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Issue 38

May 3, 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.
Words to the Wise Our world-famous question and answer column in which we address your word-history queries.
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Sez You . . . You dare to question our profound erudition?
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

Native American words in English

As we point out in Sez You... below, one of the fascinating aspects of English is its ability to acquire words from other languages.   While most of us are well aware of the contributions to our vocabulary made by Greek, Latin, French and other European tongues, how often do we consider how many words were borrowed from   Native American languages?  Such words as teepee, wigwam and papoose may seem obvious but take a look at these:

Caucus (a private meeting of the leaders of a political party), pecan, persimmon, Podunk (that paradigm of geographic obscurity), raccoon, terrapin, toboggan, geoduck (a grotesque-looking yet edible mollusk whose name is pronounced "gooey-duck"), opossum, woodchuck, plantain (the overgrown banana, not the lawn weed), [high-]muck-a-muck, squash (the vegetable), and moccasin.

From the Carib, the eponymous Indians of the Caribbean, come:

barbecue, buccaneer, cannibal, curare, hammock, hurricane, iguana, macaw, mahogany, maize, manatee, pawpaw, peccary, tobacco and yucca.

One of the earliest references to the word yankee derives it from the Cherokee eankke meaning "slave" or "coward".  This less-than-flattering derivation is probably incorrect [see Issue 15] but may still offend some of our more patriotic readers.  All we can say is, go ahead, Sioux us!

Finally, we cannot resist mentioning that wonderful palindrome kinnikinnik, the name of a Native American  tobacco substitute made from dried sumac leaves and the inner bark of the dogwood or willow.  We admit that this is pretty obscure, but it is the only word we know which includes the letter k more than twice.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Dale:

I'm interested in learning about the origin of the words coward and cowardice.

A coward is one who turns tail and flees, or one who has his tail between his legs.  The first recorded form of the word in English is cueard, found in a manuscript of about 1225.  Thereafter the word took many forms, cuward, couheard, cowert, and, believe it or not, cow-heard and cow-herd (both from Spenser, in The Faery Queen!), to name a few, before its present form appeared in the mid-15th century.  Even after that, various versions of the word continued to appear.  The word entered English from Old French cuard, which was based on Vulgar Latin coda, itself coming from Latin cauda "tail".  Interestingly, in the Old French version of Reynard the Fox, the hare is called Coart.  Some suspect he was named so because the hare is a cowardly animal, yet others believe it is a direct reference to the hare's tail, which is quite obvious when he turns and flees.

Cowardice is simply the English form of Old French couardise, formed form couard + -ise. The -ise suffix is the equivalent of Latin -itia.   The English version has been around since the late 13th to early 14th century, but it has had some now-obsolete synonyms to keep it company: cowardness, cowardry, cowardship, and cowardy.

Note that, as mentioned in Issue 24, the surname Coward comes not from the "tail" source, but from cowherd, one who herds cows.



From Bill Green:

I am looking for the origin of the word hangar.  I have heard that it comes from a French aviator who used a building to store blimps and his name was Hangar.  I've also heard that it arose because some early airplanes were hung on cables inside a storage building.  Any light you could shed on this matter would be most appreciated.

Etymologists agree that English obtained the word from French hangar in the mid-19th century.  The venerable OED (Oxford English Dictionary) claims that the etymology beyond that is uncertain, yet the ever-resourceful Mike and Melanie have found some plausible explanations.  One possible source of the French form is Medieval Latin angarium "a shed in which horses are shod".  Does that shed any light on the issue?  Angarium comes ultimately from ungus "fingernail", via ungulus "hoof", from which we get the word ungulate, among others. 

Then there's a Middle French version of the word, hanghart, which may very well be an alteration of Middle Dutch *ham-gaerd or *haim-gard, both being the equivalents of English hamlet + garden and referring to a group of buildings enclosed by a fence (gard is cognate with English yard and garden).  However, the asterisks before the Middle Dutch words indicate that they are theoretical words and are not documented in written form.  Nevertheless, they are logical formations and could very well be the ultimate source of hangar.

The English form of the word first applied to sheds which were used to house coaches, and it is easy to see how that sense could have developed from either ungarium or *ham-gaerd, and further how it could have later taken on the sense "shed or building for storing aircraft".   We cannot discount the possibility that "hanging" had some impact on the use of this word in aviation, but we can say with certainty that no one named Hangar has anything to do with this word's history.



From Annalee Shaw:

I have always enjoyed the way the word crisp sounds and rolls through the mouth when said.  What is the origin of this favorite word of mine?

The etymological sense of this word is "curly".  English acquired it in the late 14th century from Latin crispus "curled".  Crispus is also the source of French crêpe "curled", and the French word gave English crape (as in crape myrtle, which has ruffled, curly flowers).  Note that the ê in crêpe denotes the former presence of an s which the French elided, indicating that the original French form was crespe.  Why is a kind of fabric named with a word which means "curly"?  Crêpe is a crinkled, wrinkled kind of silk. 

So, how did a meaning of "dry and brittle" get attached to a "curly" word?  Well, no one knows for certain.  One guess is that the word's sound may have been perceived as imitative of the sound that crisp things make, such as dry leaves underfoot, or crisp-fried foods.  The earliest application of this "brittle" meaning seems to have arisen in late 14th to early 15th century, when a crisp pastry made by dropping batter into boiling fat was popular.  This treat was called cryspesCrisp first appeared in writing as an adjective in the late 16th century, though it was used in connection with food.  Thereafter it came to be used more widely, as in this quote from F. Smith in his account of the search for the Northwest Passage (1749): "The Snow was of a greyish Colour, crisp on the Top." It was from this association with snow that the notion of a "crisp" day arose in the mid-19th century.

Have you noticed how the word crisp has disappeared from restaurant menus?  Nowadays food is not crisp but crispy.  Does this mean that it merely approximates the quality of crispness?


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

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

Your turn!

Dr. James Coleman provides us with another of his language-related pet peeves:

I submit for your curmudgeonly consideration an item of current usage: Use of the term "beg the question" to mean "raise the question".  To beg a question has a useful logical definition: "to assume as true that which is being argued", in other words, circular reasoning.


Sez You...

From Tom (a Belgian reader):

I’ve been visiting your site for a few months now, and I enjoyed it every single time. Keep up the good work!

Why, thank you.  Oh wait, there's more... 

I also noticed the continuing love-hate relationship with the English language. It seems like the more you get interested in it, and want to know about it, the more you see the logical inconsistencies due to its history, e.g. the punctuation problem.  As a non-native speaker, these are even clearer.  I completely understand your annoyance, as expressed in the Curmudgeons' Corner.

Now, instead of starting a new language, why don’t you start a list with recommended changes, and send it to whomever has responsibility for it (like a language commission)?   I’m sure that changes are being made every now and then in the official English language, so why don’t you take a part in its continuing creation?

This brings up some very interesting points.   First, we must say that we weren't serious about starting a new language, this was merely our lame attempt at humor.  Perhaps irony is not easily detected in translation.

About this (soi-disant) "love-hate" relationship we have with English... We love English, especially its wonderful richness and quirkiness.  Actually, the more illogical it gets the more we like it. 

Unlike French, which has its grammar and vocabulary dictated by a committee (called "L'Academie Française"), there is no "official English language".  English is a free-for-all and is made up as we go along.  Of course, there are books which provide rules of English grammar, punctuation and so on but they are basically descriptive of how English is actually used, not prescriptions of how it should be used.

One advantage of this state of affairs is that we are quite happy to borrow words from foreign languages, a practice which is officially forbidden in French.  The disadvantage (at least, for old curmudgeons such as ourselves) is that the ignorant are allowed just as much say in the evolution of the language as the educated.  Thus, when a word like pristine (which originally meant "ancient" or "primordial") begins to shift its meaning to "clean" or "untouched", careful speakers may choose to avoid it altogether for fear of being misunderstood. 

We just have to accept the fact that change occurs and it's not always in the direction we would like.  You have to admit that it makes for some very interesting word-histories, though.  And that, of course, is why Take Our Word For It is here.


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