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.

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.

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

July 20, 2016

Case File #016.07.20: SHAMBLES

If you think of a slaughterhouse or a butchery as a place of confusion or disorder, then you probably won't be surprised to learn that the word shambles, which generally means “a state of complete disorder or ruin,” evolved from a Middle English word that meant “meat market.” But most etymologists and lexicographers say the roots of shambles ultimately wind back to the Sanskrit skambha, a word that meant “pillar” or “supporting member” and was in no way associated with the butchering of animals. So how did an ancient architectural term that evoked the idea of stability evolve into a word associated with carnage and chaos? Well, Sanskrit's skambha eventually passed into Latin as scamnum, which meant “bench,” and Old English speakers took the diminutive form of the Latin—scamillus, that is, meaning “little bench” or “pedestal”—Anglicized it to sceamel (sometimes spelling it scamol or scomul), and used it to mean “a table for vending.” When Old English gave way to Middle English during the twelfth century, sceamel became shamel (the spelling varied greatly), and the word was by then used solely in reference to marketplace tables from which fish or meat was sold. Sometime around the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, the word's form evolved to become shambil, and its plural, shambiles, passed into Early Modern English as sheambles but was used as a singular noun meaning “meat market.” The modern form shambles finally appeared around 1550, at which time the word also came to mean “slaughterhouse” (a sense that is now essentially archaic except in the case of place names), and the figurative sense of “a place of carnage or great bloodshed” soon followed and became commonplace by 1595. The noun's contemporary sense (that is, “a condition of complete confusion, disarray, or ruin”) didn't come until much later, however, making its debut in print circa 1900. By the way, the verb shamble, which means “to move with an awkward and slow or shuffling gait,” first appeared in the English lexicon around 1700, though experts are divided as to whether it is etymologically related to the noun shambles: many say yes, asserting that shamble harks back to the usually bowed legs of the trestle tables used at meat markets in days of yore; others say no, claiming the evidence more cogently suggests that the verb's development followed a course from a now unknown bygone—and likely dialectical—word meaning something like “clumsy” or “ungainly.”

©2016 Michael R. Gates

June 22, 2016

Case File #016.06.22: MILQUETOAST

Caspar Milquetoast was the central character in a once popular American comic strip called The Timid Soul, which was created by HT Webster in 1924 and appeared in countless newspapers until shortly after the cartoonist's death in 1952 (his assistant continued the strip for about six months following Webster's passing). Webster himself described Milquetoast as the sort of man who “speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick,” meaning, of course, that the fellow's excessively craven and submissive nature made him stifle his own predilections and instead submit to the will of the comic strip's other characters. Because the strip was so popular and ubiquitous, Americans soon started to use its main character's name in reference to real-life people—usually men, though sometimes women also—who seemed spineless and overly deferential, and by around 1940, the general noun milquetoast, meaning “a timid, unassertive, and easily manipulated person,” had become firmly ensconced in the English lexicon. As to how HT Webster came up with the name, some etymologists and lexicographers believe the cartoonist was humorously alluding to the weak consistency of the once popular breakfast dish called milk toast (sometimes spelled milk-toast or milktoast), which was typically made by soaking toasted bread in a thin liquid composed of milk, sugar, and butter. But other experts think the cartoonist was making a play on the noun milksop, a term that dates back to the late fourteenth century (Chaucer used it first in The Canterbury Tales), is also an allusion to limp or mushy food, and to this day still means “an effeminate man.”

©2016 Michael R. Gates

May 24, 2016

Case File #016.05.24: CONFETTI

As most of you probably already know, confetti is the collective term for those little bits of colored paper that are thrown, usually by the handfuls, during large festive occasions. But when the noun first entered the English lexicon in the early nineteenth century, it was used to refer to a type of candy tossed around during celebratory public gatherings. This is because English speakers borrowed the word directly from their friends in Italy: confetti is the plural for the Italian noun confetto, which means “candy” and was itself once used to denote a small sweet that was thrown during carnivals and parades. (In case you're wondering, the progenitor of the Italian confetto is the Latin confectum, a past participle of the neuter verb conficere, meaning “to put together,” and the ultimate source, via Old French, of the English noun confection.) Around 1895, English speakers began using confetti in its modern sense—that is, in reference to the bits of paper popularly thrown at weddings, parades, and such—and by the start of the following century, the noun's association with sweets had been jettisoned altogether.

©2016 Michael R. Gates

April 5, 2016

Case File #016.04.05: GOBSMACKED

The slang word gobsmacked (sometimes spelled gob-smacked), which essentially means “dumbfounded” or “flabbergasted,” originated in the UK during the 1980s, though it is now quickly becoming popular among the English-speaking youth of other countries such as the US and Canada. Etymologists and linguists believe the adjective was formed by combining the noun gob, a British slang word for mouth that has Gaelic roots and traces back to the sixteenth century, and the past tense of the verb smack, meaning “to strike or hit,” with the connotation thus being that those who are gobsmacked are as stunned by something as they would be if they were suddenly smacked in the mouth. Some experts claim gobsmacked was coined in the early 1980s by the writing staff of a couple of British TV shows, both of which were about working-class people and were set in industrial towns in Northern England. But others believe the adjective originated within the youth culture of Northern England and Southern Scotland and that the television writers, well versed in the argot of the people about whom they wrote, were simply the first to use the word in the mass media. But whichever the case, gobsmacked remains a popular slang word in the UK today, and though nobody really knows why the word only recently started gaining currency in other English-speaking countries, at least one expert believes the lexemic migration was bolstered in 2009 by Scottish singer Susan Boyle's success on the BBC's TV show Britain’s Got Talent and her subsequent ample use of gobsmacked during interviews.

©2016 Michael R. Gates