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Issue 63   

December 6, 1999
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We frequently hear suggested etymologies which are based on acronyms such as fad coming from "For A Day".  Now, while no one knows for sure the actual origin of fad, we are pretty sure that this is wrong.  Most tellingly, the use of fad to mean a "sudden and short-lived fashion" is relatively late.  In its earliest use, this word meant "a peculiar rule of action".

In fact, all acronyms (words derived from the initial letters or syllables of a phrase) are of quite recent coinage.  For one thing, use of an acronym implies that those who use the term can read, something which was never a consideration in earlier times.

The earliest acronym of which we are aware is, unfortunately, a racial slur.  It is Peruvian, a derogatory term for "Jew" used in South Africa in the 1890s.  This peculiar term comes from P.R.U. which is said to stand for "Polish and Russian Union".  In America since the 1960s, the word wasp has been used by some racists to mean something akin to the opposite of a racial slur - White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.  As a Celt and his squaw, we presumably don't qualify.  We can't help but point out, though, that there is some redundancy here - weren't all Anglo-Saxons white?

The Germans seem inordinately fond of acronyms.  We are sure that there are many people who have configured a hi-fi system using DIN plugs who thought that they had something to do with "noise".  No, it's not that sort of "din", it stands for Deutsche Industrie-Norm ("German Industrial Standard").  One could argue that DIN (all in capitals) is only a pronounceable abbreviation.  Gestapo is a classic acronym and stands for GEheime STAats-POlizei, "Secret State-Police". 

A radar image.  Click to follow the link.Another classic acronym is radar, short for Radio Detection And Ranging, which was coined in 1941.  The 1950s saw a slew of new technological acronyms beginning with maser ("Microwave Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation") and later the "optical maser" or laser ("Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation").

Mike's favorite scientific acronym is squid, which stands for "Superconducting QUantum Interference Device".  What does that mean?  Well, you had to ask.  A squid is a "device consisting essentially of a superconducting ring containing one or more Josephson junctions, made the basis of a very sensitive magnetometer by utilizing the fact that a change in the magnetic flux linkage of the ring by one flux quantum produces a sharp change in the ring’s impedance".  There, satisfied?  Oh, one more thing...  Mike says to tell you that the father of the Josephson of Josephson junction fame (fame?) taught him French in high school.  You didn't need to know that either, did you?

Fans of "The X-Files" will know that in the U.S., U.F.O. means "Unidentified Flying Object" (a term which, strictly applied, includes most of the birds we spot when hiking).  In Britain, U.F.O. is pronounced ufo and thus qualifies as a true acronym. 

Probably the most popular acronymic etymology is that proposed for posh.  There is a widely-held believe that the word is an acronym formed from Port Outward, Starboard Home, which refers to the location of the most expensive accommodations aboard ships traveling between England and India.  Such accommodations were said to be more expensive because they were cooler due to receiving less direct sunlight.  Some versions of this etymology even include details of the pink labels reading P.O.S.H. which were pasted onto steamer trunks by the Pacific and Orient shipping line.  Unfortunately for this story, the P & O line has denied all knowledge of such a practice and the explanation in general has never been substantiated.

Instead, it is thought that posh comes from the earlier posh "dandy" (from around 1890), which in some versions was written push.  It is most likely to have derived from posh, a Romany word meaning "half".  Posh karoon meant "half-a-crown" (a quarter of a gold sovereign) and posh itself meant "halfpenny".  From these meanings posh came to mean simply "money" and thence our current usage.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Pat Burns:

What's the origin of as clean as a whistle?

Famed Scottish  poet Robert "Rabbie" Burns (in his Author's Earnest Cry, 1786) provides us the first use of anything resembling the phrase clean as a whistle in writing: "Her mutchkin stowp as toom’s a whissle"  For those readers not fluent in Lowlands Scots, this meant "Her pint bucket is as empty as a whistle".  As a pair of dyed-in-the-wool penny-whistlers, we conjecture that Rabbie was familiar with this instrument, the implication being that if a whistle is not clear of obstruction inside, then it will not play properly.

Some have suggested that as clean as a whistle actually derives from as clear as a whistle.  That explanation has the "clear" form meaning "pure" (as the pure sound of a whistle) and suggests that it is not a large leap from "pure" to "clean".  We have found nothing to support this notion, however.  A writer in 1828  defines as clean as a whistle as "a proverbial simile, signifying completely, entirely" but we have to wait until 1880 before as clear as a whistle appears in print.

While researching this we turned up the delightful phrase box of whistles, a contemptuous, puritanical term for a church organ.  Alsop, writing in 1678 said that "Pope Vitalian..first..taught Mankind the Art of Worshipping God with a Box of Whistles".

Visit Dale Wisely's Chiff and Fipple web site for more information about whistles.

From Judith Petry:

Odd as it may sound, it was recently suggested to me by a channeled spirit, that I investigate the true ancient origin of the word entertainment. It was used in answer to a question I had posed to the spirit and I found it particularly insensitive in the context in which it was used. The sources I have checked have shed no light on what the spirit meant.

Judith, I hope you know that we simply cannot resist having a little fun with this.  We're awfully curious as to the question that you asked the spirit.  Second, did you channel this spirit, or did some medium do so for you?  Third, why were you channeling the spirit?  And finally, why didn't that infernal spirit write us directly to ask for the etymology of entertainment?  It could then have wowed you with its etymological knowledge.  Oh well, who are we to question a spirit's motives?  

Note: These questions were asked by Melanie.  Mike has gone off to the living room where he is attempting to channel some single-malt Scotch.

Entertain comes from Medieval Latin intertenere "to hold inside", from inter- "inside" + tenere "to hold".  The Indo-European root of tenere is ten- "to stretch".  The change in meaning from "stretch" to "hold" presumably occurred as one has to "hold" something in order to "stretch" it.  When the word entered English from French in the late 15th century, it meant "to maintain, to keep up".  By Shakespeare's time, the word had acquired a meaning of "engage or keep the attention of a person": "I thinke the best way were, to entertaine him with hope" (from Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, 1598).  Sir Francis Bacon used the word in 1626 to mean "to amuse": "All this to entertain the Imagination that it waiver less".  It is that meaning which seems to have stuck, though we also find the word used in such phrases as "I will entertain the suggestion of...", etc.; that usage arose in the early 17th century.

We discussed other descendants of the root ten- in Issue 25.

From Oded Dagan:

I have noticed that the word marble - the shiny stone -  is spelled differently in different European languages (French marbre, Latin marmaris, etc.).  Why?.

Greek marble.  Click to follow the link.Different languages adapt foreign words so that they are pronounceable using familiar phonemes.  Marble comes ultimately from Greek mármaros which one source suggests originally referred to any kind of hard stone.  That same source believes that the word's similarity to marmaírein "shine" influenced mármaros' change in meaning to strictly "marble", and that the ultimate origin of mármaros is not known.  Another school suggests that mármaros was probably originally an adjective meaning "sparkling" and that the verb marmaírein derives from that.

Latin borrowed mármaros as marmor, and Old French took it from Latin in the form marbre.  That mutated to marble, which English borrowed directly from French in the 13th century at the very latest.  English also used the Latin form until as late as the 17th century.

From Dave Wiest:

I am searching for the origin of the word luck.  Someone once told me it comes from the word Lucifer (Satan).

Yes, we've heard from many readers who have indicated that they were told the same thing.  One reader was forbidden by a family member from using the word because it was "of the devil".  That's more absurd than a channeled spirit ordering someone to determine the etymology of entertain.  

It is thought that this word entered English in the 15th or 16th centuries as a gambling term; Low German dialects, according to the OED, were not an uncommon source of such terms at that time.  In Low German the word was luk, a shortened form of geluk.  Cognate forms are Icelandic lukka, Middle Swedish lukka and lykka, and Danish lykkeGeluk comes ultimately from gelücke.  The ultimate source of the latter, however, is not known.  The best, yet unsubstantiated, explanations are that it is related to English louk "to shut, to lock" or German lockon "to entice".  However, we don't have to know the source of gelücke to prove that luck is not related to Lucifer; the ge- in gelücke indicates that.

In German, for some reason, the somewhat poisonous, somewhat hallucinogenic Fly Agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) is called the Glückspilz or "Luck Mushroom".  Some have suggested that it was used in the medieval witch cult but as witches never did worship Satan, this brings us no closer to Lucifer

The name Lucifer is Latin for "light bearer" and derives from the Latin word for "light" which is lux.  Thus, if you really object to using words related to Lucifer, you will have to avoid anything with lustre (from Latin lustrare, "to shine", probably from earlier luc-strare).  Also, to be on the safe side, we suggest that you cease lucubration (working by artificial light), forthwith.

From Mats Andréasson:

I attend an English course at work and I asked the teacher if she knows the etymology of the word surname.  Needless to say as I'm asking you, she did not know.

Some may think this word derives from sire and name, meaning that it is "one's father's name".  People of the late 14th century seemed to think that was the case, as well, because they began spelling the word sirname, even though it had been around since the early 14th century, at least, in the form surname.  The word is actually formed from sur-, which represents Latin super-, and name, so that it means "additional name".  In the early middle ages the English usually went by first names only.  It naturally happened that John who lived by the ford came to be known as John Ford, while John who made arrows was known as John (the) Fletcher.  Additionally, patronyms were used so that Edward, the son of John, came to be know as Edward John's son, or Edward Johnson.  As people had been accustomed to a single name, the second name was thought of as additional and, hence, came to be called a surname.  By the way, though sirname and sirename were also used, surname won out.

Incidentally, Norwegians, for one, did not take surnames, at least not formally, until required to do so by law at the end of the 19th century.  There are many other cultures which do not use surnames.  The Lakota Sioux, for example, were clever enough that they did not re-use first names which required a second name for identification; everyone within a group had a different, single name; some even had a common name and a secret name.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

wherein Malcolm Tent whines

more about acronyms

A computer help-desk which I have frequent cause to use has a recorded menu which refers to "PC and LAND problems".  It should, of course, be LAN as it is an acronym for Local Area Network.  There's no "D" word in there!

The acronym LAN has reminded me of yet another pet peeve: calling any old abbreviation an acronym.  Folks, an acronym is not any old abbreviation.  It is word which has its origin in the initial letters of a phrase.  Hence, by definition all acronyms can be pronounced - they are, after all, words.  Despite the claims of many "acronym dictionaries" and "acronym web-sites", such abbreviations as FBI and BBC are  NOT acronyms!  

If, however, the FBI's name were changed to Federal Investigation Bureau, the abbreviation FIB (which is pronounceable as a word) could be used as an acronym. (It would serve double-duty as a satirical comment on their recent cover-ups, too.)

Sez You...

From Richard Regan:

Thanks for fixing your html for Mac/Explorer users. The pages look great.

You're welcome, and thanks for your feedback.

From Fiona:

I would like to study etymology - where can I do this by correspondence? I would appreciate your comments. Thanks for the continuing great web-site.

We receive many inquiries like yours, Fiona.  Though we don't know about correspondence schools offering courses in etymology, we can provide you a list of universities in the United States that offer degrees in linguistics; you can contact them for more information regarding etymology.  Send us your request and we'll send you a Microsoft Word document containing the list of universities.

If you attend or are employed by a university offering studies in etymology, let us know and we'll add that information to our university list.

From Steve Parkes:

Reading your piece on Catch-22 (Issue 59), originally titled Catch-18, reminded me that 1984  was originally titled 1948 when Orwell wrote it in 1947. His publisher pointed out that it would be rather dated in a couple if years, and suggested the name which was to become a by-word in the next thirty-odd years. What will become of "2001"?!

Sounds to us like publishers will probably rule the world by 2001.  Thanks for writing, Steve.

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