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Issue 82   

April 17, 2000
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

the Holy Spirit

This being Holy Week, we thought we would devote Spotlight to the third and least considered of the Christian Trinity, the Holy Spirit.

Pentecost, or the descent of the Holy Spirit.  Click to follow the link.Holy Spirit is not a very old term in English, at least not when compared with Holy Ghost.  Holy Spirit is first recorded in the surviving English record in about 1300 in the poem Cursor Mundi: "e hali spirite oute of him spac"  ("The Holy Spirit out of him spake").  Thereafter we find it used in  about 1375: "Eftyre cristis ascencione, e haly spyrit of criste come done ("After Christ's ascension, the Holy Spirit of Christ came down).  By 1420 we find the term in a slightly different form, as seen in this quotation from Prymer: "Take ou not fro me in hooli spirit ("Take thou not from me thine Holy Spirit).  The Book of Common Prayer of 1549 uses a spelling which more closely resembles that of today: "Laude and praise be to the father, ..And to the holy spirite".   By 1639 the term had taken on its present form, as in this quotation from 1639 in Thomas Fuller's The History of the Holy Warre: "The Greeks... maintain the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father alone."  In 1881 we find the use of both Holy Spirit and Holy Ghost in the notes of a translation of the New Testament, Revised Text: "The Holy Ghost... Or, Holy Spirit".

Holy Ghost is used interchangeably with Holy Spirit today and is a much older term.  It dates back to Old English, where the form was hlga gst or hlig gst, composed of two distinct words, as today.  The first record of the term comes from about 900 in Halsuncge in Durham Ritual: "Ic eow halsige on fder naman, and on suna naman..and on s halgan gastes."  It remained in that form for several hundred years, as in this quotation from about 1160 in the Hatton Gospels: "Hyt is of an halgen gaste".  It is in a document from about 1200 that we see the term taking on a new form:  "us hie segen e holi gost on tungene euene."  In 1225 we find "On his deorewure sunes nome, ant o es haligastes," from Cynewulf's Juliana. That quotation signifies the first recorded use of Holy Ghost as one word.  In about 1250 we find the term in the two-word form in Genesis & Exodus: "Quuor ali gast stille hadde seid.. Quuor iesu crist wulde ben boren," but the single-word form continues to be used through the end of the 15th century.  In 1340 a form is used which is reminiscent of the Old English spelling, though broken into two words, in Hampole's Psalter: "e haly gast... at is makere of haly writ." However, thereafter, most instances of the term, whether in the one-word or the two-word form, are fairly consistently spelled with o's instead of a's, as in this quotation from 1535 in G. Joye's Apology of Tindale : "The holigost also before yt declaring hym." By 1621 we encounter the term in its present form: "The Holy Ghost is the love of the Father and the Son" in Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy.  From that time onward the term retains that form.

Spirit was used as a translation for Greek pneuma (literally "breath") and Hebrew ruah in all translations of the Bible from Wyclif onward.   However, the term Holy Ghost had (and has!) entrenched itself firmly into the language and was not easily supplanted.   Wyclif's Bible is also the first surviving English document to use Spirit alone to refer to "the Holy Spirit", as in this quotation from his 1382 Bible: "Anon the Spirit puttide [Vulg. expulit] hym in to desert." That usage still occurs today, as in G. W. H. Lampe's 1977 God as Spirit:  "Perhaps the most original and significant insights of Paul are that the Spirit's inspiration makes men Christ-like and, ideally, makes the community a visible re-embodiment of Christ."

The etymology of holy, spirit, and ghost are also of interest as a part of this discussion.   Holy is, as might be expected based on the etymology of Holy Ghost, an Old English term.   Its form in about 1000 A.D. was halig and it derives from the Indo-European root hailo- or kailo- "free from injury, whole", whence comes also English hale as in "hale and hearty".   There are cognates in the Germanic languages, for example German heilig , Swedish helig "holy".  The only real uncertainty about holy pertains to the changes in meaning that it underwent.   In pre-Christian times, it probably meant "inviolate, inviolable" (and that meaning survived into Old Norse), a meaning which would make the word applicable to the gods.   Once Christianity was introduced, the already-existing word apparently made a perfect translation for Latin sanctus.   However, the OED suggests that the pre-Christian meaning may have been one of "health, well-being" as in hale (which was Old English hal).   Whatever that original meaning was, it is now impossible to reconstruct with any certainty as the influence of Christianity has obscured it.  Wyclif produced the first surviving example we have of holy using today's spelling, in 1382: "Nyl ge geue holy thing to houndis", from the Gospel of Luke.  Interestingly, Tyndale, in his version of the Bible, spelled the word wholy, clearly confusing it with whole.  That was in 1526.

Spirit came to English via Norman French spirit from Old French esperit and/or Latin spiritus, both meaning "breathing, breath, air", deriving ultimately from Latin spirare "to breathe" (source of respirate and perspire, among many others).   As mentioned previously, spirit was initially used to translate Greek pneuma and Hebrew ruah, starting in about 1250, and all versions of the Bible from Wyclif onward use spirit in translation of the Greek and Hebrew.   Prior to the Middle Ages, however, ghost was used.   It comes from the Indo-European root gheis- "fear or amazement", and there are descendants of that root in most of the Germanic languages, all of them possessing similar meanings.  Some etymologists believe that Sanskrit he'das "anger" is related, and the general meaning of related words outside of the Germanic language family appears to have been "fury, anger".

Through the middle of the 17th century ghost was used to refer to the "Holy Spirit" without the modifier Holy.  The meaning "soul of a deceased person appearing in visible form, or otherwise manifesting its presence to the living" is first recorded by Chaucer in the late 14th century: "This night my fadres gost Hath in my sleep so sore me tormented."  That is now the prevailing sense of the word except for the expression to give up the ghost meaning "to die".  This latter phrase, with its implications of breathing one's last and releasing an intangible entity from the body, clearly shows the connections between the concepts of breath, spirit and an invisible, disembodied being.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Eddie Absher:

What is the origin of the phrase due south or due + any compass direction?

An old image of a compass.Due south means "full south", that sense of due deriving from the meaning "as ought to be, to be observed, fitting", as in the term in due courseDue south [west, east, north] was originally a nautical term, but it spread into wider usage. Shakespeare was one of the first to record the phrase: "There lies your way, due West" (Twelfth Night, 1601).  Due in this sense, as in the "owe" sense, derives from Latin debitumDebut comes from the same source.

While we're on the subject of the points of the compass, have you ever considered how arbitrary the orientation of maps is?  There is no good reason why North should be at the top.  Indeed, the ancient Romans always placed East at the top of their maps.  That's why, we call finding our bearings  orientation - from Latin oriens "East".

In China, their first maps were made for the emperor whose throne always faced due South.  Thus, Chinese maps are traditionally arranged to have South at the top.  Some years ago, Mike and a friend of his, armed only with a China Tourist Agency map, wandered around Shanghai in total confusion for a whole afternoon until they realized that their ethnocentricity had led them astray.

From Joanne Rennick

I have heard the expression sticky wicket and assume it means "an uncomfortable or tricky situation", but I have not been able to verify that anywhere.  Can you help?  Thanks for the excellent web page - I love it!

Oh, dear, a cricket question.  Neither of us is really qualified to answer this as Melanie is a Texan and although Mike is a Brit he's actually Welsh (not famous for their cricket).  Not only that, but he comes from one of only two small regions where the summer sport is baseball.  (No, not American baseball but the original British game which the Americans borrowed.)

Now that we've got our disclaimers out of the way, here's our answer.  The word wicket can mean a number of things.  Primarily, it is a small door or gate, especially one which is set into a larger gate, allowing passage by travelers on foot when the larger gate is closed.  It comes from Anglo-French wiket and is related to the Modern French guichet.  That, however, is not where our answer lies.

A sticky wicket is a cricketing allusion so here is a very sketchy outline of the game purely for etymological purposes.  (Cricket fans, we realize that there is a lot more to the game so please forgive us.).  In cricket, a wicket is composed of three upright sticks (the "stumps") with two small pieces of wood (the "bales") resting across their tops.  There are two such wickets, 22 yards apart, and a batsman stands by each one.  The bowler tries to hit one of the wickets with the ball and the batsman's task is to protect his wicket (and score runs) by striking the ball with his bat.

So, now I think we all understand what wickets are.  But we are not quite there yet.  The word wicket is also used to mean the turf between the two wooden wickets and, by extension, the condition of that turf.  Thus, if the turf is well trimmed and rolled and is neither too wet nor too dry, one may be batting on a good wicket.  If, on the other hand, the turf is waterlogged and muddy it is known as a sticky wicket.

Phew, almost there.   When one is batting on a sticky wicket the ball, which usually strikes the ground in front of the batsman, behaves unpredictably.  In such conditions, it is harder for the batsman to defend his wicket (the wooden one).  Therefore, to be on a sticky wicket means to be in a situation where it is difficult to succeed.

From Tammy King:

What is the origin of the term wet nurse?  Is it a woman who breast feeds or simply bottle feeds babies?

In case anyone is not familiar with the concept, a wet nurse was a woman who was employed to suckle and generally care for another woman's child.  The wet part of the title refers to the giving of milk and, presumably, to the handling of wet swaddling clothes.  (Hmm... when were diapers invented?)  A dry nurse, by contrast, is a nurse who does not suckle the child.  Only in the 16th century did the notion of a dry nurse emerge.  Up to then, the word nurse implied wet nurse.

Nurse comes from Latin nutrire "feed, foster, cherish" via Old French nuris.  That this is also the origin of the word nourish should not surprise us as nurse is merely a medieval contraction of nourish.  Nursh and norsh were other early versions of the word.  These all derive from the Indo-European root (s)nau- "to flow", with an extended meaning of "to suckle", suckling being the only source of nourishment for babies in pre-modern times.

The notion of a wet nurse may seem alien and even shocking today, but it was not uncommon for female nobility to have their children nursed by what amounted to a household servant.  Naturally, many children formed lasting bonds of affection with their wet nurses.  This is why the Nurse in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is such an important role.  Although Juliet is fourteen years old she still confides in her nurse as her most intimate confidante.

Incidentally, like all female roles in Shakespeare's time, Juliet's nurse was originally played by a man.  In fact, this role was first played by William Kempe, the foremost comic actor of his day who once danced all the way from London to Norwich on a bet.  This feat took Kempe nine days and gave rise to the expression a nine day's wonder.  We wonder if he danced to the strains of The Parliament (also known as Will Kempe's Jigge).

From Kandace:

I am looking for the etymology of the word fantastic.

It entered English from Medieval Latin fantasticus, which derived from late Latin phantasticus. Latin obtained it from Greek phantastikos "to make visible"; in late Greek it meant "to have visions, to imagine".

It is first recorded in English in the late 14th century with the meaning "perversely or irrationallyA scene from the film series "Phantasm".  Click to follow the link to the Phantasm site. imagined".  It shortly thereafter came to be applied to phantasms, and then to things of the imagination in general.  In that same period it also came to mean "fanciful, capricious". It wasn't until the first half of the 20th century that it came to be used more loosely to mean "excellent, good beyond expectation".

Some related words are fancy, fantasy, phantasm, and phantom. They all derive from the Greek root phan- or phain- "to show, to appear".  Its Indo-European root bha- "to shine", also gave us the words beacon ("light" signal), beckon ("to make a sign"); possibly berry ("shiny fruit"); along with fantasy, phenomenon, epiphany, and phosphorus.

From Marianna:

I'm studying environmental science and every soil I know of has a logical name given to it, such as chernozem, meaning "dark soil" and deriving from Russian. Podzol doesn't seem to fit, however. It is a soil with an upper horizon that is light gray to white and extensively leached.

Ah, you win the obscure word(s) of the week award. Since you mentioned chernozem, we'll detail its origin first: it comes from Russian chernozem "black earth", from cherny "black" and zemlya "soil". It entered English in the first half of the 19th century from Russian, and it refers to the black soil of south Russia, which covers the Aralo-Caspian plain.

A cross section of podzol.  Click to follow the link.Podzol is, perhaps not surprisingly, also of Russian derivation. The Russian word is podzol, formed from pod- "under" and zola "ash". The gray to white layer you referred to is the "ash" layer, though actually what has happened is that minerals have been leached from that layer and into the darker soil beneath. Podzol occurs especially in coniferous forests. If you lift up a mat of pine needles, you may see a white layer beneath them, where such mineral leaching has occurred. Podzol did not enter English until around the late 19th to early 20th century.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

Guest curmudgeon Katy Shannon-Deutsch real-ly complains about realty

Too many people who should know better (realtors themselves, for instance) say reel-a-tor. ("Last week I couldn't even pronounce realtor, and now I am one!") What's so hard about the lt consonant cluster? Have they never been undecided about something and said, "I feel torn"?  I suspect these same people also say reel-a-ty instead of realty. Anyway, thanks for the fascinating, fun Web site.

Excellent complaint, Katy!  We agree with you whole-heartedly.  The word is realtor pronounced "reel - tor".  And, of course, realty is said "reel-ty".  This reminds Melanie of a federal legal brief she worked on once.  The typist confused the words relator (correct) and realtor (incorrect in this case) so that one of the parties to the case magically became someone who sells real property versus someone relating a claim.  Grrr!  Get real, people!

By the way, realty and realtor come from, as suggested above, real, as in real property and real estate.  Real has been used in that sense since the 17th century.  Real comes from Latin res "thing".

Sez You...

From Allan Price:

Really! I must protest at Joshua Daniels' assertion that Brits pronunciation of founder and finder are almost exactly the same.  Comic Englishmen in American films may say it that way; the Queen in her Christmas Day speech may veer slightly in that direction (don't ask me in what context she used the word...), but I'm English, and I don't say it that way, nor does anyone else I know.

We agree, Allan.  Then again, there are a very few (of the "upper-class twit" variety) who would say "I've bought a hice in tine" when they mean "I've bought a house in town".

From George Kraemer:

You discussed the origin of bunny as it comes from cony (a very interesting story).  Cony sounds like a shortening of the Italian word for "rabbit", coniglio (pronounced "koneelio").  Is this correct?

Well, almost.  The Italian coniglio, as well as Old French conil, Spanish conejo and Portuguese coelho all come from the Latin word cuniculus which not only meant "rabbit" but also "burrow", "underground passage" and "military mine".  Curiously, although we can be certain that the Spanish word conejo comes from the Latin word cuniculus, ancient scholars believed that cuniculus had a Spanish (i.e. Celtiberian) origin.

From Chandra McCann:

The letter regarding French cricket originating in England reminded me of a humorous discovery I made.  In French, the term for "French letter" is capote anglaise, to take "French leave" is filer a l'anglaise, and a "French seam" is called couture anglaise.  As at least two of these terms/phrases are derogatory or euphemistic (I'm not sure about "French seam"), this shows the historic animosity between the two cultures.

We are also reminded that the cor anglais (a kind of a bent oboe) literally means "English horn" but this is a simply a misapprehension of cor angl "bent horn".

From John Burgess:

I enjoy your webzine enormously. It's fun, informative and almost always right!  Just a few passing observations on your latest issue (Issue 80).

Your comment on "Dutch-derived epithets" is great. Missing from the list (I know, you made no promise of completeness) are, among others,  Dutch uncle and Dutch courage. Also, as a curiosity, I seem to recall a variation on rope skipping called Double Dutch which involved the use of two ropes (or a longer one, doubled).  If there's a derogatory sense to this, it escapes me completely. 

The naming of unseemly things after your neighbors seems more a sociological event than a linguistic one. Syphilis, to the French, was also le pox Anglais. Those slipping out of a situation before it became too hot were taking "English leave" or filez a l'Anglaise.  Syphilis, across Europe, got pinned on whomever wasn't very popular at the time, with various languages, from Polish to German to Italian blaming it variously on the French, Italians, Spanish or English.

Quantum Leap:  Assuredly, the size is not what matters here.  What does count is the fact that electrons don't move gradually through intermediate steps... they make a complete jump. There's no glissando, no run-up to the event. It's like traveling from the East Coast to Europe, without those interminable hours spent over the Atlantic.

Thank you for saying such nice things about the site!   Thanks also for your additions to the "Dutch" discussion.  What you say about cultural epithets is indeed correct - such eponymic phrases were simply higher forms of name-calling.  As for quantum leap, you are certainly right in that it is, as you say, "a complete jump".  However, our point is that the term is being abused in the media (and, concurrently, in popular speech) to mean "giant step" versus "complete jump", a sense of "great size" being erroneously conveyed.

From Jerome Foster:

I may be a little late with this but I remember as a kid growing up in Brooklyn that there was a rope jumping game that girls played called Double Dutch. I think it involved using 2 jump ropes though I don't remember a *Single Dutch usage. I was also interested in noting that someone mentioned Dutch Wife.  I think I remember seeing that term used in an article in Life Magazine many years ago when the Dutch were still in Indonesia and thinking that it was a little risqu. Going back to Double Dutch I wonder about its origin. I suppose it would be too much to suggest that, Brooklyn being of Dutch origin, the name may have come down from the original settlers.  

While I'm on my computer I'd like to add another observe "incorrect" usage which I fear is spreading; the use of alumni as a singular rather than plural. I have heard it on radio call-in programs and our local newspaper just identified someone in a photo caption as an alumni of one of our local schools.

Thank you for running such an interesting website.

It's our pleasure, Jerome, and thank you for writing.

Double-Dutch is indeed a kind of rope-jumping game (that's "skipping" to our British readers).  There was even a song about it (late 1970s? early 1980s?). We are certain that the name is not derogatory but is merely an allusion to the use of two ropes.

Regarding alumni, that is indeed one of our pet peeves, as well.  We see it inscribed on automobile license plate frames: "Proud alumni of ABC University".  Does that mean that each of multiple occupants in the car is an alumnus of ABC University?  We think not.  It's simply a grievous error on the part of the license plate frame makers, and clearly it was not run past the university's Latin department before being approved for production.

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