November 12, 2014

Case File #014.11.12: BOMBAST

Since you probably already know that bombast means “pompously inflated speech or writing,” it's unlikely that the word makes you think of soft, pleasant things such as silk or cotton. So you just may be surprised to learn that the word originated with the classical Greek noun bombyx, which meant “silk” and “silkworm.” Classical Latin borrowed the Greek and used it to mean simply “silk,” but by the time the word passed into Medieval Latin, its form had changed to bambax and it had come to mean “cotton.” The Latin bambacem, the accusative declension of bambax, was the basis for the Old French bombace, meaning both “cotton” and “cotton wadding,” and when English speakers borrowed the French word in the mid-sixteenth century, they initially used it to mean “cotton padding” but soon changed its meaning to “any soft fibrous material used as padding.” It wasn't until circa 1575, though, that English speakers Anglicized the noun's form to the contemporary bombast, and it took yet another decade or so for the word's literal sense of “fibrous padding” to shift to the current figurative one that alludes to the padding often found in highfalutin and grandiose language.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

October 22, 2014

Case File #014.10.22: DIABOLICAL

Though there is nothing evil about the word itself, the adjective diabolical is of the devil. Etymologically speaking, that is. The word's ultimate ancestor is the Koine Greek (aka New Testament Greek) noun diabolos, which means “accuser” or “slanderer” but is often translated as “devil” or “Satan.” Eventually, the Greek became the basis for the Late Latin diabolus, meaning “devil” or “Satan,” and from this came the Late Latin adjective diabolicus, meaning “devilish” or “from the devil.” (The form of the Latin adjective was probably influenced by the Greek diabolikos, which also meant “devilish” and was, of course, derived from the aforementioned Greek word that translates as “devil.”) The Late Latin passed into Old French as diabolique, and around 1399, English borrowed the Old French but Anglicized it first to deabolik and a little later to diabolic. The contemporary diabolical finally appeared around 1500, but that didn't mean the end of diabolic. Indeed, most modern English dictionaries declare both forms to be perfectly legit—though nowadays you may find that just a single entry, often with diabolical as the head word, covers them both—and if that isn't a bit of lexicographical devilishness, nothing is.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

September 24, 2014

Case File #014.09.24: RIBALD

We English speakers in the twenty-first century commonly use the word ribald as an adjective meaning “amusingly and irreverently vulgar or lewd,” but believe it or not, linguists and etymologists trace the word back to the Proto-Indo-European verb root wreip- (sometimes transliterated as wrip-), which meant “to turn.” From that, they say, came the Proto-Germanic verb wribanan, meaning “to bend,” and this in turn passed into Old High German as riban, which literally meant “to rub” but eventually became a euphemism for the sex act and was therefore often used to mean “to be licentious or lascivious.” Speakers of Old French borrowed the Old High German verb but changed its form to riber, and from this they derived the noun ribalt (sometimes spelled ribaut) and used it to mean one of two things: “a licentious or lascivious person” or, more generally, “a rogue or scoundrel.” When English speakers borrowed the Old French noun in the early thirteenth century, they Anglicized it to ribaude (sometimes spelling it ribaud or ribalde) and dropped the sexual associations, thus using it to mean only “a scoundrel or an otherwise worthless person.” During the fifteenth century, however, the English noun began to take on some sexual connotations of its own, and by around 1500, the word's form had changed to the current ribald and it was being used to mean “an irreverently wanton or lewd person.” Not long after, ribald also more or less took on its contemporary adjective sense—Scottish poet William Dunbar gets the credit for the coining, as the adjective apparently first appeared in print when Chepman and Myllar Press (aka Southgait Press), Scotland's first commercial printer, published some of the poet's work in 1508—and by the time the twentieth century rolled around, the adjective was showing up in everyday usage much more frequently than the noun. In fact, though the noun sense still appears in most contemporary dictionaries, few of today's English speakers are aware that it exists and even fewer use it.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

September 10, 2014

Case File #014.09.10: ARDENT

If you have an ardent interest in some item or another, it means you are burning with enthusiasm or ablaze with passion for the thing in question. It should come as no surprise, then, that the adjective ardent has a fiery family tree. Indeed, its earliest ancestor is the Latin verb ardere, which meant “to burn.” From the verb came the Latin adjective ardentem, meaning “burning or ablaze,” and this eventually passed into Old French as ardant. English speakers borrowed the Old French (sometimes spelling it ardaunt) circa 1335, but in the early fifteenth century, the English word's form changed to the now familiar ardent and, the occasional poetic throwback notwithstanding, its meaning shifted from “burning” to the current and more figurative “enthusiastic, fervent, or passionate.”

©2014 Michael R. Gates

August 20, 2014

Case File #014.08.20: NOOSE

Although the English noun noose means “a loop in a rope or cord, specifically one formed by means of a slipknot so that it can be made to shrink and bind tightly around something when one end of the rope or cord is pulled,” the word's family tree is more firmly rooted in the notion of the knot than it is in that of the loop. You see, the noun's oldest ancestor is the Latin noun nodus, which meant “knot” or “node.” The Latin passed into Old Provençal (aka Old Occitan) and, in turn, Old French as nous or nos, and in the early fifteenth century, English speakers borrowed the Old French, Anglicized it to nose, and used it to mean “slipknot.” It took about half the century, however, for the word's meaning to shift to something like “the loop formed by a slipknot in a rope or cord,” and it wasn't until the end of the century, when Middle English started giving way to modern English, that the spelling changed to the contemporary noose and the noun began to take on the more specific denotation of a loop that tightly binds or snares. Around 1600, noose also took on two verb senses, “to capture or secure by or as if by a noose” and “to make a noose of or in,” but here in the twenty-first century, the verbs aren't used as commonly as they once were.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

August 6, 2014

Case File #014.08.06: CABAL

Contrary to tradition and popular belief, the noun cabal did not originate as a seventeenth-century political acronym. While it's true that the five nefarious noblemen—that is, Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley-Cooper, and Lauderdale—who comprised the Privy Council of Britain's Charles II were often referred to collectively as the Cabal (or sometimes as the Cabal Ministry), the word was neither coined specifically for them nor formed from the initial letters of their names. (That these letters can be used to spell cabal is mere coincidence, though one that has likely fueled the acronym myth.) The noun cabal actually entered the English lexicon in the early sixteenth century, about 100 years or so before Charles II or the members of his Privy Council were born, only back then its meaning had little, if any, connection with conspiracy or intrigue. In fact, the word originally meant “a Jewish or otherwise arcane interpretation of the Old Testament,” and this isn't too surprising when you consider that its roots wind all the way back to the post-Biblical Hebrew word qabbalah (often transliterated as kabbalah), which itself means “a received or traditional Jewish method for mystically interpreting the Hebrew scriptures.” Medieval Latin borrowed the Hebrew to form the word cabballa, and this subsequently passed into French as cabale. Around 1530, English borrowed the French but Anglicized it to cabal, and it was about a century or so later, when Charles II and his future advisers were still in diapers, that both the English word and its French cognate lost their association with religious arcana and came to mean “a private group or clique, especially one that meets for purposes of conspiracy or political intrigue” and “a secret scheme or plot.”

©2014 Michael R. Gates

July 16, 2014

Case File #014.07.16: GROG

Originally meaning “rum mixed with water,” grog first entered the English lexicon in the mid-eighteenth century as an allusion to Edward Vernon, a noted British admiral who had the nickname Old Grog due to his habit of wearing a cloak made of grogram. (Grogram is a course, stiff fabric made of silk or a blend of silk and mohair or silk and wool.) In 1740, the stern skinflint Vernon ordered that his sailors' rum rations be cut with water, and it didn't take long for the incensed sailors to christen the diluted rum with the nickname of their malefactor. By the end of the eighteenth century, however, grog had come to mean “any liquor that has been diluted with water,” and in the early twentieth century, the word came to be used as an informal reference to any cheap alcoholic drink, especially beer. Around 1830, the noun grog begat the adjective groggy, which, not surprisingly, at first meant “drunk or intoxicated,” though it is now used more broadly to mean “dazed, weak, or unsteady, especially when due to intoxication, illness, or lack of sleep.”

©2014 Michael R. Gates

July 9, 2014

Case File #014.07.09: JOY

The noun joy has its roots in the Latin verb gaudere, which was used to mean both “to be happy” and “to rejoice.” From the Latin verb came the noun gaudium, meaning “delight” or “something that causes delight,” and its plural gaudia, and gaudia later passed into Old French as joie, which meant “a feeling of intense pleasure or happiness, or an instance of such a feeling” and “a source of great pleasure or happiness.” Around 1200, Middle English speakers borrowed the Old French noun but quickly Anglicized its form to the now familiar joy, and not long after, the English word also acquired two verb senses: “to experience great pleasure” and “to take delight in (something).” The verb, however, eventually fell out of favor with everybody except poets, and only the noun senses of joy remain in common use today.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

July 2, 2014

Case File #014.07.02: OPPORTUNE

While we in the twenty-first century might not think of opportune as a seafaring word, the fact is that it kind of started out as one. You see, back in the days of ancient Rome, long before the invention of our more reliable modern seagoing vessels and global-positioning technology and the like, taking a sea voyage was much riskier and more dangerous than it is now. Thus, Roman sailors viewed the harbor as a safe haven and considered the moments when they sailed into port as happy and favorable ones, and it should come as no surprise, then, that the Latin phrase ob portum, which meant “toward a port,” became an idiom meaning “advantageous conditions” or “propitious circumstances.” Over time, the idiomatic phrase evolved into the Latin adjective opportunus, which was used to mean both “apt or suitable” and “favorable,” and this passed into Old French as opportun. English speakers borrowed the Old French around the end of the fourteenth century, Anglicizing the word's form to opportune and refining its primary meaning to “suitable or appropriate for a particular purpose” and its secondary to “occurring at a useful or advantageous time.”

©2014 Michael R. Gates

June 25, 2014

Case File #014.06.25: HAG

Although etymologists and lexicographers are not all in agreement concerning the origins of the noun hag, most believe that its roots wind all the way back to the Old English hægtesse, which was sometimes spelled hægtes or hegtes and basically meant “witch” or “sorceress.” During the thirteenth century, the spelling was altered to hagge and people started using the word to mean not only “witch” but also “demon” and “gnarled old woman,” and by the end of the fourteenth century, the form had become the contemporary hag and the noun had acquired its now familiar sense of “an old woman who is considered to be ugly, slatternly, or frightening.” In England, however, hag can also mean either “a bog or quagmire” or “a spot in a bog that is either firmer or softer than the area around it,” and in Scotland, the noun has yet another sense: “an overhang of peat.” But these boggy variants have an etymology altogether different from the witchy one. First coming into use in the early fifteenth century—or perhaps as late as the mid-seventeenth, according to one lexicographer—the uniquely British senses of hag derived from the Old Norse h ǫgg, which meant “a gap or break.”

©2014 Michael R. Gates

June 18, 2014

Case File #014.06.18: FROWN

When the verb frown first entered the English lexicon at the end of the fourteenth century, it meant something like “to snort in disdain” or “to turn one's nose up at.” That's because it came from the Old French frognier, which meant “to snort or turn one's nose up at” and itself evolved from a now lost Gaulish word that, according to many etymologists and linguists, was a cognate of the Welsh noun ffroen, meaning “nose" or “nostril.” Now some may snort at this, but it took more than a century for frown to lose its association with the nose and develop the contemporary verb senses of “to express displeasure or concentration by contracting the brow or turning down the corners of the mouth” and “to regard with displeasure, disapproval, or distaste.” And it wasn't until the late sixteenth century that the word acquired the noun senses of “a facial expression characterized by a furrowing of one's brow or a turning down of the corners of one's mouth” and “a general expression of displeasure.”

©2014 Michael R. Gates

June 11, 2014

Case File #014.06.11: VOLCANO

Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and metalworking, is ultimately responsible for the English word volcano. In classical Latin, the god's name was Volcanus, and the ancient Romans often also used his name in reference to both fire and volcanoes. The common form of the Latin passed into Italian as vulcano and was used to mean “a fire- and lava-emitting mountain or fissure,” and English directly borrowed the Italian word and its meaning circa 1575. In the late seventeenth century, however, the form of the English shifted to the contemporary volcano, and in the nineteenth century, the noun took on the additional secondary sense of “anything that violently erupts or has the potential to do so.” By the way, other English words that can also be traced back to the name of ancient Rome's divine smithy are vulcanization, which is the name of the process for curing rubber by treating it with sulfur while also subjecting it to high temperatures and pressures; vulcanite, the name of a hard, black vulcanized rubber that is used in the manufacturing of combs, buttons, and insulation for electrical equipment; and, of course, Vulcans, the name of Star Trek's fictional race of extraterrestrials—one of whom is the popular Mister Spock—who are said to hail from a dry, hot planet that is reminiscent of the Roman god's fiery forges.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

June 4, 2014

Case File #014.06.04: DIARY

Etymologically speaking, diary simply means “a daily record.” The noun descended from the Latin diarium, which in the classical era meant “a daily allowance of food or pay” but in medieval times was used to mean “an enumeration or catalog of daily affairs.” Thus, when diary first entered the English lexicon circa 1580, it meant “a record of daily transactions or events.” It was in 1606 that the noun took on the additional and now primary sense of “a book in which one records, often on a daily basis, personal experiences and observations,” the credit going to English playwright Ben Jonson—a contemporary of Shakespeare and, at least in regard to comedy, one of the Bard's few substantial rivals—for having coined this usage in his comedy Volpone. A little later, diary also came to be used as an adjective meaning “daily,” but this sense died out around 1800 or so, leaving only the noun senses to survive into the twenty-first century.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

May 28, 2014

Case File #014.05.28: WACKY

First appearing in the English lexicon circa 1935, the adjective wacky evolved from the noun whacky, a British slang term meaning “a fool” that reached its peak of popularity at the close of the nineteenth century. Whacky itself was a derivative of the verb whack, meaning “to strike or chop,” the idea being that a fool is an individual who acts as if he or she has received a few too many blows to the head. Not surprisingly, then, wacky first came about as a way to denote the imprudent quality of a whacky's behavior, but when the noun whacky fell out of use soon after, the adjective wacky quickly acquired the broader sense of “absurdly or amusingly eccentric, irrational, or crazy.”

©2014 Michael R. Gates

May 21, 2014

Case File #014.05.21: ZERO

Zero ultimately comes from the Arabic word sifr, which is used to mean either “nothing” or “empty.” (Yes, the English word cipher, which once meant “zero” or “null” before it came to mean “code” or “to encode or to compute arithmetically,” stems from that same Arabic source.) In the early thirteenth century, Medieval Latin used the Arabic as the basis for the word zephirum, meaning “of nothing” or “with nothing,” and sometime during the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, the Latin passed into both French and Italian as zero. It wasn't until the early seventeenth century, however, that English speakers borrowed the French and Italian word and applied it to the arithmetical figure 0 and its related concepts, and it was as late as 1813 before the English zero took on its now common but informal noun sense of “a person or thing of no importance or having little measurable influence.”

©2014 Michael R. Gates

May 14, 2014

Case File #014.05.14: FALSETTO

If you're like me and you grew up groovin' to the vocal intonations of Smokey Robinson, Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations, and Frankie Valli of the Four Seasons, you're probably already familiar with the noun falsetto. Still, you probably don't know much about the word's background, so listen up. Borrowed directly from Italian circa 1774, falsetto is the diminutive form of the Italian adjective falso, which itself is a direct descendant of the Latin falsus, meaning “false” or “feigned.” Thus, the literal translation of falsetto is “artificially small.” But when eighteenth-century English speakers got hold of the word, they chose to use it as a noun and to apply it to something that is conspicuously fake in its smallness: a voice (especially one used by an adult male singer) that is affectedly high in pitch, or a singer who uses such a voice.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

May 7, 2014

Case File #014.05.07: MAVEN

If you've ever been referred to as a maven, it's probably because somebody recognizes you as an expert in some special field or discipline, or maybe it's because you're known to be a connoisseur of wine, fine dining, and the like. Or perhaps you are, like me, an avid fan of the cinema and are thus a movie maven. Whichever the case, you were labeled with maven because it means “one who has special knowledge of or extensive experience with something,” and English speakers have been applying the handle to experts and connoisseurs since the mid-twentieth century. The word is actually an Anglicized form of the Yiddish meyvn, which means “expert or authority”—whether literally or sardonically is a matter of context—and is itself a derivative of the Hebrew mebhin, meaning “one who understands.” So the next time somebody calls you a maven, it'll be okay if you kvell a little. But try not to overdo it, 'cause God forbid you should make yourself look like a schmuck.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

April 30, 2014

Case File #014.04.30: EMBALM

When embalm first appeared in the English lexicon around 1385, it was spelled enbaumen (or sometimes embawmen), and this makes sense when you consider that the verb was derived from the Old French embaumer, which meant “to preserve a corpse through the use of spices or other substances.” In the mid-fifteenth century, the form of the English word changed to enbalmen, with the u (or w ) being replaced by an l due to the influence of the Latin balsamum, meaning “balm.” (Latin was kind of a big thing among the learned during the Renaissance, what with a lot of stuff from classical antiquity having just been rediscovered and all.) The spelling of the English finally shifted to the current embalm during the early sixteenth century, at which time the verb also took on the secondary meanings of “to fix (someone or something) in a static state” and “to infuse with a sweet or pleasant fragrance,” though the olfactory one is now considered archaic and generally used only by poets.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

April 23, 2014

Case File #014.04.23: BEDLAM

You may find this a little ironic, but the roots of the noun bedlam wind all the way back to a thirteenth-century priory. Established in London in 1247, the Saint Mary of Bethlehem Friary was initially set up as a monastic community for monks and nuns, but by 1330, it had been converted to a hospital for the poor and had come to be known as the Hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem. The hospital was taken over by the state in 1375, and by 1405, it was being used, at least in part, as a public insane asylum, one of the first such institutions in England. That's all very interesting, you say, but what does any of it have to do with the word bedlam ? Well, in the colloquial speech of fourteenth-century London, the hospital in question was often referred to as simply Bethlehem. As the years went by, however, this was contracted first to Bethlem and then to Bedlem, and by the time the hospital became an institution for the insane in the early fifteenth century, people were calling it Bedlam. It didn't take too long, of course, for people to associate the hospital's informal moniker with the tumultuous behavior that was often exhibited by the institution's mentally disturbed residents, and by the end of the seventeenth century, bedlam had become a generic term meaning “a place, scene, or state of uproar, confusion, or chaos.”

©2014 Michael R. Gates

April 16, 2014

Case File #014.04.16: YAWN

Yawn started out as the Old English verb ginian (sometimes spelled gionian or geonian), which simply meant “to open the mouth widely.” During the late thirteenth century, the spelling of ginian shifted first to yenen, then to yonen, and then again to yanen, changes that occurred mainly because Middle English speakers were abandoning some of the Old English pronunciation practices, especially that of pronouncing a g like a y when adjacent to an i or an e. It was around 1430 that English speakers started using yanen to mean “to involuntarily open one's mouth wide and inhale deeply due to fatigue or boredom,” but it wasn't until circa 1550, nearly a century after Middle English had given way to modern English, that word's form changed to the now familiar yawn. And the noun senses of yawn were even later developments: the common “an act of yawning” appeared no earlier than 1697, while the colloquial “a thing that causes boredom” didn't show up until as late as 1890.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

April 9, 2014

Case File #014.04.09: INCH

The noun inch, meaning “a unit of linear measure equal to one twelfth of a foot,” has been around since at least 1000 CE, but the original Anglo-Saxons spelled it ynch. It was derived from the Latin uncia, which meant, not surprisingly, “one twelfth” or “a twelfth part,” and during the twelfth century, the spelling of the English changed to unche, a form more closely resembling that of the word's Latin ancestor. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, however, the English form shifted again and became the now familiar inch. And not long after, the noun also took on its secondary figurative sense of “a very small degree or amount” (as when used in the colloquial phrase won't budge an inch), though inch didn't acquire its verb senses, “to move or progress by small degrees” and “to cause to move slowly,” until circa 1600.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

April 2, 2014

Case File #014.04.02: TAWDRY

Do you know that the adjective tawdry is a phonological attrition of the noun phrase Saint Audrey's lace? True story. You see, during the Middle Ages, an annual festival was held in Ely, England, to commemorate the life of Saint Audrey, a seventh-century nun who had been both a Northumbrian queen and an abbess of Ely and whose secular name was Æthelthryth (often transliterated in modern English as Etheldreda). At this festival, which was commonly known as Saint Audrey's Fair, merchants sold a sort of lacy collar or necktie—the saint's association with lace neckwear grew from the apocryphal belief that she had developed and eventually died from throat cancer, a malady that supposedly she herself considered divine retribution for her youthful penchant for expensive necklaces—and this popular neckwear was referred to as Saint Audrey's lace. As the years went by, though, reverence for the sainted nun waned and her annual festival virtually disappeared, and consequently, the phrase Saint Audrey's lace phonetically contracted to tawdry's lace. Around the beginning of the Renaissance, the phrase was further reduced to tawdry lace, and circa 1600, the term became simply tawdry and, now void of any religious significance, merely referred to any lacy or silken collar worn by women. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, the fancy lace neckwear itself had fallen out of style, and since those who persisted in wearing it were now considered passé and gauche, tawdry came to mean “gaudy, ignoble, or sordid” and thus shifted from being a noun to being an adjective.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

March 26, 2014

Case File #014.03.26: APOGEE

Apogee dates back to the late sixteenth century, when it first appeared in an edition of English explorer John Davis's The Seaman's Secrets. While some etymologists believe Davis simply borrowed the French noun apogée, others think he skipped back over the French and drew directly from the Latin adjective apogeum, which meant “moving away from the land” and was itself derived from the Greek apogeios (sometimes transliterated apogaios), meaning “far from the Earth.” Davis used apogee to specifically mean “the point at which the moon is farthest from the Earth,” but by circa 1600, astronomers were already using it more generally to mean “the point at which an orbiting object is farthest from the planet or satellite it orbits” and navigators were using it to mean simply “apex or summit.” It wasn't until the late seventeenth century, however, that the noun took on the figurative sense of “the climax or culmination of something, especially as attained over a long period of time,” as in, for example, The product was the apogee of twenty years of research.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

March 19, 2014

Case File #014.03.19: OGRE

The English word ogre, meaning “a man-eating giant of fairy tales and folklore,” is essentially a direct borrowing of the French. And while etymologists and linguists aren't 100 percent certain as to how the French word itself originated, most believe that its roots ultimately trace back to the Latin Orcus, the name of the Roman god of the underworld and that of his domain, by way of the Italian orco (or one of its dialectical variants, orgo and ogro), which means “monster” or “demon.” Charles Perrault was the first French writer to use the word in print: it appeared in his Histoires ou Contes du temps passé, avec des moralités: Contes de ma mère l'Oye (Stories or Tales of the Past, with Morals: Tales from My Mother Goose), which was originally published in 1697 and is better known to English speakers as The Tales of Mother Goose. It was not via Perrault's work that ogre passed into English, however, but through a 1713 translation of the French version of The Arabian Nights, one in which the translator inexplicably used the form hogre. And hogre it remained until circa 1786, when English speakers not only adopted the French spelling but also gave the word its secondary sense of “a particularly cruel, brutish, or terrifying person.”

©2014 Michael R. Gates

March 12, 2014

Case File #014.03.12: KIBOSH

Though the word kibosh means “something that serves as an end or a stop,” it is rarely used in anything other than the verb phrase to put the kibosh on (something), which, of course, is used to mean “to put a stop to (something)” or “to decisively end (something).” English speakers have been using kibosh since the early nineteenth century, but interestingly enough, nobody really knows where it came from. Because the word sounds somewhat Yiddish, some etymologists and linguists believe that it may be of Germanic origin, but as of yet, there is scant evidence to support this idea. Another theory is that kibosh could be a phonological attrition of the Old Irish Gaelic phrase cie bas (sometimes spelled caip bháis or caipín báis), which meant “cap of death” and supposedly referred to the hat an Irish judge would don while delivering a sentence of capital punishment. But as with the other theory, no solid evidence has been uncovered to tip the scales in favor of this idea. On the other hand, there is one thing about kibosh that is known for certain: the first person to use it in print was none other than Charles Dickens. Spelling it kye-bosk, Dickens used the word in a bit of Cockney dialogue in one of the stories that would ultimately become part of his collection Sketches by Boz, the first edition of which was published in 1836. The now familiar spelling of kibosh wasn't established until 1865, though, making its first appearance in the third edition of John Camden Hotten's The Slang Dictionary.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

March 5, 2014

Case File #014.03.05: QUILT

English speakers were using the noun quilt as early as 1300, only back then it was spelled quilte (or sometimes quhilt) and referred not to a mattress cover but rather to the mattress itself. The word was derived from the Old French cuilte (sometimes spelled coute), which meant “mattress” and was itself a descendant of the Latin word culcita, meaning “a stuffed pillow or cushion for a bed or couch.” It wasn't until the late fifteenth century, at about the time that Middle English was giving way to modern English, that quilt took on its current form and also acquired the contemporary sense of “a bedspread made of two layers of cloth filled with padding (such as down or batting) and held together by ties or decorative stitching.” And the word's verb senses—“to make a quilt by sewing together layers of fabric and padding” and "to pad and stitch ornamentally, as when making a quilt”—didn't come into use until the latter half of the sixteenth century.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

February 26, 2014

Case File #014.02.26: LIMPET

As you probably know, a limpet is a marine mollusk that has a shallow conical shell, a broad muscular foot, and a proclivity for tightly clinging to rocks. But what you may not know is that the roots of the word limpet ultimately wind back to the classical Latin verb lambere, which meant “to lick” and “to suck up.” In the Late Latin era, the verb was combined with the noun petra, meaning “rock,” to form the noun lampetra, which was used to mean “lamprey” but literally translates as “rock licker” or “rock sucker.” Lampetra became lampreda when it passed into Medieval Latin, and for reasons not entirely clear, lampreda came to mean both “lamprey” and “limpet.” When speakers of Old English borrowed the Medieval Latin term, they Anglicized its form to lempedu but continued to use it as a moniker for the two different aquatic animals. However, as Old English gave way to Middle English in the twelfth century, English speakers started using lamprey—derived from the Old French lampreie, it was thus originally spelled lamprei or sometimes laumprei—to refer to the eel-like creature, and they now applied lempedu solely to the rock-clinging mollusk. As you may have already guessed, the spelling of lempedu eventually evolved into the now familiar limpet (sometimes spelled lempet before the form was standardized), though etymologists and lexicographers are not all in agreement as to when this took place: some claim it happened in the early fourteenth century, whereas others say the contemporary form appeared no earlier than 1602.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

February 19, 2014

Case File #014.02.19: RIGMAROLE

Rigmarole is essentially a phonological attrition of rageman rolle, a thirteenth-century term that referred to a long roll of parchment used in a then-popular party game. Written on the parchment was a series of verses that each described the personality of a colorful made-up character, and attached to the heading of each verse was a piece of string. The object of the game was for a partygoer to select a piece of string at random, read aloud the verse to which the string was attached, and then assume the described persona for the remainder of the party. (Supposedly, hard-core gamblers of the era played a more serious version of the game that operated under slightly different rules.) Since the first character listed on the parchment was Rageman the Good (whose name was likely derived from Ragemon le bon, the name of a popular character in Anglo-French poetry), the game was called Rageman and the roll of verses Rageman's rolle, though the moniker for the latter was quickly corrupted to rageman rolle and later to ragman roll. Interest in the game died out during the early sixteenth century, and while the term ragman roll was still in wide use, it had by then acquired the more figurative sense of “any long list or catalog.” By the early eighteenth century, however, the term had contracted to the now familiar rigmarole and had come to mean “confused, incoherent, or rambling discourse.” And in the mid-twentieth century, the word rigmarole—now sometimes spelled rigamarole to reflect a common pronunciation—acquired the additional secondary sense of “a complex but often trivial procedure.”

©2014 Michael R. Gates

February 12, 2014

Case File #014.02.12: PERSIFLAGE

Lord Chesterfield introduced English speakers to the noun persiflage, which means “light but slightly contemptuous mockery or banter,” in his Letters to His Son, a collection of missives from Chesterfield to his illegitimate son, Philip, that were written in the early eighteenth century but not compiled and published until circa 1774. Chesterfield borrowed the term directly from French, and the French noun was derived from the French verb persifler, meaning “to banter.” That verb, however, was itself derived from the French verb siffler, which means “to whistle or hiss” and is a descendant of the Latin sibilare, meaning “to hiss.” Thus, one could cogently argue that persiflage is simply a friendlier and more articulate form of the mocking hiss or the deriding boo.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

February 5, 2014

Case File #014.02.05: SAUCE

The noun sauce entered the English lexicon circa 1340, but its original form was sause, a direct borrowing of the Old French. The Old French derived from the Vulgar Latin noun salsa, which meant “a briny relish or dressing for food” and was itself a feminized derivative of the classical Latin adjective salsus, meaning “salted.” Around 1355, the English form changed to the now familiar sauce, and not long after, the word took on the secondary figurative sense of “anything that adds flavor or gusto.” The word's verb senses, “to season or furnish with a sauce” and “to add piquancy or zest,” first came into use in the mid-fifteenth century. But it wasn't until 1940 that sauce acquired the informal noun sense of “liquor”: the slang first appeared in Pal Joey, an epistolary novel by American author John O'Hara.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

January 29, 2014

Case File #014.01.29: CRIB

The noun crib has been around since the era of Old English, only back then it was spelled cribbe and was used to mean “manger” or “trough.” When the noun passed into Middle English during the twelfth century, its form changed slightly to the now familiar crib, but the word also took on the additional senses of “a stall for a stabled animal” and “a wicker basket.” Believe it or not, the contemporary and now primary sense of “a small child's bed, usually one with high barred or latticed sides” didn't appear until circa 1650, and this most likely came about due to the frequent use of crib in reference to the manger where, according to the New Testament, the infant Jesus was laid. At about that same time, the sense in which crib is used to mean “a small crude hut or dwelling place” also came into use, and it is from this that English speakers derived the informal senses of “thieves' hideout” in the early nineteenth century and “one's home or apartment” in the twentieth. And the word's association with thievery, informal though it may be, eventually led to the current but less common noun senses of “a small theft” and “plagiarism.” From its earliest days, crib has also been used as a verb, and considering the original meaning of the noun, it's not too surprising that the original verb sense was “to eat from a manger or trough.” As Middle English passed into modern English, though, the verb came to mean “to confine or restrain, as if in a crib,” and at about that point in the nineteenth century when the noun acquired its informal association with thieves, the verb acquired the related informal senses of “to steal or pilfer” and “to cheat or illicitly copy.”

©2014 Michael R. Gates

January 22, 2014

Case File #014.01.22: UNICORN

As you may know, myths, legends, and folktales involving the unicorn have been around since antiquity. Images of the unicorn appeared in the governmental seals of the Indus Valley Civilization (a bronze-age culture that was roughly concurrent with ancient Egypt), ancient Greek writers referred to the animal in numerous texts, and even Roman naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder described the beast in his notable encyclopedic work Naturalis Historia (Natural History). But in the overall history of the mythical creature, the word unicorn and its immediate antecedents are relatively new. First appearing in the English lexicon at the beginning of the thirteenth century, the noun derived from the Old French unicorne, which in turn descended from the Vulgar Latin noun unicornus. And the Vulgar Latin noun itself evolved from the classical Latin adjective unicornis, which meant “having one horn” and was probably originally used to describe not the mythical unicorn but the real-world rhinoceros.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

January 15, 2014

Case File #014.01.15: GNU

It is often claimed that German-born naturalist and travel writer Georg Forster, whose many journeys included Captain James Cook's second voyage to the Pacific, gave the word gnu to the English language when he published his book A Voyage Round the World in 1777. Yet he used the form gnoo, not gnu, and because of this, a growing number of etymologists are now cogently arguing that Forster simply Anglicized the Dutch gnoe, that language's term for the African wildebeest, and thus does not deserve credit for coining a brand new word. So then, you ask, what's the skinny on the Dutch word? Well, the Dutch gnoe first came into use in the mid-seventeenth century, initially appearing in the patois of Dutch explorers who had just returned from Africa. The explorers derived the term from the Khoikhoi word t'gnu (sometimes transliterated i-ngu), which speakers of that African language used in reference to various types of antelope, and so popular were the explorers' stories about the Dark Continent's flora and fauna that by the early eighteenth century, gnoe became the common Dutch word for the wildebeest. When Forster introduced his Anglicized version, gnoo, in the late eighteenth century, English speakers in the scientific community readily adopted it as a term for the African antelope. But the word's spelling fluctuated during its first several years of use, and for reasons not completely understood, the current gnu became the conventional form circa 1786.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

January 8, 2014

Case File #014.01.08: JEJUNE

When English speakers first started using the word jejune circa 1610, it meant “lacking nutritive value,” and this makes sense when you consider that the word derived from the Latin ieiunus (sometimes transliterated as jejunus), which meant “hungry” or “fasting.” But in less than a decade, the English adjective took on the additional sense of “dull or uninteresting”—more than likely, the idea was to suggest that something is lacking in intellectual “nutrition”—and this quickly became the word's primary meaning. Then during the last half of the century, jejune also took on as a secondary meaning the related sense of “simplistic or puerile,” thus relegating the original nutritional sense to its current tertiary slot in the word's semantic hierarchy.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

January 2, 2014

Case File #014.01.02: SEERSUCKER

Like many people in the English-speaking world, you've probably at least heard of a seersucker suit. And you may even know that the suit gets its name from the striped and intermittently puckered cloth out of which it is made. But do you know where the cloth itself got the name? Well, the word seersucker, which first appeared in the English lexicon circa 1735, is an Anglicized borrowing of the Hindi word sirsakar, meaning “striped cloth,” and the Hindi is, in turn, a borrowing and phonological attrition of the Persian shir o shakkar. Now, even though the Persian phrase is commonly used as the moniker for seersucker material, it literally translates as “milk and sugar,” and it is likely meant to allude to the way in which the alternately smooth and puckered stripes of the material resemble, respectively, the smooth surface of milk and the bumpy texture of sugar.

©2014 Michael R. Gates