October 30, 2013

Case File #013.10.30: PUMPKIN

While pumpkins have been a part of the Halloween tradition for just a mere two centuries or so, the noun pumpkin has been around for at least twice that long and its antecedents are downright ancient. The current form of the word appeared in the mid-seventeenth century and quickly displaced the previous form, pumpion, which itself had come into use circa 1540 to replace the older pompon, a word borrowed directly from the Middle French at the end of the fifteenth century. Pompon had evolved from the Old French popon—a transformation that likely occurred during the late fourteenth century—and the Old French was a descendant of the classical Latin pepo. But the Latin word didn't mean only “pumpkin”; depending on the context in which it was used, it could also mean “watermelon or other such fruit.” This is because its source was the Greek pepon, which meant “ripened or cooked melon.” Now, if you're like me, you're wondering why the ancient Romans thought a Greek word for soft fruit would make a good label for pumpkins, and furthermore, you're probably asking yourself why they thought the same word should also be applied to watermelons. Sadly, the answers to those questions are lost in the fog of history. We can be happy, though, that pumpkin didn't ultimately inherit its ancestor's association with watermelons, because Halloween would be about as spooky as Christmas if jack-o'-lanterns were green and red instead of orange.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

October 28, 2013

Case File #013.10.28: INCUBUS

As you may already know, an incubus is a mythical male ghost or demon that descends upon sleeping human females and has sexual intercourse with them. What you may not know, however, is that the English noun incubus ultimately descended from the classical Latin verb incubare, which meant “to keep watch (over)” and “to lie on or sit on.” The Latin word is also the source of the modern English verb incubate, and while that fact may not be too surprising in and of itself, it does raise an interesting question: how did a word associated with incubation, lying and sitting, and keeping watch also come to be associated with sexually active ghosts and demons? Well, the story goes as follows. A long time ago, many people believed that nightmares were formed when a malevolent demon or spirit sat on the chest of the person sleeping. Sometime during the Late Latin era (a period that spanned roughly from the third century to the sixth), Latin speakers decided there should be a word for the nightmare-causing chest-sitters, and from their verb incubare they derived the noun incubus, which they used to mean both “one who sits or lies on a sleeper” and “nightmare.” Many English speakers of yore also believed in the chest-sitting spirits and demons, and on top of that, the poor sexually repressed bastards imagined that some of these ghostly night visitors took more liberties with their sleeping hosts than just sitting on them. So around 1350, English speakers who were educated (that is, they knew Latin) but also superstitious and horny decided they needed a term they could apply specifically to those night spirits they fantasized were diddling human women, and to that end, they borrowed the Late Latin incubus and simply altered its meaning. By the way, the English word succubus, meaning “a mythical female ghost or demon that has sexual intercourse with sleeping human males,” followed a similar etymological path. It is a semantic alteration of the Medieval Latin noun succubus, which meant “promiscuous woman” or “prostitute” and was itself derived from the classical Latin verb succubare, meaning “to lie under.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

October 24, 2013

Case File #013.10.24: EERIE

The word eerie descended from the Old English earg, which meant “cowardly” and itself evolved (or so say some etymologists and linguists) from either the Proto-Germanic adjective argaz, meaning “unmanly” or “fainthearted,” or the Proto-Indo-European verb root ergh-, meaning “to tremble or shake.” So it's understandable that when eerie first came into use during the late thirteenth century, it meant “fearful or timid.” The eighteenth-century Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns was the first to use the adjective in its contemporary sense of “strange and mysterious in a way that inspires uneasiness, fear, or dread,” and since it was through his influence that this became the word's primary meaning throughout the English-speaking world, it's more than a little ironic that the Scottish still often use eerie in what is basically its original sense of “frightened or unnerved.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

October 21, 2013

Case File #013.10.21: TARANTULA

For many people, the mere utterance of the word tarantula raises goosebumps aplenty, most likely because it conjures up mental imagery featuring a vast array of giant arachnids both real and fictional. But when the noun first appeared in the English lexicon circa 1591, it referred not to just any eight-legged terror but only to a specific European wolf spider, Lycosa tarentula. Now, this info probably doesn't surprise you if you're already aware that the English noun is a direct borrowing of the Medieval Latin, that the Latin derived from the Old Italian noun tarantola, and that the Italian evolved from Taranto, the name of a seaport in southern Italy where the aforementioned wolf spiders are commonly found. However, you may be surprised to learn that it wasn't until the late eighteenth century that tarantula was first used in reference to Theraphosidae, the family of large hairy spiders native to the tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas. And its use as a generic term for any monstrous spider is an even more recent phenomenon, having first appeared in American English around the middle of the twentieth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

October 17, 2013

Case File #013.10.17: GHASTLY

Although ghastly means “intensely unpleasant, horrible, or terrifying” and is even occasionally used to mean “pale, pallid, or otherwise resembling a ghost,” it has no palpable etymological relationship to the word ghost. The adjective is actually a descendant of the Old English verb g├Žstan, which meant “to frighten or torment,” and when it first came into use at the end of the thirteenth century, it was spelled gastlich or sometimes gostlich. The form evolved to gastli within a scant quarter of a century or so, but the current ghastly didn't show up until 1590—its first published appearance was in Edmund Spenser's epic poem The Faerie Queene—which was also around the time the word's adverbial senses (“in a macabre, gruesome, or terrifying manner” and “with a deathlike quality”) came into use.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

October 10, 2013

Case File #013.10.10: FREAK

Now, don't freak out over this, but when the noun freak first appeared in the English lexicon circa 1563, it meant “a capricious notion or a sudden change of mind.” And not only that, but etymologists are freakishly divided over the word's possible antecedents: some believe it descended from the Old English verb frician, which meant “to dance”; some claim it evolved from the Middle English noun frekynge (sometimes spelled freking), which meant “impulsive or erratic behavior”; some think it grew out of the Middle English adjective frek, which meant “eager, bold, or zealous” but was also sometimes used to mean “fast or speedy”; and still others argue that it came from something else altogether. But whatever the case, by 1785, freak had come to mean “an eccentric desire or whim,” and by the mid-nineteenth century, it had acquired its now familiar and primary senses of “a thing or occurrence that is notably unusual or irregular” and “a person, animal, or plant that is physically abnormal or grossly malformed.” The sense in which the noun refers to an ardent enthusiast—as in, for example, nature freak or sports freak—dates to around 1910, and the informal senses of “illicit drug user,” “member of the counterculture,” and “sexual deviate” are even newer, all having first appeared around the late 1950s. The common but informal contemporary verb sense of freak, which is often followed by out and means “to act or cause to act in a distressed, irrational, or uncontrollable way,” is also relatively new and first came into wide use during the 1960s, yet the less common verb senses of “to fleck or streak randomly” and “to alter or distort” date back to the early seventeenth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

October 7, 2013

Case File #013.10.07: WITCH

In the era of Old English, wicca was the word for a male magician or sorcerer, and wicce was its feminine counterpart. Although both were derivatives of the Old English verb wiccian, which meant “to practice divination and magic,” they generally suggested something much more nefarious than mere fortune-telling or spell-casting and were often used to label men and women who were suspected of having dealings with the devil or of cavorting with evil spirits. When Old English gave way to Middle English during the twelfth century, wicca and wicce became more or less interchangeable, and by around 1250, both had evolved into the single word wiche (sometimes spelled wicche). The noun's current form, witch, finally popped up around the mid-fifteenth century, and its verb senses, “to influence or affect by or as if by magic or devilry” and “to enchant or beguile,” came into use about fifty or so years later. (Some etymologists believe that the verb witch is not a derivation of the noun but rather a back-formation from bewitch, as the two verbs are essentially synonymous and bewitch actually entered the English lexicon first.) But the now common though informal noun senses of witch—that is, “old woman,” “ugly woman,” and “mean, spiteful, or overbearing woman”—are relatively new, having first appeared around the beginning of the nineteenth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

October 3, 2013

Case File #013.10.03: BOO

English speakers have used the interjection boo to startle or frighten people since at least the early fifteenth century, but information about the word's origins is as nebulous as the ghosts whose utterances it supposedly mimics. It was once believed that the word developed as a corruption of Boh, the name of a tyrannical Medieval general whose brutality struck terror in the hearts of his enemies and allies alike, but not a shred of evidence exists to support this idea, and it has thus long been disregarded as mere folk etymology. More recently, some etymologists have suggested that boo may have evolved from the Latin boare, which meant “to cry aloud or bellow,” yet even the extant data supporting this theory is tenuous. Now, while the source of the frightening interjection may still be a mystery, there is no doubt about the origins of the word's contemporary noun sense. Meaning “a shout of disapproval or contempt,” the word first appeared circa 1800 as an onomatopoeia suggestive of the lowing of oxen, and the utterance of such a boo was meant to imply that the person or object of derision was no better than a mere farm animal. Surprisingly, though, the related verb sense, “to deride or express disapproval by uttering a prolonged boo,” didn't show up for another eighty years or so. And the informal use of boo in which it means “any sound or word”—as in, for example, You didn't say boo to me about your plans—appeared no earlier than 1890.

©2013 Michael R. Gates