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