What’s at “stake” in “attack”

A doublet of the word attach, attack ultimately comes from a Germanic root meaning “stake.” 

London has again faced another terrorist attack, this time from a Welsh man who plowed his van into a group of Muslim people near a mosque in Finsbury Park. As the word attack has become, alas, an all-too familiar one—excepting its application to white extremists—let’s see what me might learn from its etymology.

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The high and low “stakes” of “attack” (Pixabay).

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From watchtowers to cellphone towers: the origins of “alert” and “alarm”

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 Times reports 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.

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On high alert? An old, Sardinian watchtower. Image by Patrizio Martorana, courtesy of freeimages.com.

Alert

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.”

Alarm

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” by the 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. 

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The winged victory of “Nice”

“Words cannot express,” our leaders begin their remarks on the horrific attack in Nice, France. The carnage shocks us and saddens us into the disbelief of speechlessness. But just as words fail us, we also turn to them to make sense, some sort of sense, of tragedy. So it is with the word Nice, whose origin may raise us up, if in the smallest of ways.

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Nike endures, Nice endures: The Winged Victory of Samothrace. Image © 2014 Musée du Louvre, Philippe Fuzeau.  

Nice

Ancient Greek mariners from Phocaea, on the Aegean Turkey, founded colonies along France’s Mediterranean coast called Massalía, now Marseilles. As far as we know, some Massaliotes battled a neighboring tribe of an Italo-Celtic people, the Ligures, in 350 BC. The Greeks won, and founded a new city there. To commemorate their victory, they named their new settlement Nikaia, honoring their goddess of victory. Her name was Nike.

In addition to personifying the goddess, the word nike, or νίκη in ancient Greek, meant “victory,” including victory in battle, Olympic games, and in more general undertakings. The further roots are unknown; some suggest a pre-Greek origin, others look to an earlier Greek word meaning “strife” or “to quarrel.” Latin rendered Nikaia as Nicaea, which became Nice in French.

Nike lives on, of course, in the athletic brand, but also in Nicholas, which literally means “victory-people.” It joins nike with laos, “people.” Laos often referred to “common people,” and it gives English lay, as in a layperson.

The ancient Greeks wrote of “trim-ankled” Nike, who drove Zeus’ own chariot with her renowned speed and spread her iconic wings over victors in the battlefield. Her wings are still outspread in her famed sculpture in the Louvre, where she greet visitors as The Winged Victory of Samothrace. Her wings are outspread, too, over all the people of her namesake, Nice.

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Orlando

Orlando: The name of this central Florida city, even as it mourns, now stands as a symbol of American resilience and resolve against hate and terror. And the origin of its name, if we look to its deeper etymology, only underscores its strength.

The City Beautiful, the city lore 

Orlando was first known as Jernigan, after Aaron Jernigan, a white man who settled in this Seminole territory in 1843. By 1857, the town changed its name to Orlando following the demise of its original namesake’s reputation.

In Orlando, Florida: A Brief History, James Clark relates several tales explaining why Orlando took this new name. Three are particularly popular.

First, it is said the town honors Orlando Reeves, who died in a fight against the Seminoles by Lake Eola, which sits near the city’s center. There is no record, though, of this legendary Reeves. There is, however, an Orlando Rees, who is subject of a second tale. Rees ran a sugar plantation outside the city but headed into modern-day Orlando after the Seminoles were said to have burned down his home. Lore likely folded these two tales together.

A third story looks to one of literature’s most famous Orlandos: Shakespeare’s As You Like It. (In this pastoral comedy, Orlando flees into the forest from his murderous brother, whose life he later saves, and wins his true love Rosalind’s hand in marriage.) According to this account, the area reminded early resident and Shakespeare admirer, Judge James Speer, of the magical French forest in the play.

“Famous” legends, literature, and lands 

We don’t know for certain how the city Orlando got its name, but we do know how the name Orlando did. According to the Oxford Dictionary of First Names, Orlando is the Italian form of Roland. This name reaches back to another figure of legend, literature, and lore: the Frankish hero and nephew of Charlemagne, Roland, celebrated for his bravery, if rashness, on the battlefield and loyal friendship to Oliver. He is remembered in the medieval epic poem, La Chanson de Roland, considered one of the earliest and founding works of French literature.

Another Roland is remembered in the tale of Childe Rowland, who ventured to the Dark Tower to rescue his sister. Shakespeare, Robert Browning, and Stephen king also famously riffed on the folk story to various lengths.

Roland is a Frankish name. Frankish was a West Germanic language once spoken by the Franks in their extensive territories in first-millennial Europe. The tribe lends its name to a surprising range of modern words, as previously discussed on this blog.

Further deriving from Old High German, the name Roland literally means “(having) a famous land.” It joins hrōd, “fame,” and land, “land” or “territory.” We’ve seen the Germanic hrōd in other names: Roger, “famous spear,” and Robert, “bright in fame.” It’s also in Roderick, “famous rule,” and Rudolph, “fame-wolf.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European roots suggests a Proto-Indo-European base of *kar-, “to praise loudly” or “extol.”

Whether named for an historic Orlando or Shakespeare’s Orlando, the name of the city remembers how it has survived past conflicts (complicated as some of those conflicts may have been). And the name will continue living up to its deeper roots in Roland – truly a “famous land” deserving of our extolment, especially its gay and Latin-American community, a living testament to the power of pride in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting ever witnessed on American soil.

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Making ☮ : Where does the peace symbol come from?

On this blog, I usually write about the origins of words. Today, I want to write about the origins of symbols, because sometimes words utterly fail us. I think this has been the case following the terrorist attacks in Paris this past Friday.

In the aftermath of the attacks, a powerful symbol emerged:

Jean Jullien, “Peace for Paris,” Nov. 13, 2015, Twitter.

Where did this symbol come from?

French artist Jean Jullien inked this symbol and posted it to Twitter on the night of the attacks, captioning it “Peace for Paris.”

As Jullien has articulated in subsequent interviews, the symbol’s power rests in its simplicity: he joins an iconic symbol of Paris, the Eiffel Tower, with an iconic symbol of peace. From a few mere but inspired strokes, one man’s “very raw, spontaneous reaction” evoked universal solidarity.

And where did the peace symbol (or sign) come from?

Designer and activist Gerald Holtom created the symbol in April 1958 as part of the nuclear disarmament movement in England. It debuted in a protest march from London to Aldermaston, where nuclear weapons are still being maintained today. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament officially adopted the image for its mission and, following coverage of the protests, it travelled abroad and became a symbol for other causes, particularly as promoted by antiwar protests in the US.

The are several layers to its meaning. According to Ken Kolsbun’s Peace: The Biography of a Symbol, Holtom superimposed the flag semaphores for letters N (for “nuclear”) and D (for “disarmament”) inside a circle, which represented Earth.

Semaphore signs for for D and N. Image from The New York Times.

But Holtom later wrote that, inspired by the peasant in Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808, the image depicted himself in the despair he was feeling at the time:

Francisco Goya, The Third of May 1808, 1814, oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The focal peasant actually has his arms raised up in surrender, but Holtom’s point is clear. 

Curiously, Goya’s painting depicts Spanish resistance in the Napoleonic Wars, during which the French forces developed the semaphore systems believed to have originated the modern signals for Holtom’s N and D.

As we’re sadly already seeing with Jullien’s symbol, Holtom’s symbol has not been without controversy. Opponents to protestors who’ve emblazoned their mission with the symbol have variously attempted to link it to paganism (the footprint of a witch or crow) or Satanism (an inverted cross with broken arms). Even today the symbol is lampooned as a “chicken footprint” in an association of pacifism with cowardice.

Holtom’s and Jullien’s images have yet more in common: Neither are trademarked, and deliberately so. Created as idiosyncratic expressions of two individuals’ feelings, they speak – freely, in more ways than one – to more fundamental and transcendent human sentiments.

As reported in Peace News, Holtom wished his symbol was inverted, suggesting a more hopeful position with the forked lifted raised up and out. His original image prevailed. But while we don’t associate Holtom’s symbol with despair in spite of its origin story, Jullien’s take on it has certainly cast away any lingering doubts. For now, those central lines of the peace symbol stand tall as the Eiffel Tower over the city of Paris, over the world – the great heights of love and light, of strength and solidarity, unshakeable.

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