An etymology you’ll love or hate: “Marmite”

Disaster has been averted. This week, consumer goods conglomerate Unilever announced it was hiking its prices on British supermarkets in response to the plummeting pound. But Tesco, the biggest supermarket chain in the UK, refused to pay. Unilever stopped deliveries, leaving such staples like Marmite – Britain’s iconic, love-it-or-hate-it, savory, salty yeast paste – to dwindle to dangerously low levels. After both Unilever and Tesco saw their stock prices drop, though, the two companies came to a resolution – and #Marmitegate came to an end.

What does Marmite mean, anyways, and where does the name come from?


In the late 19th century, German chemist Justus Liebig found a way to render brewer’s yeast into a foodstuff. In 1902, Britain’s Marmite Food Company brought the extract to market, originally advertising the dark, sticky paste for use in stews and soups, which could be cooked in a marmite. A marmite is a large, usually earthenware stockpot with a cover, like the one Marmite has displayed on its packaging from the start:

The cooking pot on the jar of Marmite is called a “marmite.” Image from

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests marmite as marmet in 1581, noting the cookware was commonly hung over fires in the West Midlands. Marmite as such emerges by 1805, commonly employed by soldiers, who later used it slang for pot-like “bombs” during World War I.

The English marmite comes from the French marmite, a “cooking pot.” (English may have borrowed the word into the language on two occasions, as the OED’s different regional and military citations suggest.) But the origin of this French marmite, attested in the late 1300s, is obscure. Some, however, including France’s own National Center for Textual and Lexical Resources, have a theory: it comes from a different meaning of marmite, a “hypocrite.”

A hypocrite? Love it or hate it, the idea is that a marmite hides what’s cooking inside just as a hypocrite conceals their true character. Apparently, this marmite literally means “murmuring cat,” joining marmotter (an onomatopoeic word for “mumble, mutter, murmur”) and mite, a term for a “cat.”

The OED, for one, is not convinced by this etymology – though some may joke a mumbling cattiness is as iconically British as Marmite itself.

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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.

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


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.”


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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Coping with “coups”

Over this past weekend, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan quelled an attempted military coup. While failed, the coup still delivered a harsh “blow” to the country – and lived up to its own etymology.


A military coup is short for a coup d’état, which literally means a “stroke of state” in French. The “stroke” characterizes a coup’s sudden, usually violent overthrow of a government. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), English has been using the shortened coup since at least 1852, the full French phrase since 1646.

In French, a coup is a widely used term for a “blow,” as in a really hard hit. (The English “hit” might well parallel coup’s versatility.) Other borrowed phrases, like coup de grâce, also feature coup. The word derives from a series of Latin forms, colpus and colapus and colaphus yet before them, ultimately borrowed from the Greek κόλαϕος (kolaphos), a “cuff” or “buffet,” like a box on the ears.

For the origin of the Greek kolaphos, the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots proposes the Proto-Indo-European *kel-, “to strike.” We previously encountered this hypothetical root in the “twiggy lot” of clerk.

Cashing in on coups?

English first borrowed French’s coup in the early 16th century when it referred to a physical “blow” – and when it’s final p was pronounced. It borrowed it again in the 18th century, using it figuratively and, like in French, issuing a lethal coup to that last letter. But English had been using coup in verbal forms since the 14th century. The verbal coup was from the French couper, “to strike,” via that same coup.

Now, cope was a variant of this coup: Starting with “strike,” cope evolved to mean “to engage in combat,” “contend,” and “face successfully.” It then made the metaphorical jump to actions we need to take after a coup: to cope with. The connecting sense is “managing” or “dealing with something,” as one does in a conflict. The OED attests the modern, psychological-shaded cope with in 1934.

In French, couper went on to mean “cut,” making coupon a “piece cut off.” English cut off coupon from French in 1822, when a coupon specifically referred to a certificate attached to a bond which could be cut off and presented as a payment on interest. In 1864, a travel agent, Thomas Cook, extended the sense of coupon to a series of pre-payed tickets a traveller used along different points of a journey (e.g., for a hotel, a meal). English cashed in Cook’s usage for its modern coupon.

A two-door coupe or coupé car is a “cut” car. The term comes from the French carrosse coupé, a “cut carriage,” a kind of shorter, hence “cut,” four-wheel carriage.

Turkey’s coup was no mere political metaphor: Nearly 300 died. And how will Erdoğan cope with the coup dissidents? Not with coupons. And certainly not with coupes. He’s promising to throw some harsh, retributive, and, yes, literal coups of his own.

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Why are efforts described as “last-ditch”?

Recently, I’ve come across a number of articles describing the Republican establishment’s “last-ditch efforts” to stop their party’s nomination of Donald Trump for the U.S. presidency:

last-ditch effort google search.png
Screen capture by me, March 22, 2016

But why do we call these efforts “last-ditch”?

In the etymological trenches

In 1706, English writer Daniel Defoe published Jure Divino, a verse satire in which he extolled William I, the Prince of Orange, famed for leading Dutch rebels against a tyrannical Spain in the 16th century. In a footnote, Defoe shares an anecdote told of William:

Of this [the Prince of Orange] gave an unparallel’d Instance, when being reduc’d to great Difficulties, in the fame War, and press’d by the French, in the Bowels of his native Country, on one Hand, and the English, with their Navy, on the other; and the English Ambassadors offer’d him, in the Names of the Kings of England and France, to take the whole Country, and then restoring it to him, form it into a Monarchy, and make him King of it: He rejected it with the utmost Indignation; and when One of them ask’d him what Remedy he could think of for the Ruin of his Affairs, answer’d, He knew One effectual Remedy, viz. to lie in the last Ditch; intimating, that he would dispute every Inch of Ground with the Enemy, and at last would die defending the Liberties of his Country.

For the source of the anecdote, I should note, Defoe cites Sir William Temple’s Memoirs, referring to an important English diplomat of the day whose writings Jonathan Swift, it happens, published.

So, from the dry moats dug around castles to the trenches of the First World War, warfare was long fought in the trenches – or ditches . The last ditch, then, was quite literally the “last line of defence” against an enemy’s siege, as the Oxford English Dictionary glosses it.

(Perhaps the military origins of last ditch were obvious to you. I, for one, never made the made connection. )

And, if the Prince of Orange is indeed the originator of last ditch, he would have so uttered it in Early Modern Dutch, making the English expression, of course, a translation. I’m not quite sure how the Prince of Orange would have said it in Early Modern Dutch: Perhaps something, and do forgive me, my Dutch-speaking readers, along the lines of laatse greppel?

Some last-ditchery of last-ditch

The last ditch expression proved to be a useful one, frequently appearing in the phrase to die in the last ditch in its early, political history. Thomas Jefferson even employed it in his own autobiographical writings when he described a “government…driven to the last ditch by the universal call for liberty.”

Now, the Oxford English Dictionary cites the adjectival form, usually hyphenated, for a resistance “maintained to the end” by 1888. The more metaphorical last-minute attempts to “avert disaster,” which prevails in today’s parlance, appears by 1930, according to the dictionary. Last-ditch effort appears at least by 1944; the OED cites it in Billboard, as in the pop music charts, then published in Cincinnati, OH.

Ditch itself is an old word, rooted in the Old English díc, a “trench” or “moat,” which also yields dike and derives from a Germanic base.

The OED also records the the wonderful forms last-ditchery (“fighting to the last ditch”; 1889) and the earlier last-ditcher (“one who fights to the last ditch”; 1862) – which might lend a little and much-needed whimsy to the tense and heated political discourse these days.

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Fast Mash

  • Champion, through French, derives from Late Latin campio, “warrior” or “fighter,” in turn from campus, meaning “field”
  • In Ancient Rome, such a campus staged military exercises as well as political and athletic events
  • From this campus English also gets such words as campaign, Champagne, a university campuscampscamp, and possibly even gambol and jamb
  • Its ultimate origin is unknown, but campus may go back to Proto-Indo-European *kamp-, “to bend,” and *kampos, “corner”

Broncos and Seahawks, you have joined that most prestigious company of champions who’ve contended for greatness: the college quad, s’mores and sing-alongs, American flag lapel pins, bubbly, highway robbers, frolicking, shrimp scampi, and bran.

Contend with that, you gridiron gladiators. Contend with etymology, the great emasculator.


At the root of champion is a word and a metonym–Latin’s campus, “field.” Perhaps the most famous field in ancient Rome was the Campus Martius, or Field of Mars. On this Tiber flood-plain Roman armies would muster, conduct exercises, and proceed in military triumph. Later, temples, theaters, and other imperial edifices populated the field, home to electoral events and athletic entertainment.

The Late Latin campio (declined along campion-) named a “warrior” or “fighter,” giving French champion. Perhaps the word comes straight from the Latin campus, but, as Partridge’s research shows, German mercenaries adopted campus and adapted it to *kamp. Indeed, German has Kampf, “fight,” “battle,” and “struggle,” as in Mein Kampf and Kulturkampf.

Champion moved into the athletic field, apparently, in the 1730s, with its sense of “first-place performer,” (Online Etymology Dictionary) probably with respect to boxing, horse-racing, golf, cricket, chess, or the Welsh, field and ice hockey-like game, bando.

Don’t mess with the bando stick. Courtesy of the National Museum of Wales.

Old French has champagne, “open country,” from an adjectival form of campus. The sense of military campaigns, or an “army’s operations in the field,” “arose in those conditions of warfare according to which an army remained in quarters during the winter and on the approach of summer went into the country…to conduct operations” (ODEE). Unsurprisingly, politics not only appropriated many military metaphors, but, as continues in large part today, marched in step with military matters.

Let’s pop open some Champagne, the province (literally, “open country”) in northeast France, “whence…the scintillant wine made there,” as Partridge glosses it.

Don’t get too tipsy if you have an exam on campus, the “college or university grounds,” which ODEE first cites in the 18th century in reference to Princeton in New Jersey. We’ve all done battle with  finals, but academics, too, has its share of military metaphors, including class, originally referring to “the people of Rome under arms” (Online Etymology Dictionary).

And don’t be a scamp, you mischievous, idling, rascally…highway robber? To scamp indeed meant to commit so in the 18th century, stealing a sense of “slipping away”–or scampering–that probably comes from the Latin excampare, literally, “out of the field,” as in fleeing the battlefield. Scamp may also explain scam.

Camping, decamp, encamp, the field mushroom champignon–these are other cognates of campus. But wherefore this campus?

Partridge speculates a relationship with a “remotely possible cognate” in the Hittite kanza, or “grass” or “cereal.” He also cites Bloch and von Wartburg’s hypothesis that it survives from “an ancient Italic language.” Shipley has it from the Proto-Indo-European *kam, meaning “bend,” “curve,” or “vault,” thus linking it to everything from cummerbund, gams (as in “legs,” from gambol), and camera. This same kink likely explains the Italian scampi (scampo is Italian for “prawn”).

Camera is dubious. And, as Shipley observes, cummerbund (Hindi: kamarband) is verily from Persian’s kamar, “girdle” or “waist,” along with a form of the root of bind and bend, but I see no compelling evidence to link kamar with campus.

Gambol presents an interesting case, however. “To frolick,” “to leap” or “spring,” “a horse’s hock”–such is the lineage, rooted in Greek’s kampe and Latin’s gamba, meaning “joint” and birthing everything from a door jamb to  smoked gammon. Perhaps these are grounded in the Proto-Indo-European *kamp-, “to bend,” as in a leg, yielding *kampos, a “corner.”

Breakfast of Champions

If indeed the Hittite kanza–again, “grass” or “cereal”gave rise to Latin’s campus, then General Mills’ Wheaties may be “The Breakfast of Champions” in ways more than one.

Lou Gehrig, 1934. Courtesy of I’d like to see Lou Gehrig take on a Hittite. There’s an easy “Bazooka Joke” somewhere in there.

A good origin story, the “Breakfast of Champions” slogan is, and all-American–it features baseball, radio, and individual genius. Check it out here. But the origin of words, as champion itself can attest, isn’t always so straightforward. They bend, they curve. They are so often quirky, charming, unpredictable, unusual–perhaps more like Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions.   

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