Melanie & Mike say...

 Tow.jpg (63573 bytes)

      the only Weekly Word-origin Webzine

Issue 79   

March 27, 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.



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...

city words

Are policemen always polite? Are all townspeople urbane? Are all city-folk civilized? In our experience the answers are not always "yes", but etymologically, they should be.  

Click to learn more about Fritz Lang's 1927 film "Metropolis".The Greek word for "city" was polis. Combine this with metre, the Greek for "mother", and we get metropolis (literally "mother city"). Originally, this word was applied only to cities that were the seat of a bishop. Now it is used of any large city but especially of capitals.  If a metropolis is the capital of a country, what would one call the capital of the world?  Why, the cosmopolis, of course. This is formed by adding cosmos (Greek for "universe") to polis. Toward the end of the 19th century, many cities (notably Paris and London) laid claims to being the cosmopolis.  This word is scarcely heard these days but a person who is equally at home in any country is still called cosmopolitan. Other words formed along similar principles are megalopolis, a "big city" (from megalos "big"), necropolis "cemetery" (from necros "corpse") and technopolis, a "society dominated by technology" (from technos "art, skill"). 

An ancient Greek who lived in a city was a polites "citizen", which gives us policy, police, polity and politics.  Although it would be easy to imagine that to be polite is "to behave as one should in a city", it  derives from a source other than polisPolite, along with polish, come from polire,Click to visit Scotland Yard's web site. Latin for "to polish".  In the middle ages, several Romance languages confused these separate origins.  This is why, in Spanish and Portuguese, policia means both "police" and "politeness". 

If one lived in an ancient Roman city one could claim civitas "citizenship" (from civis, Latin for city). This word spread, via various routes, into several European languages giving us the Spanish ciudad, Portuguese cidad, French cite and English city. When referring to our role as citizens, we often speak of our civil duties (from Latin civilis "of the city"). Those people who live in the country and rarely meet other folk often have rough manners as they seldom have to consider the feelings of others. When living in the city, however, one learns not to eat with one's mouth open, spit on the floor or step on people's feet. In other words, one has to learn civility - how to behave in a city. One who has acquired these skills is said to be civilized.  

Unlike the Greeks, the Romans distinguished between large and small centers of population. While a larger center was called civis ("city"), a smaller one was called an urbs ("town").  Hence our words urban "of the town" and suburb "part of a town" (from sub- "beneath").  Analogously to the word civil, one who has polished manners and obeys the dictates of town life is said to be urbane. Unfortunately, just as all humans are not necessarily humane, not all town-dwellers are as urbane as they could be. 

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 Christina:

I was told by an early-music College professor that bransle, the name of a renaissance dance, was the origin of our word brawl.  Is this true?

What a delightful thought... a consort of recorders, sackbuts and lutes begins a plangent strain, setting in motion a genteel cotillion.  Two lines of dancers advance and retreat in stately measure. Then, what's this?  Did some clumsy churl tread upon a lady's dainty shoe?  Harsh words are exchanged, one dancer pushes another, then a sword is drawn and the ladies flee to a corner of the room.  Before long, the tables which held sweetmeats and marchpanes are overturned and blood flows as men fight to the death on the dance-floor.  Oh, t'would gladden the heart of Kit Marlowe.

Well, as much fun as that was to write, that's not quite how brawl entered our vocabulary.  Allow us to make the simple yet obvious observation that you were told this by a music professor, not an English teacher.  His confusion no doubt arises from the fact that bransle was often spelled brawl (also braule, brangle and bransel).  Brawl (the fight) is of uncertain origin but may be related to Old French brailler "to shout, to bawl".  Bransle, on the other hand derives from French branler (or brandeler) "to shake" (no, not the "hippy, hippy shake").  This word came to mean a specific movement and, eventually, described a particular dance and the type of music which accompanied it.

From Kristi Smith:

Recently I heard that the origin of the word puce "the chatrteuse green color" had to do with Marie Antoinette and lice.  Can you confirm?

Actually, puce originally referred to a purple-brown or brownish-purple color (and still does!).  It Imagine eating THAT as a laxative! derives, via French, from Latin pulex "flea".  The full French form was couleur puce "flea-colored".  The first record of it in English comes in a book on fishing from 1787: "Dip a feather in aqua fortis, put it on the ash,..and it will make it a cinnamon, or rather a puce, or flea colour."  Perhaps surprisingly, puce derives from the same Indo-European root as flea: plou-.  That root also gave English the word psyllium, the laxative seeds of which look like fleas.  An older English name for the plant, whose botanical name is Plantago psyllium, is fleawort.  Makes that laxative sound even more appetizing, eh?

From Danny Sriskandarajah:

I have been living in Oxford for the last two years and have been told that the phrase ivory tower comes from All Souls College, an institution here that does not take students but only appoints scholars for life. And since it has two towers that (almost) look as if they were made of ivory, the intellectual who went about his work without reference to the world outside was supposed to have gone up the ivory towers. Is there truth to this story? I have looked everywhere and have found no clues. Thanks.

The term originated in France, so it is unlikely that it has anything to do with All Souls College.  AClick to visit a campus with an ivory tower. French literary critic of the 19th century, Charles Saint-Beuve, offers the first recorded use of the term in his Pensées d’Août, à M. Villemain where he speaks of poet Alfred de Vigny "Et Vigny, plus secret, Comme en sa tour d’ivoire, avant midi rentrait" (1837).  The English version of tour d'ivoire does not appear in the written record until Brereton and Rothwell's translation of Henri Bergson's Laughter in 1911: "Each member [of society] must be ever attentive to his social surroundings...he must avoid shutting himself up in his own peculiar character as a philosopher in his ivory tower."

From Joshua Leeger:

Where did the phrase to butt heads come from?  How is to butt also to strike

To butt is, etymologically, "to beat".  Both words come from the same Indo-European root, bhau- "to strike".  It was boter in Old French (bouter in French), and Middle English took it in the 10th century as butten.  Edmund Spenser used it Click to visit his Shepheardes Calendar of 1579 with the meaning which is most common today: "That with theyr hornes butten."  In the U.S. there is also the phrase to butt in "to thrust oneself uninvited into a conversation or affair" which, of course, comes from the same source.  It first appears in print in 1900.  Some other descendants of that same Indo-European root are  button (the "beat" sense is softened here to "push", as a button is pushed through a buttonhole), buttress, abut, and sackbut.

Butt "buttocks" is thought to come from a different source, a Germanic one with a general meaning of "blunt" or "stumpy".  It is assumed that buttock is a diminutive of butt and not the other way around.  Butt in the anatomical sense is first recorded in the mid-15th century.  It was also used at that time in English to mean "the thicker end" of something, as in the butt of a rifle.

Butt "barrel" comes from a different source than all of the above: Latin buttis "cask".  Bottle is related.  A storeroom of casks of wine was called a buterie, and that is where the U.K. English term buttery "food shop in a college" comes from.  So if you get thee to a buttery, it does not have to be a fattening experience.

Two readers, after seeing what Malcolm Tent had to say about literally last week, wrote to ask about or comment upon virtually:

From Erica Hruby:

Although it is irritating when people misuse [literally}, it really gets my goat to hear people use the word virtually when they really mean literally.

From Friedrich Georgens:

I started learning English as a foreign language before the computer age. Thus I learned the word "virtually" to mean really, indeed, literally. Nowadays it means the opposite, as virtual reality and virtual money are neither real nor money. Is that the same word? And if so, how come? Or does my memory betray me regarding the the "older" meaning?

Yeah, so what is so virtuous about being virtual?  If you're a feminist, you might not think that one is virtuous by virtue of being a man, but all of the virtue words derive from "man", which in Latin is vir.  Men were the ones who displayed bravery and strength, at least conspicuously, back in Roman times, so the noun virtus, which literally could be said to mean "manliness", came to mean "bravery, strength, capacity".  Virtue, the English noun which derives ultimately from virtus, came from Old French vertu in the 13th century.  Virtual is almost as old, you may be surprised to learn, entering English in the 14th century.  It took on a slightly different meaning, however, deriving from the "capacity" sense of virtus, so that it meant "having power, in effect".  By the 17th century it took on its current meaning: "that which is in essence or effect, although not formally or actually".  It was that sense which developed further, in the computer age, to "not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so from the point of view of the program or the user."

Virtuous simply meant "displaying bravery or strength", but was then extended to mean "acting with moral rectitude", presumably because bravery and strength were highly-esteemed qualities.  Virtuoso, on the other hand, followed the "capable" route, not unlike virtual.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

wherein Barb Dwyer refuses to


I was recently required to complete a form about my employment which asked who I reported to and who my associates were.  Now, the first one was easy, they wanted my manager's name, but who are my associates?  My inclination was to list all the colleagues who also reported to my manager.  Wrong!  In today's terminology, associate means "underling".

When this change of meaning came about, I have no clue.  All the latest dictionaries still maintain that an associate is one who is "united to another by community of interest, and shares with him in enterprise, business, or action" or "an intimate acquaintance, a companion".  I'm sure that the latter meaning is not intended in this context... the "associate" who served me today in Long's drugstore works there for wages, not companionship.  At least the first definition is in the right ballpark, it does speak of "business".  But, if we apply this definition an associate should be a partner, not an employee. 

Why, then, do so many shops and other commercial establishments refer to their employees as associates?  Even more to the point, why is it usually the lowest-paid, entry-level positions which are given this title?  My (admittedly cynical) guess is that, as the U.S. is enjoying a period of low unemployment, school-leavers now have more job opportunities to chose from.  In order to attract staff, the employers gussy-up their empty positions with fancy names.  Why be a shop assistant when you can be an associate?

Ah, but I hear you ask, "If the employers want to attract more applicants, why don't they just offer higher wages?"  Ha, don't make me laugh.

Sez You...

From Sam Bankester:

I love your webzine and anxiously anticipate each new edition. I would like to comment on something that appeared in Issue 78. I've been full-time military for eight years and in my experience, I've always seen the phonetic spelling of the letter A as alpha, as opposed to alfa. When I went through basic training, I was in A Company and the sign in front of our barracks read "Alpha Company Wildcats." There is also a certain personnel roster called the "Alpha Roster" and it is so spelled.  I'm not questioning your word (far be it from me to ever commit such a dastardly act!), I'm simply pointing out that alpha is the most accepted phonetic spelling for the letter A. Please keep the brainfood coming!

Thank you for that clarification!  Apparently the originators of the International Phonetic Alphabet used alfa to spell the word representing A, but that spelling didn't stick very well!  Thankfully!

From Shelly Decker:

I agree with you on the meaning of the word dude being that of "a city dweller" but have heard a little different avenue of its source: my father-in-law who, like his father, made his living as a cowboy herding beef and busting wild mustangs in the Red Desert of Wyoming and usually is correct when it comes to cowboy slang. He tells me that the word dude came from a contamination of the title of the British dukes who came to Wyoming in the late 1800s and started the big ranches there. Usually with European capital. I'm torn here, you certainly know your word origins but he certainly knows his cowboy.

There's simply no evidence to support that assertion.  Additionally, we are completely unfamiliar with the notion that British dukes started big ranches in Montana in the late 19th century; certainly there were not enough of them to explain the development of a slang term based on their titles.  Most etymologists agree that dude arose in New York City.

From Tim Duduit:

Wonderful, wonderful site!!!!  Now that I've finished sucking up, the current issue contains a discussion of "agent" and refers to the scientific usage of the word, but you did not discuss "reagent", which is used most commonly in chemistry. If "agent" is something that "acts", is "reagent" something that "re-acts"? REACTS, get it!?!?!

I particularly enjoyed seeing that "basalt" is African in origin; I am a geologist and am always eager to find out the origin of geological words. Here's a doozy; yardang, a long, irregular ridge in the desert which is cut by the action of the wind. The origin is "ablative of Turkish yar, "steep bank" (Glossary of Geology, Bates, 1980). This geological feature has the distinction of being the first landform that was discovered on another planet (Mars) before being discovered on earth!  Really, you guys deserve a cookie for such a great site!! (The chocolate chip kind.)

From Sean Worle:

Although [it] is correct [that La Brea means "The Tar" in Spanish. So the title "The La Brea Tar Pits" literally means "The The Tar Tar Pits," Issue 78], I would not consider this ridiculous or incorrect. After all the name of the place where the tar pits are located (a suburb of Los Angeles) is "La Brea," named because of the pits themselves. So, if we consider "La Brea" to be a proper noun (which, in this case, it is), then the La Brea Tar Pits are simply the tar pits at a place called La Brea. If they were located in San Francisco, they would be the San Francisco Tar Pits.  Of course, if that were the case, San Francisco would probably be La Brea, and vice versa, and then where would you be? The answer is, most likely, lost. In addition, they'd have to move the bridge, and I don't know where L.A. would put it.

;) <-- obligatory internet "smiley"

From Bret Lawson:

Ordinarily, I would pause to praise you for your wonderfully informative and entertaining column, but today I am literally champing at the bit to share my favorite misuse of literally (Issue 78).  Back in 1980 or so, when the first space shuttle, the Columbia, completed its maiden voyage, Mr. Dan Rather was on hand to observe that the ship had landed "literally, on a dime." This past week, NASA held an auction of its space memorabilia, and I couldn't help but wonder if that dime was auctioned as well. Thank you again for your column, and now I'm off to the dentist to have my chipped teeth fixed. Next time, I'll try a softer bit.

From Jerry Foster:

I just heard a radio commercial which you might find interesting. It was for a shop in a local where they have "plenty of ample parking." I plan to use it often because I have always had trouble parking my ample.

From Ian:

Thanks for a great site I discovered it last August and haven't missed a week since.  To add to the growing list of redundancies -Sahara desert- I was told on a trip to Egypt that sahara means desert; hope I'm right.

Hmmm, well, sahara is actually supposed to be a slight corruption of Abaric sahra, which is the feminine form of ashar "fawn colored".

From Kevin Kennedy-Spaien:

Although I have the greatest respect for your research, there is no way I am willing to accept that the first time the words "grim" and "reaper" appeared side by side was 1977 (Issue 78)! Someone at OED has not been diligent enough, I am certain.

We thought the same, but the OED is not to be taken lightly, and none of our other esteemed sources offered anything earlier.  Allow us to request pre-1977 examples of grim reaper from you, our readers (please provide source and date).  However, keep in mind that even rock group Blue Oyster Cult referred to Death as simply "the Reaper" in their "Don't Fear the Reaper" of 1976.

From Fran Morris:

I just can't help commenting on Hanno's encounter with the gorillas in the 5th or 6th century B.C. (Issue 77), although my point is more biological than etymological.  He may have thought they were all females because male gorillas have no external genitalia.......just spent an hour seeking verification on the Web, but all I can find is that defining genitalia are "inconspicuous".

site map

Comments, additions? Send to Melanie & Mike:
Copyright © 1995-2000
mc² creations
Last Updated 07/22/00 07:33 PM