April 30, 2013

Case File #013.04.30: BUNK

In American English, the noun bunk has essentially two meanings, one being “a narrow shelflike bed that is typically one in a tier of such beds” and the other “nonsense.” Not surprisingly, the history behind the first meaning is a bit of a snoozefest: derived from the word bunker, the term was coined in the mid-eighteenth century as a designation for the space-saving beds and benches used in military bunkers. But the story behind the second meaning of bunk is, like the meaning itself, far less soporific. It all started in 1820 during a debate in the United States Congress over the Missouri Compromise. In the midst of the proceedings, a congressman named Felix Walker, who hailed from Buncombe County in North Carolina, was given an opportunity to speak. After he had droned on for a considerable length of time, his fellow congressmen entreated him to stop, but he emphatically refused, proclaiming that he had every right “to speak for Buncombe.” His congressional peers did eventually convince him to give up the floor, of course, but because the bulk of his speech had been fatuous and meaningless, bunkum (a simplification of Buncombe) quickly became a popular synonym for political claptrap. By the turn of the century, the term was often shortened to bunk, and it was also now used in reference to any kind of nonsense, not just the more abundant political type.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

April 29, 2013

Case File #013.04.29: TORPEDO

When torpedo was coined circa 1520, it originally referred to the sea creature we now know as the electric ray, and modern biologists, in fact, still use torpedo to denote the genus of this particular fish. The word was derived from the Latin noun torpere, meaning “to be numb or lethargic,” and was probably meant to allude to the way the ray's electric discharge affects the human body. The sense of torpedo as an explosive nautical weapon didn't come about until 1776. At the time, such devices were little more than floating mines that had to be pulled or pushed into place by a boat or ship, and when the mines were in transit, they looked a bit like swimming rays and were therefore often jokingly referred to as such. And of course, the nickname stuck. The now familiar cylindrical, self-propelled form of torpedo was invented in the 1860s, and not long after, the verb torpedo was coined. However, the figurative sense of the verb—that is, “to ruin a plan or project” or “to assail vigorously or persistently”—didn't appear until around 1895.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

April 25, 2013

Case File #013.04.25: WHISKEY

The earliest form of the English word whiskey (or whisky for you Brits) was iskie bae, which appeared circa 1585. It was derived from the Gaelic usige beatha, which means “whiskey” but literally translates as “water of life.” By around 1700, the English iskie bae had become the single word usquebea (sometimes spelled usquebaugh), and by 1715, it had been completely Anglicized to whiskie. There is a bit of a dispute over the dating of the modern spelling with the y ending, as some etymologists claim the form appeared as early as 1746, while others say it occurred around sixty years later. But regardless of which claim is true, there is no doubt that there were English speakers getting soused on something specifically called whiskey (or whisky) by at least the mid-nineteenth century. Now, for you lovers of libations who might take a little smug delight in the fact that the original Gaelic term for whiskey translates as “water of life,” I offer this final note: during the European settlement of the Americas, Native Americans often called the white man's whiskey either fire water, a reference to the unpleasant burning sensation one often feels while drinking it, or stupid water, a reference to the way some people behave after drinking it.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

April 24, 2013

Case File #013.04.24: HOOSEGOW

During the final quarter of the nineteenth century, many people came up from Mexico to work on farms and ranches in Texas and the American Southwest, and as you might suspect, these Spanish-speaking workers had a little bit of influence on the tongue of their English-speaking employers and coworkers. Not all of the Spanish words borrowed by the Americans came across unadulterated, however, and the English slang word hoosegow is a case in point. Like their American coworkers, Mexican ranch hands sometimes got a little rowdy on their time off and therefore ended up spending a day or two in jail and missing a little work, but when the Spanish-speaking jailbirds were later asked by employers to account for the absence, they would often say not that they'd been to jail but that they'd been to court. Instead of using the English word court, however, they used the Spanish word juzgado, and since the Spanish j is aspirated like the English h in hotel, the z is pronounced like an s, and the d is soft like the th in thousand, many nineteenth-century gringos thought the word sounded like hoosegow and, aware that the workers had been incarcerated, assumed it meant “jail.” Thus, by the turn of the century, hoosegow had become common American slang for jail. Incidentally, the original source of the Spanish noun juzgado is the Latin verb judicare, meaning “to judge,” which is also the source of the English word judge and related terms such as judgment and judicial.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

April 23, 2013

Case File #013.04.23: CARNATION

If you wanted to use etymology to demonstrate the ethnocentrism of sixteenth-century Western Europeans, the history of the word carnation would be a good place to start. When carnation found its way into the English lexicon circa 1540—a time when most, if not all, English speakers were Caucasian—it originally meant “the color of skin,” and that definition makes sense when you consider that the word was borrowed from the Middle French carnation, meaning “complexion,” which in turn ultimately came from the Latin carnosus, meaning “fleshy” or “flesh-like.” Towards the end of the sixteenth century, however, the English word carnation came to be applied not to skin pigmentation in general but to a specific rosy pink color and a naturally pink flower (Dianthus caryophyllus). And if a semantic shift from “skin color” to “rosy pink” isn't an indicator of sixteenth-century Caucasoid conceit, nothing is.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

April 22, 2013

Case File #013.04.22: GOOD-BYE

The word good-bye is a phonological attrition of the phrase God be with ye, the latter being a way to say farewell that first appeared around the late fourteenth century. By the sixteenth century, God be with ye had phonetically reduced to God b' wi' ye, and during the early seventeenth century, it was contracted to the single word godbwye. Most etymologists think the shift to the form good-bye didn't occur until the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, and they also believe the substitution of good for God was likely due to the influence of other popular and less formal salutational phrases such as good morning, good day, and good night. For some eighteenth-century folks, however, good-bye still seemed too stodgy for friendly or familial situations, so they sometimes jettisoned the good and simply used bye. Around 1739, the even less formal-sounding reduplication bye-bye appeared, but it would be another 255 years before Jim Carrey's Ace Ventura would turn that into the contraction b'bye.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

April 18, 2013

Case File #013.04.18: SCYTHE

The name for the Grim Reaper's favorite tool, scythe, is one of those few extant English words that date all the way back to the days of the original Anglo-Saxons, and though its spelling has changed a little over the years—the Old English form was sithe—its meaning has remained essentially the same. According to linguists, the word is semantically the direct descendant of the Proto-Germanic word segitho, which itself descended from the probable Indo-European root sek-, meaning “cut.” The shift in spelling from sithe to scythe occurred in the mid-fifteenth century, likely due to the influence of the Latin verb scindere, meaning “to divide” or “to split.” And yes, as that sharp mind of yours has surely guessed, that Latin term is also the ultimate source of the English word scissors.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

April 17, 2013

Case File #013.04.17: PEDAGOGUE

The ancient Greek word paidagogos, the oldest ancestor of the English pedagogue, was formed from a combination of the words paidos, meaning “boy” or “child,” and agogos, meaning “leader.” Thus, paidagogos literally meant “leader of children,” and the term was indeed applied to slaves who were charged with leading their owners' children to and from school and on other outings. When the word later passed into Latin as paedagogus, its meaning shifted from “leader of children” to “tutor of children,” and when the Old French borrowed it from the Latin, the spelling became pedagogue and the meaning became “professional educator of children.” English finally adopted the Old French term in the mid-fourteenth century, retaining the spelling and initially the meaning. It wasn't until circa 1585—after the variant pedagogy was formed—that the English word pedagogue was applied to all professional educators rather than just those who teach children, and it wasn't until the twentieth century that the term came to be applied, often disparagingly, to those teachers who are particularly formal, strict, or pedantic.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

April 16, 2013

Case File #013.04.16: ADULTERY

Etymologically speaking, there is no adult in adultery. Derived from the Latin verb adulterare, meaning “to debase” or “to corrupt,” the English word adultery was coined circa 1415—back then it was spelled adulterie or sometimes adultrie—not to suggest anything about adults per se but to suggest that a sexual hookup with somebody other than one's spouse would irreparably corrupt one's marital union. Also a derivative of the Latin verb adulterare, the English verb adulterate (which retains the Latin's specific meaning) was coined about 150 years after the noun adultery, probably at about the same time the older word ended its union with ie and hooked up with y.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

April 15, 2013

Case File #013.04.15: VACCINE

At the end of the eighteenth century, English physician Edward Jenner was studying the smallpox disease and noticed that dairy farmers who had previously suffered from cowpox, a cattle-borne disease similar to smallpox but much less virulent, were resistant to smallpox infection. He therefore reasoned that healthy people might become immune to smallpox if injected with a little pus from a cowpox lesion—a supposition that turned out to be correct—and he referred to the medicinal cowpox matter as a vaccine and his method for using it to shield against smallpox as a vaccine inoculation (a phrase he soon contracted to vaccination). Jenner used the Latin adjective vaccinus, meaning “of a cow,” as the basis for vaccine, and by 1803, his new English noun and its logical derivative, the verb vaccinate, were already in wide use. It was another forty years, however, before the terms were freed from their bovine roots and used in reference to all inoculating medicines rather than just the one derived from the cowpox virus.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

April 11, 2013

Case File #013.04.11: ZOMBIE

Zombie became part of the English lexicon circa 1871, coming first to American English via the voodoo cults in the Southern United States and the Caribbean. One theory has it that the word was borrowed directly from the name of a snake-like god who was once worshiped throughout West Africa, but many etymologists and linguists believe zombie was derived from either the Kimbundu word nzambi, meaning “god,” or the Kikongo word zumbi, meaning “fetish” (religious, not sexual) or “ghost.” The sense in which zombie metaphorically and often humorously refers to the slow-witted, the lethargic, or the clueless first appeared in American English circa 1936, and not long after, restaurateur and bartender Donn Beach invented the now famous cocktail that bears the moniker zombie, most likely naming it such because the drink's high alcohol content makes those who consume it seem slow-witted, lethargic, and clueless.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

April 10, 2013

Case File #013.04.10: DANDELION

The modern French word for dandelion is pissenlit, which is formed from two words that, when taken together as a phrase, translate as “piss the bed.” This literal meaning may be a reference to the dandelion flower's urine-like color, though some linguists and folklorists believe that it alludes to an old wives' tale about the correlation between the eating of dandelions and involuntary nocturnal urination. But this is a moot point for us English speakers, because our word dandelion evolved from an older French term that alluded to a different (and far more awesome) feature of the weed's yellow flower: its fang-shaped petals. The Middle French moniker for a dandelion, dent de lion, came by way of the Medieval Latin dens leonis, and both terms literally translate as “lion's tooth.” Middle English borrowed the Middle French circa 1375, though the spelling was altered to dent-de-lyon. Barely fifty years later, the spelling was Anglicized to dandelyon, and by the time Early Modern English rolled around, the y had been ditched in favor of the original i. Now, with all that in mind, which do you think is better—French, or English? Or let me put it another way: would you want to tell your gardener that a bunch of bed wetters have popped up in your yard, or would you rather say your lawn has a bad case of lions' teeth?

©2013 Michael R. Gates

April 9, 2013

Case File #013.04.09: MONETARY

The ancient Romans didn't exactly think of the goddess Juno—wife of their chief god, Jupiter, and the patron goddess of the Roman Empire—as an advocate of economics or a champion of the wealthy, but they did operate a mint out of her primary temple nonetheless. And because of this connection to the manufacturing of currency, one of Juno's popular epithets, Moneta, was also the Latin term for “coin” or “mint” and the root of the Late Latin adjective monetarius, meaning “of the mint” or “relating to money.” It is no surprise, then, that the English word monetary, though it did not come into use until the early nineteenth century, is a direct descendant of the Latin monetarius. Of course, the related English words money and mint also have a kinship with the epithet of the Roman goddess, and while they actually came to the language earlier than monetary, they arrived via more circuitous routes: money evolved from the Middle English moneye, an Anglicized version of the Middle French word moneie that itself evolved from the Latin moneta, and mint grew out of the Old English mynet, which came from the Latin by way of the Old Saxon word munita.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

April 8, 2013

Case File #013.04.08: EXECUTE

When we say that you execute your duties, we mean that you carry out your legal or social obligations. But when we say that the state executes a criminal, we mean that it kills someone! How did the word execute come to have two such disparate definitions? Well, it might shock you to learn that the two meanings are actually kind of similar. Etymologically speaking, that is. Derived from the Medieval Latin verb executare, meaning “to fulfill” or “to carry out,” execute became part of the English lexicon around the end of the fourteenth century. In the context of legal proceedings, the word was used (as it still is today) in the sense of “to carry out a judgment” or “to carry out a sentence,” and since the courts doled out a lot of death sentences in those days, it only took about a century for execute to become, in addition to its original and more general meaning, a synonym for “to put to death.” So, if you work for the state and it's your job to pull the switch, pull the lever, drop the pellet, or insert the needle, we can now rightly say that you execute your duty when you execute a criminal.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

April 4, 2013

Case File #013.04.04: BRIBE

The Old French word bribe referred to a morsel of food given to a beggar, and when it was first adopted into the English language in the late fourteenth century, it basically meant “alms” or “to give alms.” Some time later, the public began to lump beggars in with vagrants and thieves, and since the English word bribe was still associated with begging, it was now applied rather disparagingly. But the term's current connotations of political payola and monetary malfeasance didn't really come about until the mid-sixteenth century, when bribe was used in connection with judges and legal authorities who were known for “begging” the accused to provide money or other favors in exchange for leniency.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

April 3, 2013

Case File #013.04.03: NEIGHBOR

Neighbor is a true purebred, one of those rare contemporary English words that can be traced back directly to the Anglo-Saxon period. Its Old English ancestor was a compound formed from neah, meaning “near” or “nigh,” and gebur, meaning “dweller” or sometimes “farmer.” Thus, to the old Anglo-Saxons, neahgebur simply referred to another farmer who dwelled nearby. When the word passed to Middle English, it transformed into neighebour and then became the more familiar neighbor (or neighbour for you Brits), but all the while it retained its original meaning of “nearby dweller.” It wasn't until some time after the late fifteenth century, when the variant neighborhood was formed, that neighbor also came to mean “something immediately adjoining or relatively near something else” instead of only being used to designate a nearby dweller like the one whose music is always too...damned...loud.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

April 2, 2013

Case File #013.04.02: GNARLED

To be, or not to be—that is the question Hamlet pondered. But for the word gnarled, it took over 200 years to get an answer. Derived from the now archaic English word knar, which refers to a knot or protuberance on the trunk or root of a tree, gnarled first appeared in 1603 when Shakespeare coined it not in Hamlet but in Measure for Measure: “Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt split'st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak than the soft myrtle....” That was the Bard of Avon's one and only use of his knotty new word, however, and gnarled did not show up again until the early nineteenth century, when it finally managed to twist its way into the English lexicon via the works of British poets such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and American writers such as Washington Irving.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

April 1, 2013

Case File #013.04.01: MUMMY

As Boris Karloff surely knew, the word mummy came to English via the Medieval Latin mumia, which means “embalmed body,” and the Latin is itself a variation on an old Persian word for bitumen, mumiya. Bitumen is a form of asphalt once commonly used as cements and mortars, so the Latin word mumia was likely intended to allude to the gluey resins that the ancient Egyptians used in their embalming process. And you could say, then, that a mummy is merely a sticky stiff.

©2013 Michael R. Gates