December 23, 2015

Case File #015.12.23: WASSAIL

You've heard the song every December for as long as you can remember. And if you're big on Christmas, you've probably even sung the song yourself. But every year around Christmastime, you still can't help but ask yourself, “What the hell does wassail even mean, anyway?” Well, as the lyrics to the old carol demonstrate, the word in question can be used as both a verb and a noun, and since the noun came first in this etymological family tree, we might as well begin there. The noun wassail started out in Old English as two words: was hal, which was a phrase derived from the Old Norse ves heill and was used as a salutation that basically meant “be in good health” or “be prosperous.” By the beginning of the twelfth century, the English phrase had evolved to become waes haeil (sometimes spelled wes heil), and instead of being a greeting or an acknowledgment of another's departure, it was now used as a drinking-party toast that meant “to your good health” or “to your good fortune.” It took barely another century for the two-word phrase to merge into wassail—the spelling of which varied greatly at first—and by circa 1300, the noun had taken on the secondary meaning of “the drink used for toasting, especially the spiced ale used in Christmas celebrations” and wassail was also gaining currency as a verb meaning “to take part in a wassail or a wassail-like toast.” Around 1600, our old friend Shakespeare, who was writing Hamlet at the time, gave the noun a tertiary meaning, “riotous drinking or drunken revelry,” and soon after, the verb took on the related secondary sense of “to engage in drunken revelry.” But it wasn't until the mid-eighteenth century that the verb came to be associated with caroling at Christmastime, and this was likely because many carolers, in an effort to keep warm as they went singing from door to door, brought with them some warm wassail or some similar alcoholic beverage and tended to get a little rowdy as the night—and the drink—wore on. (Some sources say that it was the people on the receiving end of the songs and well-wishing, not the carolers, who provided the warmed beverage.) When the nineteenth century rolled around, however, alcohol became less a part of the caroling activities each year, and the verb wassail thus came to mean simply “to go from house to house and sing carols at Christmas.”

©2015 Michael R. Gates

December 9, 2015

Case File #015.12.09: SLEIGH

The noun sleigh first came into use around 1700, only back then it was spelled slay and was initially linguistic currency solely among North American English speakers. A few etymologists and lexicographers credit the coining of the word to Samuel Sewall, one of the judges at the infamous Salem witch trials, as apparently the noun's first recorded use appears in Sewall's writings about his involvement in the witch trials and his early career in Massachusetts jurisprudence. But regardless of who created the word, experts all agree that it is essentially an Anglicized borrowing of the Dutch noun slee, which is a shortened form of slede (meaning, of course, “sled”) that itself evolved from the Middle Dutch sledde. (Incidentally, the English noun sled, which entered the lexicon in the early fourteenth century, is also a descendant of the Middle Dutch sledde, though a more direct one than its cousin sleigh.) The verb sense of sleigh, meaning “to drive or travel in a sleigh,” appeared as early as the 1720s, but the modern spelling of both noun and verb didn't appear until later: the contemporary form of the noun was first recorded in 1768, and it took another century for the spelling of the verb to follow suit.

©2015 Michael R. Gates

November 24, 2015

Case File #015.11.24: CRANBERRY

Etymologists, lexicographers, and linguists are not one hundred percent sure about the origins of the word cranberry, though most believe its lineage can be traced to the Low German noun kraanbere, which literally means “crane berry” and is itself a compound formed from the Low German kraan, meaning “crane” (the bird, that is), and the Middle Low German bere. So now you're probably wondering how the berry got associated with a bird like the crane, right? Well, the experts aren't sure about that, either, but the most common theory is that it's because the flower of the plant—especially that of the European variety, Vaccinium oxycoccos—resembles the neck, head, and beak of a crane. Whether that theory is true or not, however, one thing is certain: the English noun cranberry first appeared circa 1650, when settlers in America began using it in reference to the North American variety of the plant, Vaccinium macrocarpum, and its berries. And because the European and North American varieties of the plant are so closely related and similar, not to mention the fact that there were both German and Dutch among the American settlers, it's not difficult to accept the predominant idea that cranberry is essentially an Anglicized version of the Low German kraanbere.

©2015 Michael R. Gates

November 11, 2015

Case File #015.11.11: VANILLA

While the vanilla plant and its flavorful bean have been a part of Western cuisine since the early sixteenth century, when Cortés acquired the plant from the Aztecs and first exported it to Europe, the word vanilla didn't enter the English lexicon until the mid-seventeenth century. The roots of the noun (not the plant) ultimately wind back to the Latin word vagina, which means “scabbard” or “sheath” and is also the source of the modern English noun vagina. (Sorry, feminists and lesbians, but it's true: etymologically speaking, the English vagina means “scabbard” and was once meant to imply just what you're thinking it did.) The Latin passed into Spanish as vaina, the diminutive form of which is vainilla (meaning, literally, “little scabbard”). As the story goes, when Cortés and his men saw the vanilla bean for the first time, they thought its long curving pod resembled a small sheath for a sword. Hence, they referred to the bean, as well as its source plant, as vainilla, and the name stuck. Around 1660, English speakers began using the Spanish name in reference to the plant, but as they were wont to do when borrowing from another language, they quickly Anglicized the word's form to vaynilla. It was another fifteen years or so before the English spelling changed to the now familiar vanilla, and it wasn't until 1728 that the word came to refer to not only the plant but also the flavoring extracted from its bean. The adjective form of vanilla that means “plain or ordinary” is an even later development, although etymologists and lexicographers do not all agree as to when it first came into use: some claim as early as 1846, whereas others say no earlier than the mid-twentieth century. But regardless of when the adjective sense was coined, all the experts agree that it was born out of the erroneous but commonly held notion that vanilla must be bland and boring because the things that it flavors are often white and colorless.

©2015 Michael R. Gates

October 27, 2015

Case File #015.10.27: HORRIBLE

The earliest ancestor of the English adjective horrible is the Latin verb horrere, which meant “to bristle with fear or dread.” From the verb came the Latin adjective horribilis, meaning “awful, terrible, or monstrous,” and this eventually passed into Old French as horrible. Around the dawn of the fourteenth century, the Old French passed into the English lexicon, and though English speakers sometimes spelled it orrible or orible, the word today retains the French's original form as well as its essential sense of “extremely unpleasant, dreadful, or shocking.” By the way, the Latin horrere spawned not only horrible but also three other similar English words: the noun horror, which came into use around 1325 and generally means “an intense, painful feeling of fear or dread” and “an intense dislike or abhorrence”; the adjective horrid, which first appeared circa 1590 and initially meant “bristling” but is now used to mean “offensive or repulsive” or “inspiring shock, disgust, or loathing”; and horrendous, which entered the English lexicon around 1660 and means “extremely terrifying, hideous, or dreadful.”

©2015 Michael R. Gates

October 7, 2015

Case File #015.10.07: GARGOYLE

If you stopped random people on the street and asked them to define the word gargoyle, most would be able to give you a basic answer: it's one of those stone carvings depicting fanciful or grotesque creatures and often seen jutting out from the upper edges of old tall buildings. And some may even be able to tell you that a gargoyle—or rather its throat and mouth—is usually part of a gutter or waterspout that carries rainwater clear of a building's edge. But few could tell you that thirteenth-century English speakers derived the noun gargoyle from the Old French gargole (sometimes spelled gargoule or gargouille), which meant “throat” or “gullet” and was itself derived from the Latin gula. Most would not know that the English word's original form was gargurl (or sometimes gargurle or gargule) and simply meant “carved mouth of a downspout,” nor would they be likely to know that the modern form gargoyle didn't appear until the early fifteenth century, when the word also came to denote only the grotesquely ornamented waterspouts. And it's doubtful that any of your average on-the-street respondents could tell you that the Old French gargole is the progenitor of not only the English noun gargoyle but also the verb gargle, even though the connection should be conceptually obvious if not etymologically so: gargle means “to wash one's mouth or throat with a liquid kept in motion by exhaling through it,” and that's pretty much what a gargoyle looks like it's doing as it throws water away from a building during a rainfall.

©2015 Michael R. Gates

September 16, 2015

Case File #015.09.16: RAVENOUS

Though it has no real relationship to hunger, the Latin verb rapere, which means “to violently snatch or grab” or “to pillage,” is the ultimate source of the English adjective ravenous. The Latin passed into Old French as raviner, a verb that could mean either “to ravage” or “to forcibly seize” (depending on context), and from this speakers of Old French derived the adjective raveneux (sometimes spelled raveneus or ravinos), using it to mean “violently greedy” or “aggressively grasping.” At some point during the fourteenth century, English speakers borrowed the French adjective, Anglicized its form to ravenes, and started using it to mean “extremely hungry”—the leap from “violently greedy” to “extremely hungry” came via the observation of the way many predatory animals seize and devour their prey—but it wasn't until around 1405 that the English word took the contemporary form ravenous and gained the additional secondary meanings of “so great as to seem insatiable” and “inordinately eager for satisfaction or gratification.”

©2015 Michael R. Gates

September 2, 2015

Case File #015.09.02: LEPRECHAUN

In Irish folklore, a leprechaun is a mischievous sprite or goblin that resembles a little old man, so it should come as no surprise that the word leprechaun is often said to literally mean “tiny person.” The noun evolved from the Old Irish luchorpán, a compound formed from the adjective lu, which meant “little,” and the diminutive form of the noun corp, which meant “body” and was itself an altered borrowing of the Latin corpus. As Old Irish transitioned to Middle Irish in the tenth century and, in turn, Middle Irish gave way to Classical Irish (aka Early Modern Irish) in the thirteenth century, luchorpán underwent metathesis and became lupracán, and this made its way into the English lexicon as lubrican circa 1605. The contemporary English form leprechaun didn't come into use until around 1860, but most etymologists believe that its modern Irish cognate, leipreachán (sometimes taking the form leipracán or lioprachán), appeared much earlier and thus influenced the nineteenth-century English alteration.

©2015 Michael R. Gates

August 11, 2015

Case File #015.08.11: SPOIL

The verb spoil first entered the English lexicon circa 1300, though back then it was spelled spoulen and meant “to strip someone, especially a slain enemy, of arms, clothes or armor, and other valuables.” English speakers derived it from the Old French verb espoillier, which meant “to strip, plunder, or pillage” and was itself derived from the similarly defined Latin verb spoliare. In the middle of the fourteenth century, the spelling of the English verb changed to spoilen, and soon after, the noun form spoil, generally used in the plural (that is, spoils) and meaning “the goods or property seized by the victors from their enemies after a military conflict,” became part of the lingual currency. The form and definition of the noun have since remained relatively unchanged, but not so the verb's. As Middle English gave way to modern English in the fifteenth century, the spelling of the verb shifted once again to become spoil, the now familiar homographic homonym of the noun. Then in the mid-sixteenth century, the verb's original war-like meaning was jettisoned and replaced by the contemporary and now primary sense of “to lessen the value or quality of (something),” and right on its heels came the secondary meaning of “to become inedible or unusable as a result of decay.” But the verb's modern tertiary sense, “to impair someone's character, such as a child's, by overindulgence or excessive leniency,” is a much later development: it didn't appear until 1693, when English playwright William Congreve used it in the third act of his comedic play The Double Dealer.

©2015 Michael R. Gates

August 5, 2015

Case File #015.08.05: DETERGENT

The adjective detergent was derived from the Latin verb detergere—or rather, from its present participle, detergentem—which meant “to wipe away or clear off” and was itself formed from the Latin prefix de-, meaning “off” or “away,” and the verb tergere, meaning “to rub, wipe, or polish.” Thus, when the English word first appeared in the early seventeenth century, it meant “cleansing” or “purifying,” though it was initially used only as a medical term. It wasn't until around 1675 that English speakers started using the adjective in a non-medical context, and not long after, the noun sense—that is, “a cleansing agent”—also came into use. The association of detergent with a factory-made chemical cleanser, however, is a relatively new phenomenon that originated in the 1930s.

©2015 Michael R. Gates

July 22, 2015

Case File #015.07.22: QUELL

While it isn't exactly an innocuous word itself, the verb quell has an even more sinister ancestry. Its family tree is ultimately rooted in the Proto-Germanic verb kwaljan, which meant “to make suffer” or “to inflict pain.” This passed over to Old English as cwellan, meaning “to kill or murder,” but when Old English gave way to Middle English during the twelfth century, the spelling changed to quellen and the word was used to mean “to put to death” and “to destroy.” At the dawn of the thirteenth century, the verb's form changed again to the now familiar quell, and not long after, its mortiferous meanings were jettisoned and the milder contemporary senses of “to suppress, subdue, or silence” and “to forcibly induce submission or passivity” came into use.

©2015 Michael R. Gates

July 8, 2015

Case File #015.07.08: OK or OKAY

With their LOLs, BTWs, OMGs, ROTFLs, and the like, those of the Internet generation might be inclined to think they were the first to use clever initialisms as conversational shorthand, but they'd be wrong. In fact, in the 1830s—nearly 150 years before the first so-called millennials were born—the use of abbreviations in place of common phrases and expressions was all the rage among young and hip Americans, and even more popular, especially in New England, was the use of abbreviations to represent deliberate misspellings of those same phrases and expressions. Of the latter, one example has actually survived into the twenty-first century: the initialism O.K., which is now often spelled OK or okay. This one started as an abbreviation of oll korrect, a facetious spelling alteration of all correct that had the youth of the early nineteenth century LOL or ROTFL. Unlike the other similar faddish initialisms of the day, however, O.K. gained linguistic legitimacy in 1840 when the Democratic party in New York City formed the O.K. Club, with the club's name intended as an allusion to “Old Kinderhook,” the nickname of the party's 1840 presidential candidate, Martin Van Buren, who was born in Kinderhook, NY. (Some suggest it was the other way around, that is, that Van Buren's supporters gave him the nickname “Old Kinderhook” to capitalize on the already popular initialism O.K. But this is the minority opinion among etymologists, lexicographers, and other logophiles.) While Van Buren lost the election, O.K. was here to stay. As early as 1841, though, the periods were often being left out of the abbreviation so that it became a true initialism, and instead of being used only as an adjective meaning “all correct” or “satisfactory, acceptable, or agreeable,” the word was now also being used as an adverb meaning “adequately or satisfactorily,” as a noun meaning “an approval or endorsement,” and as an interjection to express assent, acceptance, or enthusiastic approval. But it wasn't until around 1890 that the verb sense—that is, “to approve or authorize”—came into use, and the non-acronymic form okay didn't appear until the late 1920s (an earlier spelling, okeh, didn't catch on), which was also about the time word acquired its alternate adjectival meaning of “barely adequate” or “mediocre.”

©2015 Michael R. Gates

June 17, 2015

Case File #015.06.17: YEN

When you say you have a yen for something, you likely mean that you have a current desire or enduring predilection for the something in question. But the nineteenth-century precursors of the word yen denoted something a tad grimmer than mere hankerings or inclinations. When Chinese workers started to immigrate to the United States around 1850, some of them brought opium—and their addiction to it—right along with them, and in the Chinese-American subculture of the time, the compound noun yin-yahn (sometimes transliterated yin-yan or in-yan) was used to mean “a craving for opium” (the Cantonese yin means “opium” and yahn means “craving”). English speakers assimilated the word circa 1885, and after first spelling it in-yun or yin-yun, they soon settled on the form yen-yen and used it to mean “an addiction to opium.” At the dawn of the twentieth century, however, the reduplication was jettisoned and the English form became the now familiar yen, and by no later than 1906, the word had also lost its connection with opium addiction and had come to mean simply “a desire or strong inclination.” It was another fifteen or so years, though, before the verb sense—that is, “to feel a strong desire or yearning (for something)”—was coined and passed into common use.

©2015 Michael R. Gates

June 3, 2015

Case File #015.06.03: GRIMOIRE and GRAMMAR

If, like me, you believe in the magical power of words and language, you'll be interested to know that the words grimoire, meaning “a book of magic spells and incantations,” and grammar (the meaning of which is likely already familiar to you word lovers out there) have a common ancestry. Their shared family tree is rooted in the ancient Greek phrase grammatike tekhne (sometimes transliterated grammatike techne), which meant “the art of letters” and was used to refer to both philology (that is, the study of the history, structure, and cultural nature of a language or languages) and literary scholarship. Latin speakers borrowed the phrase and turned it into the single word grammatica, and, depending on the context, they used it to mean either “philology,” “grammar,” or “literary scholarship.” When the Latin word later passed into Old French, its form became gramaire, though it was used to refer not only to grammar and literary studies but also to scholarship in general, and scholarship in the Old French era, which was encompassed by the Middle Ages, often included the study of magic, alchemy, and other supernatural esoterica. Thus, as Old French gave way to Middle French and, later, modern French, gramaire ultimately but not surprisingly evolved into two words: grammaire, meaning “grammar,” and grimoire, meaning “a book of sorcery or witchcraft.” But wait—what about English? Well, it certainly wasn't dormant and unresponsive while all this French etymology was in the making. At the end of the fourteenth century, in fact, English speakers took the Old French gramaire and changed its spelling first to gramere and a little later to the now familiar grammar, though they used it only in its basic contemporary sense—that is, “the collective rules and guidelines that govern a language's usage”—and jettisoned all the magical mumbo jumbo. Then grimoire finally entered the English lexicon around 1850, but unlike its cousin grammar, it retained the French form in addition to its meaning.

©2015 Michael R. Gates

May 20, 2015

Case File #015.05.20: LICORICE

The flavoring for licorice—the black kind, that is—comes from the root of a perennial Mediterranean plant (Glycyrrhiza glabra) that is related to the pea family and has blue flowers and compound pinnate leaves. (Some commercial brands of licorice are flavored instead with anise, a less costly Eurasian herb, but we're not talking about the cheap stuff here.) With that in mind, it shouldn't surprise you to learn that the noun licorice has its roots (no pun intended) in the Greek noun glukurrhiza (sometimes transliterated as glykyrrhiza), a compound formed from the Greek words glukus, meaning “sweet,” and rhiza, meaning “root.” The Greek passed into Latin as glychyrrhiza, but during the Late Latin era, the form changed to liquiritia, an alteration likely influenced by the Latin verb liquere, meaning “to become liquid” or “to dissolve,” as a reference to the way the plant root is processed in order to obtain its flavorsome extract. Old French borrowed the Late Latin noun but changed the spelling to licorece, and this later became the Anglo-French lycoryc before English speakers got their mitts on it in the early thirteenth century and transformed it into the now familiar licorice.

©2015 Michael R. Gates

May 6, 2015

Case File #015.05.06: IMPEDE

When it comes to the origins of the word impede, meaning “to slow, obstruct, or prevent the progress of (something),” etymologists are not all of one mind. Some say that the verb is a direct descendant of the Latin impedire, which literally means “to shackle the feet”—it's a combination of the prefix im-, meaning “on,” and the locative noun form pedis, meaning “foot”—but was used by Latin speakers to mean “to hinder, obstruct, or prevent.” Others, however, say impede is a back-formation from the noun impediment, meaning “a hindrance or obstruction,” and they lend credence to their claim by pointing out that the noun entered the English lexicon no later than 1400, more than two centuries before the verb came into use. (By the way, impediment was derived from the Latin noun impedimentum, which also means “a hindrance or obstruction.”) But one thing the two camps do generally agree on is this: credit for the coining of impede belongs to our old friend and prolific neologist William Shakespeare, who was apparently the first to put the verb down on paper when he used it in the first act of his play Macbeth circa 1606.

©2015 Michael R. Gates

April 22, 2015

Case File #015.04.22: THUG

Religious activity is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word thug, so it may surprise you to learn that the term originated in India circa 1810 as the British designation for a group of religious zealots. But these particular zealots were devotees of Kali, a Hindu goddess associated with (among other things) death and destruction, and they thus embraced violent criminal behavior and were especially notorious for waylaying, robbing, and strangling foreigners and unwary travelers. Of course, such behavior was unacceptable to the British, who in the early nineteenth century were already working to subjugate the Indian subcontinent and its people, and they managed to completely wipe out the Thugs by the end of the 1830s. The term thug, however, was here to stay. The Brits had derived the word from the Hindi thag, which means “thief or swindler” and was itself derived from the Sanskrit sthaga-s, meaning “cunningly deceitful.” So after obliterating the religious cult for which the noun was created, the British began to use thug as a general designation for any violent criminal. (Some etymologists give credit for coining this sense of the word to the Scottish essayist, historian, and social commentator Thomas Carlyle, who may have been the first to use it in print when his essay “Chartism” was published in 1839.) It wasn't until the early twentieth century, though, that English speakers in the United States appropriated the noun and used it to mean “a strong, tough minion in a crime syndicate” or, more generally, “a gangster.”

©2015 Michael R. Gates

April 8, 2015

Case File #015.04.08: ELDRITCH

Although the adjective eldritch, meaning “weird, eerie, or ghostly,” has been in use since at least 1500, nobody really knows where it came from or how it originated. But that doesn't mean that there aren't a few theories being tossed around. Some lexicographers and etymologists suggest the word came about as a variant of the Scottish elphrish, which means “unearthly” or “inhabited by spirits” and is believed to be a descendant of the noun elf. (Incidentally, elf has been around since the days of Old English, and it is likely related to the same Proto-Indo-European root from which German developed the word alp, meaning “evil spirit” or “incubus.”) Other experts, however, propose that eldritch, as well as the Scottish elphrish, is the linguistic remnant of the unrecorded Middle English word elfriche, a compound meaning “fairyland” that was, they say, formed from elf and the Middle English riche (the latter meaning, of course, “land” or “realm”). And yet still others surmise that the adjective descended not from the now lost elfriche but from the unrecorded Middle English word elriche, which meant “unearthly” or “ghostly” and was itself, they claim, the descendant of another lost or unrecorded word: the Old English elrice, a noun that supposedly was formed by combining the Old English prefix el-, meaning “other,” and the Old English rice, meaning “realm” or “kingdom.”

©2015 Michael R. Gates

March 11, 2015

Case File #015.03.11: POMADE

Anybody who has seen the Coen Brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) knows that the meticulous dandy Ulysses Everett McGill (portrayed by George Clooney) wouldn't be caught dead without some Dapper Dan pomade on his scalp. But even if you haven't seen the film, you still may know that the somewhat dated term pomade means “a fragrant ointment, especially one used for grooming hair.” What you probably don't know, however, is that the ancient Romans used apple pulp to make their hair ointment, and believe it or not, it is back to that old Roman grooming aid that we can ultimately trace the roots of the English word pomade. The classical Latin word pomum meant “apple,” you see, and since their hair treatment was made from apples, the Romans used pomum in reference to both the fruit and the ointment. Thus, when the Latin term passed into Italian, it became the basis for two words: pomo, meaning “apple,” and pomata, meaning “ointment” or “emollient.” Speakers of Middle French later borrowed the Italian pomata, though they changed its form to pommade. Then around 1560, English speakers borrowed the Middle French but Anglicized its spelling to pomade, and the English noun remained in common use until the 1960s, when young men started wearing their hair long and dry rather than slicking it back with an ointment like McGill's Dapper Dan.

©2015 Michael R. Gates

January 21, 2015

Case File #015.01.21: SAWBUCK

The slang term sawbuck, meaning “a ten-dollar bill,” is an Americanism that first appeared around 1850, and according to most etymologists, the term was derived from the similar-sounding Dutch word zaagbok, which means “sawhorse.” But why, you may ask, did nineteenth-century Americans use a word meaning “sawhorse” as the basis for a reference to the ten-dollar bill? Well, many experts believe the slang term was meant to be an allusion to the resemblance between the Roman numeral X (for ten) and the X-shaped ends of some sawhorses, and this theory seems to be substantiated by the fact that sawbuck later became a standard English synonym for sawhorse. I should note, however, that some lexicographers date the English noun's sense of “sawhorse” before its informal pecuniary sense. But such a stance is not supported by the extant evidence, which indicates that the word's sense of “sawhorse” came into use no earlier than 1862.

©2015 Michael R. Gates