December 30, 2013

Case File #013.12.30: FACADE

The principal meaning of facade is “the front or face of a building,” and it's therefore no surprise that the word is a descendant of the Latin noun facies, which meant “face” or “appearance.” But English wasn't the Latin's immediate heir. Italian was actually the first in line, using the Latin as the basis for the word faccia, meaning “face,” and in turn using that as the basis for the noun facciata, meaning “the face of a building.” The next beneficiary was French, which took the Italian facciata and kept its meaning but changed its form to façade. Finally, English became a heritor when it acquired the French word in the mid-seventeenth century, and while this was pretty much a direct transfer, most English speakers today slightly Anglicize the word's form by replacing the ç with a c. By the way, the figurative use of facade in which it means “an often deceptive outward appearance” is relatively new to the English language, having first appeared around the close of the nineteenth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

December 25, 2013

Case File #013.12.25: 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 gave him expensive items such as gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Some English translations of the Bible refer to these visitors as Magi, and probably because of their three flashy gifts, 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 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—you guessed it—“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 wealthy wizards. Nevertheless, I'm not suggesting that you let this fact influence your Christmas traditions or festivities. After all, it would look kinda silly for a Nativity scene to have three wizards kneeling at the manger. And “We Three Sorcerers” just doesn't have the poetic cadence of “We Three Kings.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

December 23, 2013

Case File #013.12.23: NICE

The history of nice is arguably one of the most circuitous of any word in the English language. Ultimately, the adjective's roots wind back to the Latin nescius, which meant “unknowing” or “ignorant.” When the Latin word passed into Old French during the twelfth century, however, its form quickly changed to nice and its meaning shifted slightly to “stupid or foolish.” Middle English borrowed the adjective directly from the Old French in the late thirteenth century, but during the early fourteenth century, English speakers started using it to mean “shy or timid” instead of “stupid,” and by 1380 it had come to mean “finicky or fastidious.” Less than thirty years later, nice was being used to mean “dainty or delicate,” and in the early sixteenth century, that meaning gave way to the sense of “careful or punctilious.” It was around 1770 that the word took on its now familiar secondary meanings of “fine (as in well-executed or well-made),” “fitting or appropriate,” and “pleasant or agreeable,” but it took another sixty years or so for the adjective to finally acquire its current primary meaning of “kind, caring, or thoughtful.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

December 19, 2013

Case File #013.12.19: WIZARD

Say the word wizard today and your listeners are likely to conjure up mental images of cinematic magicians such as Mickey Mouse in “The Sorcerer's Apprentice” segment of 1940's Fantasia or Dumbledore in the more recent Harry Potter series. But etymologically speaking, there is nothing supernatural or magic about origins of the word. In fact, the roots of wizard wind all the way back to the innocuous Old English word wys, which simply meant “wise,” and from this those early English speakers derived the word wysard and used it to mean “sage” and “philosopher.” During the early fifteenth century, however, the form of wysard changed first to wisard and then to the current wizard, and it also began to acquire the connotation of prescience or prognostication. Not surprisingly, it didn't take long for the idea of a person who gains wisdom through foresight to give way to the idea of a person who gains wisdom (or power) by calling on supernatural forces, and by 1550, wizard had thus completely lost its association with the wise and had come to mean “one skilled in the arts of magic or the occult.” The now common informal sense in which the word means “one who is very skilled in a particular field or activity,” as in computer wizard or financial wizard, is much newer, though, having first come into use in American English during the 1920s.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

December 16, 2013

Case File #013.12.16: HUSSY

In the era of Middle English, hussy was merely an informal variation of housewife—the latter was spelled husewif back then—and had no negative connotations whatsoever. The two words remained synonymous into the early years of modern English, but sometime during the first half of the sixteenth century, hussy came to be applied to any woman or girl whether married or not. In the latter half of the seventeenth century, the upper class adopted hussy as a derogatory designation for women of lower rank. And by around 1800, the word had generally come to mean “a woman of low moral values,” though it was often used, as it is today, with an air of jocularity.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

December 12, 2013

Case File #013.12.12: VOCATION

Vocation came to English via the Latin noun vocatio, which meant “calling” and was itself a derivative of the Latin verb vocare, meaning “to call or summon.” It's not surprising, then, that when English speakers first started using vocation in the early fifteenth century, the word meant “a spiritual calling.” This meaning became secondary in the early sixteenth century, however, when the more worldly sense of “a strong inclination towards a trade or occupation” came into popular use. And during the latter years of the century, that secular meaning of vocation evolved into the noun's contemporary sense of “one's primary profession or career.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

December 9, 2013

Case File #013.12.09: BALLOT

In a time long before the days of printed forms and electronic tallying machines, voting was a highly secret affair, and to help keep their choices a secret, people sometimes cast their votes by surreptitiously dropping little colored balls into marked containers. Around 1540, English speakers began to refer to these balls as ballots, a word they derived from the Old Italian word ballotta, which meant “little ball.” About that same time, the containers into which the balls were dropped became known as ballot boxes, and the verb sense of ballot, meaning “the action or system of voting,” came into use soon after. By the time the nineteenth century rolled around, though, slips of paper had replaced the little balls as the voting implements of choice, yet ballot, despite its spherical roots, has to this day remained the common designation for the means of casting a vote and for the action of voting.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

December 5, 2013

Case File #013.12.05: PAVILION

The word pavilion came to English via the Old French paveillon, which meant “tent” but was sometimes used to mean “butterfly,” and the French itself came from the Latin papilio, which meant “butterfly” in the classical era but came to mean “tent” in the era of Medieval Latin. (According to some etymologists and linguists, the use of a word meaning “butterfly” in reference to a tent was probably meant as an allusion to the way that some tents resemble the unfurled wings of butterflies and moths.) When English speakers borrowed the French in the late twelfth century, they Anglicized it to pavilun—it was sometimes spelled pavilloun or pavillioun—and initially used it to mean “a large elaborate tent or awning.” Then around 1300, the word's form changed to the now familiar pavilion, and at about the same time, it took on the additional noun sense of “a group of related structures forming a building complex.” The verb sense of “to furnish or cover with or as if with a pavilion” didn't appear until the end of the fourteenth century, though, and the now common noun sense of “a light and sometimes temporary roofed structure used at parks or entertainment facilities” is an even later addition, first coming into use circa 1680.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

December 2, 2013

Case File #013.12.02: ACRONYM

Coined in 1943, the word acronym was formed by combining the Late Greek akron, meaning “tip” or “end,” and the English suffix -onym, meaning “name.” (The source of the English suffix, by the way, is the Greek onuma, which meant “name or designation” and “noun.”) Thus, an acronym is a word formed from the tips, or rather the initial letters or syllables, of each part or major part of a compound term or phrase, such as NASA from National Aeronautics and Space Administration and radar from radio detecting and ranging. But the word acronym does not apply to all such word-like abbreviations. When the letters are pronounced not as a single word but as individual units, such as with FBI (from Federal Bureau of Investigation) and CPU (from central processing unit), the term used in reference to the abbreviation is initialism.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

November 27, 2013

Case File #013.11.27: TURKEY

English speakers started using the word turkey circa 1541, but back then they applied it to the guinea fowl, a domesticated bird imported from Madagascar by way of Turkey. When the American bird we now refer to as turkey was introduced to England in the latter half of the sixteenth century, the Brits mistook it for a variety of guinea fowl not only because it somewhat resembled the other bird but also because the Spanish were using the same Turkish trade routes to export the animals from Mexico to England via Africa. By the time 1575 rolled around, however, the American fowl had become England's most popular main course for Christmas dinner, and it was about then that it also became the sole bird to which the moniker turkey was applied. Much newer are the senses of the word in which it refers to a failed artistic endeavor, such as a play or movie, or to an inept or stupid person. Both first appeared in American English during the early twentieth century, presumably coming about because the turkey was perceived as an unintelligent and rather docile animal. The bird's reputation for stupidity and tractability is also behind the neology of the phrase turkey shoot, which is used in reference to a task that takes little effort to accomplish.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

November 25, 2013

Case File #013.11.25: MEAL

Here in the Western world, we English speakers have a time-honored tradition of getting together with family and friends at holiday time and indulging a large, extravagant meal. Even older than this tradition is the word meal, which can be traced back all the way back to the time of the original Anglo-Saxons. The word's Old English form, however, was m æl, and it meant not only “an act of eating a portion of food” and “an appointed time for eating” but also “a portion or measure (especially of time).” When Old English gave way to Middle English in the mid-twelfth century, the word's form became meel (also sometimes spelled mele or mel), and a century or so later, its spelling finally changed to the contemporary meal and its association with measurement was ultimately jettisoned. (Remnants of the noun's sense of “a portion or measure” are still around today, though, in both the adjectival and adverbial senses of the word piecemeal.) But the sense in which meal refers to ground grain has an entirely different etymological family tree. It ultimately traces back to the Indo-European root mel-, which meant “related to grinding” and later became the basis of several Proto-Germanic verbs and nouns. The Anglo-Saxons borrowed one of these Germanic words—etymologists and linguists do not all agree on the specifics—and used it as the basis for the Old English noun melu, which meant “ground grain” or “flour.” When melu passed into Middle English, its form initially changed to melewe (sometimes spelled melowe) but later became meale (sometimes spelled maile), and when Middle English gave way to modern English in the late fifteenth century, meale became the now familiar meal.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

November 21, 2013

Case File #013.11.21: GRAVY

When gravy first came into use in the late fourteenth century, it referred to a thick, spicy stew that was served as a dressing or side dish for fish or fowl. The word is an Anglicized form of the Old French grané —most etymologists and linguists believe the v came about as a misreading of the n in handwritten manuscripts, but there are some who postulate the existence of the unrecorded Middle French word gravé, a logical and likely descendant of the Old French, as the immediate antecedent of the English—and though grané meant “broth or stew,” it was itself a derivative of the Latin granum, which meant “grain or seed.” (Grains and seeds, or rather their flours, are traditional thickening agents for stews and gravies.) It wasn't until the sixteenth century that gravy came to mean “a sauce made from the thickened and seasoned juices of cooked meat.” And it was in the early twentieth century that it acquired its informal senses of “payment or benefits in excess of what is expected or required” and “unfair or unlawful gain.” The related slang phrase gravy train, meaning “a source of easy money,” is also a twentieth-century neologism, one that originated among American railroad workers as a way of referring to any short but profitable haul.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

November 18, 2013

Case File #013.11.18: DINNER

The ultimate source of the English noun dinner is the unrecorded Vulgar Latin verb disjunare, which essentially meant “to stop fasting.” (Unrecorded word? Yes. Though the term in question never appeared in Vulgar Latin texts, etymologists and linguists have a plethora of evidence suggesting that it was used in everyday conversation.) Old French used the Latin as the basis for the noun desiuner, which originally meant “breakfast” but later came to mean “midday meal.” By the end of the thirteenth century, the form of the Old French word had evolved to disner, and around 1300, English borrowed the Old French but Anglicized it to the now familiar dinner. Okay, I know what you're thinking. At this point, you're wondering if the English word is still used to mean “midday meal” or if now means “evening meal.” Am I right? Well, one thing is certain: ever since it first appeared in the English lexicon, dinner has always been used to denote the main meal of the day. But the time of day at which that meal is eaten has varied over the centuries, and whether an individual or group defines dinner as either “midday meal” or “evening meal” is basically determined by nationality, region, and social class.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

November 14, 2013

Case File #013.11.14: YAM

When it comes to the origins of yam, etymologists and lexicographers are not of one accord. Some believe the English word first came into use around the end of the sixteenth century, having been derived from either the Portuguese inhame or the Spanish igname. Others concur with that time frame yet argue that yam came not via Portugal or Spain but by way of West Africa, where the Twi language's phonetically similar anyinam refers to a yam-like tuber. (This idea is bolstered by the fact that the first British mercantile efforts in West Africa took place during the second half of the sixteenth century.) But still others posit that the English word developed more recently, having come into use first in the American colonies circa 1700 or even a bit later. According to this argument, yam was borrowed from the pidgin and creole languages used by African-American slaves, languages in which similar-sounding words such as nyaams and ninyam referred to tuber-like foodstuffs.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

November 11, 2013

Case File #013.11.11: CORN

Corn is an old word that has been in the English lexicon since at least the eighth century. In the Old English era, however, it didn't denote a particular grain but merely seed grain in general, and in modern times, the specific grain to which the word does refer depends on where you happen to be. In England, for example, corn usually refers to wheat, whereas it refers to oats in Ireland and Scotland and to rye in many of the European countries where English is the lingua franca of business and academics. It was in the mid-seventeenth century that European colonists in North America first used corn in reference to maize, the large yellowish cereal grain indigenous to the New World, and this not only became the word's primary sense in what would later develop into the United States, but it also ultimately caught on in New Zealand, Australia, and most of Canada. Now, some of you out there might this very moment be rubbing your sore feet and wondering about the sense of corn in which it refers to a hard, thick spot on surface of the skin. Well, that word has nothing to do with botany or agriculture and has a different etymology altogether. First appearing in the English lexicon around 1425, that corn was derived from the Old French corne, which meant “horn-like growth” and had itself evolved from the Latin cornu, meaning “a horn, tusk, hoof, or claw.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

November 7, 2013

Case File #013.11.07: AUTUMN

The roots of the noun autumn wind all the way back to the Latin autumnus, which meant “harvest time.” The Latin passed into Old French as autompne, and in the late fourteenth century, Middle English borrowed the Old French term but altered its form to autumpne. Then around 1590, roughly a century after Middle English gave way to modern English, the word's spelling changed again to become the contemporary autumn. The synonym fall, which is now used primarily in the United States and is there the more popular way of referring to the harvest season, first appeared in the mid-seventeenth century. It came about as a shortening of the phrase fall of the leaf, an obvious though still somewhat poetic alternative to autumn that had been in common use since circa 1540.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

November 4, 2013

Case File #013.11.04: NOVEMBER

Novem was the Latin word for “nine,” and to this the ancient Romans added -bris, a suffix meaning “month,” to form the word Novembris, which literally meant “month nine.” Probably due to a little apocope, Novembris soon became November, though this formal shift didn't affect the semantics and the word remained the designation for the ninth month of the year. But wait—isn't November the eleventh month of the year? Well, yes. Now. The original Roman calendar, however, had only ten months, March being the first and December being the last, thus making November the ninth. This calendar was based on a lunar cycle rather than a solar one, though, and it turned out to be off by about sixty-one days. So around 713 BCE, the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, tried to compensate for the error by extending the calendar with two new months: Ianuarius and Februarius, which we English speakers now call, respectively, January and February. Since he placed these new months at the beginning of the year (that is, in front of March), November was pushed from the ninth spot to the eleventh, and despite later tweaking by Julius Caesar and Pope Gregory XIII, this has remained the month's place on the calendar ever since. As for the word November, it passed into Old French as Novembre, carrying over the adjusted Latin meaning of “the eleventh month of the calendar year.” Middle English borrowed the Old French circa 1200—it replaced the Old English Blotmonath, which literally meant “blood month” and was so named because it was the time of year when animals were slaughtered in preparation for the coming winter—although it took a couple of centuries for the form to shift to the current November.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

October 30, 2013

Case File #013.10.30: PUMPKIN

While pumpkins have been a part of the Halloween tradition for just a mere two centuries or so, the noun pumpkin has been around for at least twice that long and its antecedents are downright ancient. The current form of the word appeared in the mid-seventeenth century and quickly displaced the previous form, pumpion, which itself had come into use circa 1540 to replace the older pompon, a word borrowed directly from the Middle French at the end of the fifteenth century. Pompon had evolved from the Old French popon—a transformation that likely occurred during the late fourteenth century—and the Old French was a descendant of the classical Latin pepo. But the Latin word didn't mean only “pumpkin”; depending on the context in which it was used, it could also mean “watermelon or other such fruit.” This is because its source was the Greek pepon, which meant “ripened or cooked melon.” Now, if you're like me, you're wondering why the ancient Romans thought a Greek word for soft fruit would make a good label for pumpkins, and furthermore, you're probably asking yourself why they thought the same word should also be applied to watermelons. Sadly, the answers to those questions are lost in the fog of history. We can be happy, though, that pumpkin didn't ultimately inherit its ancestor's association with watermelons, because Halloween would be about as spooky as Christmas if jack-o'-lanterns were green and red instead of orange.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

October 28, 2013

Case File #013.10.28: INCUBUS

As you may already know, an incubus is a mythical male ghost or demon that descends upon sleeping human females and has sexual intercourse with them. What you may not know, however, is that the English noun incubus ultimately descended from the classical Latin verb incubare, which meant “to keep watch (over)” and “to lie on or sit on.” The Latin word is also the source of the modern English verb incubate, and while that fact may not be too surprising in and of itself, it does raise an interesting question: how did a word associated with incubation, lying and sitting, and keeping watch also come to be associated with sexually active ghosts and demons? Well, the story goes as follows. A long time ago, many people believed that nightmares were formed when a malevolent demon or spirit sat on the chest of the person sleeping. Sometime during the Late Latin era (a period that spanned roughly from the third century to the sixth), Latin speakers decided there should be a word for the nightmare-causing chest-sitters, and from their verb incubare they derived the noun incubus, which they used to mean both “one who sits or lies on a sleeper” and “nightmare.” Many English speakers of yore also believed in the chest-sitting spirits and demons, and on top of that, the poor sexually repressed bastards imagined that some of these ghostly night visitors took more liberties with their sleeping hosts than just sitting on them. So around 1350, English speakers who were educated (that is, they knew Latin) but also superstitious and horny decided they needed a term they could apply specifically to those night spirits they fantasized were diddling human women, and to that end, they borrowed the Late Latin incubus and simply altered its meaning. By the way, the English word succubus, meaning “a mythical female ghost or demon that has sexual intercourse with sleeping human males,” followed a similar etymological path. It is a semantic alteration of the Medieval Latin noun succubus, which meant “promiscuous woman” or “prostitute” and was itself derived from the classical Latin verb succubare, meaning “to lie under.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

October 24, 2013

Case File #013.10.24: EERIE

The word eerie descended from the Old English earg, which meant “cowardly” and itself evolved (or so say some etymologists and linguists) from either the Proto-Germanic adjective argaz, meaning “unmanly” or “fainthearted,” or the Proto-Indo-European verb root ergh-, meaning “to tremble or shake.” So it's understandable that when eerie first came into use during the late thirteenth century, it meant “fearful or timid.” The eighteenth-century Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns was the first to use the adjective in its contemporary sense of “strange and mysterious in a way that inspires uneasiness, fear, or dread,” and since it was through his influence that this became the word's primary meaning throughout the English-speaking world, it's more than a little ironic that the Scottish still often use eerie in what is basically its original sense of “frightened or unnerved.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

October 21, 2013

Case File #013.10.21: TARANTULA

For many people, the mere utterance of the word tarantula raises goosebumps aplenty, most likely because it conjures up mental imagery featuring a vast array of giant arachnids both real and fictional. But when the noun first appeared in the English lexicon circa 1591, it referred not to just any eight-legged terror but only to a specific European wolf spider, Lycosa tarentula. Now, this info probably doesn't surprise you if you're already aware that the English noun is a direct borrowing of the Medieval Latin, that the Latin derived from the Old Italian noun tarantola, and that the Italian evolved from Taranto, the name of a seaport in southern Italy where the aforementioned wolf spiders are commonly found. However, you may be surprised to learn that it wasn't until the late eighteenth century that tarantula was first used in reference to Theraphosidae, the family of large hairy spiders native to the tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas. And its use as a generic term for any monstrous spider is an even more recent phenomenon, having first appeared in American English around the middle of the twentieth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

October 17, 2013

Case File #013.10.17: GHASTLY

Although ghastly means “intensely unpleasant, horrible, or terrifying” and is even occasionally used to mean “pale, pallid, or otherwise resembling a ghost,” it has no palpable etymological relationship to the word ghost. The adjective is actually a descendant of the Old English verb gæstan, which meant “to frighten or torment,” and when it first came into use at the end of the thirteenth century, it was spelled gastlich or sometimes gostlich. The form evolved to gastli within a scant quarter of a century or so, but the current ghastly didn't show up until 1590—its first published appearance was in Edmund Spenser's epic poem The Faerie Queene—which was also around the time the word's adverbial senses (“in a macabre, gruesome, or terrifying manner” and “with a deathlike quality”) came into use.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

October 14, 2013

Case File #013.10.14: 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, 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 -jə/ 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.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

October 10, 2013

Case File #013.10.10: FREAK

Now, don't freak out over this, but when the noun freak first appeared in the English lexicon circa 1563, it meant “a capricious notion or a sudden change of mind.” And not only that, but etymologists are freakishly divided over the word's possible antecedents: some believe it descended from the Old English verb frician, which meant “to dance”; some claim it evolved from the Middle English noun frekynge (sometimes spelled freking), which meant “impulsive or erratic behavior”; some think it grew out of the Middle English adjective frek, which meant “eager, bold, or zealous” but was also sometimes used to mean “fast or speedy”; and still others argue that it came from something else altogether. But whatever the case, by 1785, freak had come to mean “an eccentric desire or whim,” and by the mid-nineteenth century, it had acquired its now familiar and primary senses of “a thing or occurrence that is notably unusual or irregular” and “a person, animal, or plant that is physically abnormal or grossly malformed.” The sense in which the noun refers to an ardent enthusiast—as in, for example, nature freak or sports freak—dates to around 1910, and the informal senses of “illicit drug user,” “member of the counterculture,” and “sexual deviate” are even newer, all having first appeared around the late 1950s. The common but informal contemporary verb sense of freak, which is often followed by out and means “to act or cause to act in a distressed, irrational, or uncontrollable way,” is also relatively new and first came into wide use during the 1960s, yet the less common verb senses of “to fleck or streak randomly” and “to alter or distort” date back to the early seventeenth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

October 7, 2013

Case File #013.10.07: WITCH

In the era of Old English, wicca was the word for a male magician or sorcerer, and wicce was its feminine counterpart. Although both were derivatives of the Old English verb wiccian, which meant “to practice divination and magic,” they generally suggested something much more nefarious than mere fortune-telling or spell-casting and were often used to label men and women who were suspected of having dealings with the devil or of cavorting with evil spirits. When Old English gave way to Middle English during the twelfth century, wicca and wicce became more or less interchangeable, and by around 1250, both had evolved into the single word wiche (sometimes spelled wicche). The noun's current form, witch, finally popped up around the mid-fifteenth century, and its verb senses, “to influence or affect by or as if by magic or devilry” and “to enchant or beguile,” came into use about fifty or so years later. (Some etymologists believe that the verb witch is not a derivation of the noun but rather a back-formation from bewitch, as the two verbs are essentially synonymous and bewitch actually entered the English lexicon first.) But the now common though informal noun senses of witch—that is, “old woman,” “ugly woman,” and “mean, spiteful, or overbearing woman”—are relatively new, having first appeared around the beginning of the nineteenth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

October 3, 2013

Case File #013.10.03: BOO

English speakers have used the interjection boo to startle or frighten people since at least the early fifteenth century, but information about the word's origins is as nebulous as the ghosts whose utterances it supposedly mimics. It was once believed that the word developed as a corruption of Boh, the name of a tyrannical Medieval general whose brutality struck terror in the hearts of his enemies and allies alike, but not a shred of evidence exists to support this idea, and it has thus long been disregarded as mere folk etymology. More recently, some etymologists have suggested that boo may have evolved from the Latin boare, which meant “to cry aloud or bellow,” yet even the extant data supporting this theory is tenuous. Now, while the source of the frightening interjection may still be a mystery, there is no doubt about the origins of the word's contemporary noun sense. Meaning “a shout of disapproval or contempt,” the word first appeared circa 1800 as an onomatopoeia suggestive of the lowing of oxen, and the utterance of such a boo was meant to imply that the person or object of derision was no better than a mere farm animal. Surprisingly, though, the related verb sense, “to deride or express disapproval by uttering a prolonged boo,” didn't show up for another eighty years or so. And the informal use of boo in which it means “any sound or word”—as in, for example, You didn't say boo to me about your plans—appeared no earlier than 1890.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

September 30, 2013

Case File #013.09.30: DELIRIUM

If we trace the noun delirium all the way back to its earliest tangible roots, we find that it started with the Latin prepositional phrase de lire, which meant “from the furrow” or “off the track.” The ancient Romans transformed the phrase into the verb deliriare, which initially meant “to wander from the furrow (while plowing)” but was later used figuratively to mean “to deviate from the rational or emotional norm” or “to become deranged,” and from this they derived the Latin noun delirium, meaning “insanity.” When the noun passed directly into English circa 1590, the meaning was softened a bit to “a temporary state of acute mental or emotional instability resulting from high fever, intoxication, shock, or other such causes,” but the informal sense in which delirium is softened even further to “frenzied excitement” or “ecstasy”—as in, for example, The sports fans jumped about in delirium after their team's championship victory —didn't appear until the mid-nineteenth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

September 26, 2013

Case File #013.09.26: MANURE

If you're like me, you probably aren't keen on the idea of getting manure on your hands, so it might surprise you to learn that the word manure ultimately evolved from the Latin verb phrase manu operari, which meant “to work using one's hands.” When the Latin phrase passed into Old French, it became the single word manouvrer and was used to mean “to make or produce” and “to perform manual labor,” but when English speakers borrowed the French in the early fifteenth century, they Anglicized the spelling to the now familiar manure and used it to mean “to work the soil” and “to cultivate and manage the land.” Of course, cultivating the land often involves the spreading of fertilizer, and since the earliest fertilizers were made of animal dung, it wasn't long before manure took on the sense of “to spread dung on the fields.” During the latter half of the sixteenth century, however, the word became more closely associated with the fertilizer than the act of fertilizing and thus took on the noun sense of “animal dung,” and by the time 1700 rolled around, the noun sense had become more prominent and the verb was relegated to the farmers' argot.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

September 23, 2013

Case File #013.09.23: VULGAR

The Latin noun vulgus meant “common people” or “general public,” and from it the ancient Romans derived the adjective vulgaris, which meant “commonplace” or “of the common people.” As you may have guessed, vulgaris was the source for the English vulgar, and when the latter first appeared in the English lexicon in the late fourteenth century, it essentially meant “common, ordinary, or everyday.” Around the middle of the seventeenth century, vulgar also took on the additional senses of “ill-bred” and “uncultivated, crude, or tasteless,” but the adjective's now more common sense of “lewd, indecent, or obscene” didn't come into use until the late eighteenth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

September 19, 2013

Case File #013.09.19: CAHOOTS

When you're in cahoots with somebody, it generally means that you're colluding or conspiring together for some secret and often nefarious purpose. And the coining of the word cahoots must have been the result of such a conspiracy, because even though English speakers have been using the noun since the early nineteenth century, nobody really knows who coined it or how it originated. Some linguists and etymologists believe the word may have been derived from the Latin cohors, which literally meant “enclosure for animals or soldiers” yet was often used figuratively to mean “enclosed group” or “infantry troop.” But others think it more likely that cahoots was derived from the French cahute, meaning “hut” or “cabin,” and was thus intended to suggest the closed-in, out-of-the-way places in which conspirators often do their caballing and conniving.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

September 16, 2013

Case File #013.09.16: QUIZ

The ultimate origins of the word quiz are lost in the mists of history, but that hasn't stopped people from offering up a few ideas. One older story purports that the word was invented in the eighteenth century by a Dublin theater owner who, fancying himself a crack neologist, won a bet that his new word would be in wide use within forty-eight hours of its coining, and though this tale has been circulated for at least two hundred years, not a single shred of evidence exists to support it. A more recent hypothesis suggests that quiz was derived from the Latin quis, which was a pronoun meaning “what,” “who,” or “which” and was often used as an interrogative. And while this idea appears to be more logical and historically sound than the older one, most experts dismiss it as a piece of etymological casuistry because it flies in the face of what little actually is known about the background of the word. You see, when the noun quiz first appeared in the English lexicon around 1780, it meant “an odd or eccentric person,” and its derivative verb sense—which came into use about fifteen years later—meant “to mock, jeer, or ridicule.” It wasn't until circa 1850 that the verb came to mean “to question or interrogate” and “to give a student an informal test or examination”—the noun sense of “a brief test or examination” took another decade or so to show up—but what's really interesting is that nobody can figure out for certain why this semantic shift occurred, though the etymologists behind the venerable Oxford English Dictionary have suggested that the change may have been influenced by the long-established and similar-sounding adjective inquisitive.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

September 11, 2013

Case File #013.09.11: SKULL

Old English had several words for the bone that encloses the brain, though all of them were compounds using either brain (brægen in Old English) or head (heafod ) as a base: brægenpanne, which translates as “brain pan”; heafodpanne, which translates as “head pan”; heafodbolla, which translates as “head bowl” or “head cup”; heafodloca, which translates as “head enclosure”; and finally heafodban, which translates as “head bone.” Around the end of the twelfth century, these compounds were all abandoned in favor of the now common skull, but curiously enough, nobody knows for sure where the newer noun came from. Among etymologists, the traditional belief has been that the word was derived from the Old Icelandic skalli, which meant “bald head” but was also sometimes used to mean “head bone.” However, a more recent theory suggests that skull evolved from the Old English noun scealu, which meant “husk or shell” and was often used as a generic term for cup- and bowl-like containers.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

September 9, 2013

Case File #013.09.09: UMBRAGE

The word umbrage has a shady past. Literally. It came to English via the Middle French ombrage, which meant “shade or shadow” and was itself derived from the Latin adjective umbraticus, meaning “shadowy” or “of the shade.” When English speakers borrowed the French term in the early fifteenth century, they changed the spelling to umbrage yet kept the original shadowy meaning. The noun's usage became more figurative than literal during the sixteenth century, however, and its meaning shifted first to something like “indistinctness” or “haziness” and then later to “doubt” and “suspicion.” But seventeenth-century English speakers must have been a little piqued by all those former shady and suspicious meanings of umbrage, for it was they who gave the noun its current primary sense of “resentment, insult, or offense.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

September 4, 2013

Case File #013.09.04: YIP

The Middle English verb yippen meant “to peep or chirp like a small bird,” and when it passed into modern English in the fifteenth century, its form was shortened to yip but its meaning remained essentially the same. During the early nineteenth century, however, the word flew further from its fowl beginnings and came to mean “to talk or cry in a shrill manner,” a change that some linguists and etymologists believe took place because the orthographical and phonological similarities between yip and yap caused English speakers to confuse the two words. The current sense of the verb yip, “to bark or yelp sharply, briskly, and often continuously,” first appeared in American author Kate Douglas Wiggin's novella The Diary of a Goose Girl in 1902, and the derivative noun sense of “a sharp, high-pitched bark or yelp” came into use around 1910.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

September 3, 2013

Case File #013.09.03: JEANS

If you're anything like me, you favor jeans over just about any other type of clothing. But do you know how the popular denim pants got their name? Well, it all started with the Middle French phrase jean fustian, which meant “fustian of Genoa” and referred to a twilled cotton fabric that was manufactured in Italy. English speakers borrowed the phrase in the mid-fifteenth century, though they soon dropped fustian and simply used jean as a moniker not only for the Italian cloth but also for any twilled cotton fabric, of which denim is one. Thus, when United States clothiers started using denim to make legwear in the nineteenth century, Americans referred to the durable clothing as merely jean. Around 1880, however, the plural form jeans completely supplanted the singular in everyday usage, a change that many etymologists and linguists attribute to the influence of the long-standing usage of the related pants and trousers.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 28, 2013

Case File #013.08.28: IMP

Believe it or not, the noun imp doesn't have the fiendish pedigree that its current meanings might suggest. It is a descendant of the Late Latin verb imputare, meaning “to graft (onto),” which is itself the progeny of the Greek emphuein (sometimes transliterated as emphyein), meaning “to implant.” When the Anglo-Saxons adopted the Latin verb, they kept its meaning but changed the spelling to impian, and from that they formed the noun impa and used it to mean “a graft or young shoot.” Impa passed into Middle English as impe, but sometime towards the end of the fourteenth century, the word's meaning shifted from “a young shoot” to “a child of a noble family.” English speakers in the early sixteenth century must not have thought too highly of the children of nobility, however, because they're the ones who changed the spelling of impe to the now familiar imp and used it to mean “a small demon” or “a child of the Devil,” and it wasn't until the middle of the seventeenth century that the noun took on the additional and somewhat softer sense of “a mischievous child.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 27, 2013

Case File #013.08.27: TANTALIZE

According to Greek mythology, King Tantalus was a mortal son of Zeus who one day displeased the immortal Olympians—the many versions of the myth differ in the details of the king's offense, though all say it somehow involved food—and received a most apropos punishment for his sin. The gods placed the king in a lake with waters that reached up to his chin and with luscious fruit that hung from branches over his head, but whenever he would attempt to drink or eat, the waters would recede from his lips and the fruit would shrink from his grasp. Thus was Tantulus held in a perpetual state of sensual frustration, and it is from his name that sixteenth-century English speakers derived the verb tantalize, which means “to tease or torment with the promise of something that is difficult to obtain” and “to excite the senses or incite desire.” Reflecting the spirit of the myth even more is the English noun tantalus: clearly a direct borrowing of the mythical king's name, the word was coined in the nineteenth century as the name for a small cabinet or sideboard in which decanters of liquor can be locked out of reach but still remain visible.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 26, 2013

Case File #013.08.26: LETTUCE

Not many people would think of lettuce and milk as culinary partners, yet it turns out there is a palatable affinity between the two. Well, etymologically speaking, that is. First appearing in the English lexicon circa 1300, lettuce was derived from the Old French plural laituës, meaning “lettuces,” the singular of which evolved from lactuca, the Latin word for lettuce. But lactuca was itself derived from the Latin adjective lacteus, meaning “of milk” or “abounding in milk,” most likely as an allusion to the milky juices of certain varieties of lettuce and other edible greens. The Americanism in which lettuce refers to paper money, however, makes no such insinuations about the plant's milkiness or the word's milky past. First recorded around 1930, the term actually alludes to the lettuce-like green color of US currency, but given the twenty-first century's move towards a cashless world economy, the Yankee jargon is now considered passé.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 22, 2013

Case File #013.08.22: ZEPHYR

The word zephyr has been in the English lexicon since at least 1000, but the Anglo-Saxons spelled it zefferus and used it to mean “a westerly wind.” It was derived from the Latin zephyrus, which meant “the west wind” and was itself derived from the Greek Zephyros (also transliterated as Zephuros). While the Greek, too, was sometimes used in reference to a westerly breeze, it was more commonly used as the name of a Greek god who was not only the personification of the west winds but also the god of springtime. Now, as you may have noticed, the contemporary English spelling looks more like that of the Latin and Greek than did the Old English, yet the form zephyr dates back no earlier than the late sixteenth century, having first appeared in George Chapman's initial translations of Homer's The Iliad. And like the current spelling, the word's now familiar and more general sense of “a gentle breeze” is also relatively new—Shakespeare used it first in the fourth act of his tragic play Cymbeline, which was written around 1609—as is the sense of “a lightweight fabric or article of clothing.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 21, 2013

Case File #013.08.21: AMBULANCE

As I'm sure you already know, an ambulance is a siren-equipped motor vehicle used for transporting the sick and the injured to the hospital. But I'll bet you didn't know that the word ambulance is related to the adjective ambulatory, which means “capable of walking” and “related to walking” and was derived from the Latin verb ambulare, meaning “to walk about” or “to travel on foot.” So how did a wheeled, motorized emergency vehicle get a name that essentially means “walking”? Well, it all started around the middle of the eighteenth century when the French military developed the first truly mobile medical facility, a sort of modular hospital that was rather easy to assemble, disassemble, and carry from battlefield to battlefield. The French referred to the portable facility as hôpital ambulant, which literally translates as “walking hospital,” but by the 1790s, the phrase had evolved into the single word ambulance. During the Crimean War in the mid-nineteenth century, the British copied the French mobile-hospital concept and also borrowed its name, but when the Americans got wind of the idea, they put their portable hospitals (or ambulances, if you will) inside of covered wagons, thus making the facilities even easier to transport—not to mention eliminating the need for assembly and disassembly—and making it possible to quickly move the injured and the medics off the battlefield and out of harm's way. The British and the French soon followed suit, of course, and by the late nineteenth century, ambulance had basically come to mean “a field hospital on wheels.” After the invention of the faster and more powerful automobile, however, the ambulance became less of a portable hospital and more of a mobile but temporary life-support capsule in which the sick and injured can be quickly transported to a fully equipped medical facility.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 20, 2013

Case File #013.08.20: PICNIC

Picnic is an Anglicized form of the French piquenique. The French word came into use in the mid-seventeenth century, and while there is no tangible evidence regarding its specific origins, linguists and etymologists have offered up a cogent theory: they think it was formed from a combination of the French verb piquer, meaning “to pick,” and the Old French noun nique, meaning “a trifling thing.” If this is true, then piquenique literally means “to pick a trifling thing,” which seems reasonable when you consider that the French word and its English spin-off, picnic, were originally used to mean “potluck dinner” and that the dishes at a potluck are usually easy-to-prepare and easy-to-carry trifles from which daring diners are encouraged to pick and choose. It wasn't until the early nineteenth century that the English noun came to mean “a meal eaten outdoors,” and the verb sense, “to eat a meal in the open air,” wasn't coined until 1842, making its debut in the opening lines of Tennyson's poem “Audley Court.” The figurative use of picnic in which it means “easy task” or “pleasant experience”—as in, for example, “Finishing the job before deadline was no picnic”—first appeared in the early twentieth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 19, 2013

Case File #013.08.19: NOISOME

Appearances can often be deceiving, and when it comes to English vocabulary, the adjective noisome is a case in point: in spite of the word's spelling and the way it sounds when properly pronounced, it has no etymological or semantic connection to the word noise whatsoever. Noisome is actually a descendant of the Middle English noun anoi, which meant “nuisance” or “annoyance” and was itself derived from the Old French verb anoier, meaning “to disturb or irritate.” (As you may have guessed, anoier is also the source of the English verb annoy.) During the thirteenth century, English speakers would sometimes shorten anoi to noi (also spelled noy or noye) and use it to mean “misfortune, danger, or harm,” and around the mid-fourteenth century, the suffix -some, meaning “characterized by” or “tending to cause,” was added to noi and—voilà—the adjective noisome was formed. Thus, noisome means “dangerous or harmful”—a definition that obviously has nothing to do with the word noise, though noise can sometimes be dangerous and harmful—and this was its sole meaning until circa 1570, at which point it took on the additional and still current senses of “obnoxious or offensive” and “malodorous or fetid.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 15, 2013

Case File #013.08.15: BLINDFOLD

In the Old English era, the verb geblindfellian meant “to strike someone blind” or “to cover someone's eyes.” When the word passed into Middle English in the twelfth century, its form was simplified somewhat to blindfellen, the past tense of which was blindfelde. Around the end of the fifteenth century, however, people started mistakenly using the past-tense form as a present-tense verb, and due to a misconception about the word's semantic relationship with fold—an idea that presumably came about because the creation of a blindfold often involves the folding of a piece of cloth—the spelling of blindfelde shifted to the current blindfold around the mid-sixteenth century, and the connotation of literally blinding someone was discarded soon after. The noun senses of blindfold—that is, “a piece of cloth or other such object used as a covering for the eyes” and “something that obscures mental perception”—didn't show up until quite a bit later, though, and etymologists and lexicographers are split over just when that actually took place: some say it occurred as early as 1715, whereas others contend it didn't happen before 1880.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 14, 2013

Case File #013.08.14: XEROX

It should come as no surprise that the verb xerox was derived from the name of what is arguably the world's most famous manufacturer of photocopying and imaging equipment, the Xerox Corporation. The US-based business was originally called The Haloid Photographic Company, but soon after the invention of its groundbreaking plain-paper copier, the Xerox 914, in the early 1950s, the company changed its name to Xerox and got the name legally trademarked. Xerox derived its corporate and product name from the noun xerography—xerography is a liquid-free photographic process that was at the heart of the company's nascent photocopier technology—which was itself formed from a combination of the Greek words xeros, meaning “dry,” and graphein, meaning “to write, draw, or otherwise make an image or document.” Thus, it wouldn't be unreasonable to surmise that the name Xerox means “to reproduce a document using a dry imaging process,” and sure enough, the photocopying masses were of the same opinion, albeit they likely arrived at that conclusion ignorant of the word's true etymology. At any rate, as the Xerox copier became more affordable and started popping up in more and more business offices, people began using the name of the device as a verb meaning “to make a photocopy,” and the verb itself began to pop up—lowercased, no less—in English dictionaries as early as 1965.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 13, 2013

Case File #013.08.13: GLUE

English speakers started using the noun glue around 1225, only back then it was spelled glu or gleu and was used to refer to any viscid substance. It was borrowed from the Old French glu, meaning “birdlime” (birdlime is an adhesive made from tree bark and was once commonly used to snare small birds), which was itself derived from the Latin gluten, meaning “a gummy paste or wax.” The verb sense of glue, however, came to English via a slightly different route. Derived from the Old French gluer, meaning “to paste, fasten, or cause to adhere,” the verb entered the English lexicon around 1380, though it was first spelled gliwen and then changed to glewen about two decades later. As Middle English evolved into modern English during the fifteenth century, the forms of both the verb and the noun shifted to glew, which in turn became the now familiar glue sometime during the first half of the sixteenth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 12, 2013

Case File #013.08.12: WALL

“Stone walls do not a prison make,” wrote the seventeenth-century poet Richard Lovelace, and while we might agree with the philosophical sentiments that underlie his words, we'd be foolish to deny that a well-built wall usually makes a pretty good physical impediment. In fact, if we look at the history of the word wall, we find that the idea of wall-as-barrier has been there all along. Derived from the Latin vallum, which meant “palisade” or “bulwark,” the word was spelled weall in the Old English era and was used to mean both “rampart” and “levee or dike.” When it passed into Middle English in the twelfth century, its form changed to walle and it took on the additional meanings of “a side of a room or building, typically connecting the floor to the ceiling or the foundation to the roof” and “any continuous vertical structure that encloses or divides an area of land,” and the verb senses of the word—that is, “to divide or separate with or as if with a wall” and “to enclose, surround, confine, or block with or as if with a wall”—came into use during the thirteenth century. The form of both the verb and the noun changed to the current wall around the end of the fifteenth century, and not long after, the noun also took on the additional and more general senses of “any material layer enclosing a space” (as in the abdominal wall) and “anything that resembles a wall in structure or function” (as in socioeconomic wall and wall of silence).

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 8, 2013

Case File #013.08.08: MALAPROPISM

In Richard Sheridan's 1775 comedic play The Rivals, Mrs. Malaprop is a bombastic character who often ludicrously misuses words, and it is from her name that the English noun malapropism was derived. Sheridan based the character's name on the adjective malapropos, meaning “inappropriate” or “inopportune,” which had been around since the mid-seventeenth century and was itself an Anglicized borrowing of the French phrase mal à propos, meaning “bad for the purpose.” As for the coining of malapropism—which means, of course, “the mistaken and often humorous use of a word or phrase in place of a similar-sounding one, or a word or phrase so misused”—etymologists and lexicographers agree on neither when the deed occurred nor who should get the credit, but many do believe the word's first appearance in print was in Charlotte Brontë's novel Shirley in 1849.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 7, 2013

Case File #013.08.07: EPICURE

The English word epicure comes from Epicurus, the Latinized name of a Greek philosopher (the Greek form was Epikouros) who lived from the mid-fourth century BCE to the early third century BCE. Epicurus believed that pleasure is life's highest measure of goodness, but he defined pleasure as the absence of pain and the cultivation of virtue, and he therefore taught his students that the only way to achieve true pleasure was to lead an essentially ascetic life—the pursuit and accumulation of material goods and the concomitant fear of failure and loss, he believed, would only lead to mental and physical pain—dedicated to improving one's own ethical judgment and moral behavior. However, successive generations of his followers twisted his ideas into a credo that extolled selfish indulgence of the senses, and during the first century or two following his death, his name ironically became associated with sensuality and hedonism. Thus, when epicure became part of the English vocabulary around the end of the fourteenth century, it originally meant “hedonist or glutton.” This pejorative sense softened over time, though, and by the end of the sixteenth century, the word had acquired its current meaning of “a person with refined and discriminating taste, especially in food and drink.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 6, 2013

Case File #013.08.06: CRAVEN

Craven entered the English vocabulary in the early thirteenth century, but its original form was cravant and it was used to mean “defeated.” Most etymologists believe it was ultimately derived from the Old French verb cravanter, meaning “to crush or overwhelm,” which was itself derived from the Latin verb crepare, meaning “to crack" or “to burst.” The English adjective's now familiar sense of “cowardly” was first used around 1400 and soon became the word's sole meaning, but the current form craven didn't appear until sometime during the seventeenth century. And for the record, the popular horror-film director who is ironically named Craven entered the world on August 2, 1939, though his filmmaking career didn't begin until the early 1970s.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 5, 2013

Case File #013.08.05: ONION

Onion was derived from the Old French oignon, which was itself derived from the Latin noun unio. Unlike its French and English progeny, however, the Latin word refers not to the pungent and bulbous herb but to the precious gem we English speakers call a pearl. Interestingly enough, unio shares its stem with the Latin verb unire, which means “to combine many into one,” and some etymologists believe the noun's formal kinship to the verb is an intentional allusion to the fact that both onions and pearls are multilayered objects. (For the record, a pearl is created when an irritant, such as a piece of coral or a parasite, gets inside the shell of a particular type of mollusk and the animal attempts to relieve its discomfort by slowly depositing concentric mineral layers around the offending particle.) In post-classical times, in fact, Roman soldiers used unio as a colloquialism for “onion,” and it is undoubtedly from this slangy sense that the Old French oignon was derived. When the word passed from French to English circa 1130, it was Anglicized to ungeon, but it became unyon around 1356 and later spent a few decades as onyon before the y was changed to i at the beginning of the fifteenth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 1, 2013

Case File #013.08.01: FOOL

The ultimate source of the word fool is the Latin follis, which means “a pair of bellows” or “an inflated bag.” In post-classical times, the Latin noun was also used as a slang meaning “windbag” or “chatterbox,” and when this colloquialism passed into Old French, it became fol and was used to mean “buffoon” and “jester.” Middle English borrowed the Old French noun (and its form) in the early thirteenth century, though English speakers used it to mean not only “jester” or “clown” but also "an unwise person." When the verb sense first appeared in the English lexicon around 1350, it was originally spelled folen and meant “to act unwisely,” and while it took only another twenty-five years or so for the spelling of both the verb and the noun to become the current fool, it took more than six centuries for the verb to accumulate all of the additional meanings it has today: the sense of “to trick or deceive” and its related connotations, such as “to surprise” and “to joke,” didn't appear until 1595; “to tamper, toy, or contend,” usually used in the phrasal form fool with, appeared no sooner than the mid-seventeenth century; “to pass time idly,” often rendered as the phrasal form fool around, didn't come into use until circa 1875; and “to have sexual relations,” often rendered phrasally as either fool around or fool around with, wasn't coined until the early 1960s.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

July 31, 2013

Case File #013.07.31: SEETHE

Seethe is another extant word with roots that wind all the way back to the Old English era. In those days, though, its form was seothan, and while it literally meant “to boil or stew something (such as food),” it was also used figuratively to mean “to try by fire” and “to ponder over an important issue.” During the Middle English period, the verb slowly lost those figurative senses, and around the end of the thirteenth century, its spelling was altered first to sethan and then to sethen. The current form seethe finally showed up in the late fourteenth century, after which the verb lost its literal association with cooking and took on its current senses of “to foam, bubble, or churn as if boiling” and “to move about in a hectic or chaotic manner.” And the contemporary figurative sense of seethe—that is, the sense of “to be in a state of extreme excitement, agitation, or anger”—is often credited to our old friend and prolific neologist William Shakespeare, who is said to have coined it in his play Troilus and Cressida in 1602.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

July 30, 2013

Case File #013.07.30: EVIL

Some people 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 true or not, there is one thing that is indisputable: the word evil has been around for a very, very long time. It was derived from the Old High German word ubil, which etymologists and linguists say was itself derived from the Proto-Germanic ubilaz, though 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 essentially meant “sinful,” “malevolent,” or “depraved,” it was also sometimes used to mean “ill,” “grievous,” or “oppressive.” Just before Old English gave way to Middle English during the twelfth century, however, those less malicious denotations of the adjective were jettisoned and the word's now familiar noun senses—that is, “wickedness” and “that which deliberately causes great injury, suffering, or destruction”—came into use, and at the beginning of the fourteenth century, the word's form changed first to evel and then finally to the current evil.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

July 29, 2013

Case File #013.07.29: RODEO

During the nineteenth century, a large number of Latin Americans immigrated to the Southwestern United States and found employment as cowboys and ranch hands, and it is these folks who get the credit for introducing rodeo to the English language. Derived from the Spanish verb rodear, meaning “to surround,” the Spanish noun rodeo means “detour” or “encirclement,” though it is also sometimes used in the figurative senses of “an evasive maneuver” and “circumlocution.” When English-speaking American cowboys first borrowed the word in the 1830s, they used it to mean “a cattle roundup,” and soon after, they also used it as a name for the enclosure into which cattle are herded at the end of a roundup. It wasn't until the early twentieth century, however, that English speakers used rodeo to mean “a public contest or exhibition of cowboy skills such as calf roping, bronco busting, and bull riding,” and the verb sense of “to observe or participate in a rodeo exhibition” didn't show up until the 1950s. Interestingly, the English usage has had some reciprocal influence on the Latin American, and Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking denizens of South America now sometimes use rodeo in reference to certain cattle-ranching activities.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

July 25, 2013

Case File #013.07.25: HALCYON

According to an ancient Greek myth, a preternatural bird known as the halkyon would build its nest on the sea each year around the time of the winter solstice, and for the duration of its nesting period, the bird would magically subdue the wind and the waves. (The myth also explains the origin of the halkyon and how it got its weather-controlling abilities, but we don't need to get into that for our purposes here.) Thus, the Greeks often referred to any stretch of calm winter weather as halkyon days. Although the halkyon was a mythical creature, the word halkyon was derived from the Greek alkyon, which meant “kingfisher,” and when halkyon was later borrowed by Latin, it became halcyon and was used to refer to the kingfisher bird. Sometime during fourteenth century, English speakers borrowed the Latin word and its avian sense, but with the revived interest in classical Greco-Roman culture that occurred during the Renaissance came increased knowledge of the Greek halkyon myth, and in 1540 the phrase halcyon days, along with its original Greek meaning, became part of the English vocabulary. In a relatively short time, however, the phrase became a designation not only for calm winter weather but also for tranquil weather at other times of the year, and by 1600, the word halcyon itself had come to mean “calm and peaceful.” About thirty years later, the word acquired the additional senses of “happy or idyllic” and “prosperous or affluent,” and the phrase halcyon days naturally followed suit and took on its current meaning of “a period of extraordinary happiness, peace, or prosperity.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

July 24, 2013

Case File #013.07.24: QUAINT

Quaint became part of the English vocabulary circa 1200, though it was originally spelled cointe and was hardly the winsome word it is today. It came directly from the Old French adjective, which meant “knowledgeable or clever” and was itself derived from the similarly defined Latin word cognitus, but around 1280, the English was Anglicized to queinte (sometimes spelled queynte) and its meaning shifted to “elaborate” and “skillfully made.” Believe it or not, it only took another forty years or so for the word's form to become the now familiar quaint, yet the current sense of “interestingly odd or charmingly old-fashioned” didn't come into use until the late eighteenth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

July 23, 2013

Case File #013.07.23: UNKEMPT

During the Middle English era, kemben was the common word for “to comb.” The verb's past participle was kempt, and as you've probably already surmised, the derivative unkempt meant “not combed.” As the fourteenth century wound to a close, however, the spelling of kemben evolved into the now familiar comb, and though the form of unkempt somehow came out unscathed, the adjective's meaning shifted to the more general (and still current) “untidy or disheveled.” Now, if you're assuming that this was also when kempt came to mean “neat or orderly,” you couldn't be more wrong. You see, when kemben became comb, the verb's past participle also changed to combed and the older kempt fell out of use altogether. So, then, just where did the contemporary adjective kempt come from, you ask? Well, it turns out that it originated in the 1920s as a back-formation from unkempt, most likely first popping up when somebody in need of a tidy synonym assumed the un- in unkempt was a mere facultative prefix.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

July 22, 2013

Case File #013.07.22: KALEIDOSCOPE

Anyone who has ever been a kid—and that means everyone—is likely familiar with the kaleidoscope, that tube-shaped optical toy in which bits of colored paper or glass, held loosely at one end of the tube, are reflected against an arrangement of two or more mirrors to produce changing symmetrical patterns that are viewed through an eyehole as the tube (or a portion thereof) is rotated. The device was invented by Scottish physicist David Brewster in 1817, and he coined its name by combining three linguistic elements: the Greek adjective kalos, which means “beautiful”; the Greek noun eidos, which means “shape” or “form”; and the English scientific suffix -scope, which generally denotes an instrument used for viewing, observing, or examining. Thus, kaleidoscope literally means “beautiful-form viewer.” The figurative sense in which the word refers to “any variegated and shifting pattern or ever-changing combination of elements” first appeared in the second canto of Lord Byron's Don Juan in 1819, and while many dictionaries omit the verb senses—that is, “to create kaleidoscopic patterns” or “to change or shift in the manner of a kaleidoscope's imagery”—evidence suggests that kaleidoscope has been used as a verb since at least the 1890s.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

July 18, 2013

Case File #013.07.18: VISOR

When visor first entered the English lexicon circa 1300, it was sometimes spelled vesour or viser and referred to the movable faceplate of a military helmet such as that used with a suit of armor. The word was derived from the Old French visiere, which was itself derived from the Latin noun visus, meaning “a sight” or “a vision.” (In post-classical times, visus came to mean “face,” and it is from this sense that the English word visage was developed.) The sense in which visor refers to the stiff bill of a cap or headband was first recorded around 1847 in the writings of American historian Francis Parkman, and the use of the word in reference to the sunshade in an automobile dates back to the 1930s.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

July 17, 2013

Case File #013.07.17: NEMESIS

In Greek mythology, the goddess Nemesis is the personification of retribution, especially that doled out by divine decree to wicked or presumptuous mortals, and her name was used as a metonym for “righteous punishment” throughout ancient Greece. Thus, when nemesis was adopted by the English language around 1560, it initially meant “an act or agent of retribution or vengeance.” (This is, in fact, still one of the word's meanings, though it is not used as often now as it once was.) Within a couple of decades, however, the word took on the additional meaning of “any source of harm, ruin, or downfall,” and the now familiar sense in which nemesis refers to “a formidable and often unbeatable opponent” came into use around 1591.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

July 16, 2013

Case File #013.07.16: THRILL

Thrill is a descendant 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 no later than 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, meaning “something that thrills, such as a suspenseful or exciting novel or play,” was coined circa 1889.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

July 15, 2013

Case File #013.07.15: JUGGERNAUT

In the Hindi language, Jagannath is a title for Krishna, the eighth incarnation (or avatar) of the god Vishnu. A compound formed from the Sanskrit words jagat, meaning “world” or “universe,” and nathas, meaning “lord” or “master,” the term was also once used as a name for the large cart or wagon upon which an image of Krishna is carried during certain Hindu festivals in eastern India. In the fourteenth century, European missionaries returning from the Indian subcontinent recounted tales in which they described how the god's devotees, caught up in the religious fervor of the festivals, would sacrifice themselves to him by jumping in front of the Jagannath wagon and getting crushed beneath its massive wheels. While such stories were likely exaggerated for the sake of drama and Christian expediency, they were nonetheless quite popular in England, and Jagannath soon became a somewhat informal English term for anything deemed to be both compelling and destructive. By the time the nineteenth century rolled around, however, English speakers had long since forgotten the word's connection to India, and circa 1840, the word was Anglicized to juggernaut and took on its now familiar sense of “an overwhelming and unstoppable force or object.” In contemporary Britain, juggernaut is also a designation for any large commercial truck, a usage that dates back to the 1940s.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

July 11, 2013

Case File #013.07.11: PETULANT

When petulant first entered the English language around 1600, it meant “immoral, immodest, or bawdy.” The word was lifted directly from the Middle French, which was itself derived from the Latin petulantis, the genitive form of petulans. Interestingly enough, the Latin adjective has two meanings, “immoral or depraved” and “insolent or irascible,” and as with most such multipurpose words, the intended sense is determined via context. Yet when the Latin was used as the basis for the Middle French word petulant, only one meaning—to wit, the one alleging lewd behavior—was retained, and this was the sense that also passed over to English. In 1775, however, British scholar and lexicographer Samuel Johnson published an English dictionary in which he basically defined petulant as “peevish or cantankerous,” a definition that acknowledges the semantic flip side of the Latin source, and this quickly became the word's sole meaning and has remained so to this day.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

July 10, 2013

Case File #013.07.10: YOKEL

The disparaging noun yokel is relatively new to English, having first appeared around 1812. In spite of the word's youthfulness, however, language experts aren't certain about its origins, though they have put forth a couple of interesting theories. One such idea is that yokel was derived from jokel, a dialectal German slang word that was originally a diminutive of the name Jakob but came to be used as a derogatory term for a farmer or other countryside denizen. And the other prominent theory, which is championed by the lexicographers behind both The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary, purports that the word's contemporary meaning is actually a figurative one that evolved from a now defunct dialectal sense in which yokel referred to a strange-acting type of European woodpecker.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

July 9, 2013

Case File #013.07.09: DEFECATE

The Latin word defaecatus is the past participle of defaecare, which means “to purify” or “to clear of dregs.” As you may have already guessed, defaecatus is also the source of the English defecate, and when the verb first appeared in the English lexicon around 1575, it meant “to cleanse of impurities.” Believe it or not, it wasn't until the late nineteenth century that the word came to be associated with the voiding of fecal matter, and even then, such usage was pretty much confined to the United States for about twenty-five years or so. Today, though, defecate is a poopy verb throughout the English-speaking world.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

July 8, 2013

Case File #013.07.08: INSECT

As any grade-schooler can tell you, an insect is a small six-legged arthropod with a segmented body consisting of a head, a thorax, and an abdomen. Now, if you've ever looked closely at an insect yourself, you know that its body segments are each so well defined that it almost appears as if the little bugger has been chopped into three discrete pieces, and you therefore shouldn't be surprised to learn that insect is a cutting word. Etymologically speaking, that is. First appearing in the English lexicon around 1600, the noun insect was derived from the Latin verb insectus, which is itself a past participle of insecare, meaning “to cut up” or “to slice into parts.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

July 3, 2013

Case File #013.07.03: 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.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

July 2, 2013

Case File #013.07.02: ALLURE

The verb allure evolved from the Middle English aluren, meaning “to entice” or “to seduce,” which was itself derived from the Old French aleurier, a falconry term that meant “to bait or lure.” The spelling of the English shifted to allure around 1400, though its meaning remained essentially the same—to this day, in fact, the verb still retains its original underlying connotations of emotional enslavement and carnal corruption—and the noun sense, meaning “the quality of being powerfully attractive or fascinating,” was first recorded circa 1550.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

July 1, 2013

Case File #013.07.01: MAWKISH

Mawkish means “disgustingly sentimental,” but its family tree leans more towards the repulsive than the saccharine. You see, it turns out that the adjective is a direct descendant of the Middle English noun mawke, which meant “maggot,” and for about two hundred years or so, mawkish actually meant “maggoty.” Around the mid-seventeenth century, the meaning shifted to “sickly” and “nauseated,” and the now familiar schmaltzy sense soon followed and quickly became the word's primary meaning. In some parts of the English-speaking world, however, mawkish retains a connection to its maggoty roots and is used to mean “having an unpleasant or putrid flavor,” though this usage is usually considered informal or slangy.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

June 27, 2013

Case File #013.06.27: OCCULT

Occult was derived from the Latin occultare, meaning “to conceal or hide,” and when it first entered the English lexicon circa 1500, it was used as a verb only and meant “to cover or otherwise shut off from view.” When the adjective form came into use around 1535, it originally meant “secret” or “hidden,” but by the end of the century, it had also taken on the additional senses of “mysterious” and “beyond common knowledge.” It wasn't until the mid-seventeenth century, however, that occult came to be associated with magic and the practice of necromancy, and the noun sense of the word—to wit, the one that is usually preceded by the and defined as “any system of beliefs, practices, or phenomena involving magic, mysticism, or the paranormal”—didn't appear until the early twentieth century, though its synonym occultism was in use as early as 1880.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

June 26, 2013

Case File #013.06.26: WOEBEGONE

Have you ever wondered why woebegone seems as if it should mean “no more woe” or “the woe is gone” when it really means the exact opposite? Well, turns out it's a homonymic issue. That is, even though the begone in woebegone looks and sounds exactly like the poetic imperative that means “leave” or “go away,” it's actually a different word altogether. Still confused? Okay, perhaps it will help if we go back to the beginning. The beginning for woebegone, I mean. You see, it all started in the late twelfth century and with these two words: wo, which meant “sadness” or “grief,” and bigon, which meant “to beset” or “to overwhelm.” Thus, the Middle English phrase wo bigon meant “to be overwhelmed with grief.” When, during the thirteenth century, the spelling of wo changed to woe and bigon became begone (sometimes spelled begon), the phrase wo bigon naturally followed suit and became woe begone. Yet the meanings of the words didn't change—the poetic imperative begone, meaning “go away,” wasn't formed until the end of fourteenth century—so when the verb phrase finally contracted into a single word circa 1300, it became woebegone, the now familiar but seemingly misleading adjective that means “full of woe” or “sad or miserable in appearance.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

June 25, 2013

Case File #013.06.25: BUMPKIN

Etymologists and lexicographers are split over the ultimate source of the word bumpkin, though all agree that it first appeared in the English lexicon circa 1570 and is probably of Dutch origin. Some believe it was derived from the Middle Dutch bommekijn, which meant “little cask” and was often used as a humorous moniker for tipplers with beer bellies, while others believe it came from the Middle Dutch boomken, which meant “shrub” or “little tree” and was sometimes used as an epithet for people who were small in stature. (The latter theory seems the more likely if you consider the nautical sense of bumpkin, which first came into use around 1632 and refers to a short spar that projects from the deck of a ship. As I'm sure you'll agree, a bumpkin of this type resembles a short tree more than it does a cask or barrel.) But regardless of the word's origin, upper-crust English speakers originally used it as a disparaging term for any gauche emigrant in their midst, and it wasn't until the eighteenth century that bumpkin lost its xenophobic connotations and became a designation for unsophisticated yokels both domestic and foreign.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

June 24, 2013

Case File #013.06.24: ENTHRALL

The Old English noun thrael essentially meant “servant,” but when it passed into Middle English during the twelfth century, the spelling changed to thrall and the meaning changed to something more akin to “serf” or “slave.” Thus, when the verb enthrall was formed in the early fifteenth century, it meant “to make into a thrall” or “to enslave.” Sometime during the late sixteenth century, however, English speakers began to use enthrall in the more figurative sense of “to fascinate or spellbind,” and it wasn't long before this became the word's primary meaning. In fact, the connotation of literal slavery is now considered archaic or at best passé, and it generally shows up only when enthrall is used in period pieces or poetry.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

June 20, 2013

Case File #013.06.20: ZILCH

Although the roots of the word zilch are difficult to trace with any genuine certainty, they seem to wind back to Joe Zilsch, a slang phrase that was coined by college students in the 1920s and meant “an average person” or “a nobody.” In the 1930s, the humor magazine Ballyhoo poked a little fun at college-student patois by using the popular slang—the spelling had by then changed to Zilch—as the name of a recurring comic-strip character who was never seen but always undoubtedly present. Despite the fact that the cartoon character was literally made of nothing, however, the now common use of zilch in which it means “nothing” or “zero” didn't show up until the 1960s.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

June 19, 2013

Case File #013.06.19: CROON

The Middle Dutch verb kronen meant “to mourn or groan loudly,” and believe it or not, it is from this that the English word croon ultimately evolved. When English speakers borrowed the Dutch word circa 1400, they Anglicized it to crownen (sometimes spelling it croynen) and used it to mean “to low like a bull.” At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the word came to mean “to murmur mournfully,” and not long after, the spelling finally changed to the now familiar croon. But it took another three hundred years or so for the word to gain its now primary sense of “to sing or speak in a soft, often sentimental manner,” and the derivative noun crooner, meaning “one who sings sentimental or romantic songs in a soft, low voice,” wasn't coined until about 1930.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

June 18, 2013

Case File #013.06.18: XYLOPHONE

Xylophone was formed by combining two ancient Greek words: xylon, meaning “wood,” and phone, meaning “voice” or “sound.” Thus, xylophone literally means “wooden sound,” which makes sense when you consider that the tuned bars or keys of the instrument are traditionally made of wood—some modern versions also have keys made of synthetic materials such as fiberglass or acrylic—and that xylophones are often played using wooden-headed mallets. Although the instrument has been around since at least the ninth century and its most closely related precursors since the sixth century, the word xylophone wasn't coined until 1866. And the derivative xylophonist didn't show up until 1927, so who knows who was playing all those unnamed xylophones during the millennium prior.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

June 17, 2013

Case File #013.06.17: ICONOCLAST

The noun iconoclast is an Anglicized form of the Medieval Latin iconoclastes and literally means “image breaker.” The Latin was derived from the Late Greek eikonoklastes, which itself is a combination of the Greek noun eikon, meaning “portrait” or “image,” and a past-tense form of the Greek verb klan, meaning “to break.” During the eighth and ninth centuries, the Latin term was used as a designation for certain radical members of the Eastern Orthodox Church who believed the veneration of religious imagery was a form of idolatry and therefore sought to destroy such objects. And when iconoclast became a part of the English lexicon in the late sixteenth century, it was used in reference to extreme Protestants who, like the Eastern Orthodox radicals before them, vehemently and sometimes violently expressed their opposition to the use of graven images—and, for that matter, to any vestiges of papal practice—in churches and religious services. The now more common use of iconoclast in which it means “a person who attacks or seeks to subvert traditional or popular ideas and institutions” is relatively new, having first been recorded in the work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning circa 1842.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

June 13, 2013

Case File #013.06.13: FOMENT

Foment first appeared in the English lexicon circa 1425, but it originally meant “to bathe a part of the body in hot liquids, especially for medicinal purposes.” It was derived from the Old French fomenter, which meant “to apply hot compresses to a wound” and was itself ultimately a derivation of the Latin fovere. The Latin term, however, actually had two meanings: “to warm or heat” and “to foster or encourage.” During the sixteenth century, educated English speakers who were cognizant of the Latin roots of foment began to sometimes use the word to mean “to encourage or promote,” and by about 1600, this had taken over as the word's primary sense and the thermic meaning had become secondary. The now familiar use of foment in which it has negative connotations—that is, “to instigate or stir up trouble”—was first recorded in Francis Bacon's The History of the Reign of King Henry VII in 1622, and not long after, this became the verb's only meaning and thus its sole semantic connection to any type of hot water.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

June 12, 2013

Case File #013.06.12: STAUNCH

The adjective staunch was spelled staunche when it first appeared in the English lexicon in the late fourteenth century, and while it was sometimes used in the senses of “intact” and “secure,” it was most often used to mean “watertight.” This is because it was derived from the Old French word estanche, which meant “waterproof” and was itself derived from the Old French verb estanchier, meaning “to stop the flow of a liquid.” (For the record, estanchier is the direct source of the English verb stanch, which means “to stop the flow or advance of something” and is used by the medical profession in the sense of “to cease or restrict bleeding.”) In the mid-fifteenth century, staunch essentially lost its association with watertightness and came to mean “of strong or substantial construction,” but it wasn't until circa 1620 that the adjective finally took on the additional sense of “steadfast or loyal in attitude or principle.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

June 11, 2013

Case File #013.06.11: WEB

Web is another one of those English words that can be traced all the way back to the Anglo-Saxon era. Originally spelled webb, it was derived from the Old English verb wefen (also spelled webben or webbian), meaning “to weave yarn or thread,” and was thus the general term for woven fabric. (Webster and weber, also derivatives of wefen, were once common terms for “a person who weaves fabric,” but they were supplanted by weaver in the fourteenth century and survive today as surnames only.) Surprisingly, the sense in which web refers to a spider's silken network didn't show up until the late thirteenth century, and it wasn't until the late sixteenth century that the word also came to mean “the membrane between the toes of ducks and other aquatic animals” and, figuratively, “a snare or trap.” The verb senses of web—that is, “to ensnare or entangle” and “to form a web-like shape or network”—are even newer, having first appeared in the writings of Francis Bacon in the early seventeenth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

June 10, 2013

Case File #013.06.10: GROIN

While there is no consensus among etymologists and lexicographers about the ultimate source of the word groin, most do agree that it first came into use circa 1590. The dominant theory regarding the word's beginnings is that it was formed by combining grynde (the Middle English word for the pubic area) and loin (as in flank, not pubis), an idea that seems to be supported by Shakespeare's lengthy narrative poem Venus and Adonis, first published in 1593, in which the Bard uses groin as a double entendre that is suggestive of both Adonis's flank region and his sexuality. Though the architectural sense of the word—that is, “the curved edge formed at the intersection of two vaults”—is semantically related to the anatomical sense, it didn't come into use until the early eighteenth century. And the sense in which groin means “a jetty or similar structure used to protect a beach against erosion” is a different etymological beast altogether. First appearing around 1600, it was derived from the Old French word groign, meaning “snout,” with the likely intention of alluding to the visual similarity between jetties and the longish noses of swine.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

June 6, 2013

Case File #013.06.06: URCHIN

The noun urchin has prickly and ugly roots. It evolved from the Middle English urchoun (sometimes spelled yrchoun), meaning “hedgehog,” which itself ultimately traces back to the Latin ericius (also meaning “hedgehog”) by way of the Old Northern French herichon. Not long after the English spelling changed to urchin circa 1528, the word also took on additional meanings and was applied to anything regarded in those days to be as ugly as a hedgehog, specifically hunchbacks, goblins and elves, ill-tempered old women, and, of course, mischievous and raggedy youngsters. During the early seventeenth century, however, the word lost all senses but that of “an impish and unkempt child,” though an allusion to the original sense of “hedgehog” has been retained in the open compound sea urchin.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

June 5, 2013

Case File #013.06.05: ASTRONAUT

Astronaut was coined in 1880 by English author Percy Greg, who formed the noun by combining the Greek words astron, meaning “heavens” or “stars,” and nautes, meaning “sailor.” Thus, astronaut literally means “star sailor,” and Greg used it as the name for a Mars-bound spaceship in his science-fiction novel Across the Zodiac: The Story of a Wrecked Record. But when American science-fiction writers appropriated the word in the late 1920s, they used it to refer not to spaceships but to the people traveling within the spaceships, and by the time the United States established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (or NASA) in 1958, astronaut had become the common English term for “a person trained to work as a crew member aboard a spacecraft” and, more generally, “any person who travels beyond the Earth's atmosphere.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

June 4, 2013

Case File #013.06.04: DUNCE

When dunce came into use in the early 1500s, it was originally spelled Duns. The word was derived from the name of John Duns Scotus, a thirteenth-century Scottish philosopher and theologian who had once been revered in intellectual circles but whose writings and ideas were dismissed by Renaissance thinkers as fatuous sophistry. Thus, any scholar in the early sixteenth century who still upheld the works of Scotus was often derogatorily referred to as a Duns man (sometimes spelled Dunsman), though the label was quickly shortened to just Duns. Around 1575, the spelling changed to the now familiar (and uncapitalized) dunce, and by the beginning of the seventeenth century, the term had lost its association with Scotus and had come to simply mean “a dim-witted or stupid person.” The conical dunce cap, however, didn't start showing up on the heads of slow-learning grade-schoolers until the mid-nineteenth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates