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Issue 73   

February 14, 2000
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Spotlight Words on our minds this week.
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curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner Gripes and grumbles from whining pedants Barb Dwyer and Malcolm Tent.
Sez You . . . Wherein we graciously permit challenges to  our profound erudition.
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...


Today NASA announced that, for the first time, an artificial satellite has been placed in orbit around a minor body of our solar system.  The body is an asteroid called Eros... quite an appropriate achievement for St. Valentine's Day.

Asteroid, of course, means "star-like" but in fact asteroids are quite unlike our modern notion of stars.  They are tiny, cold lumps of rock, not gigantic, fusion-powered furnaces.

A radio news bulletin described Eros as "the Greek god of love".  Well, sorta,  kinda, -ish.  Eros wasEros. the god of desire, especially sexual desire or, to put it bluntly, lust.  It is from his name that we derive the word erotic.  The Roman equivalent was Cupid, hence our word cupidity, "desire, greed or avarice".

While we are on the subject of heavenly bodies, let us consider Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter.  Ganymede is  usually described as "the cup-bearer to the gods", which is  to say that, when the Olympian gods of ancient  Greece  gathered for a feast, it was Ganymede who served them wine.  That is not to  tell the whole story, however.  Jupiter, whose name is a contraction of dio-pitar (= god the father) was the Roman equivalent of Zeus (cognate with Latin deus, Welsh diw and Sanskrit deva, all meaning "god") and, as such, was renowned for his insatiable and indiscriminate lust.  He took the form of a swan in order to seduce the mortal woman Leda, he became a bull in order to abduct the nymph Europa, and for the virgin Danae, he became a shower of gold.  His lustful appetites were not restricted to the fair sex, however.  One day he spied a fair young boy (with a "heavenly body") and, taking  the form of an eagle, bore him away to Mount Olympus.  That boy was Ganymede, a name which, in a corrupted form, gave us the English  word catamite, "a young boy who is kept for the purpose of sodomy".

In the original version of "The Maltese Falcon", Dashiel Hammett had his hero, Sam Spade, say "Get out, and take your catamite with you".  Well, this may have been a gritty, noir thriller but it was written in the 1920s and Hammett's editor insisted he tone it down.  The word catamite being considered too strong for the readers, Hammett changed the line to "Get out, and take your gunsel with you".  This, thought the editor, was an acceptable alternative  despite the fact that gunsel is simply a hobo's word for a catamite (from the Yiddish genzel, "a gosling").  In American Speech we read "Men can be observed traveling with boys... The boy has many names – punk, gazooney, guntzel and bronc."  Presumably, the editor, like most readers and movie-goers, thought that gunsel meant "gunslinger", or something of the sort.  Certainly, by the 1950s, any number of derivative thrillers were using the word to mean "a hired gun[man]", a meaning which is by no means justified by its etymology.

A similarly mistaken word is minion.  It comes from the French mignon (as in filet mignon) which means "dainty, elegant, fine, pretty".  Thus, "Je pense qu'elle est mignon" means "I think she's cute".  A minion, therefore, is a " cutie", as we may see from "One of his dearest frends named Araspas which was..the very minion, playe felow and companion of Cyrus from his youth" (from Palace of Pleasure, by William Painter, 1566).  So be careful when you say, "Here comes the boss with his minions", for it means a little more than "hangers-on".

In the early years of artillery (16th century), there was a cannon known as a minion-drake (i.e. a "cute dragon") so, perhaps there is a connection to gunsel, after all.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Shaul:

Thank you for your highly informative site.  I think it's the only one on the Web today that deals so extensively with this subject.  I'm looking for the origins of the word page and the reasons for its several meanings, such a "servant" or a page in a book.

We are pleased to hear that you enjoy the site.  Page has quite an entertaining history.  Page "boy, lad" (from the late 13th to early 14th century) comes via Old French page from medieval Latin pagius.  The origin of the Latin is not known with certainty.  Some suggest that it comes from the Greek paidion, the diminutive of pais, "boy, child" although another suggestion has it coming from pagus "the country, a country district".  The latter notion is supported by the Provençal pages "rustic".  If this derivation of page "boy" is correct, it would mean that it is related to pagan, among other words which are descended from the Indo-European root *pag- "to fasten".  What on earth do people in the country have to do with fastening?  The notion is supposedly one of "stakes driven into (fastened to) the ground to denote a boundary" or a fence or wall.  Country folk lived outside the fence or wall around a settlement.  Pagans were also usually country folk back then (but see Issue 36 for the origin of pagan).

Page "leaf of a book" comes, via French, from Latin pagina.  Believe it or not, pagina comes from that familiar Indo-European root pag- "to fasten (together)" as the Latin pagina meant "a trellis used to support a grapevine".  By analogy, a page supports the words "hung" or "fastened" upon it.  Some more derivatives of pag- are fang ("teeth which "fasten" together in something in order to seize or tear it") and peace ("a fastening (binding) together by treaty or agreement").  Page entered English in the 16th century.  The Old English equivalent was leaf (see turn over a new leaf in Issue 70).

Page the verb meaning "to search for by announcing one's name" comes from the notion of sending one's page for someone or having one's page call out for someone.  Surprisingly, the verb first appears in the written record in the early 20th century.

From Pernia:

What is the etymology of ardent

Ardent is such a lovely word; it's too bad we don't hear it very often anymore.  Etymologically it means "afire".  English borrowed it from Old French ardant from Latin ardentum, the past participle of ardere "to burn".  Chaucer's use of the word, in Boethius, is the earliest surviving example of it in English.  Interestingly, his meaning was a metaphorical "glowing with passion".  It wasn't until the middle of the 15th century, almost 75 years later, that we find the word being used to refer literally to "burning" or "on fire".  Ardent comes from the Indo-European root as- "to burn, glow", which gave us other related words such as ash, arid, and arson.

From Christina H.:

What is the origin of the word brouhaha?

This word, rather like hubbub, is imitative and comes from the sound of an uproar or melee.  It entered English from French in the late 19th century, though French had had the word since at least the 15th century.  Imagine yourself standing on the periphery of an uproarious crowd.  The unintelligible Cuchullain, an Irish warrior. conglomeration of sounds you might hear coming from the crowd could sound much like brouhaha.  It reminds us, Melanie and Mike, of the filler words that a music teacher once insisted should be substituted if the words to a song were forgotten: "peas and carrots, peas and carrots".  That repeated phrase was also suggested by the teacher as something to say in a crowd scene onstage.

Since we've mentioned hubbub, we might as well discuss its origins.  In its earliest forms it is referred to as an Irish outcry, suggesting a Gaelic origin.  There is the Gaelic ub! ub! ubub!, supposedly an interjection of contempt, and the ancient Irish war cry abu!  And that is the earliest meaning of hubbub in English: the confused shouting of a battle cry.  It first appears in English in the mid 16th century.  By the late 18th century it had taken on a broader meaning of "the mingled din of a crowd".   However, it was as early as the first part of the 17th century that the word  came to refer to "noisy turmoil".

Once source has abu coming from Old Irish buide "victory", which was also the relative of Boadicea, the name of that warrior queen of the Britons who fought valiantly against Rome.  Interestingly, that would make Boadicea (or, more correctly, Boudicca) the ancient Britons' version of Victoria.

From Laraine Flemming:

What is the origin of the word nemesis?

Ah, it's about time someone asked us to provide the history of this word.  After all, it is often abused these days, and perhaps its etymology will help people remember how to use it correctly.  While we often press the point that the etymology of a word does not give its "true meaning", in this case the word has retained the same basic meaning since entering English .  Its original form, by the way, was Greek. 

Nemesis in Greek meant "righteous indignation", and it is also the name of the goddess of retribution.  It derives from the Greek verb nemein "to give what is due".  So a nemesis in English is "one who avenges or punishes", and it has been since the middle of the 16th century.  In 1591 Shakespeare used it in Henry IV, part I: "Is Talbot slaine, the Frenchmens only Scourge, Your Kingdomes terror, and blacke Nemesis?"  The Indo-European root which produced the Greek verb is nem- ""to assign, to allot, to take".  Other descendants of that root are English numb (benumb), the notion there being "to have one's senses taken"; nimble "quick at seizing (or learning)"; -nome and -nomy, as in metronome and astronomy, "division, district (of learning)"; and possibly even number, the sense of which is evident in the "assign, allot" meaning of nem-

Back to the correct usage of nemesis...  Despite its inaccurate use by journalists, it still means "one who avenges or punishes".  Though we frequently  hear it used to mean "adversary" or "opponent" it really implies "one who brings retribution".  So, as Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo,  he was Napoleon's nemesis.  Napoleon, despite being Wellington's arch-enemy, was never his nemesis as he never defeated Wellington.

From Kenneth Bourell:

While in a heated e-mail argument with an Irishman, I was called a money grabber.  I couldn't resist correcting my assailant since his IQ is lower than the common cockroach.  Anyway, he maintains the phrase money grabber is correct in Ireland, and that grubber makes no sense.  Help me defend Motherland and the American Way by explaining the origin of this phrase.

First, we must assume that your mentioning your adversary's nationality surely does not mean that you think all Irishmen have IQs lower than common cockroaches.   Of course, cockroaches don't inhabit Ireland, but that's neither here nor there.  Second, we should preface this discussion by letting you know that moneygrubber is not an American phrase in origin, so we won't exactly be defending "the Motherland".  By the way, with Mike being Welsh, his "Motherland" is Cymru and he tends to mutter darkly about assassinations and subversion whenever "the American way" is mentioned.

Now that we've got all of that out of the way, what about moneygrubber (the more common spelling of the term is as one word)?  Well, it appears in writing in the middle of the 19th century, mostly within the product of writers who are native to England.   It is formed from money and grubber.  We won't dwell on money just now.  Instead, we'll examine grubber.  The meaning of grubber here is "one who acquires wealth by sordid or contemptible means".  However, the primary meaning of the word grubber is "one who grubs" or "one who searches among ruins".  And to grub is simply "to dig superficially".  It is thought that it was grybban in Old English, coming from Old Teutonic grub- "to dig".  Interestingly, the Old Teutonic root is also the source of the English noun grave.

So, etymologically, a moneygrubber is one who digs superficially for money.  Your Irish pen pal was incorrect in his usage, but we suspect that this small victory of yours has had no effect on diplomatic relations between Ireland and the U.S.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

where Barb Dwyer castigates those who misuse


I must confess to a peculiar vice.  No, it's nothing  like that of Zeus and Ganymede (see Spotlight).  I am addicted to  collecting musical instruments and I daily scan the listings of eBay in pursuit of ever more arcane and recondite dulcimers, ophicleides and sistra.  Those readers who do not share this shameful vice will probably not understand my spleen so please forgive this rant.

Here goes...  almost every antique item these days seems to be called "early".  Why?  Just because it's old?  No way!  There is a great deal of difference between something which is old and something which is early.  By way of example, a concertina dated 1830 really is "early" -  it was created early in the history of concertinas.  And a saxophone made in 1850  would certainly qualify as an "early" saxophone as it dates from only ten years after Adolphe Sax invented the instrument.  On the other hand (and this is what makes me scream), a flute from 1890 is not "early", it's just "old".  Recent archeological research has discovered Neolithic bone flutes that have been carbon-dated at 9,000 years old.  Now they are early flutes. 

Sez You...

From Richard Regan:

Don't forget that fishmonger in Hamlet is slang for "pimp," as Hamlet divines that Polonius is using his daughter as bait to trap Hamlet.

Excellent point!  There is no evidence that that usage was anything but Shakespeare's own, however.  [This all refers to last week's Spotlight.]

From Heather Mays:

I just wanted to thank you for your wonderful site. I'm a librarian and about two weeks ago a copy of "Life in the 1500's" was circulating around our workroom. I read it over and found it interesting. However, late that night I began to question its veracity. Then last week my sister e-mailed me a copy of it! Now I was really suspicious, as she she relays all the latest e-mail crazes. As I was looking for a copy of this article, to "investigate" whether each explanation was true or not, I came across your site (Issue 39). You saved me hours of work. 

While "Life in the 1500's" may not be a urban legend, it's still promoting erroneous information, the bane of any librarian. I find the World Wide Web a wonderful tool for finding out information which is not readily available in public libraries. Sifting the wheat from the [chaff] is another issue entirely! Thursday night I had a teacher who was putting together a lesson on the continents of the world. She wanted a blank world map for the students to fill in. I couldn't find it in any of our books, so I began searching for one online. I came across the National Geographic site. There were only six continents listed, North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Oceania. Oceania? According to World Book encyclopedias it's still called Australia...and what happened to Antarctica?  I still intend to look into whether Oceania is the proper name.

A good site for whether urban legends are true is  Keep up the good work!

We are pleased that you found our site useful.  Thank you for your kind words.  Oceania is a general term for the islands of the Pacific and their adjacent waters, which includes Malaysia, Australasia, and Polynesia.  Oh, another good site regarding urban legends is listed on our links page.  

From Michael Naray:

Firstly, consider yourselves praised once more for such a fine web-site. :)  Now, to business!  In your latest "Words to the Wise" column, you explain the origin of the terms barring, barrier and barrister, amongst others. With reference to barrister, you explain that it, along with several related legal terms, arose from the bar around a judge's bench. 

I have here a book entitled Dungeon, Fire and Sword, The Knights Templar in the Crusades by American historian John J. Robinson [Michael O'Mara Books, 1994, original copyright 1991], which is a detailed and altogether excellent account of the rise and fall of the Templars. In the concluding chapter, "Legacy", Mr. Robinson has this to say: 

The most valuable property in England awarded to the Hospitallers by [Pope] Clement V after the suppression of the Knights Templar was the Templar headquarters in London, between Fleet Street and the Thames River, an area still known simply as the Temple. The only surviving Templar structure on the property is the Temple Church. 

The Hospitallers already had a London headquarters at Clerkenwell, so they had no real need for the Templar base. They leased it for inns that provided rooms and offices for the trial lawyers who practiced law at the King's Court, just a few yards away through the gate between London and the royal city of Westminster. Its location gave the gate the name of the Barriere du Temple, later anglicised to the Temple Bar. Those trial lawyers passing back and forth through the 'Bar' became known as 'barristers'.

This implies that although the term barrister does indeed come from bar, via barrier, it did not evolve from the legal use of the word bar in referring to a judge's bench or 'the court as a whole'.

The OED, and several other sources, disagree with Mr. Robinson.  Barristers  were so named because they were separated from other, less senior students in the Inns of Court by a barrier.  While it was not the bar around a judge's bench, exactly, neither was it the Barriere du Temple which gave barristers their name.  Interestingly, there were degrees of "barristership": utter-barristers and inner-barristers, the designation of which depended on how far the barrister had advanced toward the practice of law.  By 1600 the term barrister had come to be associated with the bar of courts of justice.  Thanks for your praise for the site!

From Anne:

I don't think that Aristotle agrees with you [Curmudgeons' Corner, Issue 72]. I am using as my source The Rhetoric as translated by Lane Cooper and published in 1932. This is one of the standard translations.  In Book 2.25, Aristotle instructs that "an argument may be refuted either by a counter syllogism or by bringing an objection."  Thus, Aristotle does NOT say that the deductive syllogism is the only way to refute.  Then, "objections may be brought in four different ways: (1) you may attack your opponent's own premise; (2) you may adduce another premise like it; (3) you may adduce a premise contrary to it; (4) you may adduce previous decisions." One definition of "adduce" means to offer examples or reasons,  You really had me worried.  I teach refutation as counterargument in my advanced composition classes, so I had to go running to Aristotle who is still the "end all, be all" of rhetoric and argumentation. There have been other models since, but he is the seminal, long-standing authority.  Everyone else is either a reaction (Toulmin turned to a legal model) or supplement (Whatley expanded on evidence) to his ideas.  I love your newsletter.  It always makes me think, and I hope you will continue it for many years to come.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not Aristotle is the arbiter of all matters rhetorical, the language he spoke was Greek, not English.  Barb Dwyer addressed the use of the English words refute and rebut, not their Greek equivalents.  We don't believe that Barb said that the deductive syllogism is the only way to refute a proposition.  She merely made the point that [the English verb] "to refute" means "to  prove wrong" while [the English verb] "to rebut" means "to  disagree".

By the way, we've always been puzzled by the following syllogism:

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
[Therefore] Socrates is mortal.

It seems obvious on the face of it but, when it is examined more deeply, one realizes that there is a flaw: one cannot say that "all men are mortal" until one knows whether or not Socrates is mortal.  What would Aristotle said of that?

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