May 30, 2013

Case File #013.05.30: KEEN

Wanna hear somethin' really keen? Well, in the Old English era, the adjective keen was originally spelled cene and meant “brave” or “daring.” Then sometime during the eighth century, the spelling changed to kene and the meaning shifted to “skilled” or “adroit.” The senses of “sharp” (as in the edge of a blade) and “enthusiastic or eager” came into use circa 1200, which was also about the same time that the spelling changed to keen, but it wasn't until the mid-fourteenth century or so that the senses of “intense” and “mentally alert or intellectually shrewd” first appeared. Interestingly, the verb keen, meaning “to lament, mourn, or complain loudly,” and its associated noun (“a loud wailing or lament”) are etymologically unrelated to the adjective. Both verb and noun were actually derived from the Irish Gaelic verb caoin, meaning “to grieve” or “to weep in mourning,” and didn't appear in the English lexicon until around 1810. A little more than a hundred years later, American teenagers developed the informal usage in which keen means “wonderful” or “excellent,” but alas, most of today's hip teens aren't all that keen on the slangy word.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

May 29, 2013

Case File #013.05.29: NICKNAME

In the late thirteenth century, the Middle English word eke meant “additional,” and eke name—often condensed into ekename—referred to an additional (and usually informal) moniker used in place of a person's given name. But people hearing the phrase an ekename frequently mistook it to be a nekename, and by the mid-fifteenth century, ekename had been completely supplanted by nekename, which in turn became nickname before passing on to modern English. The verb sense of nickname—that is, “to give a nickname to somebody or something”— developed in the late 1530s, and the sense in which nickname refers to a shortened version of a proper name (such as Mike for Michael) came into use circa 1605.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

May 28, 2013

Case File #013.05.28: FIEND

Linguists and etymologists believe that the noun fiend can be traced all the way back to the Proto-Germanic verb fijaejan, meaning “to hate.” Old English speakers inherited the verb but Anglicized the spelling to feogan, and from this they derived the noun feond, meaning “foe” or “enemy.” When feond passed into Middle English, the spelling first changed to fend and then later to feend, and the word was used now as a designation not for foes in general but for one specific foe: the Devil. By the time modern English started to displace Middle English in the fifteenth century, feend had transformed into the now familiar fiend—the ie spelling was likely influenced by the many Middle French words, such as brief and fierce, that English borrowed during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries—and had also acquired the more general meaning of “a person of great wickedness or maliciousness.” But the sense in which fiend refers to an obsessed or addicted person, as in golf fiend or drug fiend, is a relatively new one that first appeared circa 1886.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

May 23, 2013

Case File #013.05.23: QUASH

When you quash something, you generally crush it in a figurative manner rather than a physical one. But as the pedigree of the word quash reveals, it was once the other way around. The original form of this English verb was quaschen (sometimes spelled quashen or quassen), and when it first came into use sometime during the thirteenth century, it meant “to smash.” It was derived from the Old French quasser, meaning “to break” or “to damage,” which evolved from the Latin verb quassare, meaning “to shake apart” or “to shatter.” Furthermore, the Latin quassare is itself a variation on the older Latin verb cassare, which means “to make empty” or “to destroy.” So quash is clearly the progeny of a long line of vandals and wreckers, and it wasn't until around 1380 that it finally veered a bit from the familial path and took on its current and less violent sense of “to void, extinguish, or suppress.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

May 22, 2013

Case File #013.05.22: JEEP

You've probably heard the claim that the word jeep was borrowed from the name of Eugene the Jeep, the fictional creature who sometimes appeared with Popeye the Sailor in comic strips and animated cartoons. But is this ubiquitous origin story true? Well, yes...more or less. In early 1940, the vehicle we now refer to as jeep was designed for the U.S. military by an American company called Willys-Overland Motors, and when the vehicle was first deployed later that year, the official military designation for it was GP, an initialism derived from the phrase General-Purpose Motor Vehicle. Of course, American servicemen and servicewomen who were pop-culture savvy soon recognized that the burly little buggy figuratively resembled the indomitable Eugene the Jeep—the character first appeared in Thimble Theatre, the then-popular comic strip in which Popeye also appeared, just a few years before the military vehicle went into production—and when they also realized that a slurred pronunciation of the initialism GP sort of sounded like jeep, it didn't take long for the slurred pronunciation to usurp the letter-by-letter pronunciation or even for the spelling to change to jeep. In fact, jeep caught on so fast that it was showing up in official military documents and the public media as early as February 1941, and Willys-Overland Motors finally adopted the moniker (as a designation for the vehicle, not the company) in 1942 and filed an application to trademark it in early 1943. The trademark wasn't granted until 1950, however, and by then jeep had already passed into common usage with a lowercase j, and the verb sense—that is, “to travel by jeep”—was also already in widespread use.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

May 21, 2013

Case File #013.05.21: UTOPIA

In the year 1516, English social philosopher and statesman Sir Thomas More published a book in which he described what he deemed to be the ideal society, and he referred to this exemplary but fictional community as Utopia. More coined the word by combining the Greek words ou, meaning “not,” and topos, meaning “place.” Thus, utopia literally means “not a place” or “nowhere,” and this was indeed the idea More intended to suggest, as he believed that people should always strive to create a perfect world but that they will never be able to fully attain such a goal. Around 1610, however, the word utopia sort of lost that original implication of impossibility when English speakers started using it to mean “any agreeable or harmonious place, community, or state of being,” and that's essentially the sense it retained for the next two and half centuries or so. Then in the mid-nineteenth century—probably around the time that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto—More's original intent was revived but carried to its ultimate extreme when utopia took on the secondary and pejorative sense of “a highly impractical or ludicrous scheme for social improvement or reform.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

May 20, 2013

Case File #013.05.20: ROBOT

Robot is a relatively new word, having first appeared in Paul Selver's English translation of Czech writer Karel Capek's popular 1920 play R.U.R.(Rossum's Universal Robots). The word that Selver translated as robots is roboti, a term Capek and his brother, Josef, derived from the Czech word robotnik, meaning “serf” or “slave laborer,” which itself had evolved from the older Czech word robota, meaning “menial labor” or “drudgery.” In the play, the characters referred to as robots—or roboti in the Czech version—are humanlike machines constructed solely for performing manual labor and other subservient tasks, and soon after the play debuted in New York in 1923, the word robot passed into the English lexicon as a designation for any machine resembling a human and capable of replicating, at least to some degree, human movements and functions. It was only a year or two later that the noun also took on the senses of “an apparatus that can carry out a complex series of actions either automatically or by remote control” and, figuratively, “a person who behaves in a mechanical or unemotional manner,” but it was another fifty or so years before it became the name of the dance style made famous by Michael Jackson.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

May 16, 2013

Case File #013.05.16: GADGET

The history of the word gadget, originally spelled gadjet, is almost as nebulous as the word's meaning is vague. Some etymologists and lexicographers say the word dates back to the 1850s, claiming it started out as some sort of naval jargon used to reference small mechanisms or fittings of unknown or indefinite name. Others claim the term was invented by British author Robert Brown for his Victorian sea-faring tale Spunyarn and Spindrift, which was published in 1886. (For the record, the term does indeed appear on page 378 of that book and is used in basically the same way we use it today.) And still a few others claim the word was coined around 1875 and derived from Gaget, Gauthier, & Cie, the name of the French foundry at which sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi had then begun working on the full-scale version of the Statue of Liberty. But regardless of which claim (if any) is true, most etymologists and lexicographers agree that the word was in wide use by the end of nineteenth century, and the majority believe it was probably derived from the French word gachette, which means “little mechanical thing.” The contemporary form gadget didn't appear until 1904, when author Rudyard Kipling used it in his short-story collection Traffics and Discoveries. And no, Kipling's book does not include a dim-witted cyborg detective among its cast of characters.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

May 15, 2013

Case File #013.05.15: OXYMORON

Did you know that the word oxymoron is itself an oxymoron? True story. The English noun, which first came into use circa 1657, was derived from the ancient Greek adjective oxymoros, and though the Greek means “markedly foolish,” it was formed from the roots oxys, meaning “keen” (like the edge of a knife), and moros, meaning “stupid.” So in an etymological sense, the noun oxymoron means “sharp dullard.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

May 14, 2013

Case File #013.05.14: FOCUS

Focus might seem like a dull, cold word, but from an etymological standpoint, it's actually kinda hot. You see, it was borrowed from the Latin focus, which meant “hearth” or “fireplace” in the classical era and was later sometimes used to mean simply “fire.” And when the word first appeared in the English lexicon in the mid-seventeenth century, it was used only in the scientific sense of “point of convergence,” as in that smokin' spot at which light rays converge after being refracted or reflected through a lens or a mirror. It took another hundred years or so for the other now common meanings of the noun—that is, “an act of concentrating on something or the thing on which one is concentrating,” “a guiding or motivating purpose,” and “clear visual or mental definition”—to show up, and the verb senses of focus (such as “to adjust a lens or one's eye to a particular range” and “to concentrate on something or to bring something into emphasis”) weren't seen until around 1775.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

May 13, 2013

Case File #013.05.13: YOLK and YELLOW

The yolk is the yellow part of a bird's egg, so it's not too surprising that the words yolk and yellow share a common ancestry. Linguists tell us that yellow ultimately traces back to the Proto-Indo-European root ghel-, which meant “yellowish” and was used to form the names of colors that fall in the range of yellow to yellowish green. When Old English inherited the root—probably, say linguists, via the Proto-Germanic cognate gelwaz—it became geolu (sometimes spelled geolo or geolwe) and meant simply “yellow,” and from this, Old English speakers derived the word geolca (sometimes spelled geoloca or geolelca), meaning literally “the yellow part,” and used it as the designation for an egg yolk. Sometime during either the eleventh or the twelfth century—linguists and etymologists don't all seem to agree on the chronology here—the spelling for geolu changed to yelowe (or sometimes yelwe) and geolca became yelke. At the end of the fourteenth century, yelowe was finally transformed into the yellow with which we contemporary English speakers are all familiar, but at the same time, yelke received only a minor facelift and became yolke. The form yolk didn't make its first appearance at breakfast tables until the early fifteenth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

May 9, 2013

Case File #013.05.09: EGREGIOUS

The Latin term egregius, meaning “outstanding” or “extraordinary,” was derived from the earlier Latin phrase ex grege, ex meaning “out of” or “above” and grege meaning “flock or herd.” Thus, egregius literally meant “that which stands out above the herd,” and when English borrowed the term as egregious circa 1535, the English word initially retained the Latin's basic sense of “distinguished” or “noteworthy.” Around 1570, however, an antithetical meaning developed when egregious was used ironically in reference to people or things that were notably bad or flagrantly offensive, and this pejorative sense rapidly supplanted the original and has remained the word's meaning to this day. So when Pistol calls Nym an egregious dog in the second act of Henry V —penned by the venerable Bard of Avon circa 1599—you can be certain that Pistol is accusing Nym of being a notably bad dog indeed.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

May 8, 2013

Case File #013.05.08: CRONY

When crony first appeared in the mid-seventeenth century, it was a slang term used mainly by university students and simply meant “a longtime friend or close companion.” It was derived from the Greek adjective khronios, meaning “lasting,” which itself came from the Greek noun khronos, meaning “time.” (For the record, khronos is also the ultimate source of other English time-related words such as chronology, chronicle, and chronic.) The derogatory sense of crony—that is, “a friend or acquaintance with which one engages in some unscrupulous activity”—didn't develop until around 1900, probably as a semantic back-formation from cronyism (“political or economic favoritism to friends and associates without regard to their merits or qualifications”), which came into use about fifty years earlier.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

May 7, 2013

Case File #013.05.07: ICON

Say the word icon today and people immediately think of those little squarish pictures they tap or click in order to launch an app on their phones, pads, and computers, but that meaning is relatively new, having originated not long after the advent of personal computing in the late 1970s. Icon actually has its roots in the ancient Greek word eikon, meaning “portrait” (as with a painting) or “reflection” (as in a mirror), and when it first appeared in the English lexicon circa 1572, it meant “visual likeness” and was used in reference to paintings and statues and such. More than two and a half centuries would pass, however, before the word would start taking on the other nuances of meaning with which we contemporary English speakers are familiar. In fact, it wasn't until 1833 that certain Christian sects first used icon in reference to religious devotional images and artifacts. Just a few years after that, though, the word was already being used ironically to refer to anything that people “worship” with uncritical devotion, and by the 1860s, icon had become a synonym for symbol or emblem and had also taken on the sense of “highest example” or “paragon.” It was then another century or so before icon finally became the moniker for the little app launchers that reside on the screens of all those electronic gadgets people currently worship.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

May 6, 2013

Case File #013.05.06: NERD

Although there is evidence that the slang term nerd was used by members of the American hot-rod and surfing subcultures of the 1950s, the earliest examples of its current senses of “an intellectual but socially inept person” and “a single-minded expert in a particular pursuit or discipline” date back no further than 1965. Prior to that, a nerd was simply somebody regarded as foolish, stupid, or crazy. Now, while most word nerds are in agreement about this timeline and semantic shift, there is a minor controversy over the term's ultimate roots. Some lexicographers and etymologists claim that nerd was coined by Dr. Seuss (nom de plume of Theodor Seuss Geisel) in his children's book If I Ran the Zoo (1950), and this is, in fact, the etymology proffered by the tenth and eleventh editions of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. But even though nerd is indeed uttered by a character in Seuss's book, it is used merely as a nonsensical word, and in no way does the context suggest that the author intended anything even remotely related to the now familiar slang. So instead of buying into the hypothesis of the Seuss source, a majority of etymologists believe nerd actually developed as a variation of the earlier 1940s slang word nert, meaning “a stupid, eccentric, or crazy person,” which was itself derived from nut.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

May 2, 2013

Case File #013.05.02: SLEUTH

Sleuth was derived from the Old Icelandic noun slodh, which meant “track” or “path,” and when the Middle English word first came into use in the fourteenth century, it essentially meant “the trail of a person or animal.” By the time sleuth passed into Early Modern English in the late fifteenth century, it was primarily used in compounds, and the word sleuthhound was one of the most common. As the detective in you may have already deduced, sleuthhound literally meant “trail dog,” and it was used to refer to the types of dogs, such as bloodhounds, that are used to track down other animals and people. But around 1850, American English speakers started using sleuthhound to refer to police detectives in addition to the canine trackers, and about twenty-five years later, the word was finally shortened back to sleuth and now used in reference to detectives of only the Homo sapiens variety. Incidentally, the verb sense of sleuth—that is, “to act as a detective” or “to search for something”—didn't show up until the early twentieth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

May 1, 2013

Case File #013.05.01: LUDDITE

In Nottingham, England, circa 1589, a man by the name of William Lee invented something he called a stocking frame, which was essentially a machine that could knit stockings. Due to resistance from both the British monarchy and the working class, not to mention that the machine only produced a low-quality fabric, Lee was ultimately unsuccessful in getting the British stocking industry to accept his machine, and he died a pauper in the early seventeenth century. After Lee's death, however, other inventors refined his original design for the stocking frame, and by the mid-eighteenth century, the stocking and textile industries were well on their way to becoming mechanized. Legend has it that around 1779, a working-class Brit by the name of Ned Ludd wasn't too happy about the prospect of losing his job to a machine, and he therefore broke into his place of employment after hours and destroyed the factory's newly installed stocking frames. Some thirty years later, workers in Leicester, England, protested the low wages at their own place of employment by destroying the factory's machinery during nighttime raids, and such wage-based riots eventually spread throughout industrialized England. Around 1816, government intervention and wage increases brought the protests and the property damage to a halt, but not before the public and the media had bestowed upon the protesters the moniker Luddites, a heavy-handed allusion to the similarities between the protests and the legend of Ned Ludd. Since then, the term Luddite has been used as a historical reference to the individuals who took part in those riotous early nineteenth-century protests, but it wasn't until around 1961, at the advent of the computer age, that the term took on its current popular sense of “one who is inept in the use of technology.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates