Gun. It’s such a cruelly simple word for a terrorizing technology that is senselessly and needlessly claiming too many American lives—59 alone, as we witnessed in the horrific massacre in Las Vegas this week. Where does this deadly word derive from?
Last week, fired FBI director James Comey testified that President Trump asked him to “lift the cloud” cast by the ongoing investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia. This cloud, though, isn’t blowing over—something also true of the surprising origin of the word cloud.
In a rather imaginative assessment of the Civil War during an interview with Salena Zito of the Washington Examiner, President Trump called Andrew Jackson a “swashbuckler” who could have avoided the American Civil War. Putting aside Trump’s grasp of American history, let’s get a firmer grasp on the history of his colorful word, swashbuckler.
After some last-minute budget negotiations on Thursday, it looks like the US Congress will avert a shutdown and fund the government—at least until they come up to the next brink. Let’s negotiate the origins of these words in a Friday etymological news roundup:
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?
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?
“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.
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?
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.
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.
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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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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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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The latest Star Wars move, Rogue One, is out this week. The director, Gareth Edwards explained that its title functions as a military call sign, like Air Force One, and alludes to the Rogue Squadron and Rogue Group, an important troop of Rebel fighters in the original Star Wars films. (Rogue One features Rebel spies.) Edwards also said the title nods to the fact that his movie is the “rogue” one: the first standalone Star Wars film outside the main storyline.
So that’s how Rogue One came to be so called, in part. But how did rogue get its name?
A rogue operation
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first documents rogue, as roge, in 1489, when it referred to a “vagrant.” Over the course of the 16th century, the sense of rogue shifted. By the 1560s, it referred to a “scoundrel,” by the 1590s an “endearingly mischievous, rascally person,” and by the early 1600s an abusive term for a “servant.”
Rogue was a favorite of Shakespeare: He used rogue, to various degrees of insult and endearment, over 100 times in his plays. Perhaps the most famous example comes from Prince Hamlet: “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!”
Rogue has since shed its beggarly rags and servant’s uniform. Today, rogue can name a kind of maverick who breaks with the establishment or conventional wisdom for some righteous, if rebellious, cause. We can trace the modern sense of rogue back to the phrase rogue elephant, which, by 1835, referred to an “elephant living apart from the herd and having savage or destructive tendencies,” as the OED defines it.
Up until the 1830s, rogues were lowly louts, so why would we specifically call elephants rogue? Rogue elephant, as the OED observes, may have been influenced by a phrase in Sinhalese, spoken in Sri Lanka: hora aliyā, “thievish or restive elephant.” Rogue, originally, indeed decried thieves. And in the beginning of the 1800s, rogue was also referring to wayward horses. Underlying these senses of rogue, then, is an idea of “trickiness” and “unruliness,” whether of petty criminals or strong-willed beasts.
Rogue elephants inspired the expression to go rogue, also first used of the pachyderm in 1905. Speakers transferred the behavior of rogue elephant and going rogue to other animals – including humans, of course – in the early 20th century. These phrases subsequently pushed rogue towards senses of “aberrant” and “undisciplined,” a short step away from its more positive sense of “bad boy” today. The term rogue hero, documented by 1899, may have further helped nudge rogue along.
The etymology of rogue, fittingly, has itself gone rogue, shall we say. We simply don’t know where it comes from and it doesn’t seem like it wants to be pinned down. There are several theories, though:
- Rogue could have been shortened from roger, thieves’ slang for an “itinerant beggar who pretended to be a poor scholar from Oxford or Cambridge,” according to the OED. Perhaps this roger, first attested in 1536, could have derived from slang uses of the name Roger. While the meaning of roger fits rogue, the timeline and pronunciation pose problems.
- Rogue could have come from Latin’s rogāre, “to ask,” seen in English words like interrogate and abrogate. Here, etymologists cite classical examples where the noun form, rogātor, was used for “beggar.” Perhaps Latin’s rogāre influenced the aforementioned slang, roger, or English in some way borrowed the term directly?
- Rogue could have derived from a Celtic word, such as the Breton rog, meaning “haughty.” It’s unclear, though, how the “arrogance” of rog became the original “mendicancy” of rogue.
- Middle French had rogue, meaning “arrogant,” apparently not from the Breton rog but from a Scandinavian root, like the Old Norse hrōkr, “arrogant.” (Philologist Walter Skeat notes that hrōkr literally meant “rook,” a particularly noisy kind of crow.The OED, meanwhile, points to the Old Icelandic hroki, “the heap above the brim of a full vessel, hence “overbearing.”) Most etymologists dismiss this etymology, though some add that the spelling of the French rogue may have influenced the English.
Even etymologies need to rebel sometimes, it seems.