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Issue 48

August 3, 1999
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

Wrought and wreaked havoc

Recently, we mentioned that something had wreaked havoc with our PC. We were fairly quickly corrected by someone who said, "Shouldn't that be wrought havoc?" The answer is no, because either wreaked or wrought is fine here. A misconception often arises because wrought is wrongly assumed to be the past participle of wreak. In fact wrought is the past participle of an early version of the word work!

Wreak comes from Old English wrecan "drive out, punish, avenge", which derives ultimately from the Indo-European root *wreg- "push, shove, drive, track down". Latin urgere "to urge" comes from the same source, giving English urge. Interestingly, wreak is also related to wrack and wreck. The phrase wreak havoc was first used by Agatha Christie in 1923.

Wrought, on the other hand, arose in the 13th century as the past participle of wirchen, Old English for "work". In the 15th century worked came into use as the past participle of work, but wrought survived in such phrases as finely-wrought, hand-wrought, and, of course, wrought havoc, which seems to have arisen in 1978 in the Washington Post.

Havoc, by the way, comes from Anglo-French havok, which derived from the phrase crier havot "to cry havoc". This meant "to give the army the order to begin seizing spoil, or to pillage". It is thought that this exclamation was Germanic in origin, but that's all that anyone will say about it! The destruction associated with pillaging came to be applied metaphorically to havoc, giving the word its current meaning.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Helen Yu:

Gutta-percha is a type of india rubber.  It's natural juices from trees found in the East Indies.  It was discovered in the 1850s to be a very poor conductor and thus was used as an insulator in submarine cables... it was also used in early golf balls.  It would help me immensely if you could tell me its etymology.

Quite simply, gutta-percha is one of several English words derived from the Malay language.  The original Malay was getah percha which means "the gum of the percha tree".

The OED, somewhat pompously, defines gutta-percha as "The inspissated juice of various trees found chiefly in the Malayan archipelago".   We hesitate to admit it but neither of us was familiar with the verb to inspissate.  A few moments' research revealed that it is merely a fancy way of saying "thickened".  Imagine the following dialog:

"Darling, is dinner ready, yet?"

"Almost, dear.  I'm just inspissating the gravy."

Well, would you eat it?



From Bill Mayer:

I am moving into a new home on the water with street names having a nautical theme.  Most are simple, (e.g. Lighthouse, Anchor, Captain) but my street name is Bolinas.   Is there a nautical definition which goes along with this?

Bolinas is the name of a charming fishing village in northern California.  That is to say, it used to be a fishing village but since the 1960s it has Bolinas lagoon from Mt. Tamalpais, California.gradually become a haven for artists and bohemians.   A curiosity of this place is that while you may easily find it on a map, it is not so easy to reach it by road.  Inhabitants consider it a matter of civic duty to remove all road signs indicating the village's whereabouts.

The name Bolinas was first recorded in 1834 as Baulenes, the name of a band of Miwok indians.  Northern California also has a Bolinas Creek but this takes its name from a certain Antonio Bolena, a Portuguese immigrant.

Incidentally, there is a part of Daly City, just south of San Francisco, which also has streets with nautical names.  Our favorite is Stowa Way.  (We are not making this up.)



From David Monroe:

What is the origin of the word zombie?  I have a friend who is not satified with the OED's answer to that question.  Apparently...

Well?  Apparently... what?  It seems that David was unfortunately stricken with a tongue-binding spell while writing that last sentence. 

According to the OED, a zombie, in the West Indies and southern states of America, is "a soulless corpse" said to have been revived by witchcraft.  It goes on to state that it was formerly the name of a snake-deity in voodoo cults of (or deriving from) West Africa and Haiti.A Hollywood zombie

Now, which part of that does your friend contest?  I think most would agree with the revived corpse part.  Is it the purported lack of soul?  According to  the Vodoun religion (that's the correct name for what is popularly called voodoo), people have several components to their souls, the two most important being the gros bon ange and the ti bon ange.  Traditionally, when creating a zombie, a Vodoun bokor (i.e. "sorcerer") captures the victim's ti bon ange and keeps it in a jar.

Perhaps your friend disagrees with the suggestion that Zombi was ever the name of a snake deity.  If so, then we can see his point.  We can find no evidence for this allegation.  There is a snake deity in Vodoun but he is usually known as Damballah-Wedo.  There is, however, a Congolese word nzambi which means "god".

Wade Davis, in his book, "The Serpent and the Rainbow" describes a concoction of puffer fish toxins which is thought to be responsible for the state of suspended animation seen in some real-life zombies.   This concoction bears no relation to the mixture of rum, apricot liqueur, lime juice and pineapple juice known as a zombie.



From IWookiee:

I would deeply appreciate if you could tell me the origin of the word "jumbo". As in jumbo shrimp or jumbo popcorn.

We are sure that most of our readers have seen a real, live elephant.  Many may even have ridden one.  In the mid-19th century, unless you travelled to far-flung parts of the globe, elephants were something only read about in books.  Until one was acquired by the London Zoological Gardens, that is.  As it was a magnificent African elephant, it was given a magnificent African name.  At least, it was  given an African name  (kind of).    The zoo-keepers named the elephant Jumbo, which was probably the only African word they knew.  It is, in fact, a slightly garbled version of the Swahili word jambo which means "hello".

In 1882 the London Zoo sold Jumbo to Phineas T. Barnum, the great showman.  Barnum's flair for publicity  ensured that the name Jumbo became synonymous with "huge".



From D Rench:

I am wondering from whence came the phrase mumbo jumbo.   I am sending this query, not only because I like to use whence whenever I can, but because I'm hoping you and your infinite wisdom and resources can answer my question.  I have followed your submitting rules to the best of my ability, which is admittedly limited due to ignorance.  I have searched the Archives and Back Issues so as to not be redundant.  I am assuming that mumbo jumbo is not a proper noun (is it usually left uncapitalized) and that it isn't a surname as it is not my last name, nor have I ever met such a named person (I admit it is conceivable however, and respect your decision regarding the possible disqualification of my question on these grounds).   I put no time pressure on you, as that is rude and you are providing this service from the goodness of your heart.  I promise that my desire to know the etymology of mumbo jumbo does not stem from an assigned research project, but comes from a deep personal need that cannot be verbalized properly.

In addition to arduously obeying your very fair rules set forth, I've decided to praise you extensively.  I noticed that my chances for getting answered go up if I do so (which incidentally proves I looked through back issues!), so here goes: I have never, ever, in my entire life encountered two such people that I would like to invite to dinner without having met them.  You are the kind of people that get begged to be godparents of strangers' children.  Your sense of humor is not stifled by your intellect, which is refreshing and, further, facilitates learning.   You propose new trains of thought, stimulating young minds and bettering the future of all mankind. All of mankind would be heading a different direction if it weren't for you.   I thank you. 

Sorry this is so long.

Oh, please don't apologize.   We'll take all the compliments you want to throw at us.  (Readers please take note.  This is the fast track to getting your queries answered.)

There is no easy answer to the origin of mumbo jumbo but the earliest references used capital initials as Mumbo Jumbo was said to be an African deity. 

At Night, I was visited by a Mumbo Jumbo, an Idol, which is among the Mundingoes a kind of cunning Mystery... This is a Thing invented by the Men to keep their Wives in awe.

F. Moore ,Travels in Africa, 1738

Then again, in 1799, the explorer Mungo Park described...

A sort of masquerade habit... which I was told... belonged to Mumbo Jumbo. This is a strange bugbear... much employed by the Pagan natives in keeping their women in subjection.

Unfortunately, no one since the 18th century has reported any such deity in any West African tribe.  It is possible that mumbo jumbo may be a corrupt form of nzambi, Congolese for "god" (see zombie, above).

Explorers such as Moore and Park dismissed any native god as ignorant superstition.  A religious belief in Mumbo Jumbo, a god invented simply to scare the womenfolk, was seen as even more nonsensical.   Presumably this gave rise to mumbo jumbo in its modern sense of "obscure or meaningless talk".

Incidentally, there is also a rum-based West Indian drink called mumbo jum (see zombie, above).


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

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

Racked with seaweed

According to many newspapers we've read recently, arthritis sufferers are wracked with pain, students wrack their brains and smokers suffer from wracking coughs.  None of this makes any sense; wrack is either a kind of seaweed or an obsolete form of the noun wreck.

What the writers meant was rack.  The allusion is to the medieval torture device.  You know, that device for stretching people until they screamed for mercy.  We think it could be brought back for use on certain journalists.


Sez You...

Tom Williams writes, excerpting from one of our weekly newsletters:

> >We were in fact planning to publish an issue this week but our guests have got the better of us and we are officially on vacation this week and next.<<

"Have got?"  Shouldn't it be "have gotten?"  Or have you just been overcome by Anglicisms? Well, since you're on vacation, I guess I'll cut you a break in the grammar department.

Tom, you're the guy who tried to correct our wreak/wrought havoc usage (see Spotlight above)! Are you reading everything we write, waiting to pounce on our first mistake? Well, we appreciate the slack but Melanie usually uses American English while Mike employs British English. We feel this is fitting as we publish to the World-Wide Web and not the America-Wide Web. We have many readers from America and many others from locations where British English is spoken and written. We're glad you're well-read enough to know the difference!

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