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Issue 77   

March 13, 2000
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

African words (part 1)

This week, thanks to a suggestion from Kyra Davis, we devote Spotlight to African words in English.  We collected as many African-derived words as we could, and we found that most of them fall into three categories: animals, food and worship.

First the animals...  we have elephant, gorilla, impala, popinjay, simba, and zebra.

The actual origin of elephant is obscure (maybe African, maybe not) but we include it here merely to point out that the European languages get their elephantine  words from the Greek elephas which referred not to the animal but its ivory.  Presumably, ivory was known long before any European saw one of these magnificent beasts.   We now associate the word jumbo with anything large.  This is because the first African elephant at London Zoo was called Jumbo.  Apparently, this was a mis-hearing of the Swahili word jambo "hello".

The gorilla was once thought to be a hairy, forest-dwelling human and the word was first recorded in the account of the travels of the Phoenician explorer Hanno (5th or 6th century B.C.).   The gorillas of this traveler's tale were exclusively female but in the Naval Chronicles of 1799 we read: "Another island full of savage people... whose bodies were hairy, and whom our interpreters called Gorillae"  Note that they were thought to be "savage people", not animals.

The oversized, ungainly car called the Impala takes its name from a graceful African antelope.  In many Bantu languages it is simply pala but it is im-pala in Zulu.  A popinjay, these days, is someone who dresses in a gaudy manner but the word is actually an old term for a parrot.  It is thought to derive from an African language (via Arabic babagath), being imitative of a parrot's cry.  Simba, as many movie-goers will know, is Swahili for "lion".  While the etymology of this word is not entirely certain, it may well derive (again, by way of Arab traders) from the Sanskrit simha "lion".  Thus, it is related to Singapore ("City of the lion") and the Sikh surname Singh ("lion").

You'd think the ever-present egrets might acquire their own stripes!The dictionaries tell us that zebra comes from a Congolese word.  This was news to us - we didn't even know they had zebras in the Congo but we were amused to learn that the scientific name for this animal is Hippotigris zebraHippotigris is, of course, Greek for "tiger-horse".

We can hardly leave the topic of African animal names without mentioning the indri.  Now, we realize that the indri, a large Madagascan lemur, is not widely known, but the origin of its name is truly splendid.  Indri, in the Malagassy language, is an exclamation meaning "Hey, look at that!"  We can only assume that early European explorers of Madagascar were tramping through the forest when their porters spotted this lemur and started shouting "Indri, indri!" and the Europeans then jumped to the conclusion that they were being told the animal's name.

Now, the food... goober, gumbo and okra.

American readers will be familiar with the dialect word goober meaning "peanut".  The peanut is anIt sure is good in gumbo, or battered lightly in cornmeal and pan fried.  Yum! African vegetable (botanically not a nut but, like the pea, a legume) and goober is a form of the Bantu word nguba.  The vegetable known in English as "ladies' fingers" and in Hindi as bindi goes by two names in the U.S. - gumbo and okraGumbo comes from Bantu kigombo "okra" (root word, -ngombo) and okra is from the Asante (and Fanti) word nkru-ma (root word, nkru).  Believe it or not, this vegetable is a hibiscus.  Its scientific name is Hibiscus esculentus "the edible hibiscus".  By the way, so that our friends from Louisiana don't have to correct us, we'll mention that gumbo is today a dish which contains okra, but okra is by no means the main ingredient.

Once upon a time, Mike used to play congas in a Trinidadian steel band and on one occasion visited the home of another band member.  On entering the house, he was confronted by a fierce and excitable dog.  "Min' de dog" he was told, "He nyam you ras!"  Mike was familiar with the phrase you ras (we're not going to explain it here) but he was curious as to the term nyam.  His hosts laughed and explained that, in Trinidadian dialect, it means "to eat".  This is almost certainly a form of the African word nyama which is common to several Bantu languages.  From northern Nigeria (the Hausa language) to southern Zimbabwe (the Shona tongue) and as far East as Kenya (Swahili) nyama means "meat".  In other languages, such as Fulah, the word means "to eat".   Curiously, this gave us an English word: yam.  We say "an" English word because this is not the vegetable yam - that word seems to have come from the East Indies.  The yam we are talking about here is 18th century cant (i.e. thieves' slang) for "to eat with gusto".

This was such an interesting topic (thanks Kyra) that we can't possibly do it justice in a single column.  We'll leave the rest of the African words for next week.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

This issue of Take Our Word For It made possible by

This issue of Take Our Word For It made possible by

From Mike Hoffner:

What is the etymology of the word stroke referring to the medical condition?

Stroke "cerebral hemorrhage" is short for the Stroke of God's hand.  It referred originally to what is now known as an apoplectic seizure, and the phrase dates from the late 16th century: "An excellent Cinnamome water for the stroke of Gods hande" (from Gabelhouer's Book of Physic, 1599).  Prior to that, the noun stroke was used metaphorically to refer to "An act which causes pain, injury, or death" or "an act seen as divine chastisement or vengeance."  That usage dates from at least the 14th century.  The metaphoric sense arose, as you might have guessed, from stroke with the meaning "an act of striking with the hand or a weapon".  That word dates from the 13th century and is thought to derive from an unrecorded Old English word *strac, which goes back to a Germanic root *strik-.  The Indo-European source is strig- "touch lightly".  The verb stroke comes from that same source, as does strike.  The former retained the "touch lightly" meaning, while its noun form retained the "hard blow" sense, as did strike.  The change from "light" to "hard" occurred around the 13th century, though it is not exactly clear why.

While we're on the subject, strike "halt work in order to force grievances to be addressed" arose in the mid-18th century.  It appears to derive from the nautical sense of strike, which was "to lower the sails".  The following quote, from 1768 (the same year and source of the earliest instance of strike "halt work"), provides an excellent example of the word's derivation in this sense: "A body of Sunderland.., and at the cross there read a paper, setting forth their grievances... After this they went on board the several ships in that harbour, and struck (lowered down) their yards, in order to prevent them from proceeding to sea" (from the Annual Register).

From Barry:

I'm looking for the origin of the expression, "I've got a bone to pick with you."  Any ideas?

The OED indicates that having a bone to pick refers to having something that is occupying one as a bone occupies a dog.  If you've ever seen a dog with a bone, you know that he may gnaw, lick, and toy with it single-mindedly for what seems ages.  That is the metaphor here.  Having a bone to pick with someone, however, has a slightly different meaning: "having a dispute to settle or discuss with someone".  While the OED seems to suggest that it arose from the same notion of a single dog being preoccupied with a bone, Christine Ammer believes that it refers, instead, to the manner in which two dogs may fight over a bone.  A bone to pick is first recorded in 1565 by James Colfhill: "I will add this, which may be a bone for you to pick on."

From Tim:

I have heard in old war movies the phrase "Roger, wilco", usually said over the radio.  Do you know the meaning of this phrase?  A friend said that it meant "Affirmative, will complete" but then later admitted just making that up.

Gee, your friend didn't do too terribly badly for having made that up.  Roger is a A talking radio! word chosen to represent the letter R during radio conversations, just as Delta represents D and Charlie represents C, among others.  Well, why R, you ask?  It stood for received, indicating that the transmission had been received.  Wilco is simply short for will comply.  So, if you received orders over the radio, your response of Roger, wilco meant "Your message was received and I will follow the orders".  These terms first appear in print during or just after World War II.

From Peter Zoulas:

I work on sales and sometimes (thankfully not too often) my clients get cold feet and back out of the deal.  I understand this phrase is more commonly used to describe brides who change their mind at the last moment.  I have often wondered from where this phrase originates.  Could you  help me please? 

Kenneth McKenzie, who was a professor of Italian at Princeton in the earlier half of this century (yes, we are of the "this is still the 20th century" school), actually wrote a paper about the origin of this term, back in 1912.  It seems that Ben Johnson provides the first recorded use of the phrase inWell, marble is cold! English, in his Volpone of 1605: "Let me tell you: I am not, as your Lombard proverb saith, cold on my feet; or content to part with my commodities at a cheaper rate than I am accustomed: look not for it."  Apparently Johnson learned the "Lombard proverb" from an Italian acquaintance and then used it in Volpone, which takes place in Italy.  Professor McKenzie even discovered that the Italian phrase was still in use in Lombardy in the early part of the 20th century.  Its figurative meaning in Italian was "to be without money".  It is thought that the term moved, in English, from the "without money" meaning to "unwillingness to continue in some endeavor because one is out of money" (such as a poker game) to simply "unwillingness to proceed".

The only problem we can see with Professor McKenzie's explanation is that we don't know where the phrase went from 1605 to 1893.  The latter year is when the phrase next appears in the English written record: "I knew this was the way it would be. They got cold feet" (Stephen Crane, Maggie: a Girl of the Streets).

From Dan Chapman:

I realize from the frequency with which the adjective Teutonic appears in this column that it is a well-known concept, but where does it come from?  I had always heard it was not directly related to the word Deutsch, but I want to hear it from you.  Can we define the "well-known" idea?

The word Teutonic derives from the Roman name for a group of people who were thought by the Romans to be Germanic, the Teutone.  Roman writers therefore began to use the term Teutonicus as a synonym for Germanicus. By 900 Germans writing in Latin adopted the Latin term, displacing their native word tiutisch (Latinized to Theotisca).  Tiutisch meant, in the German language of the time, "the national, popular, vulgar language", and it is the source of English Dutch and German Deutsch (see  our previous discussion on the origin of various names for Germany). German writers so quickly adopted the term lingua Teutonica ("Teutonic tongue") over lingua Theotisca as the classical designation for their language that it seems they thought it was the same word (i.e., of the same derivation) as Theotisca

Interestingly, scholars today seem to think that the Teutone were not a Germanic tribe at all but were instead Celtic, and it has been suggested that Teutone derives from the Celtic word tuath "the people; the tribe" (as in the mythical Irish race, the Tuatha de Danaan, "tribe of Danaan").  Nevertheless, since Julius Caesar's time the Teutone were thought to be Germanic, so Teutonic continued to be used by the Germans, such that some of the first German philologists used it to refer to the Germanic family of languages.  However, today German scholars use the term Germanisch, and French scholars use Germanique, when referring to the German language but the ordinary French word for the German language is Allemand.  English philologists used to use Teutonic to refer to the language-group to which English, Dutch, German and the Norse languages belong but now this group is generally known as GermanicGerman, of course, refers to a specific language (also a people and their culture).

English seems to have adopted the word Teutonic to refer to Germans in general (the people, the language, and the culture) in the 17th century.  It was in the 18th century that Teutonic came to refer more exclusively to the Germanic languages.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

where Barb Dwyer says

those who can, do...

Why is it that young people these days find it so difficult to distinguish between the verbs may and can?  This confusion is most apparent in the request "can I" (i.e. "am I able to") when "may I" ("have I your permission") is intended.

Last summer, I entered my local ice-cream parlor to buy a chocolate milk-shake.  After standing in line for about ten minutes the spotty youth behind the counter asked me "Can I help you?"

"I don't know" I replied.  As far as I was concerned, I was being perfectly honest.  I had never been served by this young gentleman before and had no way of gauging his competence.  I certainly desired his assistance but I literally did not know if he could help me or not.  [See why we like her?  She's not just a surly old cross-patch, she's a surly old cross-patch with attitude - Eds.]

"I'll serve this other lady while you make up your mind, then" said the youth.

This was too much.

"Not so fast, young man.  I'll have a large chocolate milk-shake made with chocolate ice-cream, no syrup, two shots of malt and hold the whip."   Well, I mean!  Really!

Sez You...

From Todd Bradley:

I was just reading through the latest issue of your excellent online newsletter, and I had to pipe up about the origin of "dude". Being a bit of a western etymophile myself, I'm pretty sure I recall reading in some kind of "history of cowboys" book that a "dude" in the old west was a burr caught between a rider's saddle and his pants - a literal pain in the ass. I can't find any proof of this, but a quick search on the web shows a few books dedicated to cowboy slang.

Dude is one of those words that can be traced back to a fairly precise time and location.  It was later adopted as a jocularly derogatory term of ranchers and cowboys for city-folk.   There are no extant examples of the word originally being used to refer to a burr in an uncomfortable location.  In the cowboy slang department, there is a fine book called Dictionary of the American West, compiled by Winfred Blevins, which has no mention of dude having any meaning other than "city slicker".

From David Teager:

By the way, this is a superb site. Just the right size to fit an avocational etymologist's coffee break!  So rice paddy is yet another of those infernal redundancies (perhaps there is a linguists term for such a thing).  I never knew!  It is hereby banished from my vocabulary.  It could be fun to make a list of such popular but incorrect phrases.  Terribly common is PIN number. Another (chiefly for chemists) based on acronym is MSDS sheet (where MSDS = Materials Safety Data Sheet).  Food items are often fodder, where one of the words is borrowed (as in rice paddy). A local restaurant is so pleased to serve me focaccia bread and I am always so happy to have my roast beef "with the au jus gravy" (a double redundancy!).

Welcome to the Curmudgeons' Club, David.  This phenomenon also crops up in place names and the names of geographical features: the River Avon in the U.K. is actually a "river river", for afon in Welsh means "river".  The pinnacle of such constructs is the English Torpenhow Hill, in which tor, pen and how all mean "hill".

From Bob Sumption:

I saw the query about the term hunky dory and I was surprised that you did not mention the fact that a dory is a small boat.  I think the term hunky dory means "a good small boat".  You folks have a great website, very interesting.

From Harry Mallin:

This is an educated guess, but couldn't the "dory" in "hunky dory" come from the nautical term "dory: a flat bottomed fishing boat with high sides and sharp prow"? (Webster's II, New Riverside University Dictionary). Therefore, hunky dory could mean a sound boat, as in a safe boat, perhaps as a salesman might describe a boat he is selling. Just a guess, yes, but given the amount of our vocabulary attributable to nautical terms, it's certainly possible.

We didn't even bother mentioning dory "small flat bottomed boat" because there's no indication, theoretical or practical, that it is at all related to the phrase hunky dory.  For one thing, dories were usually boats launched from larger fishing vessels.  Much of the general population would not have been familiar with those boats or the word.  Second, it's simply an unlikely combination of words, given the words' meanings.  Finally, there's absolutely no evidence linking the boat to hunky dory.  

From Petrus van Warmerdam

Just a short addition to the phrase "rice paddi." I was born and raised in Soerabaja, Indonesia in the Dutch colonial era and the word padi, with one d, is the name for the whole rice plant. The rice seed picked from the head is called gabah.  When the seeds are husked it is called beras. When the seeds are cooked it is called Nasi.  The rice field is called sawah.  Thus a rice field in the Indonesian language (bahasa Indonesia) is sawah padi.

Excellent!  Now Barb and Malcolm can be curmudgeons in Indonesian, too!  So, now that we know what nasi means, can you also explain goreng?  (Nasi goreng is a popular Indonesian rice dish.)

By the way, Barb can sing Kurt Weil's "Surabaya Johnny" in the original German.  Worse still, after a few pink gins, she usually does.

From Fran Morris:

One of these days I'm going to try to convey to you the delight I take in reading your wonderful site.  But for now, I'm writing only to note that Thurber's very clever story is actually titled "The Catbird Seat" and appears in the collection called The Thurber Carnival.  I recommend it to anyone looking for a tale of perfect revenge in a highly comical mode.

Thank you for catching that one, Fran.  We've even got a copy of the darn collection and still missed that error.  Thanks also for your thoughtful words!

From Steve Ramm:

I was interested in reading your comments about the etymology of denim and of jeans. I was under the impression that both words were different contractions of the name of the material, i.e. (serge) de Nimes and (ser)ge (de N)imes, introduced to America during the nineteenth century and achieving popularity as a material for workclothes during the gold rush. Serge is a coarse cotton twill fabric, that from Nimes being characterised by its indigo (blue) colour.

If one looks at the earliest forms of these words, it is clear that they derive from separate sources.  Besides, the contraction ge'imes from serge de Nimes is implausible.  Also, don't forget that Melanie's maiden surname derives from the same source as jeans, so she's done quite a bit of extra research on this particular topic.  Finally, the cloths and the English words are much older than 19th century America.

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