The baffling origins of “baffle”

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.

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Bah, humbug! Could Scrooge be the clue to the origin of baffle? (Wikimedia Commons)

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 mashedradish@gmail.com.

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The dramatic roots of “explode”

In Ancient Rome, theatergoers would drive actors they didn’t like off stage by clapping very loudly. The custom ultimately gives us the word explode.

Last Friday, after seven years decrying Obamacare, House Republicans pulled their bill to replace it. It was an explosive event, and, from President Trump, it met with an ‘explosive’ response: “I’ve been saying for the last year and a half that the best thing we can do politically speaking is let Obamacare explode. It is exploding now.”

Trump went on to use forms of explode five more times in his official remarks, and took the word to Twitter the following morning.

With its vivid imagery of a loud and fiery combustion, explode is, policy aside, an effective word choice. We might even call explode “dramatic”which would be quite fitting for the etymology of the word.

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An etymological explosion. (Pixabay)

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The dark and troubled past of “sleazy”

The earliest record of sleazy likens the human brain to beer left out in the sun. 

On Capitol Hill yesterday, FBI Director James Comey confirmed that his agency is probing Russian interference in the 2016 US election. During his hearing, Denny Heck, a Democratic representative for Washington, commented on the state of the investigation: “We’re not indicting anyone, merely laying out some of the evidence and the facts, dirty though they be, sleazy though they be.”

Heck isn’t alone in using sleazy for political effect, though: It’s been a favorite modifier of politicians and political journalists since at least the 1980s. But where does this word sleazy come from?

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Sleazy was originally “fuzzy,” like the hairs of a caterpillar. (Pixabay)

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Race, sex, and underwear: the debated origins of “shimmy”

The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump gave us plenty to talk about, including a number of words themselves: stamina, cyber, temperament, braggadocious, and, thanks to some since-viral shoulder shaking from Clinton, shimmy.

After a Trumpian word salad late in the debate, Clinton issued a “Whoo! OK!” accompanied by a wide grin and a shoulder shimmy. Her shimmy served as a playful, though pointed, dismissal of Trump’s charges. But the etymological – and cultural – past of the word shimmy is much more complicated.

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Some Americans may have called this chemise, made from cotton ca. 1856, a “shimmy.” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

A not so shimmering history?

The shimmy originated as a jazz dance involving a spirited shaking of the body, often while doing a foxtrot. The Oxford English Dictionary first finds record of it in 1917 as the shimme-sha-wabble. It next records it in a 1918 edition of the British Dancing Times, which described it as a “very, very crude” dance, a “n–r dance, of course, and it appears to be a slow walk with a frequent twitching of the shoulders” (censoring mine). And as a 1922 reference in the London Weekly Dispatch reminds us, the shimmy  was often prohibited, deemed obscene for its sexual suggestiveness: “‘Shimmy’ banned in New York…The Chicago camel-walk, scandal, balconnades, and shimmy dances must cease.” We should remember, too, the dance’s racial associations when it come these bans.

By 1925, shimmy was extended to vibrations in general, though especially to the “wheel wobble” of cars and airplanes.

The origin of shimmy as a word is less clear. It’s often considered to be a US dialectical variant of chemise, mistaken as a plural. (This error, innocent enough, has precedent. Pea was thought to be the singular of pease, cherry of cherise, though both pease and cherise were originally the singular forms of the words.) The shimmy variant dates to the 1830s.

Way back in Old English, a chemise (then, cemes) was a shirt, particularly a kind of undergarment like a smock, used for warmth and sweat absorption. Chemise has also been long associated with lingerie, which adds to the historic raciness of the shimmy dance.

Looks like a shirt, sounds like a shimmer

Now, the history of chemise in English is long and complex, in part coming directly from Latin and in part from French (where the word was also used of book coverings). The ultimate origin is the Latin camisa, a kind of sleeping garment. The ancient Romans may have borrowed the word – and apparently, the garb – from a Germanic word that also shows up in hame, an archaic word for a “covering” or a “skin,” especially a snake’s slough. 

We shouldn’t overlook, though, the role sound symbolism might have played in the origin of shimmy. The dance’s fast, quivering motion no doubt evokes shimmer; shiver, shake, shudder, shatter and other sh– words, in all their speedy trembling, also come to mind. (Linguists refer to these sound-meaning clusters as phonesthemes.) Shimmer itself comes from the same root as shine, from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning the same.

For Clinton supporters and meme-makers at least , Clinton’s shimmy made for a lighter and looser – perhaps even shimmering – moment in otherwise tense, heated, and heavy-hitting debate.

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The downs and ups of “bounce”

Last post, I looked into the history of keynotea word getting a lot of airplay during the US party conventions. Another word basking in the lexical limelight right now is bounce, that post-convention boost in the polls each candidate historically enjoys. Where did this bounce etymologically spring from?

Bounce’s bouncy past 

Outside of its polling sense today, bounce suggests a liveliness and springiness: the bounce of a ball or the bounce in one’s step. But originally, bounce was the very opposite. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites the verb bounce as early as 1225. Back then, bounce took the form bunsen and meant “to beat” or “thump.” 

Come the 16th century, bounce starting bouncing in all sorts of a semantic directions. We have bounce, “to make a loud explosive noise.” We have bounce “to talk big,” “to bluster,” and “to bully.” We have the more familiar bounce “to bound like a ball,” initially said of heavier objects. 

What’s the connecting sense here? Sound. With some possible connections in Dutch and German, bounce likely originates in imitation of loud, sudden noises or movements – like that original “beat” or “thump.” This is why we even see bounce historically used as an interjection to imitate the loud bang of a gun: Bounce!

Bouncing balls bound. Are the words related? Not directly, but they share similar sense developments and imitative roots. Bound “to leap upward” – is found in the late 16th century and probably influenced bounce’s form and sense during that time. This bound comes from the French bondir, which meant, like bounce, “to make a resounding noise.” The verb seems to derive from the Latin bombus, a “buzzing, booming, or humming noise.” Bombus also gives English another noisy word: bomb

From “thump” to “jump”

The sound of a bounce inspired the motion of a bounce: a ball makes a sudden thump as it smacks the ground before bouncing into the air. English made good use of all its metaphorical energy. A drunk could get bounced – tossed out – of a bar by the bouncer. The OED cites this bouncer, a “chucker-out,” as an Americanism dating back to at least 1865. A few decades earlier, a bouncer also named a “swaggering liar.” And this ejective usage seems to anticipate a later slang usage, Let’s bounce, or “Let’s get out of here.” 

Another Americanism (1920s) is a rubber check, which would bounce right back to the bank due to insufficient funds. Sixty years later, emails were bouncing back in a similar, figurative manner.  A bounce also refers to a sudden rise in a price – or, for our purposes here, a candidate’s standing. The OED first finds the financial sense in the 1970s. It documents the political bounce in 1980, referring to Jimmy Carter’s “post-convention bounce,” the precise context pollsters and pundits are using it now during this stretch of the presidential campaign. 

Bounce’s colorful – or better yet, noisy – etymological past is instructive for its political present. Polling bounces can lead candidates to “boast.” They can also make their opponents sting from the “thumping.” And so we should be careful not to make too much bounce about them. For these post-convention bounces – like so much of politics – are like balls: what goes up comes back down. And that’s just the way the ball bounces. 

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“Boxer”: A true original

Last week, the world lost Muhammad Ali. In and outside the ring, he lived up to his larger-than-life nickname: The Greatest. As we remember his life and legacy, let’s have a few rounds with the etymology of the sport he championed: boxing.

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There’s a present inside. Image by Jean Scheijen.

Box

The Oxford English Dictionary first records boxing – “the action of fighting with the fists” – surprisingly late for a sport well-documented in antiquity. The dictionary cites an essay in Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s Spectator in 1711 which urges regular physical exercise alongside mental exertion. To that end, the writer extols a form of classical, calisthenic shadow-boxing, or sciamachy, involving weighted sticks: “This opens the chest, exercises the limbs, and gives a man all the pleasures of boxing, without the blows.”

Boxing was popular – and deadly – in ancient Rome, but the sport died out after the fall of the empire. Some look to the rise of Christianity, others sword-based combat, as possible explanations. A bout isn’t recorded in England until 1681 when a lord matched up his butler and his butcher, apparently, in a bare-knuckle fight. (The butcher is said to have won.) English Prizefighter James Figg helped to popularize the sport in the early 1700s, his pupil Jack Broughton soon after helped to codify it.

Now, The Spectator’s “blows” is the operative word if we referee boxing’s origins. Boxing, as you can imagine, takes it corner from box, a verb first meaning “to strike” or “beat” by the early 16th century (and since narrowed to its sporting sense). This box is from an earlier noun, a “buffet,”  “cuff,” or “blow,” found as early as 1300 and now surviving largely in a box on the ears.

Scholars see in English’s box some tempting etymological contenders: the Middle Dutch boke, Middle German buc, and Danish bask all mean a “blow.” But these comparisons are no knockouts. Most scholars conclude box is probably a native English word that imitates the sound of a punch. Walter Skeat sees box as a variant of pash, another echoic term for a combat “blow.”

Some philologists suggest box may be a playful extension of Christmas box, a container that once collected tips for servants and apprentices. In one early iteration of the custom, this box was an earthenware vessel broken open around the holiday, its contents then shared among the workers. (We can imagine a young employee asking a workmate, “Want a present?” But his fellow is only rewarded with a box on the arm. “There’s no prize if you don’t smash open the box!”) On the first weekday after Christmas, various workers received a Christmas box on this so-called Boxing Day.

The receptacle box takes its name from the box tree, as early containers were fashioned from its wood. The name of the dog breed, originating in Germany, nods to the historically pugnacious temperament of a boxer, whose shorts are remembered in the loose-fitting underwear, boxer shorts. In 1900, a Chinese secret society attempted an uprising against foreigners. English roughly, if not erroneously, rendered the group’s Chinese name as “the Righteous Harmony Fists,” or boxers, hence the Boxer Rebellion.

If boxing so originates as English onomatopoeia, it’s an apt etymology for Muhammad Ali: He was a true original, who we will remember for winning with his words as much as with his fists.

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“Feisty”: you can blame it on the dog

As many are describing it, last night’s debate between Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in Brooklyn, New York was “feisty.”

I’ve read others characterize the candidates’ sharp exchanges as a “dogfight” and full of “hot air,” but these descriptions are just as “feisty,” if we look to the surprising etymology of this word.

Into the woods

While the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests feisty in American English in 1896, an early usage in Horace Kephart’s 1913 book, Our Southern Highlanders, is telling: “’Feisty’… ‘means when a feller’s allers wigglin’ about, wantin’ ever’body to see him, like a kid when the preacher comes.’”

Kephart’s attention-seeking usage of feisty anticipates “fussy” and “fidgety,” an early meaning of  fidgety we might owe to the Appalachian culture of the Smoky Mountains, where his novel is set. Today, the “lively” and “aggressive” feisty still expresses this excitability, though the word has since evolved to focus on a kind of readiness to fight – and, if my ears are any measure, is said of women more than men. In his slang lexicography, Jonathon Green indeed records feisty as 20th-century U.S. slang for a “flirtatious, showy, and unscrupulous woman,” which also, perhaps, calls back Kephart’s early usage.

Barking up the etymological tree

For the etymology of feisty, we need to travel farther south, where a feist named a “small dog used in hunting small game (such as squirrels),” as the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary explains. The United Kennel Club, among others, officially registers the treeing feist and mountain feist today.

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This mountain feist is on the hunt. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Other variants of feist include fist, ficefyce, and even foist, if we look to a 1770 reference by George Washington. In March of that year, George Washington wrote in his diary: “Countess a hound bitch after being confind got loose and was lined before it was discovered by my Water dog once and a small foist looking yellow cur twice.”

I find it reassuring to know that even America’s legendary first president couldn’t completely control his dogs.

Leashed up on feist, of course, was English’s prolific adjectival suffix, -y.

In spite of their size, small dogs like feists have big personalities. Their quick energy, sharp barks, and often skittish behavior indeed suggest the kind of lively, aggressive temperament we associate with feisty. And, returning to Kephart,  feisty also evokes the squirmy restlessness, say, of a terrier less interested in one’s lap than what’s out the window.

As for the indie artist Feist, the moniker comes from her last name. Her first name is Leslie.

Send the dog out back

Now, feist takes its name from a fisting hound, dog, or cur, evidenced as early as the 1530s. Get your mind out of the gutter, but not completely: This fist, a verbal adjective, means “to break wind.”

The OED documents this fist in the 15th century, referring to the action – and aftermath of – flatulence. A fisting dog, then, was “stinky,” but not, as the record suggests, because it needed a bath.

Jonathon Green notes two historic explanations for why this flatulent fist became associated with dogs: Wentworth and Flexner’s American Slang Dictionary  maintain “the dog was so named because one’s own smells could be blamed on it,” while in the 19th century  it was suggested that “such dogs were not much bigger than a man’s fist.”

It’s unclear whether the “clenched hand” fist is actually related to “broken wind” fist, though the OED does cross-reference the former in the latter’s etymology.

For the deeper origins of fist, etymologists hypothesize an Old English verb *fistan and noun *fist, with widespread cognates in Germanic languages and a root in the Proto-Germanic *fistiz. Some philologists actually connect fist to its still-lingering counterpart fart through a root, *perd-, which is really just a Proto-Indo-European fart noise. (We can also thank this root for partridge, whose windy winging  I’ve discussed at Oxford Dictionaries).

Like fart, I suspect fist is ultimately a Germanic onomatopoeic whoopee cushion, so to speak. But whatever origin we ultimately blame fist on, I can’t blame you for, er, leaving the room when the TV debates get too feisty this long and heated presidential campaign season.

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gold, silver, & bronze

Fast Mash

  • Gold is from the Proto-Indo-European *ghel-, meaning, variously, “yellow,” “bright,” “shining,” “green,” “blue,” and “gray”; derivatives include chlorine, clean, and the family of gl- words like glass and glance
  • From the Old English siolforsilver’s ultimate origin is unknown, perhaps from the Akkadian sarapu (to smelt)
  • Bronze may be from the Persian birinj (copper) and may be connected to the Latin aes Brundusinium, referring to bronze mirrors made in Brindisi, Italy
  • The Indo-European *arg- (bright, shining) is the origin of Romance words for “silver” (e.g., argent) and *aus– for “gold” (e.g., aureate)

In Ancient Greece, victorious Olympians were crowned with olive wreathes. Upon the Olympics’ reinstitution in 1896, winners were still greeted with this symbolic prize, but also with silver medals. It wasn’t until the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri, though, that the Games issued gold, silver, and bronze medals for its top-three competitors.

Let’s bite into goldsilver, and bronze to check out what they’re made of.

Gold

All that glitters may be gold, etymologically speaking. Unchanged in form from the Old English, gold is from the Proto-Germanic *gulth- and Proto-Indo-European *ghel-, meaning “yellow.” This root could also mean “bright” or “shining.” And, apparently, all that glitters can be “green,” “blue,” and “gray,” for *ghel– so named bright colors and objects.

This root *ghel– is definitely worth its weight in etymological gold, though, for it parented the Greek khloros, “pale green,” giving English everything from chlorine and chlorophyll to the name Chloe. It also parented the Germanic clean and clear. In fact, its Germanic kin are many, as Shipley cites: glare, glassglaze, gloss, gleaming, glow, glower, glad, and glee. To these we might add gleamglitterglint, glimpseglance, among yet others, all featuring the initial cluster gl-.

Does this gl– mean something? The topic is contentious.

Phonesthemes

Linguists call this gl- a “phonestheme,” an example of sound symbolism, the idea that certain sounds inherently have a meaning. Onomatopoeia might be familiar. The cow moos, the bee buzzesthe doorbell ding-dongs. These are all words that imitate or echo what they are naming. The sound symbolizes its meaning.

But gl- is a little more interesting. It has no meaning in and of itself. Gl- on its own cannot be said to mean anything in the way that “cat,” “throw,” or “rumor” do. Or in the way that “pre-” or “post-” or “-ly” or “-hood” do. But it does appear in a family of words whose meanings are all connected–here, through a common sense of “shiny,” “bright,” “light,” “dealing with vision,” or what have you. Further, if you clip off the gl-, you aren’t left with a meaningful unit of sound. Take glitter or glance. If I take of the gl-, I am left with -itter and -ance, which don’t mean anything. (More technically, they aren’t morphemes.) Unlike when I undo the “un-” in “undo” or lob off the “-er” in “faster”: do and fast have meaning.

Words beginning with fl– (flow, fly, flutter. flurry), sl- (slide, slippery, slick, slither), and sn– (snore, sniffle, sneeze, snout) also display this phonesthemic property.

So, does gl– suggest the shiny or visual properties that its word family shares? Does fl– imply flying, sn– various nasal business? Globe, flower, and snow also feature their respective consonant clusters but don’t really belong in their respective phonesthemic families. The phenomenon is not absolute. Nothing is language is. But, given the data, it’s hard to deny that there is some level of truth to this sound symbolism.

Gold’s chemical symbol, Au, is taken from the Latin aurum, meaning “gold.” It’s from a Proto-Indo-European root, *ausprobably meaning “to shine.” From this root, Latin got aes and Old English ar, which could both mean, well, “copper,” “bronze,” and “brass.”

Silver

The name for this runner-up comes from the Old English siolfor or seolfor. (In Old English, letter sounded much like our v.) We can trace the Old English back to the Old Norse, silfr and reconstruct a Proto-Germanic *silubr-. From here, we don’t really know. Perhaps silver is all the more precious for it. Russian has serebo and Lithuanian has sidabras, so etymologists speculate a Balto-Slavic or Asian origin. Ernest Klein offered the Akkadian sarpu, refined “silver,” from sarapu, “to smelt.”

The Indo-European root for silver is reflected in silver’s chemical name, Ag, from Latin’s silver equivalent, argentum. Like *ghel– and *aus-, argentum has *arg-, “to shine,” though often with a especial reference to “white.” The Argonauts were the sailors of the ship, the Argos, lead by Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece. In Greek, argos means “swift,” related to that root for “shining” and “bright.”

Bronze

Nowadays, bronze may evoke being tan before being in third place. It turns out, though, that the alloy may have more in common with vanity–um, I mean skin cancer, er, social constructions of beauty, uh, tanning–than we might think.

Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, and comes to English, via French and Italian, from the Medieval Latin bronzium and its variant brundium. From here, the etymology is itself something of an alloy. As Partridge maintains, bronze is ultimately mined from the Persian birindj (other variants include birinj or pirinj), meaning “copper,” “for the alloy came to Europe from the East.” Skeat cites the Roman historian Pliny, whose writes of aes Brundusinium, referring to the Italian town, Brindisi, whose Latin name was Brundisium, “where bronze mirrors were made.” Aes could mean “copper,” “brass,” “bronze” and the various objects made from them include money, armor, and trumpets. Perhaps you’ll look extra bronzed in one of those mirrors.

The chemical symbol for bronze is…Oh, you don’t remember it? Good. There isn’t one. Just making sure you’re awake.

Etruscan bronze mirror, 3rd-2nd c. BC; image courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Bright, Shiny Objects

*Ghel-, *aus-, *arg-: some of our most precious treasures–an Olympic medal, say, awarding a once-in-a-lifetime performance against the most elite competition following years of training and sacrifice–come down to “bright” and “shiny” objects. That’s a bit glib, of course, as metallurgy certainly had its hand in advancing civilization. But perhaps not too glib, for might not these roots begin in that most fundamentally human act–the act of curiosity, marveling at an object glittering in a riverbed or on the wall of a cave, brighter and shinier than the unremarkable dirt and rock, tinkering and tooling and experimenting with them until it is shaped into something new, an instrument of culture? It may not take much to get our attention, but we sure can do a whole lot with it.

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