What is the “buke” in “rebuke”?

In his latest controversy, Donald Trump has been criticizing Khazr and Gazala Khan, whose son died fighting in Iraq. Khazr rebuked Trump in a powerful speech at the Democratic National Convention last week, but Trump’s unseemly response has drawn, yet again, his own sharp rebukes from the likes of John McCain and President Obama.

In these rebukative times (and yes, that’s a word, though rare), it’s hard not to wonder: What does the –buke in rebuke mean, anyways? If some etymologists are right, its origin is quite literally very sharp.

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Enough rebukes to build a log cabin? “Axed,” by Asheley Grifin, courtesy of www.freeimages.com

Rebuke

Rebuke has been stinging English since the early 14th century. Back then, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), to rebuke was “to reprimand” and “chide.” Over the centuries, the severity of this reprimanding  and chiding intensified, today denoting “condemn” and often paired with sharp.

Rebuke is French in origin. English borrowed it from the Anglo-French rebuker, derived from the Old French rebuchier. The original meaning of rebuker and rebuchier was “to beat back,” as one might an advancing fighter. Many etymological dictionaries maintain that the French rebuchier joins re-, “back,” with buchier, “to strike” or “chop wood.” And so rebuke jumped from a physical counterblow to a verbal one. 

In the woods

Now, according to this “wood” theory, the root of all this French “chopping” is busche or bûche:  “woods” or “wood,” especially “firewood.” English’s own bush is related. Bush itself is a thicket of Scandinavian (Old Norse buskr), Germanic (Old High German busc), and Romanic (Medieval Latin busca) influences and cognates. All these bush’s appear to be borrowed, ultimately, from West Germanic or Frankish.

The French busche (now bois) also appears in ambush. In Old French, the word was embuscher, “in the woods,” where one might lay an ambush.  But not all bush cognates are so violent. Via French-Canadian, Boise, Idaho is named for its “wooded” lands. Bouquet means “little wood.” And an oboe is an English rendition of the French hautbois, the sound of “high wood.” (For haut, think haughty.)

Not out of the woods yet

As noted, there are other theories for the origins of rebuke. Earnest Weekley and Walter Skeat connect rebuke not with the blow of an ax on wood but with a blowing of the cheeks. They cite the French bouche, “mouth.” Skeat goes on to explain rebuke as “to puff back,” hence “to reject,” making rebuke much the same as rebuff, from the Italian word ribuffo, “a blow back.” 

On rebuke, the OED concludes that the French buchier (“to beat”) is uncertain in origin. Trump, as many politicians are admonishing, could learn a thing or two from the OED: Staying quiet is definitely one way to avoid rebuke.

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A pre-bork, post-Bork?

Mere hours after the news broke that Justice Antony Scalia died over the weekend, the political fight over his sudden vacancy already broke out. Senate Republicans argue the next president should nominate his replacement. Meanwhile, Barack Obama, citing constitutional duties, will submit his pick. Everyone from pundits on cable news to scholars of U.S. history are pointing to various precedents to guide this election-year game-changer.

One U.S. Supreme Court nomination fight getting aired in all this chatter concerns Robert H. Bork, whose legacy may be less jurisprudential than lexical.

Bork

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Robert Bork. Image from Wikimedia Commons

After the retirement of Justice Lewis Powell on June 26, 1987, President Ronald Regan nominated Robert Bork to replace him on the U.S. Supreme Court. Senate Democrats notoriously and publicly blitzed Bork’s nomination. Other liberal-leaning organizations further fueled the characterization of the then-appellate judge as an extremist. His video rental records were even leaked (though his viewing habits were quite vanilla). The Senate rejected Bork’s nomination in a 58-42 vote. (The Senate later confirmed Justice Antony Kennedy in a 97-0, after Douglas Ginsburg withdrew his nomination over concerns of past marijuana use).

Thanks to this heated contest over his failed nomination, Bork was borked, eponymously verbed for “to vilify a nominee, especially in the mass media, in order to prevent their appointment to a public office,” if I may paraphrase the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for this memorable moment in U.S. political slang. Bork can more widely referring to thwarting a person in a similar manner, though it generally stills wears a flag pin, so to speak. This is not be confused with the caricatured interjection, Bork!, of the Muppet Swedish Chef, nor the internet-y slang, borked, meaning “broken.”

William Safire dated the first usage of bork – not long after his very nomination – to The Atlanta -Journal Constitution on August 20, 1987: “Bork’s opponents are in a frenzy. Frenzied mortals amplify some facts and gloss over others. Let’s just hope something enduring results for the justice-to-be, like a new verb: Borked. Dictionaries will say it’s synonymous with ‘maligned’.” Language has indeed memorialized Bork’s last name, though not quite honoring the original intent of this early usage.

Post-Bork, bork had a good deal of currency into the early 1990s but since ebbing, if my ear is any measure. But now, with the Republican-controlled Senate already urging the President not even to nominate Scalia’s successor, we’ll have to see if Bork gets something of a comeuppance: to pre-Bork, perhaps? Then again, blocking a nomination may just backfire – er, bork-fire, shall we say. However it shakes out, the next months in U.S. politics is going to be one cluster-bork, no doubt.

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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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