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 pass√©, 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

June 3, 2013

Case File #013.06.03: PRODIGAL

The English word prodigal is a descendant of the Latin verb prodigere, meaning “to use up” or “to squander,” though the familial line that connects one to the other is somewhat circuitous. Old French was the first to borrow the Latin, using it as the basis for the noun prodigalit√©, which meant “wastefulness.” When Old French gave way to Middle French in the mid-fourteenth century, the noun spawned the adjective prodigal, meaning “lavish” or “wasteful,” and in the late fifteenth century, English lifted the adjective directly from the Middle French. But the noun sense of prodigal—that is, “a person who is given to wasteful spending or reckless extravagance”—didn't appear until 1596, when Shakespeare first used it in the second and third acts of his play The Merchant of Venice.

©2013 Michael R. Gates