July 17 is World Emoji Day, a celebration of all things emoji. It’s the perfect occasion to promote some writing I’ve been doing for Emojipedia, the encyclopedia for emoji—and one reason, among other word-working, the blog has been less active in recent weeks.
Say the phrase the net today, and surely the first thing that springs to mind is the internet. It even sounds outdated, conjuring up fossil browsers like Netscape, as we mostly just refer to the technology as the internet or being online.
Net does survive in the expression net neutrality, the principle that internet service providers should treat all traffic the same—and rules about which the US Federal Communication Commissions (FCC) repealed last week to great objection. The term was coined by Tim Wu, a professor of media law at Cornell University, in 2003, when net was a more relevant term.
Incredible, though, isn’t it, how the net more immediately calls up email, Twitter, or cat videos than it does, you know, an actual net that catches fish or a soccer ball? How did we get here?
It wasn’t just alarm clocks that went off on New York City cellphones Monday morning. Another noise also pealed: emergency alerts. The message, which The New York Timesreports may be the first of its kind, was “an electronic wanted poster” for the since-arrested suspect of recent bombings in the area.
Alerts and alarms haven’t just haven’t advanced in technology, though: these words have also come along way in etymology.
Both alert and alarm originated as Italian military phrases. Alert is from all’ erta, literally “on the watch” or “to the lookout.” Erta,a “high point,” comes from erto, “steep,” via the Latin ērigere, “to raise.” This verb also yields, among many others, English’s erect, whose sense of “raised up” parallels erto. All’, a contraction of alla, means “to the” or “on the,” ultimately from the Latin preposition ad (“to) and ille (“that,” source of the definite articles in the Romance languages).
French took up the Italian term as à l’erte, later alerte, which meant “watchful” or “vigilant” by the 16th century. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests alert in 1618, though some references in the 1590s use alert as an interjection, e.g., a Castilian soldier “crying Alerto,” suggesting how the term was used a warning cry issued when the enemy was sighted.
And technically, to be on the alert, is etymologically redundant, meaning “on-the-on-the-watch.”
Similarly, alarm is from the Italian all’ arme, an interjection and literal call to arms: “To the arms!” Arme derives from the Latin arma, source and meaning of the English arms, or “weapons.” The English name for the body part indeed shares an ancient root with Latin’s arma: the Indo-European root, *ar-, “to fit together.”
Alarm has been ringing out much longer than alert, documented by the OED around the 1400s. The word signaled a general “warning of danger” bythe 1570s, specifically a “loud, hurried peal of a bell” by the 1590s. The clock-based alarm is by 1639.
The variant alarum, which may sound familiar to readers of Shakespeare, is thanks to the trilled r’s in some Romance pronunciations of the word, while larum, in a process called aphesis, silenced the initial a. Some speakers may have also confused alarum for a larum.
Yesterday’s watchtowers are today’s cellphone towers, calls to arms now calls to law enforcement. The forms of alerts and alarms, as practices and words, have no doubt changed over the centuries, but vigilance – judicious, informed, responsible – seems as called for as ever.
Apple turned many heads this week when it announced it’s scrapping the headphone jack in the iPhone 7. The jack, that little socket you plug your headphones into and sometimes the word for the plug itself, has had a good run: It’s a durable bit of technology dating back to the 19th century. But why we call it a jack is much, much older.
A jack of all trades
Since at least the late 1300s, jack has been naming all sorts of mechanical devices. One prominent contrivance is the Jack of the clock, simply called Jack at the end of 1400s. This was a little, mechanized man who strikes the bells on old clocks. Other early jacks include a turner of a roasting spit, a wooden frame for sawing, and various rollers and winches. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds all these uses in the 1580s.
Many such jack technologies proliferated in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, like the lifting-jack, which we still use, essentially, in changing a flat tire today. This is why we jack up, or “raise,” prices. Jack was first used of telephony, at least according to the OED’s account, in 1891, referring to that special electrical socket Apple is obsolescing. Plugging this socket is a jack plug, or now just jack, attested by 1931. Headphone actually predates both of these, appearing by 1882.
Early on, many of these jacks replaced the work of a man. Think of Jack of the clock, whose automatized timekeeping saved the services of some clocktower attendant in addition to providing an impressive, ornamental display of technological progress. During this period of history, Jack was a widespread nickname for any old regular guy. (We do this today with our Average Joe, Dear John,and even hip-hop’s New Jack.) And so the various tools and technologies took the name of the man they stood in for: Jack.
Jacks are truly an everyman in the English language. We see them in jackass, jack of all trades, jack-o’-lantern, lumberjack, Union Jack, you don’t know jack, and jackpot, whose jack, as I previously discussed, answers to the card suit.
Jack today, gone tomorrow
Now, in English, Jack has long been a pet form of the name John, historically one of the most common first names for men. We have evidence for it in the 1300s. Some think this Jack was a homegrown nickname, but most etymologists think Jack actually comes from the French name Jacques, also used as a familiar, often contemptuous name for a common man or peasant.
Jacques is ultimately a French form of name Jacob: Latin’s Iacōbus yields Jacques (and James),the Greek Ἰάκωβος (Iakobos)yields Iacōbus, and the Hebrew יַעֲקֹב (Ya’akōbh, among other renderings)supplies all of the above.
Scholars have given a few interpretations to the meaning of Jacob. One isthat it comes from the Hebrew word for “heel” (ʿaqeb, approximately) also carrying a sense of “to follow.” For this, they point to the biblical Jacob, younger twin to Esau. The Book of Genesis describes his birth: “And after that came his brother out, and his hand took hold on Esau’s heel; and his name was called Jacob.”
But in a later passage, Jacob takes on a more metaphorical meaning. When Jacob cheats his brother out of his birthright, Esau cries: “Is not he rightly named Jacob? for he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing.” Here, Jacob means “supplant.”
Jacob supplanted Esau. Jack supplanted Jacob. The mechanical jack supplanted Jack the workman. And Apple’s AirPods are supplanting the headphone jack.It’s as if the technology was etymologically bound to be replaced.
Days after its release, Nintendo’s Pokémon Go, a free mobile augmented reality app, has become nothing short of a worldwide phenomenon. The game maps its cute, battling Pokémon characters onto the real world, which is already causing a host of real-world disruptions. But gamers, technophiles, and Pokémon fanatics aren’t the only ones who should be obsessed with the hit game: word nerds should love it, too. Well, at least the rich linguistics behind the name Pokémon.
Gotta catch ’em all: the rich Japanese linguistics of Pokémon
Inspired by a love of bug-catching and Game Boy, Satoshi Tajiri launched Pokémon in Japan in 1995. He originally called it Poketto Monsutaa, or “Pocket Monsters,” referring to the capsule-like balls the game’s trainers use to catch its many creatures, known as Pokémon. (Pokémon is the singular and plural form of the word. Their names often feature some creative etymologies all their own.)Apparently, a competing media franchise, Monsters in My Pocket, forced Poketto Monsutaa into its now-familiar portmanteau, Pokémon, which blends the first elements of the words in accordance with Japanese phonology.
But Poketto Monsutaa isn’t just a Japanese “attempt” at English, or Engrish, as some deride it. Many consider this Pocket Monsters an instance of wasei-eigo, literally “made-in-Japan English.” This special and complex class of words resemble loanwords in that they draw on foreign words, but Japanese speakers re-fashion this source material for whole new purposes. A classic example now familiar in English is salaryman, or sarariman, a white-collar worker whose income is based on a salary. Other examples include baby car (bebika), a “stroller”; skinship (sukinshippu), “affectionate physical contact”; and in-key (in ki), a useful and economical term for “locking one’s key in one’s car.” There are many hundreds more, each filtered through katakana, the syllabary Japanese uses for foreign, technical, and scientific words as well as for emphasis and naming.
Wasei-eigo emerges in partafter the rush of English into Japan following the Meiji period in the latter half of the 19th century. Today, many in advertising, marketing, business, and media use wasei-eigo to present a modern, Western sensibility popular among some consumers, as Pokémon appears to have done. And while many of these coinages have proven their staying power – indeed, English has “borrowed back” both salaryman and Pokémon – wasei-eigo continuestobea site for linguistic innovation and experimentation.
Pokémon Go, meanwhile, is proving its own site for technological innovation and experimentation. And a wildly popular one, too. So much so that Pokémon’s original “Pocket Monsters” may soon no longer refer to the game’s creatures – but to our smartphones.
If you’re reading this at work, at least your boss won’t be catching you shopping. Yes, it’s Cyber Monday, the Internet’s Black Friday. This online retail event was created by some very smart marketers in 2005. The word cyber was created, too, in its own way, by a very smart person and not too long ago. But its etymological inspiration is much older.
Ironically yet fittingly, the once futuristic-sounding cyber already seems a bit dated. Ironically, because it’s a relatively young word. Fittingly, because, as technology swiftly changes today, so, too, does its language.
Shortened fromthis cybernetics as early as the 1960s, cyber– was liberally prefixed to various phenomena of the computer age. A prominent and influential example, cyberspace was coined by science fiction author William Gibson in 1982. Another author, Bruce Bethke, dreamed up cyberpunk in 1983.
Interestingly, cyberattack,cyber-security, and cyber warfare, still maintain currency. Cyber-bullying, too. These, perhaps, have staying power due to their widespread governmental and institutional usage. And Cyber Monday, of course, has turned 15.
While cyber may sound ancient today, its roots are in fact ancient. Via the connecting sense of guiding a system, Wiener’s cybernetics is formed on the Greek κυβερνήτης, or kybernetes, meaning “steersman,” “helmsman,” or “pilot,” as Liddell and Scott gloss it. This noun is rooted in the verb κυβερνᾶν, or kybernan, “to steer (a ship).” Wiener may have been influenced by cybernétique, coined by French scientist André-Marie Ampèrefor the “science of government.” (The scientific unit, the ampere, remembers him, too.)
The Greek kybernetes sailed into Latin as gubernator, hence gubernatorial. After passing into French, Latin’s gubernator eventually yielded English’s own govern and governor. The metaphorical pilot-as-leader is documented early on in all languages. So, if your boss finds you checking out on Amazon this Cyber Monday, just say how it showcases your executive experience.
For so many of us, a virus might spell the end of our computer–not our lives, as we are witnessing so tragically in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Sometimes a viral video is precisely what is needed to distract us from today’s feverish crises. Too often, though, a viral video may be distracting us from them.
But etymologies, I often feel, can bring us back down to earth–and quite literally so in the case of virus.
Originally referring to the “venom” of a snake in Middle English, virus is a Latin word, where it also named “venom” as well as “slime,” “stench,” and “poison.” An adjective form of the word, virulentus, or “poisonous,” provides us virulent. The pathological meaning of virus is attested in the first of the 18th century.
Etymologists like Eric Partridge offer an earlier Latin meaning of the “sap” or “juice” of a plant, especially a poisonous one. Sap can indeed be sticky, and hence the Romans spoke of viscum, “mistletoe,” whose berries yielded a sticky juice, which was spread on branches to trap birds–so-called “birdlime.”
Romantic, huh? The mistletoe tradition calls back Indo-European beliefs in the virility associated with the evergreen flora. Ironically, the tree’s berries are themselves virulent–well, poisonous–to humans. In its human designs, it spelled the end of many birds, many of which were actually depended on the plant for food.
From this viscum English has viscid and viscous.
As the American Heritage Dictionary diagnoses it, the Latin virus and its related forms are rooted in the Proto-Indo-European *weis-, which meant “to flow.” Other scholars, including Ernest Klein, specify the virulence of this particular effluvium as “to melt away” or “rot.”
Other derivatives of this *weis– may include a secondary meaning of ooze,referring to a “mire” or “mud,” from the Old English wase, recognizable certainly not in shape but in sound.
The other ooze–as in a grilled-cheese sandwich or pus–is traced to the Old English wos, meaning, perhaps like virus, “sap” or “juice.” Due to the close similarities in sound and sense, some etymologists take these words back to the same root meaning “wet.” The Ninja Turtles, though, certainly didn’t help uncover the etymological secret of ooze.
From *weis-, WalterSkeat argues for wizen, “to shrivel” or “dry up,” living on in wizened. This probably from a different root meaning “to wither,” however.
Yet others propose weasel and bison, as well as the bison’s European cousin, the wisent. Apparently, this is from the fact that, as Jordan Shipley puts it, “some animals…smell, especially at rutting time.” Some cry foul at these derivations, though a Sanskrit cognate in meaning “musty-smelling” is interesting.
The Greek ios, Sanskrit visam, and Old Irish fi–all meaning “poison”–also derive from *weis-.
Virus indeed has an ancient root, but many of its uses are recent.
The Ebola virus was only first observed in 1976 in the Ebola river valley in the Congo. And David Gerrold is credited with one of the first uses of a computer virus in his 1972 science fiction novel When HARLIE Was One.
In today’s hectic information age, it’s easy to think that these kinds of things have been just always been around, so lodged these words are in our lexicon and consciousness.
But, more important, in our day-to-day motions, as we observe a crisis from a distance and try to understand an out-of-the-ordinary disease, it’s also easy to forget how truly devastating something like the Ebola virus. In its historical roots in senses of “stench,” “slime,” and “poison,” perhaps its etymology can make virus less abstract–and far more of the earth, our language reminders of vulnerability.
Plumb derives from Latin, plumbum, which meant “lead,” possibly from an ancient Iberian language, reflecting the source of lead for Romans and Greeks
In construction, a plumb is a string fixed with a weight, often made out of lead, and was used as a reference for vertical lines; thus, out of plumb, among other expressions
Nautically, a similar technology measured the depth of water; thus, plumbing the depths
A plumber was originally a worker in lead and later referred to those who work with plumbing pipes, originally made out of lead
Plunge and plummet are related
My mind’s been in the gutter. In the plumbing, more accurately. Well, technically, it’s my friend’s mine that’s gone cloacal. But I guess I started it. Prompted by my recent nautical-metrical streak, he requested plumb, adding: “I shudder to think of the implications that etymology may have for toilet repair professionals.” You asked for it, Shane. It’s actually pretty interesting.
Plumb has many pipes. Today, perhaps we know it best as plumbing thedepths, both figuratively and literally. And there’s a good reason we say that. On the sea, a plumb–also called a plummet–comprises a rope with a weight fixed to one end. It, well, plumbs the depths of the water. In fathoms, I suspect.
On land, a plumb–or a plumb line or plumb-bob–similarly comprised some string with a weight. It is a tool used in the building crafts as a vertical reference. Just as a level establishes a horizontal plane, so a plumb establishes the vertical or the perpendicular. The technology, apparently, dates back to ancient Egypt.
If you ever tinkered around in your grandfather’s garage or got stuck in an antique mall with your grandmother, you might recognize the plumb-bob in its more recent, pointed form:
So, when something’s out of plumb? It’s not exactly vertical. When something’s plumbin the middle? It’s there, downright and square. When a person shows a lot of aplomb, they are assured, steadfast. That comes from the French à plomb, “to the plumb line” or “according to the plummet”: poised, straight, and balanced.
Now, these plumbs were frequently made out of lead, whose Latin word was plumbum. Thus the element’s chemical symbol, Pb. (Speaking of Roman lead, some ancient wines were even made by boiling grapes in lead pots, which added a sweetness to the vintage. Indeed, “sugar of lead” is another name for lead acetate.)
Latin’s plumbum could also refer to “rulers” for drawing vertical lines and the pencils used to draw them. And it could refer to pipes. Yes, plumbing pipes.
Did you catch this in the New York Times last Friday? It was a correction, originally appearing on Friday, September 27 in section A2:
An obituary on Sept. 20 about Hiroshi Yamauchi, the longtime president of Nintendo, included a quotation from a 1988 New York Times article that inaccurately described the Nintendo video game Super Mario Bros. 2. The brothers Mario and Luigi, who appear in this and other Nintendo games, are plumbers, not janitors.
But why are plumbers called so, anyways?
The Latin plumbum could refer to pipes because the Romans did use the malleable and durable metal in many of its water pipes. (The effects of lead poisoning in ancient Roman, from what I can tell, have been overstated, however.) Many of these pipes are famous for their inscriptions, bearing the names of the manufacturer, owner, and sometimes even the emperor himself, designed to prevent theft:
Originally, then, a plumber was a lead worker and plumbing was leadwork. The OED first attests the word in a compound, plumber house, in 1385, in the form of Plomberhous. Not too much later, a plumber came to signify “a person who fits or repairs the pipes (originally made of lead), fittings, and other apparatus relating to the water supply, sanitation, heating, etc., for a building” (OED).
But just in case you ever thought the OED was too starchy, it does have an entry for “plumber’s butt” and “plumber’s crack” (as well as Britain’s related “builder’s bum”). Yes, somebody had to–or got to, depending on how you want to look at it–define “plumber’s crack” as:
…the top of the buttocks and the cleft between them, as revealed when a person bends over or crouches down, or by low-cut or ill-fitting trousers…
And the definitive record of the English language attests “plumber’s butt” in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1990.
Indeed, plumb enjoys a colorful life: In jazz slang, plumbing once referred to trumpets and trombones. In political jargon, plumbing refers to plugging up government leaks, thanks especially to Watergate, although the metaphor is much older. More jocularly, one’s plumbing can refer to what why we, well, need plumbing. And plumbum oscillans? It’s mock Latin, according to Partridge’s Slang, for “lead-swinging,” US naval officers’ playful term for “malingering” or “blatantly idling.” That’s my kind of slang: nerdy and Latinate.
And we have plunging neckline (attested, 1949) and take the plunge (1835).Or plummeting stock markets. (The sense of “falling rapidly” appears in the 1930s, probably from aviators). These, too, ultimately drain to plumbum.
So, can we plumb Latin’s plumb any deeper?
There is no certain origin for Latin’s plumbum. It might come from an ancient Iberian language; the OED notes that “lead came to the Greeks and Romans from Spain.” Shipley adds that “lead was mined in Spain as early as 2000 B.C.” And it’s probably related to Ancient Greek’s word for “lead,” μόλυβδος, or molybdos. Word-wise, that’s about as deep as this one sinks, far as I can tell.
But the metaphor of the plumb seems nearly as old as the technology itself. The Book of Amos in the Old Testament, which scholars believe was composed some time between the 8th and 6th centuries BC, features some rather dire consequences for being out of plumb with God. According to the “Vision of the Plummet,” Amos relates:
Then the Lord God showed me this: he was standing by a wall, plummet in hand. The Lord asked me, “What do you see, Amos?” And when I answered, “A plummet,” the Lord said:
“See, I will lay the plummet in the midst of my people Israel; I will forgive them no longer. The high places of Isaac shall be laid waste, and the sanctuaries of Israel made desolate; I will attack the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”
Um, ancient Israelites, I suppose the least of your worries is about how dense this plumb metaphor actually is.
Anyways, I speak often of etymology as “going down the rabbit hole.” But for those who grew up in the ’80s, perhaps we could swap out Lewis Carroll for Super Mario Bros. Sometimes a good word origin is like a “warp zone,” taking us to different worlds, one improbable pipe at a time.