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Issue 2

July 27, 1998
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I expect we have all heard the phrase of that ilk. (Ooh, I just experienced "Martian word syndrome", that is, the inexplicable effect of looking at a word too long so that it begins to look very foreign, as foreign as a written Martian word would look if there were such a language as Martian. Alright, now that I"ve had my outburst, forgive my digression and let us continue.)

What exactly is an ilk? Etymologically the word means "same", though it has come to mean more than that recently. The word is Old English in origin, formed from the particle i- "that (same)" and lik- "form" (cognate with like). Its original form was ilca "same".  Interestingly, the word fell from common usage by the 16th century and survived only in Scotland.  There it was used to express the fact that someone"s name was the same as his place of origin, such as "the Earl of Carrack of that ilk", meaning that the Earl of Carrick was from Carrick. This was an important distinction in Scotland at this time, where many of the great land-owner families were increasingly foreign. This connection with families, however, gave ilk the meaning "family" by the 19th century, and today the term has come to mean "type, sort."


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Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Rob Meltzer:

Greetings. I am a school principal and I am interested in the origins of a word that has become a significant part of my daily life. The word is discipline. Thank you for your help.

A principal, eh? Gosh, remember that old mnemonic spelling device "the principal is your pal", which helped differentiate between principal and principle? But I never thought the words principal and pal belonged in the same sentence! (Kids, I started the previous sentence with the word but. DON"T TRY THIS AT HOME!) .

Discipline comes, as you might have guessed, from Latin, taking the form discipulus "learner". Discipulus came from discere "learn" and gave birth to disciplina "instruction, knowledge" which soon came to mean "the maintenance of order (necessary for giving instruction)". English took that form, though trading the a for an e due to French influence.

Interestingly, discerne does not come from discere but, instead, from discerner, "to separate by sifting".

One source indicates that discere comes from a proto-Latin word discipere "to grasp intellectually, analyze thoroughly." This word is built from dis- "apart" and capere "take". If this is the case, then disciple and captive are related words, captive deriving from capere (and "take captives" becoming a bit redundant!). I find the fact that disciple and captive share roots to be rather ironic.


From Michael Burnett:

My wife just asked me what a suffragette was and I told her (after I looked it up) that it was a woman who supports women"s suffrage (makes sense). What is the origin of this word?

I bet your wife heard the word suffragette in that Paul McCartney song "Jet". You know the one, "I can almost remember that funny something, climb on the la la la go for a ride in the sky. Suff-er-agette. Jet. Woo woo woo woo woo woo woo wooo." Oops! Despite my karaoke solo there, it is true that the McCartney song is probably one of the only places we hear that word these days. The only other reference to that word which is occasionally heard is the term women"s suffrage, as you noted, Michael. Yet, the word"s etymology does not contain any suggestion that the word is to be applied to females only. In fact, our own constitution uses the term suffrage in a universal sense. Read on.

The word was suffragie in English before 1200, and it meant "prayers or pleas on behalf of another." By 1400 it was suffrage, influenced by French suffrage and middle Latin sufragium "support, vote, right of voting". The Latin word came from sufragari "lend support, vote for someone". This word can be broken into suf- "under, near" plus fragor "crash, din, shouts of approval". The English word acquired the Latin meaning "support, vote for" in the early to mid-16th century. The meaning it holds in the United States Constitution (1797) is the same as today"s meaning,"the right to vote". 


From Bert Wertheim:

In a casual conversation the terms snob and nob were used and I wondered if there was any connection between the two.  The term nob was used to describe a person of high degree.  The dictionary I consulted termed it as meaning "head".  Any help?

My idea of a snob is someone who tries to emulate those of wealth and status while a nob actually has the wealth and status. Things were not ever thus. Before 1800 snob meant "a shoemaker or his apprentice". For reasons now unclear, the students at Cambridge University called the common townsfolk snobs. This usage soon spread beyond Cambridge. Thus the Lincoln Herald (on 22 July, 1831) could declare "The snobs have lost their dirty seats - the honest nobs have got "em."  By 1848 it had changed its meaning again to denote a "man or woman who is always pretending to be something better" or "someone vulgarly aping his social superiors" (Book of Snobs, William Thackery). Eventually the real origin of snob was forgotten and at one point in the 19th century an ingenious but ill-informed Latin scholar suggested that it was an abbreviation for sine nobilitate without nobility.

We can't argue with the OED.   Nob did indeed mean "head", but until about 1810 it was considered vulgar slang and its history before 1690 is obscure.  Since then it has come to mean "those at the head of society". Curiously, between 1820 and 1860, it meant "the fellow of an Oxford college" at about the same time that Cambridge University was introducing the word snob to the general public.


From Martin Litke:

I can't find a satisfactory origin for the word muggy.   The OED says that it is possibly related to mouldy.   Any suggestions?

Some words change their meaning several times in a century; others retain their meaning for millennia. When the Vikings invaded England they brought the word muggy with them from the shores of Scandinavia. The Old Norse phrase muggu-vethr  meant "muggy weather".


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