Economists, businesspersons, and politicians of all stripes are pushing back against Donald Trump’s plan to impose stiff, new aluminum and steel tariffs,or “taxes imposed on imported goods,” in an effort to lower the trade deficit. They are concerned the shortsighted policy will increase costs on US consumers and hurt the economies of close trading parts, like Canada and Germany, triggering a trade war.
If it weren’t for trade, however, we’d have a massive deficit in our vocabulary—including tariff. Let’s have a look at the etymology of this economic word of the moment.
Parole comes from the French for “word” or “speech.”
After nine years in prison, OJ Simpson was granted parole on Thursday, releasing him early from his 33-year sentence for armed robbery. Parole comes with a strict set of terms, conditions, and supervision, of course, but it’s grounded, essentially, in the prisoner’s word of honor that they will uphold the law upon release. Word of honor—this is precisely where the term parole comes from.
One does not need an excuse to talk about sloths. These slow-moving tree-dwellers wear a goofy smile that says, “Live in the moment.” That or they are silently – joyously – breaking wind.
But I do have a reason, this post. My wife and I are jaunting down to Costa Rica. Move aside, quetzal: It’s the sloth we’re eager to spot. (I imagine they’re not hard to miss.)
Like their cousin, the anteater, the sloth has an apt appellation, despite the sinful associations that tarnishes their otherwise good name.
I find it interesting, though, that sloths are called so called. Very often, ecologically distinct animals like the sloth, now only found in Central and South America, bear their indigenous names. Like the quetzal, toucan, macaw – or, as I’ve discussed in another travel-inspired posts, the Quechuan condor, llama, and puma.
So, what’s up with sloth? Let’s have a quick look at its etymology.
For the name of the animal, the Oxford English Dictionary first spots sloth in Samuel Purchas’ 1613 Purchas his Pilgrimage. (You might recall Purchas, whose travel writings are of great historical and lexical importance, from my posts on victim and tornado.) Concerning the sloth, Purchasnotes: “The Spaniards call it…the light dog. The Portugals Sloth. The Indians, Hay.” Sloth appears to be a translation of the Portuguese preguiça, from the Latin pigritia, meaning “laziness.” Related is the Spanish perezoso.
Meaning “laziness,” sloth has been long been crawling up the tree of English. The OED cites it in the late 1100s. By the middle of the 1300s, sloth reached its personification as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. This sloth translates the Latin acedia and Greek ἀκηδία. These classical words suggest a spiritual apathy, which I don’t think the smiling sloth is guilty of. A little later, sloth came upon “slowness.”
The word sloth pulls a fast one, etymologically speaking: It joins slow and the noun-forming suffix –th, seen in other, words like stealth and strength (one of which definitely applies to the sloth). Sloth, then, is really just slowth; spelling and vowel changes yield its modern form. This formation surfaces in early Middle English, replacing the Old English slǽwð. In the record, the latter, found as early as the late 800s, clings on as sleuth, no relation to detectives.
From the Germanic-rooted, Old English sláw, slow is also very old in the language, when it originally referred to dullness of wits, not motion. Slow in terms of speed was actually slower to the scene.
Sloth is an epithet not only hung on only our tardigrade edentate, though: the collective term for a group of bears is sloth.
Up to this point, I’ve been a bit lazy myself. Sloths are known by native names, especially down in Brazil, where sloths there are known by the Tupi as ai, which Purchas seems to have documented as hay. Ai imitates the animal’s high-pitched cry – which imitates, too, I hope, our squeal of joy when we get to see a sloth. Not to be confused, of course, with the cry of “Hey, you guys!” in The Goonies’ very own Sloth.
The Mashed Radish will be back in March. Forgive my idleness while I’m away.
Last week, President Obama announced that he is normalizing relations with Cuba. This means we will be giving one word quite a bit of attention in the days ahead: embargo. Policy-wise, I’ll leave that matter to the experts, but we can give it some etymological attention here.
The United States’ trade embargo with Cuba has been in place since 1960. This may be quite a long time by modern standards, but the word embargo has been in place in the English language for centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests it in 1602 in a passage referring to an “Imbargo with Spaine.”
It’s not surprising that Spain comes up in the early days of embargo, for it’s a word of Spanish origin. The Spanish Empire, you may recall, dominated the 16th century in many ways. Their extensive holdings included possessions in the Netherlands, which you may not always recall, if you’re like me. In the 1550s, Catholic Spain felt threatened by English Protestantism, to put it simplistically, and so barred English cloth imports to the Netherlands. England retaliated by barring Dutch imports. This conflict, of course, escalated over the ensuing decades, coming to a head most famously in the Spanish Armada. (Spanish Word Histories and Mysteries, 2007)
Various ships and trade may have been embargoed during this historical stretch, but embargo‘s passage into English certainly was not.
This Spanish embargo, generally meaning a “prohibition,” is formed from the verb embargar, “to restrain,” “seize,” or “impede.” This verb, etymologists propose, comes from a Late Latin *imbarricāre, which breaks down to “a putting of a bar in the way,” according to Walter Skeat. If we take the Latin apart further, we end up with in– (“in”) and *barra. We don’t know where this *barra comes from, in spite of efforts to link it to a Celtic root referring to the “bushy tops” of trees.
No Bars Barred
We do believe, however, that *barra, referred to–wait for it–a “bar.” If we look to English, lots of things can bar one’s way, so what was this Latin “bar” like?
Perhaps it was like a barrier, a derivative which English gets from the French. Barriers come in all shapes in sizes, such as those bars–or partitions–used in courts of law to variously set off judges, legal practitioners of different standing, and trial participants from the public. The phrase called to the bar and barrister are so derived, though these two in particular refer to practices at the Inns of Court at London.
This concept of a partition is also behind the bar you go to be served up a drink, perhaps from a barrel, which some suggest could be related to bar on the basis of cask construction. Barrel may also be behind barricade; the OED cites “casks filled with earth, paving stones, etc.” used in Parisian streets during 16th-century riots. Bars are rod-like, too, such as those put baddies who stole bars of gold behind bars, where, the cliché goes, you don’t want to drop a bar of soap.
Sports looked to bars as well, from raise the bar, which I believe refers to literally elevating the challenge in a high-jump, to the no holds barred said of certain wrestling matches.
Latin’s *imbarricāre may have also inspired the word embarrass. Passing into English through the French, the word may be from the Italian imbarazzare or Spanish embarazar, to put someone within “bars,” as Ernest Weekley see its. The OED, however, proposes the Spanish owes itself to the Portuguese baraço, a “cord,” “apparently originally with reference to animals being restrained by a cord.”
Whether leashed or barred, a person is thusly impeded. Its principal early meanings in English and French, though, point to causing someone confusion and perplexity. Over time, such confusion and perplexity were transferred to a sense of putting someone in an awkward or uncomfortable situation. By the mid-1800s, we see it referring to the feelings of humiliation and foolishness we associate with the word to today.
The French verb from which English more immediately picked up this embarrass–embarrasser–was “probably first used in the Spanish Netherlands,” pointing us back again to that Spanish Empire. Yet again, the impact of the Spanish Empire–from the word embargo to the embargoed island of Cuba, officially freed from Spain in 1902–is felt far and wide, indeed.
Typhoon reaches English–translated from the Italian, itself from the Portuguese tufão–in the late 1580s, and its various spellings point to various possible sources
Typhoon may be from the Arabic tufan (“violent storm of wind and rain”), related to tafa (“to turn around”)
It may also be from the Greek typhon (“whirlwind” and name of a monstrous, giant god), related to typhein (“smoke,” as in vapor)
Chinese might have influence, too, with ta feng (Mandarindàfēng or大風), meaning “big wind”
It’s hard to comprehend the devastation that Typhoon Haiyan has visited upon the Philippines this November. But for far too many, there is no comprehension. There’s only experience–brutal experience.
At the Mashed Radish, I use etymology as a lens through which to view human experience, or at least the ways words might structure that experience. This effort seems so small when it comes to the more extreme experiences that test–nay, defy– comprehension. My musings offer utterly no material aid, and I’m not going to pretend the little insights I kick up do much for solidarity.
But perhaps there is some tiny truth in the origin of typhoon that can help us better attend to Haiyan’s aftermath.
Of all the words I have traced so far, I don’t think any has shown as diverse a possible lineage as typhoon. Meteorologically, typhoons, hurricanes, and cyclones are all strong tropical cyclones, but they occur in different geographic regions. A typhoon strikes the northwest Pacific ocean west of the dateline. And it has carried this distinction–well, its distinction as a violent, massive storm in the East, especially in India or in the China Sea–for some time in the English language.
Since 1588, to be precise, when a Thomas Hickock, an English merchant traveling the Mediterranean Sea, translated the Viaggio (shortened title), written in 1587 by the Venetian merchant Cesare de Fedrici after 18 years of travel in the East. As the OED cites Hickcock:
I went a boord of the Shippe of Bengala, at which time it was the yeere of Touffon…This Touffon or cruell storme endured three dayes and three nightes.
Likely by way of the Portuguese tufão, this touffon may derive from tufan, whichin Urdu (and Arabic, Persian, and Hindi), refers to a “violent storm of wind and rain,” as the OED defines it. The Online Etymology Dictionary adds that al-tufan “occurs several times in the Koran for a ‘flood or a storm’ and also for Noah’s flood.” At root may be the Arabic tafa,meaning “to turn around.”
However, some have traced tufan back to the Greek typhon, meaning “whirlwind” and personified as a god of the same name. Weekely describes Typhon as a “giant, father of the winds, buried under Mount Etna.” Apparently, this winged, coiling Typhon also had a hundred heads (sometimes depicted as bull, lion, leopard, or snake heads), had two vipers for legs, had fifty serpent heads for each hand, and breathed fire–not to mention the fact that he fathered Cerberus, Sphinx, Hydra, and Chimera, among other monsters. The OED also notes that this name is shared by an ancient, evil Egyptian deity.
Typhon likely comes from the Greek verb typhein, or “smoke.” Typhus and typhoid are indeed related: Greek has typhos(blind, stupor caused by fever). As might be related the two cognates thyme and fume, some have suggested.
The English language presents other forms of the word–tuffoon and tay-fun, among other spellings–that point to a Chinese influence. Chinese has ta feng, with ta meaning “big” and feng “wind.” In today’s traditional Mandarin, we would see dàfēng, or 大風. This is the same feng in “feng shui.” But there is little harmony in this feng.
As I recall from my too brief studies of basic Chinese in college, the character dà pictographically resembles a man with outstretched arms. A fathom, if you will. But within the character for “wind,” it turns out, is the character for “insect.” Scholars posit some explanations for this: a likeness between the wind and bugs, sharing speed and changing directionality; or an ancient belief that the wind carries illness, either because it carries bugs or inflicts illness like bugs can.
Judge not this ancient etiology. We call germs “bugs.” We refer to getting sick as “catching a bug.” And what about the cold–rooted in the belief that being exposed to the cold (and all its chilly winds) can cause sickness? Oh, and there’s that whole matter of airborne communicability, you know, like tuberculosis.
Who has the final word: Arabic, Greek, Chinese? While the Greek has no apparent connection to the Chinese, it seems typhon has influenced the spelling of English typhoon. There could be a case for the Chinese making its way west. And it seems reasonable to consider an interaction between the Greek and the Arabic. But, ultimately, we aren’t certain.
Our words so often fall short. We grope for ways to express–to give name to–the most extreme of our experiences. But within our words are stories of our attempts to explain these experiences. The Greek giant Typhon–making sense of natural calamities, of why bad things happen and why the world is as it is, in terms of mythic dramas involving divine actors. Or infectious Chinese winds–folklore of evil sprits yet closer to our modern scientific understanding than we ever imagined.
And yet at the same time events such as Typhoon Haiyan speak for themselves. Perhaps as typhoonspoke for itself as it travelled from Urdu and Hindi and Arabic and Greek to the Portuguese and the English. Or in Chinese, where its story is as direct as it can get: “big wind.”