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Issue 15

November 2, 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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So many words which English inherits from Old French have their origins in Latin that we might be tempted to make this a general rule. While this is almost always the case, we should not ignore that "almost". The word frown is a splendid example of an exception to this rule. This word, which now means "wrinkling the brow in thought or displeasure" was once the Old French froigner, "to turn up one's nose", from the Old French frogne, "a grimace". We may search our Latin dictionaries until (a) we are blue in the face or (b) the cows come home [select one] yet we will not find its origin. 

Although the Roman legions brought Latin to what is now France they did not entirely eradicate the native language, Gaulish. A handful of words survived and frogna ("nose") was one of them.  Gaulish is one of the Celtic languages, a family which includes Welsh, Breton and Gaelic and the family resemblance may easily be seen in the Welsh word for "nose": ffroen.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Bernie O’Doherty:

 Please let me know the origin of the word yankee.

There are several theories regarding this word’s origins, none unassailable. One suggests that it came from Jan Kees, a dialectical form of Jan Kaas "John Cheese", 1102yankee.gif (2541 bytes) which is what the Flemish apparently called Dutchmen in the 16th and 17th centuries. Another theory identifies the word’s root simply as Janke, a diminutive of Dutch Jan, "John".

The Dutch lineage offered by both of these theories is attributable to the word originating in New England in the late 17th century, where there were many Dutch settlers. The earliest recorded use is about 1683 in the term Yankey Duch. By 1765 it was being used as a term of contempt for any native of New England, and not long thereafter it was applied to all Americans, especially by speakers from other countries.  To this day Americans call their countrymen from New England yankees.


From Anon:

 I was wondering about the word faith. It’s a common word, but strangely enough I can’t find much information on its origins. Do you all happen to know anything about it?

O ye of little faith, of course we know something about it. Faith was first recorded in English in the 12th century, having arrived in England with the Norman French. To the French, it was feid, and the English took it as feth and feith. Old French feid came from the Indo-European root *bhidh- or *bhoidh- (whence came federal) which gave Latin fides. It is from the Latin that we get related words: confide, defy, diffident, fealty, fidelity, fiduciary, and perfidy, as well as the English woman’s name Fay (from the archaic word fay), not to mention Fido, which you probably recognize as a cliched canine name.

For another meaning of fay with a different etymology, see Issue 36.


From jcasa:

I would like to know where and how the word drugs originated. Thanks.

I was tempted to palm you off with a smart-alec response like "it's the plural of drug" but that didn't answer the "where" part of your question. So, in order to render a complete answer I consulted the vast resources of the Take Our Word For It library. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the earliest English form was, in fact, a plural - drogges.   The Middle English word drogges was borrowed from the Old French drogue. Curiously, it has linguistic cousins (cognates) in dry and drought. Ultimately, they all come from a Germanic root meaning "dry". The earliest drugs were dried herbs.


From Kelly Werner:

I am doing a project on mental relaxation for athletes. I was wondering what the word origin for the word relax is. It would be great if you could help me out to get my assignment started.

To get it "started"?!  Oh, please don't wait for us, we're dedicated procrastinators.  Our motto is "Never put off till tomorrow that which you can put off till next week".

When presented with this request we knew that we need not rush to answer it. Rather, we put it aside for a few weeks while we wondered what relax's etymology had to do with a "project on mental relaxation for athletes".  We must admit that we're baffled - we can't see how it fits in. Of course, if you have nothing relevant to say about your project's subject, you could do worse than filling a page or two exploring the origins of the words in the project's title. At least it helps you meet the word-count.

The etymology is quite simple. Relax has been with us since the Middle English relaxen (15th century) which itself derives from the Latin relaxare, "to relax" (re, "again" + laxare, "loosen"). Lax, laxative and, remotely, slack are all related.


From Ted Sherarts:

Like the British say "sorry", we Americans say oops. Where does oops from? Thanks.

First off, we say oops (and whoops) in Britain, too. In fact, my earliest reference is in a British dictionary which dates it to 1930. For such a well-established word, this seems incredibly recent. My guess is that it derives from ups-a-daisy, an apparently meaningless phrase said to a child after a fall. This usage dates from the 18th century and, according to Eric Partridge (the great expert on English slang) ups-a-daisy was sometimes written oops-a-daisy and even whoops-a-daisy


From Jayson Goldman:

I am currently in debate with a very dear, sweet lady who insists that the term card shark is, in fact, a modern misnomer for the term card sharp. My grandfather was a blackjack dealer maaaaaany years ago and he insists (and I believe him) that the term card shark is in fact the original term for someone who preyed on those of lesser skill.

Considering that some persons have "preyed on those of lesser skill" since the very invention of games of chance, your grandfather must be of an extremely venerable antiquity if he remembers "the original term".  If I were you, I would start buying flowers. The earliest (1859) written version of the phrase was card sharper.  As card sharp occurs in several of our dictionaries and card shark in none of them, I would suggest that the latter form is merely, as the "very dear, sweet lady" said, a modern mis-hearing of card sharp, possibly influenced by loan-shark.



curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

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


You've probably seen the "Express Lane" in your local supermarket.  The criterion for entering that checkout lane is possession of "seven items or less" in your shopping cart.  I cringe every time I read that sign.  Think about it.  Would you say "He has fewer sugar than me"?  No, you would say LESS.  Less is used when speaking of something which cannot be counted (i.e., sugar cannot be counted!), and fewer is the word to choose when there are countable things in question, such as "items".  The sign in the supermarket is grammatically incorrect: it should read "Seven items or fewer".  Next time, get into the Express Lane with 15 items and tell the checker you thought the "Seven items or less" sign was a joke!


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