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Issue 4

August 10, 1998
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Spotlight We spotlight an etymological curiosity and provide an in-depth examination of the word(s) and the etymological theories associated with it.
Words to the Wise Our world-famous question and answer column in which we address your word-history queries.
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Perhaps with all the Clinton-Lewinsky hubbub of late, you have heard the term suborn, as in "Mr. Clinton suborned purjury".  We don't know about you, but hearing this until-recently rarely-used word piqued our ever-present etymological curiosity.

Suborn, like many other legal terms, comes from Latin.  Its Latin predecessor was subornare "to equip".  The affix ornare meant "to adorn", and it is where we get ornate and its relatives.  So one who was suborning in old Rome was "equipping" someone.

Today the word has come to mean "to prime a (false) witness", and in Clinton's case it refers to priming a witness to commit purjury, or, in an etymological sense,  "equipping" that witness to purjure.  However, keep in mind that, in this sense, it refers to Lewinsky's equipment and not that of Mr. Clinton!


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Gary Wieder:

Do you know the origin of the word cockeyed?

There are two positions on this word. One suggests that it came from Irish Gaelic caoch, which means ‘one-eyed’ or ‘squinting’, and the Irish Gaelic came from Old French cech of the same meaning. The other school believes that the word is ultimately related to cock ‘male chicken, rooster’. The word cocken, first recorded around 1150, was a verb which meant ‘to fight’, presumably referring to cock fights. By 1575 it held the meaning ‘to swagger’, and thereafter it attained the meaning ‘to set in a jaunty way’. With the latter meaning in mind, cockeyed first appeared in written form about 1821 with the meaning ‘squint-eyed’ and by 1896 it was being used to refer to anything ‘silly or foolish’.

Interestingly, the –ey in the word Cockney is not related to the word eye. Instead, it comes from the precursor to our word egg. The Middle English form of egg was ei or ey, and when added to cok ‘rooster’, it literally meant ‘cock’s egg’, with a metaphoric meaning of ‘pampered child’. In 1390, it was spelled cokeney, and by 1521, its meaning had changed to ‘pampered city child’ and ‘city dweller’ in general. In 1600 it is recorded with the meaning ‘inhabitant of a specific section of London, and the dialect spoken there’. It is also thought by some that Cockney was influenced by Cockaigne, a legendary country of wealth and no work, applied in humor to the City of London. While the cockney dialect (and a fortiori its "rhyming slang" ) has spread far beyond the walls of the City, true Cockneys are those who are born within the sound of "Bow bells" (i.e. bells of the Church of St. Mary Le Beau).


From Charlie’s mom:

My son Charlie just celebrated his seventh birthday. As is typical of kids his age, he is very inquisitive. While looking at his birthday cake, he came up with these questions:

    1. Why is it called cake? (My response was "because they couldn’t call it pie". This didn’t help); and

2. Where did the word cake come from? (I didn’t even try.)

Thanks for your help!

Many people might assume that cake is related to cook, but this is not the case. Instead, It comes from Old Norse kaka (not to be confused with a Spanish homophone) which was used to refer to flat, round loaves of bread common in the 13th century. By the 15th century, the name was applied to the sweet food made with eggs and butter which is more similar to the cake we know today. The term was used in that sense because the sweet cakes resembled the bread in shape. Our word cookie comes from Dutch koekje, a diminutive of Dutch koek, from koke, cognate with Old Norse kaka, so cake and cookie are doublets.

I hope that’s enough information for curious Charlie. It sounds like you’ve got a budding etymologist on your hands!


From Judy:

What is the D in D-Day? No one, not even my WWII friends, can tell me.  Thanks for any help!

The plans for the Normandy landings were one of the best-kept secrets of World War II.  In order to coordinate their logistic efforts, its planners referred to the days preceding the invasion as D (meaning "Day") minus 12, D minus 11, and so on up to the day before, D minus 1. This left the question of what they should call the day itself. With the usual military adroitness of speech, the day of the invasion became D-Day, which translates to "Day-Day"!.  Personally, we would have preferred D-Zero or even D-Per-se.


From Dana W. Edwards:

Thank you for providing such an interesting service to my fellow web surfers and me.  My inquiry concerns the etymology of the phrase pipe dream.  My colleagues and I have been able to follow only one route of thought when deciding about this.  Can you shed more light on the subject? Thanks.

Interestingly, this term, like yen, comes from the days when opium smoking was legal. The pipe referred to is, of course, the apparatus through which opium vapors are inhaled and the dreams are the vivid flights of fancy experienced while under the influence of the drug.  The first written occurrence of the term is in Love Sonnets of a Hoodlum by Wallace Irwin (1901).


From Steff Brown:

I read that the word hoorah comes from a Cossack word for paradise and that they shouted this word before going into battle.   True?

One school traces the derivation of the word as follows:  hoorah comes from hurrah which comes from huzzah, and the latter is thought to come from French hisser "to hoist".  As hurrah occurs in many languages which are unrelated to French (e.g. hurra in Swedish, Norwegian and Danish), this may not be the whole story. Another school of thought dates the word to the Thirty Years' War (1618 - 1648) but as this involved half of Europe either directly or as mercenaries, this is not very helpful in determining its origin. One suggestion is that it comes from the German hurren, "to move quickly". The Russian form of the word is ura but whether this might be derived from, or the origin of hurrah I have no idea. Could ura mean "paradise" in Russian?


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