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Issue 9

September 28, 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.
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Pub names

(Updated January 2006) A reader recently enquired about the origin of The Elephant and Castle, the name of a square in London. This falls outside the normal scope of Words to the Wise but it raises several interesting topics so I thought I'd talk about it here.

The square takes its name from The Elephant and Castle pub which stands on one of its corners. The pub has a splendid old inn-sign showing an elephant equipped for battle with a castellated howdah on its back, rather like a castle from an old chess-set. Speaking of which, have you ever wondered why, in chess, a castle is often called a rook? Well, first, chess originated in India and came to us via Persia and the Middle East. The game was essentially a battle in miniature with the castle representing a war-elephant. The next part of the story involves, incredibly, a gigantic legendary bird called the rukh or simurgh. The illustrators of medieval Persian manuscripts produced magnificent works of art but they were unfamiliar with perspective. Thus, in order to show the vast size of the rukh within the scope of a miniature illustration, they routinely showed the bird holding an elephant between its claws. As chess-playing spread westwards, people who had never seen an elephant recognized one of the pieces as the animal held by the rukh. So they called it a rook.

So, back to the pub. It is quite possible that its name comes, for whatever reason, from this image of a war-elephant. There is another suggestion, however, that it is a corruption of the Spanish phrase La Infanta de Castilia. This is unlikely, however, because the infanta always cited is Eleanor of Castile.  However, she was never an infanta, which was the term applied to the king's first daughter in Spain and Portugal. There  has been an inn of the name Elephant and Castle on the same site since about 1760, and prior to that it was a smithy with the same name, or so Michael Quinion tells us.  The smithy was apparently associated with the Cutlers' Company, a guild for makers of knives, scissors, and other cutting implements.  Quinion says that the smithy's connection to elephants was in their use of ivory for knife handles.

If the pub name had been a corruption of La Infanta de Castilia, it would have been the result of a process called folk etymology, where foreign or unusual words are changed into something more familiar, even though the changed form may not make much sense.

English inns and public houses have a wealth of weird and wonderful names, often with surprising etymologies. One such is The Pig and Whistle. This fairly common inn name is a corruption of peg of wassail, where peg means a large wooden bowl and wassail is beer. Another of my favorites is The Goat and Compasses, said to be a corruption of God encompasses all. My investigations failed abjectly to find satisfactory etymologies for The Queen's Head and Artichoke (in Euston) and The Frog and Nightgown (The Old Kent Road) but their names are far too much fun not to mention.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Tim Shannon:

I'd like to know the origin of the word deadline.   According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, the word refers to a line drawn around a prison over which crossing prisoners could be shot.  If only I could do that with all the contributors to my company newsletter who miss the submission deadline!

Merriam-Webster does indeed claim that the word is related to prisoners, and they cite 1864 as the year of the word's first appearance in the written record.  This jibes with what Mike and I recall about the word originating during the American Civil War: prisoners in that war were seldom held in purpose-built jails. More often, they were herded at gunpoint inside a makeshift boundary. The boundary had two lines, and a prisoner who stepped outside the inner boundary was ordered back, but one who over-stepped the outer boundary was shot. Thus, it was called the deadline


From Charmlin Leslie Howard:

I was told by a very learned and knowledgable friend of mine that the letter "J" didn't appear in ANY alphabet until the 15th century - what can you tell me about that?

In Roman times the letter i performed a dual role as both a vowel and a consonant, much as the letter y does in English. Sometime in the middle ages, possibly in 12th century German "black letter" script, possibly in Celtic "uncial",  j emerged as a variant form of the letter i. The letter j as a consonant was first differentiated from the vowel i in Spain around 1485.   It is a matter of scholarly debate how its form arose.  One theory is that, in medieval illuminated manuscripts, a decorative initial i was often given a curl to the left at its base and as words are more likely to start with a consonant this became the letter j.  It was not fully accepted as a proper English letter until the 19th century.


From McCormick, Dunn & Black:

I adore your site, and I share your passion for word origins.  I'm looking for the origin of the term boilerplate.  Here is my silly thought as to the origin:  I seem to recall hearing that the term came about when steam boilers were more common and posed a serious health risk to those working with them.  I seem to further recall hearing that the boiler manufacturers put their warnings in small print on the sides of the boilers, and they thereby avoided liability for their unsafe products.  Any thoughts?

First, while I suspected that McCormick, Dunn & Black was a law firm, the form of your question has all but confirmed that, as has the word you have asked about.  Boilerplate language is a term most common these days in the legal profession.  Interestingly, the term arose from the newspaper business.   Columns and other pieces that were syndicated were sent out to subscribing newspapers in the form of a mat (i.e. a matrix).  Once received, boiling lead was poured into this mat to create the plate used to print the piece, hence the name boilerplate.  As the article printed on a boilerplate could not be altered, the term came to be used by attorneys to refer to the portions of a contract which did not change through repeated uses in different applications, and finally to language in general which did not change in any document that was used repeatedly for different occasions.

I can see where the term boilerplate might conjure images of a boiler, but in this case warnings and liability have nothing to do with the etymology of the word.


From Renato L. Galeazzi:

Where does enclave come from? I read clavus (nail) or clavis (key) as the origin?  What's right?

An enclave is a country (or part of a country) which is completely surrounded by another. One might even say that it is locked up within its neighbor and it is this image which the word enclave implies.  There was a Latin word inclavare, from in (in) + clavis (key) + -are (verb suffix), which meant "to lock up". This passed into Old French as enclaver and from this verb the French noun enclave was created by a process called back-formation. Although the word enclaved existed in Middle English (1435), enclave itself did not enter English until 1868.


From Sarah and Warren:

We have been trying to locate the origins of the usage of the word step in relation to step- parenting.  There are, in literature, mostly only negative references to stepparents and we are most curious to find what has created such a stigma around the word.  Strangely there is little to be found on the subject in general, and we would be very grateful if you could shed some light on this taboo subject.

I think you're going to be surprised by the etymology of stepmother/stepfather.  The prefix step- used in this sense is Middle English, derived from Old English steop-.  The Old English form is cognate with similar forms in many of the Germanic languages:  Old Frisian stiap-,  Middle Low German stef-, Middle and modern Dutch stief-, Old High German stiof-, Old Icelandic stjup-, Swedish styv-, Old Danish stiup-, and Norwegian ste-.  The Old English form comes from steopcild ("stepchild"), which meant "orphan".  The steop- prefix comes from Old English astiepan/bestiepan "bereave" (with cognates in Old High German arstiufen/bestiufen).  The sense is that an orphan is bereaving his lost parent(s).  Before 800, stepfather/stepmother meant "one who becomes a father/mother to an orphan", and stepson/stepdaughter meant "an orphan who becomes a son/daughter by the remarriage of a parent".

As for any stigma associated with stepparents, especially stepmothers, I'll leave that to the anthropologists and sociologists to explain.


From Karl Graham:

Hi, I found your site interesting and "in fine fettle".   I would like very much to understand the origin of this word.  I understand that it is used to refer to one's condition.  I also believe that it was used in NW England, but does it come from "feel ill" or "felt well" or something completely different?  I'd appreciate any help you could offer.

One meaning of fettle is shape so to be in fine fettle is to be "in good shape". It is a dialect word, coming from Lancashire, in England. Its origins can be traced to the Middle English (about 1380) fettelen, to arrange or make ready. Even more anciently (before 900) it may be related to the Old English fetel, a belt or girdle. If this is correct then it is comes from an Old Germanic root meaning "to hold" and is also cognate with fetter.


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

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

Singular and plural (mainly for Brits)

You would think that most people would have grasped the principle of number quite early in life, but no! And I'm not talking about Cantorian transfinite mathematics, here. I'm not even talking about advanced counting. Just as long as you can handle the concepts of "one" and "many" without having to lie down with an ice-pack in a darkened room you should be fine.

Now I'm going to type this slowly because I know some of you can't read fast. Singular nouns take singular verbs and plural nouns take plural verbs. This is called "agreement of number".

Why is it that so many British journalists and broadcasters can't get this right? I frequently hear sentences like "The English team are playing at home". This is grammatically indefensible as "team" is a singular noun. (For those at the back of the class who still haven't got it, it should be "is playing".) I know that a team is made up of several players but that does not affect the syntax. It is the singular word "team" which is the subject of the sentence; the plural word "players" occurs not at all. If you still think it correct to say "the team are playing" then would you also think it correct to say "the team are composed of eleven men"?


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