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Issue 60   

November 8, 1999
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There's been quite a bit of hubbub recently over the origin of the word lynch.  We addressed this word some time ago, in Issue 11, where we stated that the word derives from the name of one [Captain] William Lynch (1742 - 1820), who made a name for himself by forming a vigilante group to uphold order in his town.  The earliest reference to Captain Lynch being the namesake of the word lynch comes from A. Ellicott, in 1811, who wrote "Captain Lynch just mentioned was the author of the Lynch laws so well known and so frequently carried into effect some years ago in the southern States in violation of every principle of justice and jurisprudence" (from A. Ellicott by V. Mathews, 1908).  Apparently, Captain Lynch's vigilante tribunal was first convened some time between 1776 and 1780.

Louis FarrakhanThe true identity of the Lynch who gave his name to the English verb is not so much in question now as are the details of his life.  There is a speech attributed to William Lynch which has been circulated on the internet and elsewhere, and which even Louis Farrakhan referred to at the Million Man March of October 16, 1995.  By quoting extensively from the "Willie Lynch" speech, Mr. Farrakhan inspired the birth of a new term, Willie Lynch Syndrome, based on Lynch's supposed speech, which is reproduced in its entirety below:

Gentlemen, I greet you here on the bank of the James River in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and twelve. First, I shall thank you, the gentlemen of the Colony of Virginia, for bringing me here. I am here to help you solve some of your problems with slaves. Your invitation reached me on my modest plantation in the West Indies where I have experimented with some of the newest and still the oldest methods for control of slaves. Ancient Rome would envy us if my program is implemented. As our boat sailed south on the James River, named for our illustrious King, whose version of the Bible we cherish, I saw enough to know that your problem is not unique. While Rome used cords of wood as crosses for standing human bodies along its old highways in great numbers you are here using the tree and the rope on occasion. 

I caught a whiff of a dead slave hanging from a tree a couple of miles back. You are not only losing valuable stock by hangings, you are having uprisings, slaves are running away, your crops are sometimes left in the fields too long for maximum profit, you suffer occasional fires, your animals are killed. Gentlemen, you know what your problems are; I do not need to elaborate. I am not here to enumerate your problems, I am here to introduce you to a method of solving them. 

In my bag here, I have a fool proof method for controlling your Black slaves. I guarantee everyone of you that if installed correctly it will control the slaves for at least 300 years. My method is simple. Any member of your family or your overseer can use it. 

I have outlined a number of differences among the slaves; and I take these differences and make them bigger. I use fear, distrust, and envy for control purposes. These methods have worked on my modest plantation in the West Indies and it will work throughout the South. Take this simple little list of differences, and think about them. On top of my list is "Age", the second is "Color" or shade, there is intelligence, size, sex, size of plantations, status on plantation, attitude of owners, whether the slaves live in the valley, on a hill, East, West, North, South, have fine hair or coarse hair, or is tall or short. Now that you have a list of differences, I shall give you an outline of action - but before that I shall assure you that distrust is stronger than adulation; respect or admiration. 

The Black slave after receiving this indoctrination shall carry on and will become self re-fueling and self-generating for hundreds of years, maybe thousands. 

Don't forget you must pitch the old Black vs. the young Black male, and the young Black male against the old Black male. You must use the dark skin slave vs. the light skin slaves and the light skin slaves vs. the dark skin slaves. You must use the female vs. the male, and the male vs. the female. You must also have your White servants and overseers distrust all Blacks, but it is necessary that your slaves trust and depend on us. They must love, respect, and trust only us.  

Gentlemen, these Kits are your Keys to control. Use them. Have your wives and children use them, never miss opportunity. If used intensely for one year, the slaves themselves will remain perpetually distrustful. 

Thank you, gentlemen.

The provenance of this speech has been the subject of much scholarly (and not-so-scholarly) debate.  We wish to add our $0.02 to the discussion, and allow us to say that we believe very strongly that this speech is a ridiculous fake, written in the 1990s (there's no record of it being circulated before 1993).

First, the writer of this speech has made hardly any attempt to use the writing/speech style of the early 18th century.

Second, the author was not at all successful at steering clear of very specific anachronisms.  We'll name only the most glaring word-choice errors: fool-proof, used in the speech, actually dates from only 1902.  The noun program is not used in the sense found in this speech until the 1830s.  Self-refuelling is an utter anachronism, as the term refuelling did not arise until the early 20th century.  Use of installed when referring to something other than a person did not first occur until the mid-19th century.  Moreover, attitude did not refer to anything other than a physical position until the mid-19th century.

Third, a speaker would hardly need to so carefully identify the date and place of his speech, nor would he be likely to refer to King James as "our illustrious King, whose version of the Bible we cherish", unless he were a person of the 1990s making a clumsy attempt at writing a fake speech from the early 18th century.  We cannot imagine why the writer introduces the theme of "James... our illustrious king" unless it is merely to emphasize that this took place in colonial times. Only someone creating a fake would need to try to establish a date for the speech within the fake itself.  And, by the way, James was long-dead by 1712, the monarch of that era being Queen Anne.  Finally, there is no evidence that a William Lynch from a "modest plantation" in the West Indies ever existed.  There is, however, plenty of evidence for the existence of Captain William Lynch of Pittsylvania, Virginia, whom we have identified as the probable source of the verb lynch, and who was born fifty years after the date given in the speech above.

There are other obvious characteristics of the speech which render it a 20th-century creation.  Some of these are discussed at a web site devoted to the subject and created by Anne Taylor, collection development librarian at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.  By the way, Ms. Taylor seems to be one of the first to have posted the speech on the internet.  She obtained it from the publisher of a free publication in St. Louis, The St. Louis Black Pages, dated 1994 but published in 1993.  This is the earliest reference we've been able to find to the Willie Lynch speech in print.  We think it's time to send Willie Lynch's speech to the urban legends department.

For information on another attempt to revise history using etymology, see our discussion of the origin of the word picnic.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Dawn :

Can you tell me the origin of the word Amazon?  I've heard that it comes from Greek meaning "without breasts".  This sounds odd to me, so I thought I'd ask an expert.

According to Greek legend, there was a race of women warriors called the Amazons.  Theyfrom Hercules and the Amazons (!) perpetuated their race by abducting nubile youths from neighboring tribes and disposing of them after having sex. This custom may not be as far-fetched as it sounds; anthropologists have reported equally strange practices.  For example, 19th century explorers of Africa told of a tribe in Angola called the Jaga.  They were said to be nomadic warriors and all (repeat all) babies born to them were killed. They maintained the numbers of their tribe by abducting teenagers from other tribes.  Incidentally, they no longer exist so perhaps they were just a legend (like the Amazons) after all.

The traditional Greek etymology of the word amazon was to split it into two words: a- ("not" or "without") and mazon ("breast") which they explained as coming from the Amazons' practice of cutting off the right breast so that it would not get in the way when shooting arrows from a bow.

Modern scholars have suggested that there really was a race called the Amazons and that their name had nothing to do with breasts.  It is now thought that amazon  is a non-Greek word and that the Greeks made up the whole story just to explain a word which they really didn't understand.

So, why is the longest river in South America called the Amazon?  Well, early explorers of the river claimed to have encountered female warriors who fought as fiercely as men and assumed that these must be the Amazons of Greek legend.  These fighting women were never again seen, so maybe they should join the Jaga of Angola in the category of dubious anthropology / traveler's tales.

From Elizabeth Byrne Dawes :

What is the origin of red tape?

There was a time when all legal and bureaucratic documents actually were tied up with bits of red tape.  Thus, Sir Walter Scott, in his Waverley novels (1814), refers to someone "Drawing from his pocket a budget of papers, and untying the red tape".  Later, red-tape came to be used metaphorically and ironically, as when Longfellow, in his journal, stated "All the morning at the custom-house, plagued with red tape".

The literal and ironic senses have now passed out of use.  Hence, red-tape now refers to those aspects of bureaucracy which we find irritating and unnecessary.  That usage first arose in the mid- to late-19th century.

From Holly:

In one of my college classes we were discussing the term tabula rasa.  We could not agree on where it came from.  I believe that it came from Aristotle and another classmate believes it came from some French dude back in the 1700s (or something like that).  What are its origins?

Tabula is the Latin word from which we get our word "table" although the Latin for "table" is actually mensa.  The Latin phrase tabula rasa means literally "erased tablet".  In ancient Rome, before the invention of Palm Pilots, notes were jotted down on a layer of beeswax held in a wooden frame (a tabula).  The inscription would be made with something called a stylus which was pointed at one end (for writing) and broad and flat at the other (for erasing).  When an ancient Roman had no further use for his notes he would smooth the wax with the erasing end of his stylus. Hence tabula rasa, "erased tablet".

So much for the literal meaning.  While Aristotle would not have used the very words tabula rasa (he was Greek, not Roman) the term has been used in connection with his beliefs.  He thought that, when we are born, our minds are like blank slates, ready to receive imprints. 

The term has been used in English in this figurative sense since at least the mid-16th century.

From Padraic Cassidy:

What is the origin and history of the word rube?

This word is simply a shortened form of Reuben.  It is first recorded in the form Reub in 1896.  By 1899 it appears in Tramping with Tramps by J. Flynt: "Rube, a "hoosier" or "farmer".  It is presumed that Reuben was a common name among farmers and rural folk and that it was taken (and shortened) to refer to such folk in general.  The word's meaning progressed to "naive or simple rural person" as farmers and such were perceived by city folk as uneducated and unrefined.  In England, the name Churl (a variant of Charles) was much used by our country cousins of yore.  Thus, for similar reasons to rube, the word churl came to mean "a clod-hopping country bumpkin"

Rube Goldberg is a completely different term, referring to the cartoonist of the 1940s who drew fantastically complicated machines which performed very simple tasks.  The term was first used as an adjective in 1956.

From Kim Hansen:

My Webster's defines a bit as 1/8 of a dollar.  Where did that unit of measure come from?

The word bit has meant "a small piece" since Shakespeare's time.  It wasn't long after Shakespeare's day that bit was used to refer to one eighth of a Spanish dollar (eight reales), also known as a piece of eight.  The dollar coin could be cut into eight pieces which would be accepted as legal tender.  That way you didn't have to spend all of your money in one place!  Seriously, though, bit "one eighth of a dollar" found a home in English, and when American dollars were introduced and patterned after the Spanish coin, the bit reference remained, such that eight bits composed one dollar.  It seems an odd fraction for a decimal-based currency, and now you know why.

From Lorraine:

Could you please tell me how the phrase skid row originated?

This word arose in the U.S. lumber industry of the early- to mid-19th century.  A skid road was a track made of peeled logs half buried in the ground.  Freshly cut logs were hauled or slid down this "road" as part of the process of transporting them out of the forest.  The term was heavily associated with loggers, as you might have guessed, such that the part of a town where loggers spent a lot of their free time came to be known as skid road.  Loggers were hard-working and hard-living men, and the skid road in most towns was where bars and brothels abounded.

By the 1920s, the term reverted to skid row, and it referred to the seedy part of a town where cheap hotels and taverns could be found.  The word still has that sense, along with a figurative one, today.

And speaking of log roads... a few years ago the oldest road yet discovered (built in 3806 B.C.) and one of the oldest man-made structures in Europe was unearthed.  This log road is in the county of Somerset in the west of England and was originally built as a means to cross a swamp.  Rising water levels soon rendered it unusable by those who built it but preserved it for us to marvel at.  Coincidentally, the nearest town to this structure is Street.  Archaeologists know this ancient roadway by the name of the farmer on whose land it was found, thus it is called "The Sweet Track". 

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

wherein Barb Dwyer wishes fire and brimstone upon those who say

bring it over there

Why is that some people, who have no trouble distinguishing between come and go, have so much trouble with bring and take? [Speakers of British English may tune out now; this is directed especially at Americans.] 

Only last week, my husband and I were eating at a deli when I ordered a cappuccino at the counter...

"Which table are you at?" inquired the counter-person, so I told him.

"I'll bring it over there when it's ready", he said.

The confusion over bring and take occurs only in the context of "bring it over there". For instance, we never hear such constructions as "he brought my pencil from me",  "we brought five prisoners"  or "the new barmaid has really brought his fancy". It is always "took my pencil", "took prisoners" and "taken his fancy".  So, how could this "bring it over there" usage possibly have arisen? 

All I can imagine is that school teachers routinely say, "Remember to bring your lunch money tomorrow."  Immigrant children who, perhaps, do not speak English as a first language might subsequently tell their parents, "My teacher says that I have to bring my lunch money tomorrow."

Please do not assume from this that I have anything against immigrants. Far from it. But, as this confusion does not arise in British or Australian English, that's the only explanation I have.  Does it seem plausible or do you think that I have brought leave of my senses?

By the way, while I shudder every time I hear "bring it there", I find brang and brung quite charmingThese dialectical variants of brought are merely ablaut inflections and are remnants of the Old English past participle brungen.

Sez You...

From Cynthia L. Armistead:

I recently discovered your site and enjoy it greatly.  I read the issue in which you address that silly "riddle" being passed around the net about words that end in -gry.  In its original form it went something like this:

There are three common English words which end with -gry.  Two of them are hungry and angry.  What is the third word?

The answer was "three", which is the third word in the riddle itself.

Thanks, Cynthia, for your kind words.  As for the -gry riddle, that is supposedly the original form of it, but it is such an idiotic riddle that we didn't think it worth mentioning as the source of the whole insane -gry craze (though we did, later in our column, offer a link to a site which details the original riddle).  Most people today who ask the question/riddle do so in earnest.  Also, the riddle does state that "there are three common English words which end with -gry", and we took it upon ourselves to disprove that.

Now then, we won't mention this silly riddle or the -gry issue ever again. 

From Ian Boersma:

I first would like to say that I thoroughly enjoy your site.  Great job!  I noticed in Issue 58, in the Spotlight section, you state:

So, due to Julius and Augustus inserting their own, private months into the calendar, the following months had to take a couple of steps backward.  September (from Latin semptem, "seven") became the ninth month, October (from Latin octo, "eight") became the ninth month... 

The ancient Romans actually began their year in March, not in January, as we currently do.  July was originally called Quintilis, the "fifth month", due to this convention.  Thus, September, October, November and December were not displaced by the two months of July and August that you state were "inserted", but were always in that order.  Julius Caesar merely renamed the month in which he was born from Quintillis to Julius while Augustus Caesar overwrote Sextilis with Augustus, thus making it the sixth month of the Roman calendar. 

We bow to your superior erudition, Ian.  Thank you for setting us straight! We will make corrections to that issue (ah, the wonders of internet publishing).

From Michael Slaten:

Ms. Dwyer has a different dictionary than do I. According to my dictionary, one can definitely not say that "something is egregiously good" anymore than one can say that "something is flagrantly good".

PS/I like your new navigation tools much better than that pop-up navigation device that you used previously.

From Cy Mulready:

I wholeheartedly disagree with your reader's assessment of the proper usage of the word "egregious." [See Issue 58, Curmudgeons' Corner.] While it may be the case the word derives from the Latin for "out of the flock," in current usage, it most certainly implies something outstandingly bad - flagrant, according to Merriam-Webster, not simply outstanding.  If I accuse a despot of committing egregious acts, that clearly implies that those actions were conspicuously bad. While the reader may bemoan the transitory nature of usage and meaning, the fact remains that word meaning ultimately comes from usage, not the other way around.

Barb says:

Well, maybe I am old fashioned.  People have been saying that this word may only be used in a negative sense since the 16th century but writers (such as Thackeray) have also been cheerfully ignoring them.

If word meaning comes from usage, then one of the meanings of bring is "take" (see Curmudgeons' Corner).

Melanie and Mike say:

Thanks for the feedback regarding navigation at the site, Michael!  Oh, and don't mind Barb.  She has got a reputation as a curmudgeon to uphold, after all (and, no, there is no rule which says curmudgeon cannot be applied to persons of female persuasion).

From Birger Drake:

As to your recent explanation of watershed, it may be of interest to you that in (now rather obsolete) Swedish we have the word skedvatten (sk- pronounced as your sh-) meaning a liquid with separating power: nitric acid, HNO3, which can be used to separate some noble metals from others which are not noble.  HNO3 is not as fully qualified as kungsvatten, literally "king's water", which is a mixture of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid, and which has the ability to dissolve metallic gold.

Sked is the ordinary Swedish word for "spoon". As a matter of fact, both Swedish sked  (from German scheiden) and your spoon (Old English spon "chip, shaving") originally had the meaning of "separation" of some kind.

By the way, there is a Swedish joke: Why can't the king use a golden chamber pot?  Because king's water dissolves gold.

Thanks, Birger, for the vocabulary, the etymology, and the joke!

We recently received this business proposition from Korea:

Dear melanie

We have been in touch with your Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who have recommended you as a possible selling agent for our products in your country. We manufacture the powder glue for wallpapers and wish to extend our sales activities over the whole your country.  We are one of the leading exporters of Korean powder glue for wallpapers and are enjoying an excellent reputation through long years' business experience. We are confident that you will be quite satisfied with our services and the perfect quality of our goods. 

We shall be very pleased if you will be interested in our proposal and will let us have your immediate attention on this matter.

We think the designs and styles of our goods will be just what you want for the trade you are negotiating, and the attractive appearance and excellent workmanship should appeal to your customers. If you want more information, please click our homepage.

Following Product Information.
1. Outline
This product is the paste as powder state and satisfies high work-efficiency of papering and necessity for progressing abilities about transportation and storage by dissolving directly in water within short interval. Moreover since price is low, this product gives you better benefit.
2. Use
To sized before papering, Base Wallpapers, Normal Wallpapers, Silk & PVC Wallpapers, Vinyl & Washables Wallpapers, Embossed Wallpapers, Heavy embossed Wallpapers, Other Special Wallpapers, Posters etc.
3. Characteristics
- Small volume and light weight make transportation and conveyance easy.(1/50 of existing products)
- Though storage for long period, not degenerated.
- Soluble quickly with cold water and not coagulated.
- This products do not injure human body, skin and damage clothes and is not harmful as no odor.
- Smooth pasting makes brushing light. So you will feel less tired.
- It is easy to control a interval between paters.
- It is clean in a fine sight because the paste exposed outside paper is from well.
- Adhesive capacity is prominent. So after papering paper is apart from wall.
- Paper do not get musty by fungicide & antibiotic treatment.
- You can adjust the ratio at your option as kinds of wall paper change.

We hope this information will be of service to you and shall be glad to furnish you with anything you need.  We have a keen desire to have long business relationship with your company.

We'll bet that the letter-writer used Altavista's Babelfish to translate his letter from Korean to English.  Where he got the idea that we might wish to sell wallpaper glue is anybody's guess.

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