What’s up with all those letters we don’t say in “Leicester”?

Against all odds, the Leicester City Football Club clinched England’s Premier League title on Monday. Far and wide, millions of lovers of football – and Cinderella stories – cheered the unlikely champions. And as many, perhaps, learned how to pronounce the name of this club and city. Leicester, in spite of its extra characters, sounds like the name Lester, which is derived, in fact, from this very Leicester.

Why do we pronounce Leicester like “Lester”? Or, for my readers not interested in sports, Gloucester like “Gloster”? (I can still feel my nerdy shame when an English teacher corrected my mispronunciation of this King Lear character.) Oxford English Dictionary offers: “The history of the form written -cester, of which only -ster is pronounced (in Worcester, Bicester, etc.), is obscure; the written form is perhaps of French or medieval Latin origin.” Economy, generally speaking, is ultimately behind the pronunciation, historical inertia behind the spelling, I imagine.

While we can’t explain for certain the peculiar pronunciation of –cester, we can explain where it comes from.

Cester: phonetic cheshire cats and linguistic underdogs 

From roughly 40 to 400 AD, Rome ruled much of Great Britain. Over 1500 years later, its footprint still shows. Ancient Roman military fortifications, for example, have endured not only in their physical remains, but in place names as well. Latin called these sites castra, a plural noun meaning a “camp,” which we might liken to military bases today.

A diminutive form of castra, castellum, a kind of “fort,” gives English castle. The ultimate origin of Latin’s castrum is unclear, though many connect it to castrate via a root meaning, yep, “to cut off.” The surname Castro, as in Fidel, is a notable Spanish cognate, as is alcazar,  from an Arabic rendering  of castrumal-qasr 

Old English borrowed Latin’s castra as ceaster. (Old Welsh did as cair.) Anglo-Saxon records show ceaster in combination with original Celtic names for tribes and topography. As early as the 10th century, Leicester, for instance, is recorded as Ligora-ceastre; the first element preserves either the Celtic name of the tribe or for the river there when the Romans marched in around 47 A.D.

For a time, ceaster, pronounced more like its now-obsolete descendant, chester, stood on its own word as a word “town,” especially a former Roman-occupied castra. But English largely remembers ceaster as a toponymic suffix, variously adapted as -caster (Lancaster), –chester (Manchester, ), –cester (Leicester), and in other place names like Exeter and Cheshire. Each of these former Roman encampments, again, likely preserve Celtic roots in their first elements: Lancaster may have meant “camp on the Lune River”; Manchester, “on the breast-like hill”; Exeter, “on the Exe River.” Cheshire, meanwhile, is “chester shire.”

For all the Latinate -cester’s that occupy its place names, the English language, like Leicester, is itself something of an underdog story. It survived once stronger (or at least better-funded clubs) on its historical pitch, from Norse to Latin to French. But then again, the Anglo-Saxons themselves were a visiting team: Celtic, too, as we also see in the likes of Leicester, played hard as well.

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Why is it called “virtual” reality?

This week, Oculus VR released the Rift, the first virtual reality headset of its kind. But why is virtual reality called virtual? Let’s put on our, er, etymological goggles for this one; I promise it’ll be immersive. 

Virtue, mansplained

Today, we associate virtue with moral rectitude, often citing specific qualities like charity, patience, and temperance in contrast to vices like greed, gluttony, or taking selfies. English has been practicing this ethical virtue since the early 13th century, borrowing the word from the French vertu and the Latin virtus before that.

On a literal level, Latin’s virtus meant “manliness” or “manhood.” Indeed, at its root is vir, or “man.” The –tus was a noun-forming suffix, much like the very -hood we see in manhood. English derives the adjective virile from Latin’s vir. Viral and virulent are not related – by etymology, at least.

For its word for “man,” Old English used wer, a cognate of vir, which explains the were– in werewolf, literally a “man-wolf.” Wer is also related to world, a Germanic construct originally signifying a very anthropocentric planet Earth in “the age of man.”

The Irish fer or Welsh gwr are other notable relatives of vir and wer. For all this bromance, Indo-European scholars reconstruct the root *wi-ro, often used of warriors and slaves (i.e., captured warriors), itself derived from a base verb root meaning “to be vigorous,” as the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots explains.

The many virtues of virtue

For the ancient Romans, virtue also represented a traditionally heroic ideal. But they quickly extended virtus to encompass “strength” and “valor,” then generalized to “excellence,” “worth,” “quality,” or other special, inherent properties that gave something its “potency” or “efficacy.” French – and later, English – copied the vast and varied virtues of this word virtue.

When something has potency or efficacy, it has force, power, or authority. We might finish a marathon or dissertation – or this very blog post – by virtue of sheer willpower. This English expression actually translates a French expression, par la vertu de, or “by the power of,” often used in an official capacity.

By the 1400s, something virtual possessed virtue in that earlier sense of “power” or “efficacy.” As the Oxford English Dictionary  (OED) helpfully elucidates, something virtual was “inherently powerful or effective, owing to particular natural qualities.” Translating medieval Franciscan scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus’ encyclopedic De Proprietatibus Rerum, Cornish author John Trevisa provides English the earliest record with vertual, from Latin’s virtualis.

No easy virtue 

Now, in Latin, virtualis was often said of the healing properties, physical and spiritual, of drugs or medicines (derived from plants), which can help us understand the big metaphysical jump virtual takes. By the the mid-1400s, particularly in religious contexts, the OED explains virtual meant “in essence, potentiality, or effect, although not in form or actuality.”

Should we dust off our Aristotle? Something virtual is effective in essence but not in name, and this usage is all rooted in the idea of virtue as possessing a sort of innate, self-actualizing power. Within the acorn is the potential for the actual oak tree; the acorn, very broadly speaking, is a virtual oak tree.

After the Iowa Caucuses, to leave the philosophy classroom, Bernie Sanders declared his contest there with Hillary Clinton a “virtual tie.” Clinton technically won more votes, but the victory was so narrow that the two were, for all intents and purposes, even.

And if I say I’m “virtually broke,” I may have a hundred or two bucks in my checking account, but I can’t actually pay my all bills. I am not literally broke in name, but, really, I just don’t have enough money to get by. Hence, I’m virtually – or very nearly or essentially  – broke. The OED records this usage by the mid-1600s.

Scientists took to this virtual. At least by the end of the 1600s, they were variously applying it to special phenomena, particularly theoretical, rather than observed, in their discipline.

Virtual‘s reality

Centuries later, computer scientists found the term especially useful. In 1959, John Cocke and Harwood Kolsky presented a paper on virtual memory for an important computer conference in Boston. They described virtual memory as a way to increase computer speed. As in today’s computers, virtual memory increases a computer’s physical memory by temporarily using empty space on the hard drive as if it were real. This memory is additional memory in essence, hence virtual.

In 1979, as the OED documents, IBM used virtual reality as we now know it in a programming announcement: “A base to develop an even more powerful operating system,…designated ‘Virtual Reality’…to enable the user to migrate to totally unreal universes.” If Oculus VR has its way, these universes will be not unreal but all too real. That is, if you can your hands on one. I hear they’re virtually impossible to get.

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Dinosaurs, roofs, & togas: An etymological thug life

We’ve had a lot of big words in the news this week, as we’ve had a lot of big events. One word in particular grabbed headlines as a word, thug, thanks to Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s use of it in reaction to violence in her city this past week.

Thug is a very loaded word, to say the least. Thanks to some great commentary in the media outlets, we’ve also learned it is a very historically complicated, coded, and nuanced term, variously and nefariously applied through the centuries–to African Americans, union busters, and Indian assassins, whom the term originally names. Merriam Webster’s Kory Stamper weighed in on The Washington Post. Megan Garber reflected on The Atlantic. Ben Zimmer zoomed in back in 2013 at Newsweek. John McWhorter offers particularly incisive and insights on the word in an NPR interview, illustrating a key point that “black people saying ‘thug’ is not like white people saying ‘thug.'”

Since her statements, Baltimore’s mayor has walked back her words, stating they “don’t have thugs in Baltimore.” Etymologically, she she might be wrong, as the origin of thug may literally be present in the very name Baltimore.

Tiles are about the only thing that are ever truly so black and white.  "Thug." Doodle by me.
Tiles are about the only thing that are ever truly so black and white. “Thug.” Doodle by me.

Thug

Again, I will ultimately point you to the likes of Stamper, Zimmer, Garber, and McWhorter on the evolution of thug, but the Oxford English Dictionary first attests the word (often capitalized) in 1810, naming professional assassins in India who befriended travelers only to murder them, particularly by strangulation. The word is from the Hindi ṭhag and Mahrati (spoken in Western India) ṭhag or ṭhak, naming a “cheat” or “swindler.” We can see how the Thugs’ fundamental deception lends them their name.

Most etymologists stop here, as they are appropriately conservative, given the hypothetical, if methodical, nature of historical reconstruction. But others do speculate that this Hindi ṭhag may come from the Sanskrit sthagati, “he hides,” as Eric Partridge offers.

Under ‘cover’

The Sanskrit sthagati may be uncovered, if you will, from the Proto-Indo-European (s)teg-, “to cover.” This yielded Latin’s tegere“to cover,” which is behind integument (“covering”), protect (“cover up”), and detect (“uncover,and its derivative detective). A toga is also a kind of covering derived from this root. Roofs are coverings, hence tegula, “roof tile,” which gives us tile and Tyler, an English surname and given name for “tile-maker.” Speaking of English, the Germanic languages also took up (s)teg-giving English thatch and deck. The former was used especially of roofs. The latter bedecks those halls, too.

Roof tiles date back yet before antiquity: they are veritably Jurassic. The stegosaurus, or Greek for “roof lizard,” had armored back plates that resemble roof tiles, if the Greek στέγος (“roof”) is any measure when the creature was named in the 19th century.

No roof? No shelter. No house. This appears to be reflected in Celtic languages. Welsh has ty and Irish tech, both meaning “house.” Another Irish form for “house” is tigh or , which appear in Baile na Tighe Mór or Baile an Tí Mhóir, renderings for “townland of the big house,” a village in southern Ireland whose name you might recognize as Baltimore. (Apologies to my Irish-speaking readers for butchering any of these renderings.) The American city was named for the second Lord Baltimore, Cecil Calvert, first Proprietary Governor of the Province of Maryland and whose family estate is that “big house” in that Irish town.

Etymology does it again—if in its full, tenuous, overwrought glory here at the Mashed Radish. But, of course, the real thugs in Baltimore, the real big house in the big house, that we need to reconsider aren’t the etymological ones.

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