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Issue 11

October 5, 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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Those who know "Alice in Wonderland" will remember the Mad Hatter's tea party, during which the dormouse begins a tale of three sisters who live in a well. When asked what kind of a well, the dormouse replies "It was a treacle well". The absurdity of this statement may be lost on an American reader who is  unaware that treacle is British for molasses. The history of this word is quite strange but, to an etymologist, rather tasty.

Life for an ancient Greek was certainly hazardous.  For one thing, those sandals gave hardly any protection from snake-bites. Fortunately they had a certain herbal concoction which would cure the bites of poisonous reptiles. (Who knows, perhaps it worked but as they didn't leave the recipe we'll never know for sure. I certainly don't intend experimenting.) They called this potion theriake antidotos, from theriakos "wild animal" and antidotos "remedy" (literally "given against"). Eventually, the phrase was shortened to just theriake and by the time it entered the Latin language as theriaca it had come to mean any antidote, not necessarily one for snakebite.

By 1340, Middle English had borrowed triackle from Old French and it now meant any herbal remedy. It should be pointed out that most herbal remedies (and modern synthetic remedies, for that matter) rely on a class of compounds called alkaloids. Almost all members of this chemical family share one characteristic - bitterness.  Obviously, herbal pharmacists would try to sweeten their bitter draughts. First honey was used then, when it became available, molasses. Eventually (1694), the word treacle came to mean the molasses itself, without the bitter herbs.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From: Bertram Boehmer

What is the etymology of the word lynch?

This is an eponymous word; that is, it comes from the name of a person. That person was William Lynch, who lived in Virginia in the late 18th century, and who, in 1780, got together with his neighbors to form a vigilante committee to uphold order in their town. They were apparently not known for providing fair trials to those they deemed transgressors, but their victims were not necessarily put to death. By 1811, the term Lynch law was used to describe such unfair tactics, and around 1835 the term was Lynch. By 1839 the upper case L was changed to a lower case one.  In the late 19th century the verb form had come to mean "inflict a sentence of death without a lawful trial". Today we more often hear the back formation lynching as the noun.


From pianobug:

Could you please send me the etymology on the word hi-jack? I wish to have this by 5:00 pm ET.

We’ve got a theme going here. We should designate this week’s column as the crime column!

As for pianobug’s request, I have printed it here in its original form in order to stress the need to read our submission rules before sending us your query. We do not answer queries as we receive them; we keep all worthy queries and choose several randomly each week.  We therefore cannot help you make your deadline.  This week we are initiating a new procedure, however: we will e-mail those enquirers whose words we address in the column.

Ah, I feel better. Oh, and now there’s hijack to address. Yes, it is in fact spelled without the hyphen these days. It is first recorded in 1923 and is thought to be a back formation of highjacker, formed from high(way) + jacker. Jacker refers to "one who holds up or robs". There are several possibilities for jacker’s origins, but from 1841 we have jacker meaning "one who hunts or fishes at night with a jack light", and in about 1860 we have highjack lowjack, a game of cards. Any or both of these terms might have influenced the formation of hijack.

In the 1960’s hijack was applied to aircraft (then came skyjack in 1968), and in the 1970’s hijack referred to taking over any form of public transportation.  Of course, now we've even got carjack.


From Theresa:

Help! I have been issued an etymological challenge that has consumed my free time this weekend! After accessing your site and seeing all the wonderful facts you so graciously provide to your readers, I am fully convinced that you can answer this for me and save my name as a purveyor of useless knowledge and trivia, not to mention give my free time back to me! Just what is the source of the phrase for Pete’s sake? Who is this guy Pete anyway? I have heard that it’s a reference to St. Peter, but I no buy that till you say it’s true. Thanks a bunch!

Well, let’s issue our complaints and congratulations in the order in which they are due. You want us to save your name as a "purveyor of useless knowledge and trivia"? Does that mean that you’ll be taking credit for this information instead of promulgating our good name? Well, I was hesitant to respond to your request until I read your next bit: "I no buy that till you say it’s true". Well, at least you trust our expertise. I think you just redeemed yourself.

For Pete’s sake is used in lieu of for God’s sake. It would therefore be known as a "minced oath". The Pete in question is indeed St. Peter – he’s apparently as close to God as one can get without openly blaspheming. The Pete form of this expression first appeared in 1924. The expression for mercy’s sake dates back to the 16th century, interestingly. That phrase originally meant "for the sake of mercy", as in "for mercy’s sake, help the man". (MEL)


From Kerry Ferris:

I have been challenged to find the etymology of the high school insult dork. I have no idea if this is possible, but I figured an expert might be able to help. Thank you.

Well, Kerry, you get bonus points for acknowledging our expertise, especially since it was under fire last week! I do believe we can help you.

The word is first recorded in 1964 with the meaning "penis". By 1972 it had come to mean "a fool" and that is the meaning that is most often intended today. Though the word’s origin is not known with certainty, it is thought that it might be a variation of dick (slang for "penis) with the influence of dirk (a small knife).


From Brenna Olwine:

My co-workers and I are looking for the origins of chafing dish.

Hopefully this etymology won’t chafe your hide, as we say in Texas, but a chafing dish is in fact related to the chafing one gets from riding in the saddle too long, or having one’s skin rubbed raw in general. Before 1300 it was chaufen "inflame, warm, heat", from Old French chaufer (yep, source of chauffeur, the fellow who stoked the fire of a steam engine). The Old French form arose from Vulgar Latin calefare, an alteration of Latin calefacere "make hot" (from calere "hot" + facere "make").


From Gus:

I greatly appreciate the wealth of information your site offers.  I was wondering if you could grant me some insight into the etymology of the word sin.

For a word with such an interesting meaning, sin has quite a pedestrian history. In Middle English (1125) it was sinne and before that (prior to 830), the Old English word was synn. It is related to the Old High German sunta and possibly also to Latin sons, "guilty".


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