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Issue 47

July 5, 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...

The quick and the dead

An old term for the element mercury (Hg), quicksilver, comes from the fact that mercury flows, as though it were alive. In fact, "alive" is the original meaning of quick. The quick and the dead did not refer to gunslingers in the Old American West, but instead refers to "the living and the dead" as in the Bible, Acts 10:42. The current meaning of quick, "rapid", did not emerge until the 13th century. The word itself is descended via Old English cuic (cuicbeam means "aspen" in Old English, i.e., "living tree" (because of the manner in which its leaves quiver)) from prehistoric German *kwikwaz (which is also the source of Swedish kvick "rapid"). This comes ultimately from the Indo-European base *gwej-, which begat Latin vivus "live" (source of English vivid), Greek bios "life" (source of English biology), Welsh byw "alive", Russian zhivoj "alive", etc.

Some other words still in use today which carry the original meaning of quick include quicklime, literally "living lime", quicksand "living sand", and the noun quick ("the tender flesh under the fingernail or toenail"), referring to the living flesh beneath the dead nail.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Bruce Hartmann:

Do you know the origin of the expression tow head (possibly toe head) meaning a young boy with blond or at least sandy colored hair? None of my etymology books has this one. Thanks for your help.

Tow means "flax or hemp fiber", and so tow headed is literally "flaxen haired". This meaning of tow comes from Middle Low German touw (which means "flax, hemp fiber"). This probably went back to the prehistoric Germanic base *tow-, *taw "make, prepare" (source also of English tool), in the sense "make yarn from wool; spin".  (Other variations are towhead and, though incorrect, toehead.)



From a Reader:

What is the etymology of woman? Is it related to womb?

Woman is literally a "female person", and no, we're not being flippant.  In Old English (prior to 766) a woman was a wifman, that is, a wif   "woman" + man "person". Wif is also the source of modern English wife. Wifman, by 1000, had become wimman, by ellision of the f, and before 1200 the word was wumman. By 1250 the word had taken on its present form, woman. Woman is not related to womb. That word developed from Old English wamb "belly, uterus".

The word was frequently pronounced and spelled oman.  As late as the 19th century, ooman was considered the upper-class pronunciation but nowadays is only found in dialect.



From Jeanne Steidtman:

I am looking for the origin of the word teller as in `bank teller.' I have been looking for it for a while now and have had no luck.  Thanks.

Teller is a derivative of the verb tell. While tell has its source in Old English, teller came about in the late 15th century. Tell's original sense was 'to mention in order,' and the 'order' sense of the original meaning stuck with teller, while tell kept simply the 'mention' meaning. Some other examples of tell's original `count' sense are all told and in to tell one thing from another as well as to tell one's beads (i.e. to recite the rosary).

In Old English tell was tellen. It came from the Proto-Germanic root *taljanan 'tell.' Some cognates were Old Frisian talja, tella `tell,' Old Saxon telljan `tell,' Middle Dutch, modern Dutch, Middle Low German, and modern Low German tellan `count, reckon,' Old High German zellen 'tell' (modern German zahlen 'reckon, count'), and Old Icelandic telja `tell, count' (Swedish talja, Danish taelle `count, reckon'). Tale comes from the same source.



From Steve Sphar:

I have heard that originally, the third person pronoun they was used to refer to both the singular and plural, much like you refers to both the singular and plural in the second person.

A story was related to me that during the late middle ages, when property started to pass by patriarchal lineage, it became more important to differentiate when one was referring to men versus women. Our language changed to use he when referring to the third person singular, in part because it was assumed that only references to men were important. The use of they as a singular third person pronoun fell off. Is this true?

No, because he/his/him have been around since Old English times, used as third person singular. The third person plural they/their/them entered English via Old Norse at the end of the Old English period and replaced the Old English third person plural hie/hiera/him. So it seems that they/their/them have never been used as the third person singular form. Whether he/his/him have sexist connotations as far as their referring to the third person singular in general (i.e. "If any child is hungry, he should be fed"), the usage very likely did arise because of what can now be construed as sexist reasons, but as today's society is so incredibly sex-enlightened (for those who have not read our Curmudgeons' Corner spot on "sex vs. gender", "sex-enlightened" is synonymous with "gender-enlightened"), we can't see how this usage might negatively affect anyone, and we have no problem with continuing this usage and not allowing "political correctness" to artificially influence the development of language. But that's just our opinion.


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

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

I wonder why this sentence ends with a question mark?

To wonder is not to ask a question, but to muse.  Therefore, sentences beginning "I wonder..." should not be punctuated with a question mark. 


Sez You...

A reader, Malcolm, wrote asking about the word picnic, which we've already discussed in Issue 32.  After we informed him of this, he responded with the following:

Thank-you for your timely response.  The query to me came from a Professor at CU.  It's refreshing to find documentation which challenges dis/mis-information, which is far too common.


Tod writes:

I wrote a movie review for a local newspaper in college and submitted the article to my professor for class credit.  She gave me a "C" and told me she could not give me an "A" because I wrote the movie was "entitled," when I should have used "titled."  (Incidentally, the article did run with "entitled.")  I've heard this misuse from many educated people.  Apparently, when you pass your drivers test, for example, you are "entitled" to a license.  However, a book, movie, poem, etc. is "titled."  Do you agree?

First, any professor who gives a "C" simply for an alleged misuse of one word, if that is in fact what happened, needs to find some means of relaxing and enjoying life.

Second, the highly respected Fowler's Modern English Usage says that you are clearly entitled to use the word entitled to refer to a book, movie, etc.  It is not at all "misuse".

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