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Issue 17

November 23, 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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Death Valley

If you are a regular reader of this column, you may have missed us last week.  We were far from computers and Internet connections, camping in the wilds of Death Valley.  We visited the lowest point in the western hemisphere in order to have some of the best seats available for the Leonid meteor shower.  The valley offered low humidity, low light pollution, and a good chance for clear skies, all important to celestial viewing.

The meteor shower was delightful (a few of the meteors lit up the entire valley), as were our stellar observations between meteors.  Our desert wanderings prompted us to discuss the origins of several words related to the occasion of our presence in Death Valley.  The first of these is meteor.  This word comes from Greek via French meteore.  The Greek word was formed from meta- and aeirein, the latter meaning "to lift up" (English air is related), and referred to anything in the heavens.  Hence, a meteor came from the heavens, and meteorology is the study of the goings-on in that portion of the heavens nearest us.

While we were lying on our backs on some of the other-worldly sand dunes in Death Valley, watching the skies during the hours before sunrise, we spotted several satellites scuttling across the Milky Way.  The word satellite, which in this case describes any subordinate body in orbit around a larger body, comes from Latin satelles "attendant, member of a bodyguard".  Johann Kepler was the first to use the term astronomically (1611).

As darkness seemed to settle at an inordinately early hour in Death Valley, we would snatch a few hours' sleep in our tents before rising after midnight to watch the fireworks.  We were visited one night prior to our early bedtime by a group of bold kit foxes who smelled our dinner leftovers.   These little fellows, when approached, did not flee, but stood their ground as if waiting for scraps to be tossed their way!  We safely stowed all foodstuffs before retiring for the evening, only to find, in the morning light which greeted us after several hours of meteorizing, that those crafty little foxes had found the few odd things in our camp which had even an iota of tantalizing grease or juice on them, and had chewed them up! So, whence does the word fox come?  It is Anglo-Saxon in origin, and it has, as cognates, Dutch vos, German fuchs (as an aside, the red/pink color-word pronounced fue-sha is spelled with a fox in it: fuchsia), Old Norse foa, and Gothic fauho "vixen".  Interestingly, vixen was, in Old English, fyxen, simply the feminine form of fox.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Gerald Hall:

My mother and a friend of hers were wondering how the Ku Klux Klan got its name...  

If one were to doubt the power of popular culture to inspire acts which plumb the depths of human behavior one need only consider The Knights ofbirthNation.gif (27815 bytes) the Ku Klux Klan. The modern racist organization of this name was created in 1915 as a direct response to the first ever block-buster movie: "The Birth of a Nation" by D. W. Griffith. The original Klan terrorized parts of the southern United States during "Reconstruction": the period just after the Civil War but by the time Griffith made "The Birth of a Nation", this original Klan was a mere footnote to history. This movie adaptation of a novel presented the Klan in an idealized, heroic manner and The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan was founded that same year. (The small words below the rider on the poster say: "The Fiery Cross of the Ku Klux Klan")

There are a couple of different explanations of the name. One version states that Ku Klux Klan is an onomatopoeic representation of the three separate sounds heard when loading a breach-loading rifle. Although this sounds appropriate, it ignores the fact that the original Klan was often known simply as Ku Klux.

Considering the essentially secret nature of the organization the alternative derivation is perhaps the more plausible. This version sees Ku Klux as a form of the Greek kuklos, meaning "the circle". Ah, those were the days... when even racist thugs had a sound classical education.


From Tom Weber:

I love your site.  This was my first visit.  I am sure to come back.

From where does the term dressed to the nines come?   I am at a loss and would sure appreciate the help.

For your first visit, you sure did push all the proper buttons! As for dressed to the nines, you've found a phrase with quite a contentious history.  Etymologists quibble and quake over this one.  Almost every etymologist, however, cites the following explanations, even if he doesn't agree with either of them:

1) The phrase comes from dressed to then eynes, Middle English for "dressed to the eyes" (we always thought that sounded like a painful condition).  The only problem, and it is a serious problem, is that the phrase does not appear in the written record until the 1820's, and even then it took the form togged out to the nines (this was in a British periodical).  How did it arise among Anglo-Saxons (despite no record of it there) and then manage to hide from all English speakers' pens until the 19th century?  


2) The second explanation is that the phrase comes from the association of the number nine with perfection or even mystical importance, e.g. a cat having nine lives, the nine levels of hell, a tripling of the Holy Trinity (in Christianity) to produce a number of mystical importance, etc.  The sense here is that someone who was dressed to the nines was dressed to perfection.

Frankly, most etymologists seem to spurn the latter history and, with nothing better to offer, they give a partial nod to the former explanation. 


From Jeff Carty:

Recently the word horked or hoarked has come into vogue at my office, meaning "messed up", etc.  The person who introduced it said it is an old term (not one he invented).  Two questions: what is the correct spelling and where does it come from?

We suspect that the word you refer to is a corruption of gorked, a slang medical term which originally meant "anesthetized".  It dates from before the 1970s,  though no one seems to know the origin of the term, other than the guess that it was coined due to its expressive sound, and perhaps due to its similarity to the word dork.  The noun gork was back-formed from gorked in the early 1970s, having the meaning "a severely brain-damaged person".   A brief scan of the Web showed the word gorked still being used to mean "anesthetized" or "doped up", as in "I was gorked on Valium".  I ran across the word for the first time recently when a profoundly brain-damaged infant was referred to as gorked.  It's not difficult to see how the word might come to be applied to anything that is damaged or not working properly, or, as you phrased it, "messed up".


From Harry Zolkower:

My nine year-old daughter, Sarah, asked me today as we were going to a bazaar what the origin of the word bazaar came from.   I checked the WWWebster dictionary, but it only said that the etymology was Persian.  Do you have more information?

Only that it was originally spelled bazarro in English and that it came to English from Turkish via Italian.  The Persian word was bazar and it meant "market".


From Tom McCarthy:

Supposedly, Aristotle referred to things as having a property of lightness, like smoke, which he called levity, and a property of heaviness, like an anchor, which he called gravity.  How true is this?  I know that perhaps there are Ancient Greek equivalents that Ol' Aristotle used.  I hope you can help me.

Well, we only etymologize English words here, so we'll start with English and go backwards and see if we find any Greek out there anywhere.  Additionally, due to time restraints, we'll look only at gravity.

English gravity comes from Latin gravis "heavy, serious" via gravitas.  It is first recorded in English in the 16th century with that same meaning, and it was not until the 17th century that the scientific use of the word came about.  Gravis goes back to the Indo-European root *gru-, from which came Greek barus "heavy" (English got baritone, barium, and barometer from the Greek), Sanskrit guru "heavy, dignified" (which gave us English guru), and Latin brutus "heavy" or "cumbersome" (English brute arose from this Latin word).  Some other English cognates are grave, gravid, gravitate, grief, and grudge.


From Guidry:

Could you tell me where the word noon came from, when it was first used, and why?

This word originally referred to the ninth hour of the day (counting from sunrise, some time around 6 am).  It was nona "ninth" in Latin, from nona hora "ninth hour", and the Anglo-Saxons recorded it as non.  A related word is nones, the name of the daily church service held at approximately 3pm in the Catholic church during the middle ages.  By the 12th century, noon was used to refer to the "midday meal", and by the 13th century it meant only "midday".   It is apparent that the 3pm meal had shifted to 12 noon by the 12th century, and it took the word noon with it.


From Deanna:

I am trying to find out the origin of the word twit.  I have been told that King Henry VIII coined the term and I have been unsuccessful in finding any information to confirm or deny this.  Could you please help?

We never ignore a plea for help!  The most plausible theory is that twit the noun comes from twit the verb.   The latter has its origin in twite, which was formed, via aphesis (the loss of an unstressed initial vowel or syllable), from atwite "to reproach".  Its Old English form was aetwitan "to reproach with", from at + witan "to blame".  Wit, of course, meant "knowledge", and aetwitan therefore meant "to not know, to censure".  It was not until the 18th century that twit gained its "idiot" sense from association with "one who is reproached".   Some etymologists also believe that it might have been influenced by such other derogatory words as twerp and its similarity to nitwit.

Another theory has it that twit comes from a more offensive word which substitutes an a for the i.


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