Some etymological—and political—lessons of “condemn”

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.

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Condemn, as in to “declare a building unfit for use,” first appears in the 18th century. (Pixabay

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Inside the etymological cave of “cub”

After a 108-year drought, the Chicago Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series. The team fought their way back to victory over the Tribe with all the ferocity and tenacity of their ursine namesake – or at least when that cub comes of age. In honor of the champions, let’s have a peek into the etymological cave of cub.

Cub

The official mascot of the Chicago Cubs is a young bear cub. The Chicago Daily News nicknamed the team the Cubs in 1902, as they’ve been called ever since. But previously, the club was known as the White Stockings, Colts, and even the Orphans.

In the English language, cub didn’t refer to young bears but young foxes. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates the word back to 1530. It was soon after extended to the young of other animals, like lions, tigers, and bears, who were originally called whelps. We can trace its metaphorical use for an “undeveloped youth” to Shakespeare, “apprentice” or “beginner” to Mark Twain.

While cub appears relatively late in English, its origin is obscure. Many etymologists have attempted a connection to the Old Irish cuib, a “dog,” but the historical record doesn’t quite bear this out. If this is the case, the Irish-based cub would be cognate to canine, cynic, hound, and other Indo-European words for dogs. Others have linked it to the Old Norse kobbi, a “seal,” from a base sense of a shapeless “block” or “stump,” alluding to the clumsy lump that is a newborn seal. This kobbi is related to a Germanic base for “cup” and “head” (think kopf). The Old Norse theory, involving that blobby, baby seal, also resonates with the old myth that baby bears were born without any form and had to be licked into shape by their mothers. 

While the etymology of cub may be obscure, the Chicago Cubs have proven this season that they are anything but – even if it took over a century.

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Four-leaf etymologies: slew

A good etymology is like finding a four-leaf clover. So often, we stroll through words as if through a field of common trefoil. But sometimes, for reasons I don’t think any of us wholly understand, we chance upon something special hidden in the otherwise ordinary green.

This happened to me for the word slew.

I think my readers are mostly familiar with my writing process here. I listen out for words trending in the ether and see what their etymologies can illuminate about them. Often, they are words in the news. Other times, they follow the rhythm of the calendar – like today, St. Patrick’s Day.

The holiday is a natural occasion to write about some words of Irish origin. Words like leprechaun and shamrock first jump out, of course, but I feel like these words are like hunting for a four-leaf clover. We just never find one when our search is deliberate.

So, I continue through the clover field and stumble upon a word like phony, whose surprisingly Irish etymology I recently plucked. Or boycott, which has Irish roots, too, though in a different manner, as I also discussed not long ago. There are many others: slogan and galore are particularly excellent specimens.

But this time, slew, as in a whole slew of clovers, was my lucky find.

Slew

Slew is so plain and everyday a word to be invisible, taken-for-granted. At first blush, it’s just any old shamrock. But, on closer look, it’s really lovely.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates this unassuming word back to 1839, citing a bit of dialogue in Daniel Thompson’s Green Mountain Boys: “‘And what is still more, he has cut out a road, and drawn up a whole slew of cannon clean to the top of Mount Defiance, which he will have all mounted, and ready to pour hell and thunder down on ‘em in the fort before they dream of it.’”

Slew is a surprisingly recent addition to English, if the OED’s record is any measure. The word derives from the Irish sluagh, which I find in modern Irish as slua, referring to a large group of people: a “crowd” or “multitude.” In Old Irish, the word was slúag or slóg, “army” or “host.” We easily can see how a group of soldiers was extended to a general group of people.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots reconstructs a Proto-Indo-European ancestor for slew: *sloug-, a Celtic and Balto-Slavic root for “help” or “service.”

I imagine a young clansman, perhaps ambling along a clover-covered hillside, when an enemy tribe comes across him. Perhaps he calls out for help, and group of his fellow clansmen come to his aid – much like bellowing a sluagh-ghairm, literally a “war-cry” in Irish. Do you recognize that sluagh? It’s the very same sluagh that gives us slew, appearing in this sluagh-ghairm which English eventually rendered as slogan. Irish and Scottish clans once cried out these sluagh-ghairm as calls to battle.

The OED notes slew starts out in colloquial U.S. English. The character speaking in Thompson’s passage cited above indeed has something a colloquial register, as suggested by “‘em” – and perhaps by the very expression “whole slew.” English at some point borrowed the word from the Irish during the 19th century. And while English has a whole slew of words to express the concept of slew, this Irish borrowing found its special, little plot and sprouted – with four leaves in my lexical opinion – in the great clover field of words in the English language.

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Ferguson

Sometimes etymologies just drive home the point perfectly.

Ferguson, Missouri is named for one, William B. Ferguson, who allowed a railroad to go through his land in 1855. A train depot thereafter built there was named for him as part of the deal. The city–and now central station of an urgent debate on police militarization and racial inequality in the United States–grew from there.

This debate–this unrest–has thrust words like protest, curfew, and loot into my etymological spotlight. But perhaps it’s the origin of Ferguson itself that is most illuminating.

Ferguson

Ferguson is a Scottish surname. It’s Gaelic in origin, meaning “son of Fergus.” Fergus (or Fearghus) is a given name that combines two words. The first component, fer, means “man.” The second, gus, means “strength” or “ability.”

Fer has many friends, such as Latin’s vir (“man”), source of English virile and virtue, among others. It lives on, too, in world–and in the first part of werewolf–from its Old English iteration, wer.

At root is the Proto-Indo-European *wi-ro-, meaning, as I’m sure you’ve deduced, “man.” As the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD) comments: “The reconstructed word *wi-ro-, a derivative of *the root weiə-, ‘to be vigorous,’ was used especially of men in their capacity as warriors or as slaves. (Slaves were often captured warriors.)”

Gus has also kept good company. We saw it before in disgust. The base is the Proto-Indo-European *geus-, with the curious dual meanings of taste” and “choose.” Choose and choice are descendants, as we saw, down the Germanic line, while the Italic route yielded gusto and gustatory. 

In the case of Fergus, it features the Celtic *gustu-, used in personal names. So, Fergus, the AHD observes, means “having the strength of men,” via Old Irish gus for “strength.”

So, Fergus is literally “man-strength.”  And the question Ferguson, Missouri is asking us is, in many ways, what really constitutes “having the strength of men”?

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