An etymological tricolor: red, white, and blue

Today, Americans celebrate their brave declaration of independence from British rule on July 4th, 1776 with plenty of red, white, and blue, the colors of its star-spangled banner.

As a nickname for the flag of the United States, the red, white, and blue is found by 1853. But what about those individuals words red, white, and blue? Let’s have a look at their origins, whose ancients roots make the US’s 242 years as a nation this year look ever so young.

Its flag may be red, white, and blue, but the US is properly a land of many colors. (Pixabay)

Continue reading “An etymological tricolor: red, white, and blue”

“King-size”: A Bite-size History of an America-size Word

On Halloween, there’s no disputing that the king-size candy bar is the crown jewel of trick-or-treating loot. But those extra ounces of chocolatey goodness don’t just measure our taste in sweets: The history of the adjective king-size also reveals America’s changing appetites and attitudes.
Continue reading ““King-size”: A Bite-size History of an America-size Word”

What is the “math” in “aftermath”?

We’ve seen some startling statistics in the aftermath of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College: There is a gun for nearly every person in the US, where we average about a mass shooting every day,  which we have taken essentially zero action on. Etymologically speaking, though, aftermath has nothing to do with numbers. Let’s do the math in the word aftermath.

“Math.” Sharpie and colored pencil on paper. Doodle by me.


The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first records aftermath at the end of the 15th century. Back then, it referred to “a second crop or new growth of grass after the first has been mown or harvested.” For, this math meant “a mowing” or “the portion of the crop that has been mowed.” It is found very early in Old English, taking the form of mæþ. As you may recall, the symbol þ, called “thorn,” represented the unvoiced th sound (as in thick) in Old English.

By the 1650s, the OED continues, aftermath was signifying “a period or state of affairs following a significant event, especially when that event is destructive or harmful.” By the 1670s, the word was more generally referring to the “unwelcome consequence or effect” of such an event.

This math is related to meadmeadow, and mow.  Indo-European scholars have rooted this family of words in a Proto-Indo-European root, *mē-, “to cut down grass or grain with sickle or scythe.” In the US these days, though, the Grim Reaper has swapped out his scythe for a gun.

meadow_scribblesm ∫ r ∫

In *bheidh- we trust

It’s beyond words, the massacre of nine Black church members by a white gunman in Charleston, S.C. last week. Beyond words, the forgiveness the victims’ families and community showed the shooter. Words fail to express the tragedy of their deaths, the terror of that racist violence. They fail to express, too, the unshakeable resolve of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. But perhaps words can bring us some understanding–and they will be critical, of course, if we are ever going to properly address the problem of racism.


For this event, I am particularly struck by two words: Confederate and faith. They seem to be at two opposite ends of the pole–literally. Clutched by the shooter as a symbol of white supremacy in photographs released since his arrest, the Confederate flag flies over the South Carolina Capitol, sharing a sky with the cross, symbol of the Christian faith, atop Mother Emanuel, whose historic doors still welcomed worshippers this past Sunday.

Confederate is best known for the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. In English, the word is much older. The OED first cites it in the late 14th-century, referring to people “united in a league or alliance.” The term comes from the Latin confoederārewhich joins con- (“with,” “together”) and foedus, a “treaty,” “charter,” “league,” or “compact.” Many who brandish the Confederate flag still feel the federal – also derived from foedus, as with federation – is their foe. Federal was originally a theological term, characterizing a covenant with God, it is interesting to note.

Via French, faith also comes from Latin: fidēsa word as versatile as its English descendant and meaning, “faith,” “trust,” “belief,” among many others. Bona fidesemper fideles, and affidavit are directly lifted from it. Also derived are confidencefidelity, and defiance (literally, “to renounce faith”), which is today used positively to describe, say, the steadfast refusal of the AME Church to empty its pews and let racism and violence prevail. Fiduciary, too, points to the ways in which the value of paper currency is something held in trust.

Yet, in one of those illuminating ironies of etymology, confederate and faith are rooted in a common source, according to Indo-European scholars: *bheidh-: “to trust.” English also gets bide, abide, and abode from this root. About this root the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots observes: The root “is noteworthy in that its descendants in several Indo-European daughter languages refer specifically to the mutual trust on which covenants and social contracts must stand in order to be binding.” Between people, trust builds unions. But between groups of people, when we come to place our trust in radically different ideas, trust divides houses–in this case, brutally taking down nine lives. Trust can bring us together, but it’s going take a lot more than just trust to hold it together.

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