Today, rather than zoom in on the origin of any one noteworthy word, let’s round up the etymologies of some of the top words buzzing in this week’s news:
From soda ads to ancient military strongholds, this week featured many newsworthy names. Let’s have a look at a few—and, as always, their origins.
Yesterday, British Prime Minister Theresa May triggered—as so many media outlets reported it—Article 50, which begins a two-year process of negotiations culminating in the UK’s exit, or Brexit, from the European Union. Let’s pull the etymological trigger on this truly historic word.
Disaster has been averted. This week, consumer goods conglomerate Unilever announced it was hiking its prices on British supermarkets in response to the plummeting pound. But Tesco, the biggest supermarket chain in the UK, refused to pay. Unilever stopped deliveries, leaving such staples like Marmite – Britain’s iconic, love-it-or-hate-it, savory, salty yeast paste – to dwindle to dangerously low levels. After both Unilever and Tesco saw their stock prices drop, though, the two companies came to a resolution – and #Marmitegate came to an end.
What does Marmite mean, anyways, and where does the name come from?
In the late 19th century, German chemist Justus Liebig found a way to render brewer’s yeast into a foodstuff. In 1902, Britain’s Marmite Food Company brought the extract to market, originally advertising the dark, sticky paste for use in stews and soups, which could be cooked in a marmite. A marmite is a large, usually earthenware stockpot with a cover, like the one Marmite has displayed on its packaging from the start:
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests marmite as marmet in 1581, noting the cookware was commonly hung over fires in the West Midlands. Marmite as such emerges by 1805, commonly employed by soldiers, who later used it slang for pot-like “bombs” during World War I.
The English marmite comes from the French marmite, a “cooking pot.” (English may have borrowed the word into the language on two occasions, as the OED’s different regional and military citations suggest.) But the origin of this French marmite, attested in the late 1300s, is obscure. Some, however, including France’s own National Center for Textual and Lexical Resources, have a theory: it comes from a different meaning of marmite, a “hypocrite.”
A hypocrite? Love it or hate it, the idea is that a marmite hides what’s cooking inside just as a hypocrite conceals their true character. Apparently, this marmite literally means “murmuring cat,” joining marmotter (an onomatopoeic word for “mumble, mutter, murmur”) and mite, a term for a “cat.”
The OED, for one, is not convinced by this etymology – though some may joke a mumbling cattiness is as iconically British as Marmite itself.
m ∫ r ∫
With Michael Gove throwing in his hat and Boris Johnson throwing in his towel, the post-Brexit scramble for Tory – or Conservative – leadership was thrown into confusion this week in the UK. This chaos is fitting, if we look to history of Tory, a word embroiled in many conflicts of its own.
A Tory story
In its conquest of Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries, England massively dispossessed the Irish of their land – among other depravations. Out of need, pride, and retaliation, some Irish turned to outlawry, plundering and killing English settlers and soldiers. By 1646, in the wake of a bloody rebellion, the English mocked these ‘Catholic, marauding bog-trotters, these savage, moss-trooper highwaymen,’ with a nickname: “tories.”
Documented in the Irish State Papers nearly a century prior, the term tory meant “outlaw” or “robber.” It derives from the Irish tóraí, from tóir “to pursue.” (Older forms, depending on your transliteration, include tóruighe, a “pursuer” or “searcher,” via tóirighim, “I pursue.”) Etymologists connect these forms to older Celtic and Indo-European bases meaning “running up to” and “to turn” or “roll.”
By 1679-80, this Tory, now with a capital T, was slung at the so-called Exclusioners, who were opposed to the succession of James, Duke of York, to the Crown. James was Catholic. What better way to attack his supporters – and stop, God forbid, any restoration of Irish land – than link them with those wild Irish tories? And what better way for the Tories to hit back than with Whig, those Protestant yokels and bumpkins? The origin of whig is uncertain, but some think it originally mean “horse driver” in Scottish Gaelic.
Many of these Yorkist Tories formed a new political party in 1689: the Tories. It was born of a longer tradition of royalism – of championing the power of the Church of England – going back to the English Civil War. Tory officially named the English Conservative Party until 1830, though, despite many changes in their political platform since, the term is still used informally today (as it is in Canada). During the American Revolution, Tories were colonists loyal to the British crown. During the American Civil, Confederates called Union sympathizers in their midsts Tories.
For many in Britain today, the etymology of Tory, that “bandit,” is mot juste, from conservatives who feel Gove stole leadership from Johnson to Remainers who feel Brexiters stole the UK from the EU. And while the meaning of our words change, our politics are as messy as ever. Perhaps we should look to that older root of Tory, “to pursue,” and apply it less to fighting and more to solutions.