Melanie & Mike say...

 Tow.jpg (63573 bytes)

      the only Weekly Word-origin Webzine

Issue 88   

May 30, 2000
Search Home FAQ Links Site map Book Store


New Ask Us Theory About
Spotlight Words on our minds this week.
Words to the Wise Our world-famous question and answer column.
curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner Gripes and grumbles from whining pedants Barb Dwyer and Malcolm Tent.
Sez You . . . Wherein we graciously permit challenges to  our profound erudition.
HH01580A.gif (1311 bytes) Mailing list Weekly previews of the Latest Edition, plus notification of other changes to the site.



What's new?

Interested in sponsoring this site, advertising here or making a donation to keep the site running?

spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

a little knowledge

Those who know Mike know that he plays the bagpipes.  Not those monstrous Highland instruments of torture [hey, watch it! says Melanie, who likes the GHBs (Great Highland Bagpipes)] but the polite, sweet-toned Northumbrian small-pipes.  It was while perusing a book of pipe tunes recently that we came across a tune called "The Piper's Weird".  On the face of it one might assume this to be synonymous with "The Bagpipe-player Is A Little Strange" but this turns out not to be the case.  (Well, it certainly is the case with some of our piping friends but that's beside the point.)

The Weird Sisters today (!).  Click to learn more.Weird originally meant "fate, destiny".  Thus, "The Piper's Weird" translates to "The Fate of the Piper".  It comes from Old English wyrd, from Proto-Germanic*wurdis, the etymological sense of which was "that which comes about".  By 1400 it had taken the form which we recognize today and was being used as an adjective, but it still retained the sense of "fate", for it meant "having the power to control the fate of men".  This is the source of the weird sisters in Macbeth.   It was not until the early 19th century that weird came to mean "uncanny", mostly by remote Shakespearean influence.

Speaking of uncanny, this is the negative form of canny, a word which, these days, is seldom heard outside of northern Britain.  In Northumberland it can mean anything from "clever" to "beautiful" with many more nuances in between but originally it meant "knowing".  So uncanny literally means "unknowable".  In the 18th century, one of the meanings of canny was "supernaturally wise" or "endowed with magical powers" so, in a sense, it meant the same as uncanny.  Also, someone possessed of uncanny powers was seldom called a wizard or a witch but more often was referred to as a cunning man or a cunning woman.  Here, cunning means simply "knowing", just like canny.  Shakespeare gives an excellent example of its use in Henry VI where he says "A cunning man did calculate my birth, and told me that by water I should die".

A related word is the verb to con.  Not the modern abbreviation of confidence trick, this con means "to study" and derives from Old English cunnian "to know".  Another close relation is the verb to ken, as in "D'ye ken John Peel in his coat so gay?" and "beyond our ken" (i.e. beyond our knowledge).  Again, this is merely another form of know.  Notice the kn in know; it corresponds to the c-n in canny and cunning and to the k-n in ken.  It also relates to the gn- in the Greek word gnosis, "knowledge", the Russian zn- of znat "to know" and, even further afield, to the jñ- in Sanskrit jñana, "knowledge".

One curiosity in this group is the verb can, as in "I can tie my own shoelaces".  It is a so-called "defective" verb and has no true infinitive form.  That is we do not say to can (unless we are speaking of tomatoes).  The past form is could with a silent l.  So, why the l? ("Why the l not" we hear you say.) Actually, the original form was cude, the l being inserted erroneously around 1525, apparently in imitation of would and should.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Zero Piraeus:

What's the origin of chat?

Chat first appears in the written record in the mid-15th century with the meaning "to talk idly" and arose as an abbreviation of chatter.    It was not until about a century later that it acquired the sense of "talk in a light or informal manner".Not your run of the mill chat site!  Click to visit.  It's amazing what the Web is offering these days.

Chatter, interestingly, is onomatopoeic.  It originally referred to the rapid twittering of birds, including sparrows and swallows, but over time it came to refer more to those birds whose vocalizations sound human-like, such as magpies.  While the word was originally imitative of birds, when we say that a magpie is chattering today, we mean that he is making sounds like a human.

Dutch has similar words in koeteren "jabber" and kwetteren "chatter".

Read about other words in our bookstore.

From Deborah Neal:

The word mall is used to denote shopping centers and grassy park-like areas where people gather and walk around. My question is 'What makes a place a mall rather than a park or shopping center. Are certain features required in order for the place to be called a mall?'

Some time ago we heard a stand-up comic quip that malls are so-called because we get mauled there. Believe it or not, there really is a connection between these two words. Any sculptors, miners or ship-builders among our readers will know that a maul is a kind of hammer.  It comes from the Latin malleus which also gave us mallet.  History buffs will remember that Edward I of England was known as Malleus Scotorum, "the hammer of the Scots" and a famous book of the witch-hunters was Malleus Maleficarum, "the hammer of the evil-doers".  

In the 16th century an Italian game called pallamaglio was introduced to England.  In Italian, palla is a variant of balla, "ball" and maglio (from malleus) means "hammer". The game, which in English was known as pall-mall, consisted of hitting a wooden ball along a narrow lane and through an iron hoop with (you guessed it) a mall.  Well, it was called a mall but just as a golf club is not the heavy-lump-of-wood kind of club, this "mall" was rather more delicate than the sledge-hammer which its name suggests. 

Many cities set aside areas in which pall-mall was played.  London has two, one called Pall Mall and the other called The Mall. The latter, a tree-lined walk in St. James' Park, became a popular and fashionable place to promenade in the 17th century. By association, the name mall became transferred to any sheltered promenade and by the 1960s it had come to mean a sheltered shopping area.

What qualifies as a mall today?  You'll have to consult an up-to-date, well-known dictionary for that one (also see Sez You...).

Find the origin of these and other words in our bookstore.

From Vladimir Ryabinin:

Is there a direct link between words slavery and Slavic, or does slavery have another origin? What could it be, please? 

There is indeed a well-documented link between slave and Slav.  English didn't acquire the word until the Middle Ages, from French esclave, but the word slave had been around, in one form or another, since at least the 9th century.  It does refer back to a time when the Slavs were conquered by Germanic tribes and made servile.  The word in the form of an ethnic name first appears in Slavic as Sloveninu, and the Greeks picked it up in the Byzantine era as Sklábos.   Medieval Latin took the word as Sclavus, which soon became sclavus "slave", after the many Slavic slaves about Europe; they were apparently found as far west as Moslem Spain.  The Romance languages borrowed the word from Latin, and that is how Old French came to have the word that it donated to Medieval English.  In its earliest English form, it was sclave, but the c was soon lost, a not uncommon event in such words in English.  The origin of the Slavic word is not known other than it was the name of a group of Slavic people for themselves.

The Old English word for slave was thrall, which survives today most commonly in the form enthrall, though thrall is occasionally encountered ("I was held in thrall")Thrall in Old English was thræll, coming from a Germanic source which ultimately meant "runner".

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

Barb Dwyer is at it again...  

As a current television commercial says, children don't come with a set of instructions.  So, when a young mother is struggling to raise her child it helps if she had a good mother herself.  If she did, then she may use her own mother as a model to imitate when performing this role.  In this case, her mother becomes a role model.  

Of course, the term also applies to disciplines other than parenting.  A student doctor might draw upon his acquaintance with a fine physician and an aspiring sportswoman might model herself on a famous athlete.  Is this hard to understand?  I think not.

So why is it that I hear so many people using role model (which, incidentally, dates from 1957) to mean "hero"?  In a recent a radio interview, I heard an inhabitant of Miami say "Elián Gonzalez, he's my role model".  But what role would he be a model for?  Is the speaker aspiring to be an abducted castaway?

Sez You...

From Odedagan:

Re azazel - the Even Shoshan Dictionary of the Hebrew Language (the classic and most detailed dictionary) admits that the etymology of the word is not clear. It suggests that it may be the combination of two words: Ez (goat) and Azal (went away). A second source is the Accadian word Azlu, a type of wild goat.  By the way, in colloquial Hebrew the word Azazel is used as a swear-word - lech la Azazel means "go to hell".

From Judith:

About Azazel: you are right (of course) about this word originating from Leviticus. But in another verse it is also said: "A goat for Azazel".  Azazel is connected to the Hebrew word EZ (with the letter "ayin", like azazel) which means "goat", but it is considered a valley near Jerusalem.  Today in Hebrew there is an expression "go to azazel" meaning just "go to hell".

Thanks, we'll file that one away for future use. 

From Harry B. Mallin:

I understood that "ollie ollie oxen free" was a kid-translated phrase from: all the, all the "outs" in free, as in, all people that have not been tagged yet (e.g. who are still "out") may come in without fear of being tagged, and ending up as "it". 

P'raps.  However, the oxen part occurs in its English forms as well as the American versions so we feel it has some considerable age to it.
From John Burgess:

I greatly enjoyed your stroll down the etymological paths of mall [in our preview newsletter last week (subscribe here); this week it's in Words to the Wise].  I'm wondering, though, if there is a sense of length or rectangularity attached to mall (in the "large grassy area" meaning), or if any shape or size is included. The Mall at St. James's Park, as well as the Mall in Washington, D.C., are both long and rectangular.  Is this a requirement or merely a coincidence?  Thanks for the weekly jolt of humor and erudition!

Any true mall should be long and narrow as this was the shape of the field on which pall-mall was played, though the term is used more loosely today.

From Bob Rodriguez:

Love the site. I thought it interesting that the word morgen in Dutch means "tomorrow" as well as "morning".  I thought I would point out that mañana in Spanish, which surely is unconnected to morgen, also means both "morning" and "tomorrow".

Ah, yes.  Thanks!

From Young:

Before anything else, I want to tell you that English is not my native tongue. So please don't find fault with my English. But I know something about Japanese.  In Issue 86, when you discussed the words with Japanese origin, you mentioned karate and karaoke each meaning "empty hand" and "empty song".  In my opinion (I speak Japanese.), "empty-handed" will be more proper for the interpretation of karate, which has a tacit meaning of "without any weapon or unarmed". For karaoke, I don't agree with you, either. The word kara in Japanese has more than one meaning, such as "empty", "without any burden", or "fake". And karaoke  comes from kara orchestra. Therefore karaoke can be either an empty orchestra in which there is no song or singer - thus leaving the accompanying music only, or can be a fake orchestra which imitates the real one. What do you say?

We bow to your superior erudition.

From Allan Price:

It is a rare event that I doubt the veracity of your etymology, but I have always believed that foolscap comes from the appearance of the watermark on paper of that size, not from the practice of making a dunce's cap from it.  Have you ever tried making a cap out of a piece of foolscap paper?  The head that it would fit would be exceedingly small!

Well, perhaps it is us who should be wearing the dunces' caps.  Yes, there certainly was a Fool's Cap watermark but as we did more research we found the derivation of the paper size called foolscap became less and less clear.

The term fool's cap can refer either to a paper dunce's cap or to one of those ridiculous hats with bells on worn by jesters.  It was this latter which was used as a watermark from the mid-17th century to the early 18th century.  It has been suggested that it was introduced by Sir John Spilman (or Spielmann), a German who built a paper mill at Dartford in 1580, but the OED pours scorn on this notion.  By approximately 1700, fool's-cap had come to mean a certain grade of paper, giving no indication as to its size.  Then, around 1790, foolscap came to denote a size but, by then, the fool's-cap watermark had fallen into disuse.

So, exactly what size is foolscap?  Our sources show wide variation.  In 1871, the American Encyclopedia of Printing gave it as "usually 12 x 15 inches or 12 1/2 x 16 inches", the Printer's Vocabulary of 1888 gives it as 17 x 13 1/2 inches for printing paper but 16 3/4 x 13 1/2 inches for writing paper and the OED defines it as 16 1/4 x 13 inches.

Just to confuse matters further, the very first mention (1795) of the foolscap size states "The fool's cap paper has for its mark Britannia". 

site map

Comments, additions? Send to Melanie & Mike:
Copyright © 1995-2000
mc² creations
Last Updated 02/17/02 09:29 AM