10 Catty Etymologies for International Cat Day

From German hangovers to Iraqi silks, the English language loves its cats.

It’s International Cat Day, founded, apparently, in 2002 by the International Fund for Animal Welfare. So, take a break from cat pics and vids online today and enjoy some cat-themed etymologies. Catymologies? Yeah, no, yeah…I think I have to.

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Curiosity may have killed the cat, but I’m pretty etymology never did. (Pixabay)

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From shoreline to sainthood: the origin of “canonize”

This Sunday, Pope Francis canonized Mother Teresa as a saint, joining her with 10,000 other such holy figures in the Catholic Church. That’s a lot of saints, but canonize is still a relatively rare word. So, why is this process called canonization?

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“Reed.” Image by Viktors Kozers, courtesy of freeimages.com.

Canonize

To canonize is to place a deceased person in the Church’s canon of saints. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites this canonize around 1380. We can think of this canon, sometimes known as a calendar, as a kind of list; a saint’s placement on this register only takes place by official decree and according to the rules of the church. Indeed, canon means “rule” or “law,” originally of the church. This usage of canon, again as the OED dates it, is found in Old English by 890. 

While influenced by French in Middle English, the Old English canon comes from the Latin canon, a “rule” or “standard,” taken from the Greek κανών (kanon, meaning the same). (Medieval Latin had canonizāre, the immediate source of canonize.) If we dig deeper, we find that both the Latin canon and Greek kanon are metaphorical in origin: Latin canna and Greek κάννα (kanna) literally mean “reed.” A reed, as we might understand it, is like a proto-measuring rod. It sets a regular length, which can be used as a model, a standard, a rule for something, hence, its application to law.

The words canecannon, and canyon – reeds are tubular – are all related to canon. Generic canon, that is, secular rules or standards, is evidenced by the late 1500s and early 1600s. The canon of literature, at least according to the OED’s account, is found by the 1920s, anticipated by earlier such usages of canon in the mid-1800s. The secular canon, we should note, takes a page from the religious: Since the 1380s canon has also been referring to an authoritative list of books of the Christian Bible.

Excepting its secular extensions, canon connotes Christianity. But the more ancient story of its Latin and Greek roots are anything but. Most etymologists agree that the Latin canna and Greek kanna sprouted up on Semitic shores. As the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology explains it, canon ultimately grew out of the Babylonian-Assyrian qanū, “reed.” This, in turn, is from the Sumerian – yes, Sumerian – gin, likewise meaning “reed.” Cognates include the Hebrew qāneh and the Arabic qanāh. 

As Catholics observe Mother Teresa’s new place in the canon of saints, her canonization adds to the long life of a very well-traveled metaphor indeed.

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Looms, lilies, and lifespans: The metaphorical stamina of “stamina”

In recent campaigning, Donald Trump has been claiming Hillary Clinton “lacks the physical and mental stamina” to do the work of the presidency. His attacks in no way stand up to the facts, but one thing that does “stand up” is stamina, at least etymologically speaking.

A well-planted metaphor

The Oxford English Dictionary first attests stamina (in Latin form) in 1542, when it referred to the “natural constitution” of an organism, a kind of inborn vitality determining how long it would live and its capacity for resisting disease and hardship. Around 1676, stamina, now as an English word, was naming the “rudiments” or “essential qualities” of an organism, later extended figuratively, say, to an institution or movement. By 1726, as found in the letters of Jonathan Swift, stamina jumped to physical “vigor,” especially in the sense of withstanding the likes of illness and fatigue. Come the 1800s, it reached “moral and intellectual robustness and endurance.”

Originally, stamina was a plural noun both in English and Latin, its source. The singular is stamen. (English has been using stamina in the singular since the 18th century.) We are familiar with stamen in botanical contexts: it’s the part of the plant that makes the pollen. Flemish anatomist Adriaan van den Spiegel is credited for first employing it in this modern, scientific sense in 1633. And thanks to English Bishop John Wilkins, stamen pollinated the English tongue as such by 1668.

We should note, though, that centuries earlier, Pliny, the Roman scholar, lent Latin’s stamen to the lily’s prominent pollen producer; Hesychius of Alexandria, a Greek lexicographer, used its Greek counterpart (στῆμα, stoma) of plants early on as well.

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The lily’s stamens, or “stamina.” Image by Mira Pavlakovic, courtesy of freeimages.com.

Common “threads”

So, what’s the common thread? Well, it’s just that. Latin’s stamen means “thread,” specifically the “thread of the warp in the upright loom.” The warp acts as a kind of foundation for the weave, which points us to stamen’s literal, base meaning: “that which stands.” Stand is the keyword here, as stamen and stand are ultimately cousins, sharing an ancient ancestor in *sta-, “stand.” This root is a mind-bogglingly prolific root, seen in Afghanistan, establish, obstacle, steed, and system, to name a paltry few derivatives.

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The vertical threads are the warp, which the Romans called the “stamen.” Image by Tom Pickering, courtesy of freeimages.com.

Pliny, apparently, saw the lily’s stamen as a “thread,” as did van den Spiegel again many years later. But the ancient Romans also saw their mythology in stamen. They used stamen for the “thread of life spun by the Fates,” imagined as three sisters who spun, measured, and cut the threads that controlled the lives and destinies of humanity. In the 18th century, English writers enjoyed using stamen in this very sense, also broadening it to one’s “inborn vitality” much like we saw in the history of stamina.

And the common thread for all of English’s stamina and stamen is metaphor. A plant stamen can resemble a thread. The rudiments of an entity, that early stamina, are its foundation: the warp of a weave. And stamina was once understood as one’s inherent makeup, measuring out how long one would live, like those threads of the Fates.

In the 2016 election, nothing has seem fated – except for the stamina we’ve all shown in making it this far in what continues to be an unprecedented presidential campaign.

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cotton

Last week, Donald Trump’s hot air inspired our look into bombast, where, for all of his bluster and braggadocio, we ultimately discovered the soft padding of cotton. They say all politics is local, but the etymology of cotton is global.

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“Cotton candy.” Their etymologies have traveled to the Iowa State Fair from afar: Both cotton and candy have Arabic roots. Felt-tip and colored pencil on paper. Doodle by me.

Cotton

Cotton cropped up in Middle English (coton) during the late 14th century, taking the word from the French coton. The Oxford English Dictionary comments that cotton‘s “early use in Europe was for the padding of jerkins* worn under mail, and the stuffing of cushions, mattresses, etc.”

Other Romance languages show parallel forms, but it appears the French picked up the word from the Spanish coton. The Spanish, in turn, threaded the word from Arabic. Yes, you should thank Arabic quṭn (قُطُن) for the 100% cotton in your tighty-whities. But you might want to pack an extra pair, as we may be traveling all the back way to that home of the finest of thread counts, Egypt.

See, some etymologists speculate that the Arabic qutn was borrowed from an Egyptian source. Philologist Eric Partridge directs us to the Egyptian phrase “khet en shen.”

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E. A. Wallis Budge’s entry for khet en shen in his Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary. Budge helped popularized Egyptology, though his scholarship and theories are not considered without problems.

Khet names a “plant,” “tree,” or “shrub,” while en means “of” and shen, “hair,” yielding “hair plant,” hence the cotton plant. Cotton is now sounding an awful lot like another feature of Trump: his combover.

* A jerkin was a tight-fitting sleeveless jacket, often made of leather. An acton was such a padded one worn under armor. The word derives from the Spanish algodón, ultimately deriving from the Arabic al (“the”) and quṭn. (“cotton”). 

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