May 8, 2017

Case File #017.05.08: YACHT

When you consider the origins of the noun yacht, it is quite amusing that the various recreational watercraft the word denotes are associated with wealth, luxury, and the upper class. For you see, the etymological family tree of yacht is firmly rooted in piracy: it came from the early modern Dutch jaghte, a shortened borrowing of the Middle Low German jachtschip that itself literally meant “chase ship” or “hunt ship” but was used to mean “fast pirate ship.” English speakers pilfered the Dutch word in the mid-sixteenth century, only they Anglicized it to yaucht (or sometimes yeaghe), jettisoned its association with high-seas robbery, and used it to mean simply “a light, fast sailing ship.” It wasn't until the late eighteenth century that the form of the English noun finally evolved into its current yacht, and the word's verb sense—that is, “to race or cruise in a yacht”—didn't show up until the mid-nineteenth century, which was about the same time that the noun came to refer to all those relatively small sailing or motor-driven recreational boats that only the wealthy can generally afford to own, operate, and moor.

©2017 Michael R. Gates

April 5, 2017

Case File #017.04.05: EVIL

Some believe that evil has been around longer than the human race, that Lucifer invented it when he rebelled against God and was, along with a horde of devoted minions, subsequently cast out of Heaven. Whether that story is fact or mere myth, there is one thing that is certain: the word evil has been around for a very, very long time. It was derived from the Old High German ubil, which etymologists and linguists say was itself derived from the Proto-Germanic ubilaz, but the early Anglo-Saxons changed the form to yfel. For most of the Old English era, the word was used solely as an adjective, and while it primarily meant “sinful,” “malevolent,” or “depraved,” it was sometimes used to mean “ill,” “grievous,” or “oppressive.” As Old English gave way to Middle English during the twelfth century, however, the now familiar noun senses—that is, “wickedness” and “that which deliberately causes great injury, suffering, or destruction”—developed and gained widespread currency, and at the beginning of the fourteenth century, the word's form changed first to evel and then finally to the current evil.

©2017 Michael R. Gates

February 15, 2017

Case File #017.02.15: AGNOSTIC

Agnostic is often used to refer to somebody who is uncertain or noncommittal about the existence of God or other such cosmological prime movers, but the term originally had a different meaning. Coined circa 1870 by British biologist Thomas Huxley—grandfather of the more famous twentieth-century author, philosopher, and hallucinogens advocate Aldous Huxley—the word is a combination of the prefix a-, which means “without” or “not,” and the noun Gnostic, which refers to an adherent of an ancient religious cult that claimed to have privileged or esoteric knowledge about spiritual matters. Thus, agnostic literally means “someone without esoteric knowledge of spiritual matters,” and Huxley came up with the term as a label both for himself and for anyone else who might share his position that the observable universe is the only source of concrete knowledge and truth. So rather than being a person of doubt or indecision, a Huxleian agnostic is actually an empiricist who, due to the lack of observable or measurable evidence, is likely to take a firm stance against the existence of God. Indeed, Huxley suggested that by being an agnostic, he was also an atheist by default. “I have never had the least sympathy with the [arguments] against orthodoxy,” he wrote, “and I have by nature and disposition the greatest possible antipathy to all the atheistic and infidel schools. Nevertheless, I know that I am, in spite of myself, exactly what the Christian would call—and, so far as I can see, is justified in calling—an atheist and an infidel.”

©2017 Michael R. Gates