From “to” to “too”

A trend has spread on social media following the many and disturbing allegations of sexual assault and rape against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein: me too, which tens of thousands women are posting to express that they, too, have been assaulted or harassed.

The little word, too, so simply yet powerfully bringing attention to how pervasive, and pernicious, sexual violence against women is. For today’s post, let’s put the etymological spotlight on it.

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“Too”: moving in the right direction. (Pixabay)

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Who knew the word “insurance” was so complicated?

Insurance ultimately comes from the Latin securus, “free from care.” 

Health insurance was front and center this week as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan debuted his contentious plan to repeal Obamacare. As Washington continues to deal with the political complexities of health insurance, let’s deal with the etymological complexities of the word insurance.

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Health insurance is about as far from carefree as it gets – unless we look to its etymology. Image from pixabay.com.

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Miscreants, quarry, and records: changes of “heart”

On Valentine’s Day, hearts are everywhere. Candy hearts. Heart emoji. Every imaginable sort of heart-shaped chocolate, greeting card, decorative banner, bric-a-brac. Hearts even swell in our words – and not just the likes sweetheart or, depending on how feel about the holiday, heartsick. I grant you no quarry, you discordant, incredulous, myocardial miscreant! Yes, these words also have the word “heart” at their etymological heart.

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Record comes from the Latin recordari, “to remember,” literally “to call back to heart.”

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Santa’s reindeer: an etymological herd

Around many holiday hearths tonight, families will recite “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” a poem, properly called “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” first published anonymously in 1823 and later claimed by American professor and writer Clement Clarke Moore.

Moore’s verse is considered the source of our names for Santa’s reindeer, excluding their later leader, Rudolph:

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And [St. Nick] whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:
“Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer, and Vixen!
“On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Dunder and Blixem!

As some children are hoping to glimpse Santa’s reindeer across the sky this night before Christmas, let’s have a glimpse at the deeper roots of their high-flying names.

Dasher

A dasher moves very quickly – or smashes something to little bits, as in one’s hopes for that new iPhone 7 under the Christmas tree. Both senses of the verb to dash are found in the early 1300s, and are connected by an underlying idea of intense energy, whether of force or speed.

The deeper root of dash is unclear. The world may be related to a Scandinavian word for “beat” or “strike,” imitating the sound of dashing something (compare bash, clash, and smash). To dash off a letter appears by the 1720s, and dashing, for “stylish,” emerges in the early 1800s a la “striking.”

Dancer

Dance enters English in the 1300s from the Old French danser. Its origins, like dash, are also unclear – and somewhat less than graceful, shall we say. Some connect it to the Old High German dansōn, “to stretch out,” as in the limbs. Others suggest the Frankish *dintjan, “to tremble” or “quiver.”   

Prancer

Prancing involves a jaunty and showy movement, and, originally, was often used not of any reindeer but of horses. A few theories try to explain the source of word, which is first attested in the late 1300s. Prance might come from pranse, Danish dialect for “going about in a proud fashion.” Or could be be related to prank, which has variously meant “to dress up” or “parade around,” rooted in a German word for “to show off.” It’s not certain if this prank has any relationship to those mischievous pranks, like getting a bit of coal in your stocking on Christmas.

Vixen

A vixen is a “female fox,” from the Old English adjective fyxen. The word gives us a glimpse of English past. Historically, some certain southern England dialects replaced word-initial f’s with v’s – not a surprising switch, as the v-sound is what linguistics term the “voiced” form of f. This switch is preserved only in the spelling of few other words, including vane and vat. And the -en is an old, Germanic suffix used to name female animals (e.g., Old English wylfen, a “she-wolf”).

The word fox, appropriately enough, is from a Germanic base that may be related to an Indo-European root for “tail.” And vixen, a disparaging term for an “ill-tempered woman,” appears by the 1570s. Why Moore chose Vixen as a name for this airborne ungulate may be more about rhyme and meter than meaning. 

Comet

Comets speed across the sky, leaving a spectacular tail in its wake. Their tail, to the ancient Greeks, looked like long hair – and indeed, they called the celestial object κομήτης (kometes), or “long-haired star.” The Greek root is κόμη (koma), “the hair of the head.” Latin, with its comēta, borrowed the term, which coursed into English as early as 1154 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Cupid

In Roman mythology, Cupid, depicted with his young wings and arrows, personifies desire and erotic love. His name is the Latin for “desire,” cupīdo, from the verb cupere. The English cupidity denotes an intense “desire for wealth”; concupiscence, for sex.

Donner and Blitzen

In his original A Visit from St. Nicholas, as we saw above, Moore urges on “Dunder and Blixem,” the Dutch for “thunder and lightning.” (Modern Dutch would use Donder and Bliksem.) An 1844 edition of the poem ultimately rendered the Dutch into their German counterparts: Donner and Blitzen. (Blitzen, properly, is “flash.”) Thunder is the English equivalent of Donder and Donner, while English borrowed and shortened blitz from the German Blitzkrieg, whose deadly method of rapid assault literally means “lightning war.” American football took up blitz by the 1960s.

Rudolph

Rudolph is not one of the original reindeer. He came to lead Santa’s cervine crew only in 1939, sparked by the imagination of Robert May, who created his story for Montgomery Ward department stores. Rudolph may be the most famous of the reindeers, but his name, ironically, refers to the glory of his nemesis: Not social isolation, but wolves. Rudolph derives from the Old High German name Hrodulf, “fame-wolf.” The name joins hruod, “fame,” and the Germanic base that gives English wolf.”

For more Christmassy etymologies, see my recent guest posts for Oxford Dictionaries on the soulful origin of wholesome, as well as an older post there covering 12 etymologies of Christmas. Revisit, too, some of Mashed Radish’s tinseled archives, including Christmas, El Niño, chestnut, and Kris Kringle. Happy Holidays! 

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What’s up with all those letters we don’t say in “Leicester”?

Against all odds, the Leicester City Football Club clinched England’s Premier League title on Monday. Far and wide, millions of lovers of football – and Cinderella stories – cheered the unlikely champions. And as many, perhaps, learned how to pronounce the name of this club and city. Leicester, in spite of its extra characters, sounds like the name Lester, which is derived, in fact, from this very Leicester.

Why do we pronounce Leicester like “Lester”? Or, for my readers not interested in sports, Gloucester like “Gloster”? (I can still feel my nerdy shame when an English teacher corrected my mispronunciation of this King Lear character.) Oxford English Dictionary offers: “The history of the form written -cester, of which only -ster is pronounced (in Worcester, Bicester, etc.), is obscure; the written form is perhaps of French or medieval Latin origin.” Economy, generally speaking, is ultimately behind the pronunciation, historical inertia behind the spelling, I imagine.

While we can’t explain for certain the peculiar pronunciation of –cester, we can explain where it comes from.

Cester: phonetic cheshire cats and linguistic underdogs 

From roughly 40 to 400 AD, Rome ruled much of Great Britain. Over 1500 years later, its footprint still shows. Ancient Roman military fortifications, for example, have endured not only in their physical remains, but in place names as well. Latin called these sites castra, a plural noun meaning a “camp,” which we might liken to military bases today.

A diminutive form of castra, castellum, a kind of “fort,” gives English castle. The ultimate origin of Latin’s castrum is unclear, though many connect it to castrate via a root meaning, yep, “to cut off.” The surname Castro, as in Fidel, is a notable Spanish cognate, as is alcazar,  from an Arabic rendering  of castrumal-qasr 

Old English borrowed Latin’s castra as ceaster. (Old Welsh did as cair.) Anglo-Saxon records show ceaster in combination with original Celtic names for tribes and topography. As early as the 10th century, Leicester, for instance, is recorded as Ligora-ceastre; the first element preserves either the Celtic name of the tribe or for the river there when the Romans marched in around 47 A.D.

For a time, ceaster, pronounced more like its now-obsolete descendant, chester, stood on its own word as a word “town,” especially a former Roman-occupied castra. But English largely remembers ceaster as a toponymic suffix, variously adapted as -caster (Lancaster), –chester (Manchester, ), –cester (Leicester), and in other place names like Exeter and Cheshire. Each of these former Roman encampments, again, likely preserve Celtic roots in their first elements: Lancaster may have meant “camp on the Lune River”; Manchester, “on the breast-like hill”; Exeter, “on the Exe River.” Cheshire, meanwhile, is “chester shire.”

For all the Latinate -cester’s that occupy its place names, the English language, like Leicester, is itself something of an underdog story. It survived once stronger (or at least better-funded clubs) on its historical pitch, from Norse to Latin to French. But then again, the Anglo-Saxons themselves were a visiting team: Celtic, too, as we also see in the likes of Leicester, played hard as well.

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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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gyrocopter

This week, Florida mailman Doug Hughes landed a gyrocopter on the lawn of the US Capitol in a bizarre act of protest against the corrupting influence of money in politics. The incident has compelled many questions, not the least of which is: What’s a gyrocopter? I’ll leave the technical explanation of this rotorcraft to the experts, but let’s have a look at the etymology of gyrocopter here.

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

Gyrocopter

The Oxford English Dictionary (OEDS) finds gyrocopter in print as early as 1915 and notes, as you probably guessed, that it is formed after helicopterGyrocopter joins gyro– and copter. The first element comes from the Greek γῦρος (gyros, “ring” or “circle”), which we see in gyregyroscope, and gyro, as in that delicious lamb meat roasted on a turning spit. Evidenced by 1947 (OED), copter is shortened from helicopter, and, etymologically, can’t get off the ground on its own.

Helicopter

As I have done, perhaps you’ve supposed helicopter fuses heli– and copter, some kind of “sun-seizer,” guessing the Greek root for sun (hello-) and a cognate to the Latin capere (“to seize”). If so, your knowledge of English phonology is sound but wrong. If we properly divide this word, it’s helico- and -pter. The first part pervades the fiber of your very DNA, as it is connected to helix, from the Greek ἕλιξ (helix)which Liddell and Scott gloss as “anything which assumes a spiral shape.” Its adjectival form is ἕλικος (helikos)The second part pervades the fabric of your childhood, as it is connected to pterodactyl, from the Greek πτερόν (pteron)“wing.”

Thus, a helicopter is a “spiral wing,” used by French inventor Gustave Ponton d’Amécourt in 1861 for a machine he devised (hélicoptère). While the modern helicopter doesn’t appear until the first half of the 20th century, the word keeps spinning, as heli– lives on as a prefix (or pseudoprefix) for all things helicopter (e.g., helipad) and copter serves to name other kinds of rotorcraft (say, gyrocopter).

Words of a “Feather”

Now, the Greek πτερόν features that unusual pt– cluster, which helps explains why we split helicopter as we do. In English, we keep the silent. In Greek, the is voiced. That pt– might seem strange, but it is related to some rather familiar words: feather, pin (like a peg), pen (like the writing instrument), compete, symptom, hippopotamus, and many more. The Proto-Indo-European root is *pet-, meaning to “rush” or “fly,” and evolved into many forms down the Germanic lines (feather), Latin (pin, pen, compete), and Greek (symptom, hippopotamus, pterodactyl). The Latin verb petere (“to seek,” “to attack,” et al.) is behind that compete, as well as petulant, which some might use to characterize Doug Hughes–and petition, which some might have advised him to do in lieu of his gyrocopter.

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tomato, tomatl

If it weren’t for Nahuatl, what would we be eating?

As we saw in a recent post on amnesty and coyote, the latter word originates in Nahuatl. Still spoken by about 1.5 million people and a member of the extensive Uto-Aztecan language family native to the Southwest US and Mexico, Nahuatl actually comprises a large variety of dialects. The one spoken in Tenochtitlan served as a prestige dialect for the Aztec Empire. Spanish, of course, displaced much of Nahuatl, but borrowed words from it which later made their way into English.

“Borrowed,” “displaced”–that’s a nice way of putting it, huh? But if it weren’t for the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire in 1521, we may not be saying tomatoavocado, and chocolate, among others. (Sarcasm intended; the Mashed Radish does not endorse colonialism.)

And according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, in 2012 worldwide, we produced over 160,000,000 tons of tomatoes, 4,000,000 tons of avocados, and 5,000,000 tons of cocoa beans. For English speakers, that’s a whole of lot of tomatoesavocados, and chocolate.

I say tomato, you say tomatl. Doodle by me.
I say tomato, you say toma–Yeah, that /tl/ is tricky. Doodle by me.

Tomato, Avocado, & Chocolate

Tomato ultimately derives from the Nahuatl tomatl. (I can’t link directly to it, but if you clink the link and search for tomatl, click the audio symbol to hear a pronunciation. I recommend this for the following words, too.) The Spanish picked up it up as tomate, later fashioned to tomato, where the word (and fruit, though not without controversy) spread throughout Europe and later to the United States. Um, back to regions in the United States.

Avocado is originally from the Nahuatl ahuacatl. Spanish made some aguacate out of it, whose resemblance to abogado, as in “lawyer,” helped shape its modern form. Ahuacatl can also mean “testicle.” Think about it.

And chocolate comes from chocolatl, referring to food made from cacao, which, as the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology notes, Europeans may have confused with cacaua-atl, a drink made from cacao beans, which cacao (and its corrupted form, cocoa) derives from the Nahautl cacahuatl. Indeed, a chocolate was originally a kind of drink. Hot chocolate retains this sense. 

Tongue Twister

Approximately 8 million indigenous peoples died (largely due to disease contracted from the Europeans) during the Spanish colonization of the Americas, but now there are more than 1,500 Chipotles around the world. Chipotle–another loanword from Nahuatl, whose phoneme /tl/ gives so many of us trouble.

For /tl/ has no equivalent in English (and in many other languages). Technically, it is a voiceless alveolar lateral fricative, and to the English-speaking ear, this subtle /tl/ sort of sounds like you are saying a /t/ but with your tongue in the position of saying an /l/. (I’ll leave you to wiping the spit off your screen.) Your ear may want to approximate it as the –tch sound in watch, but that is a very gross approximation indeed, as the sounds are produced quite differently in the mouth.

In many dialects, I should note, the /tl/ is reduced either to a /t/ or /l/–and, for all intents and purposes, non-native speakers will treat the sound like the second syllable of the English little.

In Nahuatl, chipotle may be a compound of chili–yes, we get that from Nahuatl, too–and poctli, “to smoke,” explaining this smoke-dried jalapeño chili pepper. And with your Chipotle burrito you may like guacamole, from the Nahuatl ahuacamolli, joining ahuacatl (“avocado”) and molli, “sauce,” literally “something ground up.” Oh yeah: mole is a Spanish derivative.

Other Nahuatl derivatives include tamalepeyote (from a word for “caterpillar”), mescaljicama, and ocelot.

Empires on Your Plate

Cultural contact, whether through the bargain of trade or, too often, the brawn of war, is a major vehicle of language change, particularly on the lexical level. When people encounter new people, they encounter new ideas, goods, and objects, especially food and technology–phenomena and concepts a language previously did not a have a word for, and therefore was heretofore not lexicalized, as we say, in the tongue. And so it was for Spanish and Nahuatl, and so it is for languages in contact, in conflict.

Empires rise. Empires meet. Empires fall. Empires fade. Spanish and Nahuatl alike. But it’s amazing to me to think of some of these great historic cultures live on in the most everyday–humble, invisible in their taken-for-grantedness–of ways: a can of tomato sauce, a chocolate bar, a side of guacamole.

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