March 28, 2013

Case File #013.03.28: PANIC

I hope this doesn't alarm you, but it turns out that the word panic has its roots in classical mythology. I swear to Zeus, it's true. Panic comes to English via the Greek term panikos, which means “of Pan” or “from Pan,” Pan being the ancient Greek god of forests, mountainous wilds, shepherds and their flocks, and essentially anything rustic or pastoral. With his satyr-like appearance and mischievous temperament, Pan spent a good deal of his time lustfully chasing after nymphs, who usually rebuffed his advances, or playing music on his pipes as he danced through the forests and hills. But he also got a big kick out of frightening unwary travelers by abruptly jumping in front of them or by making loud, sudden noises. Thus, in the ancient Greek world, Pan often got the blame for almost any sudden and frightening phenomenon. And in the modern English-speaking world, the word panic can be defined, in an etymological sense, as “to frighten in a Pan-like manner” or “the acute anxiety that results from being frightened in a Pan-like manner.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

March 27, 2013

Case File #013.03.27: AGNOSTIC

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

©2013 Michael R. Gates

March 26, 2013

Case File #013.03.26: MONKEY

As you probably already know, most scientists believe that humans and monkeys share a common ancestor. But do you also know that some etymologists and lexicographers believe the word monkey shares its pedigree with a fox? Specifically, it's Reynard the Fox, an anthropomorphized canine who is the titular hero of a satirical beast epic, told mostly in verse, that was popular throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and up into the early sixteenth century. In a Middle Low German version of Reynard's poem that was published circa 1500, a new tertiary character appeared: Moneke, the son of a secondary character named Martin the Ape. According to literary scholars, this new version of the poem was not initially translated into English via the printed page, but rather, it was relayed to English-speaking audiences by way of itinerant entertainers such as minstrels. And some etymologists suggest that this is when the word monkey swung onto the scene. You see, it seems that the sixteenth-century minstrels who performed the poem managed to make a monkey out of Moneke when they tried to Anglicize the young ape's name.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

March 25, 2013

Case File #013.03.25: TOWHEAD

Ever wonder why we use towhead when we talk about someone who has white or pale yellow hair? Well, the term towhead, which was coined in the United States circa 1830, actually derives from one of the lesser known meanings of the word tow. Sometime during the fourteenth century, English-speaking spinners and weavers began using tow to refer to the fibers extracted from plants such as flax and hemp. (This new Middle English noun probably evolved from the Old English adjective towlic, which meant “fit for spinning.”) Such fibers are generally white or a very light yellow, and when they are gathered together and combed in preparation for spinning, the resulting bundles—or rovings, as spinners call them—also have a texture and a sheen similar to those of human and animal hair. So now it makes sense, right? We call someone a towhead if they have a head of hair that resembles rovings of tow.

©2013 Michael R. Gates