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