “speech” or “agreement.” Indo-European scholars root mal and mál in the Proto-Germanic *mathla- and Proto-Indo-European *mod-, “to meet” or “assemble.” (Mail, as in letters and armor, are unrelated.)
The sense development of mail would seem fairly straightforward, then. When we gather, we talk, and through talking, we make deals, which often concern money, ultimately yielding the mail in blackmail. We can see, too, how the particular and historical extortion of blackmail in the Anglo-Scottish border readily broadened to its modern usage. It’s a Scotsman, too, whom the OED credits for the early expansion of blackmail: philosopher David Hume, in 1774.
Not so black and white
As for the black in blackmail? Some etymologists point to black rent and white rent. Black rent, so the theory goes, could be paid in work, goods, livestock, or produce, the color associated with cattle or the ‘baser’ quality of the forms of payment. White rent, meanwhile, was paid in money, like silver, whose metal was once called “white.” Black rent was an indeed an earlier (1420s) form of blackmail, but the OED enters white rent as a variant of quit-rent, a kind of historical property tax that exempt (quit) renters from other obligations concerning the land under feudal law. Folk etymology probably accounts for the confusion.
More likely, the black in blackmail refers to the “illegal” (black market) or “evil” (black magic) nature of the extortion.
Mail, as “tribute,” does appear in other words, as the OED notes. Now obsolete, they were largely used in Scottish, underscoring the longer life mail enjoyed in the language:
- Burrow-mail (1400s), a tribute paid by a borough (burrow) to a ruler
- Grass-mail (1400s), rent for grass or grazing rights
- Feu-mail (1500s), rent for a leasehold tenement (called a feu, variant of fee)
- House-mail (1500s), rent on a house
- Land-male (1300s), rent charged on a piece of land
- Rental mail (late 1700s), a tautological form which documents the gradual obsolescence of mail
- Retour mail (1600s), like feu-mail, retour being a Scottish form of return, here referring to a certain legal practice
Today, mail is essentially a fossil word, preserved only by virtue of the currency of blackmail. But a more recent coinage, whitemail, has renewed its lease. Appearing by the 1860s, whitemailing, clearly riffing on blackmailing, is kind of ‘moral extortion,’ e.g., a mother threatens to reveal her son’s smoking to his father unless he relinquishes his cigarettes. More recently, economics has taken up whitemail, in which a companies sells off a lot of stock at a reduced price to thwart a takeover.
And perhaps Trump, based on the threats and incentives he issues to businesses, will occasion a new addition to the -mail family. Orangemail, perhaps?
m ∫ r ∫
The Washington Post broke the bombshell story with this headline: “Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005.” The candidate’s remarks, as many have rightly noted, aren’t just lewd, for in the video Trump boasts about sexual assault. But it’s this word lewd that has been littering the headlines since – and a word whose origins are quite surprising.
Today, lewd means “offensive in a sexual way,” a sense which has come a far way from its roots. Lewd derives from the Old English lǽwede, when it meant “lay,” or a person who is not a member of the clergy. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first finds lewd in a late 9th-century translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
Clerics, unlike many historic laypersons, could read and write, which is why lewd went on to mean “uneducated” or “unlearned” in Middle English. The medieval mind associated this “ignorant” lewdness with “base,” “coarse,” and “vile” behavior, including “licentious” actions. (It had class associations as well.) These meanings emerge by the late 1300s, with Chaucer using lewd for “lascivious” in his Miller’s Prologue around 1386: “Lat be thy lewed dronken harlotrye.”
The deeper roots of lewd are unclear. Some, like Walter Skeat, think the Old English lǽwede is formed from the verb lǽwan, “to betray” or “weaken.” Is one lewd because their lack of education is betrayed, that is, exposed? Is one lewd because enfeeblement is a form of baseness? The sense development here is tricky.
Others, such as the OED, suppose the Old English lǽwede might have been borrowed from a late form of lāicus, a “lay” person, source of English’s own nonclerical lay as well as liturgy. Latin’s lāicus comes from Greek’s λᾱϊκός (laikos), referring to something “of the people” as opposed to the clergy. At root is λᾱός (laos), “the people,” which is featured in the name Nicholas: “victory-people,” which joins laos to nike (νίκη), the word for and goddess of “victory” as well as source of the athletic brand name.
Since the video’s release, politicians, pundits, and public figures have been decrying Trump’s comments. But, ironically enough for the etymology of lewd, many in the evangelical community continue to defend the Republican candidate – including some “un-lewd” clergy themselves.
m ∫ r ∫
My wife and I are enjoying a long weekend in beautiful Barcelona, a city graced with the dreamy and daring architecture of Antoni Gaudí. Many like to claim that English gets its word gaudy thanks to the architect’s distinctive style. Gaudí looks and sounds like gaudy. Some may even characterize his works as gaudy. But this etymology is as fanciful as Gaudi’s buildings.
Gaudí was born in 1852. English has been using the adjective gaudy since the early 1500s. That takes care of this bit of folk etymology. But just as Gaudí’s structures are exuberant in shape, texture, and color, so the origin of gaudy enjoys its own “exuberant” origins.
A gaudy once named a larger ornamental bead on Catholic rosaries. This word (1434) is a variant or mistaken plural of gaud (1390), which also named a “trinket” or “bauble.” Ornamental beads lead to ornamental gewgaws, which lead to the adjective gaudy for something “excessively ornate.” This usage is attested by the late 16th century. Earlier in the century, gaudy signified “luxurious” fare but also something “full of trickery” – and such merry-making indeed points us to the deeper roots of the word.
Gaud, the prayer bead, ultimately seems to come from the Latin gaudium, “joy.” In the saying of the Rosary, gaudies marked the so-called Joyful Mysteries, or gaudia in Latin, a set of prayers associated with the early life of Jesus Christ. At the root of gaudium is gaudēre, “to rejoice” or “be merry.” Filtered through French, the -joice in rejoice also comes from gaudēre, as does joy, enjoy, and perhaps even the word jewel. Indo-European philologists root Latin’s gaudēre in *gau-, “to rejoice,” although the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots notes it carried the special sense of “to have religious fear or awe” – an experience some have before Gaudí’s work.
Gaudy is also featured in the archaic word gaudy-green, a “yellowish green” that gets its color from dye made out of the weld plant. This gaudy appears to come from the Old French gaude, meaning “weld,” but perhaps its bright, flashy color influenced the ostentation we associate with gaudy.
And as for the name Gaudí? The origin of the family name is unclear, but some think that it comes from the French gaudir, “to enjoy” – which is from the very same Latin root gaudēre. So, it turns out that Gaudí didn’t lend his name to gaudy, but that gaudy, in an etymological manner of speaking, lent its name to Gaudí. Now that’s whimsical.
m ∫ r ∫
Gawker, the news and media gossip site, has shut down after 13 years. Gawker has had an influential, if controversial, voice in the online journalism and blogging landscape. And Gawker has had a distinctive name, suggesting a can’t-look-away amazement it experienced (or wanted its readers to) over the many stories it covered.
A gawker is “one who gawks,” or stares at something, often openly, stupidly, or stunned. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first records it in 1951. It cites its base, to gawk, in 1785. (Gawk also referred to “an awkward person” in the early 1800s. The history of this word is likely enmeshed with our word at hand.) The ultimate origin of gawker is obscure, but there are many theories.
One explanation is that gawk comes from an obsolete verb, gaw, “to stare.” This derives from the Middle English gaw. Etymologists point us to a Scandinavian source, like the Old Norse gá, “to heed.” But what about the k? Perhaps it has a frequentative force, behaving like the k in talk, which is rooted in tale.
2. Gawk hand
A gawk hand is a “left hand.” The OED finds this adjective in 1703. This gawk is contracted from an older form, gallock. Variants include gaulick and gaulish. Some have supposed this gallock to come from gauche, the French for “left.” Others, that the gaulish form points back to an old insult against French, left-handedness long carrying negative, even evil, associations. Gawk-handed has connoted a clumsiness, which, if this theory is correct, was apparently likened to the stupid gape of a gawk.
A third origin could be gowk, an old term for a “cuckoo.” The word has Scandinavian, and perhaps even Latin, cognates. Old English had géac, Old Norse had gaukr, for this onomatopoeic bird name, which has mocked many a “fool” or “simpleton” in its history. Gowk ribbed the “half-wit” in English by the 1600s, which would explain its possible connection to the slack-jawed gape of gawking.
Scholar Anatoly Liberman favors this explanation, thinking it’s rooted in the structure g–k, whose sound supposedly conveys a sense of stupefaction. This structure might also be behind the work geek. And gaw and gallock may well have had their influence on gawk as we know it.
Some may think the etymology of gawk fitting for the late website. They were “clumsy,” no “cuckoo,” to post the privacy-violating content they did. Others will deem think it sad and stupid, given the positive effects Gawker has had on media, journalism, and online writing, that they site shut down. Etymology, alas, doesn’t always create agreement.
m ∫ r ∫
Last post, I looked into the history of keynote, a word getting a lot of airplay during the US party conventions. Another word basking in the lexical limelight right now is bounce, that post-convention boost in the polls each candidate historically enjoys. Where did this bounce etymologically spring from?
Bounce’s bouncy past
Outside of its polling sense today, bounce suggests a liveliness and springiness: the bounce of a ball or the bounce in one’s step. But originally, bounce was the very opposite. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites the verb bounce as early as 1225. Back then, bounce took the form bunsen and meant “to beat” or “thump.”
Come the 16th century, bounce starting bouncing in all sorts of a semantic directions. We have bounce, “to make a loud explosive noise.” We have bounce “to talk big,” “to bluster,” and “to bully.” We have the more familiar bounce “to bound like a ball,” initially said of heavier objects.
What’s the connecting sense here? Sound. With some possible connections in Dutch and German, bounce likely originates in imitation of loud, sudden noises or movements – like that original “beat” or “thump.” This is why we even see bounce historically used as an interjection to imitate the loud bang of a gun: Bounce!
Bouncing balls bound. Are the words related? Not directly, but they share similar sense developments and imitative roots. Bound – “to leap upward” – is found in the late 16th century and probably influenced bounce’s form and sense during that time. This bound comes from the French bondir, which meant, like bounce, “to make a resounding noise.” The verb seems to derive from the Latin bombus, a “buzzing, booming, or humming noise.” Bombus also gives English another noisy word: bomb.
From “thump” to “jump”
The sound of a bounce inspired the motion of a bounce: a ball makes a sudden thump as it smacks the ground before bouncing into the air. English made good use of all its metaphorical energy. A drunk could get bounced – tossed out – of a bar by the bouncer. The OED cites this bouncer, a “chucker-out,” as an Americanism dating back to at least 1865. A few decades earlier, a bouncer also named a “swaggering liar.” And this ejective usage seems to anticipate a later slang usage, Let’s bounce, or “Let’s get out of here.”
Another Americanism (1920s) is a rubber check, which would bounce right back to the bank due to insufficient funds. Sixty years later, emails were bouncing back in a similar, figurative manner. A bounce also refers to a sudden rise in a price – or, for our purposes here, a candidate’s standing. The OED first finds the financial sense in the 1970s. It documents the political bounce in 1980, referring to Jimmy Carter’s “post-convention bounce,” the precise context pollsters and pundits are using it now during this stretch of the presidential campaign.
Bounce’s colorful – or better yet, noisy – etymological past is instructive for its political present. Polling bounces can lead candidates to “boast.” They can also make their opponents sting from the “thumping.” And so we should be careful not to make too much bounce about them. For these post-convention bounces – like so much of politics – are like balls: what goes up comes back down. And that’s just the way the ball bounces.
m ∫ r ∫
Yesterday was a big day for royal titles – in some ways glad, in other ways very sad. Queen Elizabeth reached a momentous 90 while Prince shockingly passed away at 57. Both, it turns out, live up to the etymologies of their names, in a manner of speaking.
At 90, Queen Elizabeth II is the UK’s longest-serving monarch, her rule spanning over 63 years. The word queen, however, has been reigning in the English language for much, much longer.
We have evidence of queen in several Old English manuscripts, where the word appears as cwēn, among other forms. French had a significant impact on Middle English, as we see often on this blog; in this case, it influenced the substitution of qu– for cw– to spell [kw].
Queen is very old, but its meaning has been largely constant, long referring to a “female ruler.” However, as the early record indicates, a queen also named a “woman,” especially a “wife,” suggesting a yet original sense.
A variant form, quean, is also cited in Old English (cwene) for “woman.” While queen was elevated in rank in the language, quean was demoted: the latter went on to name a “hussy” or “prostitute.” The record documents this very important distinction – in sound, spelling, and sense – early on.
Queen and quean have widespread Indo-European cognates. Of particular interest is Greek’s γυνή (gyne), “woman,” which English employs in such words as misogyny and gynecology. The Irish bean sídhe, meanwhile, yields banshee, literally “woman of the elves.” Bean is the queen, here. The Proto-Indo-European root of concern is *gwen–, “woman.”
We see various extensions of queen come Middle English. By the late 1300s, a queen was a general term of endearment for an “honorable woman,” while a century later it stood for the “preeminent woman in a group.” As the chess piece, by 1450s, initially the weakest piece before rule changes coronated her. As the card suit, by the late 1500s. Bees, by the early 1600s; men, of course, originally assumed the queen bee was a he. Quean has long disparaged women; queen disparages a “homosexual man” by the 1890s, though anticipated earlier and perhaps influenced by quean. The Washington Post uses drama queen in 1923.
Elizabeth’s biographer Lord Hurd famously christened the Queen as “the Steadfast,” a suitable title, too, for the long and largely consistent etymology of queen.
Fans of Prince will certainly agree with the etymology of the icon’s forename. The word ultimately derives from the Latin princeps, an adjective that literally means “taking the first place,” hence “foremost” or “chief.” Princeps joins prīmus (“first”) and a root of capere, “to take.” (Princeps then came to the English via French.)
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Augustus took on the unofficial title princeps when he became emperor of Rome. This was an effort to appear more republican and less regal, as princeps figured in titles such as princeps cīvitātis, “first person of the city.”
As its Roman record anticipates, prince once wielded yet more power than it already does in modern-day English: a prince was once in fact a “king.” Evidenced in the early 1200s, a prince was more generally a “sovereign ruler” or “person of chief authority,” largely, though not exclusively, male. As the OED explains, prince named the former rulers of Wales’ various states by the end of the 1200s. This started the tradition of titling the heir-apparent of the English monarch as the “Prince of Wales” – and thereby fixing the word to the eldest son of the king or queen, as we now know the word. The OED notes that other European languages followed suit in so narrowing prince.
Other notable princes include the Prince of Peace, applied to Jesus Christ by 1375. His counterpart, the Prince of Darkness, was formerly known as the Prince of this World, which, perhaps curiously, predates Prince of Peace by at least 50 years.
Principle and principal are derived from Latin’s princeps. The former is from Latin’s principium, literally a “first part,” and developed into “fundamental belief” or “foundational basis.” Principals have been bringing naughty students into their offices in public schools since 1827 (as “college president,” much earlier); the Latin principalis, “first in importance,” explains the English term.
While it’s easy to mistake principle and principal, there’s certainly no mistaking that Prince was truly a king of pop music. (Prince and Michael Jackson will just have to hash it out in the heavens.)