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Issue 40

May 17, 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...

Drug-language abuse

We have been paying attention to the rhetoric of "The War on (some) Drugs" lately.  One of its most notable features is its abuse of language.  It is impossible to come up with a reasonable definition of drug which does not include tea, coffee, alcohol and tobacco.  Perhaps that is why the drug-warriors use the word narcotic to indicate those drugs which the government has decided to ban.  This usage merely serves to indicate how insane the propaganda has become.

Today, we heard on the radio of a seizure of "quantities of methamphetamine and other narcotics".  Now, narcotic means "inducing sleep" (from the Greek narkoun "to numb") but methamphetamine is an extremely powerful stimulant.  In fact, those who use it sometimes do not sleep for days on end.  Why, then, is it called a narcotic?   Because the first drug that the U.S. government tried to ban was opium and all other drugs were assumed to be similar.  (Hey, they're only politicians.  What do they know about medicine?)

Another radio piece which recently caught our ear was about the attempts of some California farmers to be allowed to grow hemp as a renewable source of paper, rope and light machine oil.  "No way," said the California attorney-general, "hemp is just a sneaky way of saying marijuana".   Well, we have news for you, Mr. Attorney-General, the word hemp (originally spelled henep) has been in the English language for at least 1000 years.  Marijuana, on the other hand, is a sneaky way of saying hemp.  The word marijuana was introduced in the 1930s by Harry J. Anslinger but in those days he spelled it marihuana.   Mr. Anslinger rose through the ranks of the F.B.I. during the first Prohibition Era and when that came to an end (in 1932) he feared that his whole raison d'etre had been removed.  He soon ensured his continued employment by whipping up hysteria about hemp which he called marijuana in attempt to associate it with a despised minority (the Mexicans).  So, where did Anslinger come up with this word?  He took it from Mexican slang but originally it was the name of a brand of cheap Mexican cigarettes which bore a picture of a young girl (Marijuana = "Mary-Jane") on the packet.  "Pssst... wanna buy some (nudge, wink) marijuana?"

If one wishes to side-step this whole issue of whether to call it hemp or marijuana, one could use the botanical name: Cannabis.   This is the Latin word and it is thought to have derived from the same non-Indo-European source (perhaps Phoenician) as henep and hemp.   Our words canvas and canvass both come from Latin cannabis.

Don't think that the ancient Europeans merely used hemp for fiber and were ignorant of its  psychoactive properties.  One Viking queen was buried with a 9 lb. (4 kilogram) chunk of hashish, a concentrated drug form of cannabis [see assassination, below].


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Sue Davies:

I'm wondering about the dreaded childhood disease of cooties (as in "Don't play with him, he's got cooties !").  Where did the term cooties come from?

We should explain to those readers who are unfamiliar with this American children's "disease" that it is highly contagious and greatly feared.  Unlike measles, mumps or chicken pox, however, it is completely imaginary.

This term first gained currency during World War I and to the soldiers louse.jpg (6654 bytes)fighting in France cooties were not so harmless.   They were originally body lice.  Have you ever wondered why army haircuts are so brutally short?  Well, they weren't always that way.  The practice started in World War I in order to impede the rampant epidemic of head lice among soldiers in the trenches.  Before that time soldiers could wear their hair any length they cared to.   Since then, short hair has come to be equated with the military and, hence, masculinity.  And all because of cooties!

So, when did cooties stop meaning "lice" and start meaning a highly infectious plague of the playground?  Well, that we can't say but we can reveal that the word probably derives from the Malay kutu, "a biting, parasitic insect".

While we are on the subject, we should mention that there is an older cootie which has nothing to do with this one.   It is a Scots word which means "having legs clad with feathers" as in

The cooty cock ahint the door
Did clap his wings and craw.

Which, in standard English means "the feathery-legged rooster behind the door flapped his wings and crowed".  Funny, it sounds so much more meaningful in the Scots.



From Patrick:

There is some debate over assassination - some say it was Shakespeare, others say it derives from an Arabic word.  Can you help?

Of course, we can.  The first documented use of assassination is indeed to be found in the works of the noble bard...

If th’ assassination could trammel up the consequence, and catch with his surcease, success.

- Macbeth, Act i, scene vi

Of course, Shakespeare couldn't just go around inventing words and expect to be understood.  He based this word on the word assassin which comes from (you guessed it) Arabic.  (Hooray for both sides!)

The Arabic original is hashshashin (or hashsihiyyin) both meaning "eaters of hashish".  Yes, it was plural. For some unknown reason, it was the plural form of the word which took hold in Europe.  One over-simplified account of this word claims that the assassins took hashish before murdering someone.  This is not quite true, however.

The first assassins were followers of a minor Islamic sect called the Ishmaeli which achieved political power by murdering its opponents.  Their leader was a man called Hassan ibn Sabbah, who was known to some western travelers as "The Old Man of the Mountains".  Candidates for admission to his sect, on arrival at the gates of his mountain fortress, were fed quantities of a drug concoction (which probably included hashish) and promptly passed out.  They awoke in a delightful garden where they were regaled with choice foods and exquisite drinks by beautiful young women.  After a while, they were then fed more of the drug and awoke to find themselves outside the fortress once more.  Hassan convinced them that what they had seen was a glimpse of the paradise to which they would go if they died while carrying out his orders.  Naturally, they became fearless.

Now these guys didn't just murder people straight away, they gave them plenty of warning.  First a stealthy assassin would leave a bag of gold on someone's pillow while they slept.  If the "victim" didn't get that hint, a little later a dagger would be left.   It is said that one mullah (preacher) in Baghdad was vociferous in his opposition to Hassan and his murderous crew until one day he suddenly would hear no word against them.  When asked why this was he said "They have convinced me with arguments which were both weighty and pointed".  People knew what he meant.

By the way, hashish is a concentrated form of marijuana (or Cannabis, see above) and in Arabic the word means "dried herb".  The English word drug also means "dried herb" [see drug, Issue 15].



From David Loble:

Twice this week I've read the word jones (uncapitalized) in a context of need, desire, or temptation. How did this come about?

Originally it was capitalized.   Believe it or not, it was originally Mr. Jones, which was junkies' slang for "heroin".  One may readily imagine a drug dealer's proposal: "Pssst... wanna meet Mr. Jones?".   Over time,  the verb to jones (uncapitalized) came to indicate the pain of withdrawal from the drug, as in "Man, I'm really jonesing for a fix".

This usage neatly parallels the opium5.gif (23951 bytes)word yen which means a "craving".  Although this is now standard English, it comes from the opium addicts' slang term yen-yen "a craving for opium".  This, in turn, comes from Cantonese yin-yan (yin "opium" + yan "craving").  And, just as there is a verb to jones, there was even a verb to yen.  Thus, back in the 1920s, an opium addict might have said "Boy, I'm really yenning to kick old Buddha's gong". 

Although opium is popularly associated with China, it was almost unknown there until the early 19th century when the British East India Company began growing vast quantities of the drug in India then unloaded its surplus in China.  The Chinese government was adamantly opposed to the importation of opium and did all it could to prevent it.  Britain insisted on its right to sell opium to the Chinese populace and actually fought two wars (known as the "Chinese Opium Wars") to protect its profits.  Eventually, the Chinese were forced to hand over Hong Kong island for use as an opium warehouse.

Oh, those fiendish Brits!  But the history of U.S. drug laws is no nobler.  Back in the 1890s the City and County of San Francisco passed a law making it illegal to be Chinese.  As the U.S. Constitution does not allow "crimes of state", only "crimes of deed", this law was soon struck down by the Supreme Court.  The high-minded City Fathers of San Francisco soon thought up a way of achieving the same ends without having to use the word Chinese, though: they banned opium smoking.  This is how the first anti-drug law came about - as a thinly-veiled attempt at ethnic cleansing.


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

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


This weekend while driving we heard a news-reader state, "He is accused in the slaying of [John Doe]."  What's wrong with that sentence?  The verb to accuse takes the preposition of, not in.  However, this incorrect usage accused in is blossoming in the media.  We suspect that it arose from contamination by "He is sought in connection with the slaying of John Doe".  In connection with is too cumbersome for newspaper headlines, and it was shortened to in.  That usage subsequently infected accused.  "He is accused of the slaying of John Doe" is the way it should be said and written.  It drives us mad when we hear "accused in"!


Sez You...

Norman Sta. Romana wrote:

In last week's issue, you mentioned the word solanaceous when comparing tomatoes to nightshade. The dictionary, however, only defines the word as meaning "of or related to the nightshade family".  Could you please explain further?

Deadly Nightshade or Atropa belladonnaBotanically, the family is named the Solanaceae after the genus Solanum. Many members of this family are extremely poisonous as they often contain certain dangerous alkaloids, generically called tropanes, such as solanine, atropine, hyoscyamine and scopolamine. Other edible members of this family (besides tomato) are potato and egg-plant (the latter is an aubergine if you're British). 

Nightshade (a.k.a. Deadly Nightshade) is known to botanists as Atropa belladonna for reasons which are very interesting etymologically.  The Atropa part refers to Atropos, the figure in Greek mythology who severs the thread of one's life [see fay, Issue 36] and belladonna (Italian "beautiful lady") alludes to its use as a beauty aid.  Some women in Renaissance Italy would make a decoction of Deadly Nightshade and drop it into their eyes.  Now, Nightshade, as we have said, contains atropine which has the effect of dilating the pupils, thus enhancing a woman's beauty.  This pupil-dilating property of atropine is still used by ophthalmologists today.


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