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Issue 53

September 20, 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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Etymology vs. real meanings

Ultimately, the word etymology derives from the Greek etymon, "literal meaning", which itself comes from etymos, "true".  Despite what is implied by its ancient roots, however, etymology is the study of a word's history, not its "real" meaning.  There are no "real" meanings.  Judging from some of our e-mail inquiries, an awful lot of people don't get this.  Let's see if an example helps.

Madonna and Child with Virgins, c. 1500Probably the most widespread word in all languages is mamma.  The ma sound is the easiest sound for babies to make, thus it is usually the first sound babies make.  Who is most likely to be around when this happens?  The baby's mother, of course.  As it is almost universally assumed that the baby is addressing the mother, in most languages mamma (or amma) means "mother".  The next easiest phoneme is pa or ba.  Thus, in many languages the word for "father" is pappa, baba, abba or the like.

Notice that we said "almost ", "many" and "most ".  Societies with extreme male-chauvinism tend to assume that the baby's first words are addressed to its father.  Thus in Georgian, mamma means "dad" and pappa means "mom".

But we digress.  To get back to the subject of "real meanings", the word aunt comes from the Latin amita, via the Old French anteAmita is thought to derive from*amma, an ancient non-Indo-European word for "mother".  Therefore, if etymology really did reveal a word's "real" meaning, then your aunt would "really" be your mother.  Then, if your aunt is really your mother, that would mean your mother is really your aunt.   But wait, your aunt is really your mother so we start all over again... 

Whoah, dude, infinite regress!  That means we've, like, completed a reductio ad absurdum.  QED.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Stacie:

I was wondering about the origin of mushroom.

This word's origins are contentious.  What we do know is that it entered English in the mid-15th century as muscheron.  Its immediate source was Anglo-French musherun, which comes from Old French moisseronAmanita muscaria, the fly agaric mushroom (click to visit link) However, the Old French word's parentage is not known with certainty.  Some link it to Late Latin mussirionem, which was the specific name for a particular type of mushroom, and the origin of the Latin word is not known.  However, others derive moisseron from French mousse "moss" (yes, it is the source of English mousse "light, creamy dessert" AND "hair foam").  The Germanic languages have related words for "moss", all of which come ultimately from a Germanic root *musan, which was though to refer originally to "swamp" and then, by association, came to apply to moss growing in the swamp.  Similarly, mushrooms usually prefer damp habitat.  Interestingly, mossa, Latin for "moss", is thought to come from the Germanic source, which means that Late Latin mussirionem is probably related and the two major schools of thought on mushroom's  etymology are not all that far apart.



From Chuck:

Where do we get the term metaphor?

This word is Greek in origin, as is probably clear to those familiar with Greek roots.  It entered English in the late 15th century as methaphor, borrowed from Latin metaphora via Middle French métaphore.  The Romans acquired this word from Greek metaphorá, a noun meaning "a transfer, especially in meaning from one word to another".  It comes ultimately from the verb metaphérein "transfer, carry over", composed of meta- "over, across" and phérein "carry, bear".  Phérein appears in other English words, such as Christopher "Christ bearer" and phosphorus "light bearer".

In addition to being the name of a chemical element, phosphorus was also the name which the ancients gave to the "morning star".  The "morning star" is, of course, not a star as such but the planet Venus when it appears just before dawn.  This star has been associated with the goddess of love since time immemorial.  In ancient Akkad it was associated with the goddess Inanna, in Sumeria it was the symbol of Ishtar, and to the Greeks it was Aphrodite in her celestial form.  It is also interesting to note that phosphorus, translated into Latin, is Lucifer, the name supposedly borne by Satan before his fall.

When it appears in the evening sky, just after sunset, Venus is the "evening star", the Hesperos of the Greeks.  



From Lee:

I would like to know the etymology of moist.

This synonym for damp entered English in the late 14th century from Old French moiste "damp".  The French word was an alteration of Vulgar Latin muscidus "moldy", which was itself an altered form of Latin muccidus "slimy, moldy, musty", from mucus "slime, mucus" (the obvious source of English mucus). The Latin musteus "juicy" (from mustum "fresh"; said of wine and cheese) also had an influence on the development of moiste.   Musty is thought to be related to this group of words but it is not known exactly how.  

That will make us think twice about referring to a piece of tasty chocolate cake as "moist and delicious."  How about you?



From John : UPDATED JANUARY 2006

What can you tell me about the phrase mind your p's and q's?

This phrase means to "be on your best behavior", and it dates back to the 17th century  There is no definitive answer regarding the phrase's origin, but there are several entertaining theories.  Here we provide only a sample of them.  The most popular seems to be that children learning their letters were told to mind their p's and q's when they first encountered the lower case p and q as those letters are quite similar.  Another explanation has the phrase arising in pubs, where one's tab was kept on a chalkboard, and hatch marks were made under a p for pint and a q for quart.  If you didn't mind your p's and q's, you might end up with a very large pub bill and an even larger headache.

The "explanation" that it derives from the French pieds et queues, "feet and (pig-)tails", is entirely spurious.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

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


Susan DeBartolo from Aurora, Illinois, writes:

The word ophthalmology is not being pronounced correctly by most people.  Isn't the p supposed to be an f sound because of the ph in the word?  This also would apply to the words diphthong and diphtheria.  If you look in the dictionary, the preferred way of saying these words is with the f sound. 

Do you know if there are any other words like these?

We completely agree. Why is it that people who have no trouble saying the phrase "off the wall" balk at the same consonant cluster when it's spelled "ophth"?  We have yet to hear anyone say "op the wall". 

Actually, dictionaries don't give "preferred" pronunciations these days.  Most modern dictionary editors will claim that the pronunciations merely indicate current pronunciation, not that which is preferred. This reflects the modern trend toward "descriptive linguistics" and away from "prescriptive linguistics". 

Do we know similar words?  Lots!  How about fith instead of "fifth"?  Also, there is a performance venue in our locality called "Shoreline Amphitheater" which is almost invariably pronounced "ampy theater".  By the way, have you ever heard anyone pronounce asthma as written?

Sez You...

From Neil Fulton, Senior Assistant Editor, Etymology, Oxford English Dictionary:

I just wanted to drop you a line to congratulate you on reaching Issue 50 - keep up the good work.  Take Our Word For It is one of the very few etymology-related sites it's worth looking at.  Speaking as someone who actually earns a living from etymology, I sometimes feel you oversimplify slightly, and some of your Indo-European seems just a bit shaky, but the fundamentals are excellent.

A couple of quibbles relating to recent issues: if Old English didn't acquire any Celtic words (see Spotlight, Issue 49), how do you account for brock "badger"?  And, to the best of my knowledge, holbytla (see Words to the Wise, Issue 49) was invented as an after-the-fact justification for hobbit, which just popped into Tolkien's mind from nowhere.

Finally, I was surprised not to find Michael Quinion's site at in your list of links.

Thank you very much for your kind words.  Constructive criticism from such an exalted source is  praise indeed.

We must admit that brock slipped through our net.  It had never occurred to us that brock was anything more than a proper name used in children's books as in "Mr. Brock, the badger".

You will be pleased to know that we have added a link to Mr. Quinion's delightful site on our Links page.



From Steve:

I can't claim to be an expert on boobies (dream on!), but I can't let you get away with claiming booby = breast as American!  On the other hand, I can't substantiate my claim with any provenance: I leave that to you professionals.  I believe booby was common in 16th century England, and I seem to remember (probably from the UK Daily Mirror in the late sixties or early seventies) that Henry VIII used the word in a most familiar way in a letter to Anne Boleyn.

I've always had a sneaking feeling that the word is, well, not onomatopoeic, but derived in some analogous way... what a pity I can't blush in print!

You're thinking of bubbies.  The word booby/boobies did not show up, at least in writing, until American Henry Miller used it in Tropic of Cancer in 1934.  Bubbies, however, does in fact date back to the 17th century (though we can't find any references from Henry VIII).  We apologize for that confusion.  However, there's more confusion to add: while some sources derive bubbies from German bübbi "teat", others feel it is imitative of the sound a baby of suckling age might make: "buh buh".  Finally, still others think it comes from bub "drink".  Of course all of these words, including the German, could conceivably be imitative. 

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