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Issue 23

January 11, 1999
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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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It has occurred to us that most of the words discussed in Take Our Word For It have undergone many changes over their histories. In fact, we generally choose to write up those words which have the most frequent and bizarre changes. Unfortunately, this policy means that we miss out on some charming words which stubbornly refuse to change. One such word is corn which has been corn since before 900 AD and will probably remain corn for many centuries to come.

I know some of our American readers will be scratching their heads and asking "How could the Anglo-Saxons know about corn before America was discovered?". This is because, in American English, corn is a synonym for Indian corn (called maize by the British and Zea mais by botanists). In British English, on the other hand, corn is the generic term for any cereal crop and may be applied to wheat, barley, oats, rye and, sometimes, even maize. A glance at a few other languages shows that the Brits are not alone in this usage. Dutch has koren, German has Korn and in former times Old Norse had korn while Gothic had kaurn. Even the Latin granum and the Russian zerno (both words meaning "grain" or "cereal") are related as all these words are thought to derive from the ancient Indo-European root *greno-. 

The Latin word granum has been remarkably generous in its contribution to the English language, being the progenitor of such disparate words as garner, garnet, grain, granary, grange, granite, granule, grenade, filigree and pomegranate. Granule is quite simply our form of the Latin granulus, "a little grain"  (granum + the diminutive suffix -ulus), granite is a rock which has a "granular" composition while a pomegranate is a fruit with a "granular" composition. An earlier (1300) English name for this fruit was pomme-garnet, from the Medieval Latin pomum granatum, "granular fruit" (literally "granular apple"). The medieval grenade was a small bomb which resembled a pomegranate in that it was filled with grains (called corns) of gunpowder. The word garnet was originally an adjective meaning the deep red which is found in the heart of a pomegranate, only later coming to mean the semi-precious stone.

Garner and grange originally meant the same thing, a granary, from the Latin granarium, "a shed or barn for storing grain". All three words entered English by different routes and arrived at different times, granary being the youngest (1570).

Garner, which nowadays is heard only as a verb, was originally (before 1400) a noun, being the Scottish word for a granary. Before 1200 is was written gerner which shows more clearly its origin in the Old French gernier, "a granary".  Hence, the verb to garner meant "to store in a granary".

By the late Middle Ages, grange meant "a farm", usually a very rich farm. Some, called moated granges were so prosperous that they were equipped with moat and battlements, just like a castle. When grange first entered Middle English in 1252, it was a humble "grain shed", again from granarium but this time via the Gallo-Roman granica.

Filigree is a kind of jewelry made with very fine wires and grains of gold or silver.  It entered English in 1682 as filigreen, an attempt at pronouncing the French filigrane.   The French word comes, ultimately from the Latin filum, "thread" + granum, "grain".

There is an Old English word which was created by taking corn and adding the diminutive suffix -el. Cyrnel thus meant a "little grain" and persists in Modern English as kernel.

A phrase which mystifies many people is corned beef. "What on earth has this to do with cereals?", you may ask. Well, not much, to tell the truth. The answer lies in the medieval practice of preserving meat by coating it with corns (i.e. grains) of salt. It is now salted with brine but still retains its old name.

One corn which does not belong in this family group is the corn which grows on your toe. It is related to "horn" and "cornucopia" and has its roots in an Indo-European word meaning "hard".


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Shiela B. Reese:

Several of us in a chat room I visited recently were wondering about the origin of the word impeach. I'd appreciate seeing something on this word in one of your upcoming newsletters.

Well, it's about time someone addressed this word. There must be quite a few English-speakers across the world wondering what this whole business with Clinton has to do with peaches. Believe it or not, nothing!

The word entered English in the late 14th century as empechen "accuse or hinder", from Anglo-French empecher. The latter word arose from Old French empëcher "hinder". This in turn came from Late Latin impedicare "to fetter" (from Latin im + pedica "shackle", derived from pes "foot"). English impede arose from the same source.

Until the 17th century, impeach retained the meaning "hinder" or "impede". It was in the mid-16th century that it came to be used to mean "accuse a public officer of misconduct". Interestingly, the association of impeach with "accusation" arose (in the 14th century) due to confusion with Latin impetere "attach, accuse", which is where we get impetuous.


From Robert L. Spence:

I'm sure the ancient mariners had good reasons for calling a ship's left and right sides port and starboard, respectively. Why?

Those ancient mariners (Vikings, to be exact), had a method of steering their ships using oars on the side of the ship. That side was the right side, which we now call starboard. Before 1400 the word was stere-bourde, which came from Old English (before the 10th century) steorbord "side on which a vessel was steered". The word was formed from steor- "rudder, steering paddle" and bord "ship's side".

Port, on the other hand, arose in the early 17th century and probably derives from port "harbor". The left side of the ship was the side that faced the harbor, or, it was the side of the ship containing a port or door (cf. portal) through which cargo was loaded and unloaded.


From Ericatcore:  UPDATED JANUARY 2006

Does anyone know the origin of the word Dixie?

Well, anyone might know, but we're not just anyone, now are we? This word, which, for those who do not know, refers to the Deep South of the United States, has more than one possible explanation. I'll provide them in order of popularity:

1. It is short for Dixon in Mason-Dixon Line (1779), a boundary which was popularly considered to be the division between states which allowed slavery and those which did not prior to the Civil War.

2. It refers to dixies (unrecorded), bank notes issued by the Citizens Bank of Louisiana before the Civil War. These notes bore the French word dix "ten" on the ten-dollar bills.

3. Dixie was an allusion to Mr. Dixy/Dixie, a slave-owner on Manhattan Island in New York, forced to move south to retain his slaves. His slaves were purportedly unhappy in the South and referred to Dixy/Dixie's land as a place of happiness.

The third explanation certainly sounds the least likely, while the first is probably the mostly popular among etymologists, and the scant amount of evidence that exists regarding the word seems to support that. Interestingly, the term Dixieland, used in reference to a New Orleans-style jazz of the early 20th century, comes from the name of a jazz band (1905).


From John Klein:

I was having a discussion with my father-in-law, and he mentioned that the word scot-free comes from the history of Dred Scott. I looked for the word's origins o, and Webster's gave a date of 1528, but no source for the origin. Can you help?

Always beware of discussions with in-laws! This phrase has nothing to do with Dred Scott or the Scots. It instead derives from an early meaning of scot, which was "tax assessment". So to go scot-free was to go without paying taxes. Later, the meaning was extended to include punishment (even back then the government could not persuade the people that taxes were anything but punishment!). The earliest recorded use of the phrase is in 1066, when its form was scotfre.

Scot in this sense dates from the early 13th century. It is likely related to Old Norse skattr "tax, treasure" and Old Icelandic skot "contribution". There is an Old English word, gescot, which meant "payment". There is even a rhyming phrase that dates from the late 13th century: pay scot and lot, and it meant "pay in full".


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

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

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

John Archdeacon, a recurringmudgeon, says:

In addition to the oft-heard "a rock" [see Curmudgeons' Corner in Issue 21], the well-known country which foolishly keeps invading the USA and the UK, only to be repelled by brave old ladies with rolled umbrellas, there's those damned "weatherpersons". Some of them report minimum and maximum "tempachyrs" - whatever they are - and why are they "weathermen" (I've not heard "weatherwomen") and doctors not "medicinemen" and "medicinewomen", hairdressers not "hairmen" and "hairwomen" and pediatricians not "childmen" and "childwomen"? Damned if I know.

Why is Ken Starr always referred to as the "independent council" when it should be "extremely partisan council" - with a conviction looking for a crime? Damned if I know.

And why is the Hemp Hotel in Amsterdam so seedy? Damned if I know.

Thank you, your Curmudgeonlinesses!  Now, here are a few of our own:

People, there is no such word as one pronounced miss-CHEEV-ee-ous.  The word which is spelled mischievous is pronounced MISS-chiv-uss.  The second letter i you see in that word is part of the original mischief.  That second i in mischief is not pronounced; nor should it be pronounced in mischievous.  It may be a mishievous word, but that's no excuse for mispronouncing it.

Additionally, the following is not a word: irregardless.  The word is regardless.  Speakers are confusing it with other words which are made negative by the ir- prefix, like irregular and irreverentRegardless is already negative by virtue of the -less ending!  So, regardless of what you might have been told or taught, irregardless is not a word.

Finally, what happened to the letter w?  I was taught to pronounce it double-yew.  However, all too many people today seem to have gone to the Flintstones' school of phonics, for they say dubba-yew.


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