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Issue 84   

May 1, 2000
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

blood-sucking parasites

Last weekend was glorious here in northern California and we went backpacking with a few friends.  After several hours of strenuous hill-climbing we arrived at our destination, an idyllic spot called Skeel's Meadow.  The meadow was carpeted with a profusion of wildflowers, the birds sang lustily and huge butterflies flitted hither and yon...  A veritable paradise you might say.

A heinous TICK!Imagine our dismay, therefore, when we awoke next morning to find ourselves hosts to several ticks.  Spiders which bite are bad enough but spiders which bury their little heads in your flesh so that they may drink your blood?  Yikes!  You might say we were ticked off.  We can assume that our ancestors were well aware of these little parasites as the word tick goes all the way back to Old English and its earliest recorded  use is from around 800.

Have you ever wondered why tight is used to mean "drunk"?  The fact that ticks become bloated with blood gave rise to the expression as tight as a tick, meaning "completely full".  This was especially used with regard to alcohol and, in time, tight as a tick became abbreviated to tight.

There are several other meanings of the word tick.  In America, one "checks" the appropriate box on a form; in England, one ticks it.  This derives from a completely different word and is related to various Germanic words for "to touch".  Cognates may be found in the children's game called "touch" which is also called tig (in parts of England) and tag (in America).

As one of the Old English spellings of tick was tyk, we wondered if the word tyke was related.  Well, it's not but we thought it interesting enough to include.  It means "a female dog" and comes from the Old Norse tik.  It seems a very long way from "Hew down yon heathen tykes" (Morte d'Arthur, c. 1400) to Faulkner's "That poor boy... the poor little tyke" (As I Lay Dying, 1930).

Well, boys and girls, can you name another bloodsucking parasite?  No, not the IRS...  We were thinking of the leech.  Leeches are parasitic worms which have long been used in medicine to removeWe missed this one on Mystery Science Theatre 2000... blood from the patient.  Why one would want to remove the patient's blood is not something we wish to discuss here but suffice it to say that it was once thought of as a good idea.  In fact, it was thought to be such a good idea that, often, doctors did very little else.  All we can say is that, when one's only tool is a hammer, all problems look like a nail.  Surprising as it may seem, leech (Old English læce) originally meant "doctor" or "physician" and medicine was called leechcraft.  Because of the prevalence of "bleeding", the parasitic worms they used to bleed patients also became known as leeches  This causes a little confusion when we encounter the term horse-leech.  It means both a large, river-borne, parasitic worm and a man skilled in curing the ailments of horses.

Before leaving this delightful topic, we cannot refrain from telling you about an obscure (and disgusting) medical procedure called bdellatomy.  (Yes, that is the right spelling)  You see, when the leech is full, it stops sucking blood.  Now this sounds all well and good but doctors of yore wanted as much of that nasty old blood extracted as possible.  They therefore devised bdellatomy.  This practice consists of slicing open the leech's stomach while it is still sucking so that it never gets full and never stops sucking blood.  Those leeches must be single-minded little suckers!  As much as we two like our food, we like to think that if someone started slicing open our stomachs it might make us pause between bites.

Obviously, when we say the place was lousy with policemen  we mean that it was "swarming with policemen" just as a body might swarm with lice.  Literally, lousy means infested with that other little blood-sucking pest, the louse, but what about the use of lousy to mean "bad, of poor quality"?  We had always assumed that was quite a modern (since Shakespeare) expression but no.  As early as 1386, Chaucer, in "The Friar's Tale", has a lowsy iogelour kan deceyue thee ("a lowsy juggler can deceive thee").

We have dealt previously with the flea but how about ukulele?  It is Hawaian for "jumping flea".

Just in case you didn't think bdellatomy was obscure enough, we offer the word phthirophagous "louse-eating".  Sometime over the next week, try to work that into a conversation with your boss.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Paul Parnell:

I seem to remember that the word ectoplasm was coined by a Nobel prize-winning physicist during the spiritualism craze, but I don't trust my memory.

The head of actress Monna Delza appearing as ectoplasm above medium Eva C's head (or so you are supposed to believe).  From about 1920.Gee, and we thought the word was invented for the movie Ghostbusters (just kidding).  Ectoplasm dates from the late 19th century in English.  Its earliest known use was by J. E. Ady to describe an amoeba: "[The amœba’s] jelly-like body becomes faintly parcelled out into an outer firm (ectoplasm) and an inner soft (endoplasm) layer."  That was in  1883.  However, a year earlier, we have a botanist using the term ectoplasmic, so it's not exactly clear which came first, the chicken (noun) or the egg (adjective).  Either way, the word is formed from two Greek parts: ecto- "outside" and plasma "something molded or formed".  We have the earliest meaning, above, and by 1901 ectoplasm was used to refer to "a viscous substance which is supposed to emanate from the body of a spiritualistic medium and to develop into a human form or face".  So there's your spiritual connection, Paul.  It appears that that usage was developed by F. W. H. Myers in his Human Personality.  Mr. Myers, incidentally, was a co-founder of the Society for Psychical Research (1882), which dealt with what we today might call the paranormal.  He was also a poet and critic.  He had apparently been obsessed, since childhood, with the notion of life after death.  Some other members of the Society included Ruskin, Tennyson and Gladstone!  One of the Society's most noteworthy acts was the debunking of Helena (call me "Madame") Blavatsky, who founded the Theosophical Society in 1875. 

From Catherine Pettigrew:

I was wondering how the spelling quay was generated.  I've found some etymological information on this but none points to any reason for this spelling. 

Before we begin, allow us to tell those who may not know that quay is pronounced "kee".  This word,Telford's Quay in the U.K. which means "shoreline artificially built up with stone (or later, cement) to facilitate loading and unloading of cargo from ships", was originally spelled more like it is pronounced.  Its earliest form (14th-15th centuries) was keye.  It derives from Old French kay, kai, cay, and a cognate is Spanish cayo "reef, shoal".  In the 18th century the keye spelling was altered to quay after the French form quai, but the pronunciation remained the same.  The modern words quay, cay (usually pronounced as it looks), and key (as in the Florida Keys) all derive ultimately from the same source: the Indo-European root *kagh- ("to catch", "to seize") with the further meaning of "barrier", referring to the same "reef, shoal" notion as the Spanish cayo.

From Carolyn Backe:

My husband and I, while watching The History Channel, were both curious regarding the root of the word heinous

"The band that played at the club tonight was heinous", a friend of ours might be heard saying.  She's using the word metaphorically, because what it actually means is "hateful, odious, wicked".  The earliest surviving example of it in English comes from Chaucer in his Troilus and Criseyde  in about 1374: "So heynous Þat men myghte on it spete" ("So heinous that men might spit upon it ").  It derives from Old French haïnos, an adjectival form of haine "hatred", from haïr "to hate".  That makes heinous a relative of English hate, for all of these words derive from the Indo-European root *kad- "sorrow, hatred". 

From Kristine:

Quirk used to refer to the extra material in a glove, at the base of each finger, which gave the wearer a better fit and more flexibility.  How did this evolve to mean "idiosyncrasy"?

Yes, quirk does apply to the diamond-shaped pieces sewn in between the fingers and palm of a glove (1688), but that is certainly not its earliest meaning, although it did apply to another piece of clothing, the stockings, in one of its earliest senses.  A quirk, also known as a clock, was "an ornamental pattern on the side of a stocking" (1547).  Earlier than that, though, etymologists believe that its original meaning was "a sudden twist or curve" that one might make in drawing or writing, such as a flourish.  It is thought that all other meanings flow from there, including "a verbal trick, subtlety, shift or evasion" (1565), "a clever or witty turn" (1599, first by Shakespeare), and, finally, "a peculiarity, an anomaly, a freak [of nature]" (1961).   Quirk's origin is not known, though there are cognates in other Western European languages, such as German quer "slanting".  That makes English queer (ultimately "not straight") another relative.

From J. Rennick:

I've looked everywhere and I cannot find the origins of the word churlish.  Are you able to help?

¡ Claro que sí !  To understand the etymology of churlish, we must look at churl.  This word, A real, live churl!  Oh, make that ceorl.which comes from Old English (ceorl), originally referred to "male human beings" in general.  However, by 1000, it had come to mean "the third and lowest rank of freemen".  Therefore, it tended to be associated with the less refined, and it eventually came to embody the exact opposite of such words as king and noble (that in the 14th century), because, after the Norman conquest, most of the Old English ceorlas became serfs.

Such less than noble connotations remained with the word, which by the 13th century was usually spelled cherl, so that today it is used to describe a rude, low-bred person.  Interestingly, it also has the meaning "miser", and the development of that meaning can be traced to the use of churlish to describe the Bible's Nabal in an English translation by Coverdale in the 15th century.

The words churl and churlish ultimately derive from a Germanic root, karlaz,  meaning "man".  That would make the names Charles and Carl, among others, relatives of churl, though the meanings of the former retained the "man" meaning while churl diverged quite a bit.  

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

Resident curmudgeon Barb Dwyer becomes embittered over some tasteless words.

A recent article in Scientific American announced the existence of a fifth type of taste bud, one that is sensitive to l-glutamine, a characteristic component of meat.  This got me thinking about the four other tastes and how they are confused.

Recently, on a television documentary I heard "All they had to drink was bitter brine".  Well, as you know, brine means salt water and salt water is... what?  Yes, you've got it... salty!  But what if it were very, very salty, wouldn't that be bitter?  No, dummy, it would be  very, very salty.

An advertisement for cider in an English magazine claimed that the advertiser did not use "bitter" little cider apples as the other manufacturers did.  Now, I love apples and I've eaten every conceivable variety of this fruit from Crab Apples to Cox's Orange Pippins and I've never once had a bitter apple.  Oh I had some that were so sour that they gave me the collywobbles but sourness is not bitterness.

Our sensations of taste all come down to chemistry.  The most chemically precise of our tastes is salt.  If something tastes salty then it must contain sodium chloride (table salt); nothing else will produce quite that taste.  The vaguest, on the other hand, is sweetness.  If something tastes sweet then all we can say is that it probably contains some kind of sugar.  There are many other compounds beside sugar which can evoke a similar taste.  There is even a plant (called Stevia rebaudiana) which contains a non-sugar compound (called stevioside) which is 300 times  sweeter than ordinary sugar. 

A sour taste is always produced by an acid.  Citric acid makes lemons, limes and grapefruit sour, lactic acid makes yogurt and sauerkraut tart and sauce tartare gets its bite from tartaric acid.  Vinegar, of course, is dilute acetic acid and takes its name from the Old French vyn egre "sharp wine".

Likewise, bitter tastes are always caused by an alkaloid.  Not alkali, mind you, alkaloid.  It is quite difficult to define alkaloids these days but the original definition was "any organic compound which contains nitrogen".  Very many medicinal compounds are alkaloids, such as quinine, aspirin, morphine and codeine.  The use of bitter alkaloids in medicine explains why Mary Poppins needed a spoonful of sugar to "help the medicine go down" but apples have no appreciable alkaloid content and there are certainly no alkaloids in brine.

There are alkaloids in Angostura Bitters, however.  Time for my "pink gin".

Sez You...

From Chandra McCann:

My first of two comments returns to the discussion of bunny and its history. Webster's English Dictionary states that bunny is derived from a Scottish dialect where bun refers to the tail of a rabbit, from Gaelic bun, meaning "bottom". Although I am sure your sources are more etymologically accurate, I thought it possible that this explanation might provide insight into the seemingly arbitrary choice of bunny to replace coney

Secondly, I would like to challenge your assertion that "Gender is a grammatical term and, strictly, may only apply to words". In modern socio-linguistic discourse, it is widely accepted that sex is used to refer to a person's physical state of being male or female, whereas gender refers to the attitudes and behaviour that a person adopts to present themselves as male or female, as a result of socialization.  I do agree, however, that in the letter you were responding to, the word sex would have been more appropriate.  As always, thank you for your endlessly entertaining site.

We are aware that some dictionaries provide this etymology for bunny.  Our chief quarrel with them is that, while we agree that the Scottish word for a rabbit's tail is bun, there is absolutely no evidence for bun becoming bunny.   Moreover, how often do we name an animal after a part of its anatomy?

As to "modern socio-linguistic discourse"...  We are of the opinion that what sociologists get up to in the privacy of their own colloquies is their own affair. 

From Jon Noble:

I found your magazine while searching for information on the origin of the names of the continents. That information in Issue 52 was great, but I must take issue with something else in that issue: the use of the term quantum leap.  Some years ago I saw a similar complaint on the misuse of the term quantum leap in a book on usage. I disagree with your argument. The point of a quantum leap is not its size (large or small) but the fact that it is a jump from one state to another without passing through any intermediate stages. This meaning is the original one that the term had from its introduction in quantum mechanics. Indeed that is the significance of the term in physics. Thus calling the transformation of a New Guinea native from stone age to post-industrial cultures a quantum leap is correct use of the term in a metaphor, as, perhaps, could be a significant medical breakthrough. Certainly the phrase you quote "This is not just a small, incremental step but a whole quantum leap." makes perfect sense from the point of view of quantum physics.

No it doesn't.  You seem to have missed the point somewhat when you state that a quantum leap is "a jump from one state to another without passing through any intermediate stages".  That would just be "a leap".  In the case of a quantum leap, there are no intermediate stages.  Your example of the New Guinea native would hold true only if there were no possible states between "stone age" and "post-industrial" and we know that this is not true.  What you describe is simply a leap, not a quantum leap.

A quantum is the smallest possible packet of energy.  For example, the electromagnetic quantum is the photon.  A quantum leap (or quantum jump) is a change of state caused by the absorption or emission of a single quantum of energy.  Thus, a quantum leap is not just a small, incremental step but the smallest possible incremental step.

From Ronald Shiftan.:

Are you certain that the game from which the term sticky wicket is derived is cricket, and not croquet? 

Yes.  Hence the expression batting on a sticky wicket.

Serious croquet, as opposed to the backyard version, employs heavy cast iron wickets, through which a ball must pass in order for a wicket point to be scored. A player who "stuffs" wickets (i.e., is prone to not having his ball clear the wicket) may blame his loss on a sticky wicket. 

Yes, Ronald, they may.  They may also blame it on sun in their eyes, too many pints at lunch or a passing flock of pigeons.

From Kelley:

Regarding Columbus calling the Native Americans Indians (Issue 83), I have heard different theories on this. Isn't it true that the country known as India today was in fact called Hindustan in 1492?  Also, what is the specific source of your information? Now that this has my attention I want to research it further.

Yes, it was called Hindustan.  We explained the origin of Hindu and India last week.  Hindustan is just a way of saying Hindu-land.  Similarly, Afghanistan is "the land of the Afghani", Uzbekistan is "the land of the Uzbeks" and Kafiristan was "the land of the unbelievers".  By the way, in India and Pakistan, England is sometimes called Ingelstan.

Our sources for last week's Spotlight included the Oxford English Dictionary (the 20 volume 2nd edition), Chambers Encyclopedia and "The Histories" by Herodotus, among others.

From Dean Jens:

In the last issue, you seem to have stopped halfway; if noodle originally meant "head", how did it come to refer to food?

Incidentally, while I haven't seen any bridges that were close lately, I have seen signs for bottle water, and others announcing a policy of "first come, first serve".

We didn't want to let the whole cat out of the bag at once - check this week's newsletter for our discussion of noodle "pasta".  We now provide sneak-preview etymologies in the newsletter, and they are published here a few weeks later.  As for those charming foibles you noted, you seemed to have missed the most prevalent: ice water.  Maybe you should carry a black marker around with you, too, and be prepared to write in a few d's.

From Olivia Robinson:

The rhyme you quoted in Sez You [last] week is truly a charming one, but one which I haven't heard of despite being English and having lived here all my life! Wales (historically) was always considered a backwater for the English, but now has its own Assembly (much like parliament in England) and South Wales is now a thriving business area. I don't think we can justify any derogatory terms about our Welsh counterparts any more... Well done on the site, though - keep it up!

You are clearly a free-thinking, rational person, but it is amazing how slow-to-die racial enmity can be.  Perhaps that between England and Wales as countries has become more mild this century, but there is certainly still some lingering animosity between individuals and small groups.  

From Lieutenant of Angband:

In Issue 81, you comment that Odin was the Norse god of the sky.  Is this correct? I have always understood that Tew was the god of the sky, while Odin was the god of war, poetry, wisdom, and some other things that don't seem to match well (war and wisdom?).  Just curious.

Yes, Tiw (or Tew) was originally a sky-god and his name is cognate with Latin deus "god", Greek Zeus (their sky-god), Welsh diw "god" and Sanskrit deva "god".  All these words are thought to derive from an Indo-European root meaning "shining".  The Roman god Jupiter is also related as his name is a form of dio pitar "father god".

At some point in the pre-history of the Germanic races, Odin (a.k.a. Oden, a.k.a. Woden) became the sky-god and Tiw became the war-god.  The reasons for this exchange of roles remains obscure. 

From Greg Umberson:

I've been interested in etymology since I was a child, constantly bothering my parents with questions of why we use words in different ways or why a certain group of sounds in one language can mean something quite different from the same sounds in another language. I am also a Dallas native, like Melanie, and come from several generations of Texans. I had the opportunity to move to Stockholm, Sweden, a bit more than 4 years ago. Although I haven't lived in Texas in about 16 years I still make it back every year or so to visit relatives and revive my Texas accent which has mostly been replaced by a Swedish, or Swenglish, one. 

This brings me to the question from "Fred in Sweden" in the "Words to the Wise" department in Issue 83. He asked if there might be some connection between the French toile, as in toilet, and the Swedish word for soap, tvål. Just in case Birger Drake hasn't had the opportunity to answer this for you, I thought I might contribute something (in addition to the well-deserved flattery). You were correct in that there appears to be no connection between the French and the Swedish word. The Swedish word tvål, Old Swedish thval, formed from Old Swedish thva, which was a common Germanic word meaning "to wash". The modern Swedish word for "to wash" is tvätta, which is also formed from thva. Other cognates include Gothic thwahan", Old Norse thva, Old High German dwahan and Old English thwean. The Old English thwean was used for washing parts of the body and dishes, whereas the Old English waescan (Modern English "wash") was used for washing clothes. Swedish still has a cognate for "wash", and that is vaska. It also means "to wash", but mostly in narrower contexts like washing gold, i.e. panning for gold, and washing fish. It's also interesting to note that Swedish tvål means English "soap", but more in the sense of bar soap. When talking about soft soap they use the word såpa which probably comes into Swedish from the Old English sape

Finally, I suspect you're probably right when you doubt that the French derived toile from Swedish since it "would probably make it the only Swedish word borrowed by the French." I doubt that Swedish has donated many words to French since the days the "North Men" gave their name, and many words, to "Norman" French. However, I'll try to investigate to see if there are any examples from modern "Swedish" into French. The most obvious examples that come to mind of modern loan words from Swedish into English are smörgåsbord, ombudsman and moped (I was certainly surprised to learn that "moped" was a Swedish word).

Well, bless your heart and hi, y'all!  Thank you very much for that well-written exegesis on the toilette/tvål issue.

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