“Raccoon”: an etymological show of hands?

Earlier this week, a raccoon dramatically scaled a skyscraper in St. Paul, Minnesota. Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) captured the event—and the attention and hearts of the internet. The #MPRRaccoon, as it came to be called, eventually summited the building, where it was caught and released into the wild, but not before going viral first. 

This courageous climber truly lived up to its name, though, for the ultimate origin of the word raccoon its all about the hands.

Continue reading ““Raccoon”: an etymological show of hands?”

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“Slur”: an etymology dragged in mud

At a White House event yesterday honoring Navajo code talkers, President Trump called Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas,” as he has on many past occasions. Native American leaders, among so many others, are rightly decrying the disparaging remarks as a racial slur, as it drags native peoples into the mud—and literally so, if we look to the etymology of slur.

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Slur is something you may have originally encountered on the farm. (Pixabay)

Continue reading ““Slur”: an etymology dragged in mud”

“Sequoia”: a giant-sized controversy

Earlier this week, heavy storms and flooding toppled the famous Pioneer Cabin Tree, a giant sequoia whose trunk cars once drove through, in California’s Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Before it was carved out in the 1880s to attract tourists, a forest fire had already hollowed out part of its trunk, apparently resembling a log cabin, hence the nickname Pioneer Cabin Tree. But why do we call this kind of tree a sequoia?

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The Pioneer Cabin Tree, also known as the Tunnel Tree, in 2006. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

American originals

In 1847, Austrian botanist Stephan Endlicher, while reorganizing and reclassifying plant species at the University of Vienna, created a new genus, which he called Sequoia. Endlicher’s Sequoia originally referred to redwoods, a close cousin to what we now know as and call the giant sequoia, or Sequoiadendron giganteum.

The common and long-running explanation is that Endlicher chose Sequoia to honor Sequoyah (1770-1843), a Tuskegee-born Cherokee silversmith who invented the Cherokee syllabary, which allowed for reading and writing in his native Cherokee tongue. Put simplistically, a syllabary uses written symbols to represent all the different syllables in a language, whereas an alphabet uses symbols to stand for all of the individual sounds. In Cherokee, for instance, Sequoyah wrote his name ᏎᏉᏯ, each symbol standing in for the syllables making up his name: Se-quo-ya. Sequoyah’s name comes from the Cherokee, Sikwayi, whose meaning and origin is unknown.

Sequoyah’s invention is a truly impressive, rare, and consequential feat, but author Gary Lowe thinks this etymology is quite the tall tale. Endlicher doesn’t mention Sequoyah anywhere in his papers and notes, but he was a philologist, including publishing a linguistic text on Chinese. Lowe ultimately roots the Sequoyah origin to an anonymous submission of an article in an 1856 edition of the agricultural magazine, The Country Gentleman. The author associates the name Sequoia with Sequoyah, for whom he concludes, approvingly, the giant tree was named. Subsequent writers and editors took up, and spread, this association, assuming Endlicher intended the name on the basis of his linguistic reputation. And so the explanation stuck.

One after the other

Lowe thinks Endlicher actually named Sequoia after the Latin verb sequor, to follow, source of words like sequence. Two other botanists, in fact, looked to the same sequor in the late 19th-century. The first suggested Endlicher picked Sequoia because the name followed in sequence after its original genus name, Taxodium; the second because redwoods followed after its extinct forbears. Lowe, rather, concludes Endlicher supplied Sequoia because the number of seeds its cones produce completes a larger sequence relative to those in its scientific suborder. 

Among giants

As far as the record is concerned, Europeans first encountered coast redwoods in 1769 – and the giant sequoia not until 1833. In the 1850s, British botanist John Lindley dubbed these trees Wellingtonia giganteum, honoring the Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington, famed for his defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. “This sat poorly with the Americas,” as Doug Harper at the Online Etymology Dictionary diplomatically sums it up, though Wellingtonia persists in British English. French botanist Joseph Decaisne reclassified the tree under Endlicher’s Sequoia in 1854, and it wasn’t until 1939 that the American botanist John Bucholz determined giant sequoias were a distinct genus from the coast redwood. Bucholz nodded to Endlicher with his new name, Sequoiadendron giganteum. (Dendron comes from the Greek for “tree,” giganteum from the Greek for “giant.”)

Names aside, there is no controversy when it comes to the majesty of sequoias, reaching hundreds of feet in the air and spanning thousands of year in age. Perhaps we can honor the likes of Pioneer Cabin Tree more directly, more immediately, more simply, and look to a name the great American naturalist John Muir once used for the sequoia: Big Tree.

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“Dakota” and “Sioux”: A tale of protest, told in etymology

Since spring, the Standing Rock Sioux have led protests against the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Missouri River and Lake Oahe by their reservation in North Dakota, fearing the oil pipeline could contaminate their water supply and desecrate sacred sites nearby. But this Sunday, their hard-fought efforts met with victory: the US Army Corps of Engineers did not approve an easement for the pipeline to go through the route in question. 

Here’s a look into the origins of Dakota and Sioux, which turn out to be perfect metaphors for this incredible protest:

Friends and foes

The meaning of Dakota, the name and language of a Sioux tribe which also graces two states in the Upper Midwest, is usually given as “friend” or “ally.” The etymology, though, may be a bit more complex. John Koontz, a linguist who specializes in Siouan languages, supposes dakota, or lakota in Lakota dialect, literally means “to be a friend by means of heat.” This “heat” may reference the Seven Council Fires, the confederation of the Sioux tribes, which alludes to “the ceremonial action of the council fires [started for gatherings] in establishing or signifying the friendship among the various Lakota (and Dakota) people.”

The Oxford English Dictionary first attests Dakota in the 1804 Journals of Lewis and Clark. Clark wrote: “This nation call themselves–Dar co tar. The French call them Souex.” Indeed, Sioux, first attested in English in 1761, is shortened from Nadouessioux, which early French explorers adapted from Natowessiwak, the name neighboring Ojibwe peoples gave to the Dakota.

It’s not a kind term, Natowessiwak. The word is pejorative and diminutive, and, according to Koontz, has two meanings: 1) “little snake,” referencing the massasauga, a small rattlesnake; and 2) “little barbarian,” literally “speaker of a foreign language.” It’s not clear which sense is primary, but both meanings belittle the Dakota as outsiders. There is much precedent for this, though: the Greek’s called foreigners barbaroi, a word that imitates the sound of unintelligible language and gives us the word barbarian. And Welsh comes from a Germanic root for “foreigner.” 

The exact etymologies of Dakota and Sioux are uncertain, but they sum up the story of the Standing Rock protests quite powerfully: Through solidarity and community action, the protestors prevailed over many who saw them, and their objections to the pipeline, like some sort of pesky other.

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“Bison”: a word nearly driven to extinction

Last week, the US declared the bison its national mammal. This thundering ungulate makes for a powerful choice, both literally and symbolically: American settlers nearly brought this brawny bovine, whose massive herds once roamed the Great Plains and were so central to many Native American cultures, to near extinction. The name bison, appropriately enough, tells a similar tale.

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The American bison. Image courtesy of Shannon Sims

Bison

Originally, the bison was a type of wild ox found throughout Europe, even in England. It’s now found only in the forests of Lithuania. In antiquity, this bison was also associated with the now-extinct aurochs or urus. Humans, clearly, have not been kind to the bison.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds its earliest evidence of bison in a Latin form, bisontes, in the late 1300s, but the word, along with the animal, then disappears from the record. It resurfaces in the 1600s, especially in historical texts like the King James Bible and classical translations. Come the 1690s, European explorers applied bison, also first in Latin form, to its new-world counterpart, Bison bison, where the word now largely roams.

Bison indeed derives from the Latin bison. English either borrowed it directly or from a French intermediary. But the word was probably not a native species to the Latin. Rome likely borrowed its word for this roamer from a Germanic source, which historical linguists represent in *wisand, itself likely migrating from a Balto-Slavic home.

Germanic languages helped populate this *wisand’s herd, including the Old English wesend. This word is as extinct as the mammal from the Isles. Except for an unlikely cognate: weasel. The bison and weasel certainly make for the sort of odd couple we’d only expect to find in a Disney movie, but their names, some etymologists believe, share a common root that notes the musky odor they emit, especially when rutting. Literally, they are the “stinking animals.”

Now, the US uses bison interchangeably with buffalo for its majestic mammal, though buffalo technically names the American bison’s distant Asian and African brethren. (Buffalo comes from the Greek, βούβαλος  or boubalos, originally used of antelopes.) They’re very different species, but these early Europeans dubbed Bison bison “buffalo” based on the likeness between the old- and new-world bovines. And well before they even used bison, in fact: the OED dates the earliest American buffalo usage to the 1630s.

The story of the word bison issues its own powerful, if small, reminder: the extinction of wildlife is even registered in language. Let’s be sure bison is never entered as “obsolete” in the dictionary. A good way to start is by keeping your distance, literally and symbolically, from wildlife, if we are to learn from a recent episode in Yellowstone National Park.

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Chucking out the “wood” in “woodchuck”

This Groundhog Day, Punxsutawney Phil may be feeling that those Iowa caucuses stole his thunder – er, shadow – with all the attention on political prognostication, not marmot meteorology. But caucuses and groundhogs have more in common than just calendars: both caucus, as we recently saw, and woodchuck, another name for the groundhog, derive from Algonquian languages.

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This woodchuck – also called a groundhog and even a whistlepig – is definitely pondering life’s big questions. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Woodchuck

How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Let’s consult the etymologists.

The answer turns out to be pretty straightforward: None. No, I’m not dismissing the rodent’s timber-tossing abilities: I’m dismissing folk etymology. For the woodchuck has nothing to do with wood, at least as far as its name is concerned.

See, woodchuck, while it looks like a naturally formed compound of wood and chuck, actually derives from Native American languages. Scholars cite the Cree otchek or Ojibwe otchig, among other forms, which were native words for the marten. (Both Cree and Ojibwe are Algonquian languages.) As early as 1674, when the Oxford English Dictionary first cites the word,  traders apparently made sense of the phonetically similar indigenous terms by altering it to the more English-y “woodchuck,” as well as transferring the name to the North American marmot, or groundhog. A variant form is wejack, which also refers to the pekan or fisher, from an Algonquian term that may have further influenced woodchuck.

During the next presidential election cycle, maybe we can take a page from the shared etymological histories of caucus and woodchuck . Forget all the fundraising, debates, campaign rallies, and polls. If the groundhog sees it’s shadow, we’ll have six more weeks of winter and then the Democratic party will – agh, then we’ll just be arguing over which party is associated with a longer winter.

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“Caucus”: a smoke-filled etymology

The next Speaker of the US House of Representative is courting the Freedom Caucus while the next President of the US is courting the Iowa caucuses. But the importance of the caucus to the American political process isn’t new. The caucus – a meeting of members of a political party or movement, especially to choose a candidate for election or to decide on policy – has long been an important part of the American political process. This is evident even in the history of the very word: some of the first records of caucus involve John Adams, Sam Adams, the Boston Tea Party, and possibly even John Smith and Pocahontas. But, like so much of American democracy, the origin of caucus is subject to debate.

"Captain John Smith." Ink and ballpoint on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
Captain John Smith has an important and complicated place in American history. We might add the origin of “caucus” to that legacy. “Captain John Smith.” Ink and ballpoint on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Caucus

A significant and early citation of caucus comes from an entry John Adams made in his diary in 1763. In this entry, Adams writes that he learned the “Caucas Clubb meets at certain Times in the Garret of Tom Daws.”  This private organization  – whose social meetings were even then associated with tobacco and drink, as his notes remark – was influential in pre-Revolutionary politics, including a possible role in the Boston Tea Party.

The Oxford English Dictionary has two citations before Adams’ own in 1763. They give us more insight into the place caucuses held in the colonies, not to mention the historic phonology of the word, especially in the New England region, where the OED concludes it arose:

1760 Boston Gaz. Suppl. 5 May The new and grand Corcas….The old and true Corcas.
1762 O. Thacher in  Proc. Mass. Hist. Soc. (1884). 20 48 The connections and discords of our politicians, corkus-men, plebeian tribes, &c.

The word was “not novel” when English minister and historian William Gordon discussed it in his 1788 “History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment of the Independence of the United States of Americans.” He recalls it as early as the 1720s, though he admits he has “no satisfactory account” of its origins, which largely remains the case today.

But we do have a number of suggestions, some of which are more electable, shall we say, than others.

Caulkers

In Gordon’s own discussion of the word, he notes the Boston caucuses met at “the north end of town, where much of the ship-building business was carried on.” Noting this, philologist John Pickering in 1816 guessed the word originated in a cant term, caulkers, shortened from caulkers’ meetings. Pickering suggests ship caulkers and their vocational brethren were known for their political meetings and activities. Scholars have swiftly dispatched this derivation.

West-Corcus

Pickering is not alone in considering the locations of these meetings, though. In his excellent account of the word, storied American writer and philologist H.L. Mencken notes that the Dictionary of American English suggests caucus “may have derived from the name of a forgotten neighborhood” based on a reference in a Boston newspaper to a meeting in the “West-Corcus in Boston” in 1745. In an interesting thread on the American Dialect Society’s email discussion list, Professor Stephen Goranson finds some wind in this speculation, though he doesn’t fully explain why.

C.A.U.C.U.S.

Pickering surfaces again in 1943, thanks to the scholarship of LeRoy Barret, as we also learn in Mencken’s work. Barret cites an attempt by Pickering to derive caucus from the initials of six members’ surnames: Cooper, Adams, Urann, Coulson, Urann, and Symmes. With characteristic mordancy, Mencken dismisses this initialism in his account of the history of the work:

There is, furthermore, an unhappy tendency among amateur etymologists to derive words from the initials of proper names, often without justification.

Kaukos

Another effort, from the Century Dictionary in 1900, looks to the drink John Adams noted. This origin takes caucus back, via Latin, to a late Greek word, kaukos, a “drinking vessel,” emphasizing the conviviality of meetings and recalling Platonic symposia. Historians, such as William Harris in his own informative piece on this problematic word,¹ have serious doubts about the record of kaukos in itself, not to mention the unlikeliness these colonial Bostonians would have adopted such a recondite word for their club.

The Powhatan cau′-cau-as′u

Some may doubt these secret politickers used Latin or Greek names, but they may have taken Native American ones. According to the OED, philologist and Algonquian scholar James H. Trumbull suggested in the Proceedings of the American Philological Association in 1872 that caucus has a

possible derivation from an Algonquin word cau′-cau-as′u, which occurs in Capt. Smith’s  Virginia 23, as Caw-cawaassough ‘one who advises, urges, encourages’, from a verb meaning primarily ‘to talk to’, hence ‘to give counsel, advise, encourage’, and ‘to urge, promote, incite to action’. For such a derivation there is claimed the general suitability of the form and sense, and it is stated that Indian names were commonly taken by clubs and secret associations in New England; but there appears to be no direct evidence.

Of all the etymological candidates for caucus, this one gets the most votes, though no nominee is ever perfect.

Caucus, then, may may come from the Algonquian spoken by the Powhatan peoples in what is now Virginia. The very political concept, too, may well have native roots. As the late Classics professor William Harris sums up in his: “And so it turns out that CAUCUS is a truly American word.”American English is indeed indebted to the very language of the peoples the colonists eradicated, to be frank. But so, too, in many complex ways we may struggle to comprehend or acknowledge, is American democracy.

¹ I did observe that Professor Harris states that Captain Smith married Pocahontas. She married John Rolfe. I felt the inaccuracy was worth noting.

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