An etymological tricolor: red, white, and blue

Today, Americans celebrate their brave declaration of independence from British rule on July 4th, 1776 with plenty of red, white, and blue, the colors of its star-spangled banner.

As a nickname for the flag of the United States, the red, white, and blue is found by 1853. But what about those individuals words red, white, and blue? Let’s have a look at their origins, whose ancients roots make the US’s 242 years as a nation this year look ever so young.

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Its flag may be red, white, and blue, but the US is properly a land of many colors. (Pixabay)

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One “mean” etymology

Mean originally meant “in common.” If only that actually described US healthcare. 

Despite previously praising the House Republican healthcare bill as a “great plan” in a public ceremony in May, Donald Trump told senators this week that the bill was “mean, mean, mean.” Where does this common little word mean come from?

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You’re a mean one,  Mr. American Health Care Act. (A.V. Club). 

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Rowing, rivers, and rulers: 5 “Russian” roots

“Russia” isn’t Russian, the Kremlin was once one of many, and Vladimir Putin would really like what his name literally means. 

With increasing evidence for Russian interference in the US’s 2016 elections, and persistent ambiguity concerning Trump’s relationship with the country, news reports are littered with Kremlin‘s and  Vladimir‘s. And at least etymologically, Russia indeed is the one “steering the ship.” So, let’s have a look at the origins of some of the leading “Russian” words.

Continue reading “Rowing, rivers, and rulers: 5 “Russian” roots”

What is the “mail” in “blackmail”?

The origin of blackmail has nothing to do with dark letters.

This week, a sensational yet unverified dossier leaked that alleges Russia has “compromising personal and financial information” it could use to blackmail President-elect Donald Trump. While we wait to learn more about the allegations, let’s get to the bottom of another matter. Where does the word blackmail come from?

Border issues

Since the late 1700s, blackmail has referred to the extortion of money, or other benefits, under the threat of revealing incriminating or damaging facts about someone. But several hundred years ago, blackmail was a much more localized affair, shall we say.

In the 16th century, blackmail was a tribute paid by farmers along the border of Scotland and England to freebooters for protection from their raids. The freebooters are often identified as the Border reivers, descended from both Scottish and English families in the region. They resorted to pillage and plunder, apparently, due to the disruptions and devastations wreaked by the ongoing war between the two peoples in the late Middle Ages. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first dates the term to the 1530s in Robert Pitcairn’s Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland.

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The Border reivers know what you did. A scanned drawing, by George Cattermole, of Border reivers at Gilnockie Tower. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

An etymological “tribute” 

The second part of the compound blackmail, mail, refers to the “tribute” paid to the freebooters. In Middle English, and continuing into Scottish, mail could signify a “tribute,” “rent,” “payment,” or “tax.” It comes down from the Old English mal, variously meaning “agreement,” “bargaining,” “terms,” or “lawsuit,” in turn from the Old Norse mál, “speech” or “agreement.” Indo-European scholars root mal and mál in the Proto-Germanic *mathla- and Proto-Indo-European *mod-, “to meet” or “assemble.” (Mail, as in letters and armor, are unrelated.)

The sense development of mail would seem fairly straightforward, then. When we gather, we talk, and through talking, we make deals, which often concern money, ultimately yielding the mail in blackmail. We can see, too, how the particular and historical extortion of blackmail in the Anglo-Scottish border readily broadened to its modern usage. It’s a Scotsman, too, whom the OED credits for the early expansion of blackmail: philosopher David Hume, in 1774.

Not so black and white

As for the black in blackmail? Some etymologists point to black rent and white rent. Black rent, so the theory goes, could be paid in work, goods, livestock, or produce, the color associated with cattle or the ‘baser’ quality of the forms of payment. White rent, meanwhile, was paid in money, like silver, whose metal was once called “white.” Black rent was an indeed an earlier (1420s) form of blackmail, but the OED enters white rent as a variant of quit-rent, a kind of historical property tax that exempt (quit) renters from other obligations concerning the land under feudal law. Folk etymology probably accounts for the confusion.

More likely, the black in blackmail refers to the “illegal” (black market) or “evil” (black magic) nature of the extortion.

Snail “mail”?

Mail, as “tribute,” does appear in other words, as the OED notes. Now obsolete, they were largely used in Scottish, underscoring the longer life mail enjoyed in the language:

  • Burrow-mail (1400s), a tribute paid by a borough (burrow) to a ruler
  • Grass-mail (1400s), rent for grass or grazing rights
  • Feu-mail (1500s), rent for a leasehold tenement (called a feu, variant of fee)
  • House-mail (1500s), rent on a house
  • Land-male (1300s), rent charged on a piece of land
  • Rental mail (late 1700s), a tautological form which documents the gradual obsolescence of mail
  • Retour mail (1600s), like feu-mail, retour being a Scottish form of return, here referring to a certain legal practice

Today, mail is essentially a fossil word, preserved only by virtue of the currency of blackmail. But a more recent coinage, whitemail, has renewed its lease. Appearing by the 1860s, whitemailing, clearly riffing on blackmailing, is kind of ‘moral extortion,’ e.g., a mother threatens to reveal her son’s smoking to his father unless he relinquishes his cigarettes. More recently, economics has taken up whitemail, in which a companies sells off a lot of stock at a reduced price to thwart a takeover.

And perhaps Trump, based on the threats and incentives he issues to businesses, will occasion a new addition to the -mail family. Orangemail, perhaps? 

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The “best” and “worst” of 2016

As the new year fast approaches, we like to look back on the best – and worst – of the previous year. Twenty-sixteen did great work of the latter category, which is why I chose 2016 as the ‘word’ of the year on Slate. But why is best called “best” and what makes worst “worst”? Let’s have a look back on the origin of these two yearend favorites.

You ‘supplete’ me

English forms comparative adjectives by adding -er or more (faster, more furious) and superlative adjectives with -est or most (fastest, most furious). Except when it doesn’t. Good and bad present us with a curious exception: good/better/best and bad/worse/worst. Linguists call this irregularity “suppletion,” as an unrelated form fills, or supplies, a gap in a grammatical paradigm.

We especially see suppletion in verbs: Take went as the past tense of go, for instance, or try your tongue at any number of everyday Romance language verbs (aller/vais). And while we may treat all suppletive forms as irregular, we can’t consider all irregular forms as suppletive. Teeth and geese are irregular plurals (viz. adding -s/-es to the end of a word), but they actually follow a regular pattern of making words plural that English has long since lost.

Good jobs

Good – from the Old English god, with no apparent relation to the divine beings – ultimately traces back to Germanic and Indo-European roots for “fitting” and “suitable.” And it would have been fitting if the word good‘s degrees of comparison, following the regular paradigm, were gooder and goodest, but, alas, good (and well) use better and best.

English gets better (Old English, betera) and best (betst) from old and widespread comparative and superlative forms of a Germanic base, *bat-, meaning “good.” This root  also provides boot, “advantage” or “profit,” now only surviving in the phrase to boot, or “additionally.” This boot, unrelated to the footwear, may have influenced a pirate’s booty, but no further etymological connection is certain.

So, better and best, while themselves irregular forms for good, display a regular pattern for expressing comparison in English. Better, to put it very simply, adds -er to its root adjective. Best adds -est.

Bad boys

Now, badder and baddest – which, in spite of grammar scolds, enjoy some dialectical and colloquial currency today – were once normal forms of bad. (The origin of bad is a big question mark. Some point to the Old English bæddel, “hermaphrodite” or “effeminate man,” a derogatory term, which, thankfully, is outdated.) In Middle English, bad began supplanting evil and ill as the go-to descriptor for something “not good.” Evil and ill, meanwhile, used worse and worst for their comparatives and superlatives. As bad rose, it took worse and worst with it.

Like better and best, worse (Old English wyrsa) and worst (wyrresta) also come from the regular comparative and superlative forms of a Germanic root, adding -er and -est to *wers-, “to entangle.” This same root provides war; an “entanglement” causes confusion, a meaning which intensified over time. And the s in worse actually preserves a really old form of the Germanic source of -er (*-izon; -est < -isto). This makes a form like worser a double comparative; again, in spite of language peevers, worser was once a common and acceptable form. (Bestest, a double superlative, has been used for humorous emphasis since the 1750s.)

For better or worse

It turns out that it’s not better/best and worse/worst that are the grammatical ‘problem.’ As their etymologies show, they follow a pattern, leaving good and bad as the true troublemakers. But why would English even do this in the first place?

For one thing, English isn’t alone. Latin, along with many other Indo-European languages, shows suppletion in its “good” and “bad” trios: bonus/melior/optimus and malus/peior/pessimus, respectively.

For another, it just the way it is. Language is messy – and so are its speakers. As etymologist Anatoly Liberman sums it up best: “Good needed a partner meaning ‘more than good’ and better offered its services. We would have preferred ‘gooder,’ but our indomitable ancestors chose to do their work the hard way.”

It couldn’t’ve been any worse, I suppose.

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The true meaning of “Kris Kringle”

The Santa Claus figure, who brings children gifts each Christmas in many Western cultures, goes by many names: Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Pere Noel, Grandfather Frost, to name a few. But one name, Kris Kringle, doesn’t originally refer to any Santa at all. 

Kris Kringle

The Oxford English Dictionary first attests Kris Kringle in James Watson’s 1830s Annals of Philadelphia: “Every father in his turn remembers the excitements of his youth in Belsh-nichel and Christ-kinkle nights.”

In Pennsylvania Dutch communities, Belsh-nichel, literally either “fur Nicholas” or “flog Nicholas,” is a mysterious, and terrifying, Christmas gift-giver who wears fur and carries a switch. For good children, Belsh-nichel brings candies. For naughty youngsters, he brings his switch down onto their backs.

Christ-kinkle, source of Kris Kringle, is also a Santa Claus character for the Pennsylvania Dutch. But originally, Kris Kringle is a name for that other central figure, and namesake, of Christmas: the Christ Child.

Kris is from the German for Christ, and Christ is from the Greek for “to rub” or “smear” oil, which anointed the likes of prophets, priests, kings – and Jesus the Christ, or Jesus the Anointed One. Kringle, if we reverse some sound changes and strip away a diminutive suffix in the Pennsylvania German language, goes back to kind, which means “child” in German. The English kind as in humankind, kind of, or “nice” – is related. Kind shares a deeper root with kin and oh-so-many other words, from a Proto-Germanic root meaning “family,” in turn from the prolific Proto-Indo-European root *gen-, “to produce.” 

In a number of European and Latin American cultures, the annual Christmas gift-giver isn’t Santa Claus but the Christ Child himself. Indeed, he goes by Christkind in a number of Germanic-language cultures, including in southwestern Germany, where many of the Pennsylvania Dutch hail from. (Nor should we forget Santa Claus ultimately traces back to the Dutch Sinter Niklaas, “Saint Nicholas,” a fourth-century Greek bishop whom Christians came to honor as the patron saint of children.)

For the Pennsylvania Dutch – and then the broader, Christian, English-speaking, North American culture – time merged a tradition of Santa Claus with the language of Baby Jesus: Kris Kringle. And so, if you’re one who is concerned that commercialism has made us blind to the “true meaning of Christmas,” Kris Kringle may offer a little etymological reminder. 

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“Leave”: a big, fat, sticky mess. Literally.

The result of the “Brexit” referendum is historic: Britain has voted to leave the European Union. The very word leave has made its own history, too: It originally meant “to remain.”

Leave, or what “remains”

Historically, we can consider leave a contronym: a word that means its opposite, like cleave, dust, and sanction. In the earliest record, leave meant “to leave behind,” as in one’s family or property in death. By the 1200s, we see its sense shift and broaden to “leave behind” a place (as one also does in death), hence “to go away” and “depart.”

English’s leave is from the Old English lǽfan, a causative verb that meant “to have a remainder” or “to cause or allow to remain,” as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it. (Think “what is left.”)

Surprisingly, leave is also related to live and life, which, as the Brexit underscores, is a big, fat, sticky mess. Quite literally, if English’s Proto-Indo-European (PIE) forebears are correct: the root *leip- means “to stick” and “fat.” In Greek, this root became λίπος (lipos), “grease” or “fat,” yielding the English lipid and liposuction.

In the Germanic languages, the PIE *leip-, with its underbelly of “adherence,” connoted “continuance,” hence the strange jump to life, live, and liver, once believed to make the body’s blood. The root also produced the Germanic base for “remnant” and “remain,” ancestor to the Old English lǽfan.

Ernest Klein, in his etymological dictionary, cites some other curious descendants of *leip-: the Albanian for “eye boogers,” the Latin for “bleary-eyed” (and, in part, “celibate”), and the Old Slavonic for “bird-lime.”

What, exactly, Britain’s vote to leave leaves behind, well, remains to be seen. In the meantime, if markets and politics are any measure, the Brexit seems to be living up to its ancient etymology.

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“Bison”: a word nearly driven to extinction

Last week, the US declared the bison its national mammal. This thundering ungulate makes for a powerful choice, both literally and symbolically: American settlers nearly brought this brawny bovine, whose massive herds once roamed the Great Plains and were so central to many Native American cultures, to near extinction. The name bison, appropriately enough, tells a similar tale.

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The American bison. Image courtesy of Shannon Sims

Bison

Originally, the bison was a type of wild ox found throughout Europe, even in England. It’s now found only in the forests of Lithuania. In antiquity, this bison was also associated with the now-extinct aurochs or urus. Humans, clearly, have not been kind to the bison.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds its earliest evidence of bison in a Latin form, bisontes, in the late 1300s, but the word, along with the animal, then disappears from the record. It resurfaces in the 1600s, especially in historical texts like the King James Bible and classical translations. Come the 1690s, European explorers applied bison, also first in Latin form, to its new-world counterpart, Bison bison, where the word now largely roams.

Bison indeed derives from the Latin bison. English either borrowed it directly or from a French intermediary. But the word was probably not a native species to the Latin. Rome likely borrowed its word for this roamer from a Germanic source, which historical linguists represent in *wisand, itself likely migrating from a Balto-Slavic home.

Germanic languages helped populate this *wisand’s herd, including the Old English wesend. This word is as extinct as the mammal from the Isles. Except for an unlikely cognate: weasel. The bison and weasel certainly make for the sort of odd couple we’d only expect to find in a Disney movie, but their names, some etymologists believe, share a common root that notes the musky odor they emit, especially when rutting. Literally, they are the “stinking animals.”

Now, the US uses bison interchangeably with buffalo for its majestic mammal, though buffalo technically names the American bison’s distant Asian and African brethren. (Buffalo comes from the Greek, βούβαλος  or boubalos, originally used of antelopes.) They’re very different species, but these early Europeans dubbed Bison bison “buffalo” based on the likeness between the old- and new-world bovines. And well before they even used bison, in fact: the OED dates the earliest American buffalo usage to the 1630s.

The story of the word bison issues its own powerful, if small, reminder: the extinction of wildlife is even registered in language. Let’s be sure bison is never entered as “obsolete” in the dictionary. A good way to start is by keeping your distance, literally and symbolically, from wildlife, if we are to learn from a recent episode in Yellowstone National Park.

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“Feisty”: you can blame it on the dog

As many are describing it, last night’s debate between Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in Brooklyn, New York was “feisty.”

I’ve read others characterize the candidates’ sharp exchanges as a “dogfight” and full of “hot air,” but these descriptions are just as “feisty,” if we look to the surprising etymology of this word.

Into the woods

While the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests feisty in American English in 1896, an early usage in Horace Kephart’s 1913 book, Our Southern Highlanders, is telling: “’Feisty’… ‘means when a feller’s allers wigglin’ about, wantin’ ever’body to see him, like a kid when the preacher comes.’”

Kephart’s attention-seeking usage of feisty anticipates “fussy” and “fidgety,” an early meaning of  fidgety we might owe to the Appalachian culture of the Smoky Mountains, where his novel is set. Today, the “lively” and “aggressive” feisty still expresses this excitability, though the word has since evolved to focus on a kind of readiness to fight – and, if my ears are any measure, is said of women more than men. In his slang lexicography, Jonathon Green indeed records feisty as 20th-century U.S. slang for a “flirtatious, showy, and unscrupulous woman,” which also, perhaps, calls back Kephart’s early usage.

Barking up the etymological tree

For the etymology of feisty, we need to travel farther south, where a feist named a “small dog used in hunting small game (such as squirrels),” as the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary explains. The United Kennel Club, among others, officially registers the treeing feist and mountain feist today.

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This mountain feist is on the hunt. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Other variants of feist include fist, ficefyce, and even foist, if we look to a 1770 reference by George Washington. In March of that year, George Washington wrote in his diary: “Countess a hound bitch after being confind got loose and was lined before it was discovered by my Water dog once and a small foist looking yellow cur twice.”

I find it reassuring to know that even America’s legendary first president couldn’t completely control his dogs.

Leashed up on feist, of course, was English’s prolific adjectival suffix, -y.

In spite of their size, small dogs like feists have big personalities. Their quick energy, sharp barks, and often skittish behavior indeed suggest the kind of lively, aggressive temperament we associate with feisty. And, returning to Kephart,  feisty also evokes the squirmy restlessness, say, of a terrier less interested in one’s lap than what’s out the window.

As for the indie artist Feist, the moniker comes from her last name. Her first name is Leslie.

Send the dog out back

Now, feist takes its name from a fisting hound, dog, or cur, evidenced as early as the 1530s. Get your mind out of the gutter, but not completely: This fist, a verbal adjective, means “to break wind.”

The OED documents this fist in the 15th century, referring to the action – and aftermath of – flatulence. A fisting dog, then, was “stinky,” but not, as the record suggests, because it needed a bath.

Jonathon Green notes two historic explanations for why this flatulent fist became associated with dogs: Wentworth and Flexner’s American Slang Dictionary  maintain “the dog was so named because one’s own smells could be blamed on it,” while in the 19th century  it was suggested that “such dogs were not much bigger than a man’s fist.”

It’s unclear whether the “clenched hand” fist is actually related to “broken wind” fist, though the OED does cross-reference the former in the latter’s etymology.

For the deeper origins of fist, etymologists hypothesize an Old English verb *fistan and noun *fist, with widespread cognates in Germanic languages and a root in the Proto-Germanic *fistiz. Some philologists actually connect fist to its still-lingering counterpart fart through a root, *perd-, which is really just a Proto-Indo-European fart noise. (We can also thank this root for partridge, whose windy winging  I’ve discussed at Oxford Dictionaries).

Like fart, I suspect fist is ultimately a Germanic onomatopoeic whoopee cushion, so to speak. But whatever origin we ultimately blame fist on, I can’t blame you for, er, leaving the room when the TV debates get too feisty this long and heated presidential campaign season.

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What is the “hench” in “henchman”?

The 2016 presidential campaign yet again proves to be quite the horserace, if etymology has its say.

After an anti-Trump super PAC made use of a nude photo of Trump’s wife, Melania, in a political ad during last week’s Utah caucuses, Donald Trump threatened he would “spill the beans” on fellow Republican candidate Ted Cruz’s wife. As lexicographer Ben Zimmer recently explained, the expression spill the beans actually originates in U.S. horse-racing.

Then, the pro-Trump National Enquirer accused Cruz of extramarital affairs. Cruz responded by pinning the “garbage” allegations on “Donald Trump and his henchmen.”

Today, as we see Cruz imply, a henchman – or henchperson, as language writer Stan Carey has observeddoes his boss’s dirty work. But historically, a henchman may have gotten their hands dirty with a very different kind of business. See, the best we can tell, the hench in henchman is all about horses.

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Should we call them “henches”?  Image from www.freeimages.com/photographer/speluzzi-33102.

From groom to goon 

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites henchman in 1360, when, taking the Medieval Latin form of hengestmannus, the word appeared in official financial records during Edward III’s reign. Then, a henchman named a kind of “squire” or “page” who attended on a royal or noble figure on foot – or, more important to the origin of the word, horseback – during a procession. (The two henchmen noted in the OED’s earliest accounts were apparently named “Mustard” and “Garlic.”)

Henchman, then, probably began an ordinary “groom” but later rose in rank, a social mobility that the words constable, marshal, and groom itself also enjoyed.

Henchman appears to join man to hengest, an Old English word that named a “horse,” “stallion,” or “gelding.” For the compound, philologist Walter Skeat identifies relatives in the Icelandic hestvörðr (“horse-ward) and Swedish hingstridare (“horse-rider”). Hengest  itself has widespread Germanic cognates, which some Indo-European scholars reconstruct in the Proto-Germanic *hangistaz, “best at springing,” rooted in a Proto-Indo-European base for “to spring.”

But right after 1200, hengest flees the written record except as an element in various proper names associated with Hengist, the alleged war-name of the Jutish conqueror of Kent in the 5th century. And, while Skeat cites Nordic kin, the OED notes no compound counterpart for henchman in other Germanic languages.

The origin of henchman does some raise questions, even if we have a good hunch about it.

In the late 14th-century, Henry IV, then the Earl of Derby, added henchmen (henksman and hensman in the historic documentation) to his retinue on an important expedition. English royalty thereafter variously enlisted henchmen for royal service until Queen Elizabeth abolished them in 1565. Henchman itself flees English after the 1650s until Sir Walter Scott (re)popularized the word.

Editing Edmund Burt’s 1754 Letters in the North of Scotland, Scott encountered hanchman, which Burt describes as a personal attendant “at the Haunch” of a Highland chief, a kind of  gillie. At that time, Scottish pronounced hanchman something like henchman, which spelling Scott used when he employed the word in his Lady of the Lake for a “follower.”

So, as the OED wonders, did Burt just coin hanchman or actually revive the obsolete term? As philologist Ernest Weekly offers, “There may be no real connection to the [Modern English] word.”

After Scott, henchman spread into politics. The OED cites it as a “stout political supporter” by 1839, noting it started showing the “unscrupulous” (if not outright “nefarious”) character Ted Cruz conveyed in American English by the end of the 19th century.

Does hench the henchman ultimately come from the, er, horse‘s mouth? Possibly, but it’s not crystal clear. Just like the outcome of the presidential race: Will all these spilled beans and henchmen open up a lane for another political term rooted in horse-racing, the dark horse candidate? John Kasich seems to be betting on it.

For more on horse-y etymologies, see my posts on horse and derby.

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