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Issue 29

February 22, 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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February feasts and holidays

Last week was an eventful week for many people: the weekend of February 13-14 was Carnival weekend; Tuesday, February 16, was Mardi Gras as well as Shrove Tuesday; and Wednesday, February 17, was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. All of these events have liturgical connections, and some go back further to more worldly roots, as we shall see.

For some Christians, especially Catholics, this time between Ash Wednesday and Easter is known as Lent. Before the end of the 14th century, it was known as lente, which was a shortened form of lenten "spring, lent" (about 1123). Lenten came from Old English (8th century) lencten "spring", which itself came from Proto-Germanic *langa-tinaz or *langgitinaz "spring". *Lang is the source of Old English lang "long" (cf. "Auld Lang Syne"), and tinaz or tina is the source of Gothic -teins "day". Hence *langa-tinaz/langgitinaz meant, literally "long day", a reference to the lengthening of days in spring, when the season of Lent occurs. There are Germanic cognates: Old Saxon and Middle Dutch lentin "spring" (modern Dutch lente); and Old High German lengizin/lenzin/lenzo "spring" (modern German Lenz).  Only in English did the ecclesiastical meaning of Lent arise and prevail.

Lent is an austere season of repentance and sacrifice leading up to Easter (which we'll examine in a future issue), and the practice of celebrating and feasting before Lent (similar to bingeing before starting a weight-loss diet) arose in many Catholiccountries. Lent has begun on Ash Wednesday since the 8th century, and the Tuesday before thus became the day on which pre-Lenten feasting took place. That Tuesday came to be known as "fat Tuesday" or mardi gras (mardi = Tuesday, or, etymologically, "day of Mars" and gras = fat, as in foie gras), an allusion to the feasting and consumption of rich, fatty foods. It is known as Pancake Day in Britain because the pre-Lenten feast consisted of pancakes.

The Tuesday before Lent is also known as Shrove Tuesday, a day for, instead of feasting, confessing one's sins. Shrove is related to shrive "hear confession of, impose penance on, and absolve". Shrove Tuesday was originally schrof Tuesday (15th century), and schrof (not to be confused with schroff; see Words to the Wise) came from the Old English form of shrive, which was scrifan "assign, decree, impose penance". You may be surprised to learn that scrifan is the borrowed form of Latin scribere "to write" which also gave us scribble. You may be further surprised to know that it was borrowed similarly by other Germanic languages: Old Frisian skriva "to shrive, to write", Old Saxon skriban "to write", Middle Low German schriven, Middle Dutch scriven (modern Dutch schrijven), Old High German scriban (modern German schreiben), and Old Icelandic skrifa "to draw, paint, or write".

Shrift, the noun form of the verb shrove, exists today in the phrase short shrift. Short shrift was originally "a brief time prior to execution during which a criminal could confess his sins" (late 14th century). The meaning was extended figuratively to mean "little or no consideration or mercy" in the early 19th century. There is also the phrase give short shift, from about the same time, which meant "to delay dealing with a person or problem".

Finally, there is a celebration which occurs during the weekend before Ash Wednesday: carnival. The term entered English in the 16th century and comes from Medieval Latin carnelevamen (carne "meat" + levamen, a derivative of levare "lift, raise"). Thus, carnival means, etymologically, the lifting out or removal of meat from the diet (for Lent). Some trace the roots of carnival to carne and vale, the latter being a derivative of a Latin word meaning "to leave", but this is incorrect.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Bradley:

I’m trying to find out the origin of the name of a town in Devonshire, England: Whiddon Down. Could you possibly give me any clue? Also, I’ve been wondering about the word fortnight.

There are several possibilities for the origins of the name Whiddon Down, a village situated to the southeast of Okehampton in Devonshire, England. The Old English whid- prefix could refer either to "wide" (OE wid) or "white" (OE hwit), and -don could be a corruption of dun "down" (hill) or tun "farmstead or manor", both also Old English. So Whiddon could mean "wide down" or "white down" (making the addition of Down to the village's name redundant), or "wide farmstead" or "white farmstead". There is also a possibility that whid- refers to "willows" (OE withig), indicating that willows grew or grow at the site. Finally, the whid- element could represent someone’s name, i.e. Hwita, so that Whiddon means "farmstead of Hwita".  A look at the earliest form of the town name might narrow down the above choices.  Unfortunately, we don't have a copy of the Domesday Book handy!

As for fortnight, we discussed it in Issue 3. You probably had not gotten all the way back to Issue 3 yet!


From Ron Marchant :

Do you know anything about the word shroff ? It is used in Hong Kong to denote a cashier's booth in places such as car parks, etc. My Chinese friends tell me it is not part of their language(s) so I wonder where it has come from. I realise that you have limits on foreign words but I have the feeling that this word was introduced by British merchants. It is not in the Oxford Reference Dictionary so I may be barking up the wrong tree (another question!).

You have a wonderful web site that satisfies those of us who enjoy simple, innocent pleasures.

If any of our readers were curious as to how to frame a query, just take a look at this one. Ron's subject is an obscure but genuine English word, he has already done some research and lavishes compliments upon us! How could we pass it up?

Your Chinese friends are quite correct, Ron, this word is not from their language. Remarkably, it is originally from çarraf, Arabic for "banker" or "money-changer" and derives from the Arabic verb çaraf, "to exchange" and is related to the Hebrew çaraph, "to refine", "to assay" [gold or silver]. The Arabic word was borrowed by Persian as saraf and from thence entered 16th century Portuguese (those Portuguese traders got everywhere!) as xarrafo. English picked it up either from the Portuguese or, even more indirectly, from the 17th century French form: cherafe.  At any rate, it entered the Anglo-Indian vocabulary as shroff some time in the late 17th century although occasional English travelers in the East had used related words, such as xaraffo, a century earlier.

In the Far East, shroff acquired an additional meaning, that of "a native expert employed to detect bad coin". At the same time the verb to shroff,  meaning "to screen coin for fakes", also came into being.

The meaning of "cashier's booth" to which Ron refers, is obviously related to these other meanings of shroff  but was probably coined (ouch!) fairly recently as we cannot find this meaning in any of our references. Perhaps it is a contraction of shroff-shop, a word which occurs in a Cantonese document dated 1882.

What a shame that such a venerable and well-traveled word should be reduced to working in a Hong Kong car-park!


From Bert Quance :

We have been unable to determine the origin of the word churchkey as it relates to a can-opener. Perhaps you can help us.

Also, from Betty Stone :

Hi, I am unable to find the origin of the word church-key.  Can you help?

While this word is one that is familiar to both of us, we have found only one formal definition:

church key

a device for opening cans, esp. originally beer cans, by punching a V-shaped hole in the top.

- Webster's New World College Dictionary

This was quite a surprise to Mike, who had heard the term church-key applied to a kind of beer-can opener but never this kind. It would seem that the word has been inherited from an older device. The earlier church-key was a kind of bottle-opener which levered metal caps off (typically) beer bottles and was so-called because of its similarity to old-fashioned iron keys such as were used for church doors.


From Frank Lowman:

My "handle" on IRC is Lumpkin. I originally found it in Lord of the Rings with a magic pony named "Fatty Lumpkin". However, I have found there is a village called Lumpkin City in America, a mysterious Lumpkin Foundation and a character in "The Simpsons" with a surname of Lumpkin. I was just wondering what it actually meant and where it came from.

This word was invented by Oliver Goldsmith in his 1775 comedy "The Rivals". The main  characters of this play were given names suggestive of their personalities. Thus, the soppy heroine was called Lydia Languish, an old lady who frequently used incorrect words to comic effect was called Mrs. Malaprop and the unsophisticated country oaf was Tony Lumpkin. By the way, the name of Mrs. Malaprop gave English the word malapropism.

It is likely that Goldsmith intended a play on the word bumpkin, reasoning that if bumpkin means "little bump" (i.e. bump + -kin, a diminutive suffix) then lumpkin means "little lump" If so, then Mr. Goldsmith got it wrong. Bumpkin was originally bumkin (without the p) and meant a man with short, stumpy figure. The word is probably from the Dutch boomken, "little tree" but may possibly be from the Middle Dutch bommekijn, "little barrel".

Although Goldsmith's play had been popular for centuries, it was not until around 1900 that the term lumpkin, meaning "an oafish country bumpkin", entered the English language.


From Jamie Bradley:

I know you've probably had snickering teenagers ask you about this word but I am neither. I have been extremely curious about the origin of what, unfortunately, has become the most popular word in the English language (next to 'the', of course). What is the etymology of the ol' Anglo-Saxon 'F-word'? Not surprisingly, most dictionaries have omitted this multi-functional explosive.

We have already covered this and you will find it in our database if you look hard enough (try under "O" for obscenities).

It's very difficult for us to provide scholarly answers to such queries without offending someone, somewhere. Apart from that, we would like to hang on to our award. But, Jamie, if you really are curious about this word and want more information than we have room to provide here, do we have a book for you!  The F Word  has recently been published and may now be purchased from our book store.


From Quin Selman:

Miracle is a word whose meaning has certainly had its up and downs over time. I'm curious about its deepest root meaning. Thanks.

Ups and downs? Are you quite sure? Its meaning has remained remarkably stable for over a thousand years and etymologically its story is a bit of a yawn: the Latin miraculum, "an object of wonder", became miracle in Ecclesiastical Latin which became miracle Old French which entered Middle English (as miracle) some time before the middle of the 12th century.

Miraculum comes from the Latin verb mirare, "to wonder", itself from Latin mirus, "wonderful". Ultimately, all three Latin words are thought to derive from the hypothetical Indo-European root *smei-, "to laugh", "to smile".


Sez You...

Tony Hughes writes:

Thanks for your site.  When discussing chicken pox [in our database], you referred to horseradish as being derived from the four-legged animal.  I always assumed horse chestnut and horseradish were mutations of coarse.

Assumptions can be dangerous in etymology.  The use of the word horse (not as a corruption of coarse) to denote something unusually large is well-documented and applies in the case of horse mushrooms (19th century), horseradish (early 17th century), horse bean (fava bean, 17th century), and horse conch (19th century).  There are no early forms of these terms which use the word coarse in place of horse.  German uses Rosz- (an old form of a word for "horse") in the same fashion.  The "large" meaning does not, however, apply to horse chestnut, which is in fact so named because of its use in the treatment of respiratory disease in horses.  It is a direct translation of New Latin castanea equina and first appears in its English form in the late 16th century.


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