I could have written about Zuckerberg today, with the Facebook CEO in the congressional hot seat. His surname literally means “sugar mountain” in German—and I don’t think that’ll be the next Farmville or Candy Crush any time soon.
I thought to write about raid, which the FBI did to Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen on Monday. Raid originates as a Scottish variant on road.
Instead, I settled on pet. April 11th is, apparently, National Pet Day, “celebrating pets and encouraging adoption” since 2005, according to the organizer’s website. The day, as quirky and numerous as these random unofficial holidays are in our social media feeds, also invites some welcome etymological escapism.
After some players took a knee during the national anthem, US Vice President Mike Pence abruptly left a football game between the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers this Sunday. But many aren’t seeing his move as a un-dignifying departure—but a political stunt, a word whose ultimate origins are, shall we say, a bit stunted.
To count to ten when angry, doll-baby, Irish-American, leaf lettuce, Megalonyx, N.Y., Riesling, sanction? The man who gave us “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” has also left us an incredible record of words in the English language.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In this one passage, this single sentence,of the Declaration of Independence—whose adoption on July 4, 1776 Americans commemorate today—Thomas Jefferson gives a new nation, a new democracy, its immortal, founding words.
But Jefferson’s words have left many other marks. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)attributes to Jefferson over 100 quotations that provide the first evidence of a word in English and nearly 400 quotations that provide the earliest record of a particular meaning. His breadth is truly impressive, ranging from architecture (rooflet, 1825; remodeling, 1785) and botany (leaf lettuce, 1795; rubber tree, 1826) to wines (Médoc, 1793; Riesling, 1788) and extinct giant sloths (Megalonyx, 1796; megatherium, 1797).
I’ve often been asked, “You’re the kind of person who likes to read the dictionary, aren’t you?” Well, I’m not just someone who enjoys reading the dictionary. I’m also someone who takes great pleasure in reading books about the dictionary. In this case, it’s John Simpson’s The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary (Basic Books, 2016).
This week, Philadelphia became the first major American city to tax soda and other sugar-added beverages. Supporters tout the levy as a remedy for health problems and school funding. Opponents see it as an illegal overreach of the nanny state and a real headache for the beverage industry. This split will surely play out in court – just as it might, quite literally, in the very etymology of the word soda.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites soda in a 1558 translation of a French medical guide. The manual listssoda as an ingredient in an ointment for hair removal, noting that this soda was obtained from the ashes of grass and used by glassmakers. It also mentions a Venetian soda in a later passage on soap preparation.
Venetian soap and medicinal grass? (It’s no wonder Coke so closely guards its secret formula). Originally, soda was indeed obtained from the ashes of plants, specifically salt-rich marine flora like saltwort, featured above. The alkaline derivative, now largely produced artificially, has long been used in soap and glass.
Problem and solution?
Now, most etymologists agree that soda comes from the Medieval Latin or Italian soda, but they dispute its deeper roots. The OED is conservative on the matter, leaving its origin unknown. Others philologists enjoy a bit more of a sugar high. Skeat and Weekly look to the Latin solidus, “solid,” characterizing the hard products yielded by saltwort plants. Italian eventually contracted this solidus into soda, they write. Skeat goes on to trace the Spanish form of soda, sosa, back to the Latin sal, “salt,” relate to salsa and sausage.
The Barnhart Etymology Dictionary maintains soda ultimately derives from the Arabic, suwwad, the name for a kind of saltwort, which was exported from North Africa to Sicily in the Middle Ages. Suwwad, the dictionary notes, is related to sawad, “black,” referring to the color of a variety of the plant. The dictionary concludes Italian directly borrowed the word, as evidenced as early as the 1300s.
Other scholars, apparently chugging Mountain Dew, have proposed the Arabic suda, “headache.” Some even gloss the word as a “splitting headache,” derived from a verb meaning “to split.” The saltwort plant, as the theory goes, was used to cure such headaches. Latin borrowed the medicine and word as sodanum, a “headache remedy,” thence shortened and spread as soda. It’s a fizzy etymology, but one that most scholars agree has gone flat.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, chemists were, well, effervescent about soda. They injected the soda-derived sodium bicarbonate into water, calling it soda water by 1802. This was shortened to soda by 1834. Pop – named for the sound of the cork when the beverage was originally served and preferred in many dialects, including my own – is attested even earlier, in 1812. The OED dates soda-pop to 1863. Today’s soda features carbonic acid, among other additives; baking soda, however, preserves its chemical and linguistic connection to sodium bicarbonate.
In 1807, Humphry Davy isolated an element from caustic soda and so named it sodium. He used the symbol Na as a nod to natrium, a name proposed by his contemporary, Jacob Berzelius. Berzelius was inspired by natron, a naturally occurring soda-solution whose name is related to the Greek nitro and may itself have deeper Middle Eastern roots.
In 1933, Eugene O’Neill debuted his comedy, Ah, Wilderness!In the play, a character asks, “Ever drink anything besides sodas?” The OED cites this usage as the earliest record we have specifically for the modern “drink” or “glass of” soda. It’s a question that still has a sharp bite today. But the answer may not be what Philadelphia has in mind: “Beer and sloe-gin. Fizz and Manhattans.”
While it’s increasingly unlikely that he will win his party’s nomination this summer, Senator Bernie Sanders promises to take his fiery message all the way to the Democratic convention. “The economy is rigged,” he protests at his packed and impassioned rallies. “The system is rigged,” he cries in political interviews. But why is rigged – “manipulated or fixed in an illegal or improper manner” – rigged?
We might reasonably suppose rigged has nautical roots. A ship, after all, is rigged withropes, knots, masts, and sails. The intricate and complicated apparatus of rigging seems like a natural metaphor for other phenomena, like elections or prices, that have been artfully fixed.
As tempting as the connection may be, Bernie’s rigged is actually first found in financial contexts. (With Scandinavian roots, nautical rigging is unrelated.) The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites several key usages in an 1826 edition of The Times: “This was one of the very best ‘rigged’ Companies that ever were introduced into the share-market.” A rigged stock, the dictionary explains, was a publicly listed one whose value was increased or decreased through illegal, improper, or contrived methods. The news article provides additional examples that help illustrate the development of rigged. Note the verb and noun forms: “Very few shares were paid upon in the Company, as it was intended to ‘rig’ them in the market. The ‘rig’ failed.”
Auctions were also rigged. As the OED records, a rig was “a fraudulent auction,” specifically “one of worthless goods at which genuine bidding is encouraged by spurious bids made by associates of the auctioneer.” For this rig, the OED first cites the English magazine Atheneum in 1825: “The goods, where there is a rig, whether furniture or otherwise, are generally either damaged, or got up on purpose, in a shabby but showy way.” This rig is telling, as it highlights the trickery and deceit involved in the term. For it is precisely this sense of “trickery” and “deceit” that hatched rigged.
Tricks are for kings
Originally, a rig was a “scheme,” “swindle,” “trick,” or “prank.” The OED records rig as a colloquialism dated as early as 1640, as a verb about a century later. It’s featured in thimblerig, a 19th-century version of the shell game or three-card Monte that used three thimbles and a pea for its con.
The ultimate origin of this rig, however, eludes us. The OED does suggest it may be related to reak, English dialect for “a prank” or “playful trick” usually found in the phrase to play reaks and attested in the 16th century. And to play reaks might be a variation of to play rex: “to behave like a lord or master.” (Rex is “king” in Latin.) To play tricks, then, is a kind of power move.
An alternative theory for reak is freak, which referred to various “caprices” well before it was extended to its current sense of “abnormality.” (The etymological nature of freak is unknown.) Walter Skeat, meanwhile, supposed rig was connected to rickets and wriggle.
If the delegate math is any measure, Bernie Sanders might not find validation for his campaign against rigged systems in the Democratic nomination. But, aside from the groundswell of support his campaign has inspired in many young and independent voters, the etymology of rigged, with itsroots in financial fraud and tyrannical tricks, is some consolation.
Kephart’s attention-seeking usage of feisty anticipates “fussy” and “fidgety,” an early meaning of fidgety we might owe to the Appalachian culture of the Smoky Mountains, where his novel is set. Today, the “lively” and “aggressive” feisty still expresses this excitability, though the word has since evolved to focus on a kind of readiness to fight – and, if my ears are any measure, is said of women more than men. In his slang lexicography, Jonathon Green indeed records feisty as 20th-century U.S. slang for a “flirtatious, showy, and unscrupulous woman,” which also, perhaps, calls back Kephart’s early usage.
Other variants of feist include fist, fice, fyce, and even foist, if we look to a 1770 reference by George Washington. In March of that year, George Washington wrote in his diary: “Countess a hound bitch after being confind got loose and was lined before it was discovered by my Water dog once and a small foist looking yellow cur twice.”
I find it reassuring to know that even America’s legendary first president couldn’t completely control his dogs.
Leashed up on feist, of course, was English’s prolific adjectival suffix, -y.
In spite of their size, small dogs like feists have big personalities. Their quick energy, sharp barks, and often skittish behavior indeed suggest the kind of lively, aggressive temperament we associate with feisty. And, returning to Kephart, feisty also evokes the squirmy restlessness, say, of a terrier less interested in one’s lap than what’s out the window.
As for the indie artist Feist, the moniker comes from her last name. Her first name is Leslie.
Send the dog out back
Now, feist takes its name from a fisting hound, dog, or cur, evidenced as early as the 1530s. Get your mind out of the gutter, but not completely: This fist, a verbal adjective, means “to break wind.”
The OED documents this fist in the 15th century, referring to the action – and aftermath of – flatulence. A fisting dog, then, was “stinky,” but not, as the record suggests, because it needed a bath.
Jonathon Green notes two historic explanations for why this flatulent fist became associated with dogs: Wentworth and Flexner’s American Slang Dictionary maintain “the dog was so named because one’s own smells could be blamed on it,” while in the 19th century it was suggested that “such dogs were not much bigger than a man’s fist.”
It’s unclear whether the “clenched hand” fist is actually related to “broken wind” fist, though the OED does cross-reference the former in the latter’s etymology.
For the deeper origins of fist, etymologists hypothesize an Old English verb *fistan and noun *fist, withwidespreadcognates in Germanic languages and a root in the Proto-Germanic *fistiz. Some philologists actually connect fist to its still-lingering counterpart fart through a root, *perd-, which is really just a Proto-Indo-European fart noise. (We can also thank this root for partridge, whose windy winging I’ve discussed at Oxford Dictionaries).
Like fart, I suspect fist is ultimately a Germanic onomatopoeic whoopee cushion, so to speak. But whatever origin we ultimately blame fist on, I can’t blame you for, er, leaving the room when the TV debates get too feisty this long and heated presidential campaign season.
For word nerds, the real candy of Halloween is all the great words it gives out: werewolf, jack-o’-lantern, samhainophobia. But, as we so often see on this blog, sometimes it is the less unusual and more everyday word that can be the sweetest treat. Let’s have a look at just such a seasonal one: haunt. Its etymology really hits “home,” we might say.
The word haunt has been, well, haunting the English language since the early 13th century. But for all its spectral associations today, the word originally had nothing to do with ghosts.
As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records, the word’s earliest meanings refer to practicing some action habitually or frequenting a place habitually. This sense is preserved today in a noun form of haunt, as in an old haunt one used to visit often.
Now, Shakespeare has given us many spectacular ghosts, perhaps most dramatically in Hamlet. But Shakespeare has also given us – or at least popularized – thespookier shades of haunt, as many maintain. For this usage, the OED first cites 1597’s Richard II: “Some haunted by ghosts they haue deposed.” In this sense, it is a ghost that is frequently and habitually coming back to a place.
Earlier in the century, it is worth noting, haunt was already shaping up to signify other “unseen or immaterial visitants,” as the OED hauntingly puts it, such as disease, memories, thoughts, or feelings. This the OED records in Richard III also in that very same 1597: “Your beauty which did haunt me in my sleepe: To vndertake the death of all the world.” This usage of haunt, of course, lives on today.
Following the development of its source verb, haunted first drapes on its white sheet, so to speak, as early as 1711. We eventually get to haunted houses and the ghastly lore of their former tenants. The Online Etymology Dictionary states haunted house is attested by 1733.
There’s no place like home
But haunt might actually have a deeper connection to houses. The word comes from the French hanter, whose meaning echoes haunt‘s early senses in English. According to French philologists Baumgartner and Ménard, the ghostly sense of hanter in French was spread in that language thanks to 18th-century English gothic and fantasy fiction. This suggests that the ghostly haunt is original to English, though the Online Etymology Dictionary notes this meaning may have been active in Proto-Germanic.
From here, however, the etymological trail goes cold. We do have plenty of suggestions, though. Most converge on a Germanic root that produced English’s very own home – in Old English, hām, whose form may look familiar in thederivative hamlet (but not Prince Hamlet). Scholars like Eric Partridge and Ernest Klein pointed to a Scandinavian cognate heimta, “to bring home,” specifically cattle. (To get more technical and speculative, the Proto-Germanic root is *haimaz, derived from the Proto-Indo-European*tkei-, “to settle,” “to dwell,” or “to be home.”)
Walter Skeat, however, wasn’t fully satisfied. In addition to heimta, his work cites the Breton hent, “a path,” a nasalized Latin habitāre, “to dwell,” and Latin’s ambitus, “a going about,” which he considered to be the likeliest explanation.
For etymologists, it might just be the “origin unknown” or “origin obscure” that proves most, er, haunting, of all.
Last post, we saw that the math in aftermath has nothing to do with numbers. But two other words I’ve recently covered, numb and nimble, may indeed be all about them, if we do some etymological accounting of the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root, *nem-.
To review, both numb and nimble derive from an Old English verb, nim, functioning much like today’s take, which supplanted it in Middle English. For the ancient root of this nim, Indo-European scholars have reconstructed the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *nem-, which meant “to assign,” “to allot,” or, like nim, “to take,” thanks to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots’ gloss. (Compare the nominal use of take in English). This root evolved in some interesting ways across some of the Indo-European languages, eventually emerging in some other English words. Let’s start with Greek.
Heaven and earth
Angus Deaton won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Economics. A rare astronomical event, the Super Blood Moon, recently captivated us all. Both economy and astronomy derive from Greek: The former literally means “household management,” astronomy “star arrangement.” Ancient Greek had νόμος (nomos), with widely various meanings of “law,” “custom,” “usage,” and even “song.” But these, according to the great philological work of Liddell and Scott, were metaphorical usages of nomos’ earliest meaning: “a feeding-place for cattle” and, by extension, “pasture” and “food.”
How do we get from the earth to the stars? Nomos is formed from a verb νέμειν (nemein), also deriving from that PIE *nem–, meaning “to deal out,” “distribute,” or “manage.” The connecting sense is of something allotted, as for a particular purpose, like a pasture or a dwelling, which one then must maintain, or something divided up in a particular way, as in a melody or a constellation.
The Greek nemein exacts further etymological dues, so to speak, in nemesis. In ancient Greece, this word named an important concept, personified in the form of the goddess Nemesis. Liddell and Scott’s Greek lexicography is again helpful in defining the word (emphasis original): nemesis is “distribution of what is due; hence, a righteous assignment of anger, wrath at anything unjust, just resentment,” particularly “indignation at undeserved good fortune.”
In these days of extreme inequality, whose complexity and urgency Angus Deaton is measuring, some might say we could use a little nemesis in the historic sense of the word. Of course, we have plenty of nemeses in today’s sense, which the Oxford English Dictionary dates as a North American usage in the 1930s.
Now, let’s wander to ancient Rome. Certain people have a roaming allotment, shall we say; people whose flocks or herds graze far and wide for their pasture. We might call them nomads. The Romans did, originally referring to certain Arabic pastoral tribes, the Nomades, or Numidians. The name is ultimately num – I mean taken – from that Greek nomos.
Economists, we know, are quiet adept with numbers. The word number, from the Latin numerus and picking up a b (much in the way a word like numb did) as it passed into English from the French, might also derive from that PIE *nem-. The innumerable meanings of this derivative in English are simply too many in number to enumerate; you might never be number after that math.