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      the only Weekly Word-origin Webzine

Issue 6

August 24th, 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.
curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner Oh, dear, what's bugging them this time?
HH01580A.gif (1311 bytes) Mailing list We'll send you weekly previews of the Latest Edition, plus notification of other changes to the site.
spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...


"The origin of the word hotel."   Thus reads the entire text of a request (demand?) from an e-mail entity which identifies itself as only Sunfire Energy. Thank you, Sunf.  I was stuck for a Spotlight and this will do splendidly.

The Latin word hospes has given rise to a whole family of related words. Its primary meaning was "host" (which is its English descendant), but it could also mean "guest" (those wacky Romans, eh?). Hospes was the source of the Latin word hospitalis "hospitable" and of the Late Latin hospitale "large house or inn" which gave English the word hospital, first recorded in 1300. In Old French, hospitale was simplified to hostel, which entered Middle English as both hostel and ostel and became the Modern French hôtel, entering English as hotel in the early 18th century. The word ostler, meaning "one who tends to horses", is thus essentially the same word as hotelier, the difference being that ostler dates from 1376 and hotelier was not borrowed from the French hôtelier until 1905. Etymologists call such words doublets.

Note that the French hôtel has a diacritical mark called a circumflex on the o. This frequently occurs before a t and signifies an s which has been lost from the Old French. Thus, French pâte is the English paste, côte is the equivalent of English coast, and the French bête meaning "stupid" is related to the English word beast.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Lawrence Lutman:

What is the derivation of shortening as in shortening bread and what does it have to do with short?

Shortening has nothing to do with short as most of us know it.  Instead, there's another word short which describes something which is easily crumbled or brittle.  This word short, as in the terms short iron and cold short (both of which refer to brittle iron), comes from a Germanic source, the latter being a corruption of Norwegian and Danish kuldsjær "coldshort" which, in Swedish, is kallskor.   Skor means "timid", in the sense that anything which is crumbly or brittle is not strong but is timid.  So, ultimately, shortening is an ingredient (usually butter or another fat) which makes baked goods timid!  And I wonder if the Hershey candy-bar-naming committee had that in mind when they chose the name Skor for one of their buttery, slightly crumbly treats. By the way, shortening was first recorded in about 1823.


From Layne Evans:

Do you know the origin of the phrase by and large?   Thanks.  Your site is wonderful!

By and large, I can tell you!  Today the phrase means "for the most part," but it was originally a nautical term meaning "sail the ship as close as she can go to the wind without being hard on it." This makes the ship easier to steer. This meaning of "close but not completely" came to be applied to situations in general.

By the way, we answered your query because we are shameless and love praise!


Student at Chinese university:

I would like to know the origins and history of two words, race and friendship.

Due to the volume of mail we receive, we've had to limit to one the number of words we can examine per query. In this case, we've chosen race as the word we'll investigate. Based on the fact that you also asked about friendship, we assume that the race you are inquiring about is that which means "a people". Interestingly, most etymologists agree that the word is descended from Italian razza (14th century) via French rasse (16th century), but there the disagreements begin. Some, among them Ernest Weekley, trace the word through Spanish raza to Arabic ras "head, origin", but others believe that the lineage gets blurry after the Italian link.


From Braulio Soto:

I am a native Mexican and speak fluent Spanish, and I am lacking an explanation on how burrito has come to represent a rolled-up taco.

Well, for those who do not know, burrito means "little burro" or "little donkey" (Equus asinus) and on first blush it is not clear exactly what a tortilla rolled up around a savory filling has in common with a donkey. However, on second look, the burrito is carrying something, a filling, just as a donkey carries loads on its back, as pack animals are often called upon to do. Someone saw this resemblance and came up with a perplexing name for a tasty food! This, at least, is what most etymologists believe. I haven't seen anyone present any proof, but this explanation does sound plausible.


From Frederick Blume

A bunch of us were being lazy - watching The Simpsons - and during a commercial break we were wondering where the word cartoon comes from.   I suspect it's of French origin but can't say for sure. As Homer would say, "D'Oh!".  Thanks for your help.

We answered your query because you included an impersonation of Homer Simpson!  This amusing word has a surprisingly venerable history, reaching back to ancient Greece. As you correctly surmised, we borrowed the word from French, some time before 1671. The French word carton, like the Italian cartone, from which it comes, means "pasteboard". How did carton become cartoon? Well, the English have always had trouble pronouncing French and appear particularly baffled by the -on ending. From the 16th to the 18th centuries, such endings were routinely mangled into -oon, giving us such words as bassoon, pantaloon and cartoon. Carton itself entered English in 1816 with the meaning "a pasteboard container".

It was the Italians who first used pasteboard for rough drawings, and they found it especially useful in preparing frescoes and tapestries. Some of the cartoons by old masters such as Raphael and Leonardo still survive. They are not at all funny, by the way. The word carton did not come to mean "an amusing sketch" until 1843.

Cartone is itself a form of carta, Italian for "a piece of paper". Ultimately this derives from the Greek chartes, meaning "a leaf of papyrus", by way of the Latin charta.


From Sylvia:

I would like to ask you to write about the origin of the word post (office).

The original post system improved speed of delivery over long distances by positioning riders and horses at intervals, the mail being carried in relays. The word post refers to the stations along the route and is the English (1506) form of the Medieval Latin postum meaning "station". The original Latin word was positum, which comes from the verb ponere, meaning "to put" (so does that mean it could be called the Ponere Express?). Post is thus related to the words position, deposit, composite, expose, etc.


From Curtis L. Johnson:

My pastor has asked me to look on the Internet and see if I could find the origin of the word comfort for him. I would appreciate your help. I guess I'll have to wait until Sunday to see why he wants to know.

Well, I hope your pastor was not relying on our etymology for the content of yesterday's sermon! Anyway, I feel he will be heartened to know that comfort derives from the Latin cum meaning "with, together" and fortis "strong", literally, "together strong". The late Latin confortare, meaning "to cheer up" or "to console" became Old French conforter and entered Middle English as conforten.  English -nf- words tend to become -mf- words, so conforten became comfort by the late Middle Ages.


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

...our soapbox where we vent our spleen regarding abuses of the English language.

The Een Problem

This week I would like to tell you how I feel about the Een Problem. Een, you see, is how more and more people in the United States are pronouncing the present participle/gerund ending -ing. For example, each day on NPR (National Public Radio), one of the announcers says, "Good morneen, I'm Jean Cochran." For some reason, she does not voice that final "g". I first noticed this strange pronunciation almost ten years ago coming from Joan Lunden on Good Morning America (a television program).  While I certainly do not blame Ms. Lunden for promulgating this strange habit of elocution, I certainly do think that she played a large role in planting this little bug in the heads of countless oblivious viewers of her program.

The Een Problem is insidiously contagious, too.   I have, to my horror, found myself suffering from bouts of it now and again. I realize that the Een Problem is an example of the evolution of language (albeit accelerated evolution, due in part to mass media), but it is still unsettling to lose that familiar -ing to something which sounds like a plastic (polyethylENE). Listen for the Een Problem. I expect you will begin to notice it, too.


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