December 30, 2013

Case File #013.12.30: FACADE

The principal meaning of facade is “the front or face of a building,” and it's therefore no surprise that the word is a descendant of the Latin noun facies, which meant “face” or “appearance.” But English wasn't the Latin's immediate heir. Italian was actually the first in line, using the Latin as the basis for the word faccia, meaning “face,” and in turn using that as the basis for the noun facciata, meaning “the face of a building.” The next beneficiary was French, which took the Italian facciata and kept its meaning but changed its form to façade. Finally, English became a heritor when it acquired the French word in the mid-seventeenth century, and while this was pretty much a direct transfer, most English speakers today slightly Anglicize the word's form by replacing the ç with a c. By the way, the figurative use of facade in which it means “an often deceptive outward appearance” is relatively new to the English language, having first appeared around the close of the nineteenth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

December 25, 2013

Case File #013.12.25: MAGI

According to the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible, the baby Jesus was visited by a group of Eastern wise men or philosophers who also gave him expensive items such as gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Some English translations of the Bible refer to these visitors as Magi, and probably because of their three flashy gifts, the men are traditionally characterized, especially during the Christmas season, as a trio of Eastern kings. But the word magi, which came to English directly from Latin, suggests something else, as it is the plural form of the Latin word magus, which means “magician” or “sorcerer.” We can substantiate this as the Gospel author's intended definition for magi simply by looking at the original Greek manuscript: magoi is the Greek word translated in English-language Bibles as magi or wise men, and magoi is itself the plural form of magos, which means—you guessed it—“magician” or “sorcerer.” So in the biblical narrative, neither kings nor philosophers journeyed to the Bethlehem manger; rather, the Eastern gift bearers who came to honor the baby Jesus were essentially wealthy wizards. Nevertheless, I'm not suggesting that you let this fact influence your Christmas traditions or festivities. After all, it would look kinda silly for a Nativity scene to have three wizards kneeling at the manger. And “We Three Sorcerers” just doesn't have the poetic cadence of “We Three Kings.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

December 23, 2013

Case File #013.12.23: NICE

The history of nice is arguably one of the most circuitous of any word in the English language. Ultimately, the adjective's roots wind back to the Latin nescius, which meant “unknowing” or “ignorant.” When the Latin word passed into Old French during the twelfth century, however, its form quickly changed to nice and its meaning shifted slightly to “stupid or foolish.” Middle English borrowed the adjective directly from the Old French in the late thirteenth century, but during the early fourteenth century, English speakers started using it to mean “shy or timid” instead of “stupid,” and by 1380 it had come to mean “finicky or fastidious.” Less than thirty years later, nice was being used to mean “dainty or delicate,” and in the early sixteenth century, that meaning gave way to the sense of “careful or punctilious.” It was around 1770 that the word took on its now familiar secondary meanings of “fine (as in well-executed or well-made),” “fitting or appropriate,” and “pleasant or agreeable,” but it took another sixty years or so for the adjective to finally acquire its current primary meaning of “kind, caring, or thoughtful.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

December 19, 2013

Case File #013.12.19: WIZARD

Say the word wizard today and your listeners are likely to conjure up mental images of cinematic magicians such as Mickey Mouse in “The Sorcerer's Apprentice” segment of 1940's Fantasia or Dumbledore in the more recent Harry Potter series. But etymologically speaking, there is nothing supernatural or magic about origins of the word. In fact, the roots of wizard wind all the way back to the innocuous Old English word wys, which simply meant “wise,” and from this those early English speakers derived the word wysard and used it to mean “sage” and “philosopher.” During the early fifteenth century, however, the form of wysard changed first to wisard and then to the current wizard, and it also began to acquire the connotation of prescience or prognostication. Not surprisingly, it didn't take long for the idea of a person who gains wisdom through foresight to give way to the idea of a person who gains wisdom (or power) by calling on supernatural forces, and by 1550, wizard had thus completely lost its association with the wise and had come to mean “one skilled in the arts of magic or the occult.” The now common informal sense in which the word means “one who is very skilled in a particular field or activity,” as in computer wizard or financial wizard, is much newer, though, having first come into use in American English during the 1920s.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

December 16, 2013

Case File #013.12.16: HUSSY

In the era of Middle English, hussy was merely an informal variation of housewife—the latter was spelled husewif back then—and had no negative connotations whatsoever. The two words remained synonymous into the early years of modern English, but sometime during the first half of the sixteenth century, hussy came to be applied to any woman or girl whether married or not. In the latter half of the seventeenth century, the upper class adopted hussy as a derogatory designation for women of lower rank. And by around 1800, the word had generally come to mean “a woman of low moral values,” though it was often used, as it is today, with an air of jocularity.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

December 12, 2013

Case File #013.12.12: VOCATION

Vocation came to English via the Latin noun vocatio, which meant “calling” and was itself a derivative of the Latin verb vocare, meaning “to call or summon.” It's not surprising, then, that when English speakers first started using vocation in the early fifteenth century, the word meant “a spiritual calling.” This meaning became secondary in the early sixteenth century, however, when the more worldly sense of “a strong inclination towards a trade or occupation” came into popular use. And during the latter years of the century, that secular meaning of vocation evolved into the noun's contemporary sense of “one's primary profession or career.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

December 9, 2013

Case File #013.12.09: BALLOT

In a time long before the days of printed forms and electronic tallying machines, voting was a highly secret affair, and to help keep their choices a secret, people sometimes cast their votes by surreptitiously dropping little colored balls into marked containers. Around 1540, English speakers began to refer to these balls as ballots, a word they derived from the Old Italian word ballotta, which meant “little ball.” About that same time, the containers into which the balls were dropped became known as ballot boxes, and the verb sense of ballot, meaning “the action or system of voting,” came into use soon after. By the time the nineteenth century rolled around, though, slips of paper had replaced the little balls as the voting implements of choice, yet ballot, despite its spherical roots, has to this day remained the common designation for the means of casting a vote and for the action of voting.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

December 5, 2013

Case File #013.12.05: PAVILION

The word pavilion came to English via the Old French paveillon, which meant “tent” but was sometimes used to mean “butterfly,” and the French itself came from the Latin papilio, which meant “butterfly” in the classical era but came to mean “tent” in the era of Medieval Latin. (According to some etymologists and linguists, the use of a word meaning “butterfly” in reference to a tent was probably meant as an allusion to the way that some tents resemble the unfurled wings of butterflies and moths.) When English speakers borrowed the French in the late twelfth century, they Anglicized it to pavilun—it was sometimes spelled pavilloun or pavillioun—and initially used it to mean “a large elaborate tent or awning.” Then around 1300, the word's form changed to the now familiar pavilion, and at about the same time, it took on the additional noun sense of “a group of related structures forming a building complex.” The verb sense of “to furnish or cover with or as if with a pavilion” didn't appear until the end of the fourteenth century, though, and the now common noun sense of “a light and sometimes temporary roofed structure used at parks or entertainment facilities” is an even later addition, first coming into use circa 1680.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

December 2, 2013

Case File #013.12.02: ACRONYM

Coined in 1943, the word acronym was formed by combining the Late Greek akron, meaning “tip” or “end,” and the English suffix -onym, meaning “name.” (The source of the English suffix, by the way, is the Greek onuma, which meant “name or designation” and “noun.”) Thus, an acronym is a word formed from the tips, or rather the initial letters or syllables, of each part or major part of a compound term or phrase, such as NASA from National Aeronautics and Space Administration and radar from radio detecting and ranging. But the word acronym does not apply to all such word-like abbreviations. When the letters are pronounced not as a single word but as individual units, such as with FBI (from Federal Bureau of Investigation) and CPU (from central processing unit), the term used in reference to the abbreviation is initialism.

©2013 Michael R. Gates