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Issue 66   

December 27, 1999
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We have a friend called Stan who is an architect in San Francisco.  Stan recently attended a class run by the City on access for the disabled.  The class was told by the instructor that the word handicapped should never be used as it derives from the practice of paraplegic World War II veterans holding their caps out for alms.  Stan called us and asked us, "If this is so, where does the sporting handicap of golf and horse-racing come in?"

The handicap symbol.First, we would like to reiterate our position that whatever a word once meant in the past is irrelevant to what it means now.  More importantly, the instructor was plain wrong, the word is much, much older than the Second World War but it is connected to hands and caps.  It comes from the phrase hand i' cap or hand in the cap.

The game of handicap is first mentioned by that name in 1653 though it was known centuries earlier by the name of Newe Faire.  Basically, one person would challenge another for an article that he owned, say a fine new coat, and offer something of his own in exchange, a pair of old boots, perhaps.  If the challenge was accepted, an umpire was chosen to decide the difference of value between the two articles, and all three parties (including the umpire) deposited forfeit-money in a cap or hat.  The two contending parties each placed a hand in the cap (hence the name hand i' cap).  The umpire then announced how much money was to make up the difference in value between the two items.

Now, the question at this point was whether the deal, as announced by the umpire, was acceptable.  Both parties withdrew their hands from the cap at the same time and if either person thought the deal unfair then they would withdraw an open hand, otherwise they would pull out a closed fist.  Now, if both parties were in agreement the umpire took all the cash.  If they disagreed, then the money went to whoever had been willing for the deal to stand.

Samuel Pepys, in his diary entry for September 18, 1660, wrote "Here some of us fell to handicap, a sport that I never knew before, which was very good."  It was not until 1754 that a similar arrangement was used in horse-racing.  As with the original  game there was an umpire but this time he decided how much extra weight should be carried by the faster horse.  By the late 1800s, the term handicap had come to be used in golf, also.

The use of handicapped to mean "disabled" did not come about until 1915 when a writer used the phrase "the handicapped child".  The term rapidly caught on and by 1919 the journal School and Society was using the term mentally handicapped

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Harry Coleman:

I am interested in the origin of spiffy.  Is it just a juvenile term or has it other, more mature applications, and is it used in American English?

Dante Rossetti looking spiffy in a self portrait (1855).It is indeed used in America; Melanie uses it occasionally and did so even before she was unduly influenced by Mike the Brit.  However, its origins are obscure.  It is first recorded in 1853 in a letter written by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, the pre-Raphaelite artist.  He penned, "The frame for my water-colour has just come in and is spiffy cheesy jammy nobby [etc.]."  Mr. Rosetti apparently thought rather highly of that frame!  A verb was back-formed from the adjective, so that to spiff was to dress smartly or to make something neat.  The verb is first recorded in 1877.

Interestingly, there is also the noun spiff, "commission on the sale of an undesirable or out-of-fashion article".  That usage is first recorded in 1859.  Eric Partridge felt that all of these words were related, suggesting that spiff is an echoic word referring to the sound made when someone or something is struck.  The sense here is that a fancy dresser (or money made for selling something undesirable) is metaphorically striking.  He also suggested that spiff might be related to the spack in spack bran new, an intensifier denoting something very new, such as a new set of clothes.  

From Marion Buan:

What is the etymology of prostitute?

It entered English in the mid-16th century, coming from Latin prostitutus.  That is the past participle of prostitutere, "to place before, to expose publicly, to offer for sale", which is formed from pro-, "forward, in front of" and statuere, "to cause to stand, to set up, to place" (source of English statue, stance, substitute and restitution).  Prostitute originally meant "debased" in English, as in this quote from J. Man: "These prostitute images openly sette up in Churches doe this harme, that they doe withdrawe mennes mindes...from the consideration of Gods maiestie shewed in his liuely Creatures".  It later came to mean "licentious" or, more generally, "given over to something evil".  It wasn't until the early 17th century that the term was used to refer to women who sold their sexual services.  In the 20th century it came to be applied to men, as well, but usually in the term male prostitute.  The word was used figuratively to refer to anyone who debased himself for the sake of gain as early as the mid-17th century.

From Jeffrey Hawkins:

I claim that the police agency word sheriff comes from England: shire reeve.  Can you help?

Sheriff does indeed come from the title of an Old English office, that of the shire reeve, which is a back formation of Old English scrgerfa "shire reeve", formed from scr "shire" + gerfa "reeve".  Interestingly, the back-formed shire reeve has been used since the 16th century.  The Old English form first appears in the written record in about 1034: "An scirgemot st t gelnoes stane... r ws Bryning scirgerefa" ("A county council sat at Aegelnothe's Stone... Bryning was sheriff there".)

A sheriff was originally, before the Norman Conquest, a royal officer who oversaw the royal lands inThe Sheriff of Nottingham today.  He looks awfully good for having been around so long! (Just kidding.) the shire and administered the law there.  After 1066 the sheriff's powers were successively diminished.  Now, the office of sheriff in England is largely ceremonial.  Surprisingly, the office was hereditary in some counties.  In America, the office of sheriff was patterned after that in Britain, with the county sheriff administering law in his jurisdiction, and deputy sheriffs assisting.  Americans might not realize this, but there are deputy sheriffs in Britain, too. 

Shire (Old English scr) originally referred to an administrative office.  It is recorded as early as the first half of the 8th century.  By the 9th century, at least, the word was being applied to the district ruled by the scr or administrator.  The OED suggests that it may be related to Latin cura "care", source also of English curate and cure, among others.  The sense would be, of course, "one who cares for" a specific area or group.

Reeve's etymology is obscure.  It does not appear to have any relatives in other Germanic languages.  It has one known relative: grieve, a noun meaning "sheriff".  It derives from an Old Northumbrian form of gerfa.

From a Reader:

Where did the word skinny come from?

This word means "having skin prominently show (or hang) due to lack of flesh".  The word with that meaning was first recorded by Shakespeare in Macbeth (1605): "Each at once her choppie finger laying Vpon her skinnie Lips."  The Bard is, of course, referring to the Weird Sisters in that snippet from the play.  Prior to that, the word meant "consisting of skin or membrane", such as a bat's wings.  That usage appears in the written record in the late 16th century.

The slang noun skinny meaning "information; rumor" is American in origin and is first recorded in 1959, and it is thought to be unrelated to skinny "thin".  Skinny-dip is another American term, but skinny there means "in one's skin" (i.e., sans clothing).  It appeared in writing for the first time in 1966.

From Raf De Coninck:

In your past few issues the dreaded N-word was frequently touched upon from various angles, often mentioning its Latin origin. This has started me thinking about the origin of the English version of Latin niger, 'black'. I was surprised at the absence of (apparent?) similarities with today's Germanic languages. So where does 'black' come from, and have other Germanic forms (schwarz, zwart, sort etc.) survived into modern day English?

A blackened, burnt stickEnglish did have an equivalent to German schwarz.  It was swart.  It still exists today in the form swarthy.  However, black, and its previous forms, displaced swart.  Etymologists do not necessarily agree upon black's origin.  Some suggest that it comes from the Indo-European root bhel- "to shine, to flash, to burn", with the sense in this case being "burnt".  Some argue with this explanation because the Old English word for "white", blc (whose relatives include English blank and French blanc "white", all of which clearly come from the Indo-European root bhel-) was often indistinguishable in Old English script from the word meaning "black", which was blc or blac.   However, those who do not agree with derivation from that Indo-European root do concede that black still probably arises from a Teutonic root meaning "burnt".  So, no matter which school you choose, black still ultimately means "burnt".

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

wherein Barb Dwyer says it's

a very special century

As many of our readers may have noticed, this is not only the last issue of this century but our last issue of the current millennium.  No, we are not taking a year's sabbatical.  There were only 99 years in 20th century and only 999 years in the second millennium.

A couple of nights ago, Malcolm and I were watching a TV documentary about the outstanding events of this century which began with footage of the New Century celebrations.  The film clearly showed the date on which the century began: January 1st, 1901.  Every century up till now has ended with a year whose number ends ...00.  Thus, the first century began with 1  and ended with 100 (= 100 years).  The 18th century began with 1701 and ended with 1800 (= 100 years).  The 19th century began with 1801 and ended with 1900 (= 100 years), but the 20th century began with 1901 and is ending at the end of 1999 (= 99 years).  Therefore (and I think my logic is unassailable) this century is the first ever to have only 99 years.  Now if I could just work out which decade it was that had only 9 years...

Sez You...

From Stephen Day:

Still really enjoying Take Our Word For It and here are a couple of random comments: 

I seem to recall a curmudgeon talking about improper formation of plurals of words from Greek & Latin. Well, here is an example lifted from the CNN website recently: "Clinton Administration strives to provide Internet access across racial, income stratas"

Concerning Welsh career-nymics (and maybe some nostalgia for Mike ?), have a look at the Ivor the Engine site, where the story's characters are described.

From Chandra McCann:

Were the Ivor the Engine books written by a Welshman? I always wondered why he was called "Ivor the Engine" and not "Ivor the Engineer".

Thanks, Stephen, for the link!  Chandra, check the link and you'll see that the book is indeed about Welsh characters, but Ivor the Engine is an engine.  However, there are Jones the Steam and Dai Station, among other characters, who are people.  By the way, all this hearkens back to Issue 63.

From John:

Regarding 'Dai the Death' etc., the definite article is frequently omitted.  When I was a student in South Wales (not far from M. Tydfil) there was another undertaker simply called 'Dai Death'. Some Welsh surnames also take the word 'Ap', for example: Daffyd Ap Morris, I think this is equivalent to Mac, O' and -son. 


Thanks, John.  Check the Ivor the Engine link above and you'll see examples of Welsh names with the article and without. You are correct about ap; see Issue 65 for a discussion of Welsh surnames.  As for the world's longest place name, your version of it is misspelled.  You have a letter Ll where you should have a letter Ch (yes, they are both single letters in Welsh).  The correct spelling is  Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.  Just click here to hear Mike saying it (it will take about three minutes to load at 38 kbps).  Now, how much was that bet worth?

Read more about that word.

From Jim Schuler:

I like your site a lot, but you missed something regarding Xmas. The X was not used to signify the cross, but the first letter of Christos in Greek: the chi (kee) or X, hence XPI used to indicate Christ (or IHS for Jesus).  Merry Christmas, and a happy new year! 

From Ralph Slade:

Regarding your explanation of the origin of the abbreviation "Xmas" for Christmas, at some point back in my deep, dim past, I heard that the "X" was actually the Greek letter "chi" (written as X), which has long been used as an abbreviation for Christ (Xristos in Greek) by theologians. Have I been laboring under a misconception all these years?

While the X-like character which appears in the Chi-Rho symbol is a Greek letter chi, the X in Xmas represents the criss-cross.  This symbol preceded the alphabet in children's hornbooks of the middle ages.  Just in case you were wondering, there was also a character which followed the alphabet.  It was &, the ampersand. 

From Amy S.:

I would just like to respond to Curmudgeon's Corner (week of Dec. 20). While I haven't studied English Phonetics or Phonology, I have taken the Spanish version.  I found it interesting that in reading another person's lips, you saw them pronounce input as imput. In Spanish, 'N' is alveolar and 'P' is bilabial. The 'N' assimilates itself to the bilabial 'P', making the 'N' bilabial also. This would then make input sound like imput (in Spanish, anyway. Of course, input is not a Spanish word). Another example would be 'un buen idea' or um buen idea; the 'n' in "un" assimilating to the bilabial 'b' in "buen".

The speaker happened to be enunciating carefully and paused slightly between the m and p of imput.   Even when someone does not pause there, if a listener watches the lips, it is not difficult to discern the difference between input and imput in most careful speakers.  (As an aside, for those readers not familiar with the term, bilabial is an adjective describing phonemes in which the upper and lower lips make contact, as in a b or pAlveolar refers to phonemes produced by the pressure of the tongue against the base of the teeth.)

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