How we got “sacked”

Yes, getting sacked does originally involve bags. 

Just ten days into his new role as White House Communications Director, Anthony “the Mooch” Scaramucci was sacked, as a number of British headlines having been putting his firing while General John Kelly takes over as Trump’s Chief of Staff.

Where does this expression, getting sacked, come from?

You’re fired! (Pixabay)

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Channeling the roots of “channel”

The word channel may have a secret back channel to a Semitic or Arabic root. 

When it comes to Russia, Trump just can’t change the channel. The Washington Post reported last Friday that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser, talked about setting up a secret back channel of communications with Russia this past December. As Washington adds this latest scandal to its Trump-Russia investigations, let’s channel the etymology of channel.

The roots, er, reeds, of “channel.” (Pixabay)

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From shoreline to sainthood: the origin of “canonize”

This Sunday, Pope Francis canonized Mother Teresa as a saint, joining her with 10,000 other such holy figures in the Catholic Church. That’s a lot of saints, but canonize is still a relatively rare word. So, why is this process called canonization?

“Reed.” Image by Viktors Kozers, courtesy of


To canonize is to place a deceased person in the Church’s canon of saints. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites this canonize around 1380. We can think of this canon, sometimes known as a calendar, as a kind of list; a saint’s placement on this register only takes place by official decree and according to the rules of the church. Indeed, canon means “rule” or “law,” originally of the church. This usage of canon, again as the OED dates it, is found in Old English by 890. 

While influenced by French in Middle English, the Old English canon comes from the Latin canon, a “rule” or “standard,” taken from the Greek κανών (kanon, meaning the same). (Medieval Latin had canonizāre, the immediate source of canonize.) If we dig deeper, we find that both the Latin canon and Greek kanon are metaphorical in origin: Latin canna and Greek κάννα (kanna) literally mean “reed.” A reed, as we might understand it, is like a proto-measuring rod. It sets a regular length, which can be used as a model, a standard, a rule for something, hence, its application to law.

The words canecannon, and canyon – reeds are tubular – are all related to canon. Generic canon, that is, secular rules or standards, is evidenced by the late 1500s and early 1600s. The canon of literature, at least according to the OED’s account, is found by the 1920s, anticipated by earlier such usages of canon in the mid-1800s. The secular canon, we should note, takes a page from the religious: Since the 1380s canon has also been referring to an authoritative list of books of the Christian Bible.

Excepting its secular extensions, canon connotes Christianity. But the more ancient story of its Latin and Greek roots are anything but. Most etymologists agree that the Latin canna and Greek kanna sprouted up on Semitic shores. As the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology explains it, canon ultimately grew out of the Babylonian-Assyrian qanū, “reed.” This, in turn, is from the Sumerian – yes, Sumerian – gin, likewise meaning “reed.” Cognates include the Hebrew qāneh and the Arabic qanāh. 

As Catholics observe Mother Teresa’s new place in the canon of saints, her canonization adds to the long life of a very well-traveled metaphor indeed.

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Purple‘s etymological reign

After Prince’s sudden death last week, we saw an outpouring of grief, memories, tributes, retrospectives, and purple, the artist’s iconic color. While nobody wore purple like Prince did, the English language has long been sporting the hue.


The English purple is actually a variation on an earlier form, purpure. Those double r’s can be tricky to say, so, in a process called dissimilation, English speakers transformed the second r into l, a related sound.

Purple and purpure are both found in Old English, when they first referred to purple garments. The color historically shaded towards a dark red, such as crimson, and bedecked emperors, kings, senators, and, at one point, cardinals. Purple long signaled power. But by the 15th century, purple sheds its clothes – and status – to name the color as such.

English borrowed purpure both from French and directly from Latin, which had purpura. Like English’s purple, this purpura meant “purple garment” and the color “purple,” but it also signified “purple dye.” For, as the Oxford English Dictionary paints it, purple was fundamentally a pigment “obtained from the hypobranchial gland of various gastropod molluscs found in the Mediterranean.” Or sea snails.

A fittingly elaborate shell of species of Murex, the genus name of sea snails from which Tyrian purple was obtained. If you hold it to your ear, they say, you’ll hear an “ocean of violets in bloom.” Image by Kate Childers on

The ancient Phoenician city of Tyre made its name for the dye it famously produced: Tyrian purple. Making this dye was an expensive and laborious process, and so only the wealthiest could afford it, hence the color’s historic association with status and power.

Latin’s purpura is from the Ancient Greek, πορϕύρα (porphyra), similarly naming “purple” in color, cloth, and shellfish. Etymologists suspect the Greek word is ultimately loaned from a Semitic source.

Citing the use of purple to describe the sea, philologist Walter Skeat suggests purple is formed from a Greek verb meaning “to stir up,” as in the waters of a wine-dark ocean amid the purple-dark clouds of a storm. Skeat’s explanation is a bit of etymological purple prose, however; this expression for “excessively ornate writing” we can ultimately credit to the Roman poet Horace.

While Skeat’s theory for purple washes right out, his reference to “wine-dark seas” in Homeric verse is still significant in the story of color words. The story is a truly fascinating one, involving the astonishingly late development of blue, that ubiquitous color of sea and sky, in language. I’ll leave its telling to the radio show and podcast, Radiolab: “Why Isn’t the Sky Blue?”

For more on color words on this blog, enjoy earlier posts on orange and scarlet. And for more on dyes, see my post on shellac.

The association between the artist’s name and purple’s royal past certainly suggest a reason Prince so branded himself with the color. But perhaps there are other explanations, too. As an artist, Prince blends (and bends) so many genres into his music, so many identities into his persona. Perhaps like purple, a color that blends red and blue. Or purple, whose history blends both the high and low, worn by god-like kings but worked out of the sea.

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Today, millions of be-ghouled kids across North America will be facing the disappointment of “fun size” candy as they trick-or-treat for Halloween. While “fun size” may sour any ghost or goblin, candy makes for a quite the sweet and surprising etymology.

"Candy." Doodle & secret message by @andrescalo.
“Candy.” Doodle & secret message by @andrescalo.


Following in the tradition of the Romance languages, the earliest appearance of candy is in sugar-candy in 1390. From the French (sucre candi) and, previously, Latin (saccharum candi), we can unwrap the Arabic qand, “the crystallized juice of the sugar-cane” (Oxford English Dictionary [OED]). Passing through to Arabic from Persian, the word is connected to the Sanskrit khanda (“piece,” as in “piece of candy”), from the verb khand “to break.” (I think of small chunks of brittle as a visual reference, for whatever it’s worth.) The Online Etymology Dictionary proposes a Tamil root for “to harden.” Tamil, you may recall in my second post on “citrus,” is a Dravidian language, found in southern India and Sri Lanka.

Now that’s quite the Halloween haul.

Both sugar and cane also go back to the cradle of civilization, if you will, teaching us how ancient the “sweet-tooth” really is, to riff on Jordan Shipley’s commentary on these words. With both passing into English via the sturdy stock of French, Latin, and Greek, the former we can trace back to the Arabic sukkar (“sugar”), which has been connected to a Sanskrit word for “grit,” as in “ground-up,” like, well, grains of sugar. The historical phonology of sugar is quite ghoulish, however.

The latter, cane, is via a Semitic root, qanah, “reed,” which itself some link to the Sumerian gin, meaning the same. This root may also be part of the origin of caramel, along with the Indo-European root for “honey.” Canyoncanalcanister, cannon, and canon all, to various degrees, may be related to cane.

I know this holiday isn’t even over, but  I have to put out one yuletide decoration briefly: A candy cane may evoke Christmas, which, culturally speaking, is about as Christian and Western as it gets, but etymologically, we can see that candy cane comes from a whole different world. Now that’s quite the treat, isn’t?

Speaking of Arabic, ghoul is another Halloween-y word that ultimately haunts the Arabic-speaking world. First appearing in English in a 1786 translation of a French-language Gothic novel called Vathek, the word goes back to the Arabic ghul, referring to an “evil spirit” believed in Muslim countries to “rob graves and prey on corpses” (OED). The word is further rooted in a verb meaning “to seize.”

Seize away, ghoul, as long as you don’t steal my candy.

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Fast Mash

  • Christmas blends and clips Christ’s mass; earlier forms include Old English’s Cristes mæsse
  • Christ, the title of “anointed” given to Jesus of Nazareth, comes from a Greek translation (khristos) of the Semitic messiah; ultimately, the epithet is from a Greek verb, khriein, meaning to “rub” or “smear” oil, a custom reserved to consecrate prophets, priests, and kings
  • This Greek verb is from the Proto-Indo-European root *ghrei-, meaning “rub”; cream, character, crisscross, grit, grime, and gruel are related
  • Mass may well be from a form of the Latin mittere (send; think mission) used to dismiss a Eucharistic service  

“Merry Christmas.” How often do we utter this phrase without a thought for its “true meaning”? No, I’m not talking about cheer or charity. I’m talking about etymology. And whether or not you celebrate the holiday, the word Christmas still holds surprises.


The word Christmas is a like a gift whose packaging does little to conceal the present inside: It joins Christ, as in Jesus of Nazareth, and mass, as in the Eucharistic service. But a good word origin is the gift that keeps on giving. (No joke: I asked for Anatoly Liberman’s An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology for Christmas.)

I’m pretty sure most people in predominantly Christian cultures have at one early time or another thought Christ to be Jesus’ last name. But Christ is a title or epithet, given to Jesus of Nazareth by his followers after his death. Through the Latin transcription of Christus, Christ comes from the Greek, Χριστός, or khristόs, “the anointed one,” a translation of Hebrew’s mashiah, which gives us messiah. At the root of khristos is the Greek verb khriein, or “to rub” or “anoint,” stemming from the Proto-Indo-European *ghrei-, or “to rub.”

To put it way too simply, priests, prophets, and kings, particularly in Judaic history, were anointed with oil to symbolize the person’s divine appointment and purpose. To his disciples, then, Jesus the Christ was Jesus the One Anointed by God to…do his Jesus stuff. (I jest. I had too much Catholic schooling not to have a sense of humor about all of this.) I should say: Anointed as a savior, deliverer, liberator. As the Online Etymology Dictionary observes, “the Latin term drove out Old English Hæland ‘healer, savior,’ the preferred descriptive term for Jesus.”

I don’t know about you, but Christ was my dad’s preferred descriptive term for anything but Jesus.

In Catholic traditions, among many others, the chrism names this holy, anointing oil and derives from the same Greek roots. It’s also known as myrrh. Yes, that myrrh–which, for most of us, is a word that exists only as a holiday factoid or religious trivia. But historically, myrrh–aromatic resin deriving from a Semitic root for “bitter”–was a highly valuable ingredient for oils, incense, and medicine. Indeed, ancient Egyptians even used it to embalm mummies.

And frankincense? It’s also an aromatic resin, and it derives from the French franc (noble, true, of highest quality, related to English’s own “frank”) and encens (incense).

“Smear” Campaign

The Three Magi may have given gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but the Indo-European root of Christ–*ghrei-, “to rub”–also gives us cream, character, grime, grit, and gruel.

Cream, blending a Latin/Gaulish term and Greek’s khrisma (unguent), is scraped off the top of milk. Also from the Greek, character originally referred to “pointed stake,” an “engraved mark,” or an “imprint on the soul” (or branded on a felon), and served as a metaphor for a distinguishing feature. Everything from chrome to chromosome features a Greek root for khroma, meaning “color,” particularly in reference to the skin, ultimately related (by some logic) to *ghrei-. And perhaps more intuitively is grit (tiny, grounded up rocks); grime (with roots in meanings for “dirt” and “to smear”); and gruel (originating in a sense of fine, ground-up meal).

FInally, we have crisscross, that hashed pattern of intersecting lines. The Online Etymology Dictionary grinds it down better than I can:

1818, from Middle English crist(s)-crosse “Christ’s cross” (late 15c.), earlier cros-kryst (late 14c.), “referring to the mark of a cross formerly written before the alphabet in hornbooks. The mark itself stood for the phrase Christ-cross me speed (‘May Christ’s cross give me success’), a formula said before reciting the alphabet” [Barnhart]. Used today without awareness of origin.

A hornbook is a primer for young children, especially a textbook meant to teach children how to learn the alphabet. Look closely in the top left corner of these historic primers, and you’ll see that original crisscross:

Now I know my ABC’s. Image courtesy of


I always thought that mass referred to the gathering of people for a religious service. Indeed, that’s a different kind of mass. This mass, passing through Old English’s mæsse, is not concerned with the coming together but the sending away. On this, the Oxford Dictionary of Etymology is delightfully discursive:

L. missa is a verbal sb….from pp. stem miss- of ‘mittere’ send, send away (cf. MISSION); it is first recorded from IV…and in the early centuries is applied to various religious services, but pre-eminently to the Eucharist; the primary meaning is disputed, but many hold that its application to a service results from a transference of meaning in phr. such as ‘Ite, missa est’ Depart, it is the dismissal (i.e. the service is at an end), ‘Et missae fiant’ And let the dismissals be made (at the end of an office).

So, from the Latin, mass is likely sent off from the same root as mission, cousin to words like permit and promise or commit and emission.

As for Christmas’ story in English, the Oxford Dictionary of English is delightfully concise:

festival of the nativity of Jesus Christ, 25 Dec. Late OE. Cristes mæsse, ME. cristes masse…, cristesmesse,…cristmasse; i.e. ‘mass’, i.e. festival (MASS) of CHRIST.

Aside from being a good example of the forces of economy in language change, It seems that regular capitalization of Christ and the “restored” spelling using ch– came later. Mass lives on in the sense of “festival,” Oxford notes, in, likely now obscure to many (except some perhaps to my UK counterparts), in Candlemas, Childermas, Hallowmas, Lammas, Martinmas, Michaelmas, among others.

In the interest of all the better things you have to do this holiday season, my readers: Ite, missa est. And happiest holidays! The Mashed Radish will be back in 2014.

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