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Issue 78   

March 20, 2000
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African words (part 2)

Voodoo (or more correctly, vodou) is the name of a religion which was brought to Haiti by African slaves.  The name comes from the language of the Fon people of Dahomey, where vu-du means "spirit" or "family of spirits".  From the earliest contact, Europeans have characterized vodou as evil, as in this passage from the Daily News (15 June, 1888): "As generally understood, Voodoo means the persistence, in Hayti, of abominable magic, mysteries, and cannibalism, brought originally by the negroes from Africa."  In fact, it is simply a religion, and it is as valid, in its way, as any other religion.  It promotes positive attitudes among its practitioners and uses herbal medicines to combat sickness.  Members of this religion do not, however, stick pins in dolls to inflict suffering on their enemies.  The concept of the voodoo doll was invented by an American journalist in the 1920s.  He had heard that Haitian vodou was "witchcraft" and he invented a story based on the only witchcraft he knew - European witchcraft.

A voodoo doll.  Click to buy!  heheheYes, despite their name, "voodoo dolls" are really European and in the witchcraft tradition they are called poppets (from Latin pupa, "a doll"), an earlier form of the word puppet.  Thus, in 1693 the puritan witch-hunter of Massachusetts, Rev. Cotton Mather, wrote "They did in holes of the said old Wall, find several Poppets, made up of Rags and Hogs bristles, with headless Pins in them, the Points being outward."

A phenomenon frequently associated with vodou is the zombie (or zombi).  This is traditionally held to be a soulless corpse which has been revived by witchcraft, but recent research by ethnobotanist Wade Davis (see his book The Serpent and the Rainbow) reveals the true nature of the zombie.  Among communities of vodou practitioners, when someone has committed a particularly dreadful crime (murder, say) they are not executed but, instead, are dosed with a potent psychotropic drug which renders them comatose and insensible.  To even the most careful observers they appear to be dead but after two or three days they come out of their coma.  Further doses of drugs deprive the miscreants of their will and they are put to hard labor, usually in the sugar-cane fields.  The word zombie comes from nzumbi in the Kongo language where it means "deity" or "fetish". 

In New Orleans, vodou is often called hoodoo (a further corruption of vodou), and in that city a fetish (i.e. any kind of charm, amulet, or magical means of protection) is commonly called a juju. Louisiana has a pronounced French influence and juju comes from the French word joujou, "toy, plaything".  Sometimes (especially if one is a fan of New Orleans singer and composer Dr. John), one will come across the word gris-gris which is a leather bag containing a juju.  The word gris-gris has been known since the 17th century when a traveler in West Africa noted that "They wear about their Neck, Arms, and Legs, and even bind about their Horses, little leathern Bags, which they call Grisgris, in which are enclosed certain Passages of the Alcoran [i.e. the Koran] to secure them from venemous Beasts, etc."  Unfortunately, although its African origin is indisputable, the precise etymology of this word is unknown.

The expression to bad mouth [someone] is now generally taken to mean "to malign or speak ill of [someone]" but originally a bad mouth was a curse or spell.  It is a literal translation of vai da na ma, an expression which occurs in various West African languages.  It neatly parallels the Latin maledicta "curse" which literally means "bad speech".  

When Europeans began to colonise Africa they encountered several new diseases.  They therefore adopted the African words for them.  Such a word is dengue (as in dengue fever).  This word comesThe tsetse fly.  Click for more information on it and the disease it carries. from the Swahili phrase ka dinga pepo where ka means "a kind of...", dinga "sudden cramp-like seizure" and pepo "plague".  The disease appeared in Cuba in 1827 and the name was popularly (but incorrectly) identified with the Spanish word dengue meaning "fastidiousness" or "prudery".  From Cuba, the word traveled to the United States, and eventually to the English-speaking world.  The tsetse (please, not tetse) is an African fly (Glossina morsitans, of the family Tabanidæ) which carries the dreaded "sleeping sickness".  Tsetse is a word from Sechuana language which is spoken in Bechuana. 

A Zulu word which is found in some dictionaries but has never really caught on among English speakers is tokoloshe. It means "a mischievous and lascivious hairy dwarf".  We are sure that our creative readers can find a use for this word. 

The most surprising of all the African words that have made their way into English is basalt.  Basalt The Devil's Causeway, County Antrim, Ireland.  Click for more information. is described in one of our dictionaries as "a greenish- or brownish-black rock, igneous in origin, of compact texture and considerable hardness, composed of augite or hornblende containing titaniferous magnetic iron and crystals of feldspar".  (Try saying that in one breath!)  It is the rock of which the Giant's Causeway in Ireland, Fingal’s Cave in Scotland and the Devil's Postpile in the United States are formed.  The first written mention of this kind of rock is in the works of the Roman author Pliny who was describing a geographical feature in Africa.  He called it basaltes, taking the name from an (unknown) African language. 

Finally, there is one word which sounds as if it should be African but is not.  It is Soweto, the troubled South African township which takes its name from the initial syllables of SOuth WEst TOwnship.

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 Andrea Smith:

I am looking for the origin of the word agent.  I am trying to come up with a neat name for our company, and our product is an enabler and acts as an agent to our customers.

This word, simply put, derives from Latin agentem, the past participle of agere "to act, to do".  One of the earliest examples of the word comes from about 1600, in J. Hooker’s writings: "Deliberation is... needless in regard of the agent, which seeth already what to resolve upon."  The meaning here was "one who acts or exerts power, as distinguished from the patient or instrument".  Shortly thereafter the word is found used as an adjective, as in Melton’s Astrology of 1620: "What a hot fellow Sol (whom all Agent Causes follow)."  Agent has also been used to refer to a person or thing that produces an effect, as in this translation of Thomas Hobbes’ Elements of Philosophy from 1656: "The power of the agent is the same thing with the efficient cause."  By 1756 we find the beginning of a trend in modern science to use the term agent to apply to any natural force acting upon matter, as in this quotation from C. Lucas of 1756: "Water is a most useful agent in chemistry."  It was that usage which influenced the naming of the defoliant compound Agent Orange (the "orange" allegedly comes from the color of stripes on shipping drums of the stuff; there were also Agents White, Blue and Purple).

We come next to the meaning that is most common today: "one who does the actual work (as opposed to one who instigates the work)".  That meaning goes back to about 1593, when it first appeared in the written record, in Christopher Marlowe’s Massacre at Paris: "Go, call the English agent hither straight."  Such usage was and still is being extended, with specific applications, into commerce, politics, and law.

The oldest meaning of the word dates from the mid- to late 16th century: "a cause producing effects, but implying a rational employer".  Shakespeare used it in that sense just 12 years after the first A well-known "Secret Agent Man", Patrick McGoohan (though this photo is from his series "The Prisoner").  Click to follow the link.surviving example of such use: "Here is her hand, the agent of her heart" (from Two Gentlemen of Verona, 1591).

Now, are you wondering about secret agent?  Or at least the usage of agent to mean "spy"? Well, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, that first arose in print in W.H. Auden’s The Orators, in 1932: "The agent clutching his side collapsed at our feet, 'Sorry! They got me!'" Sounds a bit cliché today, but it wasn’t at the time. Now we’ve got the theme music to “Secret Agent Man” running around our heads (that was known at "Danger Man" in the U.K., by the way).

From Pat:

How are the words hearse and rehearse linked?  I know that they both come from the same Latin word, hirpex, but I find it difficult to see the connection.

Hearse was originally spelled herse, coming to English from French herse.  It entered English in the late 13th century.  It is thought to come, as you suggest, from Latin hirpex "large rake used as a harrow".  A harrow is a sort of plough which is used, after the land has been furrowed, in order to break up clods, remove weeds, etc.  It is made of a frame of timber into which teeth or tines are set.  Apparently, the original hearses (see below) resembled the "harrow" herse, hence the name.

Hearse, in whatever form, has not always referred to the funeral car or coach that we think of today.  It actually referred, in its earliest days in English, to a triangular frame designed to hold candles for use during Holy Week in the Catholic Church.  That usage dates back to 1287, at least in the written record, and it is that shape which apparently resembled agricultural herses.  Not long thereafter, that triangular frame became something quite elaborate, such that it could carry many candles and other decorations over the coffins of the wealthy and/or distinguished deceased.  It went by other names, too, such as castrum doloris, chapelle ardente, or catafalco.  In the mid-16th century hearse came to refer to permanent iron (or other metal) framework placed over a tomb to hold decorations and candles. When the version that was also known as the castrum doloris became unfashionable, a different sort of hearse was used for noble funerals: it was formed in an a-frame shape and made of wood, and it was often decorated with banners and heraldic devices, along with candles, and mourners often pinned poems, written to the deceased, to it.

Today’s usage, referring to the vehicle in which the coffin is carried, dates from the mid-17th century.  The meaning of "framework around a coffin" was extended to "vehicle enclosing a coffin for transport".

The word rehearse is distantly related to hearse, for rehearse etymologically means "re-harrow", or, metaphorically, to "go over again".   It originally meant "to repeat" (mid-14th century), but also referred to recitation (as in church services) and the relating of a story.  It was not until the late 16th century that the word came to refer to practicing a play, scene or part in private before a public appearance. Shakespeare used it in that sense in his A Midsummer Night’s Dream of 1590: "Sit downe..and rehearse your parts."

From Carol L.  Hoeman:

It strikes me off the top of my head that Patagonia could mean "Big-Foot Land".  How can I find out?  It has been in the news relative to dinosaur fossil discoveries recently.

Though you should wear a crash helmet when such thoughts occur to you, you are close to correct: Patagonia comes from Spanish pata "paw (of an animal)". Patagón was the name given by Spanish explorers to a tribe of people indigenous to the area, the Teheuelche.  They apparently wore foot coverings made of llama skin, and that may have been the source of the name.  Some sources suggest that the llama skin was actually worn over shoes, perhaps giving their feet a large, animal-like appearance.  The word Patagon dates from the late 16th century (in English, anyhow) as does Patagonia.

Patagonia also has a unique linguistic peculiarity in that a significant number of its inhabitants speak Welsh. Back in the 19th century, a group of Welsh nationalists, fed up with English oppression, looked for another country in which they would be free to speak the language of their forefathers and raise sheep. They first considered the U.S. but decided against this as they would still be required to speak English. Thus it was that in 1865 a group of 153 settlers founded the Argentine coastal town of Puerto Madryn. To this day, the Welsh language still flourishes around the town of Gaiman in the province of Chubut. The British Government has long since given up trying to stamp out the Welsh language and now offers six scholarships each year for Patagonians to study Welsh in Wales. 

Mike, as our regular readers will know, is Welsh and he grows indignant when he has to explain that Welsh is not a dialect of English. One American to whom he spoke thought that it was "just English spoken with a funny accent". To show just how different this Celtic language is from English, take a look at the Welsh word for "internet" - rhyngrhwyd

The only other place in the New World which is home to a population that speaks a Celtic language is Cape Breton Island, off Nova Scotia, Canada, where many inhabitants speak Gaelic.

From Andy Schamp:

I was interested in the background of the word ruthless, specifically, what a ruth is and why violent, merciless people don't have much, 

This word dates from the early 14th century.  It was formed simply from ruth + -less, "having no ruth or pity". Ruth by itself is now considered archaic.   It dates from the late 12th century, and it derives from early Middle English rewen "rue, regret". The Old English form was hréow "rue", or "sorrow; regret".  Ruthless is therefore related to the modern English verb rue, and the current meaning of rue is "regret and wish undone".  It is most commonly heard today in the expression "rue the day".  A ruthless person, etymologically, probably doesn’t rue much!  Both of these words derive from the Indo-European root kreu(e)- "to push, to strike".

From Kay:

Where was the term Grim Reaper first used or where did it originate?

This expression, and its brothers Reaper, Old Reaper and Great Reaper, come from the practice ofThe Grim Reaper.  Click to follow the link. portraying Death as wielding a scythe.  Surprisingly, the earliest reference provided by the Oxford English Dictionary comes from Longfellow in 1839: "There is a Reaper whose name is Death, and, with his sickle keen..."  Grim reaper doesn't show up until 1977, though the term grim death has been around since Shakespeare's time (he used it in The Taming of the Shrew).  Death was portrayed as bearing a scythe because there was a tradition of representing Death and/or Time as a scythe; that dates back to the 14th century.  The notion was one of Death personified mowing down people with his great scythe. The earliest reference to the scythe comes from Thomas Usk’s The Testament of Love in about 1378: "Sithen al the grettest clerkes..with their sharpe sythes of conning al mowen and mad therof grete rekes and noble."

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

where Malcolm Tent literally complains about


"Her eyes were literally ablaze."  Yikes!  Does that mean her eyes were afire?  It should, but it doesn't.  Unfortunately, that excerpt from a news story we saw recently was meant to convey, "Her eyes were ablaze [with anger]."  

The Bay Bridge, which connects San Francisco with Oakland, has two tiers.  The  1989 "Loma Prieta Earthquake" caused the top tier to collapse, crushing traffic on the lower tier.  When Vice-president Dan Quayle saw the damage, he said "The two decks are literally glued together."  (My, that's a lot of glue!)

These are merely two examples of the abuse that the poor word literally has been experiencing of late.  

This abuse is not new, but it still is considered incorrect.  There's an example of it as early as 1863, where F. A. Kemble wrote, "For the last four years... I literally coined money".  As in the two examples above, Mr. Kemble should have used the word metaphorically or, perhaps, figuratively.

Literally, of course, means "in the literal sense" or, literally, "by the letter".  In the example of Mr. Kemble above, he did not mean us to believe that he really coined money.  After all, he did not usurp the function of the Royal Mint; he merely earned a great deal.   Thus, he was simply using the word literally  as an intensifier.  As there are so many other intensifiers, we implore you to choose one that says what you mean!

Sez You...

From Judith:

I am your faithful subscriber, love the site (you love praises, don't you).  Today I was just astounded to read (in Issue 77): "Ben Johnson writes it in 1605, etc."  I have believed, up to now, that present tense does not go with past actions. By the way, I humbly tell you that I do translations from Hebrew to English. When I write about some researcher cited in an academic work, I also write "as X has said" because no one knows when he said it.  I do so despite the fact that the Hebrew text is really written in the present tense, (by the way also mistaken).  What do you say, am I right?

Well, what we wrote last week is this: "It seems that Ben Johnson provides the first recorded use of the phrase in 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.""  This usage, a stylistic option, is perfectly correct.  After all, Mr. Johnson's work is still providing the first recorded use of the phrase cold feet.  We understand why you might question "writes" used in that excerpt, but that's not the word we employed.

From Andrea:

Regarding your explanation of the term roger wilco, my understanding is that the word used to represent R in the military's phonetic alphabet is Romeo, not Roger.

Roger representing the letter R arises from the phonetic alphabet known as the Able, Baker, Charlie alphabet, which was in use in approximately 1941.  It was not until 1956 that an international phonetic alphabet was adopted, where R is represented by Romeo.  That alphabet, which is still in use today, is the Alfa, Bravo, Charlie phonetic alphabet. And, yes, alfa is how they spell it.

From Linda Sims:

Not to be picky... no, I take it back.  I'm definitely being picky!  In question two (of last week's Take Our Word For It newsletter quiz), you write: " What English verb, usually associated with desert islands..."  I believe that should be "deserted islands", not "desert islands". 

Actually, desert, in addition to being a noun (with a general meaning today of "arid land"), is an adjective meaning "forsaken, abandoned" or "uninhabited", which usage survives especially in the term desert island, so our usage is perfectly valid and completely correct.  However, we don't think you were being picky - you thought there was an error and you pointed it out.  We do that all the time!

If any readers are interested in participating in our contests, as well as receiving weekly previews of each issue of Take Our Word For It, subscribe today via our mailing list page.  We try to hold etymological contests every few months, and prizes are awarded!  We'll be awarding one this week, as a matter of fact.

From John Broussard:

Advertising has gone one better and beyond redundancies.  I recently saw an advertisement for "genuine faux diamonds".

Egad!  Well, to be charitable, we can only surmise that they are genuinely false.

From Barbara Yanez:

In keeping with the gripes over rice paddy and it redundancy (in Issue 76), the Los Angeles-based "La Brea Tar Pits" is similarly redundant. La Brea means "The Tar" in Spanish. So the title "The La Brea Tar Pits" literally means "The The Tar Tar Pits."  This is Southern California - couldn't we have done better than this as a title?

Oh no, now you've got Mike singing his favorite Tartar love ballad: "Bakchalada gulya le, mene ladim yasha re..."

That's the cue for us to say "Tar-tar for now!" 

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