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Issue 80   

April 3, 2000
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Spotlight Words on our minds this week.
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

those darned foreigners

This weekend it was reported that Mexican troops had accidentally encroached on U.S. territory, pursuing members of a border patrol. The Mexicans were convinced that they were on Mexican soil and both sides drew their weapons. Until the error was explained there was a true Mexican standoff,  that is, a situation in which guns are drawn but neither side dares shoot. While the precise origins of Mexican standoff are not known, it is just one of many phrases of a derogatory nature which involve nationalities. Some typical examples are a Mexican promotion (which is a promotion in which the employee gets a new title but no raise in pay), Mexican breakfast "a breakfast consisting of a cigarette and a glass of water" and a Chinese fire drill "a situation in which people behave in a confused and chaotic manner".

Probably the largest category of this type consists of phrases which deride the Dutch. This is largely due to the trading rivalry between the English and Dutch in the 17th century. Thus we have a Dutch treat, i.e. no treat at all, each party involved paying for himself; double Dutch and the now obsolete high Dutch both mean "gibberish"; the Dutch defense means "surrender" and to do the Dutch is either "to desert" or "to commit suicide". If some misfortune should befall you and someone says "It could be worse" or "There's always someone worse off than oneself", this feeble consolation is called Dutch comfort. In a Dutch feast the  host gets drunk before his guests, a Dutch nightingale is a frog and a Dutch widow is a prostitute. 

Very often, a foreign nationality is used simply to imply strangeness. Thus, English children play French cricket. Needless to say, this is not cricket as played in France, for the French simply do not play cricket. It is a very informal version of cricket which has no wickets, the object of the game being to hit the batsman's legs with the ball. The word French is used to indicate that this is an odd variant of cricket. Similarly, the French nut is the walnut. This is more understandable when one realizes that the word walnut itself means "foreign nut". 

When caught using inappropriately bad language we may say pardon my French as if we can fool the listener into believing that what they just heard was a foreign language. In the 18th century peddlar's French meant "thieves' slang" or "cant". 

All matters sexual were commonly labeled French. A deep kiss is a French kiss and, in England, a condom is often called a French letter. (Why a "letter"? We don't know.)  Syphilis arrived in England around 1500 and immediately it was blamed on the French, being known as the French pox or the Henry VIII himself.  Click to learn more about the Tudors. French marbles. Curiously, it was not immediately apparent how this disease was transmitted and when King Henry VIII contracted the French pox, there were rumors that Cardinal Wolsey had given it to the king by constantly whispering in his ear. We can only deduce from this that the cardinal suffered from the same disease! While it must have been gratifying for the English to blame syphilis on their old enemies, the French, it actually came from the West Indies, being brought to Europe by Columbus and his crew. The English weren't too keen on the Spanish either so syphilis was also known (with reasonable accuracy) as the Spanish pox or the Spanish gout. Also, if a horse appeared to be insane, it was said to be afflicted with the Spanish evil.  In the 16th century to do something in the Spanish fashion meant "to cheat" or "to behave deceitfully". There is a curious English expression whereby any long-standing practice which has no known explanation is called an old Spanish custom. To give someone the bum's rush is to expel them from a bar or restaurant by grabbing their collar and the seat of their pants (shouting "...and stay out!" is optional). This practice is also known as to walk Spanish. Spanish (formerly French) moss.  Click to visit the land of Spanish moss (the Deep South).

There is an epiphytic bromeliad (i.e. a member of the pineapple family that grows on trees) which is found in the Florida Everglades. It is now known as Spanish moss or Spanish beard (botanically it is Tillandsia usneoides) but in former times it was called French moss. Of course, it is native to neither France nor Spain, the names being concocted merely as insults to these nations. 

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From John Stratton:

Yours is one of my favorite sites.  Please tell us about the origins of fusion and fission.

Fission came to English from Latin fissionem, a noun derived from the verb findere, to split.  It was initially used, in the mid-19 century, in a biological sense to refer to reproduction via splitting.  It was also used to refer to splitting or dividing into pieces, in general.  By 1919 J.H. Jeans discussed fission in his theory of the origin of binary stars.  By 1964, however, R.H. Baker, in Astronomy, says "The fission theory...was favored in former times,” indicating that by then it had fallen out of favor.

The nuclear notion of fission did not arise until about 1939, when Meitner and Frisch use the term in an article in Nature.  For them, fission was still a "division”, but it was a division, "either spontaneously or under the impact of another particle, of a heavy nucleus into two (or sometimes three or more) approximately equal parts, with a resulting release of large amounts of energy”.

1941 saw the term fission bomb arise in H.D. Smith’s General Accounting of the Development of Atomic Energy for Military Purposes.

Fusion entered English in the middle of the 16th century from Latin fusionem, a noun formed from the verb fundere "to pour”.  Fusion  referred originally to the rendering of fluid by using heat.  In 1555 Eden used the term in his Decades: "To brynge it to fusion or meltynge.”

Later (in the late 18th century), the term was used figuratively to suggest things that were blended as though by being melted together or poured together: "A fusion of assimilation of races” (Myers, Catholic Theology, 1841).  By the late 19th century fusion came to be applied in psychology to mean "a blending of sensations”, and then to specifically Freudian psychology to refer to "the union and balance of life and death instincts in a normal person” (1927).

The nuclear use did not arise until 1947, with this meaning: "The formation of a heavier, more complex nucleus by coming together of two or more lighter ones, usually accompanied by the release of large amounts of energy”.

From Michael Finley:

I have a pet theory that the words nigh, near, and next are the simple, comparative, and superlative forms: nigh = close, near = closer "nigh-er”, and next = closest "nighest”.  Anything to this?  I can see how the vowel ending of nigh would require some consonant juggling to keep the sound hard.

Nigh was néah in Old English, and it appears in such Old English works as Beowulf and the Lindisfarne Gospels (950).  There were cognates in other Teutonic languages, suggesting a Germanic origin, especially as there were no cognates in other Indo-European language groups.  The original comparative version of néah was néar "near”, which also shows up in Beowulf, among other early works.  The superlative form was niehst "next”, appearing in the Old English Chronicle (950) and the Lindisfarne Gospels.  Interestingly, however, the relationship between those three words was forgotten, such that they came to have non-comparative meanings.  By the 16 century, the words nigher and nighest were in common use as unrecognized substitutes for near and next.

From Heather:

We are studying Cape York Creole in a linguistics class.  It seems they use the words along and belong for the majority of their prepositional needs, so that sometimes the meanings of the two words sort of merge or at least seem distinct from their original English meaning.  I’m wondering if in the history of standard English there is any relationship between the two words.

Indeed there is.  Both words share the element long, and no, we’re not trying to be smart-alecks!  Long in this sense has the same meaning as today’s word long.  Along was formed from the prefix and- "against, facing, in a direction, opposite” + long (though in its earliest forms it was and-lang).  It was initially an adjective (there were similar constructions, such as eást-lang "extending eastward”) with the meaning "extending away in the opposite direction, far-stretching, continuous”.  Then it was generalized to mean "the lengthened or continuous extent of”, and "the whole length of”.

Belong the verb, which dates from the mid-14 century, was formed from bi- "be-" and an aphetic form of along, which was long.  It is thought that it was simply an intensified form of along.  The notion is one of something being "equally long” or "corresponding in length”, and so "running alongside of, parallel to, going along with, accompanying as a property or attribute”.

Another language which uses belong as a preposition is the pidgin English of Papua New Guinea, Tok Pisin. In Tok Pisin, belong is contracted to b'long and is used as a possessive. Thus, lamp b'long Jesus Crist is "the sun" and pikin b'long Queen is "the Prince of Wales". Also, long water means "sea" and long-long means "sick" (as well as "drunk" and "insane"). The amusing (to our ears) consequence is that Tok Pisin for "sea-sick" is long-long b'long long water.

From Remco van der Krogt:

I am wondering about the origins and exact meaning of the word feudal, which seems so very strongly connected with medieval culture.  Perhaps a nice word to deliberate?

Indeed!  Some readers may be surprised to learn that it is not related to the noun feud "a state of mutual bitter hostility”.  That is thought to come from the Old English verb féogan "to hate”.  Feud as in the feudal system, however, does not have a lineage which is quite so easy to trace.  Its most recent ancestor is medieval Latin feudum/feodum, but beyond that the etymology is not clear.  Some suggest that feud, along with fief and fee, derive from feodum, and that feodum comes ultimately from a Teutonic source, fehu "cattle, property, money, wages, payment for service”, the latter two meanings being the sense of feud.  Of course, today we hear most often the adjectival form of the word, feudal.  Feud in this sense does not appear in the English written record until the early 17th century.  Feud  "a state of mutual bitter hostility” is a bit older, dating in common English use from the late 13th to early 14th century.

From Michael Field/J. Beth Field:

Love your site.  I read the book The Professor and the Madman, which makes word finding all the more interesting.  Speaking of that, what is the derivation of the word jewelry?

The Tower of London.  Click to visit a site about the Tower and the Crown Jewels.Jewlery (14th century), like jewel (13th century) , entered English from Old French joel.  The source of joel, however, is in dispute.  One school suggests that it derives from Latin gaudium "joy”, origin both of the English word gaudy and of the French joie “joy”.  Another school holds that joel comes from Latin jocare "to joke”, which gave French another word, jouer "to play”.  The French derivation is important because all of the other Romance forms – Provencal joell, Catalan joyell, Spanish joyel, and Italian gioiello – appear to derive from the French word.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

wherein Barb Dwyer is

light years away

Looking through the back issues (a practice which I heartily recommend to all new readers), I discovered that Melanie and Mike had a bone to pick regarding the misuse of the term "quantum leap". As our erudite readers are surely aware, this "leap" is not a large jump but describes the smallest possible change of state allowed by the laws of physics. 

This week, gentle reader, I would like to bring to your attention the misuse of another scientific term - light year. Just this weekend I heard someone who ought to know better saying "Don't expect [x] any time soon. We could wait light years before that happens." 

Although this term contains the word year, it is not a unit of time. Rather, it is a unit of distance. Quite simply, it is the distance which light can travel in one year.

Sez You...

Regarding the term grim reaper (Issue 78)...

From John Pierce:

In the late 1960's I served with the 13th Tactical Bomb Squadron, U.S. Air Force. The unitThe Grim Reapers. had been called "The Devil's Own Grim Reapers" since at least 1950, and displayed on its emblem a skeleton ("Oscar") carrying a bloody scythe. This emblem was first used in 1918, although I don't know when the words were added. I have enclosed a photograph I recently found on the web, taken in Japan and dated 1950, clearly showing the words "Grim Reapers". They are also visible in other pictures from the early 1950's. (Photo from

From R. Erickson:

Just got my weekly dose of your great site. I have a great example of misuse for you-I recently got a flyer from my life insurance company notifying me that they have "redomesticated from South Dakota to Iowa." I hadn't realized that my insurance company had become feral, but I guess that stange things can happen in the Badlands.  As to the use of "Grim Reaper", I was a cadet at the USAF Academy in 1969, and the cadet squadron that I was assigned to was called the "Grim Reapers."  Our squadron patch featured a black-robed skeleton with the scythe.  Unfortunately, I no longer have a yearbook, and don't remember if we were called "Grim Reapers" there or not.  Thanks again for keeping up a great site.

From Ian Rowlands:

I didn't believe it either. I remembered a book by John D. McDonald "The Green Ripper" the title being a play on words, but when I looked up the publishing history discovered it was printed in 1979, so no good. Undeterred however and spurred on by the "fawn coloured Desert" (Issue 79) I dug a little and found a reference to a 1944 comic book "The Grim Reaper & Spectro" - Wonder Comics - May 1944. 

From Alan Clement:

Most interesting website.  Not sure if this will add or otherwise to the "Grim Reaper" origin debate, but there was an Italian Bernardo Bertolucci film out in 1962 called "The Grim Reaper". Granted its title ("La Commare Secca") was not originally in English, and (although I have not seen the film) the plot does not specifically mention the Devil. But perhaps the term was later adapted from this early reference?  Details here:

From Sally Rothfus:

Regarding the "Grim Reaper", a quick visit to Amazon books, etc found a reference to a video called The Grim Reaper, dated 1962 and directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. With a bit more effort I am sure I would have found earlier uses.

The dates of the U.S. Air Force squadron name and the potentially earlier comic book title make the Bertolucci film issue moot.  Thanks  to all of you who wrote on this subject (and for information on that feral insurance company!).  This may merit a note to the OED!  However, we still find ourselves surprised that no references earlier than the 20th century were turned up.

From John:

The phrase ivory tower refers to the haughty retreat used by the ancient king of Israel, Ahab, in Samaria, (which was almost completely inlaid with ivory panels,) who would not come down to see how poorly his subjects lived. 1 Kings 22:39. I enjoy your work

Thanks, John.  We did a bit of research on Ahab in the first book of Kings, but the translation we found referred only to a house and throne decorated with ivory, not an ivory tower.

By the way, we found that the passage describing the ivory throne built by Solomon (good guy) was identical to the  passage describing the ivory throne built by Ahab (bad guy).  Go figure.  Speaking of Solomon, we did find "Your neck is as a tower of ivory..." in the Song of Solomon.  Needless to say, this did not carry the meaning of ivory tower as employed today.

If your translation uses ivory tower with its familiar metaphorical meaning, we suspect it is a modern translation.

From Ian Rowlands:

Emboldened by the "Reaper" so to speak (see Ian's note above), I searched and found a glossary at And under 'S' found: Sahara (Arabic) - "desert" or "empty area" Am I wrong or just stubborn?

While we could find the reference in Jobaria, further research shows you were correct about Sahara desert meaning "desert desert" (full marks for stubbornness).  No doubt your informant spoke Arabic but just wasn't an etymologist.  These days, sahra does means "desert" in Arabic but ultimately this word derives from ashar "fawn colored".  Thus its name indicates its color rather than its negligible population.

One desert whose name literally does mean "empty area" is the Rub al Qali which covers much of Saudi Arabia and most of Yemen.

While we're on the subject of desert names, our favorite is the Taklamakan, in Central Asia. Its Turkic name means "you go in; you don't come out".

rom Birger Drake:

Megálos is modern Greek, a language which cannot be the etymological mother tongue of English or Swedish or any other contemporary language. In Classical Greek it was mégas / megále / méga.

Nekros (noun) means corpse,  and also (more often ?) "dead" (adj.).  

You write "one could claim citizenship". Only free men (masc.) of a certain age and usually only those born in wedlock within the society were eligible (or automatically nominated), I believe. 

You connect civil to city. I would rather choose the Latin civilis.  To me, civil is related to society, and urbane is related to Latin urbs.  Therefore, urbane connects to town manner, whereas civil connects to what we call civilization.

Thank you, Birger.  As ever, you raise a number of good points.  Let's address them in turn:

Megalos.  You are correct when you say that this is modern Greek (we just said "Greek") but megalopolis is a modern word and it is derived from the modern Greek megalos.  Note that many scientific terms also include the megalos form: megalomania, megalosaurus and acromegaly to name but three.

Nekros.  Again, you are correct that nekros is both an adjective meaning "dead" and a noun meaning "corpse".  To us, it makes more sense to construe necropolis as a "city of corpses" rather than "a dead city".  The latter sounds a little too much like a Wednesday evening in San Jose.

Citizenship.  We must admit to our error in equating the modern and classical notions of citizenship.  We tend to forget that a citizen of Rome, Athens, etc. was a free-born male, not just a native.

Civil.  We think that, actually, we all agree here.  Check last week's column again and you will see that the actual words were "...we often speak of our civil duties (from Latin civilis 'of the city')".

There were a few other flaws in last weeks issue which Birger pointed out.  He was spot on with his criticisms and the appropriate amendments have been made.

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