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 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 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 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