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Issue 72   

February 7, 2000
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This word, which is another term for “one who deals in fish”, first appears in the English written record in about 1464.  It was spelled just a bit differently then, in a work offering guidance for running one’s household: “The ferst day off Marche at the Fyshemongerys howse.”      However, by 1594 the word had taken on its present form, as seen in this quote from Plat’s The Jewell-house of Art and Nature: “This maketh the Fishmongers Wives so wanton.”  That work comes from around Shakespeare’s time, so it should come as no surprise that the Bard uses fishmonger in his Hamlet (1602):

 HAMLET  Excellent well; you are a fishmonger.

LORD POLONIUS   [Aside]  How say you by that? Still harping on my daughter: yet he knew me not at first; he said I was a fishmonger: he is far gone, far gone: and truly in my youth I suffered much extremity for love; very near this. I'll speak to him again.  What do you read, my lord?

The word appears in another famous writer’s work, that of Charles Dickens, in 1865: “The fishmonger pulls off his hat with an air of reverence,” from his Our Mutual Friend.  Fishmonger is not so common a word today in the United States, though most people at least have an idea of what it means, mostly based on historical context.

No, that's not one of us.  It's Jeff, visiting a fishmonger in Upton, home of his bride Emma.  Click to visit his page.Fishmonger is formed simply from the word fish plus monger.  Monger is an interesting term, coming from Old English mangere “agent”, a noun formed from the verb mong.  Mong comes from the Old English mangian “trader”, which derives from Old Teutonic *mangôjan.  Interestingly, the Old Teutonic form is traceable back to Latin mango “trader, dealer”.  The Latin word comes ultimately from the Indo-European root meng- “to furbish” “to polish, to clean up”.  The sense here is one of a trader cleaning up something in order to sell it and make a profit. 

Monger as a word on its own dates, in the surviving written record, from the late 10th century in the canons of King Edgar: “We læraÞ Þæt preosta gehwilc tilige him rihtlice & ne beo ænig mangere mid unrihte.   While it is in the form mangere there, it was monger by 1400, when we see it used thus: “Marchandes, Monymakers, Mongers of fyche.”  It is interesting to note that, about 64 years before the first record of a form of the word fishmonger, we find the phrase mongers of fish.

Not long after fishmonger first appeared on the scene, monger on its own began to take on a bit of a contemptuous ring.  By the mid-16th century, the word monger is used to refer to one who carries on a contemptible “trade” or “traffic” in a metaphoric sense, as in this quote providing one of the earliest instances of this usage, from 1550: “Foule priestes,..and holy water mongers dayly perverting the ignorant people.”   Fishmonger and its counterparts, among them cheesemonger and ironmonger, did not take on such negative connotations, however, and continued to refer to people selling fish, cheese, and iron, respectively.

There is also a  costermonger, one who sells apples or fruits.  It comes from coster, the name of a kind of cooking apple (and it is related to the word custard).  The word costermonger came to be used as a term of contempt, with Shakespeare first recording it with that sense.  It was in Henry IV, Part II (1597) that he wrote:

FALSTAFF:  Not so, my lord; your ill angel is light; but I hope he that looks upon me will take me without weighing: and yet, in some respects, I grant, I cannot go: I cannot tell. Virtue is of so little regard in these costermonger times that true valour is turned bear-herd: pregnancy is made a tapster, and hath his quick wit wasted in giving reckonings: all the other gifts appertinent to man, as the malice of this age shapes them, are not worth a gooseberry.  You that are old consider not the capacities of us that are young; you do measure the heat of our livers with the bitterness of your galls: and we that are in the vaward of our youth, I must confess, are wags too.

Apparently costermongers were held in contempt because of their selling practices:  not only were they seemingly everywhere, hawking their fruit in a bothersome fashion, but they also sometimes sold bad fruit, putting a few good pieces at the top of the bag, those below being rotten. 

The etymology of fish may be of interest as part of the word fishmonger.   In Old English fish was fisc, coming ultimately from pre-Teutonic piskos, which is cognate with Latin piscis “fish” (as in Pisces).  The Indo-European root of those old words is peisk- “fish”.  There are many cousins of English fish in other Germanic languages, for example Old Frisian fisk, Old Scandinavian. fisc (Dutch visch), Old High German. fisc (Middle High German visch, and German fisch), Old Norse fiskr (Swedish and Danish fisk), and Gothic fisks.  So for as long as the word and its roots have existed, it has meant the same thing!  Note, however, that Greek, an Indo-European language, does not have a word for fish which comes from the Indo-European root.  Greek for fish is ikhthus (which is where we get ichthyology “the study of fish” and the name Icthyosaurus “fish lizard”, a genus of extinct marine animal).

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From CD Jensen:

I work in a law firm and have wondered about the phrase know all men by these presents.  Does it mean "by those who are present" or "by these in whose presence"?  It is a mystery to me.  Your web site is well received by me and my five teenagers.  You're on one fridge in the Pacific Northwest...not everyone makes our fridge, ya know.

Well, we've got to live up to that fridge honor, haven't we?  Know all men by these presents means "know all men by the words/statements in this very document".  It seems an odd construction to us today, perhaps, but it dates back to 1389, at least in a very similar form: "Be it open and Þeis presentes" ("be it open and these presents").  The first example of know all men by these presents that we can find is in a will and testament of 1752: "Know all men by these presents, that I John Griffin make the aforementioned my last will and testament."  Today it survives almost exclusively in legal use; however, it derives from the same source as the noun present "gift", the adjective present "here", and the verb present "give".  That source is Latin praesse "to be before", formed from prae- "before" and esse "to be".  The present participle of that verb, praesens, came to mean "present, immediate", and Old French took it as present.

The French used present in various ways.  One was in the phrase mettre un chose en present a quelqu'un "to put a thing into the presence of someone", which today we might say as "to present something to someone".  En present there had the specific meaning "into the presence".  The French soon came to equate en present with en don "as a gift", and so present came to mean "gift", although the Modern French for "gift" is cadeau.  English borrowed present with that meaning in the late 12th or early 13th century.

Present "here", which entered English in the 14th century, and the verb present "give", which dates in English from the 13th century, arose more directly from praesse, with no great change in meaning, much  like [know all mean by these] presents.

From Curt Aasen:

I noticed that you produce your weekly magazine "barring" any problems.  I am interested in the history and the correct usage of this word. 

To bar means "to exclude from consideration, to prevent".  We say that we will publish this webzine every Monday, but that statement excludes from consideration any problems that might prevent us from publishing.  As you might have guessed, this word comes from the noun bar, "a pole or stake fixed across an entry or exit to block ingress or egress".  From that notion arose the verb to bar "to prevent entry or exit" and then, more figuratively, "to prevent". 

The noun bar entered Middle English from Old French barre, and the French borrowed it from Latin barra.  Unfortunately, the derivation of the Latin form is not known.  One school thought it might have derived from Celtic barr "bushy top", but that has been discredited as there is no way to connect the two different and disparate meanings.  The verb was coined from the noun in the late 13th century, and by the late 15th century it was being used in the legal sense "to prevent".  The noun first appears in the English record in about 1175 with the specific meaning "a stake or rod of iron or wood used to fasten a gate or door".  By 1220 it had come to refer to an entire gate or barrier, and bar referring to shape  (bars of silver, soap, etc.) first arose in the 16th century, coming, of course, from the shape of the kinds of bars used to create a barrier (and barrier came from the same source, in the 14th century)Sand bar, or simply bar, came to refer to a bank of sand or mud blocking (or barring) navigation of a river or harbor in the late 16th century.  The verb to bar, as in the example you cite, dates from the middle of the 16th century.

A Underdog and Simon Bar Sinister on a collectible carrying case.  Click to visit the of music comes from the "bars" drawn across the stave to denote separate measures.  The heraldic term bar, referring to a device used on coats of arms, derives from the shape of the device.  By the way, the term bar sinister "heraldic device denoting illegitimacy", is actually erroneous.  The proper term was baton sinister or bend sinister. So much for Simon Bar Sinister of Underdog.  Still, what a great name for the bad guy!

There's another legal sense of the word: to be admitted to the bar is to be licensed as an attorney (in the U.S.).  That, and most other legal uses of the word bar as a noun in the U.S. and U.K., arise from the bar around a judge's bench, to which prisoners were taken for arraignment, and where most court business took place.  The word came to apply to the court as a whole, and then the legal profession as a whole, and it also has several other slightly different meanings within the profession.  This usage also gave rise to the British term barrister, a kind of fancy attorney.  They are the ones in the funny wigs and should not be confused with barristas who are Italians who serve espresso.

Bar "unit of measure of pressure" (as in millibar) comes from Greek barus "heavy".

From Christina H.:

What is the origin of the word history?

It came to English in the 14th centuryfrom Latin historia "narrative of past events".  Latin borrowed it from Greek istoria "narrative, history; knowledge obtained from inquiry" derived from istor- "knowing, learned, wise man, judge".  The source of that word was id- "to know", and the Indo-European root from which id- descended was weid- "to see".  That root gave English such other words as wisdom, wit, and many of our words related to seeing, among them view, vision, and voyeur.

Story is an aphetic form of history.  Both words originally referred to a narrative account which was supposedly true, but story diverged and came to refer to any narrative account, while history retained the "true" sense.  Story dates from the early 13th century, coming from the Latin via French estorie. That e was easily dropped in English.

We've discussed story (or storey in British English) before, but we'll remind you that it is actually thought to derive from historia.  As odd as it may sound, the suggestion is that story "floor of a building" pertained originally to a tier of painted windows, or statues, on the front of a building, those paintings or statues telling some sort of story.  It first appears in English in the late 14th or early 15th century.  The suggestion that the word derives from Old French estorer "to build, furnish" is not accepted because of the Anglo-Latin form, historia "stor[e]y of a building", which survives in the written record from the 12th century.

We have heard some militant feminists maintain that history really means his storyHis, as opposed to her story, that is.  While we might agree that the role of women is greatly underestimated, those who insist on this interpretation are generally unencumbered by actual information on the subject.

From Elisheva Sperber:

I would like to know the origin of prize and price, which must be related.  Furthermore, It interests me to know if the words have a connection to the Hebrew (my mother-tongue) prass, "reward".

"Must be related"?  We have learned by experience never to make such statements without actually researching the words in question.  After all, one might suppose that miniature and minimum are related but they aren't.  

In this case you are, in fact, correct but... but... just don't let it happen again.  Both price and prize derive from theLatin pretium, "price" via Late Latin precium and Old French pris.  Middle English (from the 1200s) used pris (or priis or prijs or priys or pries or prys or pryys - they weren't great sticklers for spelling) to mean "price, value, honor, prize, or  praise".   Later, this word became three separate words: price, prize and praise.  The earliest example of prize is in The Merchant of Venice: "Is that my prize, are my deserts no better?", Shakespeare (1596).  The use of price to mean "honor" is now completely obsolete, but we occasionally encounter the Biblical expression "a pearl of great price" in which price still means "value".

While the more ancient roots of these words are obscure they are most certainly Indo-European, not Semitic.  It is  suggested that the root of pretium is *per- "to traffic in, to sell" as the root, with one of its forms being *pret- although there is a minority opinion that it might be from *preti- "back" (the notion being that one gets something "back" or in payment or barter for an object or service).  Such linguistic archeology reveals that interpret and pornography are distant relatives of price.

So, no Hebrew connection.  There are some Hebrew-derived words in English but the only common ones are those which entered English through the Bible such as behemoth, cherub, jubilee and sabbath.  All the others are either very obscure (like bdellium, gematria, and hyssop) or refer directly to the Jewish religion (like rabbi).  The reason English and Hebrew have so few words in common is that they belong to totally different language groups.  Of course, English may have  borrowed a few Hebrew words but that does not mean that there is any connection between the two languages - English has also borrowed words from Hindi, Tamil, Arawak and Tagalog.  That's what makes the study of our language so fascinating.

We cannot leave this topic without mentioning that there are some who believe that all languages of the world (yes, even Chinese and Cherokee) derive from Hebrew.  We can only assume that such beliefs come from deeply-felt religious convictions as they are not supported by any linguistic evidence.  Come to think of it, some Hindu fundamentalists insist that all the world's languages come from Sanskrit.  Wouldn't it be interesting to have a debate between these two factions?  Now that's got to be more fun than Bush v. McCain.

From Randy Riley:

Signature:  where, why, how, when did this word originate?

This word was a fairly late addition to English, having been introduced in the late 1500s from the medieval Latin signatura, "a signature".  This word was applied equally to a name or a personal mark as used by illiterate signatories.  The Latin word is formed from the verb signare which itself comes from signum, "a sign, a mark, a seal".

The noun sign has been in use since around 1200.  It initially meant a hand  gesture, as in American Sign Language, but by the 1300s it was also being used to mean a written mark or symbol.  The verb to sign came into use around 1300 and first meant "to consecrate or bless", that is, "to make the sign of the cross" over something.  Another hundred years would pass before it was used in its modern meaning of "to write one's name [as authentication]".

The source of Latin signatura is thought to be the Indo-European root *seq- "point out, say", with the sense that the mark or gesture "says" something, though one source believes it was a form of *sek-, "to cut".

Really important documents were signed and sealed with a personal seal, often by using a signet-ring (signet is "a small sign" from signum + et).  Some other related words are assign, consign, ensign, insignia, resign, seal, signal, and significant.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

where Barb Dwyer rebuts those who say


I must hear this word misused ten times as often as I hear it used correctly.  Of late I have heard several statements in the form "George W. Bush made several arguments which were refuted by John McCain".  What the commentator actually meant was that Senator McCain strenuously denied the arguments of Governor Bush.  I have no doubt that he did this but I seriously doubt that he refuted them. 

In order to refute an argument, one must actually prove, without question, that it is wrong.  As stringent logical analysis is rarely encountered in modern political debate, I can only assume that the word was used in mistake for rebut.  It is easy to rebut any argument.  All one has to do is disagree.

Sez You...

From Tiffany Rasovic:

I think your web site is the best I have ever seen. I have been a word nerd for many years - I study Medieval and Renaissance Literature, especially drama, Shakespeare, Chaucer - and am always enchanted by what I find in your 'zine. It is one piece of mail that I truly savor. Thanks. (By the way, I feel some kinship--my mother is Welsh - but I really only know how to ask for a beer in Welsh, a skill in any tongue to my mind.) Well, I have no inquiry at this time, but I just wanted to say that after a year of reading your site - and I cannot remember how I found it - I felt compelled to contact you and express my humble thanks; I do not know how we e-denizens came to deserve such a gift as your site, free and superb, but there it is.

Aw, shucks!  Thanks very much, Tiffany.  We wouldn't be here if it weren't for you and everyone like you who read our weekly column (and preview newsletter!).  It makes all the hard work worthwhile when we receive a note like yours.

From Allan Price:

I was intrigued to see what you had to say about mead in Spotlight [last] week, especially the derivation of the word metheglin, the healing liquor.  Alison, my wife, is a spiritual healer, but she didn't know the etymology of the word when she made a gallon of metheglin a while ago. If you feel so inclined, try the recipe:

1 sprig of balm
1 sprig of rosemary
1/2 oz. of root ginger
1 lemon
1 gallon of water
5 lb of honey
yeast (mead yeast if available)

Simmer the herbs and spices and thinly peeled lemon rind in the water for 20 minutes. Strain and pour onto the honey. When lukewarm add the lemon juice and previously activated yeast. Cover and leave to ferment for 24 hours.  Pour into a fermentation jar and insert an airlock. Leave to ferment to a finish in a warm place. Remove to a cooler place for 3 weeks before siphoning into bottles. The herbs used were what we had in the garden, but use whatever you fancy as a flavoring.

Thanks, Allan, and thanks to your wife!

From Patricia Duff:

In reading the debunking of the Life in the 1500s internet hoax, I noticed that you took exception to the author's assertion that the bones of people previously buried were dug up after a period. The comment was something to the effect of 'England may be small, but there's still plenty of room to bury people.' True, now. But, according to Phillip Arles, in In the Hour of Our Death, in the medieval period, in England and on the continent, people wanted to be buried in consecrated ground, or churchyards. Churches were often in the centers of towns and as towns grew, the area available for burying became insufficient. The practice arose of digging up the remains after a period of time to allow the dissolution of the flesh, removing those recovered bones to charnel houses, and reusing the ground for new burials. Coffins were less common; usually remains were buried wrapped in shrouds. Lime was often poured over remains, in mass or single graves to assist in the process. Certain churchyards, or cemeteries, developed reputations for quickly digesting flesh. 

Most of the posting was as self-contradictory, fanciful, and outright wrong, just as you noted, but there were at least two points that had a connection with the truth. 

One sad fact that I've learned at the expense of many bloody heads, is that urban legends are nearly impossible to debunk. There's the famous 'prostitute drugs john and her confederates steal one of his kidneys for organ transplant' legend that won't die no matter how many times it's refuted.   Some of these legends are merely amusing, many are hurtful and all show a deep ignorance of how the world really works that is truly appalling.  Great website, though. I'll be back.

Actually, "Life in the 1500s" doesn't qualify as an urban legend.  Much in it can be proved inaccurate or incorrect because the writer made such broad (and grossly incorrect) assertions regarding historical social customs and practices about which exist excellent records.  Urban legends, on the other hand, often sound completely plausible and are not necessarily discreditable because they refer to supposedly specific incidents related by "my brother" or "my mother's friend" or, typically, "a friend of a friend".  Occasionally, the legend will cite an authoritative agency such as the Smithsonian Institution or the Center for Disease Control.  Some of the classics are the "hypodermic needle infected with the AIDS virus protruding from a movie-seat cushion" tale, or the "poodle in the microwave" account, or, as you mentioned, the "organ-theft" stories.   

As for the burial practices in England during Ann Hathaway's time, it is true that bones were often displaced when new graves were being buried (to wit: remember the scene in Hamlet where Yorick's skull is unearthed while Ophelia's grave is being dug).  However, it was not done because England was a small country, as the writer of "Life in the 1500s" suggests, and what probably happened more often is that the newly dead were buried atop older burials.

Thanks for the kind words about the site, not to mention the reference to Mr. Arles' book, which does sound quite intriguing!

From Thea Ludlow:

I was taught that the meaning of fortnight is that it was the length of time it took the knights to patrol the border forts along the Welsh borders.

You were given misinformation.  Melanie was told by one of her teachers in second grade that the word mischievous was most certainly to be pronounced "miss-CHEEV-ee-us".  Thankfully Melanie had enough wits about her to question that assertion instantly.  We should all exercise critical thinking.  Regarding fortnight, check any dictionary that contains etymological information.  The record is very clear about the derivation of fortnight.  It originally meant "fourteen nights".  Besides, the word fort with the meaning "stronghold" did not arise in English until the 14th century, while fortnight is Old English.  That refutes the "border forts" suggestion.

Besides, although the Welsh Marches have more than their fair share of forts, did knights ever patrol them?  Why would they put themselves at risk after going to all the trouble of building nice, safe castles?

See our entry on fortnight. 

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