Persian pleasure gardens, the Christian afterlife, and tropical tax havens: the origins of “paradise”

The 13.4 million-file leak called the Paradise Papers are exposing the offshore, tax-avoiding dealings by some of the world’s richest companies and people, from Facebook to the Queen of England. Boosted by alliteration and allusion to last year’s Panama Papers, the BBC explains the paradise name: 

The Paradise Papers name was chosen because of the idyllic profiles of many of the offshore jurisdictions whose workings are unveiled, including Bermuda, the HQ of the main company involved, Appleby. It also dovetails nicely with the French term for a tax haven—paradis fiscal.

But why do we call tropical islands like Bermuda paradise?

paradise.jpg
For the etymological paradise, we need to look to different sands. (Pixabay)

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Turkey (repost)

As Thanksgiving approaches, I’m busy giving thanks with some family visiting Ireland from the states. So, I thought I would dish up this post from the archives on the holiday’s main attraction: the origin of “turkey.”

It turns out the bird and the country don’t just make for junior high geography jokes or World War I mnemonics. They’re actually connected–dare I say–at the thigh. Well, sort of.

Turkey

Originally, turkey–or turkey-cock (attested in 1541) and turkey-hen, back when our intimacy with where our food comes from necessitated such distinctions–referred to the guinea fowl, a bird native to sub-Saharan Africa.

The guinea fowl (or guineafowl), courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica Online and Index Open.

According to some historians, these African guinea fowl made their way into Europe during the Middle Ages through the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which controlled much of North Africa, southern Europe, and the Middle East. So-called “turkey merchants” traded the birds and other goods and wares.

In the early 16th-century, Spanish conquistadors imported into Europe what we now think of as the turkey, domesticated by the Aztecs in Mexico as early as 800 BC, through the Turkish-dominated Mediterranean, whereupon English-speaking peoples misidentified this bird with the African guinea fowl. (Apparently, corn was also known as turkey corn or turkey wheat due to the same Turkey-by-way-of-Spain-by-way-of-the-New-World channel.) The English name for the American bird stuck, even after the Portuguese brought back–and correctly distinguished from its distant American cousin–guinea fowl from West Africa. Cookbooks from the late 1500s and early 1600s provide evidence that the turkey was already a centerpiece at English feasts, including Christmas.  As for why we came to eat turkey for Christmas and Thanksgiving, Slate offers a digestible bit of food anthropology here.

The Ancient Greeks called the guinea fowl μελεαγρίς, apparently a reference to the Meliagrides, sisters of the Argonaut Meleager, leader of the famed Calydonian boar hunt. Upon Meleager’s tragic death, his sisters were changed into guinea hens. Father of modern taxonomy Carl Linnaeus used the name to classify the genus of the North American bird (Meleagris gallopavo), while the name also identifies a common species of the African guinea fowl (Numida meleagris).

Talking turkey

As for the Turkish? They call the bird hindi. It means “Indian,” and is probably from the French poulet d’inde, or “chicken from India.” Lest we forget, those European explorers–um, conquerors and colonists–did think the New World was Asia. Hence, the West Indies. Hindi and Indian? Yes, they are related. 

And as for TurkeyTurkey is named for the Turks. Romans in the Middle Ages called it Turcus and the Greeks, Tourkos. These come from the Persian national name turk, which folklore glosses as “strength,” but can mean “beautiful youth,” “barbarian,” or “robber.” There is an early Chinese word, tu-kin, referring to a people in the mountains of east-central Asia, who may be connected to ancient ancestors of the Turks.

None of this may be turkey shoot, except for cold turkeyCold turkey–suddenly and completely withdrawing from drugs, originally heroin (and later chocolate), including the intense symptoms therein–is attested in 1910, 1921, or 1936, depending on your source. Thanksgiving leftovers testify that cold turkey requires very little work, thus the original sense of “without preparation.” A cold shoulder (of mutton) is related, “considered a poor man’s dish and thus, perhaps, something one would set out for an unwanted guest with deliberate intention to convey displeasure,” the Online Etymology Dictionary delightfully observes. But let’s not leave our Canadian friends out, where Parson notes cold turkey refers to door-to-door selling or salesmen, perhaps for the same low-prep reasons. 

As for “talking turkey,” Parson defines it as talking “business” or “sense,” with turkey standing for “the substantial and succulent part of a (Christmas) dinner.”

Oh, and that thing dangling from the turkey’s neck? That’s called a wattle. It’s a fleshy caruncle. Birds (and other animals) also have dewlaps and snoods. Apparently, when we named the anatomy of birds, Linnaeus left the room and Dr. Suess took his place. Folds of skin: bon appetit, right?

Whatever’s on your table and whatever you are celebrating this week, enjoy your holiday, give thanks, be safe, and, by all means, avoid fleshy caruncles.

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On popes, baseball, & engines

First, my last on pontiff was recently Freshly Pressed by WordPress. Be sure to check it out if you missed it.

Now, speaking of the Pope, if you’re in D.C., New York, or Philadelphia this week, you may want to snag some papal swag. Perhaps an “I (mitre) the pope” t-shirt? Seeking a humbler pontificate, Pope Francis might prefer his zucchetto over his mitre (or miter), but, if he truly wants to build bridges, he should put on that special high, arched, and cleft ceremonial headdress. For the etymology of mitre bridges – or should I say, weaves together – the microscopic, the macroscopic, and just about everything in between.

Mitre_Felt Tip and Sharpie on Paper_doodle
“Mitre.” Felt tip and Sharpie on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Papal hats and baseball caps 

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), English first dons mitre in Wycliffe’s Bible during the late 1300s. In one passage, mitre refers to the “ceremonial turban of a high priest,” from which we eventually inherit today’s term for this episcopal headgear.

But historically, mitre wore many hats. Even in other passages of Wycliffe’s Bible we see  other meanings the word had in its French, Latin, and, ultimately, Greek sources. As Liddell and Scott observe, the Ancient Greek μίτρα (mitra) was a “headband worn by Greek women to tie up their hair.” It was also a “Persian headdress or turban.” Principally, though, a mitra was a “belt or girdle worn around the waist beneath the cuirass.”

The OED also historically observes the mitre as “an Asian headdress,” curiously adding, “the wearing of which by men was regarded by the Greeks and Romans as a mark of effeminacy.” Speaking of turbans and curious associations, childhood friends of Yogi Berra, whom we lost this week, once “watched a feature [film] that had a Hindu fakir, a snake charmer who sat with his legs crossed and wore a turban on his head,” explains the Society for American Baseball Research. “When the yogi got up, he waddled and one of the boys joked that he walked like Lawdie. From then on Berra was known as Yogi.” (Lawdie was his Italian parents’ pronunciation of his given name, Lawrence).

Driving cells, driving cars

Now, some suppose that Greek’s μίτρα is derived from another Greek word, μίτος (mitos), “a thread of the warp” in weaving. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD) sees a common thread for mitra and mitos in the Proto-Indo-European root *mei-, “to tie.”

German scientists spun the Greek mitos into mitosis and mitochondrion. By 1887, Walther Flemming   likened to threads the chromosomes he observed during the process of what he called mitosis. In 1898, Carl Benda saw the chain-like engines of cells, which he dubbed mitochondria, as “thread granules.” The name of another German scientist – Rudolf Diesel – is remembered in the name of a different kind of engine, the manipulation of which scandalized Volkswagen this week.

Looking to the heavens

Fibers can be tied together. So can people, forming a “contract” or “friendship,” as the AHD glosses the Indo-Iranian descendant of *mei-, *mitram. This concept, sacred to ancient peoples (not to mention modern ones, too), was “divinized as a god,” the AHD goes on. Specifically, *mitram was represented in the Persian Mithras, the god of light, and the Vedic Mitra, also associated with the sun. Buddhists await the Maitreya, a future bodhisattva, successor to the Buddha and the Sanskrit root shared by Mitra.

Jordan Shipley observes that we see sacred bonds also formed in the Judaic tradition, viz. the covenants struck between Noah and Moses and God, respectively. The kingly title of rulers, Mithridates, is considered a theophoric form of Mithras.

The name of a current ruler, Vladimir Putin, who made headlines by asking to meet with Barack Obama next week, is from the Old Church Slavonic Vladimirŭ, meaning “ruling peace,” ironically enough, many might say. The Slavic *mirŭ is believed to mean “commune,” “joy,” or “peace,” according to the AHD, a sense preserved in Russian’s mir. For the connecting sense, think “bound together,” a lesson that would behoove our world leaders.

Out of this world, huh? That would be Mir, as in the former space station, named for this Russian word for “peace” and “world.”

Whew! Some of my connections may be a bit threadbare. But mitre, if etymology is any measure, turns out to be not only a Catholic word, but a truly catholic word as well.

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bombast

Donald Trump continues to divide poles and conquer polls. His supporters hear his rhetoric as “straight talk” while his opponents hear it as bluster and bombast. Both can agree there is little softness to his style – except, ironically enough, for the origin of the very word bombast.

Cotton_Ink on paper_doodle
“Bombast.” Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Bombast

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites bombast as “high-sounding language on a trivial or commonplace subject” as early as the 1580s. In today’s usage of the word, I would argue that bombastic politicians may not be ranting on necessarily trivial matters, and nor necessarily in a highfalutin way, but their language is nonetheless “inflated” or “turgid,” as the OED additionally defines it. 

Turgid? That might sound a bit bombastic to 2015 ears. Let’s try “puffed out,” which points us to the earlier meaning of bombast. See, at least since the 1560s, bombast was once “the soft down of the cotton-plant.” The word is a variant of bombace, which appears earlier in the 1550s, and which, for one reason or another, got padded with a t at its end. By the 1570s, bombast was “padding or stuffing for clothes” and any “padding” or “stuffing” more generally. We can pad or stuff our language, too, making something petty sound quite grand. Hence, bombast. 

Bombace comes to English from the Old French bombace, in turn from the late Latin bombax. Both terms referred to “cotton.” But Latin’s bombax originated from something yet softer: “silk.” Etymologists think bombax got confused with bombyx (“silk”), taken from the Greek βόμβυξ (bombyx), also “silk” as well as the “silkworm.” This “silk” may direct us to yet more eastern climes, for the Greeks may have borrowed bombyx from a language there; scholars point to words like the Persian pamba as potential sources.

As the OED also notes, another early figurative use for bombast was a “stopping of the ears,” as you can imagine. It seems bombast is one way to deal with all the bombast. Bombax!, as the Ancient Romans may have interjected. Indeed, this delightful homonym was a way to cry, as I think this etymology so evokes, “Strange! Indeed!”

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trans-

Trans fat, transracial, Trans-Pacific Partnership, transgender – indeed, trans- is the prefix of the moment, if we take a look ‘across’ the headlines.

This hummingbird must live forever. "Nectar." Ballpoint on lined paper. Doodle  by @andrescalo.
“Nectar.” Ballpoint and Sharpie on lined paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Trans-

In Latin, trans was a preposition meaning “across,” “over,” or “beyond,” often prefixed onto other words, as evidenced in English’s translatetransitive, Transylvania, or transmogrify. It was assimilated in many other words, such as tradition, trajectory, trancetranquil, and travesty. But this simple and utilitarian preposition bears quite the etymological load.

Historical linguists root trans in the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *terə-, “to cross over,” “pass through,” or “overcome.” This verb passed through Germanic passages to arrive at the English through and thorough as well as thrill and nostril. Old English had þýrel, a “bore” or “hole,” whose sense of penetration eventually yielded thrill – making nostril literally a nose thrill, or “nose hole.” *Terə- crossed over into Sanskrit, too, yielding avatar, naming a deity that has “crossed over,” or that has come down to earth incarnate.

We overcome difficulties – we come over them, cross over them, pass through them. Ancient Iranian took up this sense of *terə in *thraya, “to protect,” which Persian fashioned into saray, an “inn.” Caravansary and seraglio, among others, preserve these roots. The Latin trux, “savage” or “fierce,” may have had the force “to overcome,” eventually giving English something truculent. Something truncus may have been “overcome,” maimed like a limbless trunk or cut like trench.

Trans trans- 

Many humans ultimately wish to overcome the great ‘beyond’: death. The ancient Greek gods figured that one out – with the help of etymology, of course – with a little drink called νέκταρor nectar. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD)*nectar joins the PIE *nek-, “death,” and *terə, producing “to overcome death.”

Summer’s upon us. Better get those nectarines while they last. Unless they’re making a transcontinental or transoceanic transit – immortals eat local.

*Thanks to the AHD for help with many of the derivatives of *terə– that crossed over into English.

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corned

While you might not find many Irish people eating it, many Americans will be plating up corned beef and cabbage to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day today. The particular reasons for this are complicated and fascinating, as Shaylyn Esposito explained in 2013 on Smithsonian.com. Traditions vary with time, space, and circumstance, of course–and so do words, as is true for the corned in corned beef. So, why is it corned beef?

"Corned beef." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Corned beef.” Doodle by @andrescalo.

Corn

Corned means “salted,” as corned beef is preserved or cured with salt. Salt is made up of particles or grains, which the English language used to refer to more generally as corn. Indeed, corn is attested as corn in Old English. One might mention a corn of sand or rice–or pepper or barley, hence peppercorn or barleycorn. These instances have corned these old senses of corn, if you will.  For today, the sense of corn is more restricted. It likely evokes maize for North Americans, shortened from the phrase Indian corn. Wheat, oat, or rye, though, may come to mind across the Atlantic.

It’s no coincidence that corn means “grain.” Both words come from the same root, making them doublets, etymologically speaking. Both originally meaning “grain” or “seed,” corn was harvested from the Germanic *kurnóm, while grain from the Latin grānum. The Germanic root also gives English kernel, while the Latin has produced a crop, including garner, gram, granitegranule, filigree, and pomegranate, to name a few.

If we dig deeper into the Germanic and Latin roots, we find their common ancestor, the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *gre-no- or *grhnóm, or “grain.” According to Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, the root *gerh-, meaning “to ripen” underlies *gre-no- or *grhnóm, “grain.”

Etymologists have suggested a connection to the Sanskrit jṛa verb meaning “to wear down” or “waste away.” With this in mind, the Oxford English Dictionary explains: “A corn or grain is therefore, etymologically, a ‘worn-down’ particle.” So something, “worn down” or “wasted away” might be considered “old.” So, the PIE *gerə-, “to grow old,” may then be connected to corn, thus connecting the word to some other “age-old” derivatives of the PIE *gerə-. (Perhaps the PIE for “to grow old” and “ripen” are themselves connected.)

Do you work in the field of gerontology? Ancient Greek yields γέρων (ron)“an old man.” The Old Persian name Zarathustra, behind Zoroastrianism, is said to have the literal meaning of “owner of old camels.” *Zarant (“old”) has been reconstructed down the Iranian branch of Indo-European languages. (Ushthra means “camel,” thus yoga’s Ushthrasana, or “camel pose.”)

Now, those old camels probably just don’t have corns of sand on their weathered hooves, but that kind of corn, natively referred to as an agnail (later, hangnail), actually comes from the same root that gives us the word horn. Corned beef and cabbage was never so interesting.

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*sekw- (part ii)

Last post, we saw how *sekw-, a Proto-Indo-European root for “follow,” makes for a surprising connection between such words as soccersectarian, and second. This root still has some tricks up its sleeve, though, for it weaves the thread between medieval fabrics…

…and the classic board game Clue.

One of the many iterations of Clue’s lustily lethal Miss Scarlet. Image courtesy of readtapestry.com.

Scarlet has many associations: letters, fevers, pimpernels, Johansson’s, cardinals, royalty. But I don’t that textiles are one we typically make. At least anymore.

Scarlet

The word scarlet is from the Old French escarlate, which, in turn, is handed down from Medieval Latin’s scarlatumBoth forms named did name scarlet as a color, but they originally referred to fabrics and cloths that were often dyed this vivid color. In his discursive dictionary of English word origins, Jordan Shipley notes:

[English] “scarlet” is roundabout from Arabic, which had borrowed [Latin] ‘sigillatum’ to apply to a shorn cloth, which might be blue, green, or brown as well as the brilliant red that survived in the word because it was the “the king’s color.”

The Arabic Shipley refers to is siqillat (variously transliterated) and referred to rich cloth. More specifically, Ezra Klein defines the Arabic siqillat as “tissue adorned with seals” and Eric Partridge offers “a fabric decorated with seals.” Many etymologists see the Persian saqirlat (also variously transliterated) as an intermediary vehicle between Latin and Arabic.

The Latin sigillatum he refers to means “adorned with little figures” or “patterns in relief,” literally meaning “sealed.” It is a diminutive form of signum, “sign,” “seal,” “figure,” or “symbol,” among other meanings. The English derivatives of signum are legion: assignmentsignaldesignatesignature, significantensign, and consign, among so many other active words and forms. Ernest Weekley offers this tidbit on sign: “Earliest sense as verb as to mark with the cross, and most of our ancestors ‘signed’ their letters in the same way, instead of ‘subscribing’ their names.”

For sign, all signs point back to (OK, the best signs we know of point back to) that Proto-Indo-European *sekw-. The literal interoperation of signum is offered as “mark to be followed” or “standard to be followed.” Which leads us to *sekw-, or, more specifically, a suffixed form of *sekw-no.

Sign, Sealed, Delivered

Embroidered patterns? Brilliant colors? These were expensive and labor-intensive, so it’s no surprise that scarlet became associated with nobility. But the source of the dye might be a bit humbling, as the sources of many dyes are. Scarlet was obtained from a dye known as kermes, named for the insect named for the oak tree it inhabited. More specifically, as Wikipedia puts it, the dye is “derived from the dried bodies of female bodies of insects.” This kermes–likely originating from a Sanskrit word for “worm”–is the source of other luxurious English color words crimson and carmine. Speaking of worms, vermilion, another brilliant red hue, is from the Latin vermiculus, “little worm,” named for the cochineal insect the dye was obtained from.

But how do we account for this Latin to Arabic and back, if that indeed be the (still hypothetical) case? Trade, linguistic and cultural contact, luxury textiles, and metonymy, a figure of speech using a salient feature of an object to name it (like a tongue for a language). So, perhaps the Latin sigillatus somewhere in Asia Minor was used of fine, embroidered textiles, was borrowed by speakers of Persian and neighboring Arabic speakers, who applied it to the fine textiles, siqillat in some form or another, and somewhere along the way the colors of the rich cloths became defining features, with opulent scarlet jumping out due to royalty reasons, the name gradually receding from the cloth to the color, making its way back into Medieval Latin as scarlatum, reshaped by the Latin’s daughters, and sticking around in English as scarlet after all these many years. Hypothetical, y’know?

Weaving It All Together

The Latin sign pushed out the native English word for it, represented by the Old English tacen and cognate to the word “to teach.” And, in its own singular way, a poetic passage manages to weave all our concerns here together: In Arthurian tales, the maiden Elaine gives Lancelot a token (as was the chivalrous wont) of her love, a “sleeve of scarlet, broidered with great pearls,” as Tennyson versifies it in his famed Idylls of the King. He wears it during a jousting tournament, but only because Guinevere is there. Her love unrequited, Elaine later dies of a broken heart, and she is floated down the Thames back to Camelot, a story also inspiring Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, a Miss Scarlet in her own, very, very non-Clue way.

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*dheigh

Normally, the Mashed Radish begins with a word or theme and wanders its way back to its ancient root. In a recent post, though, I got excited by *dheigh, the Proto-Indo-European root that gave English the now obsolete dey, “female servant,” which lives on, though in hiding, in dairy. So, this post, let’s switch it up. As we saw, this *dheigh was also balled up into the English “dough.” But there’s more to the root: What are some of the other interesting creations that Indo-European languages baked out of *dheigh?

I’ll stick to my favorite three: paradise, lady, and fiction.

First, real quick, let’s revisit this asterisk in front of *dheigh and other roots. It means the root is hypothetical. We have no records of Proto-Indo-European: no documents, no recordings of speech. So, historical linguistics look at all the evidence they do have–comparing forms across documentation of German, Gothic, Latin, Sanskrit, say–to reconstruct their best guess at what the root should be based on these comparisons.

Paradise

What’s paradise mean to you? A tropical island, a quiet cabin hidden in the forest, a Parisian penthouse? Try “an enclosed park” or “garden.” The word comes from the Old Persian, pairidaeza, and is made up of two components: pairi, “around,” is cognate to the prefixes per-peri-, and para-, which we’ve seen in “proto,” and daeza, “wall.” At the base of this daeza is the Proto-Indo-European *dheigh, a verb that means “to form,” “mould,” or “shape,” originally out of clay. The word passed into the Greek as paradeisos, as Weekley notes:

The G[reek] word, first in Xenophon, is used of a Persian enclosed park, and was adopted by LXX in [the Old Testament] for Garden of Eden, and in [the New Testament] for abode of the blessed, which is the oldest E[nglish] sense.

The LXX refers to the Septuagint, or the Greek Old Testament, translated from the Hebrew into Greek in the 3rd century BCE. In English, the Oxford English Dictionary attests a form of paradise before 1180, indeed referring to “the abode of Adam and Eve before the Fall, the garden of Eden.” Around the same time, the word was coming to refer to conceptions of heaven, and by the 1300s, its uses were already being extended to broader metaphors.

The descendants of *dheigh are ancient and sturdy. Old Irish had dehah for “body” (“that which is formed”). Tocharian had tseke for “statue.” Old Persian also had dida for “castle.”  Armenian made it into “pile,” Russian into “baker’s trough,” and Lithuanian into “cudgel.” Many were the “walls,” such as what Greek and Avestvan formed of the root.

From the mundane to the metaphysical, the quotidian to the sacred, from gardens to kitchens, *dheigh is a wall that won’t fall down.

Lady

What do you think of as a lady? A generic term for the female sex? A derogatory one? Maybe Victorian notions of refinement or more literary ideals come to mind? But what about bread?

Originally, lady was hlaefdige. Literally, hlaefdige was “loaf-kneader.” In Old English, it was a compound, joining hlaef (loaf, bread) and dige (related to dey, “maid,” and dough). Is that all a woman was to the Anglo-Saxons?! Well, a lord, in the same way, was hlaefweard, “loaf-keeper,” with the second element related to ward, as in a “guard.” In my book, it takes a lot more muscle to knead bread than it does to watch over those who eat it, so lady is the true “bread”-winner.

But what happened to the word? Where did all those sounds go? As the Oxford English Dictionary observes, the ae sound became shortened, the dige was reduced to di (remember, the g was more like a y), and the f switched to a v and became buried by the d.  Then, the first syllable became long due to the Great Vowel Shift. And voila! We end up with lady, disguised compounds and all.

Fiction

Want to write the next great novel? The next Moby Dick or UlyssesI suggest you use Play-doh. See, fiction goes back to the Latin, fingere, “to shape” or “fashion,” and, originally, “to model in clay” or “knead bread.” Its past participle was fictus, shaped into “fictio,” a “feigning” or “invention,” direct source of fiction. Related is fictile, meaning “made of clay” or “able to be shaped.” Related also is figura–”shape,” “body,” “form”–and source of the English figure, whether of number, thought, or physique.

Or perhaps Harry Potter is more your style: indeed, a figulus was a potter.

By the end of the 1500s, fiction in the literary sense is attested.

The Primordial Act

Paradise, lady, and fiction: Three words whose form and meaning suggest they have utterly nothing common. But through etymology, we witness that primordial act, the shaping of form. Making–making buildings, cooking food, creating art, forming identities. We see, too, that primordial act of language, that great engine of language change, that great mechanism of etymology: metaphor. Hidden *dheigh may be, but transformed we should consider it, like clay into walls and pots, like dough into bread. At the Mashed Radish, that’s my garden, my paradise–the root, the original metaphor.

m ∫ r ∫

gold, silver, & bronze

Fast Mash

  • Gold is from the Proto-Indo-European *ghel-, meaning, variously, “yellow,” “bright,” “shining,” “green,” “blue,” and “gray”; derivatives include chlorine, clean, and the family of gl- words like glass and glance
  • From the Old English siolforsilver’s ultimate origin is unknown, perhaps from the Akkadian sarapu (to smelt)
  • Bronze may be from the Persian birinj (copper) and may be connected to the Latin aes Brundusinium, referring to bronze mirrors made in Brindisi, Italy
  • The Indo-European *arg- (bright, shining) is the origin of Romance words for “silver” (e.g., argent) and *aus– for “gold” (e.g., aureate)

In Ancient Greece, victorious Olympians were crowned with olive wreathes. Upon the Olympics’ reinstitution in 1896, winners were still greeted with this symbolic prize, but also with silver medals. It wasn’t until the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri, though, that the Games issued gold, silver, and bronze medals for its top-three competitors.

Let’s bite into goldsilver, and bronze to check out what they’re made of.

Gold

All that glitters may be gold, etymologically speaking. Unchanged in form from the Old English, gold is from the Proto-Germanic *gulth- and Proto-Indo-European *ghel-, meaning “yellow.” This root could also mean “bright” or “shining.” And, apparently, all that glitters can be “green,” “blue,” and “gray,” for *ghel– so named bright colors and objects.

This root *ghel– is definitely worth its weight in etymological gold, though, for it parented the Greek khloros, “pale green,” giving English everything from chlorine and chlorophyll to the name Chloe. It also parented the Germanic clean and clear. In fact, its Germanic kin are many, as Shipley cites: glare, glassglaze, gloss, gleaming, glow, glower, glad, and glee. To these we might add gleamglitterglint, glimpseglance, among yet others, all featuring the initial cluster gl-.

Does this gl– mean something? The topic is contentious.

Phonesthemes

Linguists call this gl- a “phonestheme,” an example of sound symbolism, the idea that certain sounds inherently have a meaning. Onomatopoeia might be familiar. The cow moos, the bee buzzesthe doorbell ding-dongs. These are all words that imitate or echo what they are naming. The sound symbolizes its meaning.

But gl- is a little more interesting. It has no meaning in and of itself. Gl- on its own cannot be said to mean anything in the way that “cat,” “throw,” or “rumor” do. Or in the way that “pre-” or “post-” or “-ly” or “-hood” do. But it does appear in a family of words whose meanings are all connected–here, through a common sense of “shiny,” “bright,” “light,” “dealing with vision,” or what have you. Further, if you clip off the gl-, you aren’t left with a meaningful unit of sound. Take glitter or glance. If I take of the gl-, I am left with -itter and -ance, which don’t mean anything. (More technically, they aren’t morphemes.) Unlike when I undo the “un-” in “undo” or lob off the “-er” in “faster”: do and fast have meaning.

Words beginning with fl– (flow, fly, flutter. flurry), sl- (slide, slippery, slick, slither), and sn– (snore, sniffle, sneeze, snout) also display this phonesthemic property.

So, does gl– suggest the shiny or visual properties that its word family shares? Does fl– imply flying, sn– various nasal business? Globe, flower, and snow also feature their respective consonant clusters but don’t really belong in their respective phonesthemic families. The phenomenon is not absolute. Nothing is language is. But, given the data, it’s hard to deny that there is some level of truth to this sound symbolism.

Gold’s chemical symbol, Au, is taken from the Latin aurum, meaning “gold.” It’s from a Proto-Indo-European root, *ausprobably meaning “to shine.” From this root, Latin got aes and Old English ar, which could both mean, well, “copper,” “bronze,” and “brass.”

Silver

The name for this runner-up comes from the Old English siolfor or seolfor. (In Old English, letter sounded much like our v.) We can trace the Old English back to the Old Norse, silfr and reconstruct a Proto-Germanic *silubr-. From here, we don’t really know. Perhaps silver is all the more precious for it. Russian has serebo and Lithuanian has sidabras, so etymologists speculate a Balto-Slavic or Asian origin. Ernest Klein offered the Akkadian sarpu, refined “silver,” from sarapu, “to smelt.”

The Indo-European root for silver is reflected in silver’s chemical name, Ag, from Latin’s silver equivalent, argentum. Like *ghel– and *aus-, argentum has *arg-, “to shine,” though often with a especial reference to “white.” The Argonauts were the sailors of the ship, the Argos, lead by Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece. In Greek, argos means “swift,” related to that root for “shining” and “bright.”

Bronze

Nowadays, bronze may evoke being tan before being in third place. It turns out, though, that the alloy may have more in common with vanity–um, I mean skin cancer, er, social constructions of beauty, uh, tanning–than we might think.

Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, and comes to English, via French and Italian, from the Medieval Latin bronzium and its variant brundium. From here, the etymology is itself something of an alloy. As Partridge maintains, bronze is ultimately mined from the Persian birindj (other variants include birinj or pirinj), meaning “copper,” “for the alloy came to Europe from the East.” Skeat cites the Roman historian Pliny, whose writes of aes Brundusinium, referring to the Italian town, Brindisi, whose Latin name was Brundisium, “where bronze mirrors were made.” Aes could mean “copper,” “brass,” “bronze” and the various objects made from them include money, armor, and trumpets. Perhaps you’ll look extra bronzed in one of those mirrors.

The chemical symbol for bronze is…Oh, you don’t remember it? Good. There isn’t one. Just making sure you’re awake.

Etruscan bronze mirror, 3rd-2nd c. BC; image courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Bright, Shiny Objects

*Ghel-, *aus-, *arg-: some of our most precious treasures–an Olympic medal, say, awarding a once-in-a-lifetime performance against the most elite competition following years of training and sacrifice–come down to “bright” and “shiny” objects. That’s a bit glib, of course, as metallurgy certainly had its hand in advancing civilization. But perhaps not too glib, for might not these roots begin in that most fundamentally human act–the act of curiosity, marveling at an object glittering in a riverbed or on the wall of a cave, brighter and shinier than the unremarkable dirt and rock, tinkering and tooling and experimenting with them until it is shaped into something new, an instrument of culture? It may not take much to get our attention, but we sure can do a whole lot with it.

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turkey

Fast Mash

  • Turkey first appears as turkey-cock and turkey-hen in 1541, originally referring to the sub-Saharan guinea fowl and later confused with the North American bird
  • Both the guinea fowl and turkey made it to English-speaking peoples by way of Turkish traders, called “turkey merchants,” who controlled much of the Mediterranean in the Middle Ages during the Ottoman empire
  • 16th-century Spanish conquistadors brought the turkey from North America (where the Aztecs had long before domesticated the bird in Mexico) to these Turkish hands

Last week, I looked into the etymology of burger for another guest post for LexicolatryTwo all-beef patties of American contradiction, the origin of burger is messy–just like a good burger should be.

But it’s probably not burgers on the minds or in the stomachs of many of my American readers as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches. Not turkey burgers, not Thanksgiving burgers–the bird’s the word.

And words, like food, are a tasty way to slice history.

Turkey

It turns out the bird and the country don’t just make for junior high geography jokes or World War I mnemonics. They’re actually connected–dare I say–at the thigh.

Well, sort of.

Originally, turkey–or turkey-cock (attested in 1541) and turkey-hen, back when our intimacy with where our food comes from necessitated such distinctions–referred to the guinea fowl, a bird native to sub-Saharan Africa.

The guinea fowl (or guineafowl), courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica Online and Index Open.

According to some historians, these African guinea fowl made their way into Europe during the Middle Ages through the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which controlled much of North Africa, southern Europe, and the Middle East. So-called “turkey merchants” traded the birds and other goods and wares.

In the early 16th-century, Spanish conquistadors imported into Europe what we now think of as the turkey, domesticated by the Aztecs in Mexico as early as 800 BC, through the Turkish-dominated Mediterranean, whereupon English-speaking peoples misidentified this bird with the African guinea fowl. (Apparently, corn was also known as turkey corn or turkey wheat due to the same Turkey-by-way-of-Spain-by-way-of-the-New-World channel.) The English name for the American bird stuck, even after the Portuguese brought back–and correctly distinguished from its distant American cousin–guinea fowl from West Africa. Cookbooks from the late 1500s and early 1600s provide evidence that the turkey was already a centerpiece at English feasts, including Christmas.  As for why we came to eat turkey for Christmas and Thanksgiving, Slate offers a digestible bit of food anthropology here.

The Ancient Greeks called the guinea fowl μελεαγρίς, apparently a reference to the Meliagrides, sisters of the Argonaut Meleager, leader of the famed Calydonian boar hunt. Upon Meleager’s tragic death, his sisters were changed into guinea hens. Father of modern taxonomy Carl Linnaeus used the name to classify the genus of the North American bird (Meleagris gallopavo), while the name also identifies a common species of the African guinea fowl (Numida meleagris).

Talking Turkey

As for the Turkish? They call the bird hindi. It means “Indian,” and is probably from the French poulet d’inde, or “chicken from India.” Lest we forget, those European explorers–um, conquerors and colonists–did think the New World was Asia. Hence, the West Indies. Hindi and Indian? Yes, they are related. 

And as for Turkey? Turkey is named for the Turks. Romans in the Middle Ages called it Turcus and the Greeks, Tourkos. These come from the Persian national name turk, which folklore glosses as “strength,” but can mean “beautiful youth,” “barbarian,” or “robber.” There is an early Chinese word, tu-kin, referring to a people in the mountains of east-central Asia, who may be connected to ancient ancestors of the Turks.

None of this may be turkey shoot, except for cold turkeyCold turkey–suddenly and completely withdrawing from drugs, originally heroin (and later chocolate), including the intense symptoms therein–is attested in 1910, 1921, or 1936, depending on your source. Thanksgiving leftovers testify that cold turkey requires very little work, thus the original sense of “without preparation.” A cold shoulder (of mutton) is related, “considered a poor man’s dish and thus, perhaps, something one would set out for an unwanted guest with deliberate intention to convey displeasure,” the Online Etymology Dictionary delightfully observes. But let’s not leave our Canadian friends out, where Parson notes cold turkey refers to door-to-door selling or salesmen, perhaps for the same low-prep reasons. 

As for “talking turkey,” Parson defines it as talking “business” or “sense,” with turkey standing for “the substantial and succulent part of a (Christmas) dinner.”

Oh, and that thing dangling from the turkey’s neck? That’s called a wattle. It’s a fleshy caruncle. Birds (and other animals) also have dewlaps and snoods. Apparently, when we named the anatomy of birds, Linnaeus left the room and Dr. Suess took his place. Folds of skin: bon appetit, right?

Whatever’s on your table and whatever you are celebrating this week, enjoy your holiday, give thanks, be safe, and, by all means, avoid fleshy caruncles.

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