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Issue 52

September 13, 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...

Continental names

We have received a surprising number of queries about the origin of the names of the continents in recent weeks. For instance, Daniel Reicher asks:

I would like to know the origin of the word Africa, the continent where the first primates eventually evolved into Homo sapiens (which means "wise men" according to a recent article on the topic in Time magazine). 

Oh, thaaat Africa ! Well, the word doesn't go back quite quite as far as the dawn of man, just to ancient Rome. The original Africa was a country on the southern coast of the Mediterranean, roughly equivalent to the modern Tunisia, not the whole continent.  In those days, the climate was rather different from today's and, believe it or not, the Roman province of Africa was a major exporter of wheat.  One theory about the origin of the name is that it is related to the Arabic word 'afar, "dust".

So, if Africa meant (approximately) Tunisia, what did the Romans call the continent? Why, Ethiopia. They borrowed this name from the Greek Aithiops, "burnt-looking" (from aitho, "I burn" + ops, "eye" or "aspect").  By the way, Homo sapiens means "the wise man" (singular). 

Europe is more difficult to account for. What is certain is that the name comes from Greek. The problem is why the Greeks called it that. A   traditional explanation derives it from the story of Princess Europa and the sky-god, Zeus. In order to seduce Europa, Zeus took the form of a bull. Now the bull was so pretty and so docile that Europa decked its horns with flower-garlands and climbed up on its back. Zeus then seized his opportunity to abduct Europa and leapt into the sea. While it does not say so in the myth, many authors assumed that the place he took her to was Europe. The major flaw in this theory is that most of ancient Greece was already in Europe. Other authors derive Europe from Greek euros, "broad", but this is merely guesswork. A more likely explanation is that it is a pre-Greek word, related to the Phoenician 'ereb, "west". 

As with Africa, Asia originally referred to just one small region, not the whole continent. In this instance, the region is now called Turkey.  Asia  may have its origin in the Assyrian word asu, "to rise", implying the direction from which the sun rises. Another suggestion is that the word is related to the Sanskrit usha, "dawn". Once again, this is because (to Europeans) Asia is where the dawn comes from.

The name America was invented by the German map-maker Martin Waldseemüller. He based it on the name of Amerigo Vespucci (1451 - 1492) a Florentine adventurer who may have accompanied Columbus. While some authors aver that Vespucci never set foot on the continent to which he gave his name, he wrote about it in fulsome terms.  In fact, his praise of the New World was so effusive that some say it proves that he was never there.  

Long before Europeans had ventured south of the equator, many scholars imagined that there must be a southern continent to balance all the land-mass north of the equator. They called this continent terra australis incognita, Latin for "the unknown southern land" and theorized that it must be at least as extensive as the northern continents (they were wrong). Although the first European explorers to sight Australia were Spanish, the Dutch were the first foreigners to venture inland (Dirck Hartog's expedition in 1616) hence it first became known as New Holland.   By the way, we're sure that the aboriginal inhabitants were fully acquainted with the geography of their home, long before the arrival of Europeans but we don't think they had a word for their island continent.  Many of us assume that aborigine means "indigenous inhabitant of Australia" but, in fact, the term may be applied to the original inhabitants of any region.  The Latin phrase ab origine means "from the origin", thus an aborigine is one who has inhabited a place "from the beginning [of time]".

By the 1800s, Great Britain had colonized parts of this island and it began appearing on British maps as Terra Australia, Latin for "southern land". Soon, this became shortened to Australia, meaning simply "southern". 

The last continent is Antarctica which is so-called because it is anti- (Latin, "against", "opposite to") the arctic. The Arctic is not a continent, of course, as it is merely a persistent ice-sheet floating on the Arctic Ocean. The name arctic derives from its apparent position below the Great Bear constellation, the Greek for "bear" being arktos.  

To answer a query from Becky Ramsay, Earth, the name of our planet, comes simply from the word for the ground upon which we stand. The Old English word was written variously as eorše, eoršu, horše, irthe, urthe, erthe, yorth, erde, earde, and yird, among others. (Well, what can we tell you? They didn't have spelling-bees in those days.) 

Incidentally, planet comes from the Greek planetos, "wanderer", as the planets seem to wander against the backdrop of "fixed stars".


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Chris Pullen:

What can you tell me about the phrase dyed in the wool?Lamb

Dyed in the wool first appeared in the 16th century as a metaphorical expression.  Dying wool was still a common task familiar to a great part of the population.  The phrase refers to wool that was dyed before it was spun as opposed to cloth that was dyed piece by piece. The dyed color is deeper and faster than that of cloth that is dyed.

The phrase is chiefly American, though it appears to have originated in England.  Additionally, the first occurrences of dyed in the wool applied to people and their characteristics in general, as in this from 1597: "Children as it were in the Wooll of their infancie died with hardnesse may neuer afterwards change colour. "  However, it came to apply almost exclusively to one's political affiliation, as in this quote from 1830 America: "In half an hour [he can] come out an original democrat, dyed in the wool."



From Leslie:

What can you tell me about atlas?

Atlas entered English in around 1589 with the meaning "chief supporter."  It came via Latin from the name of a titan in Greek mythology.

One of the major themes in the Greek myths is the Titanomachy, that is, the war between the gods and the almost-divine "anti-gods", known as the titans. The titans were renowned for their gigantic stature and this is the origin of our word titanic.

After a protracted war, the gods eventually prevailed and various punishments were meted out to the titans.  For instance, the titan Tantalus was made to stand waist deep in water with a luscious grape-vine hanging overhead.  Not much of a punishment, you might think, but whenever he bent down to get a drink the water receded and whenever he reached up for the grapes they eluded his grasp.  Hence our word tantalizing.  Another titan was Sisyphus.  His punishment was to roll a huge, spherical rock up a conical mountain and to balance it on the top.  Of course, he never succeeded and the rock always rolled down again.  Come to think of it, he must have been the original "rock and roll star".  (Ouch!)  The adjective sisyphean is used to describe an endless, futile and nigh-impossible task.

The task given to the titan Atlas was that he should carry the world on his shoulders.  Eventually, he fell into a dispute with Perseus, slayer of the Gorgon Medusa.  The Gorgons were female monsters with snakes for hair and the ability to petrify (literally) anyone who saw them.   Perseus kept Medusa's head in a handy sack so, while carefully averting his gaze, he pulled it out so that Atlas could see it.  As soon as Atlas' eyes fell upon Medusa's head he turned to stone.  And that, children, is how the Atlas Mountains were made.  (Well, not really, but you could probably convince the Kansas State School Board.)

By 1636, atlas came to be applied to a collection maps.  This is apparently due to famous mapmaker Gerhardus Mercator's practice of using a picture of Atlas supporting the heavens as the frontispiece of his works.




I would like to know the origin of the word (or slang) boob and how it came to be a synonym for a stupid person.

blue-footed boobyThis word comes from booby "silly fellow," and it is first recorded sans the -y in America in 1909, in the Saturday Evening Post.   It is thought that booby, which first surfaced in writing in the late 16th or early 17th century, comes from Spanish bobo "fool".  However, the Spanish word's roots are debatable.  Once source suggests Latin balbus "stammering, stuttering," which is believed to be an imitative word.  Another theory has booby coming from Middle High German buobe "fool".  Most etymologists worth their salt dimiss this, however, as the low German form of this word is boeve.

Booby "breast" comes not from this source but from the American slang word bubby, which itself comes from German bübbi "teat".

Strangely enough, the bird species known as the booby derives its name from the Spanish bobo, as well, presumably due to the bird's fool-like appearance.  We think the little guys are cute, ourselves.  The blue-footed booby at left inhabits the Galįpagos Islands and has no fear of man.  He does look a bit bashful, though, doesn't he?



From Nobuyuki Nakayama :

I was wondering, what's the etymology of elite? Is there any relation to Israelite?

The word elite came to English in the 18th century from the past participle of the French verb elire "elect".   The French acquired the word from Latin eligere "pick out, select", which is composed of the prefix ex- "out" and the verb legere "gather, choose".   Etymologically, then, elite means "those who are elected". 

Eligere also gave us elect in the 15th century, via the past participle electus.  Then there's eligible, which refers to someone who has been "picked out" or "elected".   It comes from Latin eligibilis,  a derivative of eligere.   Eligible came to English in the 15th century, as well.

Some related words are collect, neglect, and select.   The secondary meaning of legere, "read", gave us legible and lecture.

Israelite is simply a combination of Israel and the affix -ite which means `native of,' so an Israelite is a `native of Israel,' though the term has come to refer to the inhabitants or natives of ancient Israel only. The affix -ite comes from Middle English via Old French and Latin -ites, ita, which come ultimately from Greek -ites, `of.' The fact that elite forms part of the word Israelite is a coincidence and the words are not related.



From Nicholas J. Leon:

What is the etymology of electricity?lightning.JPG (9906 bytes)

The ancient Greeks noticed that when amber was rubbed on sheepskin it would pick up light articles such as feathers but they didn't know why.  We now know that the rubbing caused a transfer of electrons between the two materials, thus creating a difference in electrostatic potential between them.  This was the first man-made electricity.

The word electricity was coined by William Gilbert in his scientific text De magnete (written in Latin in 1600), and he derived it from electrum, Latin for "amber".  Latin acquired it from Greek elektron "amber".   By 1646 the word was being used in treatises written in English, notably Sir Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia epidemica, 1646.  At that time, electricity referred only to the ability of rubbed amber and glass to attract lightweight objects.   Eventually, the word came to apply to the cause of that ability, and, progressively, to all of the other forms of electricity, such as lightning, electric sparks, etc.

The Greek word for "amber" found its way into English in another form.  In Greek tragedy, Electra is the daughter of Agammemnon and Clytemnestra, and she murdered her mother.  Psychoanalysts used her name, beginning in the early 20th century, to refer to a daughter who is attracted to her father and has hostile feelings toward her mother.  The counterpart of the Electra complex is the Oedipal complex.


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

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

Quantum Leap

A while back we read an article in the San Jose Mercury News on a breakthrough in medical science. It contained this statement: "This is not just a small, incremental step but a whole quantum leap." This typifies the way that quantum leap is being used in common parlance (but a science writer really should have known better) to mean a large change of state. If we look at the scientific meaning, however, we see that a quantum leap (or jump) is really just the reverse. It is actually the smallest change possible. 

As no smaller change of state is possible, quantum leap came to mean any abrupt change with no intermediate steps. From this meaning (which is still congruent with the scientific meaning) it came to mean a leap over the intermediate steps (which is totally at odds with the scientific meaning).


Sez You...

From Caroline Diem:

In a recent issue you wondered why some people pronounce et cetera as "eck cetera."  When I was an ignorant little kid, and came across that mysterious word "etc." I would pronounced it "ekt." I did not have a clue what it meant, or how one would say "eh-ta-ca," So I simply swapped letters.  It's sort of like people who say "ax" instead of ask. Now I know better, of course.

Actually, ask pronounced as "aks" goes way back and occurred via a process called metathesis, where the k and s were switched.  A different process occurs in the et cetera to eck cetera shift, except in your case where you applied metathesis to the abbreviated form etc.  We found your account both interesting and amusing.

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