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 Proven├žal (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