“Armageddon,” “catastrophe,” and other “apocalyptic” word origins

The end of the world loves ancient Greek and the Bible.

Threats between North Korea and President Trump this week made many of us fear were approaching the brink of a nuclear catastrophe—among other, stronger and more colorful terms like armageddon. Well, not even the prospect of the end of the world can shake the etymological curiosity of this blogger. Why not go out with a little word nerdery and find out where our English’s apocalyptic vocabulary comes from?

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Mushroom cloud from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki (Wikimedia Commons)

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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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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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Deal

First off, in case you missed the magenta, the Mashed Radish has a new look. Let me know what you think. Special thanks to my brother, Andrew, whom you probably know for the doodles he whips up for my posts, for the new images and input. Now, back to etymology.

Last week, after years of negotiation, the US brought together five world powers to reach a historic deal with Iran limiting that country’s nuclear development. True to the etymology of the word, the deal has quickly proved “divisive.” Let’s negotiate the origin of deal.

“Deal.” Ink, Sharpie, highlighter, and ballpoint on lined paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

No big deal

The English language has been dealing with deal for quite a long time. Originally, a deal was no big deal. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds record of the word as early as 700, when a deal or dǽl in Old English, was a “part” or “portion” of something, such as some deal of flour.

We’ve largely lost this sense of the word, although it does survive in the expression “a good (or great) deal (of).” A good deal of people feel the Iran agreement is a good deal; a good deal of people, of course, feel not.

Deal with it

By the end of the first millennium, the OED cites deal in verbal form: “to divide,” hence “to distribute” or “to share,” pointing to its later “transactional” sense – as well as its deeper origins, as we will see later. Over the centuries, deal broadened to signify “to take part in,” “to handle (or deal with),” “to do business with,” and, by the mid 1500s, “to distribute cards.”

The OED traces its current sense of a business deal back to slang in the late 1830s. Some decades later in the US, a deal had shadier connotations, referring to secret, underhand agreements. A bad deal – or raw or rough deal – was cheating, which many fear Iran will do in its deal. This usage might be connected to cheating at cards, which would require a new deal  (or “fresh start”for a square or fair deal.

Teddy Roosevelt dealt a Square one, of course. Big deal: His distant cousin, FDR, dealt a New one. A real deal can be a big steal, unless the dealer is wheeling and dealing.

Ordeal or no deal 

Some think the Iran deal isn’t a big deal but a big ordeal. Ordeal is indeed related to deal, featuring  a Germanic prefix meaning “out.” Originally, an ordeal was a “dealing out” of judgment, as accused persons were once put to trial – by an ordeal of fire, hot water, cold water, or combat, among other tests – believed to be “divine proof” of guilt or innocence, the OED notes. If the accused lives, God has intervened and the person is judged innocent.

Now that’s quite the ordeal. The word reemerged in the 1600s as a trial or test more generally.

Let’s make a deal

As we saw before, deal meant “to divide” many centuries ago. This meaning deals directly with the further origins of the word, as historical linguists reconstruct the word, common to the Germanic languages, in the Proto-Germanic root *daili-z (or *dailaz), in turn from the Proto-Indo-European *dail-, “to divide.” Dole also derives from this form.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots reaches further, proposing *dail- as Northern variant of *da-, also “to divide.” According to the dictionary, time and tide, which we might understand as more primitive “dividers” of the human terrestrial experience, also derive from *da-.

As might the Greek δῆμος (demos)which originally described a  particular political “district” in society, “divided” off, you might read, from other ones. Demos came to name “the common people,” giving us democracy – which will go to work when the US Congress takes up the Iran deal.

Deal_Ink Sharpie Highlighter and Ballpoint_scribbles

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nuclear

To its supporters, last week’s preliminary deal with Iran marks a momentous step towards nuclear nonproliferation. To its opponents, it’s plain nuts. Good deal or bad deal, nuclear is indeed nutty, etymologically speaking.

"Walnut." Doodle by @andrescalo,
“Walnut.” Doodle by @andrescalo,

Mixed “Nuts”

Nuclear is evidenced in the English language since 1833, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Its nucleus, if you will, nucleus, is attested much earlier in 1668, referring to the core of a comet and attributed to Polish statesman and astronomer Johannes Hevelius. Nucleus‘ sense of core made it quite useful to the sciences down the centuries, applied not only in astronomy but also in anatomy, biology, chemistry, and eventually physics. Michael Faraday used it to describe the hypothetical core of an atom, which Ernest Rutherford confirmed in 1911, using the term in his paper in the following year.

Where does nucleus come from? You guessed it: Latin, where it means “nut” or “kernel,” connected to nucula (“small nut”), a diminutive of nux, also naming a “nut” or “nut tree.” This nux turns out to be related to English’s own nut (Old English hnutu), with Proto-Indo-European scholars positing a root in *kneu-, again “nut.”

Aside from other scientific forms, such as nucleotidenucleic, and nucellusnux may have yielded the French-based newel, originally the central pillar of a spiral staircase, today primarily referring to the main post of a handrail. While this connection is uncertain, nut is solidly related to nougat, that delectable confection made from sweetened egg whites and nuts, especially almonds.

As Seinfeld‘s George Constanza made clear in his notorious battle over a Twix candy bar, “I think I’ve reached the point in my life where I can tell the difference between nougat and cookie.” Oh, if only nuclear agreements were this hilarious and delicious.

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