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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It’s been five years of Mashed Radish. This calls for “punch.”

Mashed Radish turned five this week—and of course I forgot its birthday. Surely I was lost in the origin of some word or another.

Still, the occasion calls for some celebration. Since we’re marking five years, why don’t we toast with some punch?

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If the punch is Mashed Radish pink, sign me up.

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Lions, chameleons, and shih-tzus, oh my!: 12 “lion” etymologies

Liger is much older than you think. Tigon is even older.

Earlier this week, I let the etymological cat out of the bag for International Cat Day. Today, I keep with the feline theme for World Lion Day. Yes, these national/international days can get gimmicky—except where they raise money for wildlife conservation. But I really can’t resist a reason to explore words that come from the lion’s den, so to speak. Here are the origins of 12 lion-related words, with a few bits of other beastly lexical trivia scattered throughout:

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It’s time for another Friday etymological news roundup

We had a lot of interesting words in the news this week (some more polite than others). Here’s a news review with—what else?—an etymological twist. 

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Anthony Scaramucci spewed quite the obscenities this week…including the word sycophant? (Pixabay)

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The root of “jungle”: It’s a desert out there?

Today in Georgia’s 6th congressional district, a closely watched “jungle primary” is taking place to fill the seat left by Republican Tom Price, who is now the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

In a jungle primary, a more colorful name for a blanket primary, all candidates seeking an office run against each other at once, as opposed to in separate primaries broken out by political party. The top two voters getters, regardless of party, then face off in a runoff election, except in some places like Georgia, where a candidate who gets a majority of votes wins outright.

While Washington state introduced blanket primaries in the 1930s, the phrase jungle primary emerges in the 1980s. The idea is that such a primary is like a cutthroat free-for-all, that “It’s a jungle out here.” But what about the word jungle itself? Where we do get this word from?

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Jungle, a fitting word for politics and etymology. (Pixabay)

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Etymology of the Day: Litmus

Litmus, as in litmus test, is just one of those words that looks like it’s from Latin. For one, it ends in -us, a signature case ending in the language. For another, many of us first encounter the word in chemistry class, and science, we know, brims with Latin derivatives. So, why don’t we put the word litmus to the etymological litmus test?

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Litmus is about lichen, not Latin. (Pixabay)

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Etymology of the Day: Pal

We can use it when we’re trying to get a stranger’s attention in a friendly way. Hey, pal, though you’d want to know you left your lights on. We can also use when it we’re trying to get a stranger’s attention in a not so friendly way. Excuse me, pal, but I was in line before you. Whether chummy or charged, what’s the origin of pal?

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Gumby and his pal, Pokey. Image from pixabay.com.

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Terabyte: a “monstrous” amount of data

Last week, the Panama Papers leaked 2.6 terabytes of data. That adds ups to 11.5 million confidential documents about the secret, and potentially scandalous, offshoring of wealth across the globe. That’s a lot of information. You might even call it a “monstrous” amount, if you look to the origin of the prefix tera

Monsters and marvels 

While the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests terabyte in 1982, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) officially adopted the scientific prefix tera-, or tira- in its original French, in 1947. As the OED cites: “The following prefixes to abbreviations for the names of units should be used to indicate the specified multiples or sub-multiples of these units: T tira- 1012 ×.” One of the earliest usages, as far as I can tell, is teracycle, in reference to some very fast frequencies.

The IUPAC also gave the temporary names to some newly discovered elements, including ununtrium and ununpentium, as I discussed earlier this year.

To acknowledge the sheer size of this prefix quantifies, IUPAC scientists looked to a Greek word: τέρας, or teras. According to Liddell and Scott’s Greek dictionary,  the ancient Greek teras had two main meanings: 1) a “sign,” “wonder,” or “marvel,” as of the heavens; and 2) a “monster,” like a  giant serpent of the sea. The connecting sense appears to be “awe-inspiring size.”

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The Modern Greek edition of Disney’s The Beauty and the Beast translates “beast” with our focal Greek word,  teras. Image from greekshops.com.

We see a similar sense development in a prodigy, which, as in its original Latin prodigium, named both a “portent” and a “monster.” Perhaps we can imagine the ancients – and ourselves – trying to make meaning out out of some sublime but terrifying storm or creature, as Edmund Burke philosophized.

Tera-ble words 

English, as did Ancient Greek, used tera- (or its genitive τερατ-, terat-) as a combining form to make new words. Apparently a nonce usage, English scholar John Spencer used teratoscopy, or “augury from prodigies,” in his 1665 Discourses Concerning Prodigies, as the OED records. We see a teratology, a “tale about something marvelous,” in Edwards Phillips’s 1678 New World of Words, an early English dictionary. By the 1720s, something teratical “resembled a monster.”

By 1842, biologists applied teratology to the “study of physiological abnormalities,” which reminds us that we once referred to such conditions as “monstrosities.” Terata, teratogen, teratoma, and teratogenesis developed as other scientific terms referring to various physiological abnormalities.

For Indo-European scholars, the Greek teras has its lexical lair in the Proto-Indo-European *kwer-, “to make.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD) cites cognates in the Sanskrit karma (literally “something made,” hence an “act”) as well as the very word Sanskrit (“well-formed”). Barnhart’s etymological dictionary, among others, cites Balto-Slavic relatives meaning “sorcery” and “spell.”

What is the sense development from “make” to “monster”? As the AHD suggests, a monster can “make” harm – or cause destruction.

Super-sized storage

Terabytes aren’t the only “monsters” terrorizing computer technology. The giga- in gigabyte is also borrowed from the Greek. Here, γίγας, or gigas, originally one of the superhuman “giants” the Olympian gods overthrew. English ultimately gets its word giant from this Greek root. Like terabyte, giga- was adopted by the IUPAC in 1947, this prefix signifying 109, an order of magnitude of one billion.

According to some accounts,  computer scientist Werner Buchholz coined byte in 1956. A byte contains 8 bits of digital information; bit is shortened from binary digit. Byte apparently, nods to this bit and plays with bite  (appropriately enough for this discussion of monsters). Megabyte appears by 1965, kilobyte by 1970, if the OED is any measure.

Clearly, as computer memory increased, so did the need for ever-larger prefixes, hence the super-sized gigabyte and terabyte of the 1980s. (And up from a terabyte is a petabyte, but I’m not going to take that bait.)

A terabyte is indeed a “monstrous” amount of data. But the real monsters, many fear, are lurking in the shadowy, financial underworld of the offshore accounts, shell companies, and tax havens the Panama Papers may just bring to light.

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Broncos vs. Panthers

In Groundhog vs. Shadow, Punxsutawney Phil easily walked to victory: his shadow didn’t even show up for his wintry wrangling with the woodchuck earlier this week.

But we’ve got a bigger animal fight ahead.

No, I’m not talking about Donkey vs. Elephant – or, at this point in the 2016 presidential campaign, Donkey vs. Donkey and Elephant vs. Elephant. I’m talking about that other great American mascot match: the Denver Broncos vs. the Carolina Panthers.

Yes, Super Bowl 50 is this Sunday, so let’s see how bronco and panther stack up against each other – etymologically speaking.

Bronco

Bronco has been bucking in English since the mid-1800s. Cowboys in the now American Southwest saddled this word from the Mexican Spanish bronco, whose meaning of “rough” or “wild” aptly characterizes this “untamed or half-tamed horse.”

OK, Denver is starting aggressively with some big pass plays, the commentators observe.

Etymologists also note this bronco can describe “rough” wood and, as a noun, refer to “a knot in wood.”

The receivers just couldn’t connect. It’s 3 and out. The Broncos kick.

We aren’t fully sure of the origin of bronco from here, but some suggest Spanish borrowed the word from the Vulgar Latin, *bruncus, meaning “projecting” like a sharp point.

Interception! The Broncos have the ball back. 

This *bruncus may blend broccus (“projecting”) and truncus (“trunk of a tree”). The former is related to broach, the latter trunk.

And Denver converts the interception into a field goal.  

Panther  

Panther has long been stalking English. It appears in Old English, loaned from Latin: panthēra,  originally some kind of spotted big cat like the leopard. Panther was borrowed again in Middle English, this time from French, panthere, though from the same Latin jungle.

Carolina opens conservatively with a few rush plays. 

Now, the Latin derives from the Greek, πάνθηρ (panther), which ancient philologists claimed joins pan (παν-, “all”) and ther (θήρ, “wild beast”). “All beast”? Yes, the panther was once fancied as a composite of many wild animals, a “fabulous hybrid of a lion and a pard,” as the Oxford English Dictionary explains.

Cam Newtown goes long…and it’s first and goal for Carolina!

This mythical panther also “exhaled sweet breath,” the OED continues.

Now a big third and goal here – Carolina has fumbled the ball at the 2 yard line!

But the panther’s sweet breath, emanating whenever it roared, attracts all animals cave. Except for its nemesis, the dragon.

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A detail of the panther (center), scaring off the dragon and trailed by a retinue of other animals, from the 12th Aberdeen Bestiary, held by Aberdeen University. Image from Wikimedia Commons, source from the Aberdeen Bestiary.

The officials rule Carolina has recovered the football.

As fascinating as this “all beast” etymology may be, it’s as fanciful as the creature it conjures up. Scholars believe Greek borrowed its panther from a language in Asia Minor. Many point to the Sanskrit puṇḍárīkas, “tiger” (though one of Skeat’s sources suggests “elephant”). Earnest Klein adds that the Sanskrit literally means “the yellowish (animal),” from a base word meaning “whitish yellow.”

Carolina kicks it in for 3. 

If the etymology of bronco and panther is any measure, it should be a fun Super Bowl. Perhaps Carolina will prove to be bronco-busters, breaking in those untamed horses. Or maybe Denver will make Carolina drink panther piss (or juice or sweat), which is some potent hooch indeed.

I, for one, will be getting ready for a skirmish of my own: Chip vs. Guacamole. And you can gear up with my old post on the origin of Super Bowl.

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Remembering “victim”

As The New York Times reported in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting in the US:

Including the worst mass shooting of the year, which unfolded horrifically on Wednesday in San Bernardino, Calif., a total of 462 people have died and 1,314 have been wounded in such attacks this year, many of which occurred on streets or in public settings, the databases indicate.

“More than one a day,” the paper starkly observes.

As we search for the killers’ motives in an effort understand this ruinous pattern, we turn, too, to the victims – these 462 victims – taken from their families.

Does the origin of this word victim have anything to teach us?

Victim

First, a disclaimer. In the wake of so much senseless death and violence, the original meaning of victim in the English language can seem just simply cruel. I in know way intend to disrespect any victims or their families based on its historical definition. On the contrary, I feel that the history of the word only reminds us that 462 is not a statistic – it’s a tragedy, it’s an emergency.

The word victim originally referred to a very different kind of victim: an animal sacrifice. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites the word at the very end of the 1400s, when victim occurs in religious contexts and names a “living creature killed and offered as a sacrifice to some deity or supernatural power.”

Providing an important clue to the word’s development, the OED also cites Samuel Purchas’ 1613 Purchas his Pilgrimage, a sort of Anglo-Christian travelogue:

Of sacrificing there were from the beginning two kinds, the one called Gifts or oblations of things without life: the other Victims (so our Rhemists have taught us to English the word Victima) slaine sacrifices of birds and beasts.

In the late 1500s and early 1600s, the Rhemists – who were exiled English Catholics in Douai, France and who may have viewed themselves as victims, in the later sense of the word, of religious persecution – rendered a pro-Catholic and Latin-heavy translation of the Bible in the wake of the Reformation. This is known as the Douay-Reims Bible.

(As a lexical aside, Purchas’ verbal use of English strikes me as a wonderfully English-y move and quite apt for the passage.)

This victim derives directly from the Latin victima, which, like its Rhemist gloss, refers to an “animal sacrifice” and “sacrifice” more generally. The ultimate origin of victima is not so clear, but etymologists have attempted several connections.

Previously, I’ve assumed this victima was related to vincere, “to conquer,” whose participial form is victus (“conquered”). This verb gives the English language victorvictoryconvictconvince, and invincible, among others. I’m in good company: In his Fasti, Ovid (poetically) explains that victima is so named for the animal sacrifice killed by the right-hand of the victor (dextrā victrice, “with a victorious right-hand”). This stands in contrast to hostia, sacrifices slain by the hostile  enemy who has been conquered. Ovid’s etymology advances no further than the resemblance of the forms.

The likes of Barnhart and Klein have suggested victim may be cognate to the Gothic weihs, “holy,” and the Germanic weihen, “to consecrate,” even proposing possible Sanskrit kin. The American Heritage Dictionary points to a Proto-Indo-European *weik, “consecrated” or “holy,” noting it appears “[i]n words connected with magic and religious notions in Germanic (German Weihnacht(en), Christmas), and perhaps Latin.”

Further efforts even connect the root to English’s own witchwile, and guile, but where this Latin victima ultimately came from is indeed beguiling.

By the middle of the 1600s, victim begins referring to people – not sacrificed but put to death or tortured, the OED explains, with shades of oppression and injustice. Over the course of the 1700s, victim lessens in intensity, used also to refer to persons suffering more generally. Hence, the victim of a crime or disease.

A victim mentality?

In the context of the 462 victims lost this year (so far, we must sadly qualify), let’s hope the word victim never lessens in its intensity for us.

Etymology, obviously, doesn’t stop such violence. But language does matter, as we’ve seen in our public discourse. What constitutes terrorism? Who gets called a terrorist and who gets called a loner? What does it mean to refer to a long gun instead of an assault rifle? Why must the very name Syed set so many people off? What are the consequences of the phrase radical Islam?

So, today, when I look to the history of the word victim, I see victim as a tragic sacrifice made in vain to some nameless hate, to some evil, existential chaos – as well as to our own collective inaction. And while  Proto-Indo-European roots are speculative, perhaps at least even the faintest connection to “holy” can remind us of the sacredness of human lives. All 462 of them.

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