The etymological elements of “arsenic”

Researchers concluded this week that nearly 60 million people in Pakistan are at risk of drinking water with “alarmingly high” levels of arsenic, the contamination leaching into groundwater from rock.

The poisonous qualities of arsenic, a semi-metal, and its various compounds have long been known to (and sometimes disregarded by) humans—as has the word. As we work to ensure clean water for Pakistan, let’s look into the etymology of arsenic.

Orpiment, the historic arsenic, glittering on quartz. (Wikimedia Commons)

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Etymology on the streets

I haven’t even been settled for a week and I’m already in love with my new city, Dublin. The people and culture are absolutely wonderful, of course, but the etymology is world-class. Even something as simple as taking out my dog surprises me with lexical delights, like this utility marker I noticed on a recent walk:

uisce grate.JPG

is Irish for “water.” (Signage in Ireland is widely bilingual, in case you didn’t know.) You probably better know uisce, however, in a more distilled form: whiskey.

English ultimately borrowed (and shortened) whiskey from the Irish uisge beatha, literally “water of life.” The development of the form whiskey doesn’t exactly walk a straight line, if you will. The Oxford English Dictionary first cites “whisky” in 1715 in an apt passage from the Book of Scottish Pasquils: “Whiskie shall put our brains in a rage.” (Tell me about it.) Earlier forms in the 18th century include usquebea and usquebaugh, apparently variants of iskie bae, dated much earlier to the 1580s. Today, the United States and Ireland largely spell the spirits whiskey, while England and Scotland favor whisky, hence the distinction in the beverage trade.

Aren’t you just asking for it, Ireland, when even your literal water can’t escape drinking stereotypes? Not so fast, as Barnhart’s dictionary will have it: “The Gaelic word is probably a loan translation of Medieval Latin aqua vitae alcohol, spirits; literally, water of life; in English aqua vitae had been recorded as applying to intoxicating drinks since 1547.” Aqua vitae was originally was used of unrefined alcohol in 15th-century alchemy.

Similarly, French has eau-de-vie, “water of life,” for brandy and the like. Russian vodka derives from voda, meaning “water.” English itself shouldn’t be so quick to judge, either: the very word water is a cognate to uisce, if their common, hypothesized Proto-Indo-European root, *wed- (“water,” “wet”), is correct. The Russian voda is also related to this root.

With etymological discoveries right at my doorstep, it’s hard not to love this Irish uisce – not to be confused with Irish Water, Éirann Uisce, the national utility whose recent charges few have been raising their glasses to.

uisce bill.jpg

But as much as I’m intoxicated by new home, I can’t forget my own roots: I’m still a bourbon guy.

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bodies of water (II of II)

In Part I, we discovered armpits and bosoms in our bodies…of water. In Part II, we discover enemies, mucous, rifles, and sponges in marshriverseastream, and swamp.

Fast Mash

  • Marsh comes from Old English mersc/merisc, related to root that gave Latin mare and English mere 
  • River enters into English around 1300 from French, riviere, from Latin riparia or ripa (riverbank)
  • Sea is from Old English sae, and could mean sea or lake
  • Stream flows back to Indo-European *sreu– (flow), related to extensive cognates of rheum 
  • Swamp is first attested to Captain John Smith in 1624, probably British-dialectical for sunk and possibly connected to Germanic source for sponge 


Old English has mersc and merisc, which has been reconstructed from the West Germanic *marisko. This root, in turn, probably comes from the Proto-Germanic *mari and the Indo-European *mori. Cognates abound, including English’s own mere, a wonderfully specific noun referring to anything from seaoceanlakepondpool, or cistern. You might recognize it in French’s mer or Latin’s mare, or, better yet, in marine or maritime.

From what I can tell, Skeat is alone in arguing that mere originally meant dead, as in stagnant water or the waste of the ocean. He points the reader to Sanskrit’s maru (desert) and mri (die). If you’ve studied a Romance language, you’ll think of mortalmuertemorte, etc., from the Latin morii (die). In spite of such metaphoric and phonological alignment, I think Skeat wandered too far into the marsh with this one, perhaps underestimating our linguistic ancestors’ ability to handle polysemy, ambiguity, homophony, discursive context, inter alia.

Marshal is unrelated but comes from roots meaning, essentially, horse servant.  


River comes into English around 1300, from, you guessed it, Old French, riviere. The Oxford Dictionary of Etymology places the origin of riviere in Latin’s riparia, the female form of an adjective describing riverbanks or seashores. Others find it in French’s own rive (the land along the river), from Latin’s ripa, or riverbank. On this matter, Skeat redeems himself, citing the confusion likely caused by Latin’s rivus (stream) and its dimunitive, rivulus (brook).

So, ripa gives us the scientific riparian, which is rather unexciting until we consider that ripa signified rather steep banks and therefore probably derives from the Proto-Indo-European *rei-, (stratch, tear, cut off). RivenRiftRifle? Yup. They are all related.

There is also arrive, ultimately from the Latin ad- (towards) and ripa. It meant come to shore, particularly after a long journey on the sea.

And derive? How apropos. Originally, the verb indicated conducting water from a source to a channel. Thus: Latin’s de– (away from) and rivus (stream).

Then there’s my favorite: rival. Quite simply, Latin’s rivalis meant one who uses the same stream as another. Friend or foe? Although my Latin dictionary does cite a meaning of neighbor, it also heats things up with one who shares the same mistress. Man loves woman. Man loves other man’s woman. There really are no original stories.

What’s amazes me is how the Latinate river replaces Old English’s own ea. I mean, could there be a simpler sound? You’d think this would be a stubborn word. And it probably was. But, let’s face it, one word is just as good as another, within certain cultural parameters, n’est ce pas? And alas, all rivers lead even back to Rome, as even ea is Indo-European (cf. aqua).


English may have lost ea, but we kept sae in the form of sea. It’s Germanic in origin, and there is no Indo-European equivalent. It could mean sea or lake, just as mere could mean sea or lake. The Online Etymology Dictionary offers some interesting observations concerning the interchangeable, and sometimes reversed, meanings of words for sea and lake. They are worth repeating here:

Germanic languages also use the general Indo-European word (represented by English mere (n.)), but have no firm distinction between “sea” and “lake,” either by size or by salt vs. fresh. This may reflect the Baltic geography where the languages are thought to have originated.

The two words are used more or less interchangeably, and exist in opposite senses (e.g. Gothic saiws “lake,” marei “sea;” but Dutch zee “sea,” meer “lake”). Cf. also Old Norse sær “sea,” but Danish sø, usually “lake” but “sea” in phrases. German See is “sea” (fem.) or “lake” (masc.).


Stream has been steady: Old English, stream (the diphthong of which probably pronounced more like quickly gliding form the in cat to the in father). It meant “course of water,” and, in spite of itself, has some deep roots. Its Proto-Germanic *straumaz is also responsible for today’s Dutch stroom and German Strom.  Follow it further to the Proto-Indo-European *sreu (flow), related to rheum, which once meant tears but now is the ickier watery mucous. Yes, rheumatoid is related.

The cognates are ridiculous:

  • Sanskrit sravati (flows), srotah (stream)
  • Avestan (ancient Iranian language of Zoroastrian scripture) thraotah- (stream/river)
  • Old Persian rauta (river)
  • Greek rheos (a flowing, stream), rhythmos (rhythm), rhytos (fluid, liquid)
  • Old Irish, sruaim (stream/river), Irish sruth (ibid.)
  • Welsh (and I dare you to try to play this in your next round of Scrabble) ffrwd (stream)
  • Old Norse straumr 
  • Old English stream
  • Old High German strom (cf. maelstrom)
  • Latvian/Lettish strauma
  • Lithuanian sraveti (trickle, ooze)
  • Old Church Slavonic struja (river), o-strovu (island)
  • Polish strumień (brook)

This ancient, pervasive Indo-European array leaves me gobsmacked. No reason to reinvent the…er, word, I guess.


In 1624, John Smith, Captain John Smith, wrote in his The generall historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles:

Some small Marshes and Swamps there are, but more profitable than hurtfull.

And here we have, thanks to the OED, the first attestation of swamp, although surely Mr. Smith brought it to Washington (area) from an English dialect. There is argument that it developed from a Germanic source meaning sponge or fungus. There is further argument, which the OED delightfully calls “radical,” that it is related to the Greek σομϕός (spongy, porous). But there is an identical dialectical form meaning sunk. Skeat gets more radical and links it to swim.

Either way, the verb, as in I’m swamped at work, is thusly derived. As must be the colorful and terribly descriptive swamp ass. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? There are many other wonderful compounds, including my favorite, swamp Yankee, a pejorative regional term for rural New Englanders. And yes, that band name is already taken. And no, I don’t think they play swamp rock.

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bodies of water (part I of II)

Last post, ocean took us into its cosmological waters. In this two-part post, we cast our etymological line out in some other bodies of water—and reel in armpits, bosoms, crayfish soup, rheumatism, rifles, sponges, and vaults, among other sundries. Sorry, no boots or tires. Hey, we keep our lakes clean up here in the Twin Cities. 

Fast Mash

  • Bay enters English ~1400s from Old French and Late Latin, origin ultimately unknown and possibly Iberian in origin
  • Creek comes from Old Norse kriki (corner, nook)
  • Gulf originally meant bosom in Ancient Greek, from Proto-Indo European *kwelp- (to arch, vault)
  • Lake was borrowed via French from Latin lacus/lacuna (pool, ditch) but influenced by its Old English cognate lacu (stream)


As with so many words, bay‘s origin is unknown. But I love this fact. Words, for as much as I desire otherwise, seldom have Ur-meanings that conjure a magical past, a proto experience, a more primal understanding of the word. The signified’s sign is arbitrary, although we might take exception for linguistic imitation of the natural world. Nevertheless, the variation of human language is kaleidoscopically wonderful. And it keeps me busy at the Mashed Radish.

As an inlet of the seabay enters English ca. 1400, via Old French baie, from Late Latin baia. The best hypothesis is that the term is Pre-Roman and Iberian in origin (bahia?), potentially from the isolate Basque. Typically, languages have genealogies (e.g., French as daughter language of Latin, Latin as daughter language of an older Indo-European form) that linguists can map out. Not so for Basque; it stands on its own.

Baja means lower in Spanish and is unrelated. And, in spite of the learned efforts of John Thomson in his 1826 Etymons of English Words, so seem to be bow and bight, with origins in senses of bending and bosom, emphasizing curvature. This principle, of denoting geographic features as bends and bosoms, is spot on, though, just with different words. See gulf. Skeat also attempted an origin in the past participle of Latin’s badare (to gape), but this seems quite unlikely.

Incidentally, bisque (originally a crayfish soup) is said to be an altered form of Biscay—as in the Bay of—meaning low ridge or prominence in Basque Country.


A staple of any American English dialectical survey, creek, and its widespread variant pronounced as crick, took the form creke in the mid-15c., from kryk, used in place names as early as the 12c. The term seems to be from the Old Norse kriki, meaning corner or nook. The language even had handakriki, meaning armpit. The sense of bending and turning may point to an ultimately origin in crook. The French crique also seems to owe its origin to a Scandinavian term, and it probably influenced that of creek. The Online Etymology Dictionary offers some nice insights on its exploratory past.

Extended to “inlet or short arm of a river” by 1570s, which probably led to use for “small stream, brook” in American English (1620s). Also used there and in Canada, Australia, New Zealand for “branch of a main river,” possibly from explorers moving up main rivers and seeing and noting mouths of tributaries without knowing they often were extensive rivers of their own. Slang phrase up the creek “in trouble,” often especially “pregnant,” first recorded 1941, perhaps originally armed forces slang for “lost while on patrol.” 


To me, gulf is a near “perfect” etymology. For many of us, it lives much of its life on a map or as a simple geographic term, taken for granted, specific yet simple, not necessarily an everyday word in use (unless you live on one) but everyday in its character, invisible by its own there-ness. But its origin displays a classic example of Grimm’s law, terrific metaphor, and surprising original and related meanings.

Gulf in its geographic sense was around in English in the 1400s, and later that century took its meaning of profound depth, inspiring engulf by the 1550s. Interestingly, engulf seems to hang around mostly in the phrase engulfed in flames. Anyways, golf meant gulf or whirlpool in Old French, taken from Late Latin colfos or colphos, itself lifted from the Greek kolpos, meaning bay or gulf.

The Greek is rooted in the Proto-Indo European *kwelp-, which denotes to arch or vault. A familiar cognate? English’s own overwhelm, evolved from hwealf and a-hwielfanWhelm exists, though archaic and poetic. Underwhelm was coined to riff on overwhelm—in 1953. That’s a fantastically recent and superb coinage, if I may say so myself.

So, kolpos meant gulf in Greek. But it didn’t always mean that. Earlier, it referred to the trough of waves, the fold in a garment, and, get this, bosom. The link is… curvaceousness. This lends a fleshy, pneumatic (and shall I say bathukolpian, or deep-bosomed) literalness to: When Aunt Ulga came in to hug me, she engulfed me in her bosom.  Latin’s sinus (yep, that kind of sinus) evolved in the same way, and might give you a whole new reason to get a little distracted the next time you drive along a sinuous road. German’s Busen can likewise mean gulf, bosom, and cleavage. 

Guess this puts a whole new spin on bodies of water.

And then we have Grimm’s Law. Jacob Grimm, one of the famed Brothers Grimm, was a renowned philologist and figure in 19th-c. Germany. He is perhaps best known as discovering the eponymous Grimm’s Law, which brought a whole new level of rigor to the pursuit of linguistics. Its influence to the field really cannot be underestimated.

The law demonstrates systematic sound shifts in Indo-European languages, illustrating genetic relationships between Indo-European languages. More specifically, a regular change between Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Germanic consonants in what is called a chain shift (props to Wikipedia for the chain):

bʰ → b → p → ɸ

dʰ → d → t → θ

gʰ → g → k → x

gʷʰ → gʷ → kʷ → xʷ

The superscript signifies aspiration (breath), the labialization (lip rounding). Father is a great example. In Latin, father is pater. Let’s follow the chain. According to the law, p becomes an f sound and t becomes a th sound. The examples are really astonishing, explaining why canine and hound are related, or gelato and cold.

Or—and please remember that I am only speculating here, as I do not pretend to be a historical linguist or phonologist/phonetician, only an armchair etymologist—kolpos and gulf. We see a straightforward change from p to f.

What about the and g? Grimm’s law should predict that the would change to (which sounds like the ch in German’s Ich). Indeed, there are a great many of irregularities; the stuff of language is never airtight. Something called Verner’s Law does explain some exceptions, although I don’t quite know if it properly applies here. So, any of my better linguistically educated or curious readers, I’d love to know your take on this. Could there be intermediary forms, a problem of historical orthography, some other natural accident of phonology?


Loch, lough, laguna, lagoon—English may call it lake, but I call it everywhere. I moved to Minneapolis about 6 months ago. I knew they called Minnesota the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but I didn’t know they really meant it.

Etymologically, in lake it seems two streams converge. In the early 12th-c., English picked up Old French’s lac or what I speculate is its Norman form, lack, referring generically to a body of water. The French evolved from the Latin, lacus (vattank, pool, reservoir, lake), related to lacuna (hole, pit, pond, pool). This latter term has its own place in English, denoting a gap or unfilled space. And the Latin leads back to the Proto-Indo European *laku-. I find it interesting that the primary sense of lacus is of a space (if not a manmade space) that can be filled with water, as opposed to of a lake as a natural geographic feature. However the Ancient Romans conceived of lakes, their word inspired the poetical lacustrine, which John Ashbery uses in his masterful poem These Lacustrine Cities.

This same root, *laku-, has its Germanic branch, giving Old English lacu for streamLeak is related. Good thing we didn’t call them the Los Angeles Leakers. I should say Minneapolis Leakers, given where the team originally called home many decades ago.

Lacu became lake (the pronounced as a short vowel or schwa) in Middle English, and variously signified stream, river gully, ditch, and marsh, and even grave and pit of hell. I suppose these latter two clarify the infernal image of the “lake of fire” in the Book of Revelations. And the original Meat Puppets’ track (and the perhaps better known Nirvana Unplugged in New York cover) of the same name. (I came of age in the ’90s, during which Nirvana’s Unplugged was its own kind of bible, and I guess I’m biased to its more indie feel. I also now appreciate what is probably just the rhyme-convenient Duluth shout-out, if one would ever call it that.)

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