Melanie & Mike say...

 Tow.jpg (63573 bytes)

      the only Weekly Word-origin Webzine

Issue 74   

February 21, 2000
Search Home FAQ Links Site map Book Store


New Ask Us Theory About
Spotlight Words on our minds this week.
Words to the Wise Our world-famous question and answer column.
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.
HH01580A.gif (1311 bytes) Mailing list Weekly previews of the Latest Edition, plus notification of other changes to the site.

Search the site.

What's new?

Interested in sponsoring this site, advertising here or making a donation to keep the site running?

spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

animals as food

Those of us who are omnivores and eat meat are probably familiar with the fact that sheep on the table is mutton, cows in the kitchen are beef, and pigs in the oven are pork.  In other words, English has different words for animals in the pasture and for the meat that comes from them.  This is, simply put, an artifact of the Norman Conquest.  When some French-speaking Vikings known as Normans ("North men") invaded England in 1066, they brought their language with them and imposed it upon the court, the government, fashion, and other matters of expensive taste.  This included food, at least the food eaten by the new aristocracy.  

They're too cute to call mutton!While the Anglo-Saxons called a certain species of ruminant sheep, the French called it mouton.  It would seem that the Anglo-Saxon population kept their Old English word sheep when speaking amongst themselves but adopted the Norman-French word from their transactions with their new masters.  Presumably, these transactions were generally between master and servant or, at best, customer and merchant.  Hence, to this day, we speak of sheep when raising them on the farm but mutton when it is a commodity for sale or prepared for the table.  By the way, mutton's etymology is not known, though the Celtic languages possess cognates.  Sheep is of Teutonic origin.

The Old English word for an animal of bovine persuasion was cow, but the French called it bouef (which comes from the same source as bovine: Latin bos "ox").  Therefore, the cows which became food were called bouef, and that word eventually became beef.   Cow comes ultimately from the same Indo-European root as Latin bos; it is *gwou- "ox, bull, cow".  

The animal known as a swine to the English was porc to the French, so "the other white meat" came to be called pork in English.  The same is true for veal, which comes ultimately from Latin vitulus "calf".  It is the French word for "calf", and so the meat of a calf is not called calf in English today but, instead, vealPoultry, a generic term for chicken and similar meats, comes from French poulet "young fowl, chicken".  However, in this case, English chicken continued to be used to refer to the flesh of that bird in addition to poultry.  Why? Perhaps because chicken as food was more frequently available to the English-speaking lower classes than the other meats, as chicken is much less costly to raise and keep. 

While chickens may have been more easily obtained as food by the English lower classes than some other meats, pork had been a popular food throughout the British Isles for a very long time before the French arrived.  That explains why Old English had its own word for "bacon", which was flitch, though that was replaced by bacon after the French invasion.

One cannot discuss the word flitch without a passing mention of the Dunmow Flitch.  The village of Dunmow in Essex, England, periodically awards a side of bacon to a married couple who can prove that they have spent a year and a day without a cross word.  This seems to be innately self-limiting.  The only couples who can actually prove that they lived in conjugal bliss are those who had a witness living with them. A mother-in-law, perhaps.  Ah, there's the rub!  Mais, revenons à nos moutons...

That our ancient forebears went in for pork (or should we say pig, hog or swine) in a big way is indicated by the number of words we have for it.  There's shoat, that's a pig which has been weanedThey're too cute and intelligent to eat! but is not yet fully grown.  And there's hog, a word of unknown origin meaning "a pig raised for slaughter". (Was there any other reason?)  Then there are the twins, barrow and farrow. Now a barrow is a "castrated boar" (this is also another meaning of hog) but a farrow is just a "young pig". These two words form what is know as a doublet: two words from a common origin which have reached English by different routes.  Barrow (Old English barg) comes from a Teutonic group of words (e.g. Old High German barug, Dutch barg) meaning a male pig, or boarFarrow also comes from Old Teutonic but is more closely related to the Dutch varken "pig" (as in aardvark "earth pig") and the Latin porcus.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From R. C. Trumbore:

R. Callon uses the word aglutenate in the following sentence:  "It is always possible to aglutenate multiple separate problems into a single complex interdependent solution.  In most cases this is a bad idea."  I cannot find the word aglutenate in any dictionary.  Is Mr. Callon being particularly creative?

If you consider misspelling to be creative, then yes, he is.  The word is spelled agglutinate and it means Gluten gives dough its elasticity. "to unite or fasten together (with glue)". As you might have guessed, it is related to glue and gluten, among others.  It entered English from Latin agglutinare "to fasten with glue" in the 16th century.  Agglutinare is formed from ad- "to" and glutinare "to glue", from gluten "glue".  English adopted gluten, also, which today means "the nitrogenous part of the flour of wheat or grain".  It's what causes dough to be sticky and rise when yeast is added to it.  Gluten dates from the early 17th century.  Glue came to English via Old French glu in the 14th century.  The Indo-European root of all of these sticky words is *gel- "to form into a ball", referring to a compact mass, a coagulated ball, or qualities of viscosity or adhesiveness.  Some of the other members of the large group of words descending from *gel- are klutz (from Middle High German kloz "lump, block"), gluteus "buttock" (which is a "ball" of muscle or flesh), and clammy "moist" from Middle Low German klam "stickiness".

Agglutination is an etymological process, by the way.  See our glossary for a precise definition.

From Chandra McCann:

Whilst reading the dictionary (the sign of a true word buff), I came across tarnation, a euphemism for damnation.  the etymology given indicated that this word was a sort of conjunction of 'tarnal damnation, a regionalism for eternal damnation.  this led me to speculate on the word darn as a euphemism for damn.  The dictionary gave no history for darn, but I wonder if it was influenced by tarn(ation).

Reading a dictionary does indeed classify you as a logophile, though we expect that even logophobes are occasionally caught reading the OED.  That one's a real page turner!  As for tarnation, you and your dictionary are correct in deriving it from eternal damnationTarnal, an aphetic form of eternal, dates back to the late 18th century in America.  Tarnation, a portmanteau formed from tarnal and damnation, also dates from that period.  Darn, which etymologists call simply an arbitrary perversion of damn, dates from about the same time, so it is in fact likely that darn was influenced by tarnation and/or tarnalNoah Webster is the author of the earliest recorded use of darn, and this is what he had to say about it: "The word is in common use in New England ... It has not, however, the sense it had formerly; it is now used as an adverb to qualify an adjective, as darn sweet; denoting a great degree of the quality."  That comment implies that the word had been in use for some time and had lost its shock value by the time Mr. Webster recorded it.  This appears to be true for tarnation, as well. 

From Carol Klingel:

I think I read somewhere that referring to Italians as Dagos started at Ellis Island when "Spanish-type" immigrants were called Diegos, which was later shortened to Dago.

Dago is much older than the heyday of Ellis Island.  In fact, it is first recorded in 1723 as the name of a slave.  However, the first surviving example of the word used as a generic term for Spaniards comes from 1832.  Dago later came to refer to Spaniards, Portuguese and Italians in general.  It does, as you suggest, derive from Diego, a common Spanish proper name, which was used as early as the 17th century as a generic term for Spaniards.  Dago originated in the United States but spread to other English-speaking countries by the 19th century.

The OED suggests that the term arose in the southwestern United States, and that may be because there was a large population of Spanish descent there.

From Gail:

I'm looking for the origin of the word gadget.

This word first appears in print in 1886 as a sailors' term, and some have claimed that it was in use as far back as the middle of the 19th century, though no proof of that has been found.  The OED thinksInspector Gadget. that a derivation from gâchette, a French word for parts of mechanisms within guns and locks, is the most likely.  That word is the diminutive form of gâche "staple of a lock".  There is also the French dialectical gagée "tool, instrument" which others have suggested as the source of the English term.  

Most instances of gadget before 1914 occur in a seafaring context.  In 1915 Kipling used it thus: "They have installed decent cooking ranges and gas, and the men have already made themselves all sorts of handy little labour-saving gadgets."  Thereafter the word is more often used used in discussions about cars and kitchens!

From Laura Hartmann:

In a recent conversation, when I jokingly called a friend telepathic, I was struck by the similarity to the word sociopathic.  None of my dictionaries will tell me whether the -path in telepathy is the same path- that means "disease" in pathology - and if it is the same, what does this imply about telepathics?

The -path in the words above is the same, but with different nuances of meaning.  It comes from Greek patheia "suffering, feeling".  In a word like telepathy, it means "feeling or perceiving from afar".  In pathology the Greek source is pathos "suffering, disease".  English pathos is a direct borrowing from Greek and means "a quality in speech, music, writing, etc., which excites a feeling of pity or sadness".  From the Greek pathos we also get sympathy, homeopathy, pathogen and pathetic, among many others.  The Indo-European root of pathos is *kwent- "to suffer".

Sociopath (1930), by the way, was modeled after psychopath (1885), the meaning of -path in both words being "disease".

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

where guest curmudgeon Cynthia Galivan complains about

Nuclear errors

My contribution to Curmudgeons' Corner? People who pronounce the word nuclear as if it were spelled "nu cu lar." I hear network news people make this error all the time. Come on guys, not even close!

Despite Homer Simpson's assertion ("It's pronounced noo-q-ler") to the contrary, we agree with your complaint.  We heard the word mispronounced by a radio reporter just yesterday. In fact, we also heard a caller berate a four-star general of the U.S. Army for saying "nuc-u-lar".  The talk show host cut the caller off, but we agree with the caller.  The minimum requirement for the authority to deploy a nuclear weapon should be the ability to pronounce nuclear correctly.

Sez You...

From Ann FitzGerald:

Congratulations on yet another interesting issue of Take Our Word For It.  I was entertained by your introduction of the use of the Gaelic (Irish) word abu [Issue 73].  One of my Canadian cousins, who is interested in that sort of thing, says that the motto of our part of the clan of Gerald is multacher abu, a modest claim, that "My presence is victory." 

From Nichola Downes:

Just discovered this site and love it. I teach Study Skills at a higher education college in England. I've always been interested in word origins and finding this site has brightened an otherwise dull day.

From Curt Aasen:

Your on-line magazine rules! I've passed the address on to my friends. Thanks.
Editor, Home Imbrewment
Hampton Roads Brewing & Tasting Society

site map

Comments, additions? Send to Melanie & Mike:
Copyright © 1995-2000
mc² creations
Last Updated 07/22/00 07:35 PM