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Issue 65   

December 20, 1999
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Holiday words

This coming Saturday, the 25th of December, in case any of our readers were unaware, is Christmas.  In northern England it was also known as Kesmas, Cursmas, and Cursmis.  Originally Cristes mæsse in Old English, it means simply the mass, or festival, of Christ.  It is supposed to commemorate the birth of Christ but, as his actual birthday is unknown, the Council of Nicea (320-323 A.D.) assigned it to this date as a compromise with the cult of Mithras.

Those who followed ancient Roman paganism also had a festival at approximately the same time of year called Saturnalia, "the feast of the god Saturn".  This festival was marked by reversing many social customs - slaves would be served by their masters and men would wear women's clothes.  Some of this role reversal has survived to the present day. In the British Christmas tradition of Pantomime, the "principal boy" is always played by a woman and "his" mother (known as "the dame") is always played by a man.

In northern Europe, a festival was celebrated at this time of the year long before the Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity and this festival was called yule, though the origin of this word is obscure.

Some people object to the use of Xmas as a hideous neologism. This  abbreviation is hardly an innovation as its first recorded use was in 1551 and the X in Xmas is a very old abbreviation for Christ.  In the days before general literacy, many people would sign documents by making "their mark", often an elaborate squiggle or flourish.  Ordinary folk, who had not the time to practice nor the wit to remember such devices, would simply draw a cross, the symbol of Christ, on the paper and then kiss it to show their sincerity.  This X symbol was known as the Christ-cross, which later became slurred to criss-cross.  Also, this is why an X at the bottom of a letter (or Christmas card) means a kiss.

The etymology of carol is uncertain.  While there is general agreement that it comes from the Old French carole, no one really knows where it came from before that.  Most agree that the earlier form was probably corola but opinions are divided as to whether it derives from chorus (i.e. the singing dancers of ancient theater) or from corolla, "crown" or "garland", from the shape of the circle-dance.

It may come as a surprise to many of our readers to discover that a carol was not originally a song but a dance.  Specifically it was a circle-dance, danced to a single jig.  (For our non-musical readers, a single jig goes DUM-dee, DUM-dee, DUM-dee, DUM.)  Another surprise is that it was not necessarily associated with Christmas, either.  There were Easter carols, too.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Chuck:

Chuck when used with wagon refers to food, but certainly it does not have that meaning when used with hole.  Where do these words come from?

Let's start with chuckwagon, which was used in Mulford's Hopalong Cassidy in 1910: "A group of blanket-swathed figures lay about a fire near the chuck wagon."  The term dates from the late 19thA chuckwagon century and is simply a compound word formed from chuck and wagonChuck had meant "food, grub" since the middle of the 19th century, and it derives from chock "lump of meat or bread", which dates from the 17th century.  Prior to that chock in that sense referred to a lump of wood.  It's not difficult to see how a word referring to a lump of wood came to apply to lumps of other stuff, like food.  It is thought to derive from an Old French word zuche (which also appears with variant spellings).  Italian has a similar word, ciocco "block of wood; burning log".  That suggests, perhaps, a lost Latin source.  One can see the "block of wood" connection in English chock "wedge shaped block of wood used to stop a wheel", like those that are used at airports.

Chuck hole, which was also chock-hole, derives from the word chock "to give a gentle blow under the chin, causing the teeth to knock together" (late 16th century).  It is thought that it may be onomatopoeic, imitative of the sound of knocking.  There is a French verb choquer "to give a shock to, to knock" which may also have influenced the formation of chock.  Anyhow, chock soon changed to chuck and came to mean "to toss lightly".  So the notion behind a chuck hole is that it is a hole in the road which causes the wagon (or today, of course, the car) to toss about a bit.  Holland defined chock hole in his Cheshire Glossary of 1884: "the deep rutty hole to be met with in many of the bye-roads or occupation roads in the country."  E. L. Wilson wrote, in Journey from New Jersey to Ohio in 1836, that "The abundance of traveling... wears the road into deep holes; these we call chuck-holes." 

From Denn:

Do you have any idea what the phrase shiver me timbers refers to?

It's a mock oath ascribed to sailors, though it appears to be a comic embellishment of a slightly different oath, my timbers.  The latter dates from the late 18th century, while shiver me/my timbers is first recorded in 1835: "I won't thrash you Tom.  Shiver my timbers if I do" from Frederick Marryat's Jacob Faithful.  Apparently Mr. Marryat invented the phrase with an eye toward avoiding his readers taking offense at stronger words.  It's also possible that my timbers was invented, for it first appears in a song: "My timbers! what lingo he’d coil and belay."

A shiver, is literally "a splinter".  Hence, when timbers are shivered, they are broken into splinters.  A curiously similar word is shake, a fissure that forms in  wood while it is still growing. 

The phrase shiver my timbers was purportedly adopted later by cricket to refer to the scattering of wickets.

From Chris St. Pierre:

Chateau, the French equivalent of castle, derives from a word chaste, which derives from Latin castusCastle derives from Latin castellum.  Are castle and chaste related?

The easiest way to answer your question is to start from the bottom and Kolossi Castle; click to follow link. move up.  Interestingly, the Indo-European root for both chaste and castle is kes- "to cut".  In the case of a castle, which in its earliest Latin form was castrum "fortified place, camp", it referred to people within the camp or place being "cut off" from those outside.  With chaste,  the etymological meaning was "cut off from, or free of, faults", and its Latin precursor was, as you mentioned, castus.  Some other relatives of chaste are caste, castigate, and incest.  Other derivatives of Indo-European kes- are castrate, caret, and quash.

The Latin -castra, "fortified place, camp" survives in English place-names as "chester" (e.g. Chester, Manchester, Colchester) and in Welsh place-names as "caer" (e.g. Caerphilly, Caernafon, Caerdydd).

From Stan Easter:

My wife and I were talking about the nearby deer population (yes, in urban southern California!) and she asked about the origin of deer.  I told her it was probably Anglo-Saxon (like cow, pig vs. beef, pork), but I have no idea of the actual derivation.

You might be surprised to learn that deer originally referred to all beasts, or at least to quadrupeds.A large male deer. It is first recorded in about 893 in one of King Alfred the Great's writings and is thought to come from the Indo-European root dheu- "to breathe", much like animal coming from anima "breath, spirit".  The German cognate tier still means simply "animal" or "beast".  

Perhaps due to the one-time abundance of deer in Britain, or at least to their desirability as food, the word's use came to be restricted to those four-legged animals of the family Cervidae.  That restriction began in the early middle ages and was firmly entrenched by the end of that period.

Venison, which refers to the meat of the deer, is, like pork and beef, of Norman French derivation, and its etymological meaning is "that which is hunted", from Latin venari "to hunt".  It originally applied to the flesh of any game, but by the 17th century it began its shift to refer solely to deer.  Its Indo-European root is wen- "to desire, strive for".

From S.L. Mullins:

How did we get the term Jew from Israel(ite)?

The simplest answer is "we didn't".  Jew was borrowed by English from French gyu, which was earlier juieu "Jew".  It derives from Latin iudæum, which came to Latin from Greek ioudaios.  The ultimate source of that was Aramaic y'hudai, from y'hudah "Judah", the name of a Hebrew patriarch and his descendant tribe.  The first recorded use in English occurs in about 1275 in The Passion of Our Lord: "Pilates hym onswerede, am ich Gyv thenne?" For those who don't read Middle English (shame on you) this translates as "Pilate answered him, 'Am I then a Jew?'"

The name Judith is related.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

wherein Malcolm Tent provides some input on

Imput and Spayeded

I recently saw someone say imput.  That's right, folks, I read their lips.  The word is, of course, input.  And while we're on the subject, the past tense of input is not inputted.  Do you say "I putted the fork on the table this morning"?  Nooooooo!  So you don't say "I inputted the data", either.

Another past tense faux pas involves the word spay "to neuter a female animal".  More people than not say "I had my cat spayeded" (or perhaps that could be spelled "spaded").  The infinitive form of that verb is to spay, so the past tense is spayed.  If you had your cat spaded, we must presume that she did not survive the operation.

Sez You...

From Mark Burgess:

My brother Paul directed me to your site - he and I both studied English at university and have always enjoyed a predilection for etymology. Your webzine is great fun. Thank you. My career in English at university was great fun but not my original plan. At an interview prior to entrance into Year 1 with one of what were then called counselors, I explained that my vision was a career in etymology, blithely unaware that what I had meant to say was entomology. I really loved biology in high school. Suddenly, I found myself in more arts classes in first year than science classes, which I didn't understand but hadn't the nerve to question.

That's not the first time entomology and etymology have been confused, but it's certainly one of the best anecdotes about such confusion!  We hope you don't miss the entomos.  By the way, the entomo- in entomology comes from Greek meaning "cut up", referring to the segments of insects bodies!  So if someone is being a "cut up", we can call him an entomologist!

From Dawn Elizabeth McNeil, MD:

I enjoy your weekly newsletter and usually have no quarrels with your writings. However, the recent issue referred readers back to the issue (#26) in which you discuss the term niggardly and the controversy it generated here in the District.  

Mr. Howard resigned because of his own perception that his action would cause an air of mistrust to prevail in his department. Mayor Williams accepted the resignation but he did not "throw the white boy to the wolves." I am certain that you would agree that Mr. Howard would have been well within his rights to call for mediation or the involvement of the Equal Opportunity Commission if he wished to stay in his job. Mr. Howard chose to leave without any urging from the mayor -perhaps that was not a wise choice but it was Mr. Howard's choice to make.  

In addition, as a resident of the district at the time, I take exception to being characterized as part of an "indigent constituency." Not all of the persons living in the District are minorities nor are all of the persons living in the District indigent. A recent Washington Post magazine reported that the tide is shifting toward almost equal representation of minorities and non-minorities in the District of Columbia. 

Our first question is: How do you know with certainty that Mr. Howard's decision was fully his own and that he was not influenced by anyone else, namely the mayor?  Somehow, the scenario wherein Mr. Howard recalls the conversation and thinks, "Oh, lord!  I said niggardly.  Whatever will they think of me.  I think I'd better resign." seems far-fetched.  We don't think he fell; we think he was pushed.

As for "indigent constituency", we never said such a thing.  We said indignant constituency.

Thanks for writing, and we're glad you enjoy our columns!  We encourage readers to express their opinions about our columns, with the possibility of having your opinions and comments published here.

From Elizabeth Stein:

In your most recent issue, you stated that the Etruscan language has not been deciphered, and that its relationship to Indo-European languages is unsure. As a previous student of Etruscan archaeology, and a current student of linguistics, I must add that the Etruscan language HAS been deciphered (cf. Giuliano & Larissa Bonfante's book on the subject), but the problem is that there are few texts lengthy enough to say much about its structure other than that its apparently NOT Indo-European. There are hundreds of examples of inscriptions that can be translated into simple sentences such as "This cup belongs to Larth son of Larth." Just thought you'd want to know. And I greatly enjoyed the discussion of various forms of divination!

Thanks for that clarification, Elizabeth, along with the reference to the work by Giuliano and Bonfante. 

From Cliff Cohen:

Permit me to add my two-cents along with a prayer for protection from the ignorance of the masses. A few years back, I was using a software utility that created color images. For reasons know only to the developers, they chose to use the Latin names for the colors. As a result, black was niger. Now this would not be the least bit interesting except that an African-American gentleman who was not familiar with Latin saw the word and took offense. Unsatisfied with our explanation that it was Latin, he filed a complaint with the EEOC. Not many Latin scholars there either. That is all I wanted to say. (By the way, if this is posted, for those who do not know, the other word is usually spelled with two g's.)

From Kirsti B. Flesland:

In your last issue of Take Our Word for It (Issue 64) Ann Hogan asks you if the Icelanders still use patronyms as their surnames (which they actually do) and you answer (quite correctly) how the Norwegian surname tradition developed. I think you should not confuse Norway and Iceland as countries, even if the Icelandic people originally came from Norway some 1000 years ago or more. Thank you very much for an interesting column!

Thanks, Kirsti.  Actually, we didn't intend to confuse Norway and Iceland; we simply neglected to elaborate on the Icelandic surname conventions.   Presumably, if you were Icelandic you would have a gloriously sonorous name such as Kirsti Thorgrimmsdottir.

We would be quite interested to hear from our Icelandic readers about surnames in Iceland. 

From Scott Catledge:

I would like to see your reference on "Mr. Jones the hair" and "Mr. Jones the butcher". I study and research medieval names  as a hobby and I am unfamiliar with your examples. Please  enlighten me with some references. 

Mike's the Welshman in the family so we'll let him explain:  First, it would be  "Jones the hair" and "Jones the meat" (not "Mr.").  These names are frequently humorous, such as the tenor soloist in the Mountain Ash Male Voice Choir being known as "Dai Top-note".

St. David (or in Welsh, Dewi Sant) is the patron saint of Wales, so many men are patriotically named David, Dafydd or Dewi, all of which are abbreviated to Dai (pronounced "dye").  Ok, now you are equipped to understand this one: there was once an undertaker in Merthyr Tydfil known as "Dai the Death". 

Second, these were not medieval names.  This was a naming convention that arose informally among the Welsh after the English required that the Welsh take formal surnames under the Act of Union.

Third, we are your reference as we both have first-hand experience of it.

From Fred Christansen:

Here's my beef about millennium: Why is everyone saying we're about to enter the new millennium? That does not occur until Jan 1, 2001. Here's the logic: Putting aside that there are more calendar schemes than our western one, let's just consider the western one.  There was no year 0 between 1 BC and 1 AD. So, the years 1 thru 10, inclusive, were the first decade, the years 1 thru 100, inclusive, the first century, and the years 1 thru 1000, the first millennium. And by the same token, the 20th century includes the years 1901 thru 2000, inclusive, and the 2nd millennium includes the years 1001 thru 2000. Thus, we are about to enter the last year of the 2nd millennium, not start the first year of the 3rd!  My vet recently gave me a calendar for 2000, and it had the millennium stuff right. Hmm, so why are so many folks mixed up?

Because they don't do the math and they get caught up in all the silly hype.  However, we're happy to let people get excited over an arbitrary number, anyhow. But we would like to know this: if 2000 is the beginning of a new millennium, which century had only 99 years and did the people of that century know they were being short-changed?

At the turn of the last century, or so the story goes, two Englishmen had this same quarrel.  One said the century started in 1900, the other 1901.  On New Year's Day, 1901, one sent his friend a "Happy New Century" card.  His friend replied, "Just received your card - mysteriously delayed in the mail for a whole year."  He was on the wrong side of the argument but obviously had a good sense of humor.

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