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Issue 43

June 7, 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...

More names of nations

A reader recently asked why there are so many different names for Germany.  As we mangled some Asian country-names last week it seemed only fair that we kick a European nation around this week.

The Germans themselves call their country Deutschland, the French call it Allemagne and the Italian for German is tedesco.  Let's deal with Germany first.  In ancient times there were no nation states and no national borders.  There were tribes, languages and ethnicities, however.  So, when the Romans referred to Germania, they meant the region occupied by a tribe called the Germani.   If the tribe migrated to fresh pastures then the borders of Germania shifted.  During the 16th century English people started applying this name to the place where the Germani used to live.

So, why did they call themselves Germani (or something like it)?  Opinions vary.  Some say that its root meaning is "neighbor" or "relative".  That is, they were "neighbors" or "relatives" to the Celts (compare the Old Irish word gair "neighbor").  While we are on the subject of relatives, there is a word germane (often spelled germain but originally spelled german) which means "appropriate" or "relevant".  It once meant "brother" or "close relative" and is related to the Spanish hermano "brother".  In Middle English, a cousin-german was a "first-cousin".

But to return to German, another suggestion is that it derives from the Teutonic word gari "spear", a German being therefore a "spearman".  Others suggest it comes from ger-man meaning "head man".  Then again, some derive it from ger-man meaning "greedy hand".  One begins to suspect that they just don't have a clue.

Deutschland is a little easier to understand, it is the land of the Dutch.  Yes, that's right, before we  started showing off our Classical educations we called all Germans Dutch.  This usage survives in the term Pennsylvania Dutch, an American community of German extraction.   The word itself comes from the Old High German word diutisc "vulgar" or "vernacular".  That is, people who speak a common vernacular tongue rather than Latin.  The land of those who spoke diutisc (Dutch, i.e. German) became known as Diutiskland (then later, Deutschland, "Germany").  The Italian word tedesco (German) is merely their version of diutisc.

After the ancient Germans migrated and miscegenated themselves into obscurity, their territory was occupied by a tribe calling itself the Allemani.   It is from this name that the French take their word for Germany: Allemagne.   This name of the macho tribe means just what it looks like, "all men".   Hey... if they were all men then that might explain why they died out.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From J. Doran:

I was interested in the origin of the "word" toodle-oo and wondered if you could enlighten me.

Harpo and his horn.As we like to say, we normally leave enlightenment to the Buddha, but we'll see what we can do.  Toodle-oo was originally tootle-oo and first appeared in writing between 1905 and 1907.  There are several theories as to its origin:

1.    It comes from the word tootle meaning "to depart", which itself comes colloquially from toddle "to walk sometimes", as a toddler does;

2.    It is a Cockney corruption of French tout l'heure "I'll see you soon"; or

3.    It arose as an onomatopoeic imitation of the old bulb-blown horns found on early motor cars (like the one that Harpo Marx used so effectively), which were often sounded on departing.

We like theory number two, but we must be careful with French-phrase-based derivations.  Many people were certain that barbecue came from French de la barbe la queue ("from the beard to the tail") but, while that sounds entirely plausible on its face, it is absolutely not true (see Issue 10's Spotlight).

Hear Harpo "speaking" to someone on the telephone using his horn (harpo.wav; allow 3.5 minutes to load at 42.6 kbps)!


From Kevin T. Byrne:

Can you possibly tell me the origin of the word rain check?

Not only is it possible - it is probable!  American baseball fans will be familiar with the term, as that is where it arose: when a game was rained out, those who had tickets for that game were given a rain check which they could redeem at another game.  That might explain why efforts to prevent a baseball game from being canceled by rain (and rain checks issued) are so prodigious: covering the playing field with tarp, keeping the fans and players waiting as long as possible to see if the downpour will end.  The term was soon used metaphorically, and by the 1970s it had spread outside the U.S. and into other English-speaking countries.  The use of the term as early as 1884 gives some indication as to the popularity of baseball in the U.S. even at that time: "The heavy rain yesterday threw a damper over local operations. At each of the parks the audience had to be content with three innings and rain checks" (St. Louis [Missouri] Post-Dispatch 26 May).



From Karel:

Do you have any background on pay the piper?

We definitely have some background on paying the piper.  Mike, you see, has a set of Northumbrian Our friend Sean Folsom, piper extraordinaire.  Click on the image to learn how to order his CD. (Who's paying the piper now?)smallpipes which Melanie has to pay him NOT to play (unless she's got her hurdy-gurdy out).  That, however, is the opposite of the original meaning of this phrase.  It simply refers to the notion that a host must pay the musician who plays at his behest, such as at a wedding. His doing so provides music for the guests' dancing and enjoyment.  The phrase took on a broader, metaphorical meaning as early as the late 17th century, referring to anyone who bears the expense or loss arising from an undertaking (whether enjoyable or not).  The existence of the phrase attests to the widespread use of bagpipes in England, whereas several different kinds of bagpipes were used in England in earlier centuries.  Today many wrongly believe they are found only in Ireland and Scotland.  In fact they originated in Syria in the first century B.C. and almost every country in Europe has its own form of bagpipe as do several North African countries.   (Click on the image to find out more - but wait until you've finished reading this page).

In the 19th century the notion of to pay the piper and call the tune arose, i.e., anyone who was paying the piper to play could tell him what to play.  Again this phrase began to be applied metaphorically, such that it soon meant "you paid for it, you choose", as in "Londoners had paid the piper, and should choose the tune" (1895 Daily News 18 Dec.).



From Joseph B. Prozinski:

My co-worker and I were having a little discussion (argument) about the infamous villain from Star Wars, Jabba the Hutt.  Well, that led us to talking about Robin the Hood.

Lest any readers be confused, let us stop you there.  The lad from Sherwood Forest has never been known as Disney's Robin HoodRobin the Hood.  Instead, he's been known as Robyn hood, Robyn hode, Robyn Hod, Robyn-hode, Robyn-Hode, Robyne Hood, Robyne Hude, Robyne-hode, Robene Hude, Robeyn Hwde, Robene Hudis (Scotland), Robin hood, Robin Hoode, Robin-hoode, Robin Hood, Robin-hood, Robin-Hood, and Robinhood (not in any specific order).  We will, however, give you the benefit of the doubt and presume that you were referring to that Frank Sinatra movie, Robin and the Seven Hoods.

This led her to ask what the meaning of Hood is.  I said they were referring to a thief, criminal, or a hoodlum.  This led to more discussion (arguing) about the etymology of hoodlum.  She challenged me to find out if hoodlum would have been in use during the time of Richard the Lionheart and its etymology.

The term hood in the sense you describe is, in fact, short for hoodlum and arose in the 1930's.  It is related to hood "head covering" via folk etymology only.  Hoodlum originated in San Francisco in the 1870s and had spread to the rest of the U.S. by the 1880s.  However, by 1877 the word's true origin was lost, and, oddly, newspapers of the time seemed to delight in trying to come up with reasonable explanations for its source.  The most popular explanation of its origin today is that it comes from dialectical German (Bavarian) Huddellump "ragamuffin".  The word hoodlum was not in use in the time of Richard, Cœur de Lion. The ballads about Robin Hood are not thought to be quite that old, however, the earliest example comes from the late 14th century. Robin Hood is simply a personal name, though whether it is real or fictitious is not known.

It is just possible that Robin Hood  may have originated as a form of Robin Goodfellow, the pagan god of the deep woods, also known as Puck.  Note that Robin and his "merry men" wore clothes of "Lincoln green" a color which was traditionally associated with faerie.  For those who wish to try this at home, the pigment "Lincoln green" is made by boiling woad (Isatis tinctoria) with lye.  Incidentally, the merry men were not necessarily jolly chaps.  Merry men, in this instance, means "followers" especially those of a knight.

Hood "head covering" has the same root as hat, namely Indo-European *kadh- "cover, protect".  Hoodwink, from the 16th century, referred originally to covering someone's eyes with a hood or blindfold so as to rob them.  It is formed simply from hood and wink, the latter being the same word as today's wink.



From Laura Hulse :

What is the origin of the term trap, meaning a drum set of the sort used in jazz and rock music? I seem to recall having read that it was an acronym for the types of drums in the set, and I've figured out tom tom and ride cymbal, but don't know what the other two would be. Can you help?

We'll try, but first off, we should advise you to distrust any etymology which involves acronyms, they are very rarely valid.   There are two explanations for traps current among jazz drummers.   One is that drum-kits contain snare-drums, the point being that a snare is a kind of trap used for small animals such as rabbits.

Another proposed origin is that trap is a contraction of contraption.  Before the invention of the drum-kit, a drummer played one drum, but the modern drum-kit is like a one-man band.  The drummer not only plays several different drums with his hands (well, actually with the drumsticks) but he simultaneously plays a bass drum and a "hi-hat" cymbal by means of foot-pedals.   It is easy to imagine that the reaction of the other musicians when they first this set-up was "What is that contraption?".


From A Reader:

My wife and I were eating a Drumstick ice cream cone and we wondered about the origin. It's one of those "Which came first?" questions. The drumstick of a chicken, the band drummer's tool... which was first? We are guessing the musical definition preceded the fowl. Thank you for any response on your site.

After extensive research we have discovered that drumstick comes from an Old Norse word drommstokk meaning "bird-leg".  Thus, the word drum originally meant "chicken".  Even more surprisingly, the word  stick...

Oh wait, this isn't the April Fool's edition.  The "drummer's tool" came first, you big ol' silly.


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

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

Rank ranking

The custom in the media these days is to describe important members of the Senate or the House of Representatives as ranking, for example "John Doe, a ranking Democrat".  However, there is a flaw in the logic of such usage.  As all members of the Senate or House may be ranked, they are all ranking.  What the commentators mean to say, of course, is high ranking.  Use of ranking alone is simply another example of an attempt at a sound-byte short cut.

Those of you who believe that all politicians are rank, raise your hands.


Sez You...

Ann Hogan wrote:

Ms. Hogan takes umbrage (and her umbrella) at that school-marmish comment [made by Mr. Haines in last week's Sez You...]. I fully realize that languages evolve and even the mandate against split infinitives is falling by the wayside.  I laughed at Edwin C. Newman's, the loverly curmudgeon, rant against the word hopefully. New words crop up, like weeds in our flower garden, even when we old grammarians don't like the trend.  But, I heartily agree with your clarification that, when the meaning is unclear, it's WRONG and even people who don't like schoolmarms would have to agree with that.  Now, where did I put my bifocals?  Oh, dear, they're on top of my head again and the glasses chain is tangled in my brooch and lace collar.  Isn't that just the berries?



John Archdeacon writes:

Thanks for your piece on "weak verbs", it is something which has been annoying me for some time.  Only this week I found this on an internet news-group:

"...he owned a Regal guitar that he had changed out the resonator cone with a better quality Quarterman cone."

My all-time "favorite" of this nature was something I saw a few years ago in the San Jose Metro.  A rock-band's equipment was described as having been "destroyed out by fire".

Eew, yuck!  Does anyone else have any examples of recently enfeebled verbs they would like to share?

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