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.

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


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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A “nasty” little etymology

In the third and final presidential debate last night, Donald Trump – amid his yet more shocking refusal to say whether he’ll accept the election results – called Hillary Clinton “a nasty woman.” Nasty can be such a nasty word. Where does it come from?


Nasty starts “fouling” up the English language in the 14th century. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests it in Carleton Brown’s 1390 Religious Lyrics of the 14th Century: “Whon we be nasti, nouȝt at neode, Neore wimmen help, hou schulde we fare?”

Back then, as it still does for some speakers of Black English, nasty meant “filthy” and “dirty.” The word has since made quite a semantic mess, so to speak: “offensive, annoying” (1470s); “unpleasant” (1540s); “repellent (to the senses)” and “lewd” (1600s); and “ill-tempered, spiteful” (1820s). Slang has also widely taken up nasty, from a term for “excellent” to sex-related usages.

For as much use as English has made of nasty, we aren’t certain about its origins. Here are three leading theories:

  1. Nasty comes from the Dutch nestig, “dirty” like a bird’s nest. The source of this word, alas , is also unclear.
  2. Nasty (and nestig) could be related to a Scandinavian source, such as the Swedish naskug, “dirty,” with nask meaning “dirt.” Walter Skeat maintains, though, this dialectical word lost an initial s- and comes from snaska, “to eat like a pig,” that is, greedily and noisily. Snaska, Skeat continues, imitates the sound of such consumption. Middle English has nasky, a variant of nasty, which suggests some Scandinavian word at least reinforced nasty if they’re not immediately related. 
  3. Nasty derives from the Old French nastre, “strange, lowly, bad,” shortened from villenastre, “infamous, ignoble.” Villenastre joins villein (source of villain, a “rustic” that became associated with more nefarious qualities, perhaps not unlike clown) and -aster, a pejorative suffix seen in the likes of poetaster, an “inferior” poet. 

Nasty, it seems, is a nasty little word with a nasty little etymology.

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Gaudí gaudy or gaudy Gaudí?

My wife and I are enjoying a long weekend in beautiful Barcelona, a city graced with the dreamy and daring architecture of Antoni Gaudí. Many like to claim that English gets its word gaudy thanks to the architect’s distinctive style. Gaudí looks and sounds like gaudy. Some may even characterize his works as gaudy. But this etymology is as fanciful as Gaudi’s buildings.

The adjective “gaudy” likely comes from the noun “gaudy,” an old term for an ornamental bead on the Catholic rosary. Image by Maureen Shryock, courtesy of www.freeimages.com


Gaudí was born in 1852. English has been using the adjective gaudy since the early 1500s. That takes care of this bit of folk etymology. But just as Gaudí’s structures are exuberant in shape, texture, and color, so the origin of gaudy enjoys its own “exuberant” origins.

A gaudy once named a larger ornamental bead on Catholic rosaries. This word (1434) is a variant or mistaken plural of gaud (1390), which also named a “trinket” or “bauble.” Ornamental beads lead to ornamental gewgaws, which lead to the adjective gaudy for something “excessively ornate.” This usage is attested by the late 16th century. Earlier in the century, gaudy signified “luxurious” fare but also something “full of trickery” – and such merry-making indeed points us to the deeper roots of the word.

Gaud, the prayer bead, ultimately seems to come from the Latin gaudium, “joy.” In the saying of the Rosary, gaudies marked the so-called Joyful Mysteries, or gaudia in Latin, a set of prayers associated with the early life of Jesus Christ. At the root of gaudium is gaudēre, “to rejoice” or “be merry.” Filtered through French, the -joice in rejoice also comes from gaudēre, as does joy, enjoy, and perhaps even the word jewel. Indo-European philologists root Latin’s gaudēre in *gau-, “to rejoice,” although the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots notes it carried the special sense of “to have religious fear or awe” – an experience some have before Gaudí’s work.

Gaudy is also featured in the archaic word gaudy-green, a “yellowish green” that gets its color from dye made out of the weld plant. This gaudy appears to come from the Old French gaude, meaning “weld,” but perhaps its bright, flashy color influenced the ostentation we associate with gaudy.

And as for the name Gaudí? The origin of the family name is unclear, but some think that it comes from the French gaudir, “to enjoy” – which is from the very same Latin root gaudēre. So, it turns out that Gaudí didn’t lend his name to gaudy, but that gaudy, in an etymological manner of speaking, lent its name to Gaudí. Now that’s whimsical.

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Fascist baskets? The controversial origin of “basket”

At a recent fundraiser, Hillary Clinton turned heads when she remarked “you could put half of Trump’s supporters in what I call the basket of deplorables.” As political analysts consider the gaffe’s political fallout, the internet churns out hashtags and memes, and linguists inspect the odd usage of deplorables, etymologists are weighing a different controversy: the origin of the word basket

Trying to declutter etymology: “Basket.” Image by Jean Scheijen, courtesy of freeimages.com


Writing in the first century AD, the Roman poet Martial quipped:

Barbara de pictis veni bascauda Britannis;
Sed me iam mavolt dicere Roma suam.

As one translation renders the epigram: “I, a barbarian basket, came from the painted Britons; but now Rome claims me for her own.” The Romans, it would seem, greatly admired Celtic wickerwork – and Martial, apparently, even liked to anthropomorphize it.

Etymologists have long cited this passage for the origin of basket, which isn’t woven into the English written record until the 1200s. They claim bascauda is a Latinization of a Celtic word Romans borrowed following contact between the two ancient cultures.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) takes issue with this theory, though. First, modern Celtic languages have basket words (e.g., Irish bascaed), but the record suggests they are actually loaned from English’s basket. Second, the dictionary is skeptical about the shift from Latin’s bascauda, a “bathing tub” or “brass vessel,” to English’s wicker basket.

But Ernest Weekley and Anatoly Liberman rebuff the OED’s skepticism. Weekley observes that canister, usually made of metal, is from the Latin for “wicker basket,” as it happens. Liberman explains that tunnel comes from a Germanic root for “cask.”

And how do make sense of the Old French baschoe, a “large wooden container”? This word, which yields the Anglo-French bascat, appears to evolve from Latin’s bascauda. Anyways, Liberman says bascauda probably meant a “large tub made of wood or wicker for washing goblets during or after a meal, rather than a bronze vessel.” 

So, it seems the Romans borrowed some woodworking technology from the Celts (consider the origin of car). They called this particular, tub-like container the bascauda. French fashioned this into baschoe, later morphing into bascat as the word made it way into English basket. And -et, a diminutive suffix we saw in the origin of target, helps explain how a “large wooden container” shrank down to something you’d take to a picnic.

As for bascauda? This could be related to fasces, a “bundle,” an important Roman symbol of authority and origin of the word fascism – the very sort of intolerant ideology Hillary Clinton tried, and failed, to call out with her “basket of deplorables” comment.

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Should old acquaintance be forgot, as we sing in the New Year with Robert Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne.” While we may be well-acquainted with this tradition, the etymology of the word acquaintance may be much less well-known, shall we say.

Raise your pint-stoup! “Acquaintance.” Doodle by me.


English gets acquainted with acquaintance from French sometime around the 1300s, at least as the written record is concerned. Deriving from the Old French acointance, acquaintance originally referred to “friendship” or “friend.”

These are the acquaintances we take a cup of kindness to. For only later did the word shade towards its very useful distinction of “someone who is known but not a close friend,” as Merriam-Webster concisely glosses it. Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary notes that the sense of acquaintance referring to actual persons – as opposed to the condition of so knowing persons – is “not paralleled in the Romance languages.”

Around the same time English borrowed acquaintance, it also borrowed the word’s root verb: acquaint, from the French verb acointier“to make the acquaintance (of a person),” among many other meanings (and spellings) that evolved in the language over time.

Whaddaya know?

Now, the French acointier – as I’m sure you’ve guessed if you’re at all acquainted with Romance languages or this blog – comes from Latin. Here, we are ultimately looking at accognitus, past participle of accognoscere, “to know well.” This verb, in turn, joins ad-, “to,” and cognoscere, “to come to know.” Cognoscere itself joins cum-, “with,” and  gnoscere, “to know.”

If we dig deeper, Indo-European scholars link Latin’s gnoscere to *gno-, “to know,” a very prolific root. Last year, we saw this root’s many offspring – from could to narrative – in two posts: “*Gno– (Part I)” and “*Gno– (Part II).”

In this etymological light, acquaintance almost looks like a complete stranger, but that’s just how the sound, shape, and sense of words change over time. Just like the word quaint, indeed a cousin of acquaintance, as I wrote in “*Gno– (Part II)”:

Did your English teacher like to point out its salacious pun in so many poems? Quaint, oh how far your form and sense has come! Like cognition, the word is rooted in cognoscere. Just as notus was noscere‘s past participle, so cognitus (“well-known”) was cognoscere‘s. In French, it shed its ending and merge its medial sounds, yielding coint, “fine” and “neat.” If you keep French pronunciation in mind, you might see how English rendered the word as queintquoint, and, now, quaint. It started out meaning “skillful,” “crafty,” “pretty,” and “ingenious” (Skeat; Weekley), evolved to “odd” and “whimsical” (Skeat) as well as the now better known “old-fashioned.”

So, whaddaya know? Lest we forget, that’s what acquaintance is all about.

Happy New Year!

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Bringing home the “bacon”

Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) caused many to flinch about flitch when it declared bacon and other processed meats carcinogenic. The actual report, of course, is more complicated than just that – unlike the etymology of bacon, which is fairly straightforward, even if a bit backwards, shall we say.

"Bacon." Doodle by me.
“Bacon.” Doodle by me.


English has been enjoying bacon since the early 1300s, naming fresh and especially cured flesh from the backs and sides of pigs. In the US, a strip of bacon is typically meat from the belly, but the back cuts fried up in many other cultures’ kitchens gives us an important taste of the word’s roots.

Bacon comes into English from the Old French bacon, perhaps via the Medieval Latin bacō.  From here, historical linguists find cognates in other Germanic languages, stripping the word from the Proto-Germanic *bakon-, which is ultimately cognate with English’s own “back.”

Cut as it is from the pig, this back-y bacon has thus been associated more generally with the body, à la skin or hide, yielding expressions such as to save one’s bacon and to sell one’s bacon.

Now, bacon-maniacs might turn to some 17th-century bacon-wrapped insults to express their feelings on the WHO’s report: bacon-brainsbacon-fed, and baconslicer all once denigrated rustic simpletons, the Oxford English Dictionary records. The meat, so it goes, was once a key foodstuff for peasants.

And it is this very connection – that cured pork was really the only meat available to most families in the Middle Ages – that has led to one common origin story for the expression bring home the bacon. Rewards for marital devotion in 12th-century England, greased-pig contests, the luxury of pork in early colonial America? These are other explanations, but Michael Quinion, among others, notes that the first evidence of the expression comes in 1906 in reference to a famous boxing match.

Whatever the particular origins of bringing home the bacon, one thing’s for sure: for bacon-lovers, the WHO has issued some fighting words.

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Last week, the US Supreme Court issued a landmark decision, declaring a right to same-sex marriage all across the Union. Court analysts have been going beneath the robes of the justices, especially Justice Kennedy in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, to deepen our understanding of the man and mind behind the opinion. Let’s go beneath the word robe for an etymological ruling.

Watch out for robbers during bath time. "Robe." Doodle by @andrescalo.
Watch out for robbers during bathtime. “Robe.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


Robes have long been worn to signify one’s rank, office, or profession, and the word robe has long been used a metonym for those professions. This is true of judges, whose custom of wearing black robes is subject to differing opinions, as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor herself notes. For all the justice symbolized by a judge’s robe, the origin of the word is rather criminal, shall we say.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites robe in the early 13th century. English borrowed the word from the Old French robe, which, in turn, borrowed the Germanic *rauba. Yet “borrow” might not be the best verb here. For *rauba, as with the Old French robe, means “booty” or “spoils of war” – literally, “clothes taken from an enemy.” As Walter Skeat explains, this root came to name “a garment because the spoils of the slain consisted chiefly of clothing.”

We talk about thieves taking everything but the shirts off our backs. Not so, apparently, for robes. Fugitives, however, will gladly shed their outerwear, as we saw in my recent post on escape.

This taking, this despoiling? It’s robbery. Old French also fashioned *rauba into a verb, rober, “to plunder,” “to pillage,” “to steal,” or “to rob,” source of English’s very own rob. Evidenced even before roberob, and robbery – all of which the OED attests in around 1225 – is robber, cited in a manuscript dated back to around 1175. The word appears alongside reafer (“Robberas & Reafer[as]”), which is a form of reaver, from reave, “to rob” – and related to that very *raubaReave is not very common anymore, but it does live on in bereave and bereft, characterizing the loss of a loved one we’ve been robbed of.

Indo-European scholars pick roberob, and reave from the pocket of the Proto-Indo-European root, *reup-, “to snatch.” There were was a lot of loot in this *reup-, including the very word loot, as we previously encountered on my post on loot. Other cognates include riprublerover, tempo rubato (the Italian musical term for “robbed time”) and the many English derivatives of the Latin rumpere, “to burst,” including bankruptcy, which is plaguing the likes of Puerto Rico and Greece, essentially.

If you don’t want to get robbed of your robes, guard them in a wardrobe, which is, etymologically, a “guard-robe.”


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The two convicts who escaped from prison in New York almost two weeks ago still elude the grasp of authorities – quite true, too, if we look to the etymology of escape.

"Escape." Doodle by me.
“Escape.” Or something like that. Doodle by me.


If we look to its earliest form, ascape, English captured escape from the French as early as 1250. The Old French verb eschaper comes from the late Latin *excappāre, which joins ex– (“out of”) and cappa (“cape” or “cloak”). As Walter Skeat explains it, to escape is literally “to slip out of one’s cape.” For the sense of this, Ernest Weekley refers us to a Greek verb ἐκδύεσθαι (ekduesthai), a Greek verb meaning “to put off one’s clothes, escape, the idea being that of leaving one’s cloak in the clutch of the pursuer.”

The root of the late Latin cappa – caput, from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *kaput-, both meaning “head” – cloaks many an English word: capitol and capital, cap and the selfsame cape, biceps and triceps, captain and chief, and achieve and capitulate, to name a prominent few. The PIE *kaput- also heads up English’s own head, whose Old English predecessor, hēafod, lost some sounds along the way.


One derivative of cappa – chapel – involves a very special cape or cloak indeed, one famously left behind by St. Martin of Tours (who was also famed for helping prisoners escape, as it happens, though these prisoners were admittedly of a very different sort). For this legend, we turn from etymology to hagiography.

As the legend goes, one winter’s day, while serving against his will in Roman army in the 4th century, a young Martin came across a beggar wearing mere rags in the cold. Martin used his soldier’s sword to cut his cloak in two, giving half to the beggar. That night, he dreamed that Jesus Christ was wearing that half and commented on Martin’s compassion. In the morning, the halved cloak was made whole. Frankish kings, the legend continues, kept the cloak as a miraculous relic, using it for oath-making and bringing it into battle. Eventually, certain priests guarded the sacred relic – the little cloak, or cappella – in a sanctuary. The priests were known as cappellanior chaplains, as it became in the French; the sanctuary, a chapel. This is a story literally a cappella, or “in the style of the chapel,” such is the origin of unaccompanied vocal music.

I suppose comic books get it right here: both superheroes and villains wear capes.

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Comparisons are apt. Majorities are vast. Experiences are harrowing. Situations are hairy. Competition is stiff. Coffee is strong. Linguists describe this habitual juxtaposition or co-occurence of words as “collocation.” In her indictment of FIFA officials last week, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch used one example in describing the organization’s corruption as “rampant.”

Why do we describe corruption as “rampant”? I searched Google Books and came across an early example of the phrase in John Brown Patterson’s 1828 On the National Character of Athenians and the Causes of those Peculiarities by which it was Distinguished, an essay commissioned for a prize of 100 guineas by the University of Edinburgh to students there:

The national constitution having unfortunately, in great measure, taken for granted the virtue of its administrators, no check was found in the law to the rampant corruption.

The next citation I could find is in an 1836 Edinburgh publication of The Scottish Christian Herald and then in an 1847 London publication of the Wesleyan Methodist Association Magazine. Historically, we should recall, corruption frequently characterized moral depravity. And rampant–well, let’s have a look at the history of this word.


Today, rampant primarily refers to something spreading “unchecked.” Coming into English from the French, the word first appears, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), around 1300, when it frequently collocated with a very different noun: lion, as in “a lion rampant.” (Why does the adjective follow the noun? French generally places its modifiers after the noun. Linguistically, we call this a “postnominal adjective.” This is why we say, well, attorney general, due especially to the influence of Law French on English.)

Rampant originally described animals, particularly lions, “rearing or standing with the forepaws in the air” (OED). The term was especially used in heraldry, as in a lion depicted in rampant attitude on a crest:

“Rampant.” Doodle by @andrescalo.

A rampant posture was, unsurprisingly, a “ferocious” one. Thus, by the early to mid 1500s, rampant was describing something “fierce” and “in high spirits,” as in a rampant horse (OED). This was then likened to the phenomenon of something “running rampant,” like corruption, today.

The French rampant is formed from the verb ramper, “to climb” or “crawl,” which English eventually elevated into, say, a highway ramp or to ramp something up, among many other usages based on the verb ramp.  Rampage, first appearing verbally as rampaging in Scottish dialect as well as the wonderful adjective rampageous, may also be formed on ramp.

The French ramper may derive from the Frankish *hrampon, according to Baumgartner and Ménard. Frankish was a Germanic language, and some etymologists ground this *hrampon in the same Proto-Germanic root that gives English the very un-ferocious rumple and rimple: *hrimp- or *hrump-. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, this *hrimp- is reconstructed in the Proto-Indo-European *(s)kerb-, “to turn” or “bend,” perhaps also responsible for scorchshrimp, and scrimp, and maybe even the Welsh cromlech.

So, what it so rampant about a rumpleWell, Ernest Klein glosses the Frankish *hrampon as “to contract oneself convulsively.” Climbing and crawling, I suppose we can visualize, involve bodily contortions. Ramper‘s early usages in French may be instructive, as the verb was used of those wriggly reptiles, as well as of quadrupeds more generally, explaining the rearing of “rearing up.”

In FIFA’s case, then, we might understand rampant corruption as very rumpled white collar crime.

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Last post, we studied the origin of finale, an appropriate word for this time of year. Come summer, many students finish their final finals. They don their caps. They don their gowns. They endure long addresses. They walk the stage. They receive their diploma (holder). They graduate. In some traditions, students toss the tassels on their mortarboards from the right side to left at the ceremony’s close, signaling their newly graduated status. What of the etymology of tassel, which–unless you are frequently drawing drapes, cloaking yourself in capes, or slipping on some loafers–gets much of its attention during graduation season?

"Tassel." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Tassel.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites tassel back to around 1330, naming a “clasp” that fastens together the two sides of a cloak. By the 1400s, tassel was referring to a “pendent ornament,” a tuft of cords bunched and suspended at a knot or knob.   

Many etymologists unfasten tassel, if you will, to the Old French tassel, also a “clasp” for a mantle or cloak, which is from the medieval Latin tasselus. This tasselus, in turn, could come from the classical Latin taxillus, a “small die” used in gambling, from talus, a “knucklebone,” “anklebone,” “ankle,” or “heel.” (This talus also equipped English with talon, which once named a “heel” or “hoof” in addition to its prevailing sense of a “claw” today.)

Now, the graduate’s parents may think that that English major is real gamble, but what do tassels have to do with bones? As Skeat concludes, a tassel was originally “a sort of button made by a piece of squared bone and afterwards of other materials,” evolving from the clasp to the ornament we know today. But not all etymologists are convinced.

Ernest Weekley posits that the Old French tassel is a diminutive form of tas, rendering tassel a “little heap.” He points us to the Middle English tass, a “heap” or “bunch,” which may aptly describe the graduate’s student loan debt. The OED offers tossel, an 18th-century variant that may connect the word to toss, evoking that other graduation tradition of throwing the cap in the air. Toss has been quite the active and versatile word since its recorded debut in the early 1500s, but it, too, is of unknown origin. The OED adds that “the only cognate word appears to be the Norwegian and Swedish dialect tossa,” glossed as “to spread, strew.”

In my opinion, the best etymologies are like diplomas: always earned, never handed out. To all the graduates out there, flip your tassels–and congratulations.

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