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Issue 8

September 14, 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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This word has been around for a very long time.  Why is it that we have such difficulty dispensing it?  It is first recorded in English in about 1140 with the meaning "fairness".  It came from Old French justise /justice, a learned borrowing from Latin justitia, which meant "righteousness, equity".  Justitia derived from justus "upright, just".

The adjective just originally meant "having proper dimensions, fitting" (before 1375), and by 1380 it is recorded with the meaning "accurate, exact".  It comes from Latin justus "upright, equitable" by way of Old French juste.   Justus derives from Latin jus (the genitive form of which is juris), which means "right" or "law".

The adverb just, with the meanings "exactly", "barely", and "only", dates from prior to 1400 and comes from the adjective form.

Another related word is judge (the verb),which before 1200 was jugen or juggen and meant "form an opinion or estimate, interpret, decide".  It was borrowed into English from Norman French juger, which came from Old French jugier "to judge".  The Old French word derives from Latin judicare "to judge", composed of jus + dicare "say", literally "speak justice".  Jugen and juggen were juge/jugge by the early 14th century, and in the mid to late 14th century the -gg- had changed to -dge-, which reflects a pattern followed in the late Middle Ages of changing the spelling of a word to reflect its pronunciation.

There is a slew of related words: jury, jurisprudence, judicial, jurisdiction, and justify, to name a few.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From F. Goldner:

Can you give me an explanation of the etymology of gringo, the Mexican derogatory term for North Americans?

Well, first, the word doesn't refer to North Americans, but instead to non-Hispanics, especially of European origin.  However, gringo did not originate in the Americas, but in Spain, where it applied to an even more specific group: Greeks.  Yes, gringo is a corruption of Spanish Griego "Greek", which comes from Latin Graecus and ultimately from Greek Graikos.   It originally referred to the apparent babble spoken by foreigners (in 18th century Spain), and later to the foreigners themselves.  As for gringo's age as an English word, it first appeared in print in English in 1849.

There are a few who promulgate the notion that gringo arose among Mexican Spanish-speakers because the Americans sang a song containing the words "green grow the lilies" during the Mexican-American War, and the Mexicans named them after the first two words of the song.  This is certainly incorrect.


From Dav:

I want the etymology of the word hi.  It is not in any dictionary I have checked, most notably the American Heritage Third Edition, even though it is so well used.

This pithy greeting first appeared in American English in about 1860 as a variant of the word hey which has been used to attract attention since at least 1200 when it was spelled hei.


From Maria in Birmingham, Alabama:

I'm not sure how it came up but my coworkers and I were wondering about the etymology of rigamarole.  Any ideas?

This is the modern American form of the British rigmarole, a word which has been in use since 1736. Before that, the term was ragman roll and meant "a long list or catalogue".  Yet earlier, around 1450, the game Ragmane Rolle involved a scroll of verses in which a character named Rageman is described.  It has been suggested that the name Rageman is related to ragamuffin which was originally the name of a demon in the medieval morality play Piers Plowman.


From David Nyy in Charlotte, North Carolina:

I just discovered your website today with great pleasure and enjoyment! We have a young German national working with our company this year and the phrase "Diddly Squat" (As in, "He doesn't know diddly squat".) came up during the lunch table discussion. Upon our German associates inquiry, we were unable to explain the origin. Can you help?

Having conducted extensive research into diddly, diddle, doodle, dawdle and several similar red herrings, I have come to the conclusion that it's just excrement. Wait, don't go! I mean, literally, that's what diddly-squat means. The earliest (1934) form of this expression was doodly-squat. The word squat came to English in the 15th century from the Old French se quatir meaning "to crouch". As squatting is involved in the performance of a certain bodily function*, squat was occasionally used as a euphemistic substitute, as in: "That boy don't know squat about baseball." (* Please excuse me mincing my words in this manner. I'm trying to hang on to our Cyber-Moms award.)

The use of doodle here is clearly distinct from its standard meaning of "an aimless or casual scribble" and is probably best understood as an expanded form of doo-doo, an infantile word for squat (see above). So, why was doodly/diddly added to squat? We can only speculate. It could be that, in addition to reinforcing the meaning of squat, it also renders the expression humorously euphonious. 


From Spinoza:

I had heard that diamond somehow came from the meaning "glowing deity" or something like that. Can you help? Thanx!

That certainly would have made for a splendidly poetic word-origin and there have been some wonderfully exotic names associated with these magical stones. For instance the Kardoma (from Tibetan mKha'.'Gro.Ma, "sky-walking woman") and the Koh-i-Noor (Punjabi, "mountain of light"). The actual etymology is more prosaic but not, as we shall see, without interest.

Diamond was, for many centuries, the hardest substance known and it takes its name from adamas, the Greek name for a legendary, indestructible metal (from a-, not + daman, to subdue). In Latin, it was still called adamas but, due to a linguistic process called "inflection", it sometimes became adamant- (e.g. adamantis, "of the diamond"). This also gave us the word adamant which is thus a doublet of diamond.

The Latin form in turn became the Old French diamant, then the Middle French (also diamant) and, finally the word diamaunde entered Middle English the 14th century. Those of you who are still awake may be asking where the i came from. Well, it's a mistake. Medieval French scribes, being somewhat accustomed to Greek words which began dia-, wrongly assumed that this word should follow the same pattern. An etymological change which, like this one, does not follow the normal rules of linguistic evolution is known as an alteration.


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