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Issue 69   

January 17, 2000
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Listening to the radio on the weekend, we heard a Swedish nykkelharpe virtuoso playing a traditional Swedish dance called the polska.  Leaving aside for the moment the discussion of what a nykkelharpe is, it struck us as odd that a dance named polska should be traditionally Swedish.  After all, polska is Swedish for "Polish".  This got us thinking about dances and how they migrate far beyond their national borders.  A real Polish dance is the polonaise (French for "Polish") as are the mazurka (from Polish mazurka, "woman of the Polish province Mazovia", via French masurka), the cracovienne (French for "woman of Cracow") and the varsovienne (French for "woman of Warsaw").

Surprisingly, the polka is not Polish but Czech, the dance being Bohemian and originally called the nimra.  It has been suggested that polka was a corruption of Czech pulka, "half", a characteristic feature being its short "half steps". Just to add to the confusion, when this dance was introduced to England in the 1840s, it was considered synonymous with the schottische which takes its name from the German phrase der schottische Tanz, "the Scottish dance".  The schottische is not actually Scottish.  Its origins are uncertain but are not within the British Isles.  And the pronunciation doesn't help, either.  Although most people pronounce the word shot-EESH, as though it were French, the French call a schottische a scottish.  The highland (or Balmoral) schottische was a later (1880) Scottish invention and the military schottische is American.

William Kemp's Nine Days' DanceThe polka is by no means the only instance of linguistic confusion regarding dances. The word tango originally referred to a Spanish gipsy dance of Moorish origins which is completely unrelated to the Argentine tango. Speaking of Moorish dances, the traditional English morris dance is actually a "Moorish dance", probably taking its name from the Dutch Moorsche dans.  The dance which is known in the U.S. as the cha-cha is known in Cuba, its country of origin, as the cha-cha-cha. This dance developed from the elegant danzón which itself originated when slaves from Africa played the Spanish contradanza in a syncopated manner.  Contradanza is not originally a Spanish word, being the Spanish form of the French contre-danse. This would seem to make sense in French ("against-dance") as two rows of dancers face each other, but actually it is a corruption of the English "country dance".

In the days of slavery in the U.S., African dances introduced by the slaves were sometimes known as Congo minuets. The West Indian limbo dance, in which each dancer in turn attempts to pass under a low bar, is also thought to have been introduced from Africa.  It may well have developed from a ritual dance as its name is believed to be a form of legba or legua, the name of the supreme god in certain West African religions. Another dance that has its origin in African religion is the mambo which gets its name from mamaloa, the Haitian creole word for a voudun priestess. The Haitian word for a male voudun priest is babaloa. Just as we turned the Creole word voudun into "voodoo", we also turned babaloa into babaloo. A song by this name will be familiar to all fans of Ricky Ricardo, the conga-drummer husband of Lucy in the "I Love Lucy" show.  It may come as a surprise to some that the conga-drum was not so called until the 1920s.  In Cuba it is called the tumba or tumbadora, depending on its pitch, and Puerto Rico has a similar, but smaller, drum called the quinto.  Most Americans had seen nothing like these drums until the conga dance craze of the 1920s, hence they were all called conga-drums.  But whence the term conga dance? It comes from the Spanish word conga meaning" a Congolese woman".  Isn't it odd how so many dances are named "woman of [place]"?

While researching this column we came across the word ascitan, "a member of a heretical sect in the 2nd century A.D. who used to dance round an inflated wine-skin".  Despite the fact that this is all that we know of the ascitans, Mike is now claiming membership of this sect and is going around the house singing "Gimme That Old-time Religion".

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Chris Anderson:

I have checked everywhere on the web for the etymology of dream and have come up empty handed.  Can you linguistic wizards feed this into your think tank and be my heroes?

Neil Gaiman's "Dream", or Sandman.Did someone say "heroes"?  Melanie and Mike to the rescue!  Dream shows up in Middle English as dream and drem, but its Old English form does not appear in any surviving literature from the period.  Therefore, etymologists assume an Old English form, *dréam.  We know that the Old English form must have existed because, among other reasons, there are cognate words in Old Frisian drâm, Old Norse draum, modern Swedish and Danish dröm and German traum.  All of those cognates suggest a Germanic root *draum-.  Some etymologists believe that draum- derives ultimately from dreug- "to deceive, delude".  The latter is thought to be the source of Old Norse draugr "ghost, apparition".  There is even a Sanskrit root which is thought to derive from the same source: druh- "seek to harm", along with an Old Iranian dialect root druz- "lie, deceive".  So the underlying meaning of dream appears to be "deception"!

One reason that dréam does not appear in Old English literature may be that there was a homonym then, which is now obsolete, dréam "joy, mirth".  Old English writers perhaps did not want to confuse readers and so, when referring to "dreams", used the Old English word for "sleep", swefn.

From Kelpie Wilson:

This word, so beloved of advertising copy writers (especially those selling internet and other technology products) has a funny contradictory meaning: both intelligence and wit, and pain, as in, "it smarts". I know that "schmerts" is German for pain. What is the origin of the word and its two meanings?

It does, in fact, appear that smart "clever, sharp" and smart "to hurt sharply" are related.  The connection here is "sharp".  The Old English ancestor of these words is smeorten, and there are cognates in other Germanic languages, and modern German schmerz "pain" is related.  It is possible that these Germanic words are related to Greek smerdnós "terrible" and Latin mordere "to bite".  This may suggest an ultimate ancestor in the Indo-European root mer- "to rub away, to harm".

Anyhow, back to that "sharp" connection.  Smart originally meant "to be sharply painful" (the earliest reference is from the late 9th century) or, as an adjective, "sharp, biting, stinging."  It then shifted to "causing sharp pain", then simply "sharp or keen" by the 14th century.  From there it came to refer to people as "quick or prompt" (think of "twelve o'clock sharp"), and then, by the early 17th century, it came to mean "clever" or, again, "mentally sharp".  That latter meaning caught on quite well in the U.S., such that it is quite common there today but not so in the U.K.

From Chloe Sumera:

Could you please tell me the etymology for the word shy?

The Old English ancestor of this word is scéoh "shy" which is thought to derive from an Old Teutonic root *skeuhw- both "to fear" and "to terrify".  Some other descendants of that root are Middle Dutch schuwe (modern Dutch schuw), Norse skygg (Middle Swedish/Danish sky)The verb to shy "to recoil" as in "the horse shied at the jump" comes from the same source.

The adjective and the noun forms are related to both skew and eschew, the notion there having gone from the sense of "to fear" to "to avoid".  It wasn't until the 17th century that shy the adjective took its current form.  The verb, originally spelled shie, came to be spelled shy in the 18th century.

From a reader:

Where can I find the etymology of the word debt?

Why right here, of course!  Debt's etymology is fairly straightforward.  Middle English took it in the forms det and dette from Old French dete/dette.  The Old French forms were acquired from vulgar Latin debita, which was a form of debitum, the past participle of debere "to owe".  Debita was, then, "that which is owed".

If the Middle English form was det or dette, where on Earth did it get that b?  During the Middle Ages, the b was reintroduced into dette which became debte by punctilious scholars who were influenced by its Latin origins.  By the 16th century, the standard form had become debtDebit was borrowed directly from Latin debitum instead of passing through French, so it maintained a more Latinate form.

Some relatives of debt and debit are debenture, due, duty and even endeavor, all via the Indo-European root ghabh- "to give or receive".

From Victor Dribas:

I'm from Belarus.  I found your terrific site, and I'm curious to know the origin of the idiom on the ball.

Christine Ammer suggests that this phrase, meaning "alert" or "effective", has baseball as its source. He's about to be on the ball. Pitchers would put different kinds of spin on the ball to strike out batters.  Then there's Alfred H. Holt, who thinks that it was British collegiate slang, deriving from soccer (or football to everyone but us Yanks).  Well, the OED seems to agree with Ms. Ammer, stating as the first known recorded occurrence of the word a quote from Collier's magazine, in 1912: "He’s got nothing on the ball – nothing at all."  That seems to jibe with a baseball pitcher putting "something" (a spin) on the ball. 

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

where guest curmudgeon Kate Brookes says

The reason is, is because...

As a budding curmudgeon, I thought I'd mention an irritating verbal tic I keep hearing on radio and television. Science commentators and others trying to explain things in the media often say, "The reason is, is because..." ARRGH!  Have you noticed this tendency? Does it irritate you? I'd love to hear a rant on the subject.

Yes we have, Kate, and we cringe every time it arises, though we usually hear it in the form "the reason is, is that...".   There is another complaint that you can take up against "the reason is[, is] because...", because the word because is duplicating the meaning of "reason" in that construction.  Anyhow, most people simply don't realize when they are committing the "is, is that" blunder.  It's very contagious, but thankfully some of us seem to have a natural immunity to it.  

This grotesque figure of speech has bothered us for such a long time that we were sure we'd complained about it here previously, but even so it merits another bit of ranting.

Thanks, Kate and welcome to the Curmudgeon Club!

Sez You...

From Dan:

My word!  Is New Year's "eve" 24 hours long?  I thought it was just the evening portion of December 31st [referring to Curmudgeon's Corner in Issue 68]... 

No, these days it refers to the entire day (24 hours) preceding New Year's Day.  Etymologically eve means "evening", yes (it's actually short for even "evening"), but the etymology of a word doesn't determine its current meaning, or, in this case, even its ancient meaning.  As long ago as 1300, eve was used for the day before a saint's day and, in 1480, William Caxton wrote "In the same yere [1340] on mydsomer eue kyng edward bygan to sayll toward fraunce" (Chronicles of England, ccxxvi. 231).  Given the rudimentary nature of radar navigation in the 14th century, we can't imagine that King Edward set sail at night.

Does Halloween start after dark only?  No.  And the -een in Halloween is equivalent to eve in that it's a contraction of even.  Does Christmas Eve start only after dark?  No.  Nice try, though!

From Oded Dagan:

In your Spotlight on Jesus [Issue 68] you write "Note that Joshua and Jehoshua were common Hebrew names in Jesus' time". I would like to assure you that the name is still today a common Hebrew name.  Being an old name (evidently) it is not one of the "in" names given to babies. But many Israelis follow the tradition of naming their firstborn after their fathers, so many children have that name.  Keep up the (very) good work!

Thank you!  Actually, we didn't mean to give the impression that those names are not popular today, but we appreciate that clarification.

From Kevin:

I thought Maniacs were people who are indigenous to Maine [see Words to the Wise in Issue 68].

We omitted your last name, Kevin, to save you from being "flamed" at the hands of manic Maine-iacs!

From Birger Drake:

During a travel on the "half-island" of Peloponnessos early in the 1990's,  I was very close to a region in the South called Mani.  I feel Mr. Zoulas' description of place [in Issue 68's Words to the Wise] is correct.

Thank you for that information, Birger.  Perhaps that is the origin of the Greek surname Maniatis.

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