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Issue 12

October 12, 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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Computer-related words

When sitting at your computer, waiting for it to boot up, had you ever wondered where this strange term comes from? Those of you who remember those far-off days when computers with the power of a pocket calculator needed their own building and ran programs consisting of holes punched into paper-tape may also remember that the earlier phrase was to bootstrap. Now the meaning becomes more apparent. When the computer was switched on, a built-in program executed which "pulled [the machine] up by its own bootstraps". This phrase, in turn, comes from a passage in the fantasy novel "The Adventures of Baron von Munchhausen" wherein the boastful Baron describes how he evaded the Turkish army by using this novel technique to scale the mirror-like face of a sheer cliff.

Late at night, fuelled by junk food and caffeine, the lonely hacker labors to find secret passwords, defeat security and tunnel through firewalls. Why hacker? Here, I must confess, I do not entirely know. It could be that the hacker achieves success by dint of long hours of hard work, "hacking" away like a solitary lumberjack trying to fell a huge redwood (i.e. from Middle English hakken, from earlier Old English haccian). Or maybe it was first used to describe programmers who worked for hire, like hack writers. This latter term comes from hackney, a horse-for-hire, named after the village on the outskirts of the City of London where such horses were first made available.

Do you, perhaps, log on to some service or network? This word has been with us since 1977 but the earlier (1962) word  was log in. Operators of early computers (see reference to antediluvian mainframes, above) were required to record all events in a written log so when they started their shift, they would begin a session on the machine and simultaneously record that fact in the log - hence logging in. This log is so called because it is analogous to a ship's log-book, a daily record of a ship's journey.  Log-book takes its name from the log-board or log-slate, a pair of hinged boards divided into several columns. Finally, this  log-board was so called because it was, originally, a board from a tree-log.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Mr. Lars Mannberg:

I have desperately tried to find out the etymological roots for two words related to the brain: cerebrum and cerebellum.  Is it correct that these words have a connection with the Greek goddess Ceres?

Cerebellum entered English in 1565, and cerebrum followed shortly thereafter in 1615.  They came to English via Latin cerebellum "small brain" and cerebrum "brain", respectively.  One cognate is saveloy, a kind of sausage, whose name entered English from French cervelat, the French having obtained it from Italian cervellate, a diminutive of cervello "brain", which came from Latin cerebellumSaveloy was originally a sausage made from brains.  Other cognates are Swedish hjarna and Danish hjerne "brain".  All of these words have their source in the Indo-European root ker- which means "head" and gives us many head- and horn-related words.

There is no connection with Ceres here.  However, if you look inside that cereal box in your cupboard, you will find a word which came to us from Ceres.


From Thurman Mott:

I am interested in the origins and early meanings of the word gospel.  I recently read that it originally referred to "a reward for bringing good news" instead of "good news", which it now usually means.

This is an old word, going all the way back to Old English (about 750).  It was originally god spel "good news", from god "good" (it was pronounced like goad) and spel "news".  By 1250 it had taken the form gospel.  The Old English form is a direct translation of bona adnuntiatio, which was the Latin version of Greek euangelion.  The Greek, as you mention, originally meant "reward for bringing good news", but it soon came to mean simply "good news" when applied to the gospels by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Interestingly, the long o in the Old English godspel was replaced with a short o as speakers confused the word god "good" with God.


From Rich:

I am having trouble finding the origin of the nautical word moor.  Any help you could give me in researching these words would be greatly appreciated.

The nautical term moor was moren before 1200, and that word meant "take root".  By 1380 it had the meaning "to fix or fasten".   It is probably related to Old English mærels "mooring rope" and mæren "to moor".  Some cognates are Middle Dutch maren/meren "to tie up, moor"; Old High German marawen "to join"; Low German vermoren "to moor"; and Old Frisian mere "strap".  The noun mooring dates from the early 15th century and comes from moren.

I think we should examine the homophones moor "land" and Moor "native of North Africa".  The former was mor before 1200, and it meant "wasteland" or "marshland".   It had its source in Old English mor, which dates from the 8th century and has cognates in such words as Old Saxon moer "swamp", Middle Low German mor (modern German Moor), Middle Dutch moer, and Old High German muor "swamp, sea".  It is very likely related to the now obsolete mere "lake" (found in the names of lakes in England, such as Windermere).

Moor "North African" was acquired by English in the 14th century from Greek Mauros, a word likely of North African origin, for there is a modern Arabic word maghreb meaning "west".   Maghreb is a name given to the Arabic lands of western North Africa, and maghrebi refers both to the inhabitants and their dialect.  Some cognates are Mauritania;  Morocco, which comes directly from maghreb; and morris dancing.


From cuallac:

Lately, I've been wondering about the word baklava. Many Balkan states claim this word to be their own. I know it's not an English word but I'm pretty sure it has been included in the lexicon already.

I think we can settle this without exacerbating Balkan acrimony. The word, in fact, does not come from that troubled region but from its neighbor, and erstwhile oppressor, Turkey. Many of us are familiar with this delicious dessert made of thin pastry, nuts, and honey but is it a real English word? Surprising as it may seem, baklava has been in the English lexicon since 1653, which makes it almost as established as kiosk, another Turkish word.

Apparently they take their baklava very seriously in Turkey. In 1997, a nine-year jail sentence was imposed on four teenage boys who stole one of these desserts.


From Ellen Romano:

I would very much like to know the origin of guilt.   It seems it might have a very interesting derivation.

Are you feeling guilty, perhaps, and hoping that the etymology of this word will help?  Unfortunately, it doesn't get any better as we look back at the word's history.  In the late 12th century the word was gult, then gilt.  It came from Old English (recorded in 971) gylt "crime, sin, fault, fine", and most etymologists agree that beyond that the word's origins grow murky at best.  No other language, not even one among the Germanic languages, has a cognate.  However, John Ayto, who seems to love mentioning unpopular etymological theories, tells of the hypothesis that guilt comes from Germanic gelth- "pay".  That Germanic root did, in fact, give us guild and yield, and it originally meant "debt", so it's not completely unreasonable to think that guilt may have come from that source, as well.  However, few etymologists seem to espouse this notion.  Despite that, Ayto goes on to say that German schild today means "debt" and "guilt" but that it originally meant only "debt", offering tenuous but interesting support for the unpopular theory.


From Randy Ericson:

Etymology of the word indict. And why does it have a c ?

While the word indictment has been with us since the 14th century, nobody thought to use indict as a verb until 1626.  The earlier form was indite, a word  meaning "write down" which survives to this day. In the 14th century, as it acquired its modern spelling, it took on a narrower meaning of "to write down charges and accusations". So, you make a good point: if the earlier form was indite, where does the c come from? It seems that medieval scholars, realizing that the word was descended from the Latin indictare (in-, "in" + dictare, "speak" = "to write down"), added the c in memory of its venerable ancestor. The b in debt is there for the same reason.


From Jason Barker:

I'd like to know the etymology of the medical term stat, as in, "I need these test results stat!"

I've always wondered if medical professionals really use that term or if only those people who are not doctors, but play them on TV, use it.   Whatever the word's status in real life, it is a shortened form of Latin statim, an adverb which originally meant "to a standstill".  It's a remnant of the lost noun statis "a standing still", from stare "to stand".  Exactly why this now means "immediately" is unclear.  Interestingly, the editing term stet "let it stand" comes from the same source.


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

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


This week I'm going to bellyache, to use the vernacular, about something that's not related to etymology per se, but Mike and I do experience it quite often in the process of writing this column.  The "it" of which I speak is intellectual snobbery.

Some of you might be amazed at the amount of "no, you ridiculous, sniveling idiot, you're wrong and I'm right (which makes me a god) and here's why" e-mail we receive.  I wonder if Stephen Hawking gets e-mail like that!   No, I'm by no means suggesting that we are of Mr. Hawking's ilk, but don't we deserve a smidgen of run-of-the-mill human respect, some sort of affirmation that we are not pond scum (by the way, Saratoga means just that!)?  We are very open to comments from readers, believe you me (I love that phrase), and we are also quite open to accepting justly- delivered criticism and correction (and we get very little of it!).   However, when criticism is unfounded OR correction is incorrect, a "holier than thou" attitude is the worst sort of demeanor that the criticizer/corrector could have.  Yet that's almost the only demeanor we have witnessed of late.

I admit that jocularity is not easy to communicate via e-mail without being terribly overt, and some of the readers who have offered unfounded criticism or incorrect correction may have been kidding with such lines as "if you'd done your homework..."  However, I think deadpan delivery should be sacrificed for the sake of courtesy.  After all, we try to make an effort to communicate to our readers when we are joking about something, even when a deadpan approach might be more effective.  Additionally, I think that no caliber of genius merits the right to criticize/correct another in a snobbish tone.  Wouldn't we all get along a great deal better if we could offer criticism and corrections in an even, caring manner, without attempting to make ourselves look superior at the expense of others?  I imagine a lot more people would be a lot more receptive to such.

My advice: BE KIND!  Otherwise you will look more stupid than you probably are.  Of course, it is more rewarding to onlookers when people who deserve reproach make themselves look foolish! <wink>


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