The etymological “plea” of “please”

One of the most moving responses to Parkland, Florida, site of just latest mass school shooting in the US, has been a single word: please.

David Hogg, 17-year-old survivor of the massacre at his high school, has emerged as a forceful voice of a burgeoning youth movement for gun reform. Speaking to CNN, Hogg exhorted: “Please! We are children. You guys are, like, the adults. Take action, work together, come over your politics, and get something done.”

Lori Alhadeff lost her 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, to the gunmen. Before CNN’s cameras, her unimaginable grief boiled into a stirring admonition: “President Trump, please do something! Do something. Action! We need it now! These kids need safety now!”

These are powerful pleas of please—and two words joined together by a common root.

A please resounding like a gavel to order. Plea originates as a term for a “lawsuit,” a form of the same Latin verb that gives us please. (Pixabay)

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Book review: The Story of “Be” by David Crystal

’Tis the season for ’tis the season, that yuletide cliché stuffing headlines and ad copy like so many Christmas stockings.

This season, though, I got to thinking about ’tis itself, that old-timey-sounding contraction of it is. In one of his latest books, The Story of Be: A Verb’s-Eye View of the English Language (Oxford University Press, 2017), the great and prolific David Crystal explains:

For students of English literature, the usage that probably most attracts attention is the combination of is with a preceding reduced form of it, to produce ’tis. There are over 1,400 instances in Shakespeare, for example. The spelling varies, especially in the use of the apostrophe (t’is, ti’s), and often showing no apostrophe at all. In Middle English, the pronoun is sometimes used twice: as it tis.

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A pre-bork, post-Bork?

Mere hours after the news broke that Justice Antony Scalia died over the weekend, the political fight over his sudden vacancy already broke out. Senate Republicans argue the next president should nominate his replacement. Meanwhile, Barack Obama, citing constitutional duties, will submit his pick. Everyone from pundits on cable news to scholars of U.S. history are pointing to various precedents to guide this election-year game-changer.

One U.S. Supreme Court nomination fight getting aired in all this chatter concerns Robert H. Bork, whose legacy may be less jurisprudential than lexical.


Robert Bork. Image from Wikimedia Commons

After the retirement of Justice Lewis Powell on June 26, 1987, President Ronald Regan nominated Robert Bork to replace him on the U.S. Supreme Court. Senate Democrats notoriously and publicly blitzed Bork’s nomination. Other liberal-leaning organizations further fueled the characterization of the then-appellate judge as an extremist. His video rental records were even leaked (though his viewing habits were quite vanilla). The Senate rejected Bork’s nomination in a 58-42 vote. (The Senate later confirmed Justice Antony Kennedy in a 97-0, after Douglas Ginsburg withdrew his nomination over concerns of past marijuana use).

Thanks to this heated contest over his failed nomination, Bork was borked, eponymously verbed for “to vilify a nominee, especially in the mass media, in order to prevent their appointment to a public office,” if I may paraphrase the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for this memorable moment in U.S. political slang. Bork can more widely referring to thwarting a person in a similar manner, though it generally stills wears a flag pin, so to speak. This is not be confused with the caricatured interjection, Bork!, of the Muppet Swedish Chef, nor the internet-y slang, borked, meaning “broken.”

William Safire dated the first usage of bork – not long after his very nomination – to The Atlanta -Journal Constitution on August 20, 1987: “Bork’s opponents are in a frenzy. Frenzied mortals amplify some facts and gloss over others. Let’s just hope something enduring results for the justice-to-be, like a new verb: Borked. Dictionaries will say it’s synonymous with ‘maligned’.” Language has indeed memorialized Bork’s last name, though not quite honoring the original intent of this early usage.

Post-Bork, bork had a good deal of currency into the early 1990s but since ebbing, if my ear is any measure. But now, with the Republican-controlled Senate already urging the President not even to nominate Scalia’s successor, we’ll have to see if Bork gets something of a comeuppance: to pre-Bork, perhaps? Then again, blocking a nomination may just backfire – er, bork-fire, shall we say. However it shakes out, the next months in U.S. politics is going to be one cluster-bork, no doubt.

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risk, part II

Fast Mash

  • Risk might be rooted in the Arabic rizq, meaning “sustenance,” “provision,” “wages,” “fortune,” ultimately from Persian rozik, “daily bread”
  • Greek origins are also possible, including rhiza, meaning “root” and “rhysis” meaning “deliverance”; Greek might have adopted Arabic rizq as well

Last post, we saw some risks taken with the origin of risk.

Roads led back to Latin’s risicum, signifying commercial risk, and, down its Romance trails, risks to merchandise on the sea. But ways further back to Latin resecāre (“cut off”) and Icelandic ráðask (“counsel oneself” on military action) were, in the very least, dicey hikes, if not downright dead-ends.

Dicey–a comrade in all-things-language, whose enthusiasm for my posts I never take for granted, offered this word in a conversation on a Twitter. Is it the same as riskyThe word does mean risky, as well as uncertain or unpredictable. And it comes from dice, as in taking chances by rolling the dice, and was apparently in the 1940s “aviator’s jargon,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

But I can’t help but feel that the words aren’t exactly synonyms. I was reading a National Geographic about the solar system (Is there anything better? Perhaps dinosaurs) that read, “The future is dicey.” You could say the future is risky, but the sense is different. Subtly different. Like an object rearranged in a room. I haven’t figured out quite how–perhaps matters of agency vs. situation. Chime in with a comment if you have figured it out. (Sigh. The world debates Syria. I am debating dicey and risky.)

Anyways, all risk-y roads lead back to Rome, but they may not end there. For Latin may have adopted risk from the Arabic rizq or Greek ῥίζικον (rhixikon).


So, Arabic has this word: rizq (رزق). 

Well, to be more accurate, Arabic has a triconsonantal root: r-z-q. Semitic languages like Arabic feature roots, which usually consist of three consonants, into and around which vowels and other non-root consonants are added and manipulated in particular patterns. These patterns change its grammatical category, i.e., “he walks” vs. “he will walk” vs. “he walked.” In the case of r-z-q, razaqa means “he bestowed” whereas yarzuqu means “he bestows” or “he will bestow.” See how r-z-q always occurs in that order?

Mind you, Semitic verb tenses are different from English, so these are inexact glosses. And this is just the beginning. Semitic roots can do some fantastic things. Just as the Old Norse -sk makes verbs reflexive, so Semitic patterns can make verbs causative (to cause to risk), reciprocal (to risk with each other), and even pretense (to pretend to risk).

I love what we humans have done with language. I love what complexity our tongues, our minds, can master. Just marvel: babies learn these patterns–no sweat, no explicit classroom instruction–by dint of being born into a culture that speaks it.

Hold on, “bestow”?

R-z-q, in its noun form rizqhas a host of meanings: “sustenance,” “livelihood,” “daily wage,” “provision,” “nourishment,” “income,” “fortune.” So, most literally, rázaqa (the form that stands in for the infinitive, which there is no Arabic equivalent for) has the sense of bestowing a person with a way to get by. The bestower? Well, from the time of Prophet Muhammed on, Al-Razzaq, the One Who Provides, Allah.

I spent a little time perusing exegeses of rizq in the Quran. Also a complex matter. From what I have gleaned, and I am neither a scholar of Arabic nor the Quran, rizq refers to the sustenance (food, a living) provided by God, but also the very sustenance that one works for, earns, puts effort towards. I’m seeing a fate and free will dynamic at work.

But the word predates its theological and ethical contexts in the world’s third major monotheistic religion. As the OED puts its, the “original sense” of rizq was “probably ‘a thing from which a person profits or derives an advantage.'” The OED further traces the noun back to the similar but more immediate Middle Persian rozik, “daily provision, daily sustenance.” And Wiktionary supplies “daily bread.” (“Give us this day our daily bread”…Abrahamic religions are just so original.)

Risk: Gotta get that bread.


So, perhaps Latin’s risicum was adopted from the Arabic–and ultimately Persian, an Indo-European language–rizq. But the story ain’t over yet.

As I learned from the OED, Latin risicum appeared around the same time as the Greek ῥίζικον, meaning the same. Many think the Greek borrowed the term from Latin, but the Romans may have Latinized the Hellenic. The OED posits three origins for ῥίζικον:

  • ῥίζα (not the rapper, but rhiza), meaning root, giving English the botanical rhizo-, as in rhizoid.

On this, Weekley adds that ῥίζα meant “root, used of a submarine hill, cliff, and in Modern Greek, sense of fate, chance.” This origin fits with maritime contexts we’ve seen, providing a more practical coastline danger than those high crags. But the sense evolution of fate and chance seem to point back again to the Arabic rizq.

  • ῥῦσις (rhysis), meaning deliverance, as attested in the Septuagint, the Hebrew Bible as translated by the alleged 70 interpreters into Koine (or common, Hellenistic) Greek

Concerning ῥῦσις, we get some of the divine resonances of spiritual freedom we saw in Arabic’s rizq, although deliverance, and its biblical usage, typically concern slavery, death, and evil. Rhysis can also mean flow, which complicates this picture.

  • Arabic rizq. 

Here is what the OED notes on rizq:

The case for the latter suggestion may be strengthened by the early attestation of medieval Greek ῥουζικόν ‘food tax, food allowance for Arab troops, grain supply’ alongside Arabic rizq in late 7th- and early 8th-cent. bilingual Arabic–Greek papyri from Egypt; here ῥουζικόν is clearly a borrowing of the Arabic noun (probably with alteration after its Persian ulterior etymon).

It might be a little dicey, but I’d put my money on rizq.

Well Worth Taking

Rocks, roots, bread. Merchandise, military attacks. Commerce, deliverance. Etymology doesn’t always tell stories with clear beginnings, middles, or ends. But it does tell stories about human cognition, of the experience of being human in the world. How we think in metaphors and the way our language embodies that, how we build systems of such complex abstractions out of the most concrete building blocks, how language is so cultural and so changeable. And I like to think, too, that there is a risk we take in doing so–in making morphemes out of metaphors, new concepts out of available consonants, all in the effort of trying to express our needs, our worlds, both to understand and be understood. A risk well worth taking.

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