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Issue 90   

June 19, 2000
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After a week away, we returned home to find that our vegetable garden had exploded. In our absence the temperatures had soared to 109° F but, as the garden is watered automatically, we ended up with a jungle rather than a desert. So, taking this as inspiration, this week we have a vegetable theme.

Solanaceae - the nightshade family

Our potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) have been a little late this year and are just beginning to sprout. Their name comes from a confusion with another root tuber, the sweet potato (Batatas edulis) which was called batata in Haitian.  Despite the similarity in name and appearance, the potato and the sweet potato belong to completely different families.  The sweet potato belongs to the Convolvulaceae ("roll together", as the Convolvulaceae are often binding vines), the same family as Morning Glory, whereas the potato is one of the Solanaceae (Latin solanum means "nightshade"), the same family as Deadly Nightshade (nightshade is thought to be an allusion to the poisonous or narcotic properties of the berries).  Other edible relatives of Deadly Nightshade are the tomato, egg-plant and chili pepper. 

The tomato (Lycopersicum esculentum) takes its name from the Aztec (Nahuatl) word tomatl via Spanish tomate.  The earliest reference which we can find [The History of the Indies by D’Acosta, translated by E. Grimstone, 1604] refers to the tomato as "a great sappy and savourie graine".  How splendidly goofy!  Due to its resemblance to Deadly Nightshade, this fruit was believed by many to be poisonous and was generally avoided until the latter half of the 19th century.  Indeed, the name of its botanical genus, Lycopersicum, reflects this aversion - it means "wolf peach".  As with all exotic (read "expensive") foods, the tomato was once considered a potent aphrodisiac.  This reputation earned it the alternative name of love-apple.  Curiously, the 1753 Supplement to Chambers Cyclopaedia says that the tomato was "a fruit... eaten either stewed or raw by the Spaniards and Italians and by the Jew families in England". Presumably, English Jews did not share the prevailing tomato phobia.

It is easy to understand why the egg-plant is so called when one sees the oriental, white varieties which actually resemble goose eggs in size and shape.  The British name for this plant is aubergine which comes from a French diminutive of auberge.  Those who speak French might easily assume, as we did, that this auberge means an inn.  However, it is a variant of alberge, a kind of peach, from the Spanish alberchigo (or alverchiga) "apricot".

The Chili pepper (Capsicum annuum) is so-called because it is a pepper which comes from Chile, right? Well, in a word, no.   Botanically it's not a true pepper and it comes from tropical Central America, not Chile.  The Capsicum of its botanical name is often said to come from the box-like (Latin capsus "box") character of its fruits.  However, Linnaeus, who coined the name, said that he took it from the Greek word kaptein "to bite" (presumably from its "biting" pungency).  Unfortunately, Linnaeus was no great shakes at Greek and kaptein is better translated as "to gulp down".  Something which only the brave or foolhardy will try with chili peppers.

Brassicacea - the cabbage family

The mightly cabbage.  Click for nutritional information.Gardeners often speak of a "head" of cabbage (Brassica oleracea) but this is a redundancy as cabbage itself means "head".  It comes from Latin caput "head" via Old French caboche.  Believe it or not, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi are the same species as cabbage, they are just different varieties cultivated to accentuate different parts of the vegetable.  An older word for cabbage is cole, a word which crops up in cole-slaw, cauliflower and kohlrabiCole-slaw is literally "cabbage salad", from the Dutch koolsla, and kohlrabi is the German form of the Italian cavolo rapa (French chou-rave) "cabbage-turnip".  Cauliflower is a corrupted form of the medieval Latin cauli-flora "flowered cole (cabbage)". The German word is blumenkohl, "flower-cole".  Although kale is quite a different species of Brassica (Latin for "cabbage"), its name is simply a dialectical variant of cole.  The Brassica family members are also called crucifers, "cross-bearers", a reference to the four-petaled flowers produced, which resemble a cross or crucifix.

Also related to the cabbage is Brassica nigra, another plant which has been selectively bred to create several distinct varieties.  When cultivated for its root it is called a turnip, when cultivated for its seed it is called mustard but when cultivated for its oil it is called rape.  The origin of turnip is not completely certain but it is supposed that the -nip derives from Latin napus "turnip".  The name of mustard refers to its method of preparation as a condiment.  The seeds were ground and made into a paste with must - partially fermented grape juice.  While it is common to find rape-seed oil on the shelves of British supermarkets, it is impossible to locate in America.  Why is this?  Well, it is there but under an assumed name.  Marketers thought that the delicate sensibilities of the American consumer might be offended by the word rape, so it is sold as canola oil - from the words Canada (where much of it is produced) and oleum, Latin for "oil".

Compositacae - the daisy family

Although cabbage-like in shape, the lettuce (Lactuca sativa) belongs to a very different family - the Compositacae or daisy family.  The name Compositacae comes from the compound structure of the flowers.  What appear to be flowers, that is.   In the daisy family, what we normally consider to be a flower is actually composed of hundreds of tiny flowers, hence compound ("put together" in Latin).   Lettuce comes from the Latin lactuca "milky", in reference to its milky sap which was the main use for the lettuce in Roman times.  In its dried form this sap was known as lactucarium and was used medically as a substitute for opium.  Modern lettuce has been bred so that its  sap is not as bitter as it was in Roman times, thus producing a more palatable but pharmacologically inactive plant.  The first person known to have eaten lettuce as a salad was Lucullus, the Roman governor of the Greek island of Kos.  Because of this we have a variety of lettuce which is called Cos in Britain and Romaine (French for "Roman") in the U.S.  Incidentally, because Lucullus was a very finicky eater, he wrote a book for his cook explaining in precise detail how his meals were to be cooked.  This and a similar book by Apicius provide modern historians with all that we know about Roman cooking. 

Other edible "daisies" are the artichoke (Cynara colymus), the Jerusalem artichoke (HelianthusThe artichoke.  Click for more information than you ever thought you wanted on artichokes. tuberosus) and the cardoon (Cynara cardunculus).  The true artichoke is a large thistle which takes its name from the Arabic al-kharshuf via Spanish, Italian and French.  The Jerusalem artichoke is not an  artichoke at all and has nothing to do with Jerusalem  (Does anyone detect a trend, here?).  Rather, it is a species of sunflower which is native to tropical America.  Its name comes from the fact that, like all sunflowers, it turns to face the sun (Italian girasóle "sun-turning", which was corrupted to Jerusalem) and that its roots are said to taste like artichoke.  The cardoon is a close relative of the artichoke and is another thistle.  Its name comes from Latin cardus "thistle" but the Romans actually called the cardoon by a different name - cactus.  Yes, that's where our word cactus comes from.

Now, if you'll excuse us, we have to run and catch our lettuce, it's just bolted. 

More on vegetables next week.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Charlene Macinauskas:

What is the etymology of thumb?

This word has been around since at least the 8th century in English. Back then it was thuma. Yes, that strange b didn't get attached to the word until the end of the 13th century. Thuma, and all subsequent forms, derive from the Indo-European root teu- meaning "to swell", referring to the large diameter of the thumb compared to the other fingers, as well as the size of the top half of the digit compared to the lower half. That would make thigh (swollen part of the leg, when compared to the calf) a relative. Thimble derives from the Old English for "thumb", and its b appeared in the 15th century.

By the way, that "b" was added in the 13th century because "thumb" was originally two syllables (thuma) and that b naturally crept into the pronunciation, following the m. When the word was shortened to one syllable, that b no longer needed to be pronounced.

From Anne Wright:

Your website eclipses all others on the etymological net. Eclipse?  I know eclipse derives from the solar eclipses. I would like to know if any other words relate to the same source.

An eclipse.  Remember what your teachers always said -- don't look directly at it!The source of English eclipse is Greek ekleipsis, derived from ekleiptikos "no longer appear". The Greek word is formed from the prefix ek- "out, away" and leipein "to leave". In fact, leipein and English leave both come from an Indo-European root, leik- "to leave". So, etymologically, when the sun is eclipsed by the moon, the sun "goes away" for a while. Sort of a solar vacation.  Eclipse entered English in the 13th century.  An adjectival form, ecliptic, joined the language in the 14th century. If you know your astronomy you know that the ecliptic is the apparent path of the Sun against the stars. What does that have to do with an eclipse? It is along that line that solar eclipses occur. 

The figurative sense first arose in the early 18th century.

By the way, it's a solar eclipse if the sun is eclipsed by the moon, and it's a lunar eclipse if earth's shadow falls on the moon.

From Mike Beath:

My 82-year old dad asked me about the etymology of vitamin, and I need help.

This is quite appropriate on the day after Father's Day (in the U.S., at least).  By the way, someone asked us whether it should be Father's Day or Fathers' Day.  Most calendars use the former, but we think either is appropriate.

Now, back to your father's request.  Vitamin is not an old word at all.  It was actually coined by the German biochemist Casimir Funk in 1912, formed from Latin vita "life" and amine, a word formed from am[monia] + ine in the 19th century.  An amine, simply put, is a generic term for the "compound ammonias", forms of NH3 having one or more of the three hydrogen atoms exchanged for alcohol, methyl, ethyl, phenyl, or a metal.  Funk thought that vitamins were "life-giving" amines.  His word for them was actually vitamines, but when it was determined that the chemicals were not, actually, amines, just a few years later, J.C. Drummond suggested, in Biochemistry Journal, 1920, that the final e be dropped.  A few years earlier, biochemists McCollum and Kennedy had suggested that the compounds be called "Fat Soluble A", "Water Soluble B", etc., and while Drummond didn't like the "soluble" parts, he did like the A, B, etc., suggestion, and that's where the names for specific vitamins come from.

From Chandra McCann:

I can't find any information on the word raring, as in the phrase raring to go.  It seems to be an anomaly.  What would the infinitive be?  To rare?

Actually, yes!  Rare the verb is a variant form of rear "to raise".  Rear in this sense survives in such phrases as "my parents reared me to respect the law" and "the horse reared up [on its hind legs]".  Rear was supplanted by raise in most senses, but it did survive, and it was used often enough for the variant form to arise in the U.S.  All of these words, including raise, come from Old Teutonic raizjan- "raise".  The Old English form was ręran.

Rare in this sense first appears in the written record in the early 19th century: "He just rared up on his hind legs."  The first instance of raring to go in the OED comes from the early 20th century.

From Jim Forster:

Scouse.  Even the O.E.D. says only "slang".  I know you'll better that.

Us?  Do better than the OED?  Oh, the hubris!  How could mere mortals such as we ever presume to improve upon that august arbiter of etymology?  How?  Like this...

We assume that by scouse you mean Liverpudlian, that is someone (or something) from Liverpool. Some famouse scouses.  Or is that "scice"? Scouse is also a kind of stew, more properly known as lobscouse.  This latter word is of obscure origin but is synonymous with loblolly.  It is supposed that the lob part of the words is the same as the dialect word lob meaning "to bubble noisily while boiling" which was applied especially to porridge. The lolly in loblolly seems to be an obsolete Devonshire word for "broth, soup, or other food which is boiled in a pot".  The earliest recorded use of scouse (the soup) may well be in "Two Years Before the Mast" by R. H. Dana (1840) - "The cook had just made for us a mess of hot scouse".

Lobscouse seems to have been popular with (or at least endured by) sailors and lobscouser was slang for a seaman.  It is no surprise, therefore, that scouse should become associated with Liverpool, one of the world's busiest seaports.  So, how long has scouse meant Liverpudlian?  Well, slang words tend to have considerable currency before they are ever committed to print but the earliest use to come to our attention was in a 1945 court case when a judge interrupted testimony to ask the meaning of the words Geordie and scouse.  He was informed that they referred to inhabitants of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Liverpool respectively.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

Guest curmudgeon Jean Jacobi is convincing AND persuasive

Convince vs. persuade - as in: "We convinced him to fasten his seat belt." Perhaps we could convince him that he should do so, or we could convince him of the wisdom of doing so, but we'd have to persuade him to do it.

Good one!

Sez You...

From Allan Price:

I think I'm going to love your new column.  Actually, this week's offering is familiar.  It's so difficult to be sure of the provenance of stuff like that on the web, but you are obviously correct in assuming at least some of the examples are from the U.K.  Similar examples have been published in New Scientist's Feedback columns, and subsequently in their booklets, bizarrely entitled Bizzarre.  

How about this dumb instruction from a Kenner Toy Company's "Batman Returns" costume:

CAUTION - FOR PLAY ONLY: Cape does not enable user to fly. 

Have a look at .  Their other long-running thread is dubbed Nominative Determinism - the tendency for people to take jobs relating to their names, and for authors to pen works appropriate to their moniker, like the article on incontinence by J. W. Splatt and D. Weedon,  And who else could have written The Complete Book of Dogs but J. & H. A. Barker  Here is a page from a recent issue 

We intend to include an extensive list of odd and oddly appropriate names in a future column.  To be going on with, here are same real names of authors found in the British Library:  Humperdinck Fangboner, Achilles Fang, Lettuce May Crump and Fried Egg.  These are all real namesLettuce is an old form of Letitia and even Fried Egg is genuine  (poor soul) - he was Danish.  There must be a lot more out there - only today we read of a gynecologist called Dr. Studd, and we know a pediatrician named Dr. Sunshine and a proctologist named Dr. Gutman.  We are not making this up!

Thanks for the links, we'll check them out

From Katy Shannon-Deutsch:

Love your Web site! Even though I lead a quite exciting life, I still look forward to visiting you each week. Re: Discussing the disparate meanings of "know" in the June 6th Spotlight: in Spanish the word conocer is used to refer to people, whereas saber is to know a subject, language or fact, and entender is to understand (e.g., a situation).  I was in Mexico recently with a group of people, one of whom - we'll call him Smith - was quite a character and very popular in the hotel.  One morning the desk clerk tried out her English on me by saying, "I knew Mr. Smith last night."  At first I was taken aback until I realized she meant that she had met Mr. Smith last night.

From Stuart Russell, University of California:

Like you (Issue 67), I believed that Al Khowarazmi was an Arab mathematician, and said as much in my 1995 textbook. I have since received several polite messages (see below) pointing out that he was Persian.

[Al Khowarazmi] is the one who's from Khwarazm and Khwarazm is a province in northeast of Iran.  The distance between Khwarazm and the nearest Arab city in that region is about two thousand miles.  It's a common mistake in the western sources that they mention Persian scientists like Avicenna and others as Arabs because they got to know them through Arabic translations in the Middle Ages. It's like you mention an Italian scientist as a German or a Russian. [From Faranak Davoodi]

Thanks for the update, Stuart.  The mistake seems to be very pervasive, however.  This is the first we've heard of it but a little research proves your friend correct.

The  noted philosopher, mathematician, astronomer and physician, Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Abd Allah ibn Sina (980­1037 A.D.) possessed a very Arabic name and wrote mostly in Arabic yet his native tongue was Persian.  It was the last portion, ibn Sina (Arabic, "son of Sina") which became Avicenna, the name by which he is known in the West.

From Samuel Bankester:

Once again, thank you for the most fun and mentally stimulating website on the net. In reference to a recent edition in which you discuss the word azazel,  I just have to share this enlightening explanation I sought and received from Daniel Heiden, a dear Jewish friend.  I cut and pasted his email into this one. 

From Daniel Heiden:

Sorry for the late reply, but I'm certain a good answer is better than a quick, shallow one, so here goes:  Indirectly quoted from Rashi's commentary-

The word specifically is thought to be a compound of the Hebrew for "to be strong" & "mighty", hence, a "...precipitous and flinty rock - a towering peak, for it is said (16:22) "[and the goat shall bear their iniquities into] a craggy land"..."

Therefore, it's not so much of an individual, as some have loosely translated this phrase into English to sound like (i.e. for Azazel), but more in the sense of "...sent forth to the Azazel...". Given the above, "for Azazel" could be understood in the same sense as a postmark of sorts.

Thanks again and keep up the great work.

Why, thank you.

Since writing the scapegoat piece we have also discovered that, in the Islamic tradition, Azazel is said to have been the name of Satan before he was cast out of heaven.

From Elizabeth Walker:

I am so glad I found your site!  It is excellent! As I was reading the notations on cakewalk it brought back childhood memories. 

During the 1960's the school district PTA (Parent Teacher Association) held an annual carnival to raise money.  The mothers all baked cakes (and most still not from boxes or bakeries!) that were donated for the "cakewalk".  

There was a large circle on the ground with numbers. You would pay 25 cents to stand at a number. Music would play and you would walk around the circle.  Wherever you were when the music stopped was your number.  Then a number would be picked from a box and that number, and whoever the lucky person was standing on that number, would win the cake! I don't know if the practice is still done, but I remember it fondly!

Thanks for reminding Melanie that she actually won something at such a cakewalk as a child!

From Donna Richardson:

Oh, oh, oh my; those product labels [Issue 89's Laughing Stock] are so funny. The declaration "not tested on animals" also appears on the label of Trader Joe's pet shampoo. I took the risk and washed my cats with it; imagine my relief when it cleaned them.

Haha!  We were just at Trader Joe's and missed an opportunity to see that one in person.

From Jean Jacobi:

This was printed on the label on a pair of shorts - intended to be humorous - and I found it to be so: 

"Washing instructions: For best results, machine wash in warm water. Tumble dry. For worst results, drag through mud puddle behind car.  Blow dry on roof rack."


From Eric Phillips:

I would describe this solecism [Curmudgeons' Corner, Issue 89] as the use of a direct statement in place of a predicate nominative.  The first example shows a straight linking construction (predicate nominative), while the second and third would be better as transitive constructions, but use the "" circumlocution to become linking constructions instead.  I think the politician said "What we want is 'We don't have a drug problem,'" rather than "We  want 'We don't have a drug problem,'" because the is allows for a vocal pause to offset the direct statement from the rest of the sentence.  Or maybe the linking construction seems natural in all these instances because this mode of speech derives from colloquial uses of like, e.g. "So I'm like, 'Get out of my face!'"  Whatever the case, I think the slang usage of like has set the stage for this kind of syntactical omission to sound natural to people.

You make some very interesting points, especially about like.  

From Chris Seamans:

I was reading through your back issues and I came across the following in Issue 12:

Late at night, fuelled by junk food and caffeine, the lonely hacker labors to find secret passwords, defeat security and tunnel through firewalls. Why hacker? Here, I must confess, I do not entirely know.  It could be that the hacker achieves success by dint of long hours of hard work, "hacking" away like a solitary lumberjack trying to fell a huge redwood (i.e. from Middle English hakken, from earlier Old English haccian). Or maybe it was first used to describe programmers who worked for hire, like hack writers. This latter term comes from hackney, a horse-for-hire, named after the village on the outskirts of the City of London where such horses were first made available.

The word was first applied to the computer enthusiasts at MIT in the 1960s.  It had been used to describe members of the model railroading club at MIT as early as the 1950s. In addition it is claimed that impressive, complex and elaborate pranks were called "hacks" on the MIT campus. All of this is detailed in Steven Levy's book "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution" (which was published around 1984). 

I also understand that the term hack was used to refer to pranks on the CalTech campus as well.  However, there may be more to the story. Although I've never seen anything concrete, I have read at various times that the term is a little older and referred to HAM radio hobbyists and electronics enthusiasts.  If the word actually originated among either of these groups then hacking was probably meant literally.  Enthusiasts in the 1950s had to scavenge their own parts and build their own equipment.  Hacking would be a physical process as the hacker would break open various devices and cut away at the insides.  Since the folks who would be going to MIT and CalTech in the 50s could very well have been familiar with the word, it's tempting to imagine that impressive, complex and elaborate pranks might have come from a usage in this context.  Then again, maybe not.

Once again we must thank a reader for fresh insights into an etymological puzzle.

Laughing Stock

The following has been floating around the Internet for a few months, at least, and just in case you hadn't seen it, we decided to post it here.


Reasons why the English language is so hard to learn:

  • The bandage was wound around the wound.
  • The farm was used to produce produce.
  • The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
  • We must polish the Polish furniture.
  • He could lead if he would get the lead out.
  • The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
  • Since there is no time like the present, he thought it's time to present the present.
  • A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.
  • When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
  • I did not object to the object.

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