It’s Mardi Gras, or the “dense, shiny meat removal,” as I’ve etymologized in the past. I trust many observers people won’t be giving up TV for Lent, what with the Winter Olympics going on.
Speaking of the Olympics, ski down some archives with my old posts from the 2014 competition in Sochi, Russia. I explored the roots of winter sports words, including skate, ski, luge, sleigh, curling, and hockey. (Lots of Old Norse and origins unknown.) I also looked at the histories of the winning medals: gold, silver, and bronze. (Lots of Indo-European, with a surprising place-name behind bronze.)
The 2018 games kicked off last week in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and besides the astonishing athleticism, inspirational stories, and show of global unity, there’s some very exciting…yes,etymology.
Maybe in some parallel universe it wasn’t the Philadelphia Eagles who won Super Bowl LII. No, not the New England Patriots but the Philadelphia Ernes. For erne was the usual word for “eagle” in Old English, and in my hypothetical Twilight Zone, French and Latin didn’t sack Anglo-Saxon like so many blitzing linebackers.
After some players took a knee during the national anthem, US Vice President Mike Pence abruptly left a football game between the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers this Sunday. But many aren’t seeing his move as a un-dignifying departure—but a political stunt, a word whose ultimate origins are, shall we say, a bit stunted.
You don’t really have a choice over whether or not you like sports if you speak English. All bets are off, bad break, curveball, down to the wire, get the ball rolling, grandstanding, level playing field, take the bait, track record—expressions taken from sports are everywhere and everyday in English, so much so that we forget many of these clichés, idioms, and tropes even come from sports in the first place.
Take at the drop of a hat, or “without delay or good reason.” According to Colin McNairn in his new book, Sports Talk: How It Has Penetrated Our Everyday Language (FriesenPress, 2017):
The hat in the expression is likely of the kind that was frequently used, back in the 19th century, to signal the start of a race, a fight or other competition. The person charged with getting the contest started would, typically, doff his hat, hold it at arms-length, and then suddenly lower the straightened arm, hat in hand, in a downward sweeping motion, which would signal the official start.
Or did you realize that down to the wire, or “until the last possible moment,” comes from horse-racing? McNairn explains that the wire here refers to ones “strung above the finish line of North American racecourses so that, in a close race, it was easier for the track judge to determine which horse finished first.”
In Sports Talk, McNairn covers, blow-by-blow, a whopping 650 expressions derived from over 35 sports sports ranging from football to frisbee, with some history, trivia, anecdotes, and quotes on the sidelines. The author—whose first book, In A Manner of Speaking, I also reviewed—kindly sent me a copy.
After a career chasing a major, Spanish golfer Sergio Garcia swung his way back to clinch the Masters Tournament on Sunday. When he sank his winning putt, Garcia warmly acknowledged his final contender, Justin Rose, and his caddie, before embracing his own, Glen Murray. For as they say, behind every great golfer is a caddie. But what’s behind the word caddie?
The falcon probably takes its name from the “sickle” shape of its beak, talons, or wings.
This Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons will take on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI in Houston, Texas. I’ve previously taken on the etymology of patriot, whichultimately derives from the Greek word for “father” and, curiously, didn’t always carry a positive connotation in English. But what the origin of the word falcon?
A bird, or sickle, in the hand…
Falcon stooped on English in the mid 1200s. The Oxford English Dictionary firsts falcon, as faukun, in The Owl and the Nightingale, dated to around 1250. In this poem, the titular birds sharply debate which of them is the superior avian. (The nightingale accuses the owl of laying an egg in a falcon’s nest, the medieval version of Deflategate, I suppose.)
The English falcon swoops in from the Old French faucon, which flies from the Late Latin falcōnem, all referring to the bird of prey. The nominative, or subject case, form of falcōnem was falcō, presumably derived from falx, “a sickle.” The falcon’s beak, talons, or possibly the sharp curve of its outspread wings resemble this farming blade, apparently.
Falx also gives English falcate, “curved like a sickle,” falchion, a machete-like sword, and, speaking big names of the US South, the surname Faulkner (“falconer”).
After a 108-year drought, the Chicago Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series. The team fought their way back to victory over the Tribe with all the ferocity and tenacity of their ursine namesake – or at least when that cub comes of age. In honor of the champions, let’s have a peek into the etymological cave of cub.
The official mascot of the Chicago Cubs is a young bear cub. The Chicago Daily Newsnicknamed the team the Cubs in 1902, as they’ve been called ever since. But previously, the club was known as the White Stockings, Colts, and even the Orphans.
In the English language, cub didn’t refer to young bears but young foxes. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates the wordback to 1530. It was soon after extended to the young of other animals, like lions, tigers, and bears, who were originally called whelps. We can trace its metaphorical use for an “undeveloped youth” to Shakespeare, “apprentice” or “beginner” to Mark Twain.
While cub appears relatively late in English, its origin is obscure. Many etymologists have attempted a connection to the Old Irish cuib, a “dog,” but the historical record doesn’t quite bear this out. If this is the case, the Irish-based cub would be cognate to canine, cynic, hound, and other Indo-European words for dogs. Others have linked it to the Old Norse kobbi, a “seal,” from a base sense of a shapeless “block” or “stump,” alluding to the clumsy lump that is a newborn seal. This kobbi is related to a Germanic base for “cup” and “head” (think kopf). The Old Norse theory, involving that blobby, baby seal, also resonates with the old myth that baby bears were born without any form and had to be licked into shape by their mothers.
While the etymology of cub may be obscure, the Chicago Cubs have proven this season that they are anything but – even if it took over a century.
The Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs face off in Game 6 of the World Series tonight. As I grew up in Ohio, and as my family hails from Cleveland, I’m rooting for the Indians to bring in their first championship since 1948. Speaking of tribe (and putting aside the team’s racially controversial mascot), where does the word tribe come from?
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests tribe in 1327, specifically referring to the 12 tribes of Israel. This tribe, passing into English from French, is from Latin’s tribus, “tribe,” based on Greek’s use of ϕῡλή (phyle) for the biblical tribes descended from Jacob. The Greek phyle, itself meaning “tribe” or “clan,” survives in phylum and phylogenetic, which we may recall from biology class. A tribe was more generally referring to a “race” or national “division” of people by the 1600s, and any sort of “group” by the 1700s.
Now, the earliest use of Latin’s tribus, best we know, named the three, early peoples of Rome, which some scholars consider to be the Latin, Sabine, and Etruscan tribes. The deeper roots of the word are unclear. Many etymologists have suggested tribus joins tri-, from the Latin for “three,” and the ancient root for “to be,” *bheue-. This Indo-European base also yields English’s be andcould convey a sense of “growing,” “becoming,” or “appearing,” which might help explain its application to one of those three, founding Roman families. Derivative terms include tribune and tribunal, which we can trace back to tribunus, literally the “head of a tribe” but politically a representative of the plebeian interests in Roman government.
Whoever wins this year, both Cleveland and Chicago fans are no doubt ecstatic that their tribe has – at long last – had representation in baseball’s highest game.
In the run-up to tonight’s high-stakesshowdown between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, some polls are showing that the two candidates are locked in a virtualdead heat. And as the two are set to square off, many want the media to raise the bar of expectations for Trump. The language of politics is no stranger to sports metaphors, but it’s easy to forget that these six terms, near clichés at this point in the campaign, started out as sporting or gaming expressions:
The original run-up took place in greyhound racing, specifically coursing, where the dogs chase hares. The portion of the race up to the first “turn” or “wrench” of the hare, technical terms in the sport, was called the run-up. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites this in 1834. Runner-up is also a racing term, referring since the 1840s to a dog that came in second place in the final course of a race. Runner-up was soon after extended to other competitions.
Since at least the 1920s, the adjective high-stakes concerned gambling, especially a poker game with stakes that were high, or “large.” This use of high dates backs to the 1600s, and characterized gambling stakes (e.g., the stakes were high) since the 1700s. The origin of stake, as something wagered, is unknown, though many have tried to root it in a stake, a “post” on which bettors placed their wager in the form of clothing, jewelry, or the like.
Showdown took its etymological seat at the poker table in the 1890s: when players show their cards, after all the betting is over, by laying them down face up to see who has the best hand. This showdown became a metaphor for other confrontations by the early 1900s.
4. Dead heat
When horses cross the finish line at the exact same time, often after running neck and neck, they end in a dead heat. Horse racing has been using this term since 1796, according to the OED’s records. Dead, here, is “absolute” or “downright,” a sense reaching back the 1600s and owing to the utter finality of death. A heat is a single race, also dating to the 1600s and presumably named for the burst of exertion therein involved.
5. Square off
Boxers square off when they take their fighting stances. The OED attests this American usage in 1838. Slightly earlier variants include square at, square up, or simply square. In such a posture, the limbs assume the rough outline of a square, a word which has also described a “strong” or “solid” body since the 1400s.
6. Raise the bar
In the high jump, athletes compete to clear ever higher levels of a horizontal bar. This bar, used in reference to the sport since the mid 1800s, could be raised or lowered, which became an effective metaphor for setting different levels of expectations by the 1970s.