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      the only Weekly Word-origin Webzine

Issue 1

July 20, 1998
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We have been seeing the word screed used quite a bit in newspapers of late.   Despite the word's etymology, we note that modern usage seems to be leaning toward a meaning of a "tongue-lashing" or "verbal harangue".  Perhaps this usage is influenced by screech and/or scream.   However, this current usage strays far from the word's original meaning.

 Modern dictionaries define screed as "a long piece of writing" while an earlier meaning, "a long list", dates from 1789.   Before then, it meant "a long strip of paper or cloth".  The "long strip" usage survives in the construction industry where a screed is a long piece of wood used as a guide for smoothing plaster or concrete.  The word entered standard English in the 14th century from a northern English dialect form of the Old English word screade.   Although the spelling of screade looks strange, it was pronounced much like the modern English word shred, which is exactly what it meant.

Words which have developed different meanings despite deriving from the same word are known to etymologists as doublets.  Thus, screed is a doublet of shred.

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Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Thomas H. Hrusa:

My dad adopted a German Shorthair Pointer (a breed often used for hunting) from a rescue group - the dog had been found abandoned in the woods.  Her right ear has a notch clipped out of it and my dad said he believes that hunters often clip or "mark" the ears of the hunting dogs in their packs so they can be easily identified.  He further speculated that this is where the term earmarked (as in "set aside for") comes from.

Is Dad correct?  Close?  Off base?  I would like it if you could tell me about the history of the term earmark.

We'd like it, too.  So shall we tell you?  Yes?  Here we go:

Read above what Thomas says his dad told him.   That's precisely the etymology of earmark.

See what happens when readers answer their own questions within their questions?  You lose part of your weekly dose of Melanie and Mike's brilliantly erudite, amazingly informative and thigh-slappingly funny answers.   Pretty soon we'll have to turn this site from a column to a newsgroup.  STOP THE MADNESS NOW!


From "Norman Raby From Mackenzie British Columbia Canada":

What is the history of crocodile tears?

That's one heckuva name there, Norm!   Oops, or shall I address you as Mr. Canada?  I believe that's the longest name we've ever used here at Take Our Word For It.  This is a grandiloquent occasion!

The Greeks and Romans held to the myth that crocodiles moaned to attract their prey and wept while they ate it.  Whence this belief arose is anyone's guess - how does an crocodile moan, anyhow? - those beasties have no vocal cords.  And who would ever get close enough to learn that crocodiles cry when they are eating except the eatees?  Crocodiles don't have tear ducts, by the way, they instead have third eyelids called nictitating membranes.  Nictitate - now there's a word you don't get to use every day.

Crocodile tears was used as early as 300 A.D. by  Spartianus in his Lives of the Emperors.  This lachrymal expression entered English in the 15th century and has been around ever since.  Our favorite allusion to this legendary characteristic of crocodilians is in the play She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith.  A character named Mrs. Malaprop refers to "weeping like an allegory on the banks of the Nile".


From J. Lange Winckler:

According to the American Heritage Dictionary 2nd College Edition, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, 1985), broker derives from Anglo-Norman by way of Middle English.  Our problem is the original usage of the word and the history of its change in usage.  One theory claims it came from persons who broke down casks of wine into smaller volumes for resale.  I call this the Joe-is-pulling-my-leg-with-it theory.  Another guess is that it originated with persons who arranged marriages.   Both of these are simply guesses.   But now we HAVE to find out.

When I began reading your query and saw that you were citing a dictionary, I groaned in dismay and thought "Oh, no, here we go again - Take Our Word For It as the object of a conspiracy: all of the readers will simply supply the answers to their own questions and run Melanie and Mike off the web!"  Thankfully, I saw  that your etymological information regarding broker was slightly off in part and completely lacking one possible explanation, and I breathed a sigh of relief - a stay of execution!   I wonder if Oliver Stone might be interested in the film rights to this story...

The etymology of this word, as you have demonstrated, is indeed contentious.   One school connects it with tapping into or broaching a wine cask in order to sell the wine - in fact, this school claims that broker derives from the same source as broach.   Both words supposedly come from French broche "awl" (from Latin broccus "projecting").  The Latin derives possibly from Gaulish, as there is an apparent Gaelic cognate: brog "awl".  Incidentally, even if broker does not derive from the French broche, the word brooch (which was spelled broach until quite recently) certainly does.

Another school propounds the theory that the word comes ultimately from an Arabic source.  The Anglo-Norman form of the word is thought to have been brocour, and a variant was abrocour.  There was a Spanish word alboroque "sealing of a bargain" as well as Portuguese (one of the most interesting sources of English words) alborcar "barter", both likely coming from Arabic (with the al representing the Arabic definite article).  Earnest Weekley notes that we see the Spanish word as early as 1020 and that its derivation from Arabic (or Hebrew) is supported by the fact that many brokers in the Middle ages were Arabs or Jews.

Weekley notes another possible explanation (though he favors the Arabic source): Anglo French broucour "one who broaches a wine cask and sells the wine".  There was a variant, abroucour, whose Medieval Latin equivalent was abbrocator, and this may have been confused with or influenced by Medieval Latin abbocator "a broker" or literally "one who brings a buyer and seller mouth to mouth", boca being Latin for "mouth".


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