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Issue 71   

January 31, 2000
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There is a sweet, honey-based liqueur called mead and according to the label of one brand, the word honeymoon has its origin in ancient marriage customs concerning this drink.  While this is a delightful notion which, no doubt, helps to shift a few bottles off the shelves, it is... what shall we say... not congruent with the facts.

An otherwise trustworthy reference work claims that "it was the custom in ancient times for a newly married couple to drink a potion containing honey on each of the first thirty days - a moon - of their marriage. Attila, king of the Huns, was reputed to have drunk so heavily of this potion that he died of suffocation."  This is yet more fantasy.  It is true that the Huns were fond of mead, but Attila died the day before his marriage, not after.  He was about to be wed to the 15-year-old daughter of the Mayor of Rome.  We can only imagine her relief.

Charles Panati, a popular and entertaining writer, suggests (in The Extraordinary Origins of Popular Things) that the practice of a honeymoon has its origin in Norwegian bride abduction and it refers to the period when the newlyweds would hide and wait until the bride's parents ceased looking for the groom and laid down their battle axes.  He also derives the word honeymoon from the Norse hjunottsmanathr.  While it is true that bride-abduction, a kind of ritualized rape, was common in many parts of the world, this has nothing to do with the English word honeymoon, even if there was such a word as hjunottsmanathr.

Many English words do have a Norse origin but this one did not appear until 1546, approximately 500 Moonrise, in partial eclipse, in Australia. years after the Norse connection to English had been severed.  Richard Huleot in his Abecedarium Anglico Latinum (1552) defined it as "a term proverbially applied to such as be new married, which will not fall out at the first, but the one loueth the other at the beginning exceedingly."  Then again we find "Hony-moon, applyed to those marryed persons that love well at first, and decline in affection afterwards; it is hony now, but it will change as the Moon." (Blount, 1656).  Such descriptions as these certainly suggest that the term had already been around for some time by the 1550s, but we have no evidence at all for a Norse origin.  Furthermore, these glosses indicate only a period of connubial bliss which, though at first as sweet as honey, was soon to wane like the moon.  There is no suggestion here that the newly-weds went away somewhere to spend some time alone.  In fact, this meaning of honeymoon did not emerge until c. 1800.

To get back to the topic of mead, this is a really ancient word with its roots in the Indo-European *medhu, "sweet" and has a cousin in the Sanskrit madhu, "sweet", "wine".  Judging by the size of the ancient mead-horns, they were not used for sipping cloyingly sweet liqueurs but for quaffing something more akin to beer or hard cider.  A mead-like drink was brewed (and, of course, consumed) in Wales until very recently.  It was called meddeglyn,  or in English, metheglin.  Surprisingly, although the Welsh for mead is medd, meddeglyn has quite a different origin, coming from meddyg, "healing" + llyn, "liquor".  A potion called "metheglin" was produced in the 1700s in Pennsylvania and although it (reportedly) packed quite a wallop, it was actually non-alcoholic.  The honey used to make this version of metheglin was derived from mountain-heather (Phyllodoce breweri) which contains high concentrations of grayanotoxins, substances which, in small doses, cause "sub-toxic inebriation".  In larger doses they can induce coma and even death.  Soldiers escorting the ancient Greek general Xenophon through enemy territory gorged themselves on wild honey and passed out cold for three days.  It is thought that this honey was made from the nectar of azaleas and rhododendrons - also members of the heather family (Ericacea) which are rich in grayanotoxins.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Bobbi Emel:

I've been wondering about the phrase you're welcome.  What is the origin of this and why do we use it after someone says thank you?

The phrase you're welcome, as a response to thank you, dates only from the early part of the 20th century.  The first record of it is in W. W. Jacobs' Short Cruises: "'Thank you,’ said the girl, with a pleasant smile. ‘You’re quite welcome,’ said the skipper."  This usage popped up so late because welcome meant "well come" (i.e., one's arrival was pleasing) prior to that time, and that was broadened to include such meanings as "pleasing" or "acceptable".  That group of meanings, however, arose in Middle English due to the influence of Old French bien venu, "welcome" (literally, "well come").  In Old English, welcome, which had the form wilcuma, meant "one whose coming is pleasing" or applied to someone who was "acceptable as a visitor".  It was formed from wil- or will- "will, desire" and cuma "comer, guest".

The sense in you're welcome is one of "it was pleasing to me to do" whatever it was that you were thanked for.

From Ivan Uys:

The grapefruit was originally called a pomelo or shaddock (after a Captain Shaddock).  How did it come to be called grapefruit

In a nutshell (or a grapefruit rind), grapefruit is so named because it grows in clusters like grapes.  Some writers around the time that that name for the fruit first arose thought that grapefruitGrapefruit referred to the taste of the fruit, but that was incorrect, and those writers probably had never tasted a grapefruit before writing about it.  The word was used as early as 1814 in a horticultural journal regarding Jamaica.  Today the word refers specifically to Citrus paradisi, the yellow-skinned and yellow- or pink-fleshed fruit.

Shaddock was indeed the common name for the fruit, arising from the name of Captain Shaddock, who captained a ship of the East India Company and took seeds of the fruit to Barbados from the western Pacific.  That term is first recorded (as shaddock tree) in 1696.  Today it refers to the large, pear-shaped varieties of Citrus decumana.

Pomelo refers to Citrus grandis and, while its origin is unclear, it is thought that the word is related to pomum and pome "apple".  It dates from the middle of the 19th century.

There is also another word for these fruits: pompelmoose.  It first occurred in the Dutch Indies in the 17th century as pompelmoes and then pampelimouse.  A Dutch etymologist believes that the word is formed from Dutch pompoen "pumpkin", referring to the large size of the fruit, and Portuguese limoes "lemons, citrus".  The word pompelmoose is usually used in English to refer to Citrus decumana.  It first appears in the English written record (excluding botanical journals written in Latin) in 1697.

See also Issue 62 for more surprising pumpkin connections.

From Gabe:

The phrase how come? has always bothered me.  I was thinking it meant, "HOW does it COME to be?"  Please help.

That's exactly what how come? means.  Surprisingly, it is American in origin, at least in that form.  It dates from the middle of the 19th century, and its first recorded form is in Bartlett's Dictionary of American English: "How-come? rapidly pronounced huc-cum, in Virginia. Doubtless an English phrase, brought over by the original settlers, and propagated even among the negro slaves. The meaning is, How did what you tell me happen? How came it?"

Its predecessor in England was how comes it that...?  That phrase was used by Shakespeare in 1607, in his Coriolanus: "How com’st that you haue holpe To make this rescue?"  However, he was not the first to use it; we find it first recorded in 1548 by Hall in Chronicle: "How commeth this that there are so many Newe Testamentes abrode?"

From Carole:

At work today our supervisor mentioned that a woman purchased 26 or so cases of Spam in anticipation of problems resulting from Y2K issues.  Silly me, I wondered where the name Spam came from.  Is it like scuba?  Some of us guessed that, if that were so, then Spam would mean "supposedly passing as meat".  What do you think?

Spam is allegedly formed from SPiced and hAM.  This canned meat was patented in the U.S. in 1937 as Spam.  However, one of the earliest quotes using the word casts some doubt on its origin:  "In the last month Geo. A. Hormel & Co...launched the product Spam... The 'think-up' of the name [is] credited to Kenneth Daigneau, New York actor... Seems as if he had considered the word a good memorable trade-name for some time, had only waited for a product to attach it to" (from Squeal, July 1, 1937).  Some accounts have it that the actor thought up Spam in response to a contest offered by Hormel, and that the actor was the brother of Hormel & Company's vice president at the time.  Interestingly, one source for that story also indicates that Hormel already had a product called "Spiced Ham" and apparently wanted a different appellation for a similar product.

Monty Python memorialized the name in their classic skit about Spam, and according to a recent newspaper blurb, Hormel has announced that it will open a 16,550-square foot Spam Museum and Visitor Center in Austin, Minnesota in 2001.  Get your tickets now!

Spam "to deploy mass e-mail" or "junk e-mail" is said to come from the Monty Python sketch, presumably because the word Spam is repeated so many times in it, but there is also the claim that it arose because Spam splatters in a messy fashion when thrown, sort of like a mass e-mailing leaves the sender's mail client and propagates, as it were, across the globe.

Oh, and let's not forget scuba, since you mentioned it.  It is one of the few common English words that is an acronym, and it comes from the words "Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus".

From Jeni Shaum:

I want to know the language in which hypocrite first appeared, along with the date.

Well, and not so much as a "please" or "I  love your column"!  What is this world coming to?  Hypocrite came to English from Old French ypocrite in the early 13th century.  The French obtained the word from ecclesiastical Latin hypocrita, and the Romans borrowed it from Greek hupokrites "an actor on the stage, a pretender, a dissembler".  That derived from the verb hupokrinestai "to pretend", which was formed from hupo-, "under" (as in the prefix hypo-) and krinein, "to decide, to determine, to judge".  Apparently the sense was one of judging something as less, or different, than it actually was, as in seeing an actor as his character instead of himself.

The Greek verb krinein comes from the Indo-European root krei- "to sieve, to discriminate, to separate" and gave English a host of words like riddle, crime, discriminate, critic, crisis, and endocrine, among many others.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

where Malcolm Tent says


I hear this word all too often.  What gets me is that it is not a word!  The word is supposed to be supposedly, meaning "It is supposed".  Clearly, people who say supposably think that something is supposable.  ANYTHING is supposable, so that just doesn't work.  Consider this example:

A: "Did he go to the movies?" 
Q: "Supposedly." 

This answer means "It is supposed that he went to the movies."  

On the other hand,

A: "Did he got to the movies?" 
Q: "Supposably." 

...means "It is possible to suppose that he went to the movies."   Of course, it is also possible to suppose that he flew to the moon...

Sez You...

From Chandra McCann:

Being somewhat of a curmudgeon myself (If I see another sign that reads "Book's for sale" I'm going to scream), I can understand Ms. Dwyer's irritation at this pronunciation of voilà. However, I felt it prudent to suggest that she work on the accuracy of her information. (Being a curmudgeon, one does not wish to leave oneself open to pedantic criticism by those who have been offended.) Therefore, might I gently suggest that [vwa] is not a phoneme, but rather a series of three phonemes (all of which exist in English). What is difficult is the unfamiliar initial consonant cluster "vw", which is reduced to "w" by English speakers.

On mature consideration, we concede your point about the "vw" of voilà being more than one phoneme but we think it's two (v + w).  By the way, are we talking about autonomous phonemes or taxonomic phonemes? <grin> 

From Darren Rowley:

As per Curmudgeon's Corner, sure we pronounce voilà wrong here in the States and it drives me crazy! There is a word wala in the Tagalog Filipino dialect. It means "nothing, zero, gone, or never mind". So when I hear wala, I don't think "look here" or "there you have it".  I'm thinking, it's gone, disappeared, nothing.

We know a wee bit of Tagalog but hadn't heard that one.  Thanks!  By the way, Tagalog is actually considered an Austronesian language in its own right, and not merely a dialect.

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