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