November 27, 2013

Case File #013.11.27: TURKEY

English speakers started using the word turkey circa 1541, but back then they applied it to the guinea fowl, a domesticated bird imported from Madagascar by way of Turkey. When the American bird we now refer to as turkey was introduced to England in the latter half of the sixteenth century, the Brits mistook it for a variety of guinea fowl not only because it somewhat resembled the other bird but also because the Spanish were using the same Turkish trade routes to export the animals from Mexico to England via Africa. By the time 1575 rolled around, however, the American fowl had become England's most popular main course for Christmas dinner, and it was about then that it also became the sole bird to which the moniker turkey was applied. Much newer are the senses of the word in which it refers to a failed artistic endeavor, such as a play or movie, or to an inept or stupid person. Both first appeared in American English during the early twentieth century, presumably coming about because the turkey was perceived as an unintelligent and rather docile animal. The bird's reputation for stupidity and tractability is also behind the neology of the phrase turkey shoot, which is used in reference to a task that takes little effort to accomplish.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

November 25, 2013

Case File #013.11.25: MEAL

Here in the Western world, we English speakers have a time-honored tradition of getting together with family and friends at holiday time and indulging a large, extravagant meal. Even older than this tradition is the word meal, which can be traced back all the way back to the time of the original Anglo-Saxons. The word's Old English form, however, was m æl, and it meant not only “an act of eating a portion of food” and “an appointed time for eating” but also “a portion or measure (especially of time).” When Old English gave way to Middle English in the mid-twelfth century, the word's form became meel (also sometimes spelled mele or mel), and a century or so later, its spelling finally changed to the contemporary meal and its association with measurement was ultimately jettisoned. (Remnants of the noun's sense of “a portion or measure” are still around today, though, in both the adjectival and adverbial senses of the word piecemeal.) But the sense in which meal refers to ground grain has an entirely different etymological family tree. It ultimately traces back to the Indo-European root mel-, which meant “related to grinding” and later became the basis of several Proto-Germanic verbs and nouns. The Anglo-Saxons borrowed one of these Germanic words—etymologists and linguists do not all agree on the specifics—and used it as the basis for the Old English noun melu, which meant “ground grain” or “flour.” When melu passed into Middle English, its form initially changed to melewe (sometimes spelled melowe) but later became meale (sometimes spelled maile), and when Middle English gave way to modern English in the late fifteenth century, meale became the now familiar meal.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

November 21, 2013

Case File #013.11.21: GRAVY

When gravy first came into use in the late fourteenth century, it referred to a thick, spicy stew that was served as a dressing or side dish for fish or fowl. The word is an Anglicized form of the Old French grané —most etymologists and linguists believe the v came about as a misreading of the n in handwritten manuscripts, but there are some who postulate the existence of the unrecorded Middle French word gravé, a logical and likely descendant of the Old French, as the immediate antecedent of the English—and though grané meant “broth or stew,” it was itself a derivative of the Latin granum, which meant “grain or seed.” (Grains and seeds, or rather their flours, are traditional thickening agents for stews and gravies.) It wasn't until the sixteenth century that gravy came to mean “a sauce made from the thickened and seasoned juices of cooked meat.” And it was in the early twentieth century that it acquired its informal senses of “payment or benefits in excess of what is expected or required” and “unfair or unlawful gain.” The related slang phrase gravy train, meaning “a source of easy money,” is also a twentieth-century neologism, one that originated among American railroad workers as a way of referring to any short but profitable haul.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

November 18, 2013

Case File #013.11.18: DINNER

The ultimate source of the English noun dinner is the unrecorded Vulgar Latin verb disjunare, which essentially meant “to stop fasting.” (Unrecorded word? Yes. Though the term in question never appeared in Vulgar Latin texts, etymologists and linguists have a plethora of evidence suggesting that it was used in everyday conversation.) Old French used the Latin as the basis for the noun desiuner, which originally meant “breakfast” but later came to mean “midday meal.” By the end of the thirteenth century, the form of the Old French word had evolved to disner, and around 1300, English borrowed the Old French but Anglicized it to the now familiar dinner. Okay, I know what you're thinking. At this point, you're wondering if the English word is still used to mean “midday meal” or if now means “evening meal.” Am I right? Well, one thing is certain: ever since it first appeared in the English lexicon, dinner has always been used to denote the main meal of the day. But the time of day at which that meal is eaten has varied over the centuries, and whether an individual or group defines dinner as either “midday meal” or “evening meal” is basically determined by nationality, region, and social class.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

November 14, 2013

Case File #013.11.14: YAM

When it comes to the origins of yam, etymologists and lexicographers are not of one accord. Some believe the English word first came into use around the end of the sixteenth century, having been derived from either the Portuguese inhame or the Spanish igname. Others concur with that time frame yet argue that yam came not via Portugal or Spain but by way of West Africa, where the Twi language's phonetically similar anyinam refers to a yam-like tuber. (This idea is bolstered by the fact that the first British mercantile efforts in West Africa took place during the second half of the sixteenth century.) But still others posit that the English word developed more recently, having come into use first in the American colonies circa 1700 or even a bit later. According to this argument, yam was borrowed from the pidgin and creole languages used by African-American slaves, languages in which similar-sounding words such as nyaams and ninyam referred to tuber-like foodstuffs.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

November 11, 2013

Case File #013.11.11: CORN

Corn is an old word that has been in the English lexicon since at least the eighth century. In the Old English era, however, it didn't denote a particular grain but merely seed grain in general, and in modern times, the specific grain to which the word does refer depends on where you happen to be. In England, for example, corn usually refers to wheat, whereas it refers to oats in Ireland and Scotland and to rye in many of the European countries where English is the lingua franca of business and academics. It was in the mid-seventeenth century that European colonists in North America first used corn in reference to maize, the large yellowish cereal grain indigenous to the New World, and this not only became the word's primary sense in what would later develop into the United States, but it also ultimately caught on in New Zealand, Australia, and most of Canada. Now, some of you out there might this very moment be rubbing your sore feet and wondering about the sense of corn in which it refers to a hard, thick spot on surface of the skin. Well, that word has nothing to do with botany or agriculture and has a different etymology altogether. First appearing in the English lexicon around 1425, that corn was derived from the Old French corne, which meant “horn-like growth” and had itself evolved from the Latin cornu, meaning “a horn, tusk, hoof, or claw.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

November 7, 2013

Case File #013.11.07: AUTUMN

The roots of the noun autumn wind all the way back to the Latin autumnus, which meant “harvest time.” The Latin passed into Old French as autompne, and in the late fourteenth century, Middle English borrowed the Old French term but altered its form to autumpne. Then around 1590, roughly a century after Middle English gave way to modern English, the word's spelling changed again to become the contemporary autumn. The synonym fall, which is now used primarily in the United States and is there the more popular way of referring to the harvest season, first appeared in the mid-seventeenth century. It came about as a shortening of the phrase fall of the leaf, an obvious though still somewhat poetic alternative to autumn that had been in common use since circa 1540.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

November 4, 2013

Case File #013.11.04: NOVEMBER

Novem was the Latin word for “nine,” and to this the ancient Romans added -bris, a suffix meaning “month,” to form the word Novembris, which literally meant “month nine.” Probably due to a little apocope, Novembris soon became November, though this formal shift didn't affect the semantics and the word remained the designation for the ninth month of the year. But wait—isn't November the eleventh month of the year? Well, yes. Now. The original Roman calendar, however, had only ten months, March being the first and December being the last, thus making November the ninth. This calendar was based on a lunar cycle rather than a solar one, though, and it turned out to be off by about sixty-one days. So around 713 BCE, the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, tried to compensate for the error by extending the calendar with two new months: Ianuarius and Februarius, which we English speakers now call, respectively, January and February. Since he placed these new months at the beginning of the year (that is, in front of March), November was pushed from the ninth spot to the eleventh, and despite later tweaking by Julius Caesar and Pope Gregory XIII, this has remained the month's place on the calendar ever since. As for the word November, it passed into Old French as Novembre, carrying over the adjusted Latin meaning of “the eleventh month of the calendar year.” Middle English borrowed the Old French circa 1200—it replaced the Old English Blotmonath, which literally meant “blood month” and was so named because it was the time of year when animals were slaughtered in preparation for the coming winter—although it took a couple of centuries for the form to shift to the current November.

©2013 Michael R. Gates