December 12, 2017

Case File #017.12.12: MISTLETOE

Old jokes notwithstanding, the Christmassy word mistletoe has nothing to do with the feet of astronauts or cosmonauts. The noun actually started out in Old English as mistiltan—there are no toes there, you see—a compound formed from two other Old English words: mistel, which referred to the mistletoe plant itself, and tan, which meant “twig.” So, then, mistiltan literally meant “a twig of the mistletoe shrub.” Around the end of the twelfth century, speakers of Middle English changed the spelling to mistelta and now used the word in reference to the entire plant, and a few hundred years later, they traded the a for an o and thereby changed the noun's form to mistelto. Early speakers of modern English gave us the contemporary form mistletoe sometime during the fifteenth century, but it wasn't until the early nineteenth century that American writer Washington Irving firmly tied the mistletoe—and thus the already established tradition of kissing beneath it—to Christmas when, in his short story “Christmas Eve,” he cited the plant as a common Yuletide decoration and said, “The mistletoe is still hung up in farmhouses and kitchens at Christmas; and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it....”

©2017 Michael R. Gates

December 4, 2017

Case File #017.12.04: HOLLY

At Christmastime, by golly, we often think of holly, that green, red-berried shrub with which we deck the halls. But have any of us ever stopped to consider where the word holly came from? Well, etymologists have. They've traced its origins back at least as far as the Old High German hulis, which referred to the holly plant and itself passed into Old English as holegn (sometimes spelled holen). When Old English gave way to Middle English during the twelfth century, the English noun's form changed first to holi and then later to holy. Perhaps in an effort to avoid confusing the word with the contemporary adjective holy—which means, of course, “sacred”—early speakers of modern English added the extra l during the late fifteenth century and gifted us with the now familiar form holly.

©2017 Michael R. Gates

October 19, 2017

Case File #017.10.19: OUIJA

A Ouija is a small table or lapboard marked with the alphabet, the numbers zero through nine, and a few words—usually yes, no, good-bye, and hello —and used, with the aid of a planchette (a small triangular or heart-shaped pointer supported on casters), to receive and spell out messages or warnings that are supposedly sent from the spirit world or the realm of the dead. The device was conceived and patented in 1890 by American businessman Elijah Bond, who considered it a harmless parlor game rather than the occult paraphernalia it is often regarded as today, and he coined Ouija (pronounced /wee -jÉ™/ or /wee -jee/) by combining the French and German words for yes: oui and ja, respectively. Although the name Ouija is often bandied about today as if it were a generic term, it is actually a trademark that was owned first by Baltimore's Kennard Novelty Company, to which Bond originally sold his patent rights, and later by the US toy company Hasbro, Inc., which still retains the rights.

©2017 Michael R. Gates

August 24, 2017

Case File #017.08.24: ECLIPSE

Well, the great American solar eclipse of 2017 has come and gone. And it was pretty freakin' cool, especially for those of us who were lucky enough to see it from the path of totality and thus enjoy the short but breathtaking spectacle of the sun's corona glowing out around the circumference of the moon. But as you watched the moon blot out the life-giving sun, did you pause to wonder how the word eclipse became part of the English lexicon? I didn't think so. Don't worry, though, because I'm going to tell you about it now. The word's roots wind all the way back to the classical Greek verb ekleipein, which meant “to forsake its usual place” or “to fail to appear,” and its derivative noun, ekleipsis. The latter was itself only occasionally used in our modern-day sense of “the total or partial obscuring of one celestial body by another,” but when the noun passed into Latin as eclipsis, Latin speakers dropped the more common meanings of the Greek source and used their new word solely in reference to the astronomical event. Later, Old French speakers borrowed the Latin eclipsis but converted it into two words: the noun eclipse, which retained the Latin's meaning, and the verb eclipser, which meant, natch, “to cause an eclipse.” Sometime during the second half of the thirteenth century, the Old French eclipse passed directly into English, though English speakers used this form for both the noun and the verb (retaining for each, of course, the respective Old French senses). Then around 1385, the English noun acquired its additional figurative senses of “a falling into obscurity or decline” and “the loss of significance or power in relation to someone or something else,” and later that same decade, the verb took on its corresponding figurative senses of “to obscure or block out (something else)” and “to surpass or outshine the importance, fame, or reputation of someone or something else.”

©2017 Michael R. Gates

July 5, 2017

Case File #017.07.05: REDOUBTABLE

No, redoubtable doesn't refer to something that can be doubted more than once. The word's principal meaning is “formidable or fearsome,” and it is sometimes also more broadly used to mean “worthy of great respect.” First appearing in the English lexicon circa 1380, redoubtable was derived from the Old French verb redouter, which meant “to dread or greatly fear,” and the adjective's original form was thus redoutable. The b wasn't added to the spelling until around the middle of the fifteenth century, and most experts agree that this change was the result of an early misconception that the adjective had direct etymological or loose semantic links to the word doubt.

©2017 Michael R. Gates

June 14, 2017

Case File #017.06.14: LACONIC

The adjective laconic was derived from the ancient Greek word Lakonikos, which meant “of Laconia” or “like a person from Laconia.” Loconia was a region of ancient Greece that occupied the southeastern part of the Peloponnese peninsula; its capital was the famous military city of Sparta. Legend has it that when Philip of Macedon threatened invasion with the boast “If I enter Laconia, I will raze Sparta to the ground,” the Laconians' sole reply was “If.” Whether the story is a verbatim account or not, it is clear that the citizens of Laconia had a reputation for being direct and succinct, and that certainly explains why their name became the basis of an English word that means “terse, pithy, or concise.” By the way, when the adjective first entered the English lexicon circa 1576, its form was laconical, but in the true spirit of its Laconian roots, it was shortened to laconic less than fifteen years later.

©2017 Michael R. Gates

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