An etymological stroke of “genius”

Over the weekend, President Trump took to Twitter to defend his sanity and intelligence:

Meeting with alarm and mockery alike, his unusual phrase “very stable genius” went viral. This sense of genius—an exceptionally intelligent or talented person—dates back to the 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Drawing on the earlier work of Francis Galton, American psychologist Lewis Terman classified a score above 140 as near genius or genius on his 1916 Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test, historical basis of modern IQ scales. These now use language like very superior or extremely high for scores at or above 130, as genius is tricky to define scientifically. Etymologically, however, it’s a different story.

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An etymological “epiphany”

You know those 12 Days of Christmas we’re always partridge-in-a-pear-treeing about? They end on January 5th, or Twelfth Night, when many celebrants end their yuletide festivities by taking down the decorations.

As its name suggests, Twelfth Night is the 12th night after Christmas and the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, which many Christians traditionally observe on January 6th. The Shakespearean comedy takes its name from the Twelfth Night holiday, but what is this Epiphany?

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El Greco’s Adoration of the Magi (Wikimedia Commons)

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“Superstition”: an unlucky etymology?

It’s Friday the 13th—a day of bad luck, if you are superstitious person, and a great occasion to look at the origin of the word superstition.

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Got that #FridayFeeling? (Pixabay)

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Ensnared by “scandal”

Scandal ultimately comes from the Greek for a “spring trap.” 

With smoke continuing to billow from the White House over the Trump-Russia investigation, there’s something else in the air: the word scandal. What’s the etymological fire behind this word?

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That’s a big scandal. (Pixabay)

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Pens, penance, and pancakes: the origin of shrove

tShrove, as in Shrove Tuesday, and the related word shrift, as in short shrift, ultimately derive from the Latin scrībere, “to write.”

For Francophones and many speakers of American English, today is Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday,” a day of gorging and gamboling before the solemn and abstemious Christian season of Lent. But a lot of other Anglophones will know today as Shrove Tuesday.  What is this rare and unusual word shrove, and where does it come from?

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Can my penance be pancakes? Image from pixabay.com.

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Why do we call the end of the world “doomsday”?

The original doom wasn’t only about last judgments. 

This week, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reset its Doomsday Clock, a long-running warning against humanity’s own self-destruction, to two and half minutes to metaphorical midnight. It hasn’t been this close to midnight since 1953, after the US and Russia both tested H-bombs. Oy.

Nuclear weapons, climate change, rising nationalism, and yes, Donald Trump, are all pushing us closer to our own ruin, according to the Bulletin. So, let’s fritter away our remaining precious moments with a little etymology: Why is it called doomsday?

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Facing impending doom, you’d think we humans would have have better “judgment.” Image courtesy of pixabay.com

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Santa’s reindeer: an etymological herd

Around many holiday hearths tonight, families will recite “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” a poem, properly called “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” first published anonymously in 1823 and later claimed by American professor and writer Clement Clarke Moore.

Moore’s verse is considered the source of our names for Santa’s reindeer, excluding their later leader, Rudolph:

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And [St. Nick] whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:
“Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer, and Vixen!
“On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Dunder and Blixem!

As some children are hoping to glimpse Santa’s reindeer across the sky this night before Christmas, let’s have a glimpse at the deeper roots of their high-flying names.

Dasher

A dasher moves very quickly – or smashes something to little bits, as in one’s hopes for that new iPhone 7 under the Christmas tree. Both senses of the verb to dash are found in the early 1300s, and are connected by an underlying idea of intense energy, whether of force or speed.

The deeper root of dash is unclear. The world may be related to a Scandinavian word for “beat” or “strike,” imitating the sound of dashing something (compare bash, clash, and smash). To dash off a letter appears by the 1720s, and dashing, for “stylish,” emerges in the early 1800s a la “striking.”

Dancer

Dance enters English in the 1300s from the Old French danser. Its origins, like dash, are also unclear – and somewhat less than graceful, shall we say. Some connect it to the Old High German dansōn, “to stretch out,” as in the limbs. Others suggest the Frankish *dintjan, “to tremble” or “quiver.”   

Prancer

Prancing involves a jaunty and showy movement, and, originally, was often used not of any reindeer but of horses. A few theories try to explain the source of word, which is first attested in the late 1300s. Prance might come from pranse, Danish dialect for “going about in a proud fashion.” Or could be be related to prank, which has variously meant “to dress up” or “parade around,” rooted in a German word for “to show off.” It’s not certain if this prank has any relationship to those mischievous pranks, like getting a bit of coal in your stocking on Christmas.

Vixen

A vixen is a “female fox,” from the Old English adjective fyxen. The word gives us a glimpse of English past. Historically, some certain southern England dialects replaced word-initial f’s with v’s – not a surprising switch, as the v-sound is what linguistics term the “voiced” form of f. This switch is preserved only in the spelling of few other words, including vane and vat. And the -en is an old, Germanic suffix used to name female animals (e.g., Old English wylfen, a “she-wolf”).

The word fox, appropriately enough, is from a Germanic base that may be related to an Indo-European root for “tail.” And vixen, a disparaging term for an “ill-tempered woman,” appears by the 1570s. Why Moore chose Vixen as a name for this airborne ungulate may be more about rhyme and meter than meaning. 

Comet

Comets speed across the sky, leaving a spectacular tail in its wake. Their tail, to the ancient Greeks, looked like long hair – and indeed, they called the celestial object κομήτης (kometes), or “long-haired star.” The Greek root is κόμη (koma), “the hair of the head.” Latin, with its comēta, borrowed the term, which coursed into English as early as 1154 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Cupid

In Roman mythology, Cupid, depicted with his young wings and arrows, personifies desire and erotic love. His name is the Latin for “desire,” cupīdo, from the verb cupere. The English cupidity denotes an intense “desire for wealth”; concupiscence, for sex.

Donner and Blitzen

In his original A Visit from St. Nicholas, as we saw above, Moore urges on “Dunder and Blixem,” the Dutch for “thunder and lightning.” (Modern Dutch would use Donder and Bliksem.) An 1844 edition of the poem ultimately rendered the Dutch into their German counterparts: Donner and Blitzen. (Blitzen, properly, is “flash.”) Thunder is the English equivalent of Donder and Donner, while English borrowed and shortened blitz from the German Blitzkrieg, whose deadly method of rapid assault literally means “lightning war.” American football took up blitz by the 1960s.

Rudolph

Rudolph is not one of the original reindeer. He came to lead Santa’s cervine crew only in 1939, sparked by the imagination of Robert May, who created his story for Montgomery Ward department stores. Rudolph may be the most famous of the reindeers, but his name, ironically, refers to the glory of his nemesis: Not social isolation, but wolves. Rudolph derives from the Old High German name Hrodulf, “fame-wolf.” The name joins hruod, “fame,” and the Germanic base that gives English wolf.”

For more Christmassy etymologies, see my recent guest posts for Oxford Dictionaries on the soulful origin of wholesome, as well as an older post there covering 12 etymologies of Christmas. Revisit, too, some of Mashed Radish’s tinseled archives, including Christmas, El Niño, chestnut, and Kris Kringle. Happy Holidays! 

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“Hallelujah”: word of praise, lord of song

We lost yet another great this year: Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer, songwriter, and poet who passed away at 82. Cohen was perhaps best known for his much storied and much covered song, “Hallelujah.” In honor of the legendary artist, let’s pay tribute to the etymology of one of his most defining words.

Hallelujah

Hallelujah is an interjection used as an expression of worship: “Praise the Lord!” The Oxford English Dictionary first records it in the 1535 Coverdale Bible, the first complete Modern English translation of the Bible. The term mainly appears in the Psalms, which originally were religious songs. The English Hallelujah renders its Hebrew root, hallĕlū-yāh, among other transliterations: “praise God.” The Greek, and later Latin, rendition of the Hebrew also gave English alleluia, which is attested far earlier, in Old English. 

The Hebrew hallĕlū-yāh comprises two elements. The first, hallĕlū, is the plural imperative of hallēl, “to praise, extol, celebrate.” A plural imperative directs more than two people to perform an action, which is why many older Bibles translate hallelujah as “Praise ye the Lord!” (Today, we just use the pronoun you for both one you and more than one you, but English used to have ye to refer to two or more people.) According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the Hebrew hallēl is imitative, a word for “praise” derived from the sound of an exalting trill.

The second element yāh is a shortened form of Yahweh. The history of Yahweh is a complex one, involving both deep religious beliefs and deep structures of Semitic languages. To put it simplistically, for many Jews, both now and in the past, the name of God was believed too holy to utter. So, sacred texts would render the name as YHWH, known as the Tetragrammaton (Greek for “four letters”), which scholars later vocalized as Yahweh or Jehovah. Some think YHWH itself may come from a root verb hāwāh, “to be,” making Yahweh literally mean “he that is” or “the self-existing.”

It can be difficult to reconcile Cohen’s dirgeful, cold, and broken hallelujah with its exclamatory, worshipful origin – though difficulty is at the very core of Cohen’s entire artistic project. But perhaps the raw, naked, and ancient etymology of hallelujah well captures the emotional energy of Cohen’s most famous song: a searching and yearning for some bigger meaning, which he finds in the self-existing sound, in a literal hallelujah. “I’ll stand before the Lord of Song,” he sang, “With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”

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“Hoax”: just a little etymological hocus-pocus

Hillary Clinton keeps hitting Donald Trump over his claim that climate change is a hoax. While hoax is Clinton’s word, Trump did tweet that the Chinese created climate change to hurt US manufacturing. That’s a bit of magical thinking, shall we say, especially if we consider the roots of the word hoax (not to mention science).

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“By the virtue of hocus pocus…” A frontispiece from an early magic book, the 1635 Hocus Pocus Junior: The Anatomy of Legerdemain, or the Art of Juggling. Image from the Library of Congress.

Hoax

English has been pulling off hoaxes since the very end of the 18th century. The Oxford English Dictionary first cites the word as a verb in 1796, entered into Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: “Hoaxing, bantering, ridiculing. Hoaxing a quiz; joking an odd fellow. University wit.” The noun form emerges in the following decade, and has since connoted a fraud involving an elaborate or mischievous fabrication or fiction.

Most etymologists suppose that hoax develops out of hocus, which was a 17th-century noun and verb for “trick” – and later a criminal term for “drugging” someone, especially by means of liquor. Hocus is shortened from hocus pocus, used as a nickname for a “juggler” since the 1620s. Today, we admire jugglers for their deft hands and ball skills, but historically, jugglers were jesters and magicians, hence their – and ultimately the word hoax’s – association with various tricks. 

An Anglican bishop, John Tillotson, attempted some lexical legerdemain in his 1694 etymology for hocus pocus: “In all probability those common juggling words of hocus pocus are nothing else but a corruption of hoc est corpus, by way of ridiculous imitation of the priests of the Church of Rome in their trick of Transubstantiation.” In the Latin liturgy, a priest blesses the Eucharistic host qua sacrificial body of Jesus Christ by saying Hoc est corpus, or Hoc est corpus meum: “This is my body.” Devout Catholics believe the host actually becomes the body of Christ, which may help you appreciate Tillotson’s dig on his Christian counterparts. 

Hocus pocus, more likely, was just sham or dog Latin, words invented by these 17th-century performers to sound like Latin, perhaps playing with this prestige language of learning to lend an air of antique mystique to their act. Hocus-pocus was used of “jugglers” by 1624, as the magical formula by 1632. Hiccius doccius was another fakus Latinus magical formula the early conjurors used.

Hocus pocus may have pulled some other words out of its hat, too, like hokey-pokey, a slang variation for “hocus pocus” in the mid-1800s and a name for a cheap ice cream some decades after. (The origin of the dance is a bit more turned around.) And hokum – originally theater slang for “melodramatic speech,” now “nonsense,” which describes so much of what we’ve heard this election – apparently blends hocus-pocus and bunkum.

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“Gossip”: a baptism by etymology?

Did you hear about Brad and Angelina? Of course you did. Their divorce is hardly gossip: It’s news, thanks to the stature the celebrities have in our culture. But, as we do gossip about why the power couple split up, we’d be wise to remember the impact #Brangelexit will have on their children, especially as public as it is. And it’s the children, ironically, that’s the etymological subject of so much gossip.

What all the gossip is about

Back in Old English, a gossip was a godsibb, a person who sponsored a child’s baptism. We call them godparents today, and in Christian tradition, this person professed faith on behalf of the child during baptism (infants can’t talk) and ensured its spiritual upbringing should the parents prove unwilling or unable.

Godsibb joins God, as we see with godfather and godmother, and sibb, an Old English word that meant “akin.” So, a godsibb is related to the baptized child not in blood, but in God. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) actually finds record of godsibb in 1014, a compound formation paralleled in other Scandinavian languages (cf. Old Norse guð-sefe).

The form and meaning of godsibb clearly changed over the centuries. By the late 1300s, a gossip was referring to any “familiar acquaintance” or “friend,” likely due to the sense of godsibb as a close but non-blood relation. By the mid 1500s, when the modern shape of the word begins to settle, gossip extended to a “person who engages in idle chatter.” The earliest form, accord to the OED, comes as gossip-like in 1566.

Now, such a chatterer usually referred to a woman, a stereotype that stays with us today – but this may be because, as evidence in the early 17th century shows, a gossip was a “woman’s friend invited to a birth.” Presumably, such friends enjoyed some small talk during the downtime.

To gossip, or “chat idly,” emerges by 1627, and gossip, the talk of such an idle chatter, by 1811. Over the 19th century, the reputation of gossip becomes less favorable, taking on its shades of “groundless rumors.” And gossip column far predates today’s tabloids, found all the way back in 1859.

“My brothers and sisters”

God is an old, old word of Germanic origin, though its deeper etymological roots are quite disputed. Some find God in the Proto-Indo-European *gheu-, “to call or invoke,” others in another root of the same form, *gheu-, “to pour,” as the ancients did their libations.

And the Old English sibb was also a noun meaning “kinship” and “peace,” a unity we can imagine being enjoyed by close relations. And a sibling is such a “kin” or “relative.” But this word died out after Old English, only resuscitated in the early 20th century as a technical term in cultural anthropology and genetics. Indo-European scholars take sibb back to a Germanic base, *sibja, “one’s own,” from *swe-, the Proto-Indo-European root that also gives English the word self.

After their divorce, let’s hope Brad and Angelina find some way to make sib, or “make peace” as the expression once went, for the sake of all their children. 

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