Launch: Etymology of the Day

Via French lancher/lancier, launch ultimately comes from the Latin lancea, a “light spear,” which is also the source of lance (except we’re not using spears anymore…). The verb, first attested in the early 1400s, shifted from “hurl” to “send off,” hence boats and, much more scarily, missiles.

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Angel with the lance, Ponte Sant’Angelo, Rome. (Wikimedia Commons)

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Let the prisoner “talk”: the origin of “parole”

Parole comes from the French for “word” or “speech.” 

After nine years in prison, OJ Simpson was granted parole on Thursday, releasing him early from his 33-year sentence for armed robbery. Parole comes with a strict set of terms, conditions, and supervision, of course, but it’s grounded, essentially, in the prisoner’s word of honor that they will uphold the law upon release. Word of honor—this is precisely where the term parole comes from.

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Parole, etymologically, is like a fable and, historically, dealt with prisoners of war. Walter Crane’s 1887 illustration of Aesop’s The Trumpeter Taken Prisoner. (Wikimedia Commons)

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Going “ballistic”

The same Greek root of ballistic gives us such words as ballet, devil, parliament, and symbol.

On July 4th, North Korea successfully tested its first ICBM, or intercontinental ballistic missile. As intercontinental leaders figure how what to do next, let’s go ballistic—etymologically, that is.

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A reconstructed ancient ballista, Latin source of the word ballistic. (Image from the Alexis Project, photo by Nick Watts).

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The “arm” bone’s connected to the…”armada” bone?

Remember that “armada” of warships Trump said was being sent towards the Korean peninsula as a warning to North Korea? It turns out it was actually headed in the opposite direction. Oops.

Outside of history class and the rhetoric of war, we don’t hear the word armada too often, but the word is related to a veritable armada, shall we say, of other everyday words. Let’s look into the etymology of armada

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These articulated artist mannequins are wondering, “Can’t we all just get along?” (Pixabay)

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Etymology of the Day: Caddie

After a career chasing a major, Spanish golfer Sergio Garcia swung his way back to clinch the Masters Tournament on Sunday. When he sank his winning putt, Garcia warmly acknowledged his final contender, Justin Rose, and his caddie, before embracing his own, Glen Murray. For as they say, behind every great golfer is a caddie. But what’s behind the word caddie?

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The other modern-day caddie? (Pixabay)

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Goats, galloons, gas stations, and Gorsuch: The origin of “chevron”

Confirmation hearings of US Supreme Court nominees—like Neil Gorsuch’s this week in the Senate—give obscure judicial terms a rare moment in the public spotlight. Consider super precedent, who fights baddies with the power of past decisions. Or stare decisis, which sounds like a long-lost sister to Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” And then there’s Chevron deference. Clearly, that means refueling your tank at a Chevron gas station over any of its competitors, right?

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From telegraphs to Twitter: a short history of “wiretapping”

One of the earliest recorded instances of wiretapping involves an anecdote about how Confederate general John Hunt Morgan bet a Union soldier two cigars if he could spell the word Lebanon.

In a series of shocking tweets this weekend, President Trump, providing absolutely zero evidence, said President Obama wiretapped his phones during the 2016 campaign. The word wiretapping evokes Watergate and Cold War espionage, but its roots goes back a century earlier. For before we tapped telephones, we tapped telegraphs.

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Masses, milk, and metathesis: Following the “crowd”

Crowds are just a bunch of crud, etymologically speaking. 

We’ve been comparing – or, if you’re a certain president, complaining about – crowd sizes of late. One conservative estimate tallies Trump’s inaugural crowd at 250,000, about 1.5 million short of Obama’s in 2009. The Women’s March on January 21, meanwhile, may have drawn over 4.8 million protesters across the globe. So, as we count up the final numbers, let’s look into the origin of the word crowd

Working the crowd

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The original meaning of crowd, “to push on,” got lost in the crowd. Image courtesy of pixabay.com.

As a noun, crowd hasn’t been crowding the English language for very long. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates crowd to 1567, adding that it replaced the usual earlier term, a press, which goes back to the 13th century.

The noun crowd comes from the verb crowd. But this verb originally meant “to press on, hasten, or drive” in Old English.  One would crowd a ship, say, by pushing her off land. The OED has actually dated this usage, incredibly, to 937, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Crowd’s modern sense, “to gather in large numbers closely together,” appears by the beginning of the 1400, and we can easily see how the action pushing and shoving transferred to a thronging multitude.

The Old English crowd – crúdan – is related to the German kroten, “to oppress,” and the Dutch kruien, “to push or drive (e.g., a wheel-barrow).” The OED notes that the verbal crowd is “not known in the early stages of the other [Germanic] languages,” and in English, “was comparatively rare down to 1600.”

The etymological center of crowd is unclear. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, though, traces it back to the Germanic *krudan, from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *greut-, “to compress” or “push.” 

Crowds and whey

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Did the word curd get separated from the crowd? Image courtesy of pixabay.com

One thing that does get compressed, in a manner of speaking, are curds. These little lumps are formed when milk coagulates – and, as a word, curds (and its derivative, curdle) may be formed from the same root as crowd. Some etymologists think speakers flipped around the sounds of the Old English crúdan to get curd, attested in 1362. This flipping process, called metathesis, is a common one in English, among other languages, and has produced words like curl, task, and even bird

For curd/crowd, etymologists point to the Irish gruth, “curds,” which they root in the PIE *greut-. For the meaning of curd as a “crowded” substance, they cite the very chemical action that yields curds, coagulation, as an analogy. This word is skimmed from the Latin cogere, “to curdle, compel, or collect,” literally meaning “to drive together” (com-, “together,” plus agere, “to set in motion,” source of act.)    

I, for one, think curds are delicious, but perhaps you find them to be a bunch of crud. Etymologically, you may not be wrong: Many think crud, by that same process of metathesis, indeed comes from curd. This would mean crud switched the –ur- sound of curd, which switched the –ru– of crowd/crúdan. And so crud ‘returns’ to its original form.

The wrong crowd

Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green finds crud in Scottish English for “thickened or coagulated milk” and in US English for “curdled milk,” perhaps as back-formed from the adjective cruddy. Green also locates crud for “any filthy or disgusting matter” all the way back in the early 16th century. Crud, in some way or another, made it into US military slang for any “disease” or “worthless person” in the 1930s, expanding to “diarrhea,” “a slob,” and “venereal disease” in the 1940s and 1950s. A crud may be one to let slip a little crowd-poison, a euphemism for public flatulence. 

Trump may yet find validation, then. Crowds are crud, etymologically…and when you’re just not drawing the kind of numbers you hoped for.

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The etymological stuff of “stuffing”

Many of us will be stuffing ourselves with stuffing this Thanksgiving holiday. But we won’t be going for seconds of the original stuffing, if we consider the etymology of this delicious dish.

Knowing one’s stuff 

Today, stuff can refer to just about anything: belongings, information, material. But in the 1330s, stuff protected knights: It was the quilted material they wore under their chain mail. Come the 1400s, stuff named military equipment, stock, stores, and provisions. Various trades applied stuff to their working materials, and by the late 1580s, stuff became a generic word for “things.”

The verb stuff follows a similar development. In the 1380s, Chaucer used stuff for “furnishing a place with stock or stores.” Stuff also could “equip an army or fort with military equipment” in the early 1400s. Eaters were being stuffed with food by the 1430s, as were birds by cooks. Over the following century, stuff expanded to include “filling,” “packing,” or “cramming” something.

As for that scrumptious stuffing we plate up on Thanksgiving? The Oxford English Dictionary attests the culinary term by 1538, citing The Dictionary of Sir Thomas Elyot, the first English dictionary of Classical Latin. In an apt coincidence, Elyot defined the word fartile: “stuffynge, or that wherewith any foule is crammed or franked.” Many feasters call this signature Thanksgiving side dressing, but the term can depend on your regional dialect and whether you cooked it in or out of the bird.

That’s the stuff

We know stuff, originally stoffe or stof, comes from the Old French estoffe (“textile material”) and estoffer (“to furnish” or “stock” and possible source of stifle). From here, the etymology isn’t clear. Many scholars think the words came into northern France from the Old High German *stopfôn, “to plug with tow or oakum,” loose fibers obtained when old rope is untwisted. And this *stopfôn may be borrowed from the Latin *stuppāre, “to stop up (with tow or oakum).” The suspected root is stuppa, “coarse flax” or “hemp,” which also yields the English noun and verb stop.

So, the ropy material stuppa was used a stopper, borrowed as a Germanic verb for “plug,” adapted in French as a fabric padding. When the word entered English, speakers likened “stopping, plugging, and padding” to “stocking something up,” first armor and armies and later birds and bellies. In English, literal stuff grew to all sorts of figurative stuff,  so useful was this catch-call term for the “things” that makes something up.

Thanks to all that stuffing, it’s not old ropes were loosening on Thanksgiving, though. It’s our belts. Happy Thanksgiving! 

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A “shocking” etymology

There are a lot of words and yet there are no words to describe how so many are feeling after Donald Trump upset Hillary Clinton for the presidency on Tuesday night. But one word, for so many reasons, recurs: shock.

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The original “shocker”? Watch your step. “Lakebed with Tree Stumps,” courtesy of freeimages.com

Shock

The word shock originally referred to a military clash. The Oxford English Dictionary first attests the noun and verb forms of the word in the 1560s, used of the collision of two forces in a charge. Isn’t that apt, America?

Such a collision is sudden and violent, hence shock’s various metaphorical extensions. Scientists had taken up the word shock by 1614. Come the 1650s, shock was naming a general “damage blow,” whether to one’s personal beliefs or to a society’s foundational institutions. Fifty years later, shock was in use in its modern sense of “disturbed surprise.” Medical shock is recorded by 1805, a shocker 1824, shell shock 1915, and culture shock by 1940.

Etymologists generally trace shock to the French choc (“violent attack”) and choquer (“strike against”). Indeed, at the D-Day Beaches in Normandy, visitors can follow a route called Le Choc (“the onslaught, the impact”) to view sites of the American offensive starting on June 6, 1944.

But from here, the origin of shock is unclear. Some suppose the French choquer comes from a Germanic root for a “jolt” or “swing” and could be imitative of shaking, which word is possibly related. Others consider the Old French chope, a “tree stump,” which one might stumble over before crashing to the ground, apparently.

English has other shock words, etymologically unrelated but perhaps still instructive. Like a shock of hair, all too fitting for the president-elect . Or a shock of wheat, barley, or oats – sheaves of grain stacked upright, able to stand because they support each other so bundled. Together.

And maybe that’s a welcome bit of “shock” therapy.

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