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Issue 85   

May 8, 2000
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Spotlight Words on our minds this week.
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This week Mike is on a diet that forbids him beer.  It does not, however, prevent him from researching every conceivable word with a cerevisial (beery) connection.

Click to visit the site of several very tasty beers.Beer, in one form or another, has been in our language since Anglo-Saxon times.  The passage in Luke's Gospel which the King James Bible renders as "For he shall... drink neither wine nor strong drink", was translated by Anglo-Saxon monks as "He ne drinkth win ne beor" (The Lindisfarne Gospels, c. 1100 A.D.)  Although all the Germanic languages have words cognate with beer, we cannot say with any certainty where these words came from.  Scholars have suggested various origins including the Old Teutonic words *breuro- "to brew" or *beuwz- "barley".  We must say that we find the latter explanation appealing merely because of its resemblance to booze.  

Many readers might imagine that booze is a fairly recent slang word.  Not so.  It is recorded in Middle English, as long ago as 1300, in a complaint regarding the intemperate habits of the clergy:  "Hail ye holi monkes... depe cun ye bouse" (i.e. "Hail you holy monks.  Deep can you booze.").

The casks used to hold beer have fascinating names.  A firkin is a quarter of a barrel and firkin is an English form of Middle Dutch vierdekijn (diminutive of vierde, "fourth").  Two firkins make one kilderkin and the word kilderkin is, apparently, related to kintal (or quintal) which is another name for the traditional English measure called a hundredweight (112 pounds - don't ask!) and kintal, believe it or not, comes from the Arabic word qintar.  While we're on the subject of -kins, a bumpkin (country or otherwise) is a short, fat fellow (from Dutch boomekijn "small barrel").  A flagon is a large bottle, often used for beer.  The word comes from Medieval Latin flascon (via Old French flacon), the same source as the Italian fiasco which, literally, means "bottle". 

Nowadays, the word ale is reserved for paler beers in which the malt has not been roasted but in earlier times it was synonymous with beer, though a Norse text says that "it is called ale (literally, l) among men but beer (bjrr) among the gods."

A jingle common in the 17th century said:

Turkeys, carps, hops, piccadel, and beer, 
Came into England all in one year.

Now, as beer had long been a staple of the English diet, we can only assume that the beer mentionedNo, they're not baby pine cones, they're hops!  Click to visit here was hop-flavored ale.  If this is so, then the year must have been between 1520 and 1524 when hops (Humulus lupulus) was introduced into the south of England from Flanders.  The botanical name for hops comes from its old German name, humela, plus lupulus meaning "little wolf".  This latter may seem a little odd but it is based on willow-wolf, an old folk name for the plant which derives from hops' habit of climbing and covering (i.e. devouring) willow trees. 

One fact often overlooked by beer-drinkers is that hops is a member of the Cannabinae family and a close relative of Cannabis indica, otherwise known as marijuana.  One feature which these two species have in common is that, unlike most flowering plants, they are dioecious.  That is to say, the male and female flowers are carried on separate plants.  The female hops plant which is used in brewing, just as the female marijuana plant is the one chosen for smoking. 

Before hops, various other herbs were used to produce the bitter taste.  The most prominent of these was alecost (Balsamita vulgaris) which was also known as costmary.  This member of the daisy family is closely related to tansy, a rich source of thujone alkaloids.  It is quite possible, therefore, that medieval English beer had a kick rather like that of the notorious absinthe which was flavored with wormwood (Artemisia absinthum).  The herb called wormwood has nothing to do with either worms or wood, it is just a corruption of its Old English name, wermod.  The German equivalent is Wermut, which passed into French as vermout.  Needless to say, wormwood is one (among many) of the herbs which flavor vermouth.

That which we usually call lager is more correctly called lager beer.  Literally, this means a beer which is intended for storage, as the German word lager means "a store".  Pilsner is a beer which was originally brewed in the town of Pilsen, now in the Czech Republic.  Porter is beer that was made for, or deemed appropriate for, porters - people who were employed to carry heavy loads (from French porter "to carry").  Stout was a slang word and originally implied a beer that was strong and full-bodied (rather like a stout gentleman).  Small beer is not often drunk these days but was common in Shakespeare's time.  It is very low in alcohol (hence "small") and the term small beer was often used figuratively to mean "trivia".  Thus, when Shakespeare (in Othello) said "to... chronicle small beere" he meant "to take account of trivial matters".   That's like studying etymology, we suppose.

The essential ingredient in brewing is some form of yeast, known traditionally as barm.  During the process of fermentation this forms a frothy scum on top of the wort (fermenting liquor).  By analogy, someone who was a little... er... frothy in the head was said to be barmy.  They might even be called a barmpot.  Eventually, when the beer has been left to stand for long enough, it becomes stale (from the Teutonic root *sta- "to stand").  We now consider this to mean unfit for consumption but originally it meant the opposite.  It specifically referred to beer which had become clear of barm.  Eventually, though, it came to used to indicate something which had stood around too long.

Hey, it has just occurred to us that if brewers need to help their yeast along a little they could employ barm-aids.  Wait, come back, there's more...

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Jim:

I am looking for the origin of the word nag: "to bother or annoy by repeatedly urging scolding, carping, etc."

Nag the verb entered English as a dialectical word in the south of England.  By the early 19th century it had taken on its current meaning, which you have so kindly provided.  It is thought to come from a Scandinavian source, for Norwegian and Swedish have nagga "to gnaw, bite, nibble; to irritate".  The English and Scandinavian words go back to the Indo-European root *ghen- "to gnaw", making gnaw and nosh related to nag.  Thus, a "nagging pain" is one which seems to gnaw at one and it is from this sense that the modern verb to nag derives.

Nag "a small horse" is not thought to be related, even though its origin is not really known.  However, Ernest Weekley suggests that it may derive from German nickel, a diminutive form of Nikolaus, used to refer to a small man or horse.  Only recently has nag become inseparable from the modifier old, such that nag now conjures images of an old, broken down horse.

From Brian R. Snell:

The phrase bill of lading is frequently used in shipping and trucking.  Can you tell me where lading comes from?

Good ol' Bill of Lading, we knew him well!  Actually, the lading in that phrase is not a place name, but it is instead the present participle of the verb to lade.  Surely you have used a ladle, or perhaps you have been heavily laden, say, with a backpack.  Just as a ladle (Old English) carries water and if you are laden you are carrying something heavy, a bill of lading is a list of what a vessel, originally a ship, but now a tractor-trailer (or articulated lorry, for our British English speaking readers) is carrying, or laden with.  In Old English it was hladen, and the Indo-European root is kla- or klat- "to spread out flat" (as one would do when loading a ship, distributing the weight evenly).  This would make ballast (16th century) a related word, coming from the same root.  Oddly, the ladle words deriving from the Indo-European root are peculiarly English.

From Joanna Felder:

I was wondering what the origin of the word cobbler (as in the fruit dessert) is. 

Looks like a cobbled road to us!  Click for a cobbler recipe.You might know that, in addition to being a dessert, a cobbler is also a shoemaker, and then there are cobblestones, used to pave streets and walkways.  So what does a pie-like dish have to do with shoes or stones?  Well, it's actually the latter to which the pie is related, or so some etymologists think.  Cobbler is made with fruit and chunks of dough, sort of a lazy-man's pie, and those chunks of dough, forming the top crust of the dessert, might be see to resemble the rounded surface of a cobbled road.  If that is the case, then cobbler and cobblestones are related, deriving from the word cob "rounded lump".  Interestingly, there is a dish in the western part of England called apple cobs, which consists of apples wrapped in dough and baked.  That's not so far from the American cobbler.

The word cob has several general senses, which may or may not derive from the same ultimate source.  In addition to "rounded lump", cob can refer to "something big or stout" and "a head or top".  Some etymologists actually see all of those meanings as not so far removed from one another, and they suggest that cob originally referred to "a head or top" and that the other meanings derive from that.  Oddly, the earliest occurrence of the word dates only from the 15th century with the meaning "a big man". 

By the way, cobbler "shoemaker" is not thought to be related to these other words.  It dates from the 14th century and its origin is obscure.  The British expression cobblers meaning "nonsense" derives from cobblers' awls, Cockney rhyming slang for "balls" (testicles).

From Mike Lenahan

Regarding your Spotlight on bloodsuckers last week: when our daughter came home from school with a lousy infestation of head lice, my wife and I discovered firsthand where the phrase nit picking came from.  But where did nit come from?

Nit "louse egg" is a very old word in English.  It was originally hnitu (from at least 825), and thereA touchingly beautiful NIT!  Follow the link for even more disgusting images. are cognates in Old Norse (gnit), Russian and Polish (gnida), Czech (knida), and Greek (konid).  We can assume that the word is old and widespread because man has had to deal with lice and lice eggs for a very, very long time.

No doubt, part of the process of ridding your daughters head of lice involved combing her hair with that old anti-louse device the fine-toothed comb.  Why is it it that we usually see this written as fine tooth-comb?  That would be a classy device for combing one's teeth.

We are amazed that none of our nit-picking readers noticed the major gaffe in last week's Spotlight.  We included lice among the "blood-sucking parasites".  These little perishers do not, of course, suck blood.  They prefer to eat hair and scurf.

From Paula O'Buckley:

I've looked at a few online dictionaries, which provide definitions, but not word origins.  I'd just like to know where jingoist and related words come from.

Oooh, goody, this is an especially fun one.  Jingoism might sound like the name of a German jazz guitarist of the 40s or something one sings along with in a TV ad, but it actually derives from the expression by Jingo!  It is thought to be a euphemism for by Jesus, and one of the phrase's earliest appearances has it as a translation for the French par Dieu "by God".  It has been suggested that it might actually derive from Basque for "God", Jinko or Jainko.  There is also a Shinto war-goddess called Jingo but we fear that, however well that might fit the words usage, it is just a little too obscure.

Whatever that word's origin, it had caught on by 1878 such that it was used in a music hall song written by G.W. Hunt about British foreign policy at the time.  It seems that there was a faction of the government that wanted to send a fleet of naval ships to meet the Russians in the waters off Turkey.  The song's refrain was 

We don't want to fight, yet by Jingo! if we do, 
We've got the ships, we've got the men, and got the money too.

Those bullyish politicians figuratively came to be known as Jingoes, and soon anyone taking a bellicose approach to foreign relations was labeled thus.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

Guest curmudgeon Charles Reynolds gets to the epicenter of a problem

Regarding scientific terms that get used and misused in the general language (light year, quantum leap), consider epicenter, a fashionable word often heard lately on radio and television news programs.

First, one commentator referred to Wall Street as the epicenter of global financial markets. Wouldn't the word center have worked as well and been less pretentious? Of course - but, at least, Wall Street is located at the surface of the earth as the term epicenter requires.

More obnoxious is hearing Ted Koppel, in reporting on an earthquake - an earthquake, mind you - declare that the epicenter was not really at, say, Northridge, but actually some six miles beneath that point, deep within the earth's crust.  Here, too, the word center could have been used and would have been correct.  The epicenter, by definition, is never beneath the earth's surface.

We agree.  While the correct scientific term for the actual, subterranean center of an earthquake is hypocenter, Ted Koppel et al. should have just said "center". 

Sez You...

From John Burgess:

While most reluctant to quibble with the erudition shown on this site, I do wonder about your comments concerning "brine."   Clearly, the principal meaning of the word is "salt water," though the implication is of a very salty solution.  But it is not limited to salt (HCl) in all circumstances.  The water from Mono Lake, CA, for instance, is very salty, but also contains a witch's brew of other, alkaloid minerals.  Similarly, the waters from the Dead Sea are a mixture of far more than salt.  Both waters are very bitter.  Both waters are called "brine," probably for the lack of a more precise term - though I do recall "alkali springs" from Western films.  Might it not be that "brine" has a more general meaning, i.e., "saturated with mineral salts"? Keep up the truly great work!

We would certainly agree that most naturally occurring brine has more than common salt dissolved in it.  Common salt, however, is NaCl.  HCl is hydrochloric acid which tastes extremely sour and not at all salty (don't try this at home, kids).

As to Mono Lake containing alkaloids, John, we suggest that you re-read last week's column.  Barb was careful to distinguish between alkalis and alkaloids.  Mono is alkaline but it is not alkaloidal.  Moreover, we have been to Mono and, more to the point, tasted it.  It is certainly salty but not at all bitter.  If you are still unclear about what bitter means try tasting quinine.

From Tim Duduit:

Having grown up in Ohio where there are seemingly an infinite variety of crabapple trees, I can personally testify that there are some that DO taste bitter, not sour! No matter what chemicals they contain, they cause the same taste sensation as other bitter substances. Although brine usually refers to salt water, any good geologist (and I am one) knows that there are other substances besides calcium chloride that can be dissolved in water that issues from hot springs. These substances do not always taste salty but can taste bitter. The interesting thing that struck me while reading this is that 90 percent of taste is actually smell.  Can something smell bitter?

We'll have to take your word for it that you are a good geologist, Tim ;-).  As we have not tasted every single crabapple, we must concede that it is possible for one to be bitter.  After all, alkaloids are organic salts and could conceivably be made by an apple.  We would also agree that many other substances besides calcium chloride (CaCL) may be dissolved in the water of hot springs.  However, Barb was talking about brine, which is a concentrated solution of sodium chloride (NaCl).

We have to disagree about 90% of taste being smell.  Exactly 0% of taste is smell, while smell accounts for 100% of flavor.  So, no, there is no such thing as a bitter smell.  If you are still unclear, try this - make a very strong cup of espresso then drink it while holding your nose.  You will taste the bitterness of caffeine (an alkaloid) but will not experience the characteristic flavor of coffee.  That is because coffee is a flavor while bitterness is a taste.

From Joshua Daniels:

Today, in Modern German, "kerl" (pronounced "cairl")has the same meaning Americans give the word, "guy" which I just read about in an archived column. (See the discussion of churl's etymology in last week's issue.)


From S.T. Parkes:

I can see why "ice water" is so upsetting - in the case referred to, it's obviously a product of sloppy use of English. But is it not also allowable in English? I'm thinking of Dickens' "tar water" - water with underground tar in it, used as a medicine; ice water would thus be water with ice in it.  I wonder if these missing Ds are being reborn as unnecessary apostrophes somewhere?

"Tar water" was an extract of tar made by boiling it in water. ("Ach y fi!" says Mike)  Would ice water be an extract of ice made by boiling it in water?  Water can be iced but not exactly tarred, and certainly not lemoned, but you can very well have lemon water.  We have two different mechanisms here.

That's an interesting thought about the reincarnation of Ds...  See also Martha Saylor's comments, below.

From Michael:

A chance for revenge: A local shoe store has a shoe-covered display table with a sign encouraging you to "Damage Stock!"  No indication of whether customers may bring their own stock damaging implements.


From David Teager:

Please allow another scientist to check in on "quantum leap." While you are quite correct that a quantum is the smallest increment of energy between two states, it does not follow that the only possible leap is between one quantum level and the next highest.  Indeed, various laws of conservation may require that an initial change of energy be a leap of several quanta (perhaps two or three).  For instance, many photochemical reactions begin with an excitation to an energy two levels higher than the "ground state," followed by a decay to a level one up from ground state, followed by a more traditional chemical reaction. The first excitation is, of course, a quantum leap, as no intermediate levels in energy can be DETECTED (for this system).

So if a Maori who has never used a beast of burden starts driving a pickup truck, I'd think I could call that a quantum leap. (I probably wouldn't, though, as I feel the phrase is terribly over-used even when it is properly used).

Thanks again for the site.  I feel strongly that one can never learn too much about one's language.

From Michael Naray:

Sorry to revive an old point, but I've been on holiday for a few weeks and this is my first chance in a while to catch up with your newsletter.

As a physics graduate, I just wanted to point out that nobody I know who has actually studied any quantum mechanics uses the term "quantum leap" to describe a change in energy level of an electron. The term used "in the industry" is "quantum transition", and refers to a change in energy of any particle, not just electrons.  In fact, the only time I heard  "quantum leap" used was in parody of those we referred to as "civilians", i.e.; anyone not studying physics. ;)  Your site was well worth coming back to. Please keep up the good work!

Thanks for the input, chaps, but we don't think that Barb Dwyer ever said that "the only possible leap is between one quantum level and the next highest".  

It is interesting that you emphasize the detectability of energy states, David.  According to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, only that which is detectable is real.  Therefore, though it may seem nonsensical to us, a particle cannot have both position and momentum at the same time.  We asked Barb about this and she poured scorn on the Copenhagen interpretation.  She says she prefers the Everett, Wheeler, Wilcox model.

But let's get back to the macroscopic side of the decoherence boundary and do some etymology.

From Martha Saylor:

You touched a nerve with me on the discussion of the missing "d" at the ends of words (e.g. "ice tea"). I would like to submit the ubiquitous unnecessary apostrophe. Ever seen signs advertising "donut's," "potato's," or "carrot's"? I have often wondered just what it was that belonged to the foodstuffs in question. Also, one things that really gets under my skin is when I see a product packaging, proudly displaying "Made in the U.S.A." next to all its grammatical errors.  I received a diaper pail as a baby shower gift. On the side one reads in part:

Deodorizing compartment with locking tabs.
Odor-less, soiled diaper compartment.
Easy to use:
1. Press button to release lid locking mechanism.
2. Place soiled diaper in odor-less compartment and close lid.
3. Diaper and odors disappear and are ready for the next use!

Besides all the other glaring errors in there, I would like to comment that I have never known a mother who was eager to reuse the diapers and odors she just got out of her life. 

Nobody ever gives us neat stuff like diaper pails!  One thing that puzzled us about the pail instructions: how does one reuse things that have disappeared, anyhow?  Does this pail come with a St. Anthony shrine?

From Graham:

Having just read your response to Chandra McCann's comments on the Gaelic word for scut I could not help but think of some animals which are named after parts of their anatomy.  From the world of birds we have the spoonbill, crossbill, lapwing, redshank and greenshank. I imagine that there are many more instances of descriptive nomenclature, but these sprang immediately to mind.  The insect world I refuse to consider, as I moments ago released a cockchafer that had become trapped indoors.  As far as mammals go, I am trying not to think of warthogs.

Obligatory Praise Section :-  Your site keeps on improving in both quantity and quality and I look forward to a new session of amusement, enlightenment and education every week.

From ElAgay:

I will just take this opportunity to tell you how wonderful your site is, technical difficulties, language anarchists, and all. I just discovered it, and I hope to continue enjoying it for a long time.

Thanks very m


- the language anarchists.

uch, ElAgay!

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