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.
In the third and final presidential debate last night, Donald Trump – amid his yet more shocking refusal to say whether he’ll accept the election results – called Hillary Clinton “a nasty woman.” Nasty can be such a nasty word. Where does it come from?
Nasty starts “fouling” up the English language in the 14th century. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests it in Carleton Brown’s 1390 Religious Lyrics of the 14th Century: “Whon we be nasti, nouȝt at neode, Neore wimmen help, hou schulde we fare?”
Back then, as it still does for some speakers of Black English, nasty meant “filthy” and “dirty.” The word has since made quite a semantic mess, so to speak: “offensive, annoying” (1470s); “unpleasant” (1540s); “repellent (to the senses)” and “lewd” (1600s); and “ill-tempered, spiteful” (1820s). Slang has also widely taken up nasty, from a term for “excellent” to sex-related usages.
For as much use as English has made of nasty, we aren’t certain about its origins. Here are three leading theories:
- Nasty comes from the Dutch nestig, “dirty” like a bird’s nest. The source of this word, alas , is also unclear.
- Nasty (and nestig) could be related to a Scandinavian source, such as the Swedish naskug, “dirty,” with nask meaning “dirt.” Walter Skeat maintains, though, this dialectical word lost an initial s- and comes from snaska, “to eat like a pig,” that is, greedily and noisily. Snaska, Skeat continues, imitates the sound of such consumption. Middle English has nasky, a variant of nasty, which suggests some Scandinavian word at least reinforced nasty if they’re not immediately related.
- Nasty derives from the Old French nastre, “strange, lowly, bad,” shortened from villenastre, “infamous, ignoble.” Villenastre joins villein (source of villain, a “rustic” that became associated with more nefarious qualities, perhaps not unlike clown) and -aster, a pejorative suffix seen in the likes of poetaster, an “inferior” poet.
Nasty, it seems, is a nasty little word with a nasty little etymology.
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This presidential cycle, America seems more polarized than ever. But on the July Fourth holiday, we can all put aside our divisions and stand together in this home of the brave. As it turns out, the origin of the very word brave tells its own story of conflict – and in the end, perhaps a kind unity after all.
Brave roots, some not-so brave meanings
Among its earliest meanings in English, brave didn’t mean “valorous.” It meant “showy,” “handsome,” or “finely dressed.” The Oxford English Dictionary attests these meanings in the mid-16th century. But come the early 17th century, the word had shaded towards a general sense of “excellent,” then its modern “courageous” and “intrepid.”
Brave has long been a starred-and-striped word. English borrowed it from the French brave, where it meant both “splendid” and “valiant.” (Think chivalrous cavaliers.) The French, in turn, was influenced by the Italian bravo, where this spangled adjective also meant “bold,” as well as by Spanish, which conveyed “wild” and “savage” with its bravo.
The further ancestry of brave may not be so easy to see – or so gallantly streaming. Some suggest brave is a variation on the Latin barbarus, meaning “foreigner.” Others, on pravus, “crooked” or “depraved,” hence “savage,” likely characterizing the ferocity of outsiders and enemies. (Note that depraved itself features the root pravus.)
Meanwhile, Walter Skeat insisted brave derives from the same Celtic root he believed gave English brag, citing breagh, or “fine.” Skeat also notes some competing theories in his sources, including Old Dutch and Swedish words.
Whatever the source of the word, the sense of brave seems to have developed from “wild” to “bold” to “showy” to “courageous,” apparently on the basis of outward demonstrations and displays. (Sounds pretty American to me, huh?)
Cognates to brave include bravado, bravura, and bravo! And the reason some called Native Americans braves didn’t have to do as much with any valor white traders or settlers observed: its thank to the French brave, which we should remember also connoted “savage.”
Brave‘s new world
Words, like Americans, are immigrants, coming from countries and tongues afar. Words, like Americans, are contradictory, teeming with conflicted and conflicting ideas, values, and experiences. And words, like Americans, can forget their deeper roots and stories.
But on Independence Day, Americans commemorate the beginning of its nation, its experiment. And I, as one American citizen, think that it’s fitting that the etymology of brave is obscure. There is bloodshed in its past. There are foreigners and outsiders. Yet there is also change and progress in the word’s meaning, from “flashy” to “fearless.”
The exact origins of brave have been lost to that melting pot of time, history, and memory. Regardless of our divisions, we are Americans – in the home of the brave, stars, stripes, sins, successes, and all.
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The 2016 presidential campaign yet again proves to be quite the horserace, if etymology has its say.
After an anti-Trump super PAC made use of a nude photo of Trump’s wife, Melania, in a political ad during last week’s Utah caucuses, Donald Trump threatened he would “spill the beans” on fellow Republican candidate Ted Cruz’s wife. As lexicographer Ben Zimmer recently explained, the expression spill the beans actually originates in U.S. horse-racing.
Then, the pro-Trump National Enquirer accused Cruz of extramarital affairs. Cruz responded by pinning the “garbage” allegations on “Donald Trump and his henchmen.”
Today, as we see Cruz imply, a henchman – or henchperson, as language writer Stan Carey has observed – does his boss’s dirty work. But historically, a henchman may have gotten their hands dirty with a very different kind of business. See, the best we can tell, the hench in henchman is all about horses.
From groom to goon
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites henchman in 1360, when, taking the Medieval Latin form of hengestmannus, the word appeared in official financial records during Edward III’s reign. Then, a henchman named a kind of “squire” or “page” who attended on a royal or noble figure on foot – or, more important to the origin of the word, horseback – during a procession. (The two henchmen noted in the OED’s earliest accounts were apparently named “Mustard” and “Garlic.”)
Henchman appears to join man to hengest, an Old English word that named a “horse,” “stallion,” or “gelding.” For the compound, philologist Walter Skeat identifies relatives in the Icelandic hestvörðr (“horse-ward) and Swedish hingstridare (“horse-rider”). Hengest itself has widespread Germanic cognates, which some Indo-European scholars reconstruct in the Proto-Germanic *hangistaz, “best at springing,” rooted in a Proto-Indo-European base for “to spring.”
But right after 1200, hengest flees the written record except as an element in various proper names associated with Hengist, the alleged war-name of the Jutish conqueror of Kent in the 5th century. And, while Skeat cites Nordic kin, the OED notes no compound counterpart for henchman in other Germanic languages.
The origin of henchman does some raise questions, even if we have a good hunch about it.
In the late 14th-century, Henry IV, then the Earl of Derby, added henchmen (henksman and hensman in the historic documentation) to his retinue on an important expedition. English royalty thereafter variously enlisted henchmen for royal service until Queen Elizabeth abolished them in 1565. Henchman itself flees English after the 1650s until Sir Walter Scott (re)popularized the word.
Editing Edmund Burt’s 1754 Letters in the North of Scotland, Scott encountered hanchman, which Burt describes as a personal attendant “at the Haunch” of a Highland chief, a kind of gillie. At that time, Scottish pronounced hanchman something like henchman, which spelling Scott used when he employed the word in his Lady of the Lake for a “follower.”
So, as the OED wonders, did Burt just coin hanchman or actually revive the obsolete term? As philologist Ernest Weekly offers, “There may be no real connection to the [Modern English] word.”
After Scott, henchman spread into politics. The OED cites it as a “stout political supporter” by 1839, noting it started showing the “unscrupulous” (if not outright “nefarious”) character Ted Cruz conveyed in American English by the end of the 19th century.
Does hench the henchman ultimately come from the, er, horse‘s mouth? Possibly, but it’s not crystal clear. Just like the outcome of the presidential race: Will all these spilled beans and henchmen open up a lane for another political term rooted in horse-racing, the dark horse candidate? John Kasich seems to be betting on it.
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My wife and I will soon be wat-eyed and pad-tied on our upcoming trip to Cambodia and Thailand. In preparing for these trips, I consulted the cultural, the cartographic, the culinary, the commercial, the communicational–and, of main concern here at the Mashed Radish, the cognates.
Thailand predominantly practices Buddhism, as you probably well know. The religion is founded in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, later dubbed the Buddha when he achieved enlightenment. As is often cited, Buddha means “awakened” or “enlightened” in Sanskrit. Now, online auctions and official complaints sure sound like a far cry from spiritual knowledge, but their etymological connections prove pretty enlightening.
In Sanskrit, buddha (बुद्ध) means “awakened” and “enlightened,” formed from the verb budh, “to know” or “perceive.” Historical linguists root this verb in the Proto-Indo-European *bheudh-, “to pay attention” or “be observant,” as glossed by the Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World.
As inscrutable as Sanskrit can seem, buddha is linguistically reincarnate in some very familiar English friends: bid and bode. Now, bid is a busy word in English. The bid related to Buddha is not the one we see in the phrase bid farewell; this bid has a different origin. Rather, the bid at hand might be the bid you make by raising your hand at an auction or when playing your hand in a game of Spades.
Bid and bode
Originally meaning “to offer” or “to proclaim,” we can trace this bid to the Old English béodan, which we have early evidence for in Old English. The Germanic base of this béodan has meanings of “to stretch out” and “present,” which were extended to “to communicate” and “inform,” hence the evolution of the English sense of “offer” and “proclaim.”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the past tense of béodan, boden, created the Old English boda, a “messenger.” Boda delivered the verb bodian, producing today’s bode, as in it doesn’t bode well. With bid we get forbid; bode, forebode. Both feature the complicated prefix for–, which means “against” in forbid but “ahead of” in forebode.
The Old English béodan yielded bydel, a “herald” or “messenger.” This word evolved into beadle, a minor church official or ceremonial mace-bearer. Another kind of official also shares a root with bid and Buddha: the ombudsman.
In Swedish, an ombudsman was an official appointed by parliament to investigate complaints of governmental maladminstration (OED). Other European governments adopted the position–and the word–in the 20th century. The word was taken up more generally in organizations by the 1970s. Carrying the sense of “commission man” in Swedish, ombudsman is related to the Old Norse umboðsmaðr. Um– “around,” is connected to the prefix ambi–, while maðr, “man,” is connected to “man.” The core of the word, boð, “order, command, offer,” is the cognate to our roots of interest here.
The enlightenment etymology affords us by no means helps us attain nirvana, but such a connection as unites Buddha, bid, bode, and ombudsman can feel pretty transcendent to this word nerd.
The Mashed Radish will be back at it in April. In the meantime, make a point to explore the official languages of Thailand and Cambodia. They are rich, complex, multilayered, and fascinating. Sanskrit and Pali have left quite the footprint in them, especially in terms of their vocabulary and scripts.