May 8, 2017

Case File #017.05.08: YACHT

When you consider the origins of the noun yacht, it is quite amusing that the various recreational watercraft the word denotes are associated with wealth, luxury, and the upper class. For you see, the etymological family tree of yacht is firmly rooted in piracy: it came from the early modern Dutch jaghte, a shortened borrowing of the Middle Low German jachtschip that itself literally meant “chase ship” or “hunt ship” but was used to mean “fast pirate ship.” English speakers pilfered the Dutch word in the mid-sixteenth century, only they Anglicized it to yaucht (or sometimes yeaghe), jettisoned its association with high-seas robbery, and used it to mean simply “a light, fast sailing ship.” It wasn't until the late eighteenth century that the form of the English noun finally evolved into its current yacht, and the word's verb sense—that is, “to race or cruise in a yacht”—didn't show up until the mid-nineteenth century, which was about the same time that the noun came to refer to all those relatively small sailing or motor-driven recreational boats that only the wealthy can generally afford to own, operate, and moor.

©2017 Michael R. Gates

April 5, 2017

Case File #017.04.05: EVIL

Some believe that evil has been around longer than the human race, that Lucifer invented it when he rebelled against God and was, along with a horde of devoted minions, subsequently cast out of Heaven. Whether that story is fact or mere myth, there is one thing that is certain: the word evil has been around for a very, very long time. It was derived from the Old High German ubil, which etymologists and linguists say was itself derived from the Proto-Germanic ubilaz, but the early Anglo-Saxons changed the form to yfel. For most of the Old English era, the word was used solely as an adjective, and while it primarily meant “sinful,” “malevolent,” or “depraved,” it was sometimes used to mean “ill,” “grievous,” or “oppressive.” As Old English gave way to Middle English during the twelfth century, however, the now familiar noun senses—that is, “wickedness” and “that which deliberately causes great injury, suffering, or destruction”—developed and gained widespread currency, and at the beginning of the fourteenth century, the word's form changed first to evel and then finally to the current evil.

©2017 Michael R. Gates

February 15, 2017

Case File #017.02.15: AGNOSTIC

Agnostic is often used to refer to somebody who is uncertain or noncommittal about the existence of God or other such cosmological prime movers, but the term originally had a different meaning. Coined circa 1870 by British biologist Thomas Huxley—grandfather of the more famous twentieth-century author, philosopher, and hallucinogens advocate Aldous Huxley—the word is a combination of the prefix a-, which means “without” or “not,” and the noun Gnostic, which refers to an adherent of an ancient religious cult that claimed to have privileged or esoteric knowledge about spiritual matters. Thus, agnostic literally means “someone without esoteric knowledge of spiritual matters,” and Huxley came up with the term as a label both for himself and for anyone else who might share his position that the observable universe is the only source of concrete knowledge and truth. So rather than being a person of doubt or indecision, a Huxleian agnostic is actually an empiricist who, due to the lack of observable or measurable evidence, is likely to take a firm stance against the existence of God. Indeed, Huxley suggested that by being an agnostic, he was also an atheist by default. “I have never had the least sympathy with the [arguments] against orthodoxy,” he wrote, “and I have by nature and disposition the greatest possible antipathy to all the atheistic and infidel schools. Nevertheless, I know that I am, in spite of myself, exactly what the Christian would call—and, so far as I can see, is justified in calling—an atheist and an infidel.”

©2017 Michael R. Gates

December 21, 2016

Case File #016.12.21: MAGI

According to the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible, the baby Jesus was visited by a group of Eastern wise men or philosophers who also gifted him with expensive items such as gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Some English translations of the New Testament refer to these visitors as Magi, and probably because of their three flashy presents, the men are traditionally characterized, especially during the Christmas season, as a trio of Eastern kings. But the word magi, which came to English directly from Latin, suggests something else, as it is the plural form of the Latin word magus, which means “magician” or “sorcerer.” We can substantiate this as the Gospel author's intended definition for magi simply by looking at what is purported to be the original Greek manuscript: magoi is the Greek word translated in English-language Bibles as magi or wise men, and magoi is itself the plural form of magos, which means “magician” or “sorcerer.” So in the biblical narrative, neither kings nor philosophers journeyed to the Bethlehem manger; rather, the Eastern gift bearers who came to honor the baby Jesus were essentially well-heeled wizards. Even so, you shouldn't let this fact influence your Christmas traditions or festivities. After all, it would look kind of silly for a crèche to depict three wizards kneeling at the manger. And a song title such as “We Three Sorcerers” just doesn't have the poetic cadence of “We Three Kings.”

©2016 Michael R. Gates

October 26, 2016

Case File #016.10.26: VAMPIRE

There seems to be substantial discord among etymologists, lexicographers, and linguists when it comes to the origins of the word vampire. While all agree that the noun and its primary sense—that is, “the reanimated body of a dead person that leaves its grave, usually at night, to drink the blood of unwary or slumbering living people”—first entered the English language circa 1730, that's where the harmony basically ends. As to the language from which English acquired the word, the various experts offer at least three theories. Some say it was borrowed from the French vampire, and they argue that the identical spelling supports their opinion; some insist it came from the German vampir, claiming that the Teutonic word appeared first and essentially passed into French and English at the same time; and still others point out that the Hungarian vámpír is even older than the German and is thus likely to have spawned the German, French, and English forms of the word. But regardless of the dispute over which language was the immediate progenitor of the English vampire, does anybody know the word's ultimate source? Well, the answer is . . . probably. The majority of authorities believe that the word's roots wind back to the Old Church Slavonic word opiri, which was essentially used to mean “a reanimated, bloodsucking corpse.” It must be noted, however, that there are those who argue that the noun ultimately came from ubyr, a word meaning “witch” in the Turkic language of the Kazan Tatar people in Russia. Now, if all that etymological discord leaves you feeling a bit too dubious, you may get some satisfaction from this: all of the experts do agree that the modern secondary meaning of vampire, “a person who benefits from ruthlessly taking advantage of others,” was first used around 1740, and all concur that it is from this sense that the slangy noun vamp (“a woman who aggressively seduces and exploits men”) and its related verb sense (“to blatantly set out to seduce and exploit someone”) were derived.

©2016 Michael R. Gates

October 20, 2016

Case File #016.10.20: SPOOK

The word spook first appeared as an Americanism circa 1800. Borrowed directly from the Dutch spook, a descendant of the Middle Dutch spooc that was itself a close relative of the Middle Low German spok, the English noun was at first used to mean merely “ghost” or “a visible disembodied spirit.” By the end of the century, however, it had also come to mean “any frightening and seemingly preternatural creature” and was starting to take on its now lesser-known figurative sense of “a haunting or disturbing idea or prospect.” (Today, words such as specter and phantom have all but supplanted spook in denoting the aforesaid figurative meaning.) It wasn't until the early 1940s that spook acquired the additional sense of “an undercover agent or spy,” and the same decade saw the unfortunate development of the noun's offensively disparaging (and now highly indecorous) use as a term for a black person. By the way, spook also has two verb senses: the first, “to haunt, frighten, or otherwise behave like a ghost,” appeared in the English lexicon circa 1865; and the second, “to become suddenly frightened or nervous,” came into general use around 1935.

©2016 Michael R. Gates

August 17, 2016

Case File #016.08.17: OAF

Once upon a time, people believed that elves and fairies sometimes snatched human children from their cribs or beds, and when abducting human offspring, the mischievous sprites supposedly swapped them with physically frail or mentally stunted children from their own broods. Up until the mid-sixteenth century, people in English-speaking countries generally used the noun changeling when referring to a child believed to have been left behind by the elves or fairies. But by the time 1600 rolled around, English speakers had also started using oph (sometimes spelled auf or aulf) as a term for such a child, oph being an Anglicized form of the Middle Norwegian álfr—or perhaps, say some etymologists, the related Icelandic álfur—which literally meant “elf  but was often used to mean “silly person, fool, or imbecile.” Thus, if a child was a bit peculiar or had some mild physical deformity, its parents could invoke the word oph and thereby suggest that the youngster was not human but was instead the offspring of an elf or a fairy. During the first twenty or thirty years of the seventeenth century, however, the word's form evolved into the contemporary oaf, and rather than being used in reference to an ersatz human child, the noun came to generally mean “a slow-witted, uncultured, or clumsy person.”

©2016 Michael R. Gates