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Issue 27

February 8, 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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Sez You . . . You dare to question our profound erudition?
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

Peanut gallery

Several readers inquired this week as to the phrase peanut gallery, and it seemed an appropriate time to examine it, especially with the impeachment trial in full swing!

This term apparently arose and became popular in the late 19th century.  It is a reference to the rear or uppermost seats in a theater, which were also the cheapest seats.  People seated in such a gallery were able to throw peanuts (a common food at theaters and other venues of the time) at those seated below them.  It also applied to the first row of seats in a movie theater, for the occupants of those seats could throw peanuts at the stage.

The sense here is one of the uneducated throwing peanuts to communicate their displeasure with a performance (and later, a film), and the perceived insignificance of such criticism.  Presumably, the Republicans believe almost everyone is a member of the peanut gallery where the impeachment trial is concerned!


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Claude Venandet:

What is the etymology of weapon and its relation to German waffe?  Is the -pon ending related to the -poon ending in harpoon?

English weapon comes from Old English wæpen "instrument used in fighting", which dates from the early 8th century, at least.  By 1175 it was wepen.  It has many Germanic language cognates: Old Frisian wepin, Old Saxon wapan, Middle Dutch wapen (modern Dutch wapen), Old High German waffan (modern German waffe), Old Icelandic vapn (and its modern descendants are Swedish vapen, Norwegian våpen, and Danish våben), and Gothic wepna, all derived from Proto Germanic *wæpnam.

The -oon ending of harpoon arises from a phenomenon of English where accented French -on endings are emphasized by the double o (other examples are balloon, cartoon, etc.).  Harpoon itself is thought to have its roots in Greek harpagón "grappling hook" via Latin and, finally, Old French (harpon).

If you read last week's column you know that waffe and waffle are not related, by the way.


From Tadaaki Hiruki:

How did camp or campy come to have a comedic meaning?

The word camp arose as an adjective in about 1909 with the meaning "having exaggerated actions or gestures" and it was especially applied to homosexuals.  By 1931 camp the noun arose as a synonym for "homosexual". In 1964 the American writer Susan Sontag co-opted the word from the gay vocabulary and created two new terms, high camp and low camp and became a literary celebrity by explaining a gay aesthetic to straight culturati. High camp signified sophisticated, tongue-in-cheek wit which is archly self-aware. Low camp, on the other hand, was applied to anything which amused by reason of its lack of sophistication and self-awareness.

The best explanation we've seen for this word's source is that it comes from the dialectical camp "impetuous, uncouth person", which derives from the British dialectical kemp "impetuous or roguish young man".  The latter is perhaps related to champion, which itself comes from the other camp "group of shelters".  That word comes ultimately from Latin campus "field of battle".

Another suggestion is that camp comes from the French verb camper, "to pose". While this sounds very appropriate there is no actual evidence for it.


From Barry Lass:

I was wondering where the expression red herring came from.  One definition I read said that it was originally the "herring drawn across the trace in hunting to divert the hounds".  Can you provide a more detailed description?

Smoked herring (early 14th century), which is strong-smelling and reddish in color, was used to train dogs to follow a scent, and it was also used to throw them off the scent.  The  term red herring (late 17th century) was used initially in reference to diverting hounds from their quarry, and then in the late 19th century it took on the more metaphorical meaning that it has today.


From Eric Holt :

I've been reading Take Our Word For It for a few months now, and must say that I find it fascinating. I have a question about the word cretin, meaning "idiot", which is said to come from a dialectal French word chrétien, meaning "Christian". I have checked several sources, and no one explains the reason for the change of meaning. Any insights?

You are quite correct. English borrowed cretin from the French word crétin in 1779. It comes from an earlier word, cretin, which meant "Christian" in the (French) dialects of Valais and Savoie (compare the standard French word, chrétien). Its ultimate source is the Latin christianus, "Christian".

While the original meaning of cretin was, literally, "Christian", the word "Christian" was not being used as we would use it today. In our pluralistic, multi-cultural society, we recognize Christianity to be just one of many competing belief systems. Thus, to say that someone is a Christian is to state that s/he is not a Buddhist, a Marxist, a Hindu or a Jew. This seems rather obvious to us, doesn't it? Yet this wasn't quite how the word was understood by the medieval inhabitants of remote Alpine valleys. From their limited and parochial perspective it seemed that everyone in the world was Christian. Thus, the word became synonymous with "human being".

Due to the lack of iodine in the medieval Alpine diet, certain regions of Switzerland were prone to severe thyroid problems, such as goiter and congenital idiocy. The local priests, moved by compassion for these poor imbeciles, encouraged the populace to treat them kindly. They deserved pity, it was said, because they were, at least, Christians (i.e. "human beings").

We must admit that we were quite surprised to find that the word Christian itself was not used in English until 1526. How did English-speaking Christians refer to themselves before that date? Did they not need such a word before they came into contact with non-Christians?


From Serge Lemay:

My wife said she'd read something somewhere about the meaning of the word caribou, but she couldn't remember here we are asking you. Do you know ?

I'm sorry, we can't remember where your wife read something about the meaning of caribou, either.

But seriously, if it's the meaning you want then a caribou is a Rangifer tarandus, a species of large, gregarious deer of the Holarctic taiga and tundra. It is the only species of deer of which both sexes have antlers. (Don't you think "Holarctic taiga" is a splendid phrase? We intend to insert it into casual conversation whenever possible.)

Caribou.jpg (31490 bytes)The word itself derives from the Micmac word galipu and entered English in the 1660s. Presumably, English-speaking hunters in North America adopted this native American word without realizing that the species already had a perfectly good English name in reindeer.

Given that domesticated reindeer are sometimes harnessed to haul sleds, one might be forgiven for assuming that reindeer means simply a deer which is reined. Actually, the rein portion of its name comes from the Old Norse hreinn which itself means reindeer. The deer part is somewhat misleading, too. In the 14th century, when this word first appeared, deer simply meant "animal". Even as late as the early 17th century we find the phrase "rats, mice and other such small deer" in Shakespeare's "King Lear".


From Gregory J. Dulmes:

Hello, I was reading The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine and came across his assertion that the word prophet was misleading in the Bible. He argues that prophets in the Old Testament were really just poets, and that the word prophet originally meant "poet", and it was in modern times (when the King James Version was translated, I suppose he meant) that the English word prophet took on new meanings (or perhaps the Hebrew word was mistranslated). Do you know the truth of matters here?

Our guess is that Citizen Paine meant that the English word prophet did not accurately translate some Hebrew word. As to what that word might have been or whether his assertion is correct we really aren't qualified to say.

Whatever the meaning of the original Hebrew, the English word has remained pretty stable over its history. Its earliest form is the Greek prophetes (pro, "for" + phanai, "to speak"), one who "speaks for [the gods]". This became propheta in Latin, then prophete in Old French before entering Middle English sometime in the 12th century.


From John:

I was wondering if you could give me some information on the word believer. I have searched some databases, but the information I obtained is not what I'm looking for. I am interested in the total history of the word itself. Can you help?

Hmm... the "total history", eh? It's a good job you added that — otherwise we might have told you only that it's a noun formed from the verb to believe.

This is quite an old word as it goes all the way back to the Middle English belevan (11th century) which, in turn, derives from the Old English verb belefan (from be-, "about" + lyfan or lefan, "to allow", "to believe").  An earlier Old English form of belefan was gelefan, which reveals its relation to the Old High German gilouben, "to believe".

It is worthy of note that this lyfan (or lefan) is related to the Old English words leof, "dear", and lufu, "love" as they all belong to a group of words which are thought to have evolved from the hypothetical Indo-European root *leubh-. Apart from love, the only other *leubh- word in Modern English is quodlibet, the delightfully pompous musical term for a pop tune. It is formed from the Latin quod libet, literally "that which is liked".


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

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

Your pet peeves

A Reader writes:

"Isn't it funny that we say "a whole nother"? What is "nother" by itself?"  

Good question!  We heard a National Public Radio commentator (why isn't it simply commentor, by the way?  Grrr!  There is a reason, but we'll reserve that discussion for another time) say "whole nother".  This is a classic example of the wandering n, as in napron becoming apron.  However, that's no excuse for a member of the media to employ a word which is still considered incorrect.

Another usage we've heard among the media recently is ways as in "it is a ways from here".  What??  Yes, the San Jose Mercury News was the guilty party in this case.


Sez You...

Sharon writes:

I have never written an e-mail to someone I don't know before this. This is just too wacky to pass up, though.

Today I needed some reading material for my lunch break at work, so I grabbed my boyfriend's copy of Yahoo! Internet Life magazine. He didn't even purchase it himself - his mom gave it to him because it had a lot of Star Trek information in it. So I browsed though the magazine for an hour today, during lunch, absorbing some of the articles and snippets, but mostly just skimming around. Then that evening at home I popped on the Net to look for some Borg costume ideas. Using Yahoo's search engine, I came across your article about Jerry Doyle speaking in Florida. I just had to check that out, since Garibaldi [played by Doyle] is my favorite Babylon 5 character, and I live in Florida, and I am not happy that I missed him. After reading the article, I wanted to check out your home page, just to see what else the site had to offer. And from there you offered me a biographical look at you, so I gave that a shot. And I then saw Take Our Word For It in big blue letters. Sounded really familiar! I'll be darned if I didn't read about your site just hours ago in Yahoo! Internet Life! I thought that out of all the zillions of sites I could have happened upon, yours was right there... I think that was pretty crazy, and I just wanted to let you know.

Good job on the site, by the way!

That is quite the coincidence, Sharon, and we got a big kick out of it, and your e-mail!  As you titled your e-mail "Give me the history of coincidence", we decided we'd do just that, to put this all in perspective. 

Coincidence entered English in the late 16th to early 17th century as a borrowing from French coïncidence.  The French derives from Medieval Latin coincidere, which is composed of co- "together" + incidere "to fall upon", and the latter breaks down to in- "on" + cadere "to fall". We certainly had a "falling together" in this case!


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