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Issue 70   

January 24, 2000
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Sure, we have all heard of a peacock, but did you know that there are peahens, as well? A cock, of course, is a rooster or male chicken, and a hen is a female chicken.  Cock and hen are The beautiful peacock. also applied to the names of other domestic birds to distinguish between sexes.  In the case of the peacock, the name for the male of the species has come to refer, now, to males and females of the species.  The term peahen is not used very much today; nor is the modern term peafowl.

The word peacock actually derives from Old English péa “peacock”, and the –cock (or –hen) was added during the Middle English period in order to distinguish between males and females, as mentioned above.  The Old English form comes from Latin pavo “peacock”.  The peacock was a native of India, but it was domesticated and then taken to the West by traders.  The Romans probably took it to Britain, where their name for the bird was adopted and changed by the Anglo-Saxons.  The Latin word is thought to come from Greek taos “peacock”.

There have been many different forms of the word in English: pecok, pekok, pecokk, peacocke, peocock, pyckock, poucock, pocok, pokok, pokokke, and poocok, among others.  By the late 17th century it seems to have taken on its current form.   The earliest example of the word in writing comes from about 1300: “F[o]ure and xxti wild ges and a poucok” (“Four and twenty wild geese and a peacock”).    By the late 14th century Chaucer was using the word to refer to people who strutted and preened ostentatiously, as the peacock was perceived to do: “And yet as proud a pekok can he pulle.”   Interestingly, the term “proud as a peacock” is still used to this day.  Keats spoke of the peacock in his poem Lamia, from 1812: “Eyed like a pea~cock, and all crimson barr’d.”  George Eliot uses the peacock to refer to a showy person (1866): “How came he to have such a nice-stepping long-necked peacock for his daughter?“

When the Spanish came to the New World and first saw the turkey, the only other animal that the turkey resembled, to them, was the peacock, so the Spanish word for turkey is pavo, coming from Latin pavo “peacock”.  If you know what a turkey looks like, with its large display of tail feathers, you can probably understand why the Spanish thought turkeys resembled peacocks.  Peacocks were also eaten like chicken, and the fact that turkey was also found to be pretty tasty might have influenced the Spanish term for the turkey.

There is also an astronomical constellation called Pavo or The Peacock.  There are other animals with the word peacock in their names, as well, such as the peacock fish, so named  because of its brilliant coloring of red, blue, green and white; and the peacock butterfly, which has eye-like spots similar to those on the tail feather of the peacock.  There is also peacock copper, which is iridescent, showing greens and blues when moved in the light.

A female peacock, or a peahen.In India, the peacock is treasured as the national bird, and it lives wild there and in Sri Lanka.  The standard peacock which most of us see in the United States is called an India blue.  There is also a black shouldered variety, which is similar to the India blue except for, as you might expect, black shoulders.  The male peacock is about the size of a turkey, with a long train of large feathers.  When trying to attract a female, the male erects the train of feathers into a huge fan shape.  Females are not as brightly colored as males and do not have the long train of feathers.  It is thought that the remarkable colors and patterns on the male peacock’s feathers served as camouflage in the brilliant colors of the tropical rainforest, where it originated. 

There is a jungle peacock which is found in Burma, Malaysia and Java, and it is golden-green where the variety from India is blue.  White peacocks sometimes turn up in captivity, but they must not survive long in the wild, as they are not usually seen there.  Apparently their white plumage makes them too easily seen by predators.

You might be surprised to learn that the peacock is mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible and in ancient Greek plays.  Since that far back it was appreciated as a beautiful animal and a display of wealth.  The taxonomical name of the Indian peacock is Pavo cristatus (cristatus=crested), and the jungle peacock is Pavo muticus (muticus=beardless).

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From M.-J. Taylor:

Did the fowl get named a duck because it ducks its head under water, or the other way around?

A species of duck.The action preceded the animal name; that is, people were ducking before the duck got its name.  Both words are thought to derive from the (hypothetical) Old English *ducan "to dive".  That means that duck "water fowl of the genus Anas" is etymologically "one who ducks".  Danish has duc-and which is literally "dive-duck", and Swedish has dyk-fågel "dive-fowl".  Ducan referring to the bird is first recorded in the mid-10th century.  Duck the verb first surfaces in Middle English as douke in the mid 14th century, but it is thought to have existed as long as the Old English ducan.

The Anglo-Saxons already had a word for duck before they started to call the bird "the diver".  It was ened.  This comes from the Indo-European root aneti-, which gave us Latin anas (as in Anas boscas, the taxonomical name of the domestic duck) and Danish and  "duck" (as in duc-and), among others.

From Mona:

Today a friend of mine said her philosophy teacher explained to the class that the word metaphysics came from the fact that texts that had no exact category were stored next to the physics books.  I, however, believe that it comes from the Greek word meta "beyond" and means "beyond physics" or a more spiritual, higher source of knowledge. 

As simplistic as it may sound, metaphysics actually is related to the placement of texts, but not just any texts. 

In the 1st century A.D., scholars made compilations of Aristotle's writings.  His essays on how to behave were placed in a single volume called "Ethics", essays on the function of poetry and drama were collected together as "Poetics" and so on.  The final volume on a single theme was devoted to the behavior of inanimate objects and was called "Physics".  This still left a considerable number of essays on assorted topics and these were placed in a final, miscellaneous, volume called "Metaphysics".  This word means "after Physics" and was chosen simply because it followed the volume called "Physics".  There is nothing in this, the original work of metaphysics, to suggest transcendence of mundane reality.

There was no initial notion of "these books transcend the physical", either.  That idea was attached to the word later, as a misinterpretation, with the assumption that the works pertained to that which was supernatural.  Even some Greek writers made that mistake, although such was rare.  This is despite the fact that meta- in Greek does not mean "beyond" in the sense of "transcending".  It, instead means "with" or "after".  It is thought that the incorrect meaning was perpetuated by Latin scholars of the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance because meta- and trans- meant basically the same thing when used in other words.  The earliest English reference to the mistaken meaning of metaphysics occurs in J. Sanford's translation of Agrippa's De Vanitate Artes from 1569: "Of the Metaphisickes, that is, thinges supernaturall and the Science of them."

Since the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the word has acquired a new twist.  Wittgenstein, and the Logical Positivists who followed him, considered a proposition meaningful only if it it may be tested.  Belief in propositions that may not be tested are therefore derided as "(mere) metaphysics".  Such an untestable proposition is "All humans have immortal souls".

More recently, bookshops have evolved yet another meaning of metaphysics.  If we are to believe the likes of Barnes and Noble, metaphysics means anything from tales of U.F.O. abductees to maps of "energy vortexes" [sic] in the vicinity of Sedona, Arizona.

From Jeff Badger:

I have been all over the web and can't find the origin of the word limehouse.

To limehouse is to make a fiery political speech.  The term comes to us from England, where soon-to-be prime minister David Lloyd George made such a speech at Limehouse, a district of the East-end of London, back in 1909.  The Daily Mail was the first to use the term, four years later: "Mr. Lloyd George himself again... Limehousing at Carnarvon."  By 1937 Eric Partridge had picked up the word for his Dictionary of Slang, and he defined it thus: "Limehouse, to use coarse, abusive language in a speech."  It is no longer considered slang today.

The London district takes its name from the lime oasts or kilns which used to be situated there.  The earliest reference to it was in 1367 when it was called Le Lymehostes

From Roberta:

I was recently on the phone with a man who, upon the completion of our conversation said, "I'll see ya down the pike."  I've heard this before, however, I really don't have any idea where it comes from.  Do you?

Actually, we do know where down the pike comes from.  In this instance, the pike is actually a turnpike.  This phrase is distinctively American and is a shortening of to come down the pike.  That is first recorded in a figurative sense in 1956: "Your uncle’s the ablest politician to come down the pike in these parts in the last fifty years."

What is a turnpike?  It's short for turnpike road, or what we might call a "toll road", so named because turnpikes were erected on the road so that tolls could be collected.  Those early "toll booths" were called turnpikes, even though they were probably just gates or turnstiles, because turnpikes were originally used to protect a road or passage from attack.  They were fashioned from pikes, or  long, pointed sticks, with one central pike and many smaller pikes sticking out of the central axis.  Turnpike in that latter sense appears in the written record in the early 15th century.  The same term used to refer to a "toll gate" first appears in the late 17th century.

From Jay:

What is the etymology of turn over a new leaf?  You have a great web site!

If you turn the pages of a book, you are turning leaves.  Yes, leaf in that sense means "page", and so turning over a new leaf is another way of saying "turning to a new page", or, figuratively, starting anew.  Pages have been referred to as leaves since at least the 10th century, as in this quote from Baeda's History: "Man scof Þara boca leaf, Þe of Hibernia coman."  You may have noticed that leaf in Old English looks exactly like it does today.  While it was pronounced differently in Old English, it has retained its form since at least 825 C.E.  It is thought to come from the Old Teutonic root leup- "to peel, to break off", referring to the habit of deciduous trees to lose their leaves each autumn.  Some other words from that root are lobby, which was originally a monastic cloister (and, hence, "broken off" from the rest of society) and aloft.  By the way, turn over a new leaf dates from the late 16th century.

In some parts of the world, books are still written on actual leaves.  In India, for instance, books are traditionally written on palm leaves which are held together with a cord.  The Sanskrit word for "cord" is sutra, hence any discourse which has been committed to writing is also called a sutra.

Oh, and thanks for the kind words, Jay!

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

where Barb Dwyer says


I recently downloaded some free software from the internet.  The problem with free software is that, while it is great in principle, you usually get what you pay for.  This particular offering has a help file that reads "Just point, click, and wa-LA...!"

I was unfamiliar with the word wala until a few years back when a friend used it.

"What did you just say?" I asked.

"Wala!" he repeated.

"Yes," I said, "but what does it mean?"

"Oh, you know," he replied, vaguely, "it's what magicians say."

I must be getting a bit simple in my advancing years for this took a few minutes to sink in.  After a while it dawned on me that what he meant was voilà, a French word which means literally "look there" (voi,  "look", imperative singular + , "there") and which is pronounced Vwa-la.

The problem is that Vwa is a foreign phoneme - I can't think of a single English word with a Vwa sound.  When we encounter such outlandish syllables we frequently do not hear them exactly as they are spoken.  Instead, our brains substitute the closest approximation in our native tongue.  The answer in this case is to give our brains a rest and come to our senses.

Sez You...

From Donna Richardson:

Your site is terrific, and I too am (if not a "budding") an amateur curmudgeon. The version of the extraordinarily annoying "is, is" that I hear all the time is "The thing is, is...". My sister is chronically afflicted, and I hear it more and more. Thanks for evidence that I am not the only one bothered by it; I've mentioned it to other people who look at me blankly, not knowing what I'm talking about... no doubt susceptible to infection themselves, poor blighters. 

Poor blighters, indeed.  (You must have been reading P.G. Wodehouse recently!)  Anyhow, like much bizarre language use and abuse, there's probably not a great deal we can do about it except cringe and bear it.

We have more on this topic from Betsy Kerr:

As a linguist, I noticed this peculiar construction ["is, is"] several years ago, and I've noticed since that it's very widespread, occurring in most people's speech, though more common with some individuals. It can occur with many other initial elements such as "the problem", "the thing", etc. , and though it appears nonsensical, it actually serves a helpful conversational function. Notice that the first "is" is always accented and carries a higher pitch than what follows. This segments off this first part, which serves as a signal to the listener that some sort of explanation will follow. (Historically, it most likely is a reduced form of the same construction beginning with 'what': "what the problem is, is that...".)

We understand your point about this usage serving a conversational function, but wouldn't it be easier for speakers to say, "The reason is x, y and z", stressing reason just as the first is in is, is that is stressed?  Anyhow, we won't harp too long on is, is that since it is conversational and doesn't tend to appear in formal writing, at least not that we've seen so far.  Thanks for your comments.

and even more from Kevin:

Don't you think that the annoying construction "the reason is . . . is that" is simply a way for a radio or TV announcer to buy time while thinking and not an actual linguistic faux pas. People in the media are coached repeatedly not to use "uh" or other more common methods of slowing down speech while they think. At the same time, it is difficult to remain completely silent.

The only problem with that suggestion is, is that (just kidding) we've noticed this particular usage among interviewees and not interviewers.  It is the latter who would have been coached, as you suggest, to fill time with something other than "uh" or the equivalent.  Ms. Kerr's suggestion, above, that the misusage derives from "What the problem is, is that..." seems plausible, notwithstanding the awkward syntax in THAT construction, as well.  Anyone want to diagram that one?

From Dr. Anne Gervasi:

I don't have any of my books with me, but what about the Old English/Anglo-Saxon elegy: The Dream of the Rood? Does it use dream or only sleep in the poem? That would seem to be the best extant source for the word in AS context.

In The Dream of the Rood, the word swefn is used to mean "to sleep or dream", and dream is used to refer to "joy, mirth".   The poem begins: 

Hwæt!  Ic swefna cyst secgan wylle, hwæt me gemætte to midre nigte, sygthan reordberend reste wunedon!

"I am minded to tell a marvelous dream, I will say what I dreamt in the deep of the night, when the sons of men lay asleep and at rest."

Then, near the end, we find: 

...on thysson lænan life gefetige ond me thonne gebringe thær is blis mycel, dream on heofonum, thær is dryhtnes folc geseted to symle, thær is singal blis...

...shall fetch me a way from this fleeting life and bring me then there where bliss is great, to the happiness of heaven, where the host of God is brought to the feast, where bliss is endless...

The translation used above is Kemp Malone's.  Some translations may assume that dream means "dream", and we found a translation which, for dream on heofonum, gave "the heavenly dream", but we hold that translation to be incorrect.  We invite comment from more experienced Old English scholars.

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