March 15, 2018

Case File #018.03.15: SHAMROCK

Many English speakers probably know that shamrock essentially means “clover.” But what many may not know is that the noun first appeared in 1571 in British author Edmund Campion's History of Ireland, and Campion spelled it shamrote. Campion derived the word from the Irish Gaelic seamrog, which is the diminutive form of the Irish seamar and means “little clover.” The modern English spelling didn't appear until six years after Campion's coining, however, when the Dubliner Richard Stanihurst, an acquaintance of Campion's, used shamrock in his book A Treatise Containing a Plain and Perfect Description of Ireland.

©2018 Michael R. Gates

February 14, 2018

Case File #018.02.14: DESIRE

The noun desire, which means “a longing, a craving, or something that is wanted or hoped for,” didn't appear in the English lexicon until around 1300, but the verb form—that is, “to long or hope for” and “to express a wish for”—is about a century older. Most etymologists believe the verb was borrowed from the Old French cognate desirer, itself a derivation of the classical Latin verb desiderare. But the Latin verb was developed from the Latin phrase de sidere, which meant “from the stars” and seems to suggest that the ancient Romans expected the fulfillment of their hopes and wishes to come by way of the heavens. Before you laugh at the superstitions of ancient Rome, however, keep in mind that there are still people today who, halfheartedly at least, believe their dreams will come true if they simply wish upon a star.

©2018 Michael R. Gates

January 4, 2018

Case File #018.01.04: ICICLE

Baby, it's cold outside, and with the wintry weather often comes icicles. We know how icicles are formed: on very cold but sunny days, some snow or ice will melt, drip off a roof, and then refreeze, and when this happens enough times in the same spot, a pointy column of ice appears. Now, that basic science stuff is all fine and dandy, you say, but we logophiles want to know how the word icicle was formed. Well, the roots of the noun wind all the way back to the Old English gicel, which meant “ice.” Middle English borrowed the Old English but changed its spelling to ickle and used it to mean “icicle.” Then sometime during the thirteenth century, Middle English speakers added is, their word for ice, to the front of ickle and formed the compound isykle, which thus literally meant “ice icicle.” It wasn't until around 1325 that the modern form icicle finally appeared, somewhat disguising the word's doubly cold tautologous ancestry.

©2018 Michael R. Gates

December 12, 2017

Case File #017.12.12: MISTLETOE

Old jokes notwithstanding, the Christmassy word mistletoe has nothing to do with the feet of astronauts or cosmonauts. The noun actually started out in Old English as mistiltan—there are no toes there, you see—a compound formed from two other Old English words: mistel, which referred to the mistletoe plant itself, and tan, which meant “twig.” So, then, mistiltan literally meant “a twig of the mistletoe shrub.” Around the end of the twelfth century, speakers of Middle English changed the spelling to mistelta and now used the word in reference to the entire plant, and a few hundred years later, they traded the a for an o and thereby changed the noun's form to mistelto. Early speakers of modern English gave us the contemporary form mistletoe sometime during the fifteenth century, but it wasn't until the early nineteenth century that American writer Washington Irving firmly tied the mistletoe—and thus the already established tradition of kissing beneath it—to Christmas when, in his short story “Christmas Eve,” he cited the plant as a common Yuletide decoration and said, “The mistletoe is still hung up in farmhouses and kitchens at Christmas; and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it....”

©2017 Michael R. Gates

December 4, 2017

Case File #017.12.04: HOLLY

At Christmastime, by golly, we often think of holly, that green, red-berried shrub with which we deck the halls. But have any of us ever stopped to consider where the word holly came from? Well, etymologists have. They've traced its origins back at least as far as the Old High German hulis, which referred to the holly plant and itself passed into Old English as holegn (sometimes spelled holen). When Old English gave way to Middle English during the twelfth century, the English noun's form changed first to holi and then later to holy. Perhaps in an effort to avoid confusing the word with the contemporary adjective holy—which means, of course, “sacred”—early speakers of modern English added the extra l during the late fifteenth century and gifted us with the now familiar form holly.

©2017 Michael R. Gates

October 19, 2017

Case File #017.10.19: OUIJA

A Ouija is a small table or lapboard marked with the alphabet, the numbers zero through nine, and a few words—usually yes, no, good-bye, and hello —and used, with the aid of a planchette (a small triangular or heart-shaped pointer supported on casters), to receive and spell out messages or warnings that are supposedly sent from the spirit world or the realm of the dead. The device was conceived and patented in 1890 by American businessman Elijah Bond, who considered it a harmless parlor game rather than the occult paraphernalia it is often regarded as today, and he coined Ouija (pronounced /wee -jÉ™/ or /wee -jee/) by combining the French and German words for yes: oui and ja, respectively. Although the name Ouija is often bandied about today as if it were a generic term, it is actually a trademark that was owned first by Baltimore's Kennard Novelty Company, to which Bond originally sold his patent rights, and later by the US toy company Hasbro, Inc., which still retains the rights.

©2017 Michael R. Gates

August 24, 2017

Case File #017.08.24: ECLIPSE

Well, the great American solar eclipse of 2017 has come and gone. And it was pretty freakin' cool, especially for those of us who were lucky enough to see it from the path of totality and thus enjoy the short but breathtaking spectacle of the sun's corona glowing out around the circumference of the moon. But as you watched the moon blot out the life-giving sun, did you pause to wonder how the word eclipse became part of the English lexicon? I didn't think so. Don't worry, though, because I'm going to tell you about it now. The word's roots wind all the way back to the classical Greek verb ekleipein, which meant “to forsake its usual place” or “to fail to appear,” and its derivative noun, ekleipsis. The latter was itself only occasionally used in our modern-day sense of “the total or partial obscuring of one celestial body by another,” but when the noun passed into Latin as eclipsis, Latin speakers dropped the more common meanings of the Greek source and used their new word solely in reference to the astronomical event. Later, Old French speakers borrowed the Latin eclipsis but converted it into two words: the noun eclipse, which retained the Latin's meaning, and the verb eclipser, which meant, natch, “to cause an eclipse.” Sometime during the second half of the thirteenth century, the Old French eclipse passed directly into English, though English speakers used this form for both the noun and the verb (retaining for each, of course, the respective Old French senses). Then around 1385, the English noun acquired its additional figurative senses of “a falling into obscurity or decline” and “the loss of significance or power in relation to someone or something else,” and later that same decade, the verb took on its corresponding figurative senses of “to obscure or block out (something else)” and “to surpass or outshine the importance, fame, or reputation of someone or something else.”

©2017 Michael R. Gates