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