September 30, 2013

Case File #013.09.30: DELIRIUM

If we trace the noun delirium all the way back to its earliest tangible roots, we find that it started with the Latin prepositional phrase de lire, which meant “from the furrow” or “off the track.” The ancient Romans transformed the phrase into the verb deliriare, which initially meant “to wander from the furrow (while plowing)” but was later used figuratively to mean “to deviate from the rational or emotional norm” or “to become deranged,” and from this they derived the Latin noun delirium, meaning “insanity.” When the noun passed directly into English circa 1590, the meaning was softened a bit to “a temporary state of acute mental or emotional instability resulting from high fever, intoxication, shock, or other such causes,” but the informal sense in which delirium is softened even further to “frenzied excitement” or “ecstasy”—as in, for example, The sports fans jumped about in delirium after their team's championship victory —didn't appear until the mid-nineteenth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

September 26, 2013

Case File #013.09.26: MANURE

If you're like me, you probably aren't keen on the idea of getting manure on your hands, so it might surprise you to learn that the word manure ultimately evolved from the Latin verb phrase manu operari, which meant “to work using one's hands.” When the Latin phrase passed into Old French, it became the single word manouvrer and was used to mean “to make or produce” and “to perform manual labor,” but when English speakers borrowed the French in the early fifteenth century, they Anglicized the spelling to the now familiar manure and used it to mean “to work the soil” and “to cultivate and manage the land.” Of course, cultivating the land often involves the spreading of fertilizer, and since the earliest fertilizers were made of animal dung, it wasn't long before manure took on the sense of “to spread dung on the fields.” During the latter half of the sixteenth century, however, the word became more closely associated with the fertilizer than the act of fertilizing and thus took on the noun sense of “animal dung,” and by the time 1700 rolled around, the noun sense had become more prominent and the verb was relegated to the farmers' argot.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

September 23, 2013

Case File #013.09.23: VULGAR

The Latin noun vulgus meant “common people” or “general public,” and from it the ancient Romans derived the adjective vulgaris, which meant “commonplace” or “of the common people.” As you may have guessed, vulgaris was the source for the English vulgar, and when the latter first appeared in the English lexicon in the late fourteenth century, it essentially meant “common, ordinary, or everyday.” Around the middle of the seventeenth century, vulgar also took on the additional senses of “ill-bred” and “uncultivated, crude, or tasteless,” but the adjective's now more common sense of “lewd, indecent, or obscene” didn't come into use until the late eighteenth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

September 19, 2013

Case File #013.09.19: CAHOOTS

When you're in cahoots with somebody, it generally means that you're colluding or conspiring together for some secret and often nefarious purpose. And the coining of the word cahoots must have been the result of such a conspiracy, because even though English speakers have been using the noun since the early nineteenth century, nobody really knows who coined it or how it originated. Some linguists and etymologists believe the word may have been derived from the Latin cohors, which literally meant “enclosure for animals or soldiers” yet was often used figuratively to mean “enclosed group” or “infantry troop.” But others think it more likely that cahoots was derived from the French cahute, meaning “hut” or “cabin,” and was thus intended to suggest the closed-in, out-of-the-way places in which conspirators often do their caballing and conniving.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

September 16, 2013

Case File #013.09.16: QUIZ

The ultimate origins of the word quiz are lost in the mists of history, but that hasn't stopped people from offering up a few ideas. One older story purports that the word was invented in the eighteenth century by a Dublin theater owner who, fancying himself a crack neologist, won a bet that his new word would be in wide use within forty-eight hours of its coining, and though this tale has been circulated for at least two hundred years, not a single shred of evidence exists to support it. A more recent hypothesis suggests that quiz was derived from the Latin quis, which was a pronoun meaning “what,” “who,” or “which” and was often used as an interrogative. And while this idea appears to be more logical and historically sound than the older one, most experts dismiss it as a piece of etymological casuistry because it flies in the face of what little actually is known about the background of the word. You see, when the noun quiz first appeared in the English lexicon around 1780, it meant “an odd or eccentric person,” and its derivative verb sense—which came into use about fifteen years later—meant “to mock, jeer, or ridicule.” It wasn't until circa 1850 that the verb came to mean “to question or interrogate” and “to give a student an informal test or examination”—the noun sense of “a brief test or examination” took another decade or so to show up—but what's really interesting is that nobody can figure out for certain why this semantic shift occurred, though the etymologists behind the venerable Oxford English Dictionary have suggested that the change may have been influenced by the long-established and similar-sounding adjective inquisitive.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

September 11, 2013

Case File #013.09.11: SKULL

Old English had several words for the bone that encloses the brain, though all of them were compounds using either brain (brægen in Old English) or head (heafod ) as a base: brægenpanne, which translates as “brain pan”; heafodpanne, which translates as “head pan”; heafodbolla, which translates as “head bowl” or “head cup”; heafodloca, which translates as “head enclosure”; and finally heafodban, which translates as “head bone.” Around the end of the twelfth century, these compounds were all abandoned in favor of the now common skull, but curiously enough, nobody knows for sure where the newer noun came from. Among etymologists, the traditional belief has been that the word was derived from the Old Icelandic skalli, which meant “bald head” but was also sometimes used to mean “head bone.” However, a more recent theory suggests that skull evolved from the Old English noun scealu, which meant “husk or shell” and was often used as a generic term for cup- and bowl-like containers.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

September 9, 2013

Case File #013.09.09: UMBRAGE

The word umbrage has a shady past. Literally. It came to English via the Middle French ombrage, which meant “shade or shadow” and was itself derived from the Latin adjective umbraticus, meaning “shadowy” or “of the shade.” When English speakers borrowed the French term in the early fifteenth century, they changed the spelling to umbrage yet kept the original shadowy meaning. The noun's usage became more figurative than literal during the sixteenth century, however, and its meaning shifted first to something like “indistinctness” or “haziness” and then later to “doubt” and “suspicion.” But seventeenth-century English speakers must have been a little piqued by all those former shady and suspicious meanings of umbrage, for it was they who gave the noun its current primary sense of “resentment, insult, or offense.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

September 4, 2013

Case File #013.09.04: YIP

The Middle English verb yippen meant “to peep or chirp like a small bird,” and when it passed into modern English in the fifteenth century, its form was shortened to yip but its meaning remained essentially the same. During the early nineteenth century, however, the word flew further from its fowl beginnings and came to mean “to talk or cry in a shrill manner,” a change that some linguists and etymologists believe took place because the orthographical and phonological similarities between yip and yap caused English speakers to confuse the two words. The current sense of the verb yip, “to bark or yelp sharply, briskly, and often continuously,” first appeared in American author Kate Douglas Wiggin's novella The Diary of a Goose Girl in 1902, and the derivative noun sense of “a sharp, high-pitched bark or yelp” came into use around 1910.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

September 3, 2013

Case File #013.09.03: JEANS

If you're anything like me, you favor jeans over just about any other type of clothing. But do you know how the popular denim pants got their name? Well, it all started with the Middle French phrase jean fustian, which meant “fustian of Genoa” and referred to a twilled cotton fabric that was manufactured in Italy. English speakers borrowed the phrase in the mid-fifteenth century, though they soon dropped fustian and simply used jean as a moniker not only for the Italian cloth but also for any twilled cotton fabric, of which denim is one. Thus, when United States clothiers started using denim to make legwear in the nineteenth century, Americans referred to the durable clothing as merely jean. Around 1880, however, the plural form jeans completely supplanted the singular in everyday usage, a change that many etymologists and linguists attribute to the influence of the long-standing usage of the related pants and trousers.

©2013 Michael R. Gates