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