Etymology, with an “eagle” eye

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.

Etymologically, the Philadelphia Eagles main team color isn’t midnight green. It’s “dark brown” or “black.” (Pixabay)

Continue reading “Etymology, with an “eagle” eye”

Broncos vs. Panthers

In Groundhog vs. Shadow, Punxsutawney Phil easily walked to victory: his shadow didn’t even show up for his wintry wrangling with the woodchuck earlier this week.

But we’ve got a bigger animal fight ahead.

No, I’m not talking about Donkey vs. Elephant – or, at this point in the 2016 presidential campaign, Donkey vs. Donkey and Elephant vs. Elephant. I’m talking about that other great American mascot match: the Denver Broncos vs. the Carolina Panthers.

Yes, Super Bowl 50 is this Sunday, so let’s see how bronco and panther stack up against each other – etymologically speaking.


Bronco has been bucking in English since the mid-1800s. Cowboys in the now American Southwest saddled this word from the Mexican Spanish bronco, whose meaning of “rough” or “wild” aptly characterizes this “untamed or half-tamed horse.”

OK, Denver is starting aggressively with some big pass plays, the commentators observe.

Etymologists also note this bronco can describe “rough” wood and, as a noun, refer to “a knot in wood.”

The receivers just couldn’t connect. It’s 3 and out. The Broncos kick.

We aren’t fully sure of the origin of bronco from here, but some suggest Spanish borrowed the word from the Vulgar Latin, *bruncus, meaning “projecting” like a sharp point.

Interception! The Broncos have the ball back. 

This *bruncus may blend broccus (“projecting”) and truncus (“trunk of a tree”). The former is related to broach, the latter trunk.

And Denver converts the interception into a field goal.  


Panther has long been stalking English. It appears in Old English, loaned from Latin: panthēra,  originally some kind of spotted big cat like the leopard. Panther was borrowed again in Middle English, this time from French, panthere, though from the same Latin jungle.

Carolina opens conservatively with a few rush plays. 

Now, the Latin derives from the Greek, πάνθηρ (panther), which ancient philologists claimed joins pan (παν-, “all”) and ther (θήρ, “wild beast”). “All beast”? Yes, the panther was once fancied as a composite of many wild animals, a “fabulous hybrid of a lion and a pard,” as the Oxford English Dictionary explains.

Cam Newtown goes long…and it’s first and goal for Carolina!

This mythical panther also “exhaled sweet breath,” the OED continues.

Now a big third and goal here – Carolina has fumbled the ball at the 2 yard line!

But the panther’s sweet breath, emanating whenever it roared, attracts all animals cave. Except for its nemesis, the dragon.

A detail of the panther (center), scaring off the dragon and trailed by a retinue of other animals, from the 12th Aberdeen Bestiary, held by Aberdeen University. Image from Wikimedia Commons, source from the Aberdeen Bestiary.

The officials rule Carolina has recovered the football.

As fascinating as this “all beast” etymology may be, it’s as fanciful as the creature it conjures up. Scholars believe Greek borrowed its panther from a language in Asia Minor. Many point to the Sanskrit puṇḍárīkas, “tiger” (though one of Skeat’s sources suggests “elephant”). Earnest Klein adds that the Sanskrit literally means “the yellowish (animal),” from a base word meaning “whitish yellow.”

Carolina kicks it in for 3. 

If the etymology of bronco and panther is any measure, it should be a fun Super Bowl. Perhaps Carolina will prove to be bronco-busters, breaking in those untamed horses. Or maybe Denver will make Carolina drink panther piss (or juice or sweat), which is some potent hooch indeed.

I, for one, will be getting ready for a skirmish of my own: Chip vs. Guacamole. And you can gear up with my old post on the origin of Super Bowl.

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hawk vs. patriot

Hard hits, deep throws, gutsy calls–no, these words aren’t describing the New England Patriots besting of the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, but the competitive sport of etymology.  OK, not quite: the fields of American football and English etymology are many, many yards apart, but both keep fans tuning in with the surprises they offer game after game or word after word. Which is true for hawk and patriot.

"Hawk & Patriot." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Hawk & Patriot.” Doodle by @andrescalo. All hawks consider themselves patriots, but not all patriots consider themselves hawks. Riddle by me.


A seahawk is a simple compound of sea and hawk, cited as such in the 1850s. Hawk itself is much older, evidenced as far back as 700, but you might not recognize it. In Old English, the bird was a hafoc, among other forms. During the period of Middle English, the f left hawk‘s nest, and its range of pronunciations and spellings gradually settled into its modern form of hawk.

Hawks are incredible birds, soaring high, fixing their sharp sight on their prey, and diving down to seize it. And it is this seizing that ultimately gives the bird its name. Behind hawk is the Proto-Germanic *habukaz, exhibiting a classic Grimm’s Law shift from the Proto-Indo-European *kap, ” to grasp.” In Latin, this root yielded capere, “to seize.” Capablecaptureconceive, participate, princemunicipal, and (game-winning) interception are just a few of the many descendants of this prolific root. From the Germanic branches of this root English derives everyday words like have, behave, and heavy. That’s heavy. An incredible word hatched from an incredible nest.


The form of patriot may not have changed as remarkably as hawk‘s, but its meaning has undergone some interesting shifts. English begins rallying behind patriot as early as 1577, enlisting the word from the French patriote, a “fellow countryman.” Yet patriots weren’t always conceived in a necessarily positive light: the term has a history of marking divisions. The Oxford English Dictionary notes a Dutch usage of the term in the 1570s describing followers of William of Orange, leader of the Dutch War of Independence. This usage, apparently, propelled the shift of the word from “fellow countryman” to a “lover of one’s country.” In the 17th and 18th century, the OED observes a derogatory and ironic usage of the term, a sort of sanctimonious Sam Adams:

A person who claims to be disinterestedly or self-sacrificingly devoted to his or her country, but whose actions or intentions are considered to be detrimental or hypocritical; a false or feigned patriot.

Patriot remains a loaded term in American politics. The act of calling a person a patriot can be just that–or it can be exploiting nationalistic themes of unity and freedom to single out those not deemed to be true patriots. Identity is indeed at play in the more ancient origins of the word. Via the late Latin patriota, patriot ultimately comes from the Ancient Greek πατριωτης (patriotes)As Liddell and Scott note, πατριωτης were “barbarians who had only a common πατρίς [patris, fatherland], πολιταυ [politau] being used of Greeks who had a common πόλις (polis, city-state).” The Greek πατριωτης was also used of members of a clan, or a πατρίaa “clan.”

Behind πατρίς and πατρίa is the Greek πατήρ, “father,” from one of the Proto-Indo-European words for “father,” *pəter- (or *phter-). For all the divisions that warring fatherlands have caused, at least the root is etymologically unifying, for *pəter- gives Sanskrit pitṛ, Greek πατήρ which we just encountered, the Old Irish athirand English’s very own father, among its other Indo-European progeny.

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