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Issue 54

September 27, 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...

woodwind words

A recent article in Nature reveals that a cache of ancient flutes has been found in China.  These instruments, made from the leg bones of the red-crested crane, are still playable despite being 9,000 years old.  One of them has even been used to make a recording of the Chinese folk tune "Little Cabbage". Ancient flutes.  Click to read the article in Nature.

They are "end-blown" flutes which means that they are simply tubes with finger-holes and are played by blowing across the end (rather as one "plays" a Coke bottle).  Modern examples of end-blown flutes are the Chinese tung hsiao, the Japanese shakuhachi and the Middle Eastern ney.

The word flute is a bit of a mystery as it is by no means certain where it came from.  Authorities are divided as to whether it comes from Spanish flauta, French flaüte (also written flahute or flahuste) or Provençal flauta.  But where did French (or Spanish, or Provençal) get it?  The truth is that no one knows but most agree that it did not come from Latin.

The Oxford English Dictionary states that "the flute of the ancients, whether single or double, was blown through a mouthpiece at the end".  We imagine that the erudite (but unmusical) authors of this passage were probably thinking of the aulos, "double pipe", and the monaulos, "single pipe".  These ancient Greek instruments were not, strictly speaking, flutes; they were reed instruments with a double reed, similar to an oboe.  Now oboe is the English spelling of the French word hautbois which means, literally, "high wood(wind)" (from haut, "high" + bois, "wood") .  This contrasts nicely with bassoon, the bass form of the oboe, which comes from French basson, (either an augmented form of bass, "low" or bass-son, "low-sound").  Etymologically, the conversion of -on to -oon bears comparison with cartoon (from French carton) and buffoon (from Italian buffone).  Curiously, the Italian for bassoon is fagotto, "bundle of sticks".  This is because the overall length of the bassoon was so great that it had to be made as a collection interlocking parts.  When not in use, it presumably resembled a "bundle of sticks".

In modern times, the two most popular single-reed instruments are the clarinet and the saxophone.  The saxophone takes its name from its creator, Adolph Sax, who also invented the now obscure saxhorn.  The clarinet derives its name from the Latin clarus, "clear" and has frequently been called clarionet due to confusion with the clarion which is quite a different instrument.  A clarion is, in fact, a "bugle".

Another single-reed instrument is the hornpipe.  This was once played throughout the British Isles but today survives only in Wales where it is called pibgorn (literally, "pipe horn").  Chambers’ Cyclopedia (1788) states that it is " a common instrument of music in Wales, consisting of a wooden pipe, with holes at stated distances and a horn at each end".  It was this instrument which gave its name to the hornpipe dance.  The OED maintains that this is "a dance of a lively and vigorous character, usually performed by a single person... specially associated with the merrymaking of sailors".  Now we wouldn't like you to think that we are harping [ouch!] on the musical deficiencies of the OED (a wonderfully absorbing work of scholarship which you can buy from us!) but our notion of sailors' merrymaking does not involve solo dances, no matter how "lively and vigorous".  In fact, despite the existence of four separate tunes called "The Sailors' Hornpipe", the hornpipe is strictly a land-lubbers dance which originated in the English theatre.  Have you ever tried dancing on a heaving deck?

From Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony to modern TV commercials, the oboe is used to evoke feelings of the countryside.  Why is this so?  Well, reed pipes such as the hornpipe and the shawm (a primitive oboe) were originally associated with shepherds.  Presumably, Beethoven expected his listeners to appreciate his allusion but nowadays it is simply a matter of musical convention.  Shawm comes ultimately from the Latin calamus, "reed" and is called chalumeau in French.  The lowest register of the clarinet is known as the chalumeau register.

To return to the OED entry on flutes, a flute which is "blown through a mouthpiece at the end" is generally called a penny whistle or tin whistle.  These have come to be associated with Irish folk music but in the 19th century they were very popular in England and America as Christmas presents for children.  They were, as the name suggests, made of tin but it has been a long while since they cost a penny.  The whistle part of the name is quite ancient, dating back to the Old English hwistle (9th century) and is related to Old Norse hvisla, "whisper" and Danish hvisle, "hiss".

Italian zampogna.  Click to visit a site devoted to the universe of pipes!  Back by popular demand.The penny whistle has the same range as the piccolo which is more properly known as the "piccolo  flute".  Piccolo is simply Italian for small, so a piccolo flute is simply a small flute.  In the 1930s, Harlem piccolo was slang for "jukebox" and in Cockney Rhyming Slang a whistle (and flute) is a "suit".  Apart from these two examples of slang, all the above instruments have been called pipes.  This seems only reasonable as, after all, they are all made out of some kind of pipe with holes in it.  It may not have occurred to you, gentle reader, but our word pipe, meaning "tube", comes from the instruments, not the other way around.  Pipe is connected with peep, the noise which chicks are said to make.  The same word crops up in German as pfeife which reveals its relation to the English word fife (a kind of small flute).

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Bill Belisle:

I recently received an E-Mail from a business associate in England who was wondering about the origin of the word ballpark as in "that's just a ballpark figure" meaning approximate or a close estimate. My guess is that it refers to attendance figures at ball (baseball?) games which may have been approximated by announcers but the truth is that I have no idea of the word's connotation. Can you help?

Actually, the term has nothing to do with attendance figures.  Instead, it has its roots in the fieldClick to visit Melanie's favorite baseball site (not necessarily the one pictured!) of astronautics in the late 1950's.  When splashing down back on earth, a spacecraft was said to be in the ballpark if it landed within a designated area.  This was taken from baseball, of course, where balls which were hit within the ballpark were still playable, versus those hit out of the ballpark, which were usually home runs.  Therefore, a ball landing inside the park was considered a good thing for the team in the field.  Ballpark first appears in print in this astronautics context in 1960, when the San Francisco Examiner noted that "[t]he Discoverer XIV capsule...came down 200 miles from the center of its predicted impact area, but still within the designated ‘ballpark’ area."

The term spread from the astronautics industry and came to be applied to anything which was "close" to correct.  The San Francisco Examiner used the full phrase in the ballpark in 1968 with that meaning.  Interestingly, the term ballpark figure appears in print in 1967 in the Wall Street Journal!  A ballpark figure is, of course, one which is within range of the true figure.

An American legend attributes the "invention" of baseball to a certain Abner Doubleday.  In fact, baseball has been played in Britain for centuries, albeit with rather different rules from its American cousin.  Evidence for this may be found in Chapter 1 of "Northanger Abbey" (1798) by Jane Austen - "It was not very wonderful that Catherine should prefer cricket [and] base ball to books".  Also, the home turf of the celebrated English soccer club Derby County used to be The Baseball Ground, a name which indicates the former popularity of this sport.  British baseball has not entirely died out.  It survives in and around two cities: Cardiff in Wales and Liverpool in England.  Every year the top team from each country plays in an "international" game.



From Gene Anderson:

What is the etymology of the word bogus?

Today bogus means "fake" or "spurious", but it has come quite a way from its source.  While its origins are a bit contentious, the best explanation comes from the editor of the paper which first used the word in print (in 1827), the Painesville (Ohio) Telegraph.  That editor, Mr. Eber D. Howe, Click to visit a site about detecting counterfeit money.states that a machine for producing counterfeit money was found in the possession of a group of counterfeiters in Painesville.  A crowd gathered to watch the seizure and arrests, and someone in that crowd shouted out that the odd contraption was a bogus.  A Dr. S. Willard, of Chicago, later told the OED that he surmised that bogus was short for tantrabogus, a word with which he had grown familiar in his childhood, and which to him meant "any ill-looking object".  He corroborated this with reference to a Devonshire, England word for the devil, tantarabobs.  

The OED conjectures that, based on the above, bogus is probably related to bogy "the devil; a goblin."  Bogy is derived from the Middle English word which gave us bug: bugge.  The origin of the Middle English form is thought to be Welsh bwg[a] "a ghost" [see Spotlight, Issue 49].  English bug originally referred to "an object of terror, usually imagined" but now the sense "insect" has displaced the original, except in words like bugbear and bugaboo.

Entomologically, a bug is not just any old creepy-crawly with a multitude of legs.  It is specifically an member of the family hemiptera (from Greek hemi-, "half" + ptera, "wing").  Most of these are harmless suckers of plant juices but one genus sucks human blood - the bed bug.  Hey, we've finally  combined etymology and entomology!

Anyhow, bogus is still considered to this day to refer to a machine which makes counterfeit money, and that sense of "counterfeit" or "fake" accounts for the word's most popular meaning today. 



From SjoChat:

Where does catywhompus come from?

Isn't that a great word?  It's usually spelled catawampus, and in the U.S. it is characterized as being used chiefly in the southern and middle parts of the country.  Today it means "askew" or even "disorganized", but, amazingly, it originally meant "fierce, destructive".  It was soon toned down to mean "eager, avid".  It is first recorded in the U.S. in 1843;  Dickens borrowed it very soon thereafter in his Martin Chuzzlewit.  By the 1870s the word was used to refer to flying insects, especially those which stung, presumably because they were "fierce". 

How the word's meaning shifted to "askew" is unclear.  One source suggests the word's origin as catamount, "cougar" (a contraction of "cat of the mountain"), probably because of the early "fierce" connotations.  The OED also gives the word a definition of "a bogy, a fierce imaginary animal", though it provides no quotes to back up that meaning.  However, American dictionaries sometimes suggest that catawampus with the meaning "askew" or "cater-cornered" is related to the cater- in cater-cornered.  Cater- in that sense comes from French quatre "four", referring to diagonally situated objects or buildings and implying four corners.

But what about the -wampus part?  It's really anyone's guess, though at least one American source suggests it might be related to the word to wampish "to wave about or flop to and fro", of Scottish origin.

Speaking of wampishing, Mike just had to remind Melanie of the mugwumps (from Massachusett Indian muggumquomp, "a war-leader"), an American political movement of the 19th century whose members were accused of "sitting on the fence with their mug on one side and their wump on the other".  Incidentally, The Mugwumps was the original name of the singing group The Mamas and the Papas.

These disparate meanings might suggest that the two different forms of catawampus arose separately, but that one (that with the "fierce" meaning, as it is earlier) influenced the spelling and pronunciation of the other.



From Michael Farrell :

I have seen or heard a few possible explanations for chicken pox. It could be "chicken feed" compared to small pox (a much more serious disease). Also, the small pearly pocks may have looked like the chick pea to somebody. I couldn't find anything more satisfying to link the animal to the rash. What do you think?

Although it's fairly clear that you know the origin of the word pox, we'll go over that for ourThey're so darn cute when they're young! readers. Pox is actually a variant spelling of pocks, the plural of pock "pustules" or, later "scars left by pustules, pockmarks." Pox used to be a common term for "syphilis", but today it is mainly heard in the terms chickenpox and smallpox (so called to distinguish it from the great pox, syphilis). As for why the mildest of the pox is called chickenpox, two sources indicate that it may be due to the relative mildness of the disease. This is somewhat supported by the fact that chicken was used to mean "cowardly person" as early as 1400. There are other instances in English where animal names are used to denote degree (horseradish, for example).

By the way, the origin of chicken goes at least back to Old English cicceno (c. 950).  It is thought to derive from an Old Teutonic root *kiuk-, from which also came cock.  This fowl was known to the ancient Romans, who may have brought it to Britain, but it actually has its origin in the jungles of Vietnam.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

Resident curmudgeon Barb Dwyer fumes about...

gourmet delights

Lest there be any misunderstanding, let it be said right now that the word gourmet is a noun.  Got it?  A noun.  Not an adjective.  A gourmet is a connoisseur of  fine wines and foods.  Originally, the word meant a wine-merchant's assistant and there is a wonderful Middle English word grummet (also spelled grommet) which means the same thing.  ("...more cheese, Gromit?")

So why is it that we now hear of gourmet kitchens, gourmet coffee and even (saints preserve us!) gourmet ginseng extract.  The gourmet kitchen is almost permissible; it is a kitchen for gourmets.  The other examples are inexcusable.  Gourmet coffee is a nondescript Colombian coffee to which some kind of synthetic flavoring has been added.  Can anyone acquainted with the high standards of a true gourmet imagine that any gourmet could allow such a vile fluid past his lips?

Thus are the ideals of gastronomy debased to mere gastrology.

Sez You...

From Carl Hutchinson:

I have enjoyed your site for some time now - keep up the great work!  I do, however, think that the new page takes altogether too much time to download. I don't expect to be able to get cable access for some time yet so please see if you can reduce the graphics.

Thank you for your words of encouragement and appreciation.  We have been working on optimizing the site's load time and we hope you see a difference this week.  We have more work to do in that regard, however, so we hope you'll be patient with us.  Meantime, the regular graphics should be cached by your browser so that you don't have to wait for them to download each week.



From Mike:

What happened to your formidable collection of word etymologies that used to be accessible by clicking on View the Archives Index?  Tell me it's not gone! Oh, please!

You were not the only one to voice this concern, Mike.  We had decided to do away with the "Archives" as much of the material there was incomplete or missing altogether. We've been updating some of that material and using it in these weekly columns.  However, we will make the Archives accessible again in the next week or so and will simply remove entries which we update and include in current issues.  Those entries will then be available via the Back Issues and via our new and fabulous search engine.



From Ann Hogan:

Like the new format, but what were you thinking when you picked that nausea-inducing mustard background? Looks like a living room in the 70s.

You don't mince words, do you?   The background looks quite pleasing on our monitor, but it's difficult to know if we just like mustard yellow (also known as "harvest gold" in the 70s) or if your monitor is displaying the color rather differently than ours.  However, we're working on finding colors which are universally pleasing.  Glad to hear you like our new look despite the colors!

Hmmm, zo vy do you find ze 1970s nowzeatink?  [Strokes beard, puffs on cigar.] Tell me more about your childhood.



From John Broussard:

For what it's worth, I've heard the expression came from hand setting type. Since the typesetter had to recognize characters by their mirror image, p's look like q's and vice versa.

We heard from several readers with this explanation for the phrase mind your p's and q's (Words to the Wise, Issue 53).  While there is no evidence to support it, all explanations of the phrase's origin are conjecture, so we'll throw this one in the pot, too.

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