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Issue 62   

November 22, 1999
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This week Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. Not so widely known is the British festival wherein they give thanks that they managed to get rid of those darn pilgrims. (Only joking.) Let's take a look at some of the words traditionally associated with this holiday.

Pilgrim started off as the Latin peregrinum, "foreigner", and wound its way to Modern English by way of the Italian pellegrino and Middle English pelegrim.  In the middle ages, most falcons used in hawking would be taken from the nest as fledglings. One notable exception was the peregrine falcon which builds its nest on inaccessible precipices. Thus the bird had to be captured while it was "on pilgrimage", hence its alternative name - the "pilgrim hawk".

Turkey, originally turkey-bird, was first imported into England by the same company which imported goods from Turkey and the Middle East.  The French made a similar mistake and still call it dindon, i.e. l'oiseau d'Inde or "the bird of India".  The Thanksgiving turkey is usually supplemented with ham and the word ham goes way back to the Old English (pre-1000 A.D.) word for "the part of the leg behind the knee".  Ultimately, ham is thought to come from an Old Teutonic word *hamm, "to be crooked".  Incidentally, gam, the slang word  for "leg", is completely unrelated to ham as it derives from the Latin gamba.

 Cranberries (Vaccinum macrocarpon) are literally crane-berries, though they were once known as bear-berries.  The crane part probably derives from the fact that this fruit grows in marshes, where cranes (the birds) are found. How bears entered the picture is anybody's guess.  Incidentally, the crane seen on construction sites also takes its name from this leggy marsh bird.  The cranberry is a native American species but it does have a small, very sour relative in Britain (Vaccinum oxycoccos).  The American name is now also applied to the British species, having ousted the old names of marsh-whort and fen-berry.

Another traditional feature of the Thanksgiving feast is pumpkin pie.  The origins of pumpkin are hinted at in its botanical name: Curcubita pepo (Latin for "melon cucumber").  The Greek word pepon meant "a melon" and it was borrowed by Latin as pepo; then, in Medieval French, pepo became pompon.  Curiously, the French word  entered English twice.  First we took pompion in its literal sense - a kind of melon (which is what a pumpkin is, ask a botanist).  Later we imported pompion in its figurative sense as a melon-shaped ornament or piece of jewelry.  The two words then went their separate ways.  The vegetable pompion  (or maybe it's a fruit, depending on who you ask) evolved into pumpkin and the decorative pompion became a  pom-pom.  Thus, those round fuzzy things brandished by cheerleaders are really pumpkins.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Jayson:

I’ve looked everyhwere: dictionaries, encyclopedias, almanacs, phrases, quotations.  We were watching television where Zorro was characterized as a swashbuckler.  Could this be true? We seek that which eludes, the origin of swashbuckle.

The word first appears in the record in 1560: “Too be a dronkarde,..a gamner, a swashe-buckeler, he hath not alowed thee one mite.”  The meaning here is “a swaggering bravo or ruffian.”  The first recorded attributive use was in 1560: “What a quarrelling Swash-buckler Mars [the planet]. “  The word is composed of two older words.  The first is swash, which was a verb meaning “to make a sound by striking two swords together or by striking a shield with a sword.”  That meaning is first recorded in 1556.  The verb came from the noun swash, which was an imitative word referring to the sound of splashing water or to the sound of a blow.  It is first recorded in 1538.  Then there’s buckler, which is an old word for a shield.  It dates in writing from around 1300.  It derives ultimately from Latin buccula “boss”, which is a raised umbo or knob found, in this case, on the front of medieval shields (and related to our word emboss). Buccula is the diminutive of bucca, which is though to come from the Indo-European root beu- "to swell", such as the rounded "swelling" of one's inflated cheek.  Spanish boca "mouth" comes from the same source.

Errol Flynn in his first swashbuckler, Captain Blood.Anyone who was bold enough to smack his sword against another’s or to strike his own sword against his shield was either trying to pick a fight or boasting that he was ready to fight.  That kind of behavior earned him the title swashbuckler.  While many of us tend to associate swashbucklers with piratical figures these days (an Errol Flynn character, for example), that is only because such characters were often depicted as swashbucklers.  Zorro, as portrayed recently by Antonio Banderas, could be called a swashbuckler as he was quite bold and ready to fight at any moment.  The Zulu of South Africa have actually ritualized the striking of one's shield with one's weapon as an invitation to fight, incorporating it into a war dance.

A swashbuckler is, of course, also a film or book depicting swashbuckler characters.  That usage arose in the 1970s.  Swashbuckle the verb arose from the noun in the late 19th century.

From Jonah Ostroff:

Where does the term eavesdrop come from?

A person standing outside who wanted to listen to a conversation occurring inside a house wouldEaves -- stand under it/them and you're an eavesdropper! probably need to stand under the eavesdrip in order to be close enough to hear.  The eavesdrip (or eavesdrop) was the rainwater which dripped from the eaves of a building to the ground; it could also refer to the portion of the ground where those drops fell.  So anyone standing there to listen to conversations was eavesdropping.  The noun eavesdrop dates in surviving written form from 868 as yfæs drypæ (from the Kentish Charter)The noun eavesdropper dates from the late 15th century, and the verb from the early 17th century.

Eaves, which was not originally a plural word but is often treated as such today, goes back to Old English.  It comes from the same root as over, above and up.

From Jonas Bates:

I am curious as to the possible reason for the presence of the word secret in the word secretary.

There is in fact a reason for secret to be contained within secretary, for that’s exactly what a secretary originally did: kept secrets.  The word first appears in the English written record in 1387, and it referred to anyone who is entrusted with or privy to a secret.  A synonym would be a "confidante".  Being a confidante to a lord or king put you in a position to serve as an adviser or at least an assistant to such a man, and this is how the word came to be associated with ministerial positions (secretary of defense), and also how it came to apply to an assistant in general, as an executive’s secretary.   In fact, the British home secretary is a member of the Privy Council, privy meaning private and quite similar to secret.

The word comes from medieval Latin secretarius “a confidential officer”, which came from Latin secretum “secret”.  The Romance languages have similar words deriving from the Latin source.  The ultimate root of secret is s(w)e-, which is the third-person pronoun and also refers to the social group as a whole.  In this instance the sense is "on one's own".  Some other words from that root and of a similar sense are seclude, secure, and select.

From Andrew Sivak:

A colleague asked me why a golf course is called the links.  It seemed obvious since the holes were linked in the game in a particular sequence.  I have been unable to verify this.

Mountainview, CA golf course.This word link in this context originally had the meanings “a ridge or bank”, “gently undulating ground near a sea shore, often covered with turf or grass”, and, as you know, “a golf course”.  The former meanings clearly influenced the development of the latter.

The source of this word is Old English hlinc, thought to be a derivative of the root hlin- “to lean”.  The reference is supposedly to land sloping, as in a bank, or that which slopes toward the sea.  It is likely that the word came to be attached to golf courses simply because of the similarity of courses to grassy, gently rolling land near the seashore.

There’s also the word linch “rising ground, a ledge, especially on the side of a chalk down [hill]”.  It comes from hlinc, too.  Hlinc derives from the Indo-European root kleng- "to bend, turn".  Some relatives are flinch ("to turn aside"), lank ("thin" but originally "flexible"), and link "loop of a chain" (which contains bends, of course). 

From Christina Reynolds:

I can’t find anything on the word sarcasm.

This comes, via Late Latin sarcasmus, from Greek sarkasmos, the noun form of  sarkasein, "to tear flesh", "to gnash teeth".   The Greeks took it as a figurative word to refer to "bitter speech", as such speech could be as painful as having one’s flesh torn, or it could cause the recipient to gnash his teeth.

 It first makes an appearance in the English written record as sarcasmus, in the 16th century: "Tom piper, an ironicall Sarcasmus, spoken in derision of these rude wits…The more familiar appears in the late 17th century: "No lye, but an irony...a witty way of speaking...such sarcasms Elijah used." 

This form of biting wit (ouch!) has a surprising relative in sarcophagus, an old word for a stone tomb.  Sarcophagus is the Latin form of the Greek sarkophagos which means "flesh eater".

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

wherein reader Doug lectures about

Lecterns (and podiums)

I get very cranky over the misuse of the word podium.  A podium is a platform.  The thing a speaker stands behind ON a podium is a lectern or a pulpit.  Or has the correct definition of the word podium passed irrevocably into history?

 We (Barb Dwyer and Malcolm Tent) agree with you regarding podium; the device behind which one stands, and upon which one rests one's notes, is a lectern.  A pulpit, however, can include the platform.  It comes from Latin pulpitum "wooden platform or stage".

Sez You...

From Gordon Brown:

I enjoy your e-zine, and especially Barb Dwyer's column. As a card-carrying curmudgeon myself, I usually find myself in fierce agreement with her peeves. Issue 60 was no exception:

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? 

But I have a small, tangential bone to pick with Barb's Latin lesson. I *did* study Latin, though it was still a living language when I did so. My recollection is that the neuter nouns in -um are of the second declension. The third declension is the -i stem, isn't it?

Lord help us, millennium is not alone in the litany of imported words that are misinterpreted for grammatical number. That list includes bacterium and trivium, not to mention the old stand-bys datum and medium. And Greek criterion and phenomenon share the same fate. O tempora! O mores! What is this world coming to, when Americans can't communicate in simple Latin or Greek?

When we told Ms. Dwyer about your letter, she was so sure that she was right that she ran straight to the Latin dictionary.  She skimmed quickly to the grammar supplement and then stopped halfway through a sentence.  We can only assume that you are correct as Barb is now sulking in a corner.  We hope to enlist her help for future issues and are currently attempting to mollify her with a pot of Darjeeling tea and a plate of toasted crumpets.

From Michelle Foncannon:

My seventh grade history teacher taught us about Russian roulette one week. He said that during some war (I really don't recall which one) the Russians, with a powerful army, had taken many captives for no reason. Then they would line the captives up on a wall and put one bullet in the gun (for five captives). Then they spun it, like you said, but they proceeded to go down the line and fire at every prisoner. Just as a "game" to make them flinch. I do not know whether this is true or not, but it is what I learned.

We are pleased that you have written "I do not know whether this is true or not".  While teachers are very important to us all, it is crucial that we learn critical thinking and develop the ability to question that for which we have no evidence.  In this case, there is no evidence to support the notion that Russian roulette derives from the anecdote your teacher told you.

From Erin:

The modern raves of today (the ones with dj's and all night electronic music) stands for: Radical Audio Visual Experience.  There should be a number of web sites that can confirm this. Happy Hunting.

Love your page. Very insightful.

Thanks for the kind words!  Very few English words derive from acronyms.  In this case, "Radical Audio Visual Experience" is an imaginative back-formation from rave.

One of us (Mike) is so old that he actually remembers using the word rave in the early 1960s.  In those far-off days, radical was simply a political term and not a synonym for "really cool".

The "modern raves of today" can be traced to dance parties for British youth on the Spanish island of Ibiza.  One of the most popular genres of music to develop in this scene was "acid house".  This type of dance music did not originate on Ibiza but was certainly re-invented there.  "House music" started in the U.S. and soon evolved into various sub-genres.  One of these, "acid house", made extensive use of samples which were "borrowed" (all right then, stolen) from existing records.  The explanation for the name is that "acid" was short for "acid burn" and "to burn" meant "to steal" - a reference to the liberal use of ripped-off samples.  Back to the British D.J.s on Ibiza... they were not connected to the U.S. scene, they just bought the records, and they thought that "acid" was being used in its other slang sense - L.S.D.  Thus, when the British started making their own "acid house" music they made it for psychedelic sensibilities and started a whole new kind of music for a wholly new kind of party.

To be honest, with psychedelics one can have a "radical audio visual experience" without any help from a D.J.

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