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Issue 19

December 8, 1998
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We English-speakers have at our disposal several terms for "lookalikes".  They each come from entirely different sources, and they have slightly different nuances about them such that they are not completely interchangeable.  This availability of several different terms with only slightly different shades of meaning makes English the wonderful language that it is!

The term dead ringer is one of the terms which means "lookalike".  It dates in writing from about 1891 and arose from ringer "a horse entered fraudulently in a race".  It is thought that ringer came from the British expression ring in "to substitute or exchange fraudulently" (1812).  Some believe that ring in is related to ring the changes "to substitute counterfeit money in various ways", a pun on ring the changes "go through all the variations in ringing a peal of bells."   The dead in dead ringer is probably the same as that in dead heat or dead on, i.e., it means "exact".

Another "lookalike" term is doppelganger, which is often still found in English dictionaries as Doppelganger, because it comes directly from German Doppelgnger, literally "double goer", and figuratively "a ghost which haunts its live counterpart".   The initial letter of a noun (and pronoun) is capitalized in German despite its position in a sentence.  Interestingly, the dictionaries which still capitalize that first d in Doppelganger also define it as "a ghostly double of a living person".  However, there is a fairly common alternative meaning which has arisen in English: "a double".  English borrowed doppelganger in the mid-19th century, and only in the 20th century did the alternative meaning arise.

Spitting image, yet another term for "lookalike", was originally spit and image.  Spit meant "likeness", so the term uses redundancy to bring home its meaning.  It is first recorded in the late 19th century as spit and image, and by 1925 it had taken the current form.  The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, however, notes the saying "as like one as if he had been spit out of his mouth" as having been recorded in 1400, so the notion behind spit and image was already alive in the late Middle Ages.  An apparently spurious etymology of spitting image has the term coming from spirit and image, and another from splitting image.

In closing, I'll say only that you will not find a dead ringer, a doppelganger, or a spitting image of Take Our Word For It!  We're (!) one-of-a-kind.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Kevin Kennedy-Spaien:

What a wonderful resource your electronic magazine is!   I rank it right up with my favorites, the books The Mother Tongue and A History of English in Its Own Words.

I have noticed, when trying to read photographic copies of older historical documents, that two versions of the letter s are employed.   One version is the same as our current letter, and the other is shaped rather like a cross between an italicized f and a small species of eel.  My questions are: what is the origin of the two s's, and what rules governed the use of one over another?   

What a wonderful resource of praise and queries your letter is, Kevin!  That's always an excellent combination here at Take Our Word For It

The letter s has taken a number of bizarre forms in its evolution from the Phoenician shin via the Greek sigma to the shape we use today.  While the Romans had only one (capital) s, medieval scribes came up with a host of new shapes.  Possibly motivated by the scarcity of parchment, they reserved the original, short s for endings of words, while the long, skinny form was used at beginnings and all positions in between.

This was all well and good until the Italians got involved.  As Italian words hardly ever have a final s, the Italian scribes simply couldn't get the hang of the system at all.  They used the long and short s indiscriminately - initials, finals, internals could all have either form.  Manuscripts thus became so confusing and hard to read that the long s eventually fell out of use though it managed to hang on in some very conservative typefaces until the 19th century.

Incidentally, Middle English used a special letter for double s which looked rather like the Greek letter beta.   It still exists in German.


From Bonnie:

I would like to know the origin of the word mister.

I think we can help, Miss Bonnie.  You might be interested to discover that Miss and Mister are cognates!  Mister is first recorded in the mid-16th century; prior to that date, it was master.   Master arose from maister "person of authority", first recorded in the mid-12th century.  The latter was formed from the combination of Old English mgster (from Latin magister "head, chief, teacher") and Old French maistre (also from Latin magister).  Magister arose as an adjective from magis, the comparative form of magnus "great". 

Some cognates of mister are magistrate, magnitude, magnum, miss, master, and mistress.   It is interesting to note that the abbreviation Mr. arose in the late 15th century, which means that it was originally the abbreviation for Master.


From Maurgan McGregor:

I've recently done an essay for biopsychology on drugs, and I was wondering where the word narcotics came from.

Just as we might expect for such an ancient subject, narcotic has a very venerable history.  The word has been in English since the late 14th century, when it was spelled narcotik.  It was a borrowing from Medieval Latin narcoticum which, in turn, was taken from the Greek narkotikon "benumbing".


From David S.:

I was wondering if the word history has sexist origins (i.e., is it derived from his + story or equivalent) or is it just a perfectly innocent coincidence?  Thanks for your time.

Well, you have part of it right.  The words story and history are indeed related, but not in a simple manner.   The story of history and the history of story are intertwined.

The earliest form of history is the Greek historia "knowledge".  It derives from histor "wise, learned" and ultimately from eidenai "to know".   Thus it is a distant relative of wit and vision, as all are supposed to be descendants of the ancient Indo-European root *wid "know, see".  Historia was borrowed by the Romans and to them it meant "a story". 

The Romans went on to conquer Gaul and lose it again, leaving behind a language which eventually became French.  Historia thus became the Old French estoire.  Along came a bunch of Vikings who settled in northern French, picked up French manners and they began to speak a dialect of French.  These Normans (i.e. Norsemen) then invaded England, bringing Norman French with them.  The word at this point was written estoire.  The work of only a century was required to turn this word into the Middle English  story.

Some medieval English authors, possibly wishing to show off their knowledge of Latin, introduced the word history as a synonym for story.  Note that these words meant the same thing: story could mean "a chronicle of past events", just as history could mean "a work of fiction".  Not until the 19th century did the two meanings finally untangle and take their current significance. 

There is another meaning which the word story has picked up along the way.  It has meant "lie" since the 17th century.   This is a meaning history has managed to avoid but it is still wise to remember that history is always written by the victors.


From Ephraim Leibowitz:

What is the etymology of paparazzi?

You may be surprised to find that it does not derive from an Italian word which means "paper" or "photo".  Instead, this word dates from the late 60's and has as its source a surname, making it an eponym.   There was a freelance photographer who shot candid photos of celebrities in Federico Fellini's film La Dolce Vita (1959), and his name was Paparazzo (the plural, in Italian, is, of course, paparazzi).  Fellini apparently named the photographer after a hotelkeeper in The Ionian Sea, a book by George Grissing (1901) which was read by Fellini while La Dolce Vita was being produced.


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