August 28, 2013

Case File #013.08.28: IMP

Believe it or not, the noun imp doesn't have the fiendish pedigree that its current meanings might suggest. It is a descendant of the Late Latin verb imputare, meaning “to graft (onto),” which is itself the progeny of the Greek emphuein (sometimes transliterated as emphyein), meaning “to implant.” When the Anglo-Saxons adopted the Latin verb, they kept its meaning but changed the spelling to impian, and from that they formed the noun impa and used it to mean “a graft or young shoot.” Impa passed into Middle English as impe, but sometime towards the end of the fourteenth century, the word's meaning shifted from “a young shoot” to “a child of a noble family.” English speakers in the early sixteenth century must not have thought too highly of the children of nobility, however, because they're the ones who changed the spelling of impe to the now familiar imp and used it to mean “a small demon” or “a child of the Devil,” and it wasn't until the middle of the seventeenth century that the noun took on the additional and somewhat softer sense of “a mischievous child.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 27, 2013

Case File #013.08.27: TANTALIZE

According to Greek mythology, King Tantalus was a mortal son of Zeus who one day displeased the immortal Olympians—the many versions of the myth differ in the details of the king's offense, though all say it somehow involved food—and received a most apropos punishment for his sin. The gods placed the king in a lake with waters that reached up to his chin and with luscious fruit that hung from branches over his head, but whenever he would attempt to drink or eat, the waters would recede from his lips and the fruit would shrink from his grasp. Thus was Tantulus held in a perpetual state of sensual frustration, and it is from his name that sixteenth-century English speakers derived the verb tantalize, which means “to tease or torment with the promise of something that is difficult to obtain” and “to excite the senses or incite desire.” Reflecting the spirit of the myth even more is the English noun tantalus: clearly a direct borrowing of the mythical king's name, the word was coined in the nineteenth century as the name for a small cabinet or sideboard in which decanters of liquor can be locked out of reach but still remain visible.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 26, 2013

Case File #013.08.26: LETTUCE

Not many people would think of lettuce and milk as culinary partners, yet it turns out there is a palatable affinity between the two. Well, etymologically speaking, that is. First appearing in the English lexicon circa 1300, lettuce was derived from the Old French plural laituës, meaning “lettuces,” the singular of which evolved from lactuca, the Latin word for lettuce. But lactuca was itself derived from the Latin adjective lacteus, meaning “of milk” or “abounding in milk,” most likely as an allusion to the milky juices of certain varieties of lettuce and other edible greens. The Americanism in which lettuce refers to paper money, however, makes no such insinuations about the plant's milkiness or the word's milky past. First recorded around 1930, the term actually alludes to the lettuce-like green color of US currency, but given the twenty-first century's move towards a cashless world economy, the Yankee jargon is now considered passé.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 22, 2013

Case File #013.08.22: ZEPHYR

The word zephyr has been in the English lexicon since at least 1000, but the Anglo-Saxons spelled it zefferus and used it to mean “a westerly wind.” It was derived from the Latin zephyrus, which meant “the west wind” and was itself derived from the Greek Zephyros (also transliterated as Zephuros). While the Greek, too, was sometimes used in reference to a westerly breeze, it was more commonly used as the name of a Greek god who was not only the personification of the west winds but also the god of springtime. Now, as you may have noticed, the contemporary English spelling looks more like that of the Latin and Greek than did the Old English, yet the form zephyr dates back no earlier than the late sixteenth century, having first appeared in George Chapman's initial translations of Homer's The Iliad. And like the current spelling, the word's now familiar and more general sense of “a gentle breeze” is also relatively new—Shakespeare used it first in the fourth act of his tragic play Cymbeline, which was written around 1609—as is the sense of “a lightweight fabric or article of clothing.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 21, 2013

Case File #013.08.21: AMBULANCE

As I'm sure you already know, an ambulance is a siren-equipped motor vehicle used for transporting the sick and the injured to the hospital. But I'll bet you didn't know that the word ambulance is related to the adjective ambulatory, which means “capable of walking” and “related to walking” and was derived from the Latin verb ambulare, meaning “to walk about” or “to travel on foot.” So how did a wheeled, motorized emergency vehicle get a name that essentially means “walking”? Well, it all started around the middle of the eighteenth century when the French military developed the first truly mobile medical facility, a sort of modular hospital that was rather easy to assemble, disassemble, and carry from battlefield to battlefield. The French referred to the portable facility as hôpital ambulant, which literally translates as “walking hospital,” but by the 1790s, the phrase had evolved into the single word ambulance. During the Crimean War in the mid-nineteenth century, the British copied the French mobile-hospital concept and also borrowed its name, but when the Americans got wind of the idea, they put their portable hospitals (or ambulances, if you will) inside of covered wagons, thus making the facilities even easier to transport—not to mention eliminating the need for assembly and disassembly—and making it possible to quickly move the injured and the medics off the battlefield and out of harm's way. The British and the French soon followed suit, of course, and by the late nineteenth century, ambulance had basically come to mean “a field hospital on wheels.” After the invention of the faster and more powerful automobile, however, the ambulance became less of a portable hospital and more of a mobile but temporary life-support capsule in which the sick and injured can be quickly transported to a fully equipped medical facility.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 20, 2013

Case File #013.08.20: PICNIC

Picnic is an Anglicized form of the French piquenique. The French word came into use in the mid-seventeenth century, and while there is no tangible evidence regarding its specific origins, linguists and etymologists have offered up a cogent theory: they think it was formed from a combination of the French verb piquer, meaning “to pick,” and the Old French noun nique, meaning “a trifling thing.” If this is true, then piquenique literally means “to pick a trifling thing,” which seems reasonable when you consider that the French word and its English spin-off, picnic, were originally used to mean “potluck dinner” and that the dishes at a potluck are usually easy-to-prepare and easy-to-carry trifles from which daring diners are encouraged to pick and choose. It wasn't until the early nineteenth century that the English noun came to mean “a meal eaten outdoors,” and the verb sense, “to eat a meal in the open air,” wasn't coined until 1842, making its debut in the opening lines of Tennyson's poem “Audley Court.” The figurative use of picnic in which it means “easy task” or “pleasant experience”—as in, for example, “Finishing the job before deadline was no picnic”—first appeared in the early twentieth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 19, 2013

Case File #013.08.19: NOISOME

Appearances can often be deceiving, and when it comes to English vocabulary, the adjective noisome is a case in point: in spite of the word's spelling and the way it sounds when properly pronounced, it has no etymological or semantic connection to the word noise whatsoever. Noisome is actually a descendant of the Middle English noun anoi, which meant “nuisance” or “annoyance” and was itself derived from the Old French verb anoier, meaning “to disturb or irritate.” (As you may have guessed, anoier is also the source of the English verb annoy.) During the thirteenth century, English speakers would sometimes shorten anoi to noi (also spelled noy or noye) and use it to mean “misfortune, danger, or harm,” and around the mid-fourteenth century, the suffix -some, meaning “characterized by” or “tending to cause,” was added to noi and—voilà—the adjective noisome was formed. Thus, noisome means “dangerous or harmful”—a definition that obviously has nothing to do with the word noise, though noise can sometimes be dangerous and harmful—and this was its sole meaning until circa 1570, at which point it took on the additional and still current senses of “obnoxious or offensive” and “malodorous or fetid.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 15, 2013

Case File #013.08.15: BLINDFOLD

In the Old English era, the verb geblindfellian meant “to strike someone blind” or “to cover someone's eyes.” When the word passed into Middle English in the twelfth century, its form was simplified somewhat to blindfellen, the past tense of which was blindfelde. Around the end of the fifteenth century, however, people started mistakenly using the past-tense form as a present-tense verb, and due to a misconception about the word's semantic relationship with fold—an idea that presumably came about because the creation of a blindfold often involves the folding of a piece of cloth—the spelling of blindfelde shifted to the current blindfold around the mid-sixteenth century, and the connotation of literally blinding someone was discarded soon after. The noun senses of blindfold—that is, “a piece of cloth or other such object used as a covering for the eyes” and “something that obscures mental perception”—didn't show up until quite a bit later, though, and etymologists and lexicographers are split over just when that actually took place: some say it occurred as early as 1715, whereas others contend it didn't happen before 1880.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 13, 2013

Case File #013.08.13: GLUE

English speakers started using the noun glue around 1225, only back then it was spelled glu or gleu and was used to refer to any viscid substance. It was borrowed from the Old French glu, meaning “birdlime” (birdlime is an adhesive made from tree bark and was once commonly used to snare small birds), which was itself derived from the Latin gluten, meaning “a gummy paste or wax.” The verb sense of glue, however, came to English via a slightly different route. Derived from the Old French gluer, meaning “to paste, fasten, or cause to adhere,” the verb entered the English lexicon around 1380, though it was first spelled gliwen and then changed to glewen about two decades later. As Middle English evolved into modern English during the fifteenth century, the forms of both the verb and the noun shifted to glew, which in turn became the now familiar glue sometime during the first half of the sixteenth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 12, 2013

Case File #013.08.12: WALL

“Stone walls do not a prison make,” wrote the seventeenth-century poet Richard Lovelace, and while we might agree with the philosophical sentiments that underlie his words, we'd be foolish to deny that a well-built wall usually makes a pretty good physical impediment. In fact, if we look at the history of the word wall, we find that the idea of wall-as-barrier has been there all along. Derived from the Latin vallum, which meant “palisade” or “bulwark,” the word was spelled weall in the Old English era and was used to mean both “rampart” and “levee or dike.” When it passed into Middle English in the twelfth century, its form changed to walle and it took on the additional meanings of “a side of a room or building, typically connecting the floor to the ceiling or the foundation to the roof” and “any continuous vertical structure that encloses or divides an area of land,” and the verb senses of the word—that is, “to divide or separate with or as if with a wall” and “to enclose, surround, confine, or block with or as if with a wall”—came into use during the thirteenth century. The form of both the verb and the noun changed to the current wall around the end of the fifteenth century, and not long after, the noun also took on the additional and more general senses of “any material layer enclosing a space” (as in the abdominal wall) and “anything that resembles a wall in structure or function” (as in socioeconomic wall and wall of silence).

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 8, 2013

Case File #013.08.08: MALAPROPISM

In Richard Sheridan's 1775 comedic play The Rivals, Mrs. Malaprop is a bombastic character who often ludicrously misuses words, and it is from her name that the English noun malapropism was derived. Sheridan based the character's name on the adjective malapropos, meaning “inappropriate” or “inopportune,” which had been around since the mid-seventeenth century and was itself an Anglicized borrowing of the French phrase mal à propos, meaning “bad for the purpose.” As for the coining of malapropism—which means, of course, “the mistaken and often humorous use of a word or phrase in place of a similar-sounding one, or a word or phrase so misused”—etymologists and lexicographers agree on neither when the deed occurred nor who should get the credit, but many do believe the word's first appearance in print was in Charlotte Brontë's novel Shirley in 1849.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 7, 2013

Case File #013.08.07: EPICURE

The English word epicure comes from Epicurus, the Latinized name of a Greek philosopher (the Greek form was Epikouros) who lived from the mid-fourth century BCE to the early third century BCE. Epicurus believed that pleasure is life's highest measure of goodness, but he defined pleasure as the absence of pain and the cultivation of virtue, and he therefore taught his students that the only way to achieve true pleasure was to lead an essentially ascetic life—the pursuit and accumulation of material goods and the concomitant fear of failure and loss, he believed, would only lead to mental and physical pain—dedicated to improving one's own ethical judgment and moral behavior. However, successive generations of his followers twisted his ideas into a credo that extolled selfish indulgence of the senses, and during the first century or two following his death, his name ironically became associated with sensuality and hedonism. Thus, when epicure became part of the English vocabulary around the end of the fourteenth century, it originally meant “hedonist or glutton.” This pejorative sense softened over time, though, and by the end of the sixteenth century, the word had acquired its current meaning of “a person with refined and discriminating taste, especially in food and drink.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 6, 2013

Case File #013.08.06: CRAVEN

Craven entered the English vocabulary in the early thirteenth century, but its original form was cravant and it was used to mean “defeated.” Most etymologists believe it was ultimately derived from the Old French verb cravanter, meaning “to crush or overwhelm,” which was itself derived from the Latin verb crepare, meaning “to crack" or “to burst.” The English adjective's now familiar sense of “cowardly” was first used around 1400 and soon became the word's sole meaning, but the current form craven didn't appear until sometime during the seventeenth century. And for the record, the popular horror-film director who is ironically named Craven entered the world on August 2, 1939, though his filmmaking career didn't begin until the early 1970s.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 5, 2013

Case File #013.08.05: ONION

Onion was derived from the Old French oignon, which was itself derived from the Latin noun unio. Unlike its French and English progeny, however, the Latin word refers not to the pungent and bulbous herb but to the precious gem we English speakers call a pearl. Interestingly enough, unio shares its stem with the Latin verb unire, which means “to combine many into one,” and some etymologists believe the noun's formal kinship to the verb is an intentional allusion to the fact that both onions and pearls are multilayered objects. (For the record, a pearl is created when an irritant, such as a piece of coral or a parasite, gets inside the shell of a particular type of mollusk and the animal attempts to relieve its discomfort by slowly depositing concentric mineral layers around the offending particle.) In post-classical times, in fact, Roman soldiers used unio as a colloquialism for “onion,” and it is undoubtedly from this slangy sense that the Old French oignon was derived. When the word passed from French to English circa 1130, it was Anglicized to ungeon, but it became unyon around 1356 and later spent a few decades as onyon before the y was changed to i at the beginning of the fifteenth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

August 1, 2013

Case File #013.08.01: FOOL

The ultimate source of the word fool is the Latin follis, which means “a pair of bellows” or “an inflated bag.” In post-classical times, the Latin noun was also used as a slang meaning “windbag” or “chatterbox,” and when this colloquialism passed into Old French, it became fol and was used to mean “buffoon” and “jester.” Middle English borrowed the Old French noun (and its form) in the early thirteenth century, though English speakers used it to mean not only “jester” or “clown” but also "an unwise person." When the verb sense first appeared in the English lexicon around 1350, it was originally spelled folen and meant “to act unwisely,” and while it took only another twenty-five years or so for the spelling of both the verb and the noun to become the current fool, it took more than six centuries for the verb to accumulate all of the additional meanings it has today: the sense of “to trick or deceive” and its related connotations, such as “to surprise” and “to joke,” didn't appear until 1595; “to tamper, toy, or contend,” usually used in the phrasal form fool with, appeared no sooner than the mid-seventeenth century; “to pass time idly,” often rendered as the phrasal form fool around, didn't come into use until circa 1875; and “to have sexual relations,” often rendered phrasally as either fool around or fool around with, wasn't coined until the early 1960s.

©2013 Michael R. Gates