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