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Issue 36

April 12, 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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This week, two readers have asked about the word evil.  Efi Gat Mor wondered if it is related to devil but Rebekkah Graves waxed philosophical, thus:

Modern dictionaries only take it back as far as its Old English root yfel, and don't tell of its development. Does it derive from the name of [the biblical character] Eve, as I'm inclined to believe, and does the word wyf ("wife") also derive from the same root? The implications are depressing for women then, if these speculations are true! Does this imply that Eve is the root of all bad stuff that happens?

So then the question is, how do we root out this word, and use another in its place? For, if we continue to use the word, subliminally we continue to blame Eve (and by extension, all of womankind) for any bad stuff that happens.

First of all, let's deal with the etymology.   Evil has quite a different history from that of devil which comes from the Greek diabolos, "slanderer" (literally "one who throws across", from dia-, "across" and ballein, "to throw") while evil (the word, that is, not the "bad stuff that happens") has its origin as the Old English yfel (full marks, Rebekkah).  Evil has cognates in several Germanic languages - Dutch euvel, Old High German ubil and Gothic ubils.  All these are thought to derive from the Old Teutonic root *ubilo(z) which carries the meaning of "up" or "over" implying, in this case, "overstepping the accepted limits".  Wife comes from the Old English wyf, "woman" which has many similar cognates in other languages and, while its ultimate origins are obscure it clearly has no connection with efyl.   As for Eve, it is a Hebrew name (from havva, a variant of hayya, "living").  Cognates of evil existed in Germanic languages long before Christianity (and, hence, the story of Adam and Eve) was introduced to northern Europe.  This alone indicates that there can be no relation between these words.

Now to the really interesting stuff.  There is a widely held belief that the etymology of a word reveals its "real" meaning.  This is just not so.  The etymology of a word simply reveals its origins, not its "true" meaning.   Words simply do not have secret inner meanings.  Meanings are fluid and context-dependent; they are not contained in words but in the minds of those who speak the words.   Both of us (Melanie and Mike) think that we know perfectly well what is meant by green until we try to select upholstery material together.  Our choice of material is not made any simpler by knowing the word's Indo-European roots.

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that tax-collector is derived from the Armenian word for hemorrhoid (surprisingly, this assertion is not precisely accurate).  Would this mean that a modern speaker actually means hemorrhoid whenever he says tax-collector, even if he is consciously unaware of this abstruse nugget of etymology?  Surely not.  That would suppose (as Rebekkah implies with her "subliminally") that we all possess a subconscious knowledge of the etymology of each word in our vocabulary.  If this really were the case then readers of Take Our Word For It could just as profitably  take their etymology queries to a psychoanalyst.

To find out what someone really means when they use a word just ask them, "What did you really mean by that?".  [And if you think that period shouldn't be there, see Letters to the Editors below.]


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Paul J. Archambeault:

I am looking for the etymology of the words fairy and fay.  The web resources for these words are rather vague.

Up to now, that is.  As ever, Take Our Word For It is the final arbiter and ultimate resource for all matters etymological.

Once upon a time, fairy was written farie.  The two dots over the e (called a dieresis) are there to show that the word should be pronounced with three syllables - fay-er-ie.  Although the words are historically related, farie should not be confused with fairy in its modern sense of "wee folk with wings and magic powers".  They are fay.   To understand the distinction a little better, consider this: the place where rooks live is called a rookery, the dwelling place of nuns is a nunnery, a pig's home fairy.jpg (28624 bytes)is a piggery, thus the realm of the fay is farie.  Also, just as knavery is what knaves get up to and thievery is the practice of theft, farie is what the fay do.  So, farie is both the place which we call fairyland and also what goes on there.

From the 16th century onward, the meaning of farie began to shift from "the land of the fay" to "the inhabitants of farie".  Thus, Edmund Spenser, writing in 1590, could use it in both meanings:

(a) place: None that breatheth living aire does know Where is that happy land of Faery. - The Faery Queen, ii. Introduction

(b) people: The stout Faerie thought all their glorie vaine. - The Faery Queen, i. iv. 15

Note that Spenser used farie as a collective term for all of the fay but this distinction was soon lost.  By the 19th century fay had been replaced by fairy in its modern sense and only poets used farie to mean "the realm of the fay".

So, what about this word fay, where does that come from?  Surprisingly, it is derived from the Latin fata "fates" (plural of fatum "fate").  The literal meaning of fatum is "that which has been spoken" (from the verb fari "to speak") and implies a destiny which has been pronounced by the gods.  In Roman mythology, the Fata were the three terrifying sisters Nona, Decima and Parcae, who determined the length and quality of each person's life.  The Greeks had similar goddesses called the Moerae (from moira "fate") - Clotho ("spinner"), Lachesis ("measurer") and Atropos ("snipper").  Likewise, Norse mythology had the Norns - Urd ("fate"), Verdandi ("necessity") and Skuld ("being") and Shakespeare may have recorded a distant echo of this triple-goddess in Macbeth where the three "weird sisters" (Old English wyrd "fate, destiny") predict the futures of Macbeth and MacDuff.

After the Roman Empire converted to Christianity in 320 A.D., the old myths lost their power to inspire and terrify.  The Fata became progressively marginalized until they lost their triune aspect and were thought of simply as a race similar to mortals but endowed with magic - the fay.  The word fata does survive in fata Morgana, though, this being the name of a peculiar mirage which happens at sea.  It is traditionally associated with the Strait of Messina, between Sicily and the mainland of Italy.  The term is an Italian translation of Morgan-le-fay, the Anglo-French name of King Arthur's sorceress half-sister.   Why she became associated with this particular marine mirage is not entirely clear but the Arthurian legends were originally Welsh and Morgan (from Welsh mor, "sea") probably meant "seafarer" in Old Welsh.

The use of the word fairy to mean a male homosexual dates from the late 19th century.  In 1895, the American Journal of Psychology reported the existence of a secret homosexual organization in New York called The Fairies.



From Scott McMillan:

What is the origin of cemetery?

Ultimately, it comes from the Greek koimeterion "dormitory" (i.e. a room for sleeping) via the Latin coemeterium .  In its original   usage, it referred to the ancient Roman underground cemeteries which we now call catacombs.  We are not certain whether the choice of this word is merely euphemistic or whether it reflects the Christian belief that the dead will "wake" one day.



From M. Dash:

Why are printers' workshops sometimes called chapels?

First, we'll give you the wrong answer. Printing was traditionally a dirty job and the printers often kept the ink out of their hair with improvised hats made of folded paper.  In Italian, such a hat was called a capella (compare the French chapeau "hat"). Hence, some have suggested, the printers' chapel is named after their practice of wearing such hats.  This is almost certainly incorrect.

The first European printed books were Bibles and other devotional texts.  They were produced by the  church and the presses were usually housed in cathedrals.  Specifically, they were situated in the small rooms known as chapels which were originally intended for the worship of saints or the Virgin.

Quite apart from its connection with printing, the word chapel has a fascinating history.  In the days of the Roman Empire, a certain cavalry officer called Martin shared his cloak with a beggar.   Martin was secretly a Christian and he was subsequently canonized for this act of generosity.  Centuries later, the cloak (Latin cappella) of St. Martin was one of the treasures of the Frankish kings and was kept in a special casket.  The Franks used to carry this "holy relic" (almost certainly a fake) into battle to ensure victory.  (Bad Christians, no wafer!)  Eventually, this cloak gave its name to the sanctuary in which it was held (Medieval Latin, capella) and also to the special priests (cappellani, "chaplains") who guarded it.



From Richard W. Jordan:

I am a pastor wondering about the etymology of the word pagan.  One church member has told me that I should not use the word (old-fashioned, offensive, etc.).   My dictionary says the word comes from the Latan paganus for peasant. This is curious to me, how a word describing a common poor person was transformed into a word that means a non-believer. Do you have any insights on this?

Well, of course we do.  That's why you should always Take Our Word For It.

The literal meaning of the Latin paganus is "villager" or "rustic" (from pagus "rural district").  It was once thought its meaning of "non-Christian, heathen" developed because the ancient idolatrous religion persisted in the rural districts long after Christianity had been generally accepted in the towns and cities of the Roman Empire.  While it may indeed be true that the older Roman religions lingered in remote hamlets, this is not the word's true origin. 

A secondary meaning of paganus was "civilian".  Early Christian authors such as Tertullian and Saint   Augustine called themselves milites Christi, "soldiers of Christ".  It therefore became natural to refer to those who were neither Christian nor Jewish as pagani, "civilians".



From Michael Laflam:

I was wondering if you could give me the origin of the word heretic.

Middle English took this from the French hrtique, which took it from the Ecclesiastical Latin haereticus, both words meaning heretic.    The original word was the Greek hairetikos "able to chose" from the verb hairesthai "to chose".  Obviously, the early Church believed that people should believe only what they were told to believe rather than decide for themselves.



From Paul Hansen:

I have found a bit of info on the roots to the word church, some very interesting. I am especially interested to see if there is any foundation to the word being connected to the Latin word circus.  This is what I found so far:

"The derivation of the word is generally said to be from the Greek kyriakon, 'belonging to the Lord'.  But the derivation has been too hastily assumed. It is probably connected with kirk, the Latin circus, circulus and the Greek kyklos, because the congregations were gathered in circles."

I don't know any other resources on that so hope you can help. 

Phew, what a tough question! The history of church is one of the most contentious etymologies in the English language.  Almost all modern scholars are in agreement that it derives from the Greek kyriakon "of the Lord" but the matter is by no means settled.  We find your quotation somewhat amusing, though.  The question of whether it has a Greek or a Latin origin has been hotly debated since Walafrid Strabo first asked it in the 9th century.  We fail to see how something determined after a thousand years of discussion could be "too hastily assumed". 

There is no evidence to support the statement that "congregations were gathered in circles" so an origin in the Latin circus ("race-track", literally "circle, circuit") or the Greek kyklos ("wheel, circle") seems less than likely.  Moreover, if the English church has its origin in circus, why did Latin itself use the words ecclesia or basilica?  Conversely, why do we find so many* cognates of church in the Germanic languages but none at all in those languages which developed from Latin?

One theory which Paul's source does not mention is that church comes from the Gothic kelikn, "tower, upper chamber".  This word was originally Gaulish and hence Celtic in origin but, as with the Romance languages, all modern Celtic languages take their word for church from the Latin ecclesia.



*  For the incorrigibly pedantic, the cognates of church include: Western Germanic kirika, Old Saxon kirika, kerika, Middle Low German and Middle Dutch kerke, Dutch kerk, Low German kerke, karke, kark, Old Frisian szereke, szurke, tzierka, tziurk, Old High German churihha, (also chiriihha, chiricha, khirihha, kirihha, kiricha, later chircha), Old Norse kirkia, kyrkja, Swedish kyrka, Danish kirke. (And that is without including cognates from the Slavic languages.)


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

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

Salt and pepper weather

Salt and pepper weather

It has been snowing here, lately.  Neither of us is a native Californian and, while this is not the kind of weather we were led to expect, it doesn't irk us nearly as much as hearing it called unseasonable.  Why is it that people who say supposably (for supposedly) are mocked as illiterate bumpkins, while people who say unseasonable get jobs as radio announcers?  Surely, something which is unseasonable is something which cannot be seasoned.

A glance at the Oxford English Dictionary tells us that (horror of horrors!) unseasonable is not only an accepted word, but unseasonal, the logical alternative, isn't!  To make matters worse, unseasonable was used by Geoffery Chaucer, Francis Bacon, John Milton and Samuel Johnson. 

We are thinking of starting our own language.  Anyone else want to join?


Sez You...

From J. Johnson:

I just came across your website and I think it's wonderful! I'm an English major in college and would like to respond to your "period inside the quotation marks" problem.

Rule #1:

A period and comma ALWAYS go inside quotation marks, regardless of where the quotation is placed in a sentence.

Rule #2:

A question mark and exclamation point are the only punctuation that do not always go inside quotation marks. If the quotation is the question, the question mark goes inside the quotes. If the unquoted material is the question, the question mark goes outside the quotes.  For example:   Did you say, "Have a peach"?  She said, "Is your hair pink?"

I hope this clears up any decisions in the future. Just remember, commas and periods always go inside the quotation marks, and question marks and exclamation points only go inside sometimes (don't ya just love English!)

Of course we love English; that's why we write this page each week.  On the other hand... well, here's a little story:

A long time ago, in a high school in Wales, a young Mike was ordered to attend the school's production of The Messiah because it hadn't sold enough tickets.  Resentful of this imposition, Mike remained seated through the Halleluiah Chorus.  Next morning, he was sent to the headmaster's study (that's "principal's office" to Americans) for a caning.  Mike explained that, at the original performance, King George stood because he mistook the Halleluiah Chorus for the National Anthem so the rest of the audience stood to cover up his mistake.

Mike said, "King George has been dead a long time, sir".

The headmaster said, "Bend over, boy!".

We detest senseless rules which have long outlived their original purpose and the rules which you defend so gleefully are not rules of English at all; they are rules of printing.  If you had read past the first paragraph of last week's Curmudgeons' Corner, you would have seen that, not only are we quite familiar with the rules, but we know the reason the rules were made.   More to the point, we explain why these rules should be broken.

Back in Elementary School we were told that a sentence should never have more than one and.  Do you agree with this rule?  We don't.   By the way, there are three ands in your last sentence.

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