Common word, uncommon power: behind “ban”

Donald Trump is once again making headlines – and turning heads. As his campaign issued in a news release this week:

Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.

In their coverage of it, many in the press and on social media are referring to Trump’s provocative proclamation as a “ban” on Muslims.

This little word ban seems simple enough, but, like so much of language (and politics), the reality is, it’s much more complicated.


The word ban definitely had free entry into the English language, so to speak. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records ban in Old English, which had the verb bannan. This verb meant “to summon by proclamation,” especially “to arms,” as the OED explains. In the late 1200s, ban shifted to “curse,” conveying its modern and more general sense of “prohibit” by the 1800s. In the late 1950s and 1960s, nuclear disarmament campaigners were often called ban-the-bomb campaigners, which movement created the peace symbol, as I recently discussed.

English also has the noun ban. Evidenced by the late 1200s and traveling into English from the French, this ban originally named a “public proclamation,” also especially to arms. Among its many meanings, the French ban, from the late Latin bannum, signified a “banishment,” which is indeed an etymologically related word. Showing another form of the noun, a marriage banns preserves the word’s proclamatory origins.

Shaping each other over the course of their development, both ban’s were ultimately admitted into French,  Latin, and English from a Germanic source. Historical linguists reconstruct a Proto-Germanic *bannan, “to proclaim (under penalty or with a threat).” We can understand then, its early military senses; think proscription. At the core of this *bannan might be a more basic sense of “to announce publicly.”  

Now, Old Norse, a Germanic language, also presents a cognate: banna,  “to curse.” Probably borrowed in some early dialects thanks to the Viking conquests of England, etymologists suppose this banna pushed ban towards the sense of “prohibition” the word denotes today.

Indo-Europeanists hypothesize a deeper root in the Proto-Indo-European *bha-, “to speak,” source of a great many Latin and Greek derivatives, such as fame and phone, respectively.

Ban, with abandon

Banishment is not the only word related to ban. Abandon comes from a French expression,  à bandon, which means “under one’s control” or “willingly,” with bandon‘s “power” deriving from that earlier sense of “proclamation.” This explains reckless abandon, and we can understand the development of “to surrender” if we imagine another person in control.

Something contraband is literally “against the proclamation,” if we look to its Latin roots. It comes to English via the Italian for “unlawful dealing.” We can thank Italian, too, for bandit, from a word for “outlaw” (literally, someone “banished.”) 

Again, all of these words come from Latin forms, probably as loaned from some Germanic origin.

The banality of…communal kitchens 

During this presidential race, Trump’s incendiary language have now become, well, almost banal – another word related to ban.

As we saw, Old French had ban, which, among its other meanings, referred to a kind of militia, or “assemblage of military vassals,” as the OED glosses it. The men were commanded to serve by “proclamation,” or a ban. Again, think edict.

For its sense development in French, philologist Eric Partridge offers the French adjectival form banal, “of or for obligatory service,” hence “merely obligatory,” hence “commonplace.” It may have unfolded a bit differently, though. This banal also could convey “open to the whole community” (Barnhart), such as “things like ovens or mills that belonged to feudal serfs, or else compulsory military service,” as the Online Etymology Dictionary. Something “communal” can be viewed as “everyday,” and thus “common” or “trite.”

ban, as we’ve seen, is all about language: it originates as a public announcement. But these early proclamations, these early bans, had a lot of power and consequence, as they commanded men to fight. Whether we are sending out a tweet or running a campaign for the office of the presidency of the United States, we might heed the etymological lesson of ban with our many and instantaneous outlets for our pronouncements.  Words have a lot of power. Words have a lot of consequence.

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Bringing home the “bacon”

Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) caused many to flinch about flitch when it declared bacon and other processed meats carcinogenic. The actual report, of course, is more complicated than just that – unlike the etymology of bacon, which is fairly straightforward, even if a bit backwards, shall we say.

"Bacon." Doodle by me.
“Bacon.” Doodle by me.


English has been enjoying bacon since the early 1300s, naming fresh and especially cured flesh from the backs and sides of pigs. In the US, a strip of bacon is typically meat from the belly, but the back cuts fried up in many other cultures’ kitchens gives us an important taste of the word’s roots.

Bacon comes into English from the Old French bacon, perhaps via the Medieval Latin bacō.  From here, historical linguists find cognates in other Germanic languages, stripping the word from the Proto-Germanic *bakon-, which is ultimately cognate with English’s own “back.”

Cut as it is from the pig, this back-y bacon has thus been associated more generally with the body, à la skin or hide, yielding expressions such as to save one’s bacon and to sell one’s bacon.

Now, bacon-maniacs might turn to some 17th-century bacon-wrapped insults to express their feelings on the WHO’s report: bacon-brainsbacon-fed, and baconslicer all once denigrated rustic simpletons, the Oxford English Dictionary records. The meat, so it goes, was once a key foodstuff for peasants.

And it is this very connection – that cured pork was really the only meat available to most families in the Middle Ages – that has led to one common origin story for the expression bring home the bacon. Rewards for marital devotion in 12th-century England, greased-pig contests, the luxury of pork in early colonial America? These are other explanations, but Michael Quinion, among others, notes that the first evidence of the expression comes in 1906 in reference to a famous boxing match.

Whatever the particular origins of bringing home the bacon, one thing’s for sure: for bacon-lovers, the WHO has issued some fighting words.

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Home is where the haunt is

For word nerds, the real candy of Halloween is all the great words it gives out: werewolf, jack-o’-lantern,  samhainophobia.  But, as we so often see on this blog, sometimes it is the less unusual and more everyday word that can be the sweetest treat. Let’s have a look at just such a seasonal one: haunt. Its etymology really hits “home,” we might say.

There's no place like home.
“Haunted house.” Ink on paper. Doodle by (and happy birthday to) @andrescalo.


The word haunt has been, well, haunting the English language since the early 13th century. But for all its spectral associations today, the word originally had nothing to do with ghosts.

As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records, the word’s earliest meanings refer to practicing some action habitually or frequenting a place habitually. This sense is preserved today in a noun form of haunt, as in an old haunt one used to visit often.

Now, Shakespeare has given us many spectacular ghosts, perhaps most dramatically in  Hamlet. But Shakespeare has also given us – or at least popularized – the spookier shades of haunt, as many maintain. For this usage, the OED first cites 1597’s Richard II: “Some haunted by ghosts they haue deposed.” In this sense, it is a ghost that is frequently and habitually coming back to a place.

Earlier in the century, it is worth noting, haunt was already shaping up to signify other “unseen or immaterial visitants,” as the OED hauntingly puts it, such as disease, memories, thoughts, or feelings. This the OED records in Richard III also in that very same 1597: “Your beauty which did haunt me in my sleepe: To vndertake the death of all the world.” This usage of haunt, of course, lives on today.

Following the development of its source verb, haunted first drapes on its white sheet, so to speak, as early as 1711. We eventually get to haunted houses and the ghastly lore of their former tenants. The Online Etymology Dictionary states haunted house is attested by 1733.

There’s no place like home

But haunt might actually have a deeper connection to houses. The word comes from the French hanter, whose meaning echoes haunt‘s early senses in English. According to French philologists Baumgartner and Ménard, the ghostly sense of hanter in French was spread in that language thanks to 18th-century English gothic and fantasy fiction. This suggests that the ghostly haunt is original to English, though the Online Etymology Dictionary notes this meaning may have been active in Proto-Germanic.

From here, however, the etymological trail goes cold. We do have plenty of suggestions, though. Most converge on a Germanic root that produced English’s very own home – in Old English, hām, whose form may look familiar in the derivative hamlet (but not Prince Hamlet). Scholars like Eric Partridge and Ernest Klein pointed to a Scandinavian cognate heimta, “to bring home,” specifically cattle. (To get more technical and speculative, the Proto-Germanic root is *haimaz, derived from the Proto-Indo-European*tkei-, “to settle,” “to dwell,” or “to be home.”)

Walter Skeat, however, wasn’t fully satisfied. In addition to heimtahis work cites the Breton hent, “a path,” a nasalized Latin habitāre, “to dwell,” and Latin’s ambitus, “a going about,” which he considered to be the likeliest explanation.

For etymologists, it might just be the “origin unknown” or “origin obscure” that proves most, er, haunting, of all.

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First off, in case you missed the magenta, the Mashed Radish has a new look. Let me know what you think. Special thanks to my brother, Andrew, whom you probably know for the doodles he whips up for my posts, for the new images and input. Now, back to etymology.

Last week, after years of negotiation, the US brought together five world powers to reach a historic deal with Iran limiting that country’s nuclear development. True to the etymology of the word, the deal has quickly proved “divisive.” Let’s negotiate the origin of deal.

“Deal.” Ink, Sharpie, highlighter, and ballpoint on lined paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

No big deal

The English language has been dealing with deal for quite a long time. Originally, a deal was no big deal. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds record of the word as early as 700, when a deal or dǽl in Old English, was a “part” or “portion” of something, such as some deal of flour.

We’ve largely lost this sense of the word, although it does survive in the expression “a good (or great) deal (of).” A good deal of people feel the Iran agreement is a good deal; a good deal of people, of course, feel not.

Deal with it

By the end of the first millennium, the OED cites deal in verbal form: “to divide,” hence “to distribute” or “to share,” pointing to its later “transactional” sense – as well as its deeper origins, as we will see later. Over the centuries, deal broadened to signify “to take part in,” “to handle (or deal with),” “to do business with,” and, by the mid 1500s, “to distribute cards.”

The OED traces its current sense of a business deal back to slang in the late 1830s. Some decades later in the US, a deal had shadier connotations, referring to secret, underhand agreements. A bad deal – or raw or rough deal – was cheating, which many fear Iran will do in its deal. This usage might be connected to cheating at cards, which would require a new deal  (or “fresh start”for a square or fair deal.

Teddy Roosevelt dealt a Square one, of course. Big deal: His distant cousin, FDR, dealt a New one. A real deal can be a big steal, unless the dealer is wheeling and dealing.

Ordeal or no deal 

Some think the Iran deal isn’t a big deal but a big ordeal. Ordeal is indeed related to deal, featuring  a Germanic prefix meaning “out.” Originally, an ordeal was a “dealing out” of judgment, as accused persons were once put to trial – by an ordeal of fire, hot water, cold water, or combat, among other tests – believed to be “divine proof” of guilt or innocence, the OED notes. If the accused lives, God has intervened and the person is judged innocent.

Now that’s quite the ordeal. The word reemerged in the 1600s as a trial or test more generally.

Let’s make a deal

As we saw before, deal meant “to divide” many centuries ago. This meaning deals directly with the further origins of the word, as historical linguists reconstruct the word, common to the Germanic languages, in the Proto-Germanic root *daili-z (or *dailaz), in turn from the Proto-Indo-European *dail-, “to divide.” Dole also derives from this form.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots reaches further, proposing *dail- as Northern variant of *da-, also “to divide.” According to the dictionary, time and tide, which we might understand as more primitive “dividers” of the human terrestrial experience, also derive from *da-.

As might the Greek δῆμος (demos)which originally described a  particular political “district” in society, “divided” off, you might read, from other ones. Demos came to name “the common people,” giving us democracy – which will go to work when the US Congress takes up the Iran deal.

Deal_Ink Sharpie Highlighter and Ballpoint_scribbles

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A horse is a horse, of course, of course. Unless you’re American Pharoah, who coursed the Belmont Stakes last Saturday for the first Triple Crown in 37 years. This three-year-old colt clearly isn’t just any old horse. But etymologically, a horse is a course. Well, not of course, but maybe.

“Horse.” Ballpoint on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


Horses may race young, but the word horse runs old: The Oxford English Dictionary records horse (as hors) all the way back to around 825. Etymologists take the word back to the Proto-Germanic root for the animal, *horso-, hitching it there. But some ride off into a further sunset: the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *kers-, “to run.” This root equipped Latin with currere (“to run”), which, in turn, saddled English with all sorts of words: carchargecorridorcurrentcursordiscourseintercourse, and, of course, course, among others. A horse is a course, of course of course.

Yet Ernest Klein suggests that a different feature defined horse. He suggests that horse may come from the Proto-Germanic *hrossa-, from the pre-Germanic *qru-ta-s, formed on a “lost verb,” “to jump,” from a PIE root meaning the same. If this is the case, horse, then, is “the jumping animal.”

Wild Horses

Old English also had a horse of a different etymological color: eoha word cognate to equus, the Classical Latin for “horse” and source of equine and equestrian. At root is the PIE *ekwo-, “horse,” which also stables the Greek ἵππος (hippos, producing hippopotamus, “river horse” and Philip, “fond of horses.”) Like horse “the jumper” or horse “the runner,”  *ekwo may itself be named for something characteristically equine, as it perhaps derives from the PIE adjective *oku-, “swift.”

The hippopotamus is the “river horse.” Likenesses also give us the sea-horse. And the whale-horse, or walrus, if folk etymology has its way. Walrus comes from the Dutch walrus. The wal- component is indeed related to whale, but the rus– part (cf. German words for horse, like German’s own Ross, hence the name) is probably not etymologically (not to mention zoologically) sound. Etymologists cite confusion between some Scandinavian words naming certain types of whales and the walrus.

While the Greeks may have likened the hippopotamus to a river horse, the ancient Egyptians thought of it as a water-ox, or the p-ehe-mau, which Hebrew probably shaped into behemoth. Fittingly enough, for hippos do have a pretty mean reputation in the wild.

Ancient Egyptian also had pr-ʿo, “great house,” a title given to those kings also of great reputation, pharaohs, partial namesake of American Pharoah. American Pharoah has little in common with walrus–other than being mammals and have a name shaped in error. It all runs full circle. You know, like a racecourse.

Speaking of horses, look out soon for another review of a new title from Skyhorse Publishing, Holy Cow! by Boze Hadleigh, a book about expressions of animal origin, which includes a whole section on horses.

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Comparisons are apt. Majorities are vast. Experiences are harrowing. Situations are hairy. Competition is stiff. Coffee is strong. Linguists describe this habitual juxtaposition or co-occurence of words as “collocation.” In her indictment of FIFA officials last week, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch used one example in describing the organization’s corruption as “rampant.”

Why do we describe corruption as “rampant”? I searched Google Books and came across an early example of the phrase in John Brown Patterson’s 1828 On the National Character of Athenians and the Causes of those Peculiarities by which it was Distinguished, an essay commissioned for a prize of 100 guineas by the University of Edinburgh to students there:

The national constitution having unfortunately, in great measure, taken for granted the virtue of its administrators, no check was found in the law to the rampant corruption.

The next citation I could find is in an 1836 Edinburgh publication of The Scottish Christian Herald and then in an 1847 London publication of the Wesleyan Methodist Association Magazine. Historically, we should recall, corruption frequently characterized moral depravity. And rampant–well, let’s have a look at the history of this word.


Today, rampant primarily refers to something spreading “unchecked.” Coming into English from the French, the word first appears, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), around 1300, when it frequently collocated with a very different noun: lion, as in “a lion rampant.” (Why does the adjective follow the noun? French generally places its modifiers after the noun. Linguistically, we call this a “postnominal adjective.” This is why we say, well, attorney general, due especially to the influence of Law French on English.)

Rampant originally described animals, particularly lions, “rearing or standing with the forepaws in the air” (OED). The term was especially used in heraldry, as in a lion depicted in rampant attitude on a crest:

“Rampant.” Doodle by @andrescalo.

A rampant posture was, unsurprisingly, a “ferocious” one. Thus, by the early to mid 1500s, rampant was describing something “fierce” and “in high spirits,” as in a rampant horse (OED). This was then likened to the phenomenon of something “running rampant,” like corruption, today.

The French rampant is formed from the verb ramper, “to climb” or “crawl,” which English eventually elevated into, say, a highway ramp or to ramp something up, among many other usages based on the verb ramp.  Rampage, first appearing verbally as rampaging in Scottish dialect as well as the wonderful adjective rampageous, may also be formed on ramp.

The French ramper may derive from the Frankish *hrampon, according to Baumgartner and Ménard. Frankish was a Germanic language, and some etymologists ground this *hrampon in the same Proto-Germanic root that gives English the very un-ferocious rumple and rimple: *hrimp- or *hrump-. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, this *hrimp- is reconstructed in the Proto-Indo-European *(s)kerb-, “to turn” or “bend,” perhaps also responsible for scorchshrimp, and scrimp, and maybe even the Welsh cromlech.

So, what it so rampant about a rumpleWell, Ernest Klein glosses the Frankish *hrampon as “to contract oneself convulsively.” Climbing and crawling, I suppose we can visualize, involve bodily contortions. Ramper‘s early usages in French may be instructive, as the verb was used of those wriggly reptiles, as well as of quadrupeds more generally, explaining the rearing of “rearing up.”

In FIFA’s case, then, we might understand rampant corruption as very rumpled white collar crime.

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the incredible -ulk (part ii)

Last week, the etymologies of hulk and bulk led us to “ships” and “heaps.” How about those two other –ulk words, skulk and sulk?

What does the fox say? Nothing. It's skulking. Doodle by @andrescalo
An incredible “Fox.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


The ultimate origin of skulk lies in hiding, fittingly enough. The OED first records this verb, signifying “to move in a stealthy manner” or “hide oneself in cowardly manner,” back in around 1225. Etymologists see connections to Scandinavian languages, such as the Norwegian skolka, “to lurk” or “lie watching,” and the Swedish skolke “shirk” or “play truant.” The latter may be echoed in a largely British usage of skulk, “to malinger,” which the OED attests in the late 1700s. A skulk may also refer to “one who skulks” or a group so given to such a furtive behavior, which gives us a skulk of foxes.

Ernest Weekley and Walter Skeat try to ferret out a deeper root in the Low German schulen, “to lurk,” “hide oneself,” and even “look askance,” which might thus link skulk to scowl, also from an unclear Scandinavian source.  For scowl, Skeat maintains a root in the Proto-Indo-European *skeu-, “to cover,” which, apparently, is what the “lowering brow” of a scowl does to the eyes, while the Online Etymology Dictionary posits *(s)kel-, “crooked,” depicting a scowling expression, I gather.


Somebody skulking might be sulking, perhaps, which the OED (rather poetically, I submit) defines as “to keep aloof from others in a moody silence.” The OED dates this verb to 1781, while it antedates the adjective sulky to 1744, thus suggesting that sulk is a back-formation of sulky. A substantive usage, the sulky, a two-wheeled, single-seat carriage used for transport, ploughing, or racing, is dated not long after in 1756. Indeed, the ultimate root of sulk is certainly keeping aloof.

The OED offers sulke, a rare and obsolete term for “hard to sell” or “slow in going off” and whose own origin is obscure. Skeat argues that, due to a misdivision of its noun form, sulkinesssulky really should be sulken, from the Old English āsolcen, “slothful,” “remiss,” or “lazy,” past participle of the verb āseolcan, “to become languid.” Weekley suggests this sulk is from another, obsolete meaning of sulk, a “hollow or trough (of the sea),” on the basis that a sulking individual is like a “lonely furrow.” This sulk originates in the Latin sulcus, a “furrow,” from the same Proto-Indo-European root *selk-, which has given us that very hulk we saw last week.

The Incredible Hulk may not be much of a sulky skulk. But, to riff on the veritably sulking and skulking Rust Cohle from HBO’s True Detective, etymology can sure be like a flat circle.

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Though the 2014 midterm results may be casting a week-long shadow, Veterans Day is a time when the left and right come together to honor the men and women who have served in the US military. Perhaps the word veteran calls up an elder who fought in World War II. Or maybe it marshals up images of younger soldiers coming back from Iraq. The etymology of veteran indeed proves the word is very much about age – and some rather unwarlike animals.

“Bellwether.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


Veteran is a relative veteran in the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests it in 1509, when, much as now, the word named an old or experienced soldier.

The word marched into England from France and from Italy yet before that: Latin has veterānus, a “veteran,” from vetus, meaning “old,” “aged,” or “long-standing.” Some forms of the word refer to “tradition,” “antiquity,” or “ancient forebears.” Others indicate the “slyness” or “expertise” that comes with age. A verbal form of vetus, moreover, is ultimately behind inveterate, which aged into English with a nefarious “obstinacy.”

By the end of the 1500s, the OED cites veteran‘s general reference to “long experience in any office or position,” which we see today especially with respect to politicians and broadcasters, if my ear is any judge.

Young & Old

The Latin vetus has a well-vetted origin in the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *wet-, which the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD) defines as a “year.” The sense, then, of vetus is “having many years,” as the AHD offers. This root parented meanings of “year” in Sanskrit, Greek, and Hittite. In Balto-Slavic tongues, it lived on as “old.”

Today, the elderly, not to mention veterans themselves, may not get the kind of attention we lavish on the young. But *wet– is not without its youth obsession, if you will. The root also produced Latin’s vitulus, a “calf,” “young bull,” or “foal”–these we often refer to as “yearlings.” Vitulus is from a derived form of *wet-, *wetelos, meaning “yearling” and underscoring the significance of livestock domestication to PIE culture.

Speaking of calves, veal is also from vitulus; related is vellum, parchment made from the skin of calves. In a particularly tasty etymological twist, so might be that home of Rome, Italy, which the Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World glosses as “land of young cattle.” It’s no surprise, then, Italy is known for its leather and saltimbocca.

Old cattle, however, are driving the job title so many youth dream to have: a vet, in the animal, not Vietnam, sense, of course. Vet is shortened from veterinarian or veterinary, which in its earliest uses denoted the medical treatment of domestic animals, especially cattle (OED). A vet sounds much better than a cattle doctor, no?

Behind vet is the Latin adjective veterinārius, describing “beasts of burden.” As Walter Skeat explains, the Latin term “probably meant, originally, an old animal, one that was no longer fit for anything but carrying burdens…” (Too bad this adjective may also describe all too well our cultural treatment of our elderly and our veterans.) Eric Partridge suggests the opposite, though, stating the adjective describes a domestic quadruped “old enough, fit, to carry burdens.” The things we, young and old, carry.

Leaders & Followers

Alas, we can never roam far from politics in language. Veteran is no exception, and I’m not referring to the recent Veterans Affairs scandal.

With jockeying for the 2016 race for the White House underway in all but name, we will soon enough be busy with “vetting” vice presidential candidates. As nicely treated in 2008 piece by Juliet Lapidos, to vet is from the self-same noun shortened from veterinarian. It initially referred to treating horses  before races.

Pollsters and pundits will also soon be descending on the so-called bellwether states, whose voting is seen to predict the electoral winner. Originally, a bellwether was “the leading sheep of a flock, on whose neck a bell is hung” (OED).  The bell would signal the sheep’s location as well as lead along its wooly comrades. The term, of course, has general currency in its sense of “leader.”

Bellwether is a compound, you may have guessed, joining bell and wether. The latter is from an Old English word for a “male sheep,” particularly a castrated one. (It remains to be seen whether Iowa Senator-elect will be a bellwether–or just continue making wethers of hogs.)

Sheep and bells may seem as far as possible from what veteran may stand for, but, wether, too, can thank the PIE *wet-, via the Proto-Germanic *wetruz, “yearling.”

But leadership? Now that is something a veteran in any field of station can stand in attention to.

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The United States Supreme Court recently began its new term. The first item on its docket has been deciding the cases it will put on itdocket. This docket, it turns out, is a low word in a high place–etymologically, that is.

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


In the 15th century, a docket was a “summary,” much like the minutes of a meeting–and quite the royal one, if we consider the first appearance of the word as doggette in 1483. Over the next 100 years, it signified an “abstract,” especially for contents of letters patent. By the 17th century, we have evidence for docket‘s use as a memorandum for legal judgements in Samuel Pepys’ famed Diary, an important primary source for the period of the English Restoration–and, for lexicographers, the language of the time. Yet it is by 1790 that we arrive at its usage most familiar to American English ears, namely, a list of cases for trials, spelled, though, as docquet.  Of course, a docket lives on today in British English as a label listing out the contents of a package or delivery. And outside of the courts, American speakers may speak of dockets as their to-do lists.

I think we can easily see the legal tale of docket, and thanks to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for it. But its etymology tells a very different kind of tale: quite literally, a horse’s tail. Or what remains of it.

Ultimately, etymologists cannot speak to the origin of docket with any final certainty. However, many converge on the same possibility: The core of docket is comprised of dock, in the sense of the “solid fleshy part of a horse’s tail” (OED). In particular, a dock–and its derivate verb “to cut off” or “curtail”–was the remaining stump when a tail was cut short, especially a horse’s tail, to ensure it did not catch in a harness. This practice is perhaps most familiar–and controversial–today with respect to dogs like Boxers.

How, then, do we go from horses to courts? Sorry Caligula, but Skeat sums it up, revealing that old etymological process of metaphor at work: “Apparently allied to the verb dock, to clip, curtail, hence to make a brief abstract.”

This dock–dok, in its earliest form around 1400–is probably from a common Germanic root, which the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology proposes means “something round” or a “bundle.” Various Germanic languages use the root to refer to “dolls” and “girls.” I suppose we should imagine a doll as a small bundle, perhaps swaddled in clothes or a blanket, or perhaps as made of straw.

To dock someone’s pay is attested in 1822 and is so derived.

“-Et” Cetera 

With dock clipped off, what of docket’s –et? It may be a variation on -ed, which forms the past tense and past participial forms of regular English verbs, and whose sound (and spelling) will vary depending on its environment.

Or it could be a visitor we’ve seen around these parts quite a bit recently (cf. target, gobbet, and, in its Italian cousin, rocket): the French diminutive -et. This form is used for masculine nouns in French and is featured in not a few everyday words. As in your new iPhone 6, whose tablet-like size renders your pocket useless. The feminine form is probably more recognizably French: -ette, like baguette. You may know its Italian counterpart in bruschetta or libretto, its Spanish iteration in señorita or Juanito.

The diminutive suffix surfaces, too, in Ernest Weekley’s alternative etymology of docket, which, according to my research, stands alone. He jumps off from the earliest attestation of doggette, seeing in it the Italian doghetta, a “bendlet in heraldry,” half the width of a so-called diagonal band on a shield. This doghetta, Weekley continues, is a diminutive of doga, a “cask stave.” He points us to label (also originating in heraldry as a kind of strip) and schedule (going back to strips of paper used in ancient Rome) for the sense evolution. A cask stave, then, supposedly resembles a heraldic band that evokes a strip of paper on which one would have recorded a docket.

Dock may make a stronger case than doga, but some word origins will never meet with final judgment.

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*gno- (part i)

Mid twentieth-century Objectivist poet George Oppen, known for his populist and phenomenological concerns, writes in section 31 of his masterpiece, Of Being Numerous:

Oppen, "Of Being Numerous"
Oppen, “Of Being Numerous.” New Directions Books.

Indeed, there is a lot going on here. But there is more to Oppen’s connection between knowledge and nobility than a poetic, perceptual, and epistemological one. There is an etymological one.

I’m not trying to be cunning in making this uncanny connection, even if it could seem a bit academically uncouth, abnormal, or even a bit quaint. But I can, I’ll have you note, and I don’t think it’s beyond your ken (and you’re pretty keen), so I’ll narrate so, for all these words are cognate to know.


Last post, we looked at the surprising origin of the suffix –lock. We entertained, too, the possibility that the suffix explains the second part of the word knowledge. The first part, of course, is know. What do we know about know?

Old English had cnaw, Proto-Germanic had *knew-, and Proto-Indo-European *gno- and *gen-, among other base variations. The root is simple: It means “to know,” but, boy, did it go on to accomplish a lot. I can’t pretend to be exhaustive, so here are some highlights.


Let’s start with the can family, descended down the Germanic branch of *gno- and yielding, ultimately, can, couldcunninguncouth, cannyken, con, and keen:

  • Can, as in, “Yes we can,” is a widespread Germanic word and took the form cunnan in Old English. Now, it’s a modal auxiliary verb but is rooted in the sense of “to have learned” and “to come to know,” thus “to be able.” It is connected to *gno- and *gen– via “to know how” to do something.
  • Could is technically the past tense of can but also expresses indefinite possibilities. In Old English, the past tense of cunnan was cuðe, and the l came about by analogy to words like would and should in the 16th century.
  • Some cite cunningoriginally meaning “learning” or “widsom,” now a noun and adjective naming sly skill and artfulness–as the present participle of cunnan (think run and running), though the Oxford scholars link it to the Old Norse kunnandi. Old Norse has kunna, “to know,” a close cousin of can.
  • Cunnan‘s past participle was cuð, meaning “known” or “familiar.” It became couth, which really only survives in the negative, uncouth, which evolved from “unknown” to “unsual” to “awkward” to “unrefined.” A clipped version, unco, is Scottish and Northern English.
  • Canny comes to us from Scottish English. Among other meanings, it started out as “cautious” and “sagacious” and came to mean “clever” and “gentle.” It corresponds to cunning, and is an adjective (and occasional adverb) formed off of can using the –y suffix. We know it best in the form of uncanny, which evolved from “malicious” to “unsafe” to “weird.” There’s also the Scottish English ca’canny, joining ca’ (clipped from call, which could mean “to drive” or “proceed”) and canny; so, “to drive carefully.” It came to mean “to work slowly.”
  • Ken, which I’d guess is becoming fast frozen in the phrase “beyond my ken,” was “to make known” in Old English. It’s technically a causative form of cunnan. As a verb, it survives in Scottish English. It was also once a nautical term for “range of sight,” measuring distances at sea. Kenning, if you’ve ever studied Beowulf, is related.
  • Con may evoke con artists or conventions, but it is also an obscure verb meaning “to learn” or “study.” It is from a variant of cunnan.
  • Old English had cene, meaning “brave,” “wise,” and “fierce.” Later, it described a sharp edge or taste, going on as metaphor to mean “acute” and “enthusiastic.”And it has given English keen. It’s quite the word. Eyesight can be keen. So can blades and minds. Interests can be keen, as can be sensory experiences. We’re not certain, but Germanic cognates and roots along with an old connection between bravery and skill point back to that Proto-Germanic root of *gno-, kunnan, “to know.”

Ability, possibility, craftiness, appropriateness, vision, learning, all kinds of sharpness–none of these are possible, *gno- teaches us, without knowledge.

In part 2, we’ll pick up with what Latin did with *gno-, and, in turn, all the fun we’ve had with it.

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