April 25, 2018

Case File #018.04.25: THRILL

Thrill is the progeny of the Old English thyrlian, which meant “to pierce or penetrate.” The Old English verb passed into Middle English as thirlen, but the spelling shifted to thrillen in the early thirteenth century, and the form became the now familiar thrill circa 1325. The contemporary sense of “to cause or experience a sudden sharp feeling of excitement or pleasure,” however, didn't appear until around 1592—some etymologists say Shakespeare used it first in his play Romeo and Juliet—though this soon became the verb's primary meaning and the earlier perforation connotation was completely jettisoned. The noun sense of thrill—that is, “an intense feeling of excitement or horror, or an experience that causes such a feeling”—came into use in the late seventeenth century, and its derivative thriller, which means “something that thrills, such as a suspenseful or exciting novel or play,” was coined circa 1889.

©2018 Michael R. Gates

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