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Issue 83   

April 24, 2000
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

promotional materials

Promotion is today associated with, among other things, the working place, and that association has changed surprisingly little since the word was first recorded in English in 1429: "Ne for promotion or fortheryng of any persone to Office" (from Rolls of Parliament, England).  In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary defines promotion as "advancement in position; preferment."  A subtle change in meaning occurred by 1523, as recorded in Froissart, by Lord Berners: "With his promocyon of popalyte [papacy] the romayns were apeased."  Instead of referring to movement to a higher office, promotion here means "futherance" or "advancement" of an idea, belief, or a thing. By 1540 we have it used in yet a different sense, in the will of a Mr. Surtees: "I give to Dorithe and Anne my doughters…to be equallye devyded betwixte them towarde ther mariadge or other promocion."4 Here marriage is clearly thought of as an advancement for Dorithe and Anne, and, thankfully, they apparently had other options for advancement, as well. 

Shakespeare used promotion in Henry VIII, act V, scene II (1613):

I'll show your grace the strangest sight -

What's that, Butts?

I think your highness saw this many a day.

Body o' me, where is it?

There, my lord:
The high promotion of his grace of Canterbury;
Who holds his state at door, 'mongst pursuivants,
Pages, and footboys.

Ha! 'tis he, indeed:
Is this the honour they do one another?
'Tis well there's one above 'em yet. I had thought
They had parted so much honesty among 'em
At least, good manners, as not thus to suffer
A man of his place, and so near our favour,
To dance attendance on their lordships' pleasures,
And at the door too, like a post with packets.
By holy Mary, Butts, there's knavery:
Let 'em alone, and draw the curtain close:
We shall hear more anon. 

Here the meaning is yet again a bit different than before: "the high promotion" refers to the Bishop of Canterbury's facial expression, which is apparently one of superiority beyond his position. 

Interestingly, to be on one's promotion was an idiom which meant "to conduct oneself with a view to promotion" or, colloquially, "to conduct oneself with a view to marriage". Thackeray wrote in Vanity Fair in 1848: Thackeray.  Click to follow the link to a well-done Thackeray page.

"Law, Betsy, how could you go for to tell such a wicked story!" said Hester, the little kitchen-maid late on her promotion -"and to Madame Crawley, so good and kind, and his Rev'rince (with a curtsey), and you may search all MY boxes, Mum, I'm sure, and here's my keys as I'm an honest girl, though of pore parents and workhouse bred--and if you find so much as a beggarly bit of lace or a silk stocking out of all the gownds as YOU'VE had picking of, may I never go to church agin."

"Give up your keys, you hardened hussy," hissed out the virtuous little lady in the calash.

"And here's a candle, Mum, and if you please, Mum, I can show you her room, Mum, and the press in the housekeeper's room, Mum, where she keeps heaps and heaps of things, Mum," cried out the eager little Hester with a profusion of curtseys.

The advertising or sales angle did not arise in promotion's usage until the 1920's.  1925 saw reference to a promotion scheme, which was apparently thought of as a distasteful means to increase sales, especially for the unwise: "The children had found some deceptive promotion scheme advertised in a cheap magazine."  In 1928 it was written in Publishers' Weekly that "Promotion cannot be done without waste... But the idea back of the new mergers is the idea of outlets, of promotion, of selling more goods."  By 1932, reference was being made by the same publication to "A free gift offer in a full page Book-of-the-Month Club promotion"  This usage appears again in Advertisers' Review in 1962: "Price-reductions were easily preferred to all other types of promotion... Other types of promotions considered effective were sample offers, banded offers and free gifts."  By 1980 Bookseller was saying, "The successful candidate... will have experience in organising direct mail promotions, preparing catalogues, leaflets and adverts, [etc.]."

Several other usages arose in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century.  These relate mostly to sports (boxing, [British] football, chess, and curling) with the notion of advancement being the principle meaning, though in boxing promotion refers to the organization of a particular match. All usages of the word point back to the "advancement" or metaphoric "moving forward" meaning.

Promotion came to English from French promotion, which derived from Latin promotionem, a noun of action from promovere "to move forward". Its components are pro- "forward" and movere "to move", so a promotion is a "forward movement". The Indo-European root of movere is meu- "to push away". Some of the English offspring of that root are mob, mobile, moment, momentous, momentum, motif, motion, motive, motor, move, movement, commotion, emotion, remote, and remove.

Pro- comes from the Indo-European root per- which has the basic meaning "forward", but also has numerous extended meanings which derive from that. However, in this case, Latin took the Indo-European root's basic meaning, which survived through French and into English in, among others, promotion.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Ben Milliron:

I've read that the term Indian, when used to describe those who inhabited the Americas prior to European settlement, actually arose from Columbus' description of the people he saw when he arrived.  He described these people using the Spanish term en Diós "in God" (or "people in God"), and the term was corrupted to Indians.  The reading states that Columbus never actually thought he was in the West Indies because the name India had not been applied to that region of the world yet.  Is any of this true?

As much as we love etymology, there's one thing we enjoy more and that's spurious etymology.  En Diós, indeed!  If Columbus thought so highly of the Caribbean natives, why did he tell Queen Isabel that they would make fine slaves?  He also accused them of cannibalism.  Some scholars believe that this was entirely fiction and that Columbus just made it up.  Why would the noble Italian navigator do such a thing?  Because the Pope had said that any race which practices cannibalism is not really human.  Obviously, if they're not human it's OK to enslave them.  So, far from being impressed with their divine qualities, Columbus was more interested in seizing them for sale.

The real reason they became known as Indians is that Columbus believed the world was about a fourth of its real size and he thought that he had arrived in the (East) Indies.  Forget those stories about how everyone thought that he would sail off the edge of the world.  Most educated Europeans knew that the world was spherical and they had a pretty good idea of its size, too.  They reasoned (correctly) that while one could travel to India by sailing West, it was much too far.  Where they went wrong was in assuming that it was ocean all the way.  They hadn't known was that there was a whole continent over there.

Columbus made several voyages to this New World but never actually made it as far as the mainland.  By the time he made his final voyage his crew was beginning to suspect that they weren't really in the Far East.  Just to prevent any dissent, Columbus had his ship's carpenter fix a gibbet to the taff-rail of his ship and told his men that anyone who suggested that they were not in India would be hanged.  Well, that's one way to settle questions of geography.

As to the use of the word India, it can be traced to the ancient Sanskrit word sindhu "river".  As a specific name, sindhu was applied to the river which we now call the Indus.  The ancient Persian language was closely related to Sanskrit (and as they are both Indo-European languages they are also related to English) but, as shown in our Indo-European consonant table, a continuant s in Sanskrit becomes an h in Old Persian.  So, while the Indians said sindhu, the Persians said hindu.   To the ancient Persians, the people who lived on the other side of the River Indus were hindu, a name which we still use for the religion of India.  So, hindu means across-the-Indus-people.  That's fine for the Persians, but what is the Indian name for IndiaBharata,  Why?  Sorry, that's a story for another day.  

By the way, we find exactly the same s-h relationship between Latin and Greek - the word for "seven" is septa in Latin but hepta in Greek.

The ancient Greeks knew about India.  Herodotus wrote about it and Alexander the Great almost invaded it.  They borrowed the Persian name, calling it hindia which became india in Latin.  A 6th century Christian writer called Paulus Orosius wrote a history of the world which, 400 years later, King Alfred the Great translated into (Old) English.  King Alf took the name of the country just as he found it in Latin and so introduced the word India into English in (approximately) 893 A.D., almost 600 years before Columbus set foot on Hispaniola.

From F. Arneborn:

The word deadbeat (meaning someone who is unwilling or unable to repay a debt) came up in conversation and I was curious how this word came to be. 

Before you asked this question, we honestly thought that this was a slang term of recent coinage.  However it turns out that it has been in use since at least the 1860s when it had exactly the same meaning as it does currently.  An earlier form was just beat.  One 19th century writer (J. D. Billings) helpfully explains that "The original idea of a beat was that of a lazy man or a shirk who would by hook or by crook get rid of all military or fatigue duty that he could".   Deadbeat is probably an extension of beat with dead being used to mean "thoroughly" or "precise", just as it is in dead certain and dead shot.

It is widely assumed that this meaning of beat is also the origin of the phrase the beat generation but Jack Kerouac, the inventor of the phrase, claimed to have derived it from beatitude.  This sounds a little fishy, however, and we suspect Jack of etymological revisionism.  By the late 1950s, members of the beat generation were being called a beatniks.  The origin of this word is obscure.  Some say that it is a hybrid of beat and the Russian word sputnik, the first man-made object in space, others that it is beat + the Yiddish diminutive -nik

From Tammy King:

Why is the word noodle sometimes used to refer to the brain or the head? 

Noodles.  Click to follow the link.One of the joys of answering your questions is that we get to research words we might never have analyzed otherwise.  And what a surprise!  We discovered that the noodle which means "head" is actually older than the noodle which means "one of those limp dough strips steeped in hot liquid".  In the form of noodle it has been around since at least 1753 whereas the edible kind of noodle dates only from about 1790.  It seems, however, that noodle (the head) comes from a much earlier word - noddle.  Originally, it meant just the very back of the head, anatomically the "occiput".  A Middle English text of 1425, reports that St. Elizabeth of Spalbeck used to smite herself "in the nodel of the hede byhynde". 

Various spellings occur in Middle English - nodyl, nodle, noddel, even nolle but that's as far back as anyone's managed to trace it.  There are no known related words in any language so noodle turns out to be a splendid old word with a mysterious past.

From Sarah:

I would like to know the origin of the word destiny and what it really means.

You're a very bad girl, Sarah, for asking us for the origin of destiny and implying that from the origin you'll get the "true meaning" of the word.  That's a frequent theme in letters from readers, but we simply must repeat that the "true meaning" of a word is not determined ultimately by its etymology, but by the universally understood current meaning of the word.  As for destiny, it has been around since the Middle Ages, first surfacing in the written record in the early 14th century or so. One of the earlier examples of its uses comes from Chaucer's The Knight's Tales of 1386: "If so be my destynee be shapen By eterne word to dyen in prisoun."  The current spelling first appeared in the middle of the 16th century but did not become firmly entrenched until the 18th century.  It came to English from Old French destinée, which derives from the past participle of Latin destinare "make firm, establish", created from de-, an intensifier, and a form of stare "stand".   One's destiny, therefore, is something  which has already been established and which one cannot change.

The Indo-European source of stare is sta- "to stand", and it has produced myriad progeny in the Indo-European languages, among them English stable "a place where horses stand", static "standing (not changing)",  and obstinate "to have a mind that is standing, i.e., to set one's mind on".

From Fred of Sweden:

I love your site.  I discovered it one afternoon and a week later had read most of the issues.  In Issue 10 you explained that the word toilet at one point meant "having a wash" and that the word in that sense came from the French toilette, a diminutive form of toile "cloth".  I am curious to know if perhaps the French word toile (pronounced "twal") might be related to the Swedish word for soap, tvål (pronounced somewhere between "twal" and "twol").

First of all, thank you for the kind words.  As regular readers will know, flattery is the fast-track toDegas' Lady and her Toilette getting your letter published on Take Our Word For It.  (For those of you who take the previous sentence too seriously, lighten up!)

As for the toilette issue, we doubt if French derived toile from Swedish.  Mostly because this would probably make it the only Swedish word borrowed by the French.  (Please correct us if we are wrong.)  We might be able to see a connection with soap if toile meant a wash-cloth but it was a large handkerchief on which a lady would lay out her make-up and... well... toiletries.

We cannot completely rule out a link between toile and tvål as our knowledge of Swedish is rudimentary at best.  Our guess is that, if such a link does exist, Swedish took tvål from French toile just as English took toilet from toilette.  But we don't like to make guesses, so we'll just have to turn the question over to a friend who is a knowledgeable Swedish etymologist.  Calling Birger Drake!   Calling Birger Drake!  What's the verdict?

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

Guest curmudgeon Sam Bankester is close to the edge

I think its time to just give up. Society is galloping hard in the direction of illiteracy like a bunch of crazed lemmings.  Latest in the group of "things that tick me off" is the blatant misuse of the words "close" and "closed".  All over the place I'm seeing signs such as, "We will be close on Saturday," or, "Bridge close for repair."  Man, this is irritating!  Its CLOSED, people!  CLOSED!  Please excuse me, I'm just venting.

Yes, something being "shut down" should have nothing to do with proximity.  You should carry a black marker with you and write the final D on such signs every chance you get!

Sez You...

From Oded Dagan:

Congratulations!  You have managed to become a normal, commercial, site, instead of the e-zine  we have enjoyed and loved.  So now I know where to buy books on etymology (surprise! Amazon!) - but where is "take our word"?  It was nice knowing you. Bye now.

We are sorry to have offended your delicate sensibilities.  We assume you also read only those newspapers which are published out of the kindness of the journalists' hearts and which carry no advertising.  Where do you find them, by the way?

Just for the record, our bookstore is not simply a portal to  All the books are selected by us as being sound and reliable textbooks which may be of interest to our readers.  We make very little revenue from their sale - certainly not enough to compensate us for all the hours we put into this site.

"Where is Take Our Word?", you ask.  Well, it's right here where it's always been except that we have now provided easier access to our book store.  We take your letter as an indication that this was a good move as it shows us that some people (such as you) had not discovered the book store unaided.

From Mark Schwarz:

I was very interested to read about the expression "Dutch wife" used to describe a bolster or pillow placed between the legs.  I had actually come across the phrase before, in Japan (where I live).  Here it is used to describe - um, how can I phrase this delicately? - an inflatable companion of simulated female gender.  Could there be a connection between the two meanings?  Anyway, thanks for a fascinating and informative site.

Tsk, tsk!  How dare you say such a thing in our presence?  We presume that when you say... excuse us... "gender" you really mean "sex".  "Gender" is a grammatical term and may only correctly applied to words.  Every human has a sex, some words have a gender.  Most languages which use genders like call  them to "masculine", "feminine", "neuter" and (sometimes) "common" but there are some languages in which the genders are "animate" and "inanimate". 

From Cody B.:

Issue 70's Curmudgeon's Corner reminds me of another mangling of the word voilà which I've seen quite a few times: Viola!  Ack!  Granted, at least all the letters are there in this case, with the exception of a little accent grave.  Still, though, I personally don't go screaming out the names of string instruments when I want to attract attention to something...

We entirely agree although there is an inveterate punster of our acquaintance who is apt to exclaim "Viola!" when taking his viola from its case.

From David G. Helm:

In Issue 80, you talked about various derogatory terms from other nationalities. There is also the term "welshing on a bet," that is, failing to pay a bet after you've lost. I assume the term was coined by the English.  I mention this because recently, our local paper mentioned in an editorial that a local horse racing hall had "welshed" on a bet because they failed to pay when their electronic betting machines didn't record the bet properly. I don't think they even thought of the term as derogatory to the Welsh.  They were corrected in their think by several letters to the editor, however.

We're glad to see that people are rushing to the defense of y hen wlad ("the old country") but the origin of "welshing on a bet" is very obscure and probably has nothing to do with Wales.  However, there is a derogatory nursery rhyme which is still current in England.  It goes...

Taffy was a Welshman.
Taffy was a thief.
Taffy came to my house
And stole a leg of beef.

The rhyme probably refers to the border forays in which the Welsh would raid Saxon settlements and steal their cattle.  This became such a problem that King Offa of Mercia built a wall (called "Offa's Dyke") to keep the Welsh out.  That was back when there were still wolves in England and they are still whining about their lost beef. 

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