Gun. It’s such a cruelly simple word for a terrorizing technology that is senselessly and needlessly claiming too many American lives—59 alone, as we witnessed in the horrific massacre in Las Vegas this week. Where does this deadly word derive from?
Today’s etymology comes by special request—or rather, acute observation—of Barbara, a loyal reader I had the great pleasure to meet in Ireland this week. Baffle came up in casual conversation and she, owing in no small part to her wise and inspiring 89 years as an educator and intellect, wondered, as we word nerds always do: Where does the word baffle come from?
Well, Barbara, the origin of baffle is quite…baffling.
Of Knights and Noise
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first finds baffle in Edward Hall’s 1548 Chronicle, which traces the history of the houses of York and Lancaster from Henry IV to Henry VIII. For Hall, baffle meant “to disgrace publicly,” used especially of perjured knights. As he writes in his chapter on Henry VIII:
He was content, that the Scottes shoulde Baffull hym, whiche is a great reproache amonge the Scottes, and is vsed when a man is openly periured, and then they make of hym an Image paynted reuersed, with hys heles vpwarde, with hys name, wonderyng cryenge and blowing out of hym with hornes.
This usage has lead some etymologists to suspect baffle is a variation or corruption of the Scottish bauchle, “to subject to disgrace.” This verb is possibly based on the adjective bauch, “weak, poor, abashed, tasteless,” which might come from the Old Norse bágr, “uneasy, poor” or bagr, “awkward, clumsy.”
Near the end of the 1500s, though, a different sense of baffle emerges: “to cheat, bewilder, foil,” from which the modern meaning (i.e., perplex, thwart) settles in by 1670s. The verb, in its “forestalling” sense, yields the noun baffler/baffle in the mid-to-late 1800s, referring to various kinds of shielding devices (e.g., a sound baffle).
This baffle has directed etymologists to the Old French beffler (deceive, mock) and bafouer (deceive, abuse, hoodwink, etc.), two forms that might arise from beffe, “mockery.” And beffe? Perhaps Old French owes this to our good, ole etymological friend, onomatopoeia: Baf!, an interjection of disgust along the lines of Bah! or Pooh! Maybe the Scots bauchle and French bafouer are related—or maybe they aren’t and just got confused.
Etymology, yes, can be so baffling, but baf! Sometimes it can also just be so simple.
Thanks very much for the suggestion, Barbara. If you ever have a suggestion or if a certain word ever tickles your curiosity, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The word condemn is surprisingly related to the Irish word for “poem.”
White supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday, leading to the death of three people, including Heather Heyer, a counter-protester driven down by an Ohio terrorist with neo-Nazi sympathies. It took President Trump a woeful two days to directly condemn this violence and hate—and even then, his “strongest possible terms” left many wanting. In the wake of these horrid events, today’s post will focus on the origin of the word condemn.
Recent reports are revealing that Russian meddling in the 2016 US election was more extensive than initially understood. As investigators continue probing the interference, let’s meddle with the etymology of meddle.
Being loyal isn’t always legal—except when it comes to etymology.
In written testimony to the Senate, fired FBI director James Comey described an encounter with President Trump in January that Trump needed and expected “loyalty” from Comey. This word loyalty, though, isn’t just at the center of an incredible legal and political drama: It’s at the heart of an etymological one, too.
The word impeach begins—and can end up—in “shackles.”
The political nature of Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey, coupled with Comey’s memo that Trump asked him to “let go” of the investigation of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, are prompting a lot of talk about the I-word—impeachment—over concerns that Trump may have obstructed justice. Time, along with FBI evidence and witnesses in congressional investigations, will tell whether impeachment is called for. In the meantime, let’s have a look at why it’s called impeach.
A week out, Donald Trump’s firing of James Comey, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), has only raised more questions than it answers. In the meantime, let’s put the word bureau under an etymological investigation.
The roots of coverage span from medieval fire prevention to famous Scottish diaries.
On Monday, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that 24 million Americans will lose coverage over the next decade under the Republican plan to replace Obamacare. Let’s follow up on last week’s look at insurance by reading over the etymological terms of coverage.
The wordage of coverage
Insurance-wise, coverage refers to “all the risks covered by the terms of an insurance contract,” as Merriam-Webster defines it. This use, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds, is first recorded in the 1912 Agents’ Records from Hartford, Connecticut: “There will be nineteen policyholders disillusionized and disgusted with the limited coverage contract.” I suspect there will be many, many more such policyholders today.
This coverage, though, may not have been English’s first go at the word. The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology notes that coverage named “a charge for a booth at fair” as early as 1642. The Online Etymology Dictionary puts it even earlier, in the mid 1400s. I had trouble tracking down any further information about this word, though it certainly calls ups the modern sense of “paying a cover” to see a band or get into a club.
Coverage’s basic plan, as you probably guessed, is the word cover plus -age. What is this -age? It’s all over English: beverage, bondage, breakage, luggage, marriage, message, orphanage, and signage, to name a mere few. The suffix forms mass and abstract nouns as well as denotes action or condition. In recent years, it’s enjoyed some more humorous productivity. There was a lot of ‘Tweetage’ when the Oscars flubbed the Best Picture winner. People got into some serious ‘bracketage’ when the NCAA release its 2017 March Madness basketball rankings. This –age is from French, reshaped from the Latin, noun-forming suffix –aticum.
As for cover, it’s been covering a lot of different ideas in the English language for a long time. The OED cites cover for “to shield, protect, shelter” as early as 1275. By 1300 we have “to conceal,” revealing cover’s connection to covert. A batch of religious citations around 1340 shows cover applied to clothes and caps. And come 1382, cover was covering pots with lids and spreading jams over bread. The noun cover is early, too, referring especially to concealing/protective outer layers by 1300.
The sense of cover behind insurance coverage (to defray costs, to meet or compensate a liability or risk, to protect by insurance) emerges in the record by the 1820s. Here, the OED cites The Journal of Sir Walter Scott, which the legendary author kept, in extraordinary and often heart-wrenching detail, from 1825 until he died in 1832. On March 23, 1828, Scott writes that payment for his Tales from a Grandfather “will prettily cover my London journey.” Scott faced some serious financial woes in the late 1820s; his novels saved him from ruin.
For a lecture, say, to cover the extent of some subject is by 1793 while for a newspaper to cover a story is by 1893. To cover, or “defend,” someone in sports? That’s dated to 1907. To cover someone else’s song? 1965. To cover, or “substitute for,” someone’s class? 1970.
Latin’s got it covered
Just as we get -age from French, so too we get cover. It derives from the Old French covrir (cover, protect, conceal, etc.), formed from the Latin cooperire. That looks like cooperate, but the two are not related. And recover, as in “get better,” is from the same Latin root that yields recuperate.
The Latin cooperire meant “to cover entirely.” The co- (related to com-) comes from cum (with), here intensifying a sense of completeness (together > altogether). This operire meant “to close, cover,” opposite of aperire (open). With a different prefix, dis- (away, undo) operire also gives us discover. The original sense of discover in English (1330s) was to betray someone’s secret identity.
The French covrir shows up in some surprising other places. Kerchief? It’s literally from the French for “cover head” (Old French couvrechief). The cloth started out as a women’s head-covering. And curfew, as I previously explored on the blog, means “cover fire” (Old French cuevrefeu). It originally sounded an evening bell in medieval Europe telling townspeople to put out their fires to prevent bigger conflagrations.
With the CBO’s score for the healthcare plan, many Republicans might be scrambling to cover their heads and put out the fires – or else too many more Americans, having lost their coverage, will be coughing into handkerchiefs.
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Originally, we didn’t make messes. We ate them.
In his presser yesterday, Trump claimed: “To be honest, I inherited a mess. It’s a mess. At home, and abroad — a mess.” Clearly, he was describing his own news conference, which was a hot one, because the facts just don’t back him up. But Trump does raise an interesting etymological question: Where do we inherit the word mess from?
On the table
English first serves up mess around 1300. Back then, it named “food for one meal.” The word comes into English from the Old French mes (Modern French mets) and, before it, the Latin missus, a “portion of food” or “a course at dinner.” This etymological idea of “a serving” explains why we use mess as a general term for some loose “quantity,” particularly food, e.g., a mess of greens.
In Latin, missus literally means something “placed” or “put” – here, food on the table. The root verb is mittere, which shifted from “send” in Classical Latin to “place or put” in the language’s later years. Mittere has also delivered bundles of English words, from mass and mission to commit and promise.
Getting into a “mess”
Over the centuries, mess lost its Michelin stars, so to speak. By the 1400s, mess referred to goopy foods like porridge, hence the biblical idiom mess of pottage. (Today, we might recognize such a mess as the pasty gruel often plated up to ravenous children in the hellish summer camps of TV and movies.) This sense lead to a kind of “mixed, liquid slop fed to animals” in the 1700s. Alexander Pope, as an early instance, mocks metaphorical hogs chowing down on mess in his 1738 “Epilogue to the Satires.”
And it’s from this notion of a nasty, mushy mixture that we get the modern mess: the senses of “jumble,” “confusion,” and “untidiness” emerge in the written record around the 1810s. Offshoots like mess up, make a mess of, and messy appear by the 1830-40s. To mess around, playfully or idly, is attested by the 1850s. Sexually? We’ve been messing around since at least the 1890s.
The food sense of mess, though, kept cooking. In the 1400s, mess also referred to “a company of people who took their meal together,” especially military personnel in groups of four. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare mentions “a mess of Russians,” referring not to all the controversies surrounding the Trump administration, but to the four noble lovers in disguise.
From “dining companion,” mess later extended to the food and building where soldiers ate, thus compounds like mess bag, mess cook, messmate, mess hall, and hot mess.
Not-so-hot, new slang
Yes, a hot mess was a originally a warm meal, especially a soft, porridge-like mixture (as we previously saw) ladled out in mess halls. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a figurative use of in a hot mess, or “in a challenging situation,” in the 1860s. And the modern slang hot mess, “someone or something in extreme confusion or disorder,” has first been found from one P.J. Conlon in an 1899 Monthly Journal International Association Machinists: “Verily, I say unto you, the public is a hot mess.” Nowadays, hot serves to intensify the sense of messiness.
Merriam-Webster Associate Editor Emily Brewster has more on the history of hot mess – ever the apt phrase in our political moment, no matter what Trump wants to tell us, or himself – in her terrific video.
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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!