From “numb” to “nimble”

In his remarks in the immediate aftermath of the massacre at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore. last week, President Obama commented on the epidemic of mass shootings in the US: “Somehow, this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We have become numb to this.” Numb – the word is very cautionary and, if we look to its etymology, perhaps instructive.

Numb

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites numb in English’s written record around 1400. Then, the word signified “deprived of physical sensation or of the power of movement, especially through extreme cold.” The OED cites figurative usages for numb – “emotionally deadened, unresponsive, or spent, as the result of grief, shock, fear, etc.” – by the late 1560s, though this was rare until the 19th century.

Numb is a past participle of a much older and once everyday verb in Old English, nim, and is first recorded in the form of nommeNim – or niman, if we consider its infinitive form in Old English – functioned like take, a Scandinavian-based verb that eventually supplanted nim by the 15th century (OED).  As philologist Walter Skeat explains it, numb originally conveyed “taken” or “seized,” which shifted to mean “overpowered,” and then extended to “deprived of sensation.”

But where did that come from? We don’t pronounce it. No one ever did. We did, however, pronounce the phoneme in a word related to numb: nimble. Here, this is called “excrescent,” describing a consonant added between two others. This happens usually to make pronunciation easier. (Try pronouncing nimble without the b. Does the articulation feel a bit more strained to you?) As a result of hypercorrection in English spelling, the b was added to other words ending in m. Crumb, dumb, thumb, and limb are other examples. Anatoly Liberman, the Oxford Etymologist, explains the phenomenon in greater depth on an excellent piece he wrote on English spelling.

Nimble

Now, nimble – attested in a variety of forms in Old English, including numel – joins nim and an instrumental suffix, -le. Nimble is a very old word in the language, first documented to mean “quick at grasping, understanding, or learning” and “quick to seize or take hold of one” (OED). With that suffix -le, the OED goes on, nimble means means “apt to nim.” By the 1400s, we have evidence of its more modern sense of “agile,” or “quick and light in movement.”

We should listen to numb’s etymological lesson and seek to be nimble – in mind and in action – instead.

Coming up, we’ll also take a look at the deeper roots of nim and some surprising words it  related to.

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Clerk (Part I)

County clerk Kim Davis went back to work yesterday after being released from jail over her refusal to issue same-sex marriage licenses in Rowan Co., Ky. Let’s have a closer look at her job description. Etymologically, that is.

Over the centuries, "clerk" has taken on different registers. "Register."  Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
Over the centuries, “clerk” has taken on many different registers. “Register.” Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Clerk

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first records clerk in the late 900s. Way back then, it took the forms of cleric and clerc, among other forms, and referred to “an ordained minister” in the Christian Church. During the Middle Ages, literacy was largely the domain of the clergy, whose very name is also related to clerk, as are cleric and clerical. These clerks often put their literacy to use for various secular purposes, helping with accounts, records, and other transactions that required their book learning.

So, by the 1200s, a clerk more generally came to describe “a person who could read and write.” Thus, Chaucer writes of the Clerk of Oxenford, a “scholar” from Oxford. Alas, his tale is not of a dictionary, but of marriage, fittingly enough. This sense of clerk remains in a law clerk, say, who helps a judge research an issue or write her opinions.

By the 1500s, with the further spread of literacy, clerk took off its collar. The term came to refer to “an officer in charge of the records, correspondence, and accounts” of an organization, as the OED observes. Such record-keeping is demanded of administrative or office work, which is why we might call it clerical work. Today, this term can take a pejorative tone, ironically enough for the rare and specialized ability that literacy historically was. Now that’s a clerical error, no?

This record-keeping sense of clerk also continues today in county clerk. A county clerk in the US is often in charge of the county’s vital records, such as birth and death certificates and marriage licenses, as we’ve seen (or not) in Kim Davis’s case.

Records, correspondence, accounts? The books? Shops have those, and so shops have clerks. The OED documents this clerk, a North American usage for a “shop-assistant,” by 1790. Today’s retail clerk can have a thankless job, if the hellish depiction of it in Kevin Smith’s indie film Clerks is any measure – once again ironic, given the history of the word.

“Lots” of Clerks

So, there have been a lot of clerks over the years. If we consider that language is constantly changing and the meanings of words evolve, this is the “lot” of clerk.

Whether borrowed directly or through French, all of the clerkly words we’ve seen thus far –  clergyclerkcleric, and clerical, not to mention the name and surname Clark – derive from Late Latin’s clēricus, a “priest” or “clergyman.” The word is technically a substantive adjective, meaning “of or belonging to the clērus.Clērus means, well, “clergy.”

This Latin term was used in early church writings, as was Ecclesiastical Greek before it, from which Latin took this clērusEcclesiastical Greek had κληρικός (klerikos)itself a term for the “clergy.” Literally, however, it meant “pertaining to an inheritance.” As Liddell and Scott explain, the root of this κληρικός (klerikos) is κλῆρος (kleros), a “lot,” as in “drawn by lots.” The term also was applied to “an allotment of land,” especially conquered foreign lands portioned out to citizens. English’s very own lot shares a similar sense development.

What could “inheritance” and “lot” possibly have to do with Christian ministry?  We’ll pick it up next post.

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refugee

According to the UN, more than 4 million refugees have fled Syria, among other countries, for neighboring countries and Europe. The humanitarian crisis is complicated, dramatic, and tragic, as we so sadly observed in the toddler who washed ashore a Turkish beach.

As the international community figures out how to help the refugees, some debate has flared over what to call these humans displaced by horrible events in their homelands. At The Wall Street Journal, lexicographer Ben Zimmer weighed in on loaded history of the term refugee. 

As Ben notes, refugee, a term also contentiously employed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina,

owes its roots to persecution in 17th-century France. When Louis XIV declared Protestantism illegal in 1685, many thousands of Protestant Huguenots sought refuge in other countries. English-speakers quickly adopted the French “refugié.”

Finding structure in fleeing. "Apophyge."  Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
Finding structure in fleeing. “Apophyge.” Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Refugee

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites the word in 1671. Refugees seek refuge, a word that has variously meant “shelter” and “protection” as well as “evasion,” documented by the OED around the 1400s. The source is the Latin refugium, a “place of refuge,” from the verb refugere, “to run away from.”  Refugere is formed from fugere, with related senses of “to escape” or “to flee,” connected to the noun fuga: “flight,” “escape,” “avoidance,” and “exile,” among other shades of meaning.  A related verb is fugāre, “to put into flight.” Indo-European scholars reconstruct a Proto-Indo-European root, *bheug-, “to flee.”

Fugere and fuga have run from Latin into a number of other English words. We have fugitive, “fleeing (the law).” And we have the more recondite fugacious, a term for “fleeting,” “ephemeral,” and “volatile.”  Then there is subterfugea sneaky stratagem to evade blame or reach one’s goals. Latin’s subter– means “below” or “underneath.”

Also relevant to recent headlines about the Iran nuclear deal is centrifuge. The earliest form in English, centrifuge, was an adjective, “center-fleeing.” Isaac Newton coined the term centrifugus in his groundbreaking studies of mechanics. He also counted its opposite, centripetus, “center-seeking,” which yields centripetal.

The current refugee crisis is wrenching, but there may be hope yet, if Germany and etymology are any measure. Fugere and fuga also generated febrifuge, an old term for a “fever reducer.” Febris is Latin for “fever.” Related are feverfew and featherfew, names for a plant historically used to help fight fevers. And we have the beauty of a fugue, whose defining  counterpoint suggested “flight” in its original Italian formulation.

But it’s going to take a lot more than music and medicine to resolve the crisis. It’s going to require systematic structure and support – across the world, not to mention within Syria. Much like what is provided by a surprising architectural cognate of refugee: Sturdy and load-bearing pillars or columns, whose apophyges curve from the shaft into the capital or base. The word is from the Greek ἀποϕυγή (apophyge), “escape,” from a verb (φεύγωmeaning “to flee,” describing the way a column’s shaft “escapes” into its head or base.

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spices: guest post at Oxford Dictionaries

Today, for my 100th post, I am honored to share a guest post I did for the OxfordWords blog on the website for Oxford Dictionaries,  run, of course, by Oxford University Press (OUP).

Focusing on the origin of spice names, my piece is titled “Salaries, dragons, and musk: rooting around in the spice rack.” You might know the OUP operation for—oh, I don’t know—a little something called the Oxford English Dictionary, without which the Mashed Radish really wouldn’t be possible.

Check it out, and be sure to check out their blog in general. It always has edifying and engaging content, not mention excellent writing. I recently rocked out to a piece, “How the saxophone got its name: an A-Z of instruments.”

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