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Issue 32

March 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...

The fabric of words, part II

Last week we examined several general fabric-related words, and we discussed two specific types of fabric. We got a glimpse of the varied sources of such words, and this week the variety grows.

Linen is a very old type of cloth which is made from flax. The word linen dates back to Old English linen – our earliest record of it is from 700 A.D. This word has not changed in over a millenium! There were cognates in Old Frisian, Old Scandinavian, and Old High German, all of which came from a Proto-Germanic root *linom "flax".

Ramie is the word for a Chinese and East Indian plant, Boehmeria nivea, which has been used in weaving for some time. The word dates back to the early 19th century in English, when it was spelled rami. The English word is an Anglicized rendering of the Malay word for the plant.

Muslin has its roots in the Arab town of Mosul, where the cloth was originally made. The Romance languages all have cognates, as does Greek: musselin. The current form of the word dates in English to the early 17th century. However, Old French had mosulin in the 13th century, but this was applied to "cloth of silk and gold’ from Mosul, according to Marco Polo.

Speaking of silk, this word is quite old, dating from the time that the Greeks obtained silk from the east. The Greek form was seres, and the Romans borrowed that word along with the adjectival form, sericus. Seres is the name that the Greeks had for the oriental people who first provided them with silk. It is thought that the r may have changed to an l as the word traveled from the Greco-Romans to the Baltic area. There is an Old Slavic form shelku, as well as Old Norse silki and Old English sioloc. No other Germanic language possess this word. Interestingly, silkie is an old Scottish word for seals, so-named because of their silky fur.

Organza, which is a stiff, transparent form of silk, got its name from organzine, a strong, high-quality silk thread. That word comes from Italian organzino (17th century) but the source of the Italian word is not known.

Brocade is, interestingly, related to our broach/brooch. It comes from Spanish brocado, which corresponds to Italian broccato "cloth of gold and silver", but literally broccato is "something bossed or embossed". The Italian form comes originally from the verb broccare "to boss, to stud, to set with great-headed nails", from Italian brocca "a boss or stud". Brocca is cognate with English broach/brooch, which is simply a boss worn on one's clothing . In the latter half of the 16th century, it was noted "Cloth of silke, brocardo, and diver other sortes of marchandise come out of Persia".

Tweed, which many of you probably assumed was named after the River Tweed in the Borders of Scotland, is actually the product of a misunderstanding! This misunderstanding occurred in about 1831, when someone misread the Scottish word tweel "twill" as tweed. It is likely that the river name played some part in the misreading, but the cloth is not named after the river. Exactly who was guilty of this error has not been well determined. However, in 1847, it was written "Narrow cloths, of various kinds, known by the name of Tweeds,..are extensively produced at Galashiels and Jedburgh, but especially the former. They used, also, to be produced in considerable quantities at Hawick".

Think about the word corduroy. If you know any French, you might recognize the elements du and roi in the word: du = of and roi = king. Corde du roi, "the king's cord", was either invented in English to have this meaning, or that meaning was attached to it soon after the word was coined in the 18th century. The phrase corde du roi is not known in French. In fact, a French list of manufactured articles, dating from 1807, includes "kings-cordes", apparently taken from the English word!

Taffeta is an interesting word. It was current in English by the mid-14th century, in the form taffata. Old French had taffeta and tapheta, and the Romance languages all had similar forms. The ultimate source is Persian taftah "silken cloth" OR "linen clothing". It comes from the Persian verb taftan "to shine" or "to twist, to spin".

Next week we weave through more origins for textile words.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Alejandro Gutierrez :

I have found numerous books and encyclopedias that define and describe the etymology of all kinds of geographical names, but nothing on the word earth itself.  Can you help?

We should think so!  According to one school, earth comes ultimately from the Indo-European root *er-, the verb form of which is *ar "to plough".   That root supposedly also gave rise to the proto-Germanic word *ertho,  from which German got erde, Dutch got aarde (source of aardvark "earth pig"), and Swedish and Danish got jord.  There's also the Greek éraze "on the ground" and Welsh erw "field".  All of these words have meanings related to "ground", "soil" and "world".

There is another school, however, which feels the connection to the Indo-European *er- is questionable, especially because the majority of earth cognates are Germanic in origin.  This, they claim, suggests a proto-Germanic origin for the word.


From Rebecca T:


Galoot yourself, you old...  Oops, sorry, missed the question mark for a moment.

This word for a "stupid" or "tough" or "morally unsound" fellow was first used around 1810 and originally meant a "soldier". Subsequently (1818), it came to mean "sailor" or "marine".  While its etymology is not exactly certain, some have suggested that it comes from the Dutch gelubt, "eunuch". Why? Well, your guess is probably as good as ours.


From Joe Scirica:

Our town recently started a jitney. My friends and I could not come to an agreement on the origin of the word. Is it a word for a nickel or some pacific slang for an American jeep?

Funnily enough, both guesses have an element of truth. Such a vehicle was originally called a jitney bus because when it was introduced (around 1900) the standard fare was one nickel and the then current slang for a nickel was a jitney.  But why was a nickel called a jitney? One theory is that it comes from jetton (from the French jeton), "a gambling token", but this is not widely accepted.

The Philippines has a kind of bus called a jeepney. This is a portmanteau word formed from jeep + jitney.


From Brandon Dart:

Hi, I am a student at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, Maryland and was wondering if you could help me in the etymology of the word hackneyed. I've checked your archives and this isn't for an assignment, I am just curious and so is my teacher. We both would like to know the history of the word. I have done some research and have found everything but the history of the word. All that I know is that the word hackneyed dates back to 1749 and the root word, hackney, dates back to 1596. Any information would be greatly appreciated!

Well, literally, a hackney is a "rental horse" and, just as a hired horse is likely to be tired and worn out, a hackneyed idea is similarly "tired and worn out". As you probably discovered in your research, hackney comes from the Old French haquenée, "an ambling horse or mare, especially for ladies to ride on". Many etymologists have attempted to trace it back further than this but the word has resisted all analysis. Most relate it to the Old Spanish and Portuguese facanea, Spanish hacanea, Italian acchinea and chinea , "a hackney or ambling nag". The French haquenée and its Romanic equivalents had probably some relationship with Old French haque, Old Spanish and Portuguese faca, Spanish haca, all meaning "a nag, a gelding, a hackney".

This is not the entire story, though. It is also possible that the English word hackney "rental horse", might derive from the place-name Hackney (1198, Hakenei, "Haca's Island") where horses were raised for use in London. Hackney is now no longer a separate entity, having being swallowed by London during the 19th century.


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

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

Picnics, sex and gender

See Mike and Melanie.  See Mike and Melanie complain again about spurious, destructive etymologies and the abuse of sex and gender, both in the Letters to the Editors column below.


Sez You...

From various correspondents, including

Monifa Porter:

I received the e-mail below from a friend. I did a little research of the word picnic and according to Webster's it comes from "pick" and "nicknack". Which is true?


Dayle Henshel:

A friend sent the following to me, which he got from a local New York City bulletin board. Can you verify this, or debunk it? I have read your archive history of the word (which is what I had always known since I first studied French as a child), but I have never heard of the origin cited below.

Date: 02/17/99 08:39 AM

This information can also be found in the African American Archives at the Smithsonian Institute.

Although not taught in American learning institutions and literature, it is noted in most black history professional circles and literature that the origin of the term picnic derives from the acts of lynching African-Americans. The word picnic is rooted from the whole theme of "Pick a Nigger". This is where white individuals would "pic" a black person to lynch and make this into a family gathering. There would be food and music and a "picnic" ("nic" being the white acronym [sic] for "nigger"). Scenes of this were depicted in the movie "Rosewood". We should choose to use the word barbecue or outing instead of the word picnic.

[Signed "Delores E. Hollins"]

We knew immediately upon receipt of Monifa's query regarding picnic that it was ridiculous, but when we received several similar emails in the space of a week, our curiosity was piqued. For one thing, we had already covered the history of picnic and knew that the word was in use in Britain long before the era of lynchings in the USA. What is more, the above email bears one of the classic signs of an urban legend: a reference to the "Smithsonian Institute" instead of "Smithsonian Institution".

Just in case the Smithsonian Insititution actually was spreading this story, we contacted Dr. Alonzo Smith, a research fellow in Africa-American Studies at the Institution. Dr. Smith graciously provided us with the following reply:

I have several points to make about this allegation.

1)  There are several archival collections that pertain to African Americans within the Smithsonian Institution; the most extensive ones being the Anacostia Museum, and the National Museum of American History. While I do not profess an exhaustive knowledge of these archival materials, I have never heard of this information in any of them. However, I am virtually certain that if it did exist, someone would have published it by now, and I know that this has not been the case.

2)  It is not generally agreed in professional academic circles that the origin of the word "picnic" comes from the selection of an African American for a lynching.

3)  To attempt to tie lynchings to family outings, where food was served, is to misunderstand the real nature of these events. Rather, they were outbreaks of mass white hysteria, and attempts by groups of Whites to terrorize and brutalize the entire Black communities where they occurred. Often, they were motivated by alleged acts of violence by Blacks against Whites, alleged disrespect and other breaches of Southern racial "etiquette", and on many occasions, victims were chosen at random. Although women and children were frequently present, it is more accurate to view these events as collective psychotic behavior, rather than family outings.

4)  In many instances, the victims were tortured and burned to death, hence the obscene humor referring to "barbecuing".

5)  I have read several accounts and analyses of lynching, and have not ever found reference to this alleged origin of the word picnic. I refer you to one of the most recent studies, Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South, by W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Chapel Hill, University of South Carolina Press, 1997.

6)  Those who raise this question are correct in one vital respect: it was a barbaric, and sometimes random act, that served to forge racial solidarity among Southern white people whose identities and psyches were unstable because of rapid social and technological changes.

Alonzo Smith, Ph.D.

Now, go read the correct etymology of picnic and you will see that it has nothing to do with  "knicknacks", either. And if you hear anyone else spreading this ridiculous myth about lynchings, tell them to Take Our Word For It.


From Kenny Epstein:

Re: Gender vs. sex

I think that there is a very useful distinction here, and for lack of viable alternatives, I prefer to use 'gender' to distinguish between males and females and use 'sex' to refer to the 'copulatory act' and its associated details.

I find that it is linguistically confusing to use the same word to describe physical intimate activity between two or more individuals as well as the distinction of maleness or femaleness.

If you can suggest an equally useful method to linguistically distinguish men from women, I would be happy to use it instead of gender, and leave that to grammar.

Last week we postulated that the recent changes of meaning in the words sex and gender are due to euphemism. Here we have the details of that mechanism spelled out for us. Mr. Epstein "prefers to use 'gender' to distinguish between males and females" because he believes that sex means "copulation". But it doesn't. Well, all right, it does to some people but only to those who do not realize that this is an ignorant abbreviation for "the sex act". It goes without saying that these same people would be too shy to say "copulation" or any of its blunter synonyms.

What do you call a male chicken? At one time all English speakers called this bird a cock but in the late 18th century Americans were made uncomfortable by this word and invented "rooster" as a replacement. (In Britain, this bird is still called a cock.) This process of replacing an embarrassing word with another is called "euphemism". Once this process begins, it is difficult to stop. Having used copulation to replace the straightforward Old English word, it became necessary to substitute "the sex act" for copulation. Soon we'll need another word with which to replace sex. How about gender, as in "My lover and I had gender last night"? ;-)


From Gonzo:

First of all I would like to tell you how immensely I enjoy your site.  As a matter of fact it has become one of my favorite sites lately.  This is why I am happy to bring my little contribution.  I the phrase cul de sac is still widely used in France.  It is still applied to a dead-end street as well as to a hopeless situation.  The word impasse is, to my knowledge, perfectly equivalent.  We might say that cul de sac is slightly more colloquial.  That's all.

Thanks for your great site.

Gonzo, you were not alone in pointing out that cul de sac is in fact still used by French-speakers today.  Several other readers wrote to tell us the same.  We stand corrected!


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