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Issue 24

January 18, 1999
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

Cowboy

Once again, a simple enquiry from a reader occasioned such a rambling and prolix response that we decided to use it as our Spotlight. Here is Kerrysu's question:

What is the origin of the term cowboy? I remember being told that it was originally a derogatory term referring to the Blacks (slaves?) who tended the herds.

We may be certain that this is not the case as, believe it or not, the word cowboy did not originate in the USA. Despite its modern implications of sage-brush, cactus and the high chapparal, cowboy was first used in England in the 1620s. There is, however, a genuinely American equivalent and that is cow-hand, a word from the 1850s which has no suggestion of derogation about it. You are right about cowboys being black, though. Most of us derive our impressions of the old West from Western movies, none of which accurately depict the demographics of the times. Most cowboys were Mexican and, of the remainder, a large proportion was African-American. In fact, two entire regiments of the western US Cavalry were  African-American - the legendary "buffalo soldiers".

The Mexican contribution to cowboy culture is readily apparent when we examine some of its terminology. What word is more redolent of the "Wild West" than buckaroo? Yet buckaroo (first recorded in 1827) is merely a mispronunciation of the Spanish vaquero (literally "cow-man", ultimately from Latin vacca, "a cow"). Anyone who ropes broncos with a lariat and pens them in a corral should be aware of their debt to the Spanish language. Bronco (1850) is the English spelling of broncho, Mexican Spanish for "wild" or "rough".   A lariat is really la reata, "the lasso", from the Spanish verb reatar, "to tie together", from the Latin aptare, "to fit". Strangely, the word corral, though Spanish, does not really belong with these others as it entered English much earlier (in 1582) and in a different context (it meant a place for parking vehicles, from Latin currus, "a cart").

Returning to the original enquiry, some might doubt that -boy is at all derogatory. After all, doesn't it just mean "a male child"? Well, actually, no it doesn't. Or at least, that wasn't its first meaning. As one might expect, it is a pretty old word (1200s) and originally meant "a male servant". Curiously, there are two other words from the same period which also meant "male servant" and which have suffered radically different fates. One is the dishonorable knave (from the Old English cnafa, "servant") and the other is the noble knight (Old English cniht, "boy", "servant"). A similar process has affected the word maid (1200s) which now mainly means maid-servant (first used in the 1300s) but was originally maiden (1100s) meaning "girl" and comes from the Old English mgden. While maid came to be reserved for servants, maiden took on the restricted meaning of "virgin" and is scarcely heard nowadays except in expressions which imply some kind of virginity,  maiden voyage and maiden speech, for example. A virgin's maidenhead is therefore literally her girl-ness, just as godhead means "god-ness" or "divinity".

So if boy was the word for a servant, what did they call a male child? Well one word was ladde, the ancestor of our lad.   And just as if this boy-servant business wasn't confusing enough, the word girl (1300s) once meant "a child of either sex", and child (1100s) originally meant "an unborn baby" or, in some dialects, "a female infant". Thus, a Middle English speaker could say "I am the mother of two girls: a child and a lad who is the king's boy" and mean "I am the mother of two children: a small girl and a boy who is the king's servant".

Latin did not distinguish between "nephew" and "grandson", using the word nepos for both. The same applied to the concepts "niece" and "granddaughter" which shared the Latin word neptia. This word provided us (eventually) with our word niece but in Middle English it could still mean either "daughter of a sibling" or "grandchild". We may think it incredibly strange to confuse two such different meanings but just think, we use the word aunt to mean both "the sister of a parent" and "the wife of an uncle".  Come to think of it, the word cow does double duty, too. A cow (Middle English cou, from Old English cu; compare Old High German kuo and Sanskrit go) means both "a mature female of cattle (genus Bos)" and "a domestic bovine animal regardless of sex or age".

One who herds cows is, of course, a cow-herd. This word is the origin of the surname Coward (also Howard) but the coward who lacks courage is no relation. This 13th century word comes from the Old French coart, literally "one who shows his tail", from OF coe "tail" (Latin cauda, "a tail").

 

 
AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Rodgrigo Serrano:

I would like to know where the term cut and dried comes from.  I'm guessing it has its roots in agriculture, but I would like to get all the eggs in the basket

Ha, ha, I get it - agriculture, roots, eggs...   Actually, you've gone a little too far afield in your guess regarding this phrase's origins.  One school of thought has it originating from the practice of cutting wood to size and then drying the timbers before using them.  Another group of etymologists believe that the phrase more likely comes from the practice of herbalists cutting and drying their materials before selling them.  Whichever, if either, is correct, the phrase dates from the early 18th century, and Jonathan Swift was even using it in his writing by 1730.

 

From Kinetic:

I have been curious of the origin and actual meaning of the word luminescence.  I know that -escence means "to become or to begin", but what's lum or lumin?

Lumin- comes directly from Latin lumen "light", and along with lux "light", came from the Indo-European root which had the following forms: leuk-, louk-, and luk-.  Interestingly, the first of those forms gave the Greeks leuks "white", from which we get leukemia (for the abundance of white blood cells characteristic of the disease).  English luminous arose in the 15th century from the Latin.  The Germanic descendant of the Indo-European root was leukhtam, which gave us English light and German and Dutch licht.

Luminescence did not arise in print until about 1896.  It comes ultimately from lumin- plus -escence, the latter having its source in Latin -escentem, which was a present participle verb ending.  English has taken the ending to convey the meaning "state of".

 

From Richard Murphy:

I would like to know the origin of the word felony.  When did this word come into being and when did it come to be used in the American judicial system as a categorical term denoting a serious crime?

While the etymology of this word is interesting, we must confess that there is another reason we chose to address it: it is the only common English word which rhymes (in American English, anyhow) with Melanie!

Let's look at felon first.  It arose in the 13th century as fellon, from Medieval Latin fello "evil-doer" (no relation to English fellow) via Old French felon.  Latin fello is of uncertain origin, but some think it comes from Latin fel "gall, poison".  Others claim its origin to be Frankish fillo, filljo "person who whips or beats; scourger".  Whatever its source, Latin fello also gave English fell "fierce, lethal" (now becoming archaic), this time via Old French fel.  Finally, the French also gave us felony, via their felonie, which came, of course from their word felon.

 

From: Beata56@aol.com

Could you please answer a question? Paris 1973 the Orientalist conference for the study of Sumerology established that the Hungarian language today is the direct descendant of the Ancient Sumerian language as proven by the "Halloti Beszed", which established the abbey at Pannonhalma in Gyor in Hungary. Why are there so few etymologists who are tracing language to its roots with the use of Hungarian as its base, when the congress definitely established the tenets that I just mentioned? Thank you for your indulgence.

One reason might be that most philologists consider Magyar, the Hungarian language, to be in the Finno-Ugrian group, together with Finnish and some Siberian languages. Thus, if it is descended from Sumerian its line of descent passes from the Middle East to Europe by way of Siberia. How did the Paris conference explain that?

In the early 19th century, a Hungarian called Csoma de Koros traveled to Tibet, convinced that he would find the origin of the Hungarian language there. He did not succeed in this quest but he did publish the first European dictionary of Tibetan. It is interesting to note that in his native land this scholar and explorer is known as Krsi Csoma because in Hungary the family name goes first, just as in most Asian cultures.

Even if Hungarian is, as you say, a direct descendent of ancient Sumerian, that does not help us "trace language to its roots". The ancient Sumerians were very civilized, they studied astronomy, invented beer and built the world's first cities. The Sumerians may also have invented writing but this claim has been cast into doubt in the light of a recent discovery of even older Egyptian writing. They certainly did not invent language. No one can be sure when humans first began to speak but some estimates put it at around the beginning of the Neolithic revolution (40,000 - 35,000 BCE) and some even earlier.

 

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