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Issue 7

August 31, 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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Minoan words

On the face of it, there does not seem to be even the remotest connection between the dried grape known as a currant and the architectural feature called a plinth.  The connection becomes a little more apparent when we realize that currant was originally (before 1540) raysyn of Corans, meaning "raisin of Corinth".  Those readers who are still awake will have noticed that both Corinth and plinth end with -inth.  This ending is a contraction of the ancient Greek -inthos, which was used exclusively in words of Minoan origin.  As the Minoan civilization flourished from about 3,000 BC to 1100 BC, these two words have some of the oldest histories of any in the English language.  There are other Minoan -inth words in modern English.   Can you think of any?  The answer is here.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Michael Farrell, M.D.:

Hi there.  You all have continued to do a great job - I am a long time fan.

What do you think about the origin of the word ration? Webster says something like "a fixed portion passed out" and "allotment."  They also refer to the difference in officers and non-officers.  Do you think that there is any relationship to rate? I am interested in the implication that some people might rate a better ration.

Since you asked, I think ration is a great word, especially as it has got so many cognates and doublets in English.  Ration comes from Latin ratio, which itself derives from the verb reri "think, calculate".  Our word ratio (17th century) comes from the Latin meaning of  "calculate".  In the Middle Ages, English obtained ratio with a final n from French ration, and the word's meaning was "calculated amount of provisions for a soldier".   Interestingly, the other meaning of the Latin precursor reri, which was "think", did not disappear and found its way into English as reason in the 13th century, and as rational, which is easier to recognize as a relative of ratio, in the 14th century.  Rate comes from reri, as well, via the feminine form of the past participle, rata. There is no etymological sense of anything other than a "soldier" as far as ration goes, however.

You might be surprised to discover that the word hundred, a venerable Old English word, obtained its -red ending via the proto-Germanic word rath meaning "number" which developed from Latin ratio.

Do we rate a ration of applause for rooting out a response to your request?


From Dave Minter:

I think your page is just great - bookmarked, and soon to be recommended to my friends.

Perhaps you could answer a query that I have: what is the origin of the term newfangled?   Any connection with faciendus ("that which has been made")?   I take it there's no such thing as a fangle?

First, Dave, we love your e-mail sign-off text: "No man is an island.  Except the Isle of Man."  Second, we love what you say about the page -- thank you!   Finally, we like your query so much that we decided to answer it.

I'm sorry to say that you are correct, there is no such thing as a fangle   I might have guessed at a Latin root, too, but the mighty resources of the Take Our Word For It library say otherwise.  The word first appears in the 14th century as newfanglyd or newfangel and was applied to a person who delighted in novelty.  The fangle portion of the word comes from the Old English word fon meaning "to capture or seize".  Thus a newfangled person was one who seized new things.  Fang, a seizing tooth, also evolved from fon.

Come to think of it, one hears the term new-fashioned about as often as old-fangled.


From Vera Titunik (from Croatia, we presume, based upon her e-mail address):

Could you tell me the etymology of the word privacy?  Is there a link with privation?

I'm going to whisper the answer, as this is a private matter.  Privacy is the noun form of private, which was first recorded in English in the 14th century.  It came from Latin privus "single, peculiar" by way of privare "to make solitary, isolate" (and later "to deprive") and privatus "solitary, isolated".  Privatus may be contrasted with publicus for a sense of the word's usage.  The sense of privatus was, therefore, "belonging to the individual".

Privy did not come directly from Latin as private did, but entered English from Old French in the 13th century.  Interestingly, privilege is related, and means, etymologically, "private law" or "law affecting an individual".

Privation, on the other hand, came from a meaning of privatus which evolved separately: "bereaved, deprived".  This arose out of the notion that ones who are bereaved or deprived are isolated from those who are not.  Privation and deprivation are therefore cognates.

I hope you no longer feel deprived of the etymology of privacy and privation.


From C. Penno:

Hello, Mike and Mel.  Love your site. (How does the rest of that go...oh yes, PET.)  I would like to know the background of the word savage, particularly how it relates to European conceptions of non-Europeans in previous centuries.  The reason I ask is because savage seems to have been used to denote both positive and negative images of these people and did not seem to rely on the present aspect of violence that the word savage now carries.  (This explanation was not meant to be a solution to my question but instead a refinement of the question).

Oops!  Thank you!  (You thought I forgot the last part of the PET, didn't you?!)

Well, first, we should explain the PET business to new readers of Words to the Wise.   We have had a little bit of trouble with queries in the past.  Some inquiries were too long, containing half of the etymological information the writer was seeking in the first place.  Some contained more than one query, and we simply don't have time to respond to more than one query per e-mail.  So we devised the PET method for submitting queries to us.  The P stands for praise, something we love here!  The E represents etymology, the reason you are writing us: we supply the etymology so you don't have to.  Also, the fact that there is only one E in PET is a reminder that you should inquire about only one word per e-mail.  Finally, T is the first letter of the word thanks, which we also do not mind hearing.  PET -- three simple steps to writing a query to us here at Words to the Wise.

Now, on to C's query.  The original form of savage carried no negative connotations at all.  The Latin sylvaticus merely meant "wild" or "of the woods" and derives from sylva "a wood" or "forest" (source of English sylvan "of the woods").  The Medieval Latin word was salvaticus (no relation to English salvation) and this became the Old French sauvage.  By the time savage had entered Middle English in the 1200s, the meaning had already shifted to "untamed" or "fierce".


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

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

Pristine Usage

All languages are constantly in a state of flux. Spellings change, pronunciations change, meanings change. Attempts to cling to a "pure" form of any language are doomed. Nevertheless, I must admit to being peeved and disgruntled when I see a word take on a completely new meaning out of sheer ignorance. I want to shout, "That's not the evolution of the language; that's just incorrect usage!"

Such is the case with pristine. It is a simple borrowing from the Latin pristinus which meant  "belonging to the earliest period or state". It is related to another, more familiar, Latin word: priorPristine retained this sense of "primordial" until very recently. It seems that during the late 1950s or early 1960s car salesmen, realtors and estate agents grew tired of saying "in original condition" and used the more highfalutin "in pristine condition" in its place. This phrase was meant to indicate that the car, house or whatever was absolutely immaculate. Thus those without a knowledge of Latin naturally assumed that the word pristine itself meant "immaculate" or "pure". This meaning started showing up in dictionaries in the 1970s, but only as a secondary meaning. I am now beginning to see it appear as the primary meaning in some dictionaries and I have to say "Nooooo, that's just wrong!"


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Spotlight answer

Some other Minoan -inth words are labyrinth and hyacinth.