A “lewd” awakening

The Washington Post broke the bombshell story with this headline: “Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005.” The candidate’s remarks, as many have rightly noted, aren’t just lewd, for in the video Trump boasts about sexual assault. But it’s this word lewd that has been littering the headlines since – and a word whose origins are quite surprising.


Today, lewd means “offensive in a sexual way,” a sense which has come a far way from its roots. Lewd derives from the Old English lǽwede, when it meant “lay,” or a person who is not a member of the clergy. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first finds lewd in a late 9th-century translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

Clerics, unlike many historic laypersons, could read and write, which is why lewd went on to mean “uneducated” or “unlearned” in Middle English. The medieval mind associated this “ignorant” lewdness with “base,” “coarse,” and “vile” behavior, including “licentious” actions. (It had class associations as well.) These meanings emerge by the late 1300s, with Chaucer using lewd for “lascivious” in his Miller’s Prologue around 1386: “Lat be thy lewed dronken harlotrye.”

The deeper roots of lewd are unclear. Some, like Walter Skeat, think the Old English lǽwede is formed from the verb lǽwan, “to betray” or “weaken.” Is one lewd because their lack of education is betrayed, that is, exposed? Is one lewd because enfeeblement is a form of baseness? The sense development here is tricky.

Others, such as the OED, suppose the Old English lǽwede might have been borrowed from a late form of lāicus, a “lay” person, source of English’s own nonclerical lay as well as liturgy. Latin’s lāicus comes from Greek’s λᾱϊκός (laikos), referring to something “of the people” as opposed to the clergy. At root is λᾱός (laos), “the people,” which is featured in the name Nicholas: “victory-people,” which joins laos to nike (νίκη), the word for and goddess of “victory” as well as source of the athletic brand name.

Since the video’s release, politicians, pundits, and public figures have been decrying Trump’s comments. But, ironically enough for the etymology of lewd, many in the evangelical community continue to defend the Republican candidate – including some “un-lewd” clergy themselves.

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As I’m sure you know by now, Donald Trump has come under fire for his sexist “blood” remarks he made in reference to Fox News Host Megyn Kelly, who helped moderate last Thursday’s GOP presidential debate. Conservative blogger and radio host Eric Erickson, who has since disinvited Trump from his upcoming RedState Gathering, commented on Trump’s remarks: “I just don’t want someone on stage who gets a hostile question from a lady and his first inclination is to imply it was hormonal. It just was wrong.” An unapologetic Trump has objected to this characterization of hormonal, claiming instead he felt “viciously attacked” by Kelly – ironically enough if we look to the etymology of hormone.

Attack of the anemones? "Sea anemone." Ink, ballpoint, and highlighter on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
Attack of the anemones? “Sea anemone.” Ink, ballpoint, and highlighter on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


Hormones are often described as the body’s chemical messengers sent through the bloodstream to regulate various functions in organs and tissue. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, British physiologist Ernest Henry Starling coined the term hormone for these substances as a result of his research on secretin in 1902. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records Starling’s usage of the word in 1905: “These chemical messengers, however, of ‘hormones,’…as we might call them.”

These hormones are “attacks,” as we might etymologically call them.

Starling formed the word directly on the Greek ὁρμῶν (hormon), a present participle of the verb ὁρμᾶν, (horman), “to set into motion.”  In English, a present participle is the -ing form of a verb: I am etymologizing. So, hormone is “setting into motion.”

The verb ὁρμᾶν (horman) is formed on a noun, ὁρμή (horme). According to Liddell and Scott’s Greek lexicon, the Greek ὁρμή has two main meanings. First, it signifies a “violent movement onwards, assault, attack, onset” – a “vicious attack,” Donald Trump might say. From this sense, it secondarily signified “the first stir or start in [an effort], an impulse.” They note the Latin equivalent (and English borrowing impetus) to gloss both senses.  Physiologically, then, hormones “are named for their stimulating effect,” as philologist Jordan Shipley concisely puts it.

The Ancient Greeks personified – and worshipped – Ὁρμή (Horme) as a goddess of effort, energy, and action. Carl Jung later used horme to refer to unconscious psychological energy driving human behavior. Perhaps Trump should brush up on his Jung.

In the body, a hormone is produced by glands. According to American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD), the Greek ὁρμή was produced by the Proto-Indo-European *or-sma, an extended form of *er-, “to move, to set in motion.” This root was sent down the linguistic bloodstream, so to speak, eventually forming English’s riseraiserear, orient, origin, earnest, and Starling’s own first name, Ernest. The root, the AHD also explains, generated a very important little verb, are. Maybe if Hamlet had conjugated to be he would have been a little less hesitant.

Sexist suffix? 

Starling’s secretin inspired hormone, but some different substances have influenced what the ending of hormone was assimilated into: the chemical suffix -one. In 1832, German polymath Carl Reichenbach extracted oil from tar, naming it Eupion. French chemist Antoine Bussy adopted the word into French, eupione, and “noted the usefulness of the element –one as a productive suffix (likened to the Greek –ωνη female descendant),” the OED explains. Bussy rendered such chemicals as acetone. The suffix has since become productive in English.

A female patronymic or matronymic, to be more concise and less patriarchal, –ωνη (-one) could be suffixed to words to indicate “daughter of,” and is featured in English’s anemone, literally “daughter of the wind.” (The Greek anemos means “wind.”) Originally, the chemical -one designated organic compounds derived from other compounds. In its entry on hormone, the Online Etymology Dictionary notes that, “in chemical use, [-one denotes] a ‘weaker’ derivative”; chemists will refer to certain compounds, say, acids or bases, as “weak,” depending on their properties

Calling a woman hormonal is a sexist attack, but a female patronymic likened to a “weak” derivative? It appears part of the etymology of hormonal may be sexist, too.

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