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Issue 28

February 15, 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.
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

Valentine's Day

Since Sunday of this week was Valentine's Day, and despite the fact that a certain American greeting card company has turned it into a commercial extravaganza, we thought it might be appropriate to look at the name of the holiday which strikes fear into the hearts of men and hope into the minds of women.

This holiday is named after two different St. Valentines, who were both early Italian saints, martyred on or around February 14.  However, neither of these men gave this day its connection with affairs of the heart.  Instead, the Latin feast of Lupercalia was celebrated around February 15.  This ancient festival contaminated St. Valentine's day with notions of fertility, sex, and love.  Interestingly, a rite of this festival was the ritual striking of women with a februa, a thong fashioned from the skin of a sacrificial animal.  It was believed that a blow from this thong would make a woman more fertile.  The term februa derives from februare "purify", and this rite is the source of the name of our second month, February.

The feast day of St. Valentine later came to be associated with the mating of birds and, as though avian mating practices mirrored those of humans, with the choosing of one's sweetheart.  Chaucer mentions the holiday in Parliament of Fowls (1381): "for this was on seynt Volantynys day Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make" ("for this was on St. Valentine's Day When every bird came there to choose his mate").  By 1430 the sweetheart connection had been established, as mentioned in Lydgate's Minor Poems: "A balade wyse of chesing loues at Saint Valentynes day."  The mid-15th century saw the term Valentine being used to refer to one's love chosen on St. Valentine's Day: "Godys blescyng have he and myn, My none gentyl Volontyn, Good Tomas the frere."  This usage almost always applied to one of the opposite sex.  Victorian valentine

Interestingly, the term Valentine was also used in reference to God or a saint who was chosen as a person's particular patron.  This meaning was in force by the mid-15th century, but it is now obsolete.

The paper Valentine, which today is a card sold by, among others, that American company to which we referred earlier, started out as something which was drawn, as lots are drawn.  As early as 1553 there are references to the drawing of names, or Valentines, out of a hat on St. Valentine's Day, and the name a person drew was his or her sweetheart, or Valentine.  By the early 17th century, the term Valentine also referred to gifts given to one's Valentine on February 14.  It was not until the early 19th century that cards sent to one's sweetheart on this holiday came to be known as Valentines.

For those of you familiar with the British tank known as the Valentine, it is so named because it was supposedly approved for production on Valentine's Day, February 14, 1938.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Rob Ryland:

Please tell me that to come to a head  has nothing whatsoever to do with zits.

That is exactly what this phrase refers to - "zits" or boils.  When a boil reaches a certain stage of development, it bursts.  That image was used figuratively as early as 1340 in the phrase "come to good head", but it was in the mid- to late-16th century that this usage began to appear with fair frequency.  It's interesting that the meaning of this phrase has remained constant and its derivation is still fairly obvious to most.


From Ludger Gal:

When did the words homosexuality and lesbian first appear?  I am led to believe that these words are of rather recent vintage but I am not certain.

Homosexual is a macaronic term composed of Greek homos- "same" (and NOT Latin homo- "man") and sexual (which comes ultimately from Latin sexus "sex").  It first appeared in English in 1892 as an adjective, along with homosexuality, the noun form, in a psychological treatise translated from German (Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis).  Homosexual was first recorded as a noun in 1912.  The use of the adjective form as a noun may have been influenced by a similar usage in French (1907).

Lesbian "homosexual female" is first seen in 1890 as an adjective, this time in a medical dictionary, and then again in tSapphohe German treatise mentioned above.  It was first used as a noun in 1925.  However, the word lesbianism is first recorded in 1870 in an Englishman's diary.

Lesbian arises from the name of a Greek island, Lesvos, formerly known as Lesbos.  It was there that a woman named Sappho lived in the late 7th to early 6th centuries B.C.  She was married to a wealthy man and so had much time to engage in artistic pursuits.  She eventually came to oversee a group of women who gathered, as was the fashion, to compose and recite poetry.  Much of Sappho's poetry deals with relationships between women, from friendship to love and even to sexual attraction.  It therefore came to be assumed, long after her death, that she had been a homosexual.  Thus, the term Lesbian, which first meant "an inhabitant of Lesbos", and later came to refer to a Greek wine (1775) and a mason's rule (1601), was eventually applied to homosexual women.  There is an equivalent term, sapphism, which arose at the same time as lesbian.


From Jenny Wu :

I'd like to know the origin of the word romance.

It is revealing that one of the earliest (1330) recorded occurrences of romance states that "Frankysche speche ys cald Romaunce" (i.e. "the French language is called Romance"). As we see, this was a far cry from its modern usage. Its earliest meaning was the name given to certain vernacular languages, such as French, Spanish and Italian, which had evolved out of Latin. Linguists still refer to this group of languages as the Romance languages. Literally, romance means "Roman" as it comes from the Latin romanicus by way of the Italian romanzo and Provencal roumanso.

In 1330 almost all European books were written in Latin, hand copied by monks for the eyes of scholars and other clerics. In other words, unspeakably boring. A new kind of literature was emerging in France, however. Instead of stuffy Latin, it was written in the vibrant, earthy language of everyday speech: Romance (i.e. French). The new literature was filled with fantastic tales of chivalric heroism, eerie magic and the latest craze which was taking Europe by storm: "courtly love". At first the English couldn't decide whether such a book was a romance or a roman. We chose romance but the latter word survives in modern French where un roman is "a novel".

For centuries, the essential part of a romance was its fantasy and remoteness from ordinary existence.  The notion of it being a "love story" did not emerge until about 1800, around the same time that the romantic movement was taking hold in the arts.

By the way, do you say RO-mance or ro-MANCE? In 1921, the great American etymologist H. L. Mencken noted the American tendency to accent the first syllables of words and cited the words "defect, excess, address, magazine, decoy and romance" as examples.


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

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

Classical plurals

The accepted practice for forming the plurals (or, for that matter, the feminine forms) of classical words borrowed into English is to simply follow the classical rules.  Therefore, the plural of Latin alumnus is alumni, while the feminine singular is alumna and the feminine plural is alumnae.  This rule is slowly being usurped by the simpler expedient of adding an -s to the word to pluralize it.  Yes, we recently heard an NPR commentator form the plural of phenomenon (Greek) by adding an -s which gave her phenomenons.  OUCH!  It should be phenomena!  Some other examples of classical singulars to plurals are automaton to automata and index to indices.  Some masculine to feminine examples are executor and executrix (and, if you want to get really pedantic, navigator to navigatrix).

While we're at it, we'll wax a bit more pedantic and mention that, were we to follow this age-old practice of using a donor-language's method of forming plurals, the Greek word octopus would be octopodes.  All those who thought octopi an acceptable plural, go to the back of the class.  This formation is quite wrong, being based on the invalid assumption that octop- is the root and -us a Latin ending.  The preferred English plural is octopuses.


Sez You...

Drakestone writes:Buffalo Bob and Howdy Doody

Are you two too young or not Americans?  How could you talk about peanut gallery without mentioning Howdy Doody or Buffalo Bob Smith?  For people my age, we can no more hear the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger than hear the words peanut gallery and [not] think about Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob Smith.

Well, one of us is not of American birth (Mike is Welsh), but neither of us is too young to remember Howdy Doody.  We did not mention it in connection with our discussion of peanut gallery last week because it did not impact on the word's etymology, though it is a nice bit of trivia.  Thanks for your letter.

Our readers may be interested to know that a drake-stone is the name given to what is also known as a skipping stone, a flat stone which is thrown so as to bounce on the surface of a body of water.


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