With North Korea accelerating its nuclear weaponry and the threat of US military action looming, diplomacy feels more urgent than ever. Etymology may be wishful thinking, but let’s examine the origins of the diplomacy—so we won’t be as extinct as the diplodocus.
The end of the world loves ancient Greek and the Bible.
Threats between North Korea and President Trump this week made many of us fear were approaching the brink of a nuclear catastrophe—among other, stronger and more colorful terms like armageddon. Well, not even the prospect of the end of the world can shake the etymological curiosity of this blogger. Why not go out with a little word nerdery and find out where our English’s apocalyptic vocabulary comes from?
The same Greek root of ballistic gives us such words as ballet, devil, parliament, and symbol.
On July 4th, North Korea successfully tested its first ICBM, or intercontinental ballistic missile. As intercontinental leaders figure how what to do next, let’s go ballistic—etymologically, that is.
Recently, I’ve come across a number of articles describing the Republican establishment’s “last-ditch efforts” to stop their party’s nomination of Donald Trump for the U.S. presidency:
But why do we call these efforts “last-ditch”?
In the etymological trenches
In 1706, English writer Daniel Defoe published Jure Divino, a verse satire in which he extolled William I, the Prince of Orange, famed for leading Dutch rebels against a tyrannical Spain in the 16th century. In a footnote, Defoe shares an anecdote told of William:
Of this [the Prince of Orange] gave an unparallel’d Instance, when being reduc’d to great Difficulties, in the fame War, and press’d by the French, in the Bowels of his native Country, on one Hand, and the English, with their Navy, on the other; and the English Ambassadors offer’d him, in the Names of the Kings of England and France, to take the whole Country, and then restoring it to him, form it into a Monarchy, and make him King of it: He rejected it with the utmost Indignation; and when One of them ask’d him what Remedy he could think of for the Ruin of his Affairs, answer’d, He knew One effectual Remedy, viz. to lie in the last Ditch; intimating, that he would dispute every Inch of Ground with the Enemy, and at last would die defending the Liberties of his Country.
For the source of the anecdote, I should note, Defoe cites Sir William Temple’s Memoirs, referring to an important English diplomat of the day whose writings Jonathan Swift, it happens, published.
So, from the dry moats dug around castles to the trenches of the First World War, warfare was long fought in the trenches – or ditches . The last ditch, then, was quite literally the “last line of defence” against an enemy’s siege, as the Oxford English Dictionary glosses it.
(Perhaps the military origins of last ditch were obvious to you. I, for one, never made the made connection. )
And, if the Prince of Orange is indeed the originator of last ditch, he would have so uttered it in Early Modern Dutch, making the English expression, of course, a translation. I’m not quite sure how the Prince of Orange would have said it in Early Modern Dutch: Perhaps something, and do forgive me, my Dutch-speaking readers, along the lines of laatse greppel?
Some last-ditchery of last-ditch
The last ditch expression proved to be a useful one, frequently appearing in the phrase to die in the last ditch in its early, political history. Thomas Jefferson even employed it in his own autobiographical writings when he described a “government…driven to the last ditch by the universal call for liberty.”
Now, the Oxford English Dictionary cites the adjectival form, usually hyphenated, for a resistance “maintained to the end” by 1888. The more metaphorical last-minute attempts to “avert disaster,” which prevails in today’s parlance, appears by 1930, according to the dictionary. Last-ditch effort appears at least by 1944; the OED cites it in Billboard, as in the pop music charts, then published in Cincinnati, OH.
Ditch itself is an old word, rooted in the Old English díc, a “trench” or “moat,” which also yields dike and derives from a Germanic base.
The OED also records the the wonderful forms last-ditchery (“fighting to the last ditch”; 1889) and the earlier last-ditcher (“one who fights to the last ditch”; 1862) – which might lend a little and much-needed whimsy to the tense and heated political discourse these days.
m ∫ r ∫
Not too many people would say they love politicians. Late-night talk show hosts and word nerds, however, are notable exceptions, ever drawing from the endless well of political speech. Recently, quagmire has taken the political – and lexical – limelight, thanks especially to Bernie Sanders’ use of it at the first Democratic debate this past week in Las Vegas, as Ben Zimmer has analyzed over at Vocabulary.com.
Let’s step – cautiously – into the origin of quagmire: Its roots just may be hard to extricate.
Quagmire has been stuck in English since 1566, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Back then, it referred to an “area of wet, boggy land that gives way under foot.” Thanks to how hard it can be to extricate oneself from a quagmire, its metaphorical extension is documented not long after in 1577.
Growing up, my dad loved characterizing my puerile indiscretions, if I’m to be generous, as having “mush for brains.” Perhaps he was just channeling his inner bard. Shakespeare used quagmire for something “soft, flabby, or yielding” (OED) when Talbot threatens in Henry IV of Frenchmen to “make a Quagmire of [their] mingled brains.”
Another term – and etymological clue – for quagmire is a “quaking bog,” for a bog’s ground quakes, or shakes, underfoot. Philologists like Walter Skeat, Ernest Weekly, Eric Partridge, and Ernest Klein see quagmire as nothing more than quakemire, a form of quagmire attested in the late 1500s. This makes quagmire a compound of quake and mire.
Quag is indeed a regional variant of quake, from the Old English cwacian and cweccan, which variously signified quaking, shaking, and trembling, sometimes of the teeth in fear, other times of weapons in fighting. Its ultimate origin is unknown. Many suggest that it is imitative. Can you hear quivering or shaking in quake?
As the OED offers, however, quag might be a variant of a different word: quab, a “marsh” or “bog.” Appearing in the early 1400s, this quab is reconstructed in the Old English *cwabba, which itself might just mean “to quake.” Like quake, the origin of *cwabba is unknown, but it also might be echoic. Here, the b lends a bubbling and gurgling sound effect, fitting for a swamp. English has had other quabs: the word has named, if on an obscure and rare basis, certain kinds of fish as well as sea cucumbers. Historical linguistics note connections to slimy critters (e.g., toads) in other Indo-European languages, suggesting, as the OED does, a root in “something slimy, flabby, or quivering,” certainly not out of place in swamplands.
Speaking of swamplands, mire, meanwhile, is Scandinavian in origin, emerging in Middle English and related to the Old Norse mýrr, a “bog” or “swamp.” The word is cognate to English’s own moss. Both mire and moss are taken back to an Indo-European root for swampy ground and wet vegetation found there, the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots explains. The metaphorical mire is evidenced by the end of the 1300s.
Etymologically, we may not find terra firma with quagmire, but, when it comes to the ‘muck’ of politics, this word works on so many levels.