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Issue 59   

November 1, 1999
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This evening, as we sit here in the Scriptorium, we are listening to a radio program of Indian sitar music and we are wondering if the word sitar is related to guitar. [It's not. See Sez You, Issue 149.]

Guitar goes back ultimately to Greek kithára, which was a stringed instrumentA sitar. related to the lyre.  It was a kind of harp which originally used a turtle shell as a resonator.  Several unrelated medieval and Renaissance instruments took their names from this Greek word.  One is the citole, a medieval stringed instrument, which English acquired via the Latin citharaZither also comes from cithara but entered English via German in the 19th century.

The cittern (also called a gittern or English guitar), was a renaissance plucked stringed instrument, got its name from guiterne, an early form of the French word for guitar, combined with Latin cithara.  From the 16th to the 18th centuries one might expect to find a cittern in any English barber's shop where the patrons would play upon it while waiting for their "short back and sides".  Citterns have undergone a renaissance of their own recently and are being increasingly used for playing traditional Celtic music.

English got guitar itself from French guitare, which came, via Spanish guitarra, from Arabic quitar. The Arabic, of course, came from the Greek kithára.  So, is sitar  related?  Well, we have to pronounce that a definite "maybe".

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From David Crawford:

I am trying to find out the history of the phrase catch 22.  Any ideas?

Who, us?  Ideas?  We occasionally have an idea or two, and we won't let you down in this case.  Catch- 22 comes from a book of the same title by American author Joseph Heller (b. 1924).  The termClick to visit a study site regarding Catch-22. referred originally to a military rule whose provisions are mutually frustrating.  Take, for example, this quote from Heller's  book:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. 

"That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.

"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.

Heller used Catch- 18 instead of Catch- 22 when the first chapter of his book was originally published in 1955.  He changed it by the time the entire book was published in 1961 because his publisher had already published a book that year with "18" in the title! So 1961 is when the phrase catch- 22 first appeared.  It was first used figuratively in 1971 in Atlantic Monthly magazine.  Today the term is hyphenated only when it is used as an adjective, as in catch-22 situation.

From James Brennan:

What is the history of the term watershed when used to refer to "a turning point in history"?

English took watershed directly from German wasserscheide, a term known in German since the 14th century which referred to "a dividing line separating rivers flowing into one basin from those flowing into another".  Wasserscheide means literally "water-separation" (and scheide probably comes from the same Indo-European root which gave English sh*t and schism).  However, when English borrowed the German term, it did not directly translate it but instead anglicized scheide to shed.  This happened around the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century.

By the way, shed comes ultimately from the same Indo-European source as scheide.

From Renay Weissberger Fanelli:

How did the word jackass come to describe someone behaving in a negative or idiotic manner?

First we have to tell you how jackass came to describe what we today call a donkey.  Ass is a very old word, of even much older roots.  In late Old English it was assa, thought to have come from one of the Click to visit the UK Donkey Sanctuary site. Celtic languages (Old Irish has asal).  Many other Indo-European languages had versions of the word which derived from Latin asinus, but the record seems to indicate that the Celtic version(s) lent themselves not only to Old English, but to Teutonic and Slavonic as well.  From this etymologists speculate that the Celtic form has as its ultimate roots a Sumerian or Semitic word, which might explain also where the Greek form onos (source of English onager) came from.  Hebrew has the word athon "ass".

Jack, used to identify the male form of a species, goes back to at least the late 16th or early 17th century.  In the case of the ass, Jenny was used to refer to mares.  There was a feminine form of ass in Old English, assen (formed like the feminine form of fox, vixen), but Jack and Jenny replaced the need for a feminine form.

Jackass used to describe a "fool" comes from the age-old association of clumsiness and unintelligence with asses (that's what happens when you've been domesticated for millenia!); this goes back at least to the ancient Greeks and was perpetuated in the Bible.   The purely metaphorical use, calling a man an ass,  arose in the 17th century.

Also, relatives of ass (and Irish asal) may be found in the German ezel and Dutch esel.  It is from this latter word that we derive easel, the wooden ass which carries an artist's canvas.

From Rolf Schlosser:

Do you know the etymology of crowbar?

If you've ever seen a crow-bar, you may understand that the sharp, angled end of it looks a bit like a bird's beak.  That's exactly where the instrument got its name.  The word crow in this sense first appears in writing about 1400 in this quote: "... werke-men..Putten prises Þer-to..Kaghtene by Þe corners wt crowes of yrne ("workmen put prises thereto, caught by the corners with crows of iron").  It was not until the mid-18th century that bar was added to crow, lest listeners or readers think someone was prizing open a crate with a bird!  The first recorded use of crow bar occurs in a report from colonial New Jersey: "Men, armed with clubs, axes, and crow bars, came, in a riotous and tumultuous manner".

From Mike McCaughan:

I was speaking to someone recently in Spanish and used the word lugar "place".  You had once mentioned that the French lieu came from Latin locus, in a discussion about lieutenant.  I guess I can see how the Spanish got lugar from locus, but where did we get the word place?

English place is the same word as Spanish plaza and Italian piazza, among others, coming from Latin platea "broad way, open space".  Latin got it from Greek plateia hodos "broad way".  English took the word from Latin with that meaning, though it only lasted until the late 10th century.  Old English, after all, had stow "place" (which today survives in place-names like Stow-on-the-Wold and Chepstow).  However, by the 13th century, place was back, though by this time it had the meaning "a particular part of a space" (being a synonym for Latin locus and Old English stow).  In the 16th century the plaza meaning was taken up, again, so that place also referred to a group of houses built around a small square; that meaning is still in use today, too.

The Indo-European root which gave rise to Greek plateia is plat-, source also of plate, platypus ("flat foot"), flan ("flat cake"), flounder (a flat fish), plantar ("related to the sole of the foot" (which is flat)), and plateau.

From Alyssa Mayo:

What is the origin of the phrase double whammy?  Is there a single whammy?

First we must look at whammy, which means "a curse or hex" and dates from about 1940.  It is thought that this comes from wham "a heavy blow", which is an echoic word, meaning that a heavy blow makes aLi'l Abner by Al Capp. sound like "wham".  Wham first appears in the record in 1923, in the New York Times: "Wham, a success, a knock-out."

Al Capp took whammy and used it in his comic strip Lil' Abner, first in July of 1951:

Evil-Eye Fleegle is th' name, an' th' "whammy" is my game.  Mudder Nature endowed me wit' eyes which can putrefy citizens t' th' spot!...There is th' "single whammy."  That, friend, is th' full, pure power o' one o' my evil eyes!  It's dynamite, friend, an' I do not t'row it around lightly!...And lastly - th' "double whammy" - namely, th' full power o' both eyes - which I hopes I never hafta use.

So yes, Alyssa, there is a single whammy, too, though it didn't make it into common parlance like double whammy did.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

wherein Barb Dwyer bewails the misuse of


I just had to agree with Malcolm Tent's dissection of enormity, last week. It indicates something wicked, not something huge. There is one word which is misused in the opposite manner though.

I often hear egregious used as if it meant wicked whereas it simply means "outstanding".  One could say that something is egregiously wicked or egregiously  good. Used alone, egregious  merely means "outstanding".  Literally, it implies something which stands outside of the common herd, from the Latin ex-, "out of", "from" and grex, gregis, "a flock", "herd".

Sez You...

From Zev Shanken:

I have a usage question based on this phrase of yours from the recent issue: "Only proscriptivists object to it being used in that manner..."  My question is, am I being a "proscriptivist" if I object to your saying "it being" rather than "its being?"  I had been taught that somehow due to Latin grammar rules imposed on English, the gerunds take possessive pronouns.

From Denis Thievin:

In your response to the reader who opposed your use of "due to", I noticed that you stated: "Only proscriptivists object to it being used in that manner, claiming that it should be used only as an adjective. "  Didn't you really mean "... object to ITS being used ... "?

Yes, you are being proscriptivists, but that's not so bad.  In essence, if you can be clearly understood, then you're doing well.  The esteemed H.W. Fowler says that "its being" AND "it being" are equally acceptable.  The notion of basing English on Latin grammar seems a bit superfluous and a remnant (along with dangling participles) of post-Renaissance grammarians.  However, we'll stress again that either is acceptable.

From Kevin Brennan:

I believe you are now bookmarked here at Chico State University, California by any of us who are important or at the least think we are. Keep up the fantastic work. Do you do speaking engagements? 

We do!  E-mail us for more information.  Thank you for the kind words, Kevin.  Your importance is unquestioned! 

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