Comedian Samantha Bee sparked controversy this week when she called Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt” for her political complicity. The obscene remark, which Bee has since apologized for, had some wryly observing: why is everyone up in arms over feckless?
I think feckless and cunt are due for the etymological treatment.
I could have written about Zuckerberg today, with the Facebook CEO in the congressional hot seat. His surname literally means “sugar mountain” in German—and I don’t think that’ll be the next Farmville or Candy Crush any time soon.
I thought to write about raid, which the FBI did to Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen on Monday. Raid originates as a Scottish variant on road.
Instead, I settled on pet. April 11th is, apparently, National Pet Day, “celebrating pets and encouraging adoption” since 2005, according to the organizer’s website. The day, as quirky and numerous as these random unofficial holidays are in our social media feeds, also invites some welcome etymological escapism.
Today’s etymology comes by special request—or rather, acute observation—of Barbara, a loyal reader I had the great pleasure to meet in Ireland this week. Baffle came up in casual conversation and she, owing in no small part to her wise and inspiring 89 years as an educator and intellect, wondered, as we word nerds always do: Where does the word baffle come from?
Well, Barbara, the origin of baffle is quite…baffling.
Of Knights and Noise
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first finds baffle in Edward Hall’s 1548 Chronicle, which traces the history of the houses of York and Lancaster from Henry IV to Henry VIII. For Hall, baffle meant “to disgrace publicly,” used especially of perjured knights. As he writes in his chapter on Henry VIII:
He was content, that the Scottes shoulde Baffull hym, whiche is a great reproache amonge the Scottes, and is vsed when a man is openly periured, and then they make of hym an Image paynted reuersed, with hys heles vpwarde, with hys name, wonderyng cryenge and blowing out of hym with hornes.
This usage has lead some etymologists to suspect baffle is a variation or corruption of the Scottish bauchle, “to subject to disgrace.” This verb is possibly based on the adjective bauch, “weak, poor, abashed, tasteless,” which might come from the Old Norse bágr, “uneasy, poor” or bagr, “awkward, clumsy.”
Near the end of the 1500s, though, a different sense of baffle emerges: “to cheat, bewilder, foil,” from which the modern meaning (i.e., perplex, thwart) settles in by 1670s. The verb, in its “forestalling” sense, yields the noun baffler/baffle in the mid-to-late 1800s, referring to various kinds of shielding devices (e.g., a sound baffle).
This baffle has directed etymologists to the Old French beffler (deceive, mock) and bafouer (deceive, abuse, hoodwink, etc.), two forms that might arise from beffe, “mockery.” And beffe? Perhaps Old French owes this to our good, ole etymological friend, onomatopoeia: Baf!, an interjection of disgust along the lines of Bah! or Pooh! Maybe the Scots bauchle and French bafouer are related—or maybe they aren’t and just got confused.
Etymology, yes, can be so baffling, but baf! Sometimes it can also just be so simple.
Thanks very much for the suggestion, Barbara. If you ever have a suggestion or if a certain word ever tickles your curiosity, drop me a line at email@example.com.
Donald Trump Jr. stepped in some, er, dirt this week when the New York Timesrevealed he knowingly met with a Russian lawyer who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of the Kremlin’s effort to help Trump.
Where does the word dirt come from, and when did it start referring to “compromising information”? As it turns out, we really don’t want to get our hands dirty with etymological dirt.
Insurance ultimately comes from the Latin securus, “free from care.”
Health insurance was front and center this week as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan debuted his contentious plan to repeal Obamacare. As Washington continues to deal with the political complexities of health insurance, let’s deal with the etymological complexities of the word insurance.
Crowds are just a bunch of crud, etymologically speaking.
We’ve been comparing – or, if you’re a certain president, complaining about – crowd sizes of late. One conservative estimate tallies Trump’s inaugural crowd at 250,000, about 1.5 million short of Obama’s in 2009. The Women’s March on January 21, meanwhile, may have drawn over 4.8 million protesters across the globe. So, as we count up the final numbers, let’s look into the origin of the word crowd.
Working the crowd
As a noun, crowd hasn’t been crowding the English language for very long. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates crowd to 1567, adding that it replaced the usual earlier term, a press, which goes back to the 13th century.
The noun crowd comes from the verb crowd. But this verb originally meant “to press on, hasten, or drive” in Old English.One would crowd a ship, say, by pushing her off land. The OED has actually dated this usage, incredibly, to 937, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Crowd’s modern sense, “to gather in large numbers closely together,” appears by the beginning of the 1400, and we can easily see how the action pushing and shoving transferred to a thronging multitude.
The Old English crowd – crúdan – is related to the German kroten, “to oppress,” and the Dutch kruien,“to push or drive (e.g., a wheel-barrow).” The OED notes that the verbal crowd is “not known in the early stages of the other [Germanic] languages,” and in English, “was comparatively rare down to 1600.”
The etymological center of crowd is unclear. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, though, traces it back to the Germanic *krudan, from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *greut-, “to compress” or “push.”
Crowds and whey
One thing that does get compressed, in a manner of speaking, are curds. These little lumps are formed when milk coagulates – and, as a word, curds (and its derivative, curdle) may be formed from the same root as crowd. Some etymologists think speakers flipped around the sounds of the Old English crúdan to get curd, attested in 1362. This flipping process, called metathesis, is a common one in English, among other languages, and has produced words like curl, task, and even bird.
For curd/crowd, etymologists point to the Irish gruth, “curds,” which they root in the PIE *greut-. For the meaning of curd as a “crowded” substance, they cite the very chemical action that yields curds, coagulation, as an analogy. This word is skimmed from the Latin cogere, “to curdle, compel, or collect,” literally meaning “to drive together” (com-, “together,” plus agere, “to set in motion,” source of act.)
I, for one, think curds are delicious, but perhaps you find them to be a bunch of crud. Etymologically, you may not be wrong: Many think crud, by that same process of metathesis,indeed comes from curd. This would mean crud switched the –ur- sound of curd, which switched the –ru– of crowd/crúdan. And so crud ‘returns’ to its original form.
The wrong crowd?
Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green finds crud in Scottish English for “thickened or coagulated milk” and in US English for “curdled milk,” perhaps as back-formed from the adjective cruddy. Green also locates crud for “any filthy or disgusting matter” all the way back in the early 16th century. Crud, in some way or another, made it into US military slang for any “disease” or “worthless person” in the 1930s, expanding to “diarrhea,” “a slob,” and “venereal disease” in the 1940s and 1950s. A crud may be one to let slip a little crowd-poison, a euphemism for public flatulence.
Trump may yet find validation, then. Crowds are crud, etymologically…and when you’re just not drawing the kind of numbers you hoped for.
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 beinga 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?
The Panama Papers is a big leak pointing to some big names involved in some big money. Fortunately, at least for a little head like mine, some smart folks on the internet have been helping me understand this big news in some simpler terms: the piggy bank.
I’m not going to dive into the shell companies, tax evasion, or corruption associated with the secret offshore industry the Panama Papers is exposing, because, well, I got no further than piggy bank, thanks to the helpful explainers.
Where does this term piggy bank come from? I guess I’ll have to break it open and see what sort of etymological money is inside.
“Piggy bank”: a lexical ledger
A casual web search for the origins of piggy bank will yield various articles repeating a claim that piggy banks were originally made from pygg, a kind of “orange clay.” Through subsequent spelling and vowel changes in Middle English, this pygg evolved into the piggy associated with these “money boxes” today.
As far as the written record of piggy bank goes, here’s what we know. The earliest record of piggy bank is actually the American English pig bank, cited in the Jersey Journal in 1898. Etymologist Barry Popik points us to a particularly illustrative citation in a 1900 issue of The Oregonian: “The latest novelty — The Pig Bank. You have to kill the pig to get the money — 25c each.”
This early example indeed supports the classic concept of the piggy banks: They have to be broken apart to get the money slipped into its one-way slot. Aversion to, or the inconvenience of, this requisite destruction, so it goes, encouraged savings, as well as perhaps deterred theft.
Now, piggy bank as such is evidenced by 1913 in The Dietetic and Hygienic Gazette, according to the OED: “She could see everything quite plainly now; her little room with the pink roses climbing up the wall, her box of toys, — “Teddy was up-side-down, poor Teddy,” — her desk with the piggy bank on top of it.”
The OED does document another sort of pig bank in the mid 19th century, though this one appears to be unrelated. This pig bank refers to a small bank supplied with money by a larger one. (Perhaps the operant metaphor is that the small bank is fattened up like a pig?)
Rolling in the mud?
As far as the record is concerned, the term piggy bank is a relatively recent phenomenon, but the savings device is much older. Archaeologists have discovered money boxes used in ancient Rome, in medieval China, and even in 14th-century Indonesia, whose money boxes even took the form of pigs.
But why should these coin containers be associated with pigs in the first place?
We don’t have evidence of the kind of orange pygg many internet articles cite, but we do have record of pig referring to various clay vessels. In Scottish and northern dialects of English, a pig has named an earthenware crockery (e.g., pitchers, jars) since the 15th century. And piggy as an adjective and noun for “earthenware” have been found in Scots in the 20th century.
For the origin of this pig, the OED ultimately admits its ignorance, but it does make some interesting suggestions. Perhaps it is related to piggin, a “wooden pail,” though earthen or metallic in some regions. Or perhaps it is connected to prig, a “small metal pitcher.”
The OED also cites an analog in the Scottish pirlie pig, which the dictionary attests by 1799. Here, the pirlie refers to “poking” a coin out of the pig, a kind of “clay pot.”
And, as a Middle English dictionary suggests, the earliest known reference to this pig as a “pygg of wine,” was so named because the container was made from pig skin. (Despite appearances, this pygg is not the “orange clay” your cursory Google queries will yield.)
Etymology must often heed Occam’s razor. Piggy might just be a transferred sense of pig, as in, yes, the animal. Smallish, round vessels made from flesh-colored clay? Sure, they sort of look like little oinkers. (As for the actual etymology of pig, see my piece over at Oxford Dictionaries on the curiously obscure origins of some common animal names.)
So, let’s size things up: We have evidence of earthenware pigs in Middle English by the 1450s, Scottish pirlie pigs by the 1800s and piggies by 1950s, and American English pig bank and piggy bank by the 1900s. Record-wise, this is a pigsty.
As Michael Quinion suggest in his thoughtful discussion, we might well turn our attention away from lexical pigs to cultural ones for the origins of piggy bank. We find money boxes in various forms throughout early Europe, including in the form of pigs. Due to the food they provide and the farrow they birth, pigs became symbols of wealth, fertility, and luck, particularly in Germanic cultures. Immigrants, apparently, must have brought Sparschwein (a “saving pig”), for instance, to United States, where speakers applied a more literal label to this hog hoarder.
For as much as piggy banks may help someone like me understand the situation, the Panama Papers is evoking a different kind of pig symbolism: the greedy, capitalist kind.
A good etymology is like finding a four-leaf clover. So often, we stroll through words as if through a field of common trefoil. But sometimes, for reasons I don’t think any of us wholly understand, we chance upon something special hidden in the otherwise ordinary green.
This happened to me for the word slew.
I think my readers are mostly familiar with my writing process here. I listen out for words trending in the ether and see what their etymologies can illuminate about them. Often, they are words in the news. Other times, they follow the rhythm of the calendar – like today, St. Patrick’s Day.
The holiday is a natural occasion to write about some words of Irish origin. Words like leprechaun and shamrock first jump out, of course, but I feel like these words are like hunting for a four-leaf clover. We just never find one when our search is deliberate.
So, I continue through the clover field and stumble upon a word like phony, whose surprisingly Irish etymology I recently plucked. Or boycott, which has Irish roots, too, though in a different manner, as I also discussed not long ago. There are many others: slogan and galore are particularly excellent specimens.
But this time, slew, as in a whole slew of clovers, was my lucky find.
Slew is so plain and everyday a word to be invisible, taken-for-granted. At first blush, it’s just any old shamrock. But, on closer look, it’s really lovely.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates this unassuming word back to 1839, citing a bit of dialogue in Daniel Thompson’s Green Mountain Boys: “‘And what is still more, he has cut out a road, and drawn up a whole slew of cannon clean to the top of Mount Defiance, which he will have all mounted, and ready to pour hell and thunder down on ‘em in the fort before they dream of it.’”
Slew is a surprisingly recent addition to English, if the OED’s record is any measure. The word derives from the Irish sluagh, which I find in modern Irish as slua, referring to a large group of people: a “crowd” or “multitude.” In Old Irish, the word was slúag or slóg, “army” or “host.” We easily can see how a group of soldiers was extended to a general group of people.
The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots reconstructs a Proto-Indo-European ancestor for slew: *sloug-, a Celtic and Balto-Slavic root for “help” or “service.”
I imagine a young clansman, perhaps ambling along a clover-covered hillside, when an enemy tribe comes across him. Perhaps he calls out for help, and group of his fellow clansmen come to his aid – much like bellowing a sluagh-ghairm, literally a “war-cry” in Irish. Do you recognize that sluagh? It’s the very same sluagh that gives us slew, appearing in this sluagh-ghairm which English eventually rendered as slogan. Irish and Scottish clans once cried out these sluagh-ghairm as calls to battle.
The OED notes slew starts out in colloquial U.S. English. The character speaking in Thompson’s passage cited above indeed has something a colloquial register, as suggested by “‘em” – and perhaps by the very expression “whole slew.” English at some point borrowed the word from the Irish during the 19th century. And while English has a whole slew of words to express the concept of slew, this Irish borrowing found its special, little plot and sprouted – with four leaves in my lexical opinion – in the great clover field of words in the English language.
Tomorrow, the people of Scotland will vote “Yes” or “No” to independence from the United Kingdom–or, as some would have it in variously inventive or stereotypical Scotticisms, “Aye” or “Nae.”
Last post, we saw that no (nae, in Scottish or northern England dialects) meant more than “no,” etymologically speaking. So, what of aye?
Fittingly, the origin of aye lacks consensus, according to my sources:
The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology notes that the earliest use of aye dates back to around 1575 and was first spelled I. The word probably comes from the same first-person pronoun I, “used as a formula of assent in answer to a question,” as in “I assent.”
Walter Skeat suggests that aye is a variant of yea, perhaps a ye, “oh, yes,” Wiktionary offers.
Ernest Weekley and Eric Partridge insist that aye is akin to that Old English a we saw in “naught,” meaning “always” or “ever,” which senses continued in the archaic ay. These scholars contend that aye–and ay, if they are indeed related–passes into English from the Old Norse ei, a widespread Germanic root descended, like the Old English a, from the Proto-Indo-European *aiw-, “vital force,” “life,” “long life,” or “eternity.” The root lives on in age, eon, and coeval and medieval, if you clip off the co– and medi-.
The aye in voting comes from the tradition of voice votes, although certain votes or voting bodies use yea. As for the seas? Well, English was the language of the British Royal Navy, and aye would acknowledge a captain’s order. Perhaps, then, these usages–usages of assent–give weight to the argument that the I’s have it.