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

July 5, 2017

Case File #017.07.05: REDOUBTABLE

No, redoubtable doesn't refer to something that can be doubted more than once. The word's principal meaning is “formidable or fearsome,” and it is sometimes also more broadly used to mean “worthy of great respect.” First appearing in the English lexicon circa 1380, redoubtable was derived from the Old French verb redouter, which meant “to dread or greatly fear,” and the adjective's original form was thus redoutable. The b wasn't added to the spelling until around the middle of the fifteenth century, and most experts agree that this change was the result of an early misconception that the adjective had direct etymological or loose semantic links to the word doubt.

©2017 Michael R. Gates

June 14, 2017

Case File #017.06.14: LACONIC

The adjective laconic was derived from the ancient Greek word Lakonikos, which meant “of Laconia” or “like a person from Laconia.” Loconia was a region of ancient Greece that occupied the southeastern part of the Peloponnese peninsula; its capital was the famous military city of Sparta. Legend has it that when Philip of Macedon threatened invasion with the boast “If I enter Laconia, I will raze Sparta to the ground,” the Laconians' sole reply was “If.” Whether the story is a verbatim account or not, it is clear that the citizens of Laconia had a reputation for being direct and succinct, and that certainly explains why their name became the basis of an English word that means “terse, pithy, or concise.” By the way, when the adjective first entered the English lexicon circa 1576, its form was laconical, but in the true spirit of its Laconian roots, it was shortened to laconic less than fifteen years later.

©2017 Michael R. Gates

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