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Issue 22

December 28, 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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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...


It may surprise many of our readers to learn that the Bible gives no indication of when Jesus was born. While there is ample detail about the location, his parents' circumstances and his first visitors, we are left completely in the dark as to the day of the year on which the Nativity occurred.

Early Christians probably didn't celebrate Christmas at all as there was no officially sanctioned "Christmas Day" until the Council of Nicaea. At this council (in what is now Turkey; then it was Greek-speaking Asia Minor), between the years of 320 and 325 AD, the Roman emperor, Constantine the Great, hammered out a deal with the elders of the Christian church. Christianity was to become the official religion of the Roman Empire but it had to incorporate some pagan practices as part of the bargain. One of these pagan rites was the celebration of the birth of Mithras on December 25. Mithras was the center of a Roman mystery cult and was freely adapted from the original Persian god Mithra. So why is he associated with December 25?

Modern scholars believe that the cult of Mithras was based on the secret understanding of an astronomical phenomenon know as the "precession of the equinoxes", that is, the background of fixed stars is not really fixed. They knew that solar events such as solstices could be used to plot the movement of these stars. Also, as the days begin lengthening after the winter solstice, it is a time of new beginnings and hope for the future. Thus Mithras' birthday was set at the winter solstice, which is usually on December 22. However, due to the insertion of intercalary days (days inserted into the calendar to correct for accumulated error) and confusion with the Roman festival of Saturnalia, it has slipped to December 25.

The word solstice implies that the sun stands still on that day, as it derives from the Latin sol "sun" and sistere "to stand". The noon-day sun is at its lowest on this day and days begin lengthening thereafter.

Come to think of it, the Council of Nicaea has another sol connection. The halo which is used to indicate saintliness or divinity in Christian art has its origins in the "solar crown" worn by the popular Roman deity Sol Invictus, "The Invincible Sun".


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Dan Hardy:

Outstanding site! I am looking for the origin of the word technology. Webster links it to industrial arts but does not provide the origin of the combining form techno.

From Lisa Lokusek:

It is a simple I know it is technae +logy in Greek (sp?) and I know that technae is something like the process for getting something done, but is that accurate?

Alright, you two, let's get this right. The word technology entered English in the 17th century. It comes from Greek tékhne "skill, art, craft, trade". The Greek comes from the Indo-European root *tek- "shape, make", which also gave English architect (via Greek tékton "carpenter, builder") and tectonic. Tékhne came to English via Greek teknikós and Latin technicus as technical and technology. Therefore, technology is, etymologically speaking, the study of building, creating, or making.


From Pat Salsbury:

Whence comes the term blue laws?

I wish this one were more cut and dry. There are several explanations for this term which is applied to laws considered to be puritanical, for example, laws prohibiting dancing, drinking, or working on Sundays. One explanation indicates that such laws were originally (in the 18th century) printed on blue paper. This etymology even states that the term arose in Connecticut in 1781! It sounds quite precise, doesn't it? However, some etymologists scoff at this suggestion and posit that the blue part of the term came about due to the previously existing meaning of blue as "puritanical" or "morally rigid". Another term incorporating blue into a meaning of "puritanical" is bluenose, but while it arose at around the same time as blue laws, it is not clear that the terms are related. However, bluenose originated in Nova Scotia and referred derisively to Nova Scotians of the time, though exactly why is not clear, and why it came to refer to anyone excessively puritanical is another puzzle. Perhaps the blue = puritanical usage influenced both of these terms. Why blue came to have such a meaning is the ultimate unanswered question in this story.


From Richard Briggs:

I was asked by a Korean friend about the origin of cheapskate. Any ideas?

Yes, we've got some ideas, but they don't go as far as we might like. The word cheapskate is simply a compound formed from cheap and skate, the latter being a synonym for "chap" or "fellow". How skate arose with that meaning, however, is not so clear. At least one source suggests that it is related to the ray fish of the same name, but that seems a wee bit of a stretch. Then again, we do have loan sharks and similar animal names applied to humans! Whatever the origin of this form of skate, it was joined with cheap in late 19th century America.

We do know where cheap comes from. Its source is Latin caupo "tradesman", and it first entered Old English as ceap "trade". It became chepe in Middle English, and because it was used in such phrases as good chepe to mean "bargain", it eventually came to mean "bargain" even without the good in front of it. The surname Chapman preserves the old meaning, "trade", for a chapman was a "trader".


From Butterfly:

So, just what is a majority whip, and why would I want one in my Senate?

Whenever the British parliament is about to vote on an important decision, the various political parties issue written instructions to their members [of Parliament] on how they are to vote. These instructions are called whips because they are used to coerce the MPs to toe the party line. The party functionary who issues these commands is known as the chief whip. The term was borrowed by the U.S. Congress but as the U.S. has effectively only two parties, the Congress has only two whips - the majority whip and the minority whip. Interestingly, the word whip, whence majority whip comes, can only be traced back to the mid-13th century in English, though it has earlier cognates in other Germanic languages.  


From Hal Dunn:

I'm going to see the Broadway musical "Ragtime". Some of the music in the show is the pre-jazz, syncopated music known as ragtime, but much of it isn't, and the show doesn't seem to be about ragtime music. Do you know where the term ragtime came from?

I've heard that it's from the ragged time of the syncopated music. I've also head it means "loose and carefree", from the loose, informal, happy-go-lucky, poorly-organized armies of old (ragtag?), but I think both of these explanations are dubious. My guess is that it had to do with clothing, e.g., in the 1800s, many poor immigrants came to America. Their clothes weren't much more than rags. That period of time was called ragtime. Then came the ragtime music. But this is just a guess.

Around 1890 an exciting new type of music was first heard in the U.S. Mostly played on the piano, it quickly replaced the two-step as the popular music of the time. Its most striking characteristic was that, while the pianist's left hand kept a strict 2/4 rhythm (just like the two-step), the right hand played sprightly, syncopated melodies.

Syncopation means that the stressed or accented notes of the tune do not fall on the expected beats. Or, at least, not on those beats that ears accustomed to European music would expect. Thus the music was said to be played in ragged time and soon the genre was dubbed ragtime. The tunes themselves were called rags and some of the most splendid examples (Maple Leaf Rag, Heliotrope Rag, The Entertainer) were compsed by the unlettered African-American genius Scott Joplin, who died insanely syphilitic in 1915, just as the ragtime craze faded.

The great Russian composer Igor Stravinsky also composed a piece he called Ragtime, but it doesn't bear much resemblance to the rhythmic intricacies of Scott Joplin. To tell the truth, I can't help feeling that, for all his musical magnitude, Stravinsky just didn't understand ragtime at all.

The Broadway musical Ragtime takes its name from the novel of the same name by E. L. Doctorow. It is set in the early 1900s and much of the novel contrasts the life of the very rich with that of the working (and sometimes striking) poor. The meaning "time of rags" which you suggest is certainly implied in the novel's title but not in the name of the musical genre.


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

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

This week we let one of our readers curbludgeon us with complaints about


Denise Brennan Watson writes:

Hello Melanie and Mike and Happy Holidays!

I find it very annoying to hear the following constructions:

1.   "Reason why" as in "The reason why I was late is that my car broke down."

2.  "Reason...because" as in "The reason I was late is because my car broke down."

3.  "Reason why...because" as in "The reason why I was late is because my car broke down."

These constructions are redundant. All three words: "reason," "why" and "because" tell us that some type of cause will be given. I prefer:

"I was late because my car broke down" or "The reason I was late is that my car broke down."


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