Melanie & Mike say...

 Tow.jpg (63573 bytes)

      the only Weekly Word-origin Webzine

Issue 16

November 9, 1998
Search Home FAQ Links Site map Book Store


New Ask Us Theory About

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.
curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner Oh, dear, what's bugging them this time?
HH01580A.gif (1311 bytes) Mailing list We'll send you weekly previews of the Latest Edition, plus notification of other changes to the site.
spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...


Just take a look in any dictionary and you will be struck by the amount of sheer hard work that it took to produce it. Thousands upon thousands of words, complete with their definitions and etymologies are contained therein. Surely, each dictionary publisher must employ hundreds of researchers to achieve this end. Well, I'm about to share a dirty little secret with you. They copy from each other. [Gasp!]

Take, for example, the word chocolate. I have yet to see a dictionary entry for this word which differs substantially from this, found on the web at

Pronunciation: 'chä-k(&-)l&t, 'cho-
Function: noun
Etymology: Spanish, from Nahuatl chocolAtl
Date: 1604
1 : a beverage made by mixing chocolate with water or milk
2 : a food prepared from ground roasted cacao beans
3 : a small candy with a center (as a fondant) and a chocolate coating
4 : a brownish gray

Note that it is said to derive from the Nahuatl language. Now, Nahuatl was the language of the Aztecs and many of their words ended in -tl, a phoneme that was too alien for the conquering Spanish to reproduce accurately. Thus, in the mouths of the conquistadors, coyotl became coyote and peyotl became peyote. So, on the face of it, WWWebster's etymology, describing a transformation from chocolatl to chocolate seems eminently reasonable. The only fly in the ointment is that there is no record of the word chocolatl in the Nahuatl language! Not in modern Nahuatl, nor in the earliest word lists compiled by Spanish missionaries. Presumably some dictionary compiler of the past, well-acquainted with the -tl to -te process, made an intelligent, informed guess which just happened to be completely wrong and every dictionary since then has inherited his error.

Those of you with functioning brains must be thinking "If all the dictionaries have it wrong, where did Mel and Mike get the inside dope?" Well, we must confess that neither of us are yet completely fluent in Nahuatl [grin]. Actually we have been reading an immensely enjoyable (and only slightly fattening) book called The True History of Chocolate by Sophie and Michael Coe. According to these experts on pre-Columbian diet, chocolatl is a Spanish hybrid of Nahuatl and Mayan, cross-breeding the Mayan chocol haa ("hot water") with the Nahuatl cacahuatl ("bitter water").

The invading Spanish soon acquired a taste for this new drink (chocolate was not to become a candy bar for hundreds of years). Among the conquerors of "New Spain", and especially among the wives of the Spanish nobles, it was considered very elegant and a necessary adjunct to every social function. But why did they need to coin a new word? Why couldn't they just have adopted the Nahuatl cacahuatl, perhaps converting it to *cacahuate to aid pronunciation? The answer probably lies in caca, a nursery word for excrement which occurs in many Romance languages, Spanish included. We can well imagine that the high-born Spanish doñas would die rather than be heard saying caca in refined company (especially when referring to something as shiny, soft and brown as raw chocolate). Thus their need for a polite word for their beloved beverage forced them to abandon the word actually used by the Aztecs.

The word cacao (the fruit from which cocoa and chocolate are made) is a genuine Meso-American survival  as it comes from the ancient Mixe-Zoquean kakawa. It is likely that 18th-century confusion between cacao and another exotic fruit, the coconut, gave us our modern word cocoa.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered


From Michael J. Mehall: 

On the subject of words and phrases, any idea where the term goody two-shoes comes from and what exactly that means?

Well, Adam Ant did a song entitled "Goody Two-Shoes". Speaking of Adam Ant aka Stuart Goddard, where’s he been lately? He was really big in the 80’s, and he had a hit song within the past year or two, but even then one didn’t see much of him. He was really – oh, sorry. This is an etymology column,goody.gif (1089 bytes) isn’t it? Goody two-shoes comes from the title of a children’s story, "The History of Goody Two-Shoes", thought to be by Oliver Goldsmith and published in 1765. I should explain that, in the English of the 18th century, Goody was short for Goodwife, an honorific used much the way Mrs. is today.

"The History of Goody Two-Shoes" is a story about a lady who, due to her poverty, had only one shoe. She was so thrilled when she was later given a matching pair of shoes that she earned the nickname Goody Two-Shoes, which today we might translate as "Mrs. Two-Shoes". It was apparently a misunderstanding of Goody which led to the phrase’s current meaning; people apparently thought that Goody was a form of the word good, and that in this sense it meant "someone who was smugly self-righteous", or a goody-goody. That is in fact what the word means today, but that’s not what it originally meant! 


From Minda:

I am a geomatics (surveying) student at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. As surveying students we use instruments like transits and theodolites to measure angles and distances in the field. I had asked one of my professors the etymology of the word theodolite. He did not know, so he in turn asked some other professors and so on, but no one seems to know (or to have been asked before).

It’s interesting how we often become so immersed in our respective fields of learning/study/work that we lose interest in (or time to investigate) related fields. It was a bit surprising to us that none of your professors knew the etymology of theodolite, but after researching the word a bit, our surprise was tempered. There is not a great deal of etymological information to be had on theodolite. theodolite.gif (10766 bytes)

English obtained the word from New Latin theodelitus.   However, it seems likely that the theo- in the word was borrowed from Greek theorein "to look at" (source of words like theory, theorem, and theatre,  to name a few) and not from Greek theo "god", as many might have suspected. The –dolite portion of the word is a bit more perplexing. Ernest Weekley suggests that the word's likely inventor, English mathematician Leonard Digges, gave his New Latin word an arbitrary ending.   Another possibility, Weekley notes, albeit a wild possibility, is that Digges named the instrument after the famous Old French poem Tiaudelet, which was translated from the Late Latin Theodulus.  If this is true, the theo- portion of the word does come from the Greek word for "god", for Theodulus was considered a religious poem.  Whatever Digges' source, he coined the word in 1571.

From Judith Feldstein:

Where on Earth does this skedaddle [Spotlight, Issue 14] come from? My dictionary says it means escape. 

Rather a mysterious word, this. In its current sense ("scram", "vamoose", "exit unceremoniously"), it was first recorded during the American Civil War (1861 - 1865). It could, possibly, be a frequentative form of skip, in which case its ultimate source would be the Old French esquiper, "to leave by ship" and would thus be cognate with ship and skiff.

On the other hand, skedaddle was also a dialect word in the north of England long before the 1860s but it meant "to spill". Was this the origin of the American word or were they completely separate and independent creations? The broad highway of etymology peters out here and we are left wondering which rabbit trail to follow. 


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

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

Absolutely unique

A glance at the uni- in unique will tell you that it has something to do with "one". Something unique stands alone. There is only one of it. Not some. Not a few. Not a couple. One! So, why is it that we hear so many people saying that such-and-such is "very unique"?  A few weeks ago, we heard an art critic on the radio describing an exhibition. Having referred to one exhibit as "unique" he was compelled to characterize the next as "even more unique". What, in the name of Tiglath Pileser IV and his sacred choir of lisping bats, does "even more only one of it" mean?

The word unique belongs to a class of words called "absolutes". Other absolutes are infinite, dead and pregnant. The property which all these words share is that it is illogical to apply an adjective to them. Attempting to do so is called "qualifying an absolute".  When we consider why the phrases "very infinite" and "slightly dead" sound   silly we see that "qualifying an absolute" is not so much a grammatical error as it is a logical one. If it were merely a matter of grammar there could be a language in which it is permitted to qualify absolutes. This, however, is not the case; to say "very unique" is illogical in any language.


Comments, additions? Send to Melanie & Mike:
Copyright © 1995-199
9 mc² creations
Last Updated 10/14/06 10:41 PM