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Issue 34

March 29, 1999
Happy birthday to Melanie's mom!
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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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Each year, on the first Sunday after the full moon which falls on or after the vernal equinox, western Christians observe Easter.   Now, this is not as straightforward as it seems - the "full moon" referred to is not the actual full moon but the 14th day of the "calendar, or ecclesiastical, moon" which may vary from the real full moon by a day or two. Also, rather than use the date of the actual vernal equinox, the church uses the 21st of March as a convenient approximation.

Note that we said "western Christians".  The eastern, or Orthodox, church observes Easter on a (usually) different date which is determined by a completely different rule.  Some say that the date of Orthodox Easter is easier to calculate but, considering that it requires familiarity with the obsolete Julian calendar and that there are at least two competing methods of calculation, we can't help doubting this claim.

In most Christian countries, the word for Easter reflects its origins in the Jewish Passover which is called pesach in Hebrew.  Thus, in both Greek and Latin the word is pascha and in Italian it is Pasqua. French has Pâques, Spanish has Pascua, and the Dutch is pask.   So, why is English different? Where did we get Easter?

Believe it or not, the word Easter is about as Christian as Easter eggs.  Which is to say, not Christian at all.  In the early days of the English church, it adopted an existing pagan festival and gave it a Christian interpretation.  In pagan England, the vernal equinox (the real one, that is, not March 21) was celebrated as the festival of Eostre, Teutonic goddess of the dawn.  Her name is linguistically similar to several Indo-European words which mean "dawn" (e.g. Greek eos, Lithuanian auszra and Sanskrit usra) indicating that Easter is related etymologically to east, the direction of the sunrise.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Jim:

I recently heard an explanation for the origin of the term juke box.  It involved Southern heritage and ghost. Could you elaborate?

You want us to elaborate on something you heard from someone else? Sorry,Juke box we can't do that. We can give you the real story, though.

In the deep South of the 1930s, African-American field hands found entertainment in juke houses (or juke joints). These were cheap, unlicensed, roadside establishments providing food, drink and music for dancing. Many great blues guitarists such as Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton earned their livings by playing in these juke joints but live musicians  were eventually replaced by recordings played on... why, juke boxes, of course.

So, why were they called juke houses? Juke (which was also spelled jook), comes from the African-American Gullah dialect which is found along the Atlantic coast of South Carolina and Georgia. (Incidentally, the name Gullah is itself a fascinating word and is believed to be a version of either Angola, the African nation or Golas, a Liberian people.) In Gullah, jook means "disorderly" or "wicked" which gives some idea of the reputation these places enjoyed. As with many words in Gullah, jook comes from West Africa.  The ancestor of juke is to be found in the Wolof language where the verb dzug means "to live wickedly".

Got a quarter, anyone? Let's sin a little.


From Yoli:

I'd like to know the story behind this Eureka! thing.  My friend told me that it was Galileo who popularized the word with his water displacement theory.  I'd like to know more a bout it.  Please, enlighten me.

We'd like to leave enlightenment to the Buddha (or at least Voltaire), but we'll see what we can do.  We at least can tell you that Galileo had nothing to do with making eureka famous.

This word, said by Plutarch to have been uttered by Archimedes (c. 287-212 BC) upon his discovery of the Archimedes principal of displacement, means in Greek "I have found [it]".  The Greek form is actually heureka, from the verb heuriskein "to find".  According to Plutarch, Archimedes had been asked by King Hiero of Syracuse to determine if his crown was made of pure gold.   Our hero decided to contemplate this problem while bathing, but he over-filled his tub and, upon entering it, caused water to spill on the floor.  It was then that he realized how he could fulfill the king's request: by use of the principle of specific gravity.  He was so thrilled with this discovery that he ran naked through the streets shouting the now-famous word.  The first uses of eureka in English were in reference to this story; it was not until the 16th century that the word came to be used allusively. 

Oh, by the way, Archimedes did in fact determine that Hiero's gold crown had been adulterated with silver by the goldsmith.


From Dave:

The phrase bone up just came up tonight. Can you elucidate?

Originally (c. 1840) just bone, it meant to apply oneself diligently to any kind of work, not just study. It may come from the use of bone to burnish leather. Early variants were bone down and bone in.


From Stephanie Martin:

The word disaster - does it have to do with stars? Aster - as in astrology, etc.? Just wondering about it.  I was listening to a book on tape and it was mentioned in that context. I had never thought about it before, but it sounds very plausible.

This word was first used in astrological terms to refer to an unfavorable aspect of a star.  English took the word from French désastre, which referred to "a disaster, misfortune, calamatie, misadventure, hard chance", as it was defined in the mid-16th century.   It was taken by French from Italian disastra, which was formed from the earlier disastrato "ill-starred".  Its components are dis- "bad" and astra "star" (ultimately from Greek astron, which also gave us such words as astronomy and aster, a type of flower which is "star-shaped").  Spanish and Portuguese had forms of the word, as did Provençal, which also had benastre "good fortune" and malastre "ill fortune".

At one time, all events in human existence were attributed to the motions of the planets. Thus, in 1684, a diarist recorded "I am very sick with a disaster upon my stomach".  This usage parallels that of influenza which derives from the Italian phrase influenza degli stelli "influence of the stars".

In 1602 Shakespeare used the word in the astrological sense, in Hamlet : "Stars with trains of fire and dews of blood, Disasters in the sun; and the moist star, Upon whose influence Neptunes empire stands, Was sick almost to dooms-day with eclipse."  However, in 1591 the word is recorded with the more current meaning, "A ruinous or distressing event".

Today, of course, we don't think of the stars at all when we use the word, but, as you suggest, Stephanie, the aster portion of the word reminds us of its roots.


From Janet Fryman:

Please tell me the origin of the word goblin.

Standard scholarship holds that English took goblin from the French gobelin. The problem with Goblin this is that, while Middle English had the word goblin as early as 1320, there is no record of the French word  gobelin until the 16th century. Interestingly, a 12th century cleric called Ordericus Vitalis mentions Gobelinus as the name of a spirit which haunted the neighbourhood of Évreux. It is possible that gobelin evolved from t he ancient Greek kobalos "rogue, knave", via the Medieval Latin cobalus. If so, it is related to the German kobold, and hence to the name of the metal cobalt.

German silver miners (that's German miners of silver, not miners of "German silver") named cobalt after the kobold, a "goblin or demon of the mines" as it was not only worthless but caused sickness. Nickel (a German name for "the devil") has a similar origin.

[If you liked goblin, you may also be interested in fairy, Issue 36]


From Rev. Jason Galler:

I am a pastor out in British Columbia, Canada. In a recent conversation I was talking with someone about the word "blah". My several etymology books were no help in finding the origin of the word. Can you help?

Blah as an actual word originated in the U.S. as an imitation of the sound of meaningless talk.  In 1918 the term was simply blah.   However, by 1922 it was reduplicated as blah blah ("Then a special announcer began a long debate with himself which was mostly blah blah."- Collier's).  The adjectival version of the word, meaning "dull", arose a bit later (1930's) from the noun, and the term the blahs (late 1960s) is thought to come from the adjective with influence from the blues.


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

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

I could care less

Too often we hear people say "I could care less" when in fact they mean "I couldn't care less".  If you say that you COULD care less about something, it means that you certainly care SOMETHING for it!  Logically, if you COULDN'T care less, it means that you care not at all.

To say "I couldn't care less about the plight of the fuchsia-crested tootawinkle" means that I don't give a darn about the fuchsia-crested tootawinkle.  Shame on me for that, but shame on everyone else who misuses this phrase.


Sez You...

From Dr. James Coleman:

Your newsletter is like fresh air in the middle of the week.  Thanks.

Your most recent article on faggot, which led to the comment on the use of fag in the U.K. to mean "cigarette", reminded me of an experience with a young English engineer here for a brief visit in the mid 70s.

He asked first whether we used the word fag in the USA, and I informed him that it was slang for "a homosexual".  He explained that "at home" it meant "a cigarette".  Then, he asked if we used the word flog, and I responded that it meant "beat" or "whip".  He broke into laughter and said that now he understood why he received such a puzzled look when he went into an airport shop to buy cigarettes and asked "Do you flog fags here"?

For non-Britons who still haven't got it, flog means "sell" in the U.K.  Mike laughed so hard at this that it seemed he might cry.  Thanks, Dr. Coleman!


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