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Issue 61   

November 15, 1999
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Spotlight Words on our minds this week.
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Russian Roulette

This term, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “an act of bravado in which a person loads (usually) one chamber of a revolver, spins the cylinder, holds the barrel to his head, and pulls the trigger”, made its first appearance in written English in 1937.  It was used at that time by Georges Surdez in a short story he wrote for Collier’s magazine entitled “Russian Roulette”.  The term first appears in that story in the following passage:

'…did you ever hear of Russian Roulette?’  When I said I had not, he told me all about it.  When he was with the Russian army in Rumania, around 1917, and things were cracking up, so that their officers felt that they were not only losing prestige, money, family, and country, but were being also dishonored before their colleagues of the allied armies, some officer would suddenly pull out his revolver, anywhere, at the table, in a café, at a gathering of friends, remove a cartridge from the cylinder, spin the cylinder, snap it back in place, put it to his head, and pull the trigger.  There were five chances to one that the hammer would set off a live cartridge and blow his brains all over the place.  Sometimes it happened, sometimes not.

It is interesting to note that Surdez describes above a version of Russian roulette in which five chambers of the gun’s cylinder hold cartridges, whereas today the understanding is that only one chamber holds a bullet.  However, Surdez mentions both the five-cartridge and one-cartridge versions of this “game” in his short story.  Cecil Adams makes the point that the five-cartridge version is basically suicide, while the one-cartridge variety is indeed more a game of chance.  The latter is the form associated with the term Russian roulette today. 

All the available evidence suggests that Surdez made up the term based on the reputation Russian soldiers and officers had for violent and self-destructive behavior.  It is just possible that he heard it somewhere else and adopted it for his story, but if so, we have no record of this earlier source.  By the way, Mr. Surdez was not very prolific, at least not as far as his widely-published material goes.  The only other work we could find by him was “Restricted!”, which was published in Adventure magazine in December of 1947.

The figurative use of the term Russian roulette occurred at least by 1960; in 1976 even the medical journal The Lancet got in on the act: “Abusive parents are often the scarred survivors of generations of reproductive russian roulette.”  The metaphorical meaning of the phrase had become “playing recklessly with chance”.

How on earth did Russians gain a reputation for playing such a deadly game?  While Russian officers of the Revolution and World War I eras were known for being violent and reckless, even depressed, crazed or drunk to the point of suicide, there is absolutely no evidence that they engaged in what we call Russian roulette.  Cecil Adams did, however, find a Russian novel, A Hero of Our Time, by Mikhail Lermontov (published in 1840 and translated by Vladimir Nabokov in 1958), in which a character engages in behavior which is similar to Russian roulette:  A group of officers, bored one evening, argue over the notion of predestination.  A Serbian among them takes the position that one’s fate is predestined, betting against the others that he is correct.  To illustrate this, he takes up a gun which is hanging on display on the wall, puts it to his head, and pulls the trigger.  Nothing happens.  He next aims the firearm at the ceiling and pulls the trigger, and a shot is fired.  His companions pay their bets in amazement.  Only a few hours after that event, the Serbian is murdered by a drunk.

Now that we know why this game was associated with the Russians, even if they never actually played it, why is it known as roulette?  Roulette is a game of chance where a wheel with numbered Playing roulette. compartments is spun, and a small ball is placed on the spinning wheel.  The number of the compartment where the ball stops is the winning number.  Spinning the cylinder of a gun after placing a bullet inside it is likened to spinning the roulette wheel.  Roulette is a French word and is simply the diminutive form of rouelle “wheel”.  Rouelle comes from the Indo-European root ret- “to run, roll”, which is the source of English words like roll, rotate, rodeo and round.  The word roulette referring to the particular game of chance first appeared in the English written record in 1745.  There is an earlier occurrence of the word, in about 1734, with the meaning “small wheel”, but that meaning is now obsolete.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Harvey Schmidt:

Abracadabra - where does this come from?

We tend associate this word with stage conjurors and, as a result, might therefore hazard a guess that it's... ooh... maybe as old as the last century, right? Wrong. This word is truly ancient.

Abracadabra was first recorded in Gnostic amulets of the 3rd century A.D. and was once thought to be a word of real magical power.  The amulets were worn around the neck and were supposed to protect against fever.  The word was inscribed in the form of a triangle, thus:

A B R A C A D A B R A As you may have noticed, the word abracadabra appears twice in this charm: once in the top row and once again if you read the right column from bottom to top.  The ultimate origin of the word is uncertain but it may be related to the Gnostic deity called Abraxas, who was also known as Aeon.

Another popular, not to say cliché, "magic word" is presto. This is merely the Italian for "quickly" so, when a conjuror cries "Presto, be gone... away, fly, vanish" (from "The Case Is Altered", Ben Johnson, 1598), he merely means "go quickly away".

In the mid-17th century presto was said to be "a word used by juglers [sic] in their Hocus Pocus tricks."  Now, this hocus pocus is also quite fascinating as it is thought to be a garbled borrowing from the Latin Mass.  At the high point of the mass, bread and wine are (magically) transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ. The priest then raises up the body of Christ and quotes Jesus' own words at the Last Supper, saying "This is my body..." or, in the original Latin, Hoc est corpus meum...  It was this hoc est corpus which became hocus pocus.

From Joyce Wang:

I would like to know the etymology of exotic.

Originally, exotic meant merely "foreign".  It derives from the Greek exotikos, and ultimately from exo, which signifies "from outside", "foreign". Thus, in the 17th century, one writer remarked that the Welsh language "hath the least mixture of Exotick words of any now used in Europe."

With time exotic came to acquire connotations of the strange and the bizarre, notions which are naturally associated with far-flung, foreign lands.  In the 1950s, U.S. strip-tease dancers came to be called exotic dancers, perhaps playing on the similarity to the word erotic.

The Indo-European root from which the Greek is descended is eghs "out".  Other words having eghs as their source are exoteric, exoskeleton, and synecdoche.

From John :

Please tell me the origin of the word bulldozer.

TA robotic bulldozer (click for link)his word first appears in writing in 1876 as the verb bulldoze which meant "intimidate by violence".  A bulldozer was therefore "one who intimidates by violence".  It is suggested that the word is simply a compound of bull "male cow" and dose referring to a "dose" of whipping.  The idea is supposedly that the dose of whipping was severe enough for a bull.

Bulldoze may have been influenced by the bull in bullwhipBulldozing is thought by some to have arisen after the American Civil War, when blacks were sometimes given a bull-dose by racist whites in order to coerce them to vote for a certain candidate.  The "pushing around" meaning behind the term apparently came to be applied to machinery which pushed earth around, some time in the late 1920s; the term is first recorded with that meaning in 1930.

From Nyrican:

How did cheese get its name?

This is a very old word in English; it goes back to Old English where it was cése or cýse.  ItMmmm - cheese! comes ultimately from Latin caseus "cheese"; in fact, Latin gave the word to many of the Germanic languages (Dutch kaas, German käse).  Spanish queso comes from Latin, as well.

Where Latin got caseus is not clear, but John Ayto, for one, suggests that it may be related to Sanskrit kvathate "to boil", which could refer to the frothiness of the milk from which cheese is made, or to the cooking of milk to make the cheese.  However, while kvathikaa means "a decoction made from milk" there is no direct mention of cheese or even of milk in this word.  It just means "something boiled".  In the cow-centered society which used the Sanskrit language, milk was considered the most wholesome (and holy) of liquids and boiling implied "boiling in milk".

Caseate "to make cheese", casein "curd" and caseic acid (a.k.a. lactic acid) all come from the Latin source.

From Osirisburn:

Where do we get the word rave "party"?  What's the origin of the word rave?

The verb rave was first used in writing by the venerable Chaucer in the late 14th century.  In Troilus and Criseyde he wrote: "Ye ben so wylde it semeth Þat ye raue" ("You be so wild it seems that you  rave").  At that time, as it does today, the word meant "to be mad or show signs of madness; to talk or declaim wildly due to madness or some great passion".  By the early 17th century the word had acquired a similar yet less dire meaning: "to speak in a frenzied or enthusiastic manner" and then "to speak of something with enthusiasm".  It is the latter which gave us current usages such as rave reviews and "she raves about him".  The "frenzied or enthusiastic" meaning also lent itself to a noun in the late 16th century, and that is ultimately where rave "party" comes from.  This usage is first recorded in 1960 in London, and refers to such parties being frenzied or exciting.  In those early days it was most often encountered in the form rave-up, as in "There's a rave-up at Peter's house tonight".  This was soon abbreviated to rave, especially in the case of all-night parties which were called all-night raves.

Rave's etymology is debatable.  One school suggests that it derives from a variant form of Old French rêver "to dream, be delirious" (reverie comes from the same source).   Another group believes it to come from Latin rabia, a Late Latin form of Latin rabies (which English took in the same form), from Latin rabere "to rage" (and rage comes from rabies, as well, via Provençal).

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

wherein Barb Dwyer calls down the wrath of heaven on those who say

the millennia is coming

I know most of you didn't study Latin, so here's a quick lesson: nouns which have a nominative singular inflection of -um are of the 3rd declension, are of the neuter gender, and take a  nominative plural inflection of -a.  Got that?  

Oh well. I'll say again, slowly.  Millennium (which has two l's and two n's, by the way) is a case in point. The plural is millennia.

Mr. Dwyer and I went to see a new movie called "Dogma" last weekend.  It was quite a jolly little flick but my enjoyment was impaired by a fallen angel whining that he had waited "a millennia".  For that solecism alone the script-writers should be "cast into the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth".  It would seem that angels have a hard time with grammatical number, for Metatron, a character played by Alan Rickman, proclaims himself to be both "the voice of God" and "a seraphim".  What he should have said, of course, was "I am a seraph", seraphim being the plural form.  It raises an interesting theological problem: can God make grammatical errors in Hebrew?  Well, if She couldn't, it would be a lapse of omnipotence, I suppose.

So don't let me hear any of you saying "The millennia is coming" or I'll take a fiery sword to the lot of you... or maybe just detention for the whole class.

Sez You...

From John R. Ellison:

In Issue 25 (January 25, 1999) you discussed the 'Net legend of the origins of extending one's middle finger as an obscene gesture. While I agree that this is undoubtedly an incorrect origin for the gesture in question, I believe I have found the basis for the origin of the legend. I've been reading a history of the Hundred Years War (the period during which the supposed origin occurred), The Hundred Years War, The English in France, 1337-1453 by Desmond Seward. In it he discusses the battle of Agincourt and events leading up to it. The English, under King Henry V, were badly outnumbered by the French forces under the Dauphin (the English had only about 5000 archers and around 800 men-at-arms - the French fielded an army totaling 40,000 to 50,000).  

I quote from the book; "King Henry heard three Masses and took communion before addressing his men. He told them 'he was come into France to recover his lawful inheritance', and that the French had promised to cut three fingers off every English Archer's right hand so 'they might never presume again to shoot at man or horse'." The author does not indicate whether or not this threat had actually come from the French, or if King Henry had merely made it up as propaganda (the latter seems most likely to me). 

The quotes attributed to King Henry V are apparently from "the narrative of a chaplain who rode with his army." The French, of course, through much of the Hundred Years War, learned to respect and fear the English long-bowmen who could shoot arrows very accurately over a fairly long range. The English found that by placing archers where they would be on the flanks of a French attack, the French forces could be severely weakened before they met the main body of the English forces. The long bow was especially effective against the French cavalry because the horses of the day had little or no protection from the arrows.

Thanks for the information, though Mike insists on putting in his two-pennyworth and saying that the "English long-bowmen" were, in fact, Welsh mercenaries.

From John Broussard:

Every week I learn something new from your site. For years I thought John Locke was the first one to view our minds as a tabula rasa at birth. Now I find that Aristotle antedated him by two millennia with that notion (presumably in its Greek equivalent). Any idea where I can run that down in Aristotle's writings? No rush to answer, since I suspect you have other fish to fry. (Now where did that phrase come from?) 

Kudos for the marvelous debunking of the Lynch speech. Let's have more of that.

From Kathy Smith:

First of all, I really enjoy your e-zine and look forward to reading each new issue.  

No discussion regarding the term "tabula rasa" could be complete without at least a passing mention of the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). He was responsible for fully fleshing out the concept that man is not born with innate understanding, but gains knowledge through experience, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690).

From John Archdeacon:

I was rather brought by Barb's weepin' an' a-wailin' this week [in Issue 60's Curmudgeons' Corner].  I'm glad this issue was taken to my attention (as if I hadn't noticed) - I bring my hat off to her! 

"Hello, Noddy", said Big Ears, as Noddy rode up to him with that familiar "take, take". 

OK, OK, I'll bring a hike...

For our American readers who don't know, Noddy and Big Ears are characters in a series of children's books written by English author Enid Blyton.  Noddy's car has a bell on it which, in the books, goes "bring, bring".

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