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Issue 93   

July 17, 2000
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English ancestry part II

Last week we sketched the history of the Indo-European language group and showed how Sanskrit is a distant uncle of English.  Let us examine this subject a little more.

The ancient (and still hypothetical) *Indo-European language had (it is thought) the word *ped, "foot" and from this evolved Greek pous, Latin pes, Sanskrit pada, German fus, Old English fot, and Modern English foot.

One of the joys of etymology is tracing the strange paths that words take before taking their modern form.  In the case of *ped, it entered English many times over giving us several words besides foot.  Other survivors from Old English are fetch, fetlock and fetter.  Old French had the word paunier, "a foot soldier" which became English pioneer (the first to set foot in a new land), pawn and (via a slightly different route) peonPedal (Latin pedalis, "of the foot") was a direct borrowing and pedestrian was one of many Latinate words concocted by scholars in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

Another learned borrowing is expedite.  It comes from Latin, expedire  meaning "to free from a snare",  but its literal meaning is "to remove a foot".  Its modern English meaning suggests speeding things up by removing impediments.  Yes, as you might have guessed, to be impeded is literally to be "in-foot-ed". Impedare was Latin for "to fetter".

The Latin verb peccare (originally pedcare) literally meant "to stumble" but later came to meaning "to sin".  From this meaning we derive impeccable and peccadillo.  

When England began to colonize India in the 18th century, our language picked up an Indo-European word distantly related to foot, and that was pajama.  An Urdu word, pajama was originally Persian for "leg covering".

Notice that the initial letter of the word for foot is p in some languages and f in others.  These consonants have shifted during their history so the resemblance is not always obvious.  Fortunately, the  Indo-European  consonant shifts have been found to follow predictable patterns.  Once we are told that pf and ff in German often represent p and pp in English,  we may easily expand our German vocabulary.  We see pfeffer and understand pepper.  With the additional knowledge that a German z is an English t we may surmise that pflanz means "plant".  Similar mutations have been mapped across all the Indo-European family and a table of all of them can be found on our theory pages. 

To show the relationships within our language group, here are two very familiar words in various Indo-European languages.

English father mother
Ancient Greek pateras meter
Latin pater mater
French pčre mčre
Italian padre madre
Romanian tata mama
Irish athir mathir
Welsh tad mam
Gothic atta  or fadar aithei
Old Norse fathir mothir
Danish fader moder
Old English fęder modor
Dutch vader moeder
Old High German fater muotar
Sanskrit pitar matar
Avestan (ancient Persian) pitar matar

One language which, though Indo-European, does not follow this pattern is Georgian.  In Georgian, mama means "father".  The first sound most babies make is "ma... ma...", of course, and this becomes the word for "mother" in most languages.  A Georgian friend tells us that Georgians are so intensely male-chauvinistic that they assume that a baby's first words must be about its father so mama means "dad".

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Caroline:

I know fork is such a commonly used word, but it is so weird.  If you say it a lot, it's actually a really funny word.  I was wondering where this word originated.

Yes, we are quite familiar with the phenomenon where a word starts to sound strange if it is uttered over and over.  Bizarre that, eh?

Fork derives from Latin furca, which was a word used to describe a two-pronged fork, the kind that would be used in gardens.  It dates back to Old English, when it was forca.  No one seems to know where Latin got the word, but it did pass it into most, if not all, of the Romance and Germanic languages, for example, we have Italian forca, Spanish horca, and even Welsh fforch.  

So when did this word come to apply to the table utensil?  Not until that particular table utensil wasA tuning fork. introduced.  It first appeared in Tuscany in the 11th century, and it usually had only two tines.  Interestingly, the Church condemned forks then, arguing that man's fingers should be the only thing to touch food supplied by God.  However, we'll bet that a lot more than man's fingers touched foodstuff in those days!  Anyhow, it took quite some time for the fork to catch on.  Thomas ą Becket is said to have introduced it to England in 1170 or so, after his exile in Italy, but it wasn't until the 18th century, on the eve of the French Revolution, that French noblemen took up the fork whole-heartedly as yet another means of distinguishing themselves from the lower classes.  Eating with the fingers became unacceptable, and as the Brits were wont to do, they lapped up the latest French fashion and the fork stuck.

The first recorded use of English fork applied to the table utensil comes from 1463, in a will: "I beqwethe to Davn John Kertelynge my silvir forke for grene gyngour."  By 1766, however, we have this quote, indicating the implement's ubiquitousness: "The poorest tradesman in Boulogne has... silver forks with four prongs."

So what did people use to eat before the fork became widespread?  They had spoons, of sorts, and then, most importantly, they had their fingers.  In fact, by the time the fork started to catch on, noblemen could be told from peasants by (among many things, obviously) the manner in which they ate with their hands.  Noblemen fastidiously used three fingers (keeping the ring finger and pinkie clean) while the lower classes figured that one finger was as good as another, and why exclude any?

Fork also figures in one of the few examples of rhyming slang in American English.  The expression put up your dukes means "put up your fists [and fight]".  The meaning is doubly hidden.  The full expression was put up your Duke of Yorks and Duke of York meant "fork" Fork was slang for "hand".

Read about other words in our bookstore.

From Stacy:

What is the origin of the word pew, as in the benches people sit on in churches?  Why did they start calling these benches pews?

A pew.A pew is, etymologically, the plural of podium, which is podiaPodium is, of course, Latin for "raised place, pedestal", coming from Greek pódion, a diminutive form of pośs "foot" (found in Oedipus, and it is also a distant relative of English foot, as discussed in Spotlight this week).  It referred originally to the base on which things such as statues rested (i.e., a pedestal, yet another related word).  Old French borrowed Latin podia as puie "raised seat, balcony", and English took it in the 14th century as pew.  In English it first applied to a raised, enclosed area of seats in a church, reserved for particular people (the local nobleman's family, say), but it eventually came to refer to all benches in a church.  That change in meaning occurred in the 17th century.

From Glen Savits:

My secretary uses the phrase screaming Mimi constantly.  We know what it means but nobody knows where it comes from.  No web site has been able to explain the expression.  Who is Mimi?

This is apparently partly onomatopoeic, and partly rhyming in origin.  The term, often spelled screaming meemies, is first recorded in 1927 with the meaning "drunkenness", but a couple of sources suggest that it dates from World War I, when it referred to a certain kind of German artillery shells that made a screaming sound which approximated "meem" or "meemie".  Later, soldiers who experienced shell shock from hearing too many of those artillery shells were said to have the screaming meemies, and then one can see how that evolved to refer to drunkenness.  Later, it became synonymous with heebie jeebies, or "delirium tremens", and now we hear it used with several different meanings, including "the willies" or "the creeps", as in "Fingernails on a chalkboard give me the screaming meemies".  

During World War II the term was resurrected in military parlance to refer to a specific German rocket, the nebel-werfer, and then to many other enemy rockets.  Another term used for those rockets is said to have been Moaning Minnies.

From Tim Carlson:

Can you help me understand where and how the word preterist came from?  Futurists believe most end-time prophecies are yet to be fulfilled, while Preterists believe that most or all of Bible prophecy has already been fulfilled in Christ and the ongoing expansion of his kingdom.  I would like to know how this word came to be used in theological circles.

Preteritist comes from preter, an aphetic form of preterite, which derives from Latin pręteritus "gone by, past", formed from pręterire, a compound composed of pręter "past" + ir "to go".  If you've ever studied a foreign language, you might recall the simple past tense of verbs being referred to as preterite, and now you know why.  It is for that same reason that preterists are so known, because they believe that the subject of Biblical prophecies have "gone by" or already happened.  The term was apparently coined by G.S. Faber for use in a theological work in 1843, so that is how it came to be used in theological circles.  He wrote: "To consider certain vituperative prophecies...as already accomplished in the course of the first and second centuries; whence, to commentators of this School, we may fitly apply the name of Preterists."   

From Steve:

I have a disagreement with a friend over the origin of the word troilism.  She claims it is straightforward, from the French trois "three", while I understood that it had its roots in the Shakespeare play Troilus and Cressida, when Ulysses makes Troilus watch his lover Cressida cavorting with Diomedes.  I would be very grateful if you could resolve this for us.

The OED says "perhaps from French trois "three".  If they were more certain, they would have omitted the perhaps.  However, the first known incidence of the word in writing occurs in Dorland's Medical Dictionary of 1941.  This indicates that troilism was (if it isn't still) a medical/psychological term.  We tend to think that a source of medical term etymologies, especially medical terms having to do with sexual practices, might be more reliable as far as this word's origins go, and The Dictionary of Sexology claims, with no equivocation, that the term derives from trois.  The editors of that work may be privy to primary sources that the OED editors haven't seen, or they may simply not have considered that Troilus and Cressida might be the source of the term.  We tend to believe that the term was formed from trois with influence from ménage ą trois, which is recorded at least 50 years earlier than troilism..

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

Guest curmudgeon John Archdeacon gets his pant in a wad over depluralization

Last night, I heard a TV reporter use the phrase the company headquarter.  I just hope he remembered to wear his pant on the premise and that his glass did not fall off his nose! 

Thanks, John, your minimalist rant on misapplied singulars has reminded us of a misapplied plural which we have been hearing lately.

In recent discussions of the War on Drugs we constantly hear of people "taking methamphetamines" or being "addicted to methamphetamines".  Methamphetamine is a chemical compound.  There is only one of it.  We can understand the plural being used in the case of aspirin as aspirin comes in tablets.  Thus, take two aspirins may be assumed to be aphetic for take two aspirin [tablet]s, but methamphetamine is, apparently, a crystalline powder.  We never hear of anyone being addicted to heroins, do we? 

Sez You...

From Jim McCrudden:

The nose is also called your honk. Working on the principle of least effort a honky is a guy with a nose that sticks out unlike someone who has a nose that is broader and flatter.  I have some recollection that the Japanese have a similar expression for westerners.

Yes, we discussed the possibility of this derivation in Issue 91

From Mike James:

I am a long-time reader, first-time correspondent but how could I pass up such an interesting topic?  In the article, "The Etymology of Slang Sexual Terms" you discuss the possible origins of the word poont*ng. That brought to mind an older song that I had recently come across for the first time, Poon Tang by The Treiners. While I have not been able to determine an exact date for the song's release, it seems to most likely have been recorded in the 1940s or 50s. 

In the song (you really should listen to it if you can find a copy, if you would like a copy and can't find one just let me know) it is stated that, "Poon is a hug / Tang is a kiss" and that the words come from an "isle in the South Pacific". Considering that The Treiners were/are pretty much a lounge act it is quite conceivable that the song is simply a catchy (and somewhat plausible) way to circumvent the taboo against using such a word in semi-polite society.  That explanation might be supported by the fact that the song begins with a repeated shout, "Poon Tang!", which would have had quite a shock value on an audience in the 1940s or 50s who were aware of the common meaning of the word/phrase.  Then again, who knows?  The 1940s and 50s would have had a number of men coming back from military service in the South Pacific and if the phrase were indeed from that area it is conceivable that it was introduced/revived by these men.  Since you mention earlier examples in your article (1929) illustrating its already vulgar connotations and use, my money is on the first explanation of the song. 

Just thought you all might find this an interesting tidbit. Keep up the excellent work.

Very interesting.  Thanks for that input, Mike.  We'd love a copy of the song and will e-mail you (unless you beat us to the e-mail) to see if we can arrange receiving it.

*We are using an asterisk in place of one of the letters of the word in question in an attempt to prevent being labeled an "X rated site" by the bots that check such things.

From John Burgess:

I, too, learned that rhyme at my mother's knee, but with the variation in the name: Puddin' Tane.  I'm not at all convinced that there's a relationship between the rhyme and poont*ng, other than the obvious similarity in sound.  Just my two cents' worth....

We feel the word and the name in the rhyme are simply too similar to have developed separately.  What on earth is puddin' tang/tane if not a corruption of poont*ng?  The moment Melanie heard poont*ng for the first time, she immediately thought of her grandmother's rhyme.

From John Broussard:

Congratulations on an excellent analysis of the English language's origins (Issue 92). Now that I've passed out the kudos, I have one caveat. Your otherwise excellent article gives the impression that a language and a people are synonymous. T'aint so. Here's one of several excerpts from your article which gives that impression:

With the exception of the Basques (Euskadi), Finnish (Suomi), Hungarians (Magyar) and Lapps (Sami), the Europeans are descendants of a group of people (sometimes called Aryans or Indo-Europeans) who inhabited the Russian steppes a few thousand years B.C. These people entered Europe in waves of tribal bands with related languages.  

Recorded history has case after case of migrating peoples bringing in a language, then losing their racial identity (the Irish speak the language of their invaders), or preserving that identity and losing their language (African-Americans are still racially distinct, though virtually none know any of their original languages). The classic example of this confusion of race with language is of course to be found in Nazi doctrine.

From Opal Drake:

Well, I live in Illinois, which is somewhat close to Louisiana, but that is not where I first heard the term. I first heard it in the movie Aliens :

Frost: How 'bout some more of that Arcturian poont*ng! You remember that time?

Hudson: Yeah, but the one you had was a male!

Frost: Doesn't matter if it's Arcturian!

When I figured out what poont*ng meant, it was suddenly more humorous :)  BTW, whoever that dimwit is that claims you two have no sense of humour obviously has no sense of irony or wit. Doubtlessly, scatological humour is all that tickles his very limited funny bone.

Thanks for the kind words and the citation from that wide-release film Aliens.  By the way, we didn't mean to imply that the word is still confined to areas around Louisiana, just that it seems more common there.

From Kevin Kennedy-Spaien:

I've always felt that "noise words" added an element of flavor to a sentence's meaning. For instance, adding "Dude" to a sentence conveys certain attitudes the speaker has toward the person being addressed, not unlike the French do with "vous" and "toi".  In the case of "go ahead and...", usually there is a conveyed sense of "I was going to wait to perform this task, but for whatever reason, I've now decided to do it sooner, rather than later."  While these subtle nuances may not add anything to accounting software, they can make our speech more "layered" and meaningful.  Keep up the good work!

You're right that such nuances can add to the language, though there are still certainly times when they are meaningless noise words, simply on the speaker's subconscious list of "what to say when I don't really have much to say".

From Opal Drake:

From what I have been told, noise phrases like you know serve the same purpose as um in sentences. The purpose, as I understand it, is a "mental reflex" of some sort, a delaying tactic in a way while the brain organizes the words the person wants to say to the thoughts they want to convey.  The more nervous the person is, the more ums and you knows there will be, as the brain is having a difficult time assembling a coherent, accurate sentence.  

I am not sure how accurate this is. Noise phrases also seem to be picked up by association and habit. My father once worked with a fellow who always ended important announcements with "that, then, there, ok". He also said "touch base" a lot, meaning "have a discussion". The end result is that my father heard "we need to touch base on that, then, there, ok" all too often. :P

This is also true, that you know and similar terms are used to fill gaps when speakers are thinking.  However, sometimes they are terribly distracting.  There are better ways to fill those gaps, though we suppose most people are simply to busy to even worry about such things.

From Carmel Roach:

I love your site. I usually check for the new issue before I even get the newsletter. On reading your explanation of the word poont*ng, I am wondering about its origins in meaning white males having sex with non-white females... often against their will. Or at least, in every instance I have seen the word used in print, it seems to refer to that. I read extensively and have not come across other references. In fact, until the Vietnam war, it seemed to refer specifically to white men having sex with black women. Kennedy referring to poon in the way he did may even mean that as well... perhaps he liked to have sex with black women but thought it not wise to mix it up that way after becoming president? Your discussion on its origins as meaning a body part was pretty thorough but how did it also come to mean this sexual activity? I am very sure of this meaning and would love to know how it came about...obviously from the more general meaning of sex organs, but how?

While several of the references to the word that we've found do seem to indicate it referring to black females, not all such references do.  There's just not enough information to know whether the word first referred to females of a certain color.  As for the noun coming to be a verb, this is not uncommon at all, despite whether word refers to black or white women.

From Michael Kirtland:

I have heard that the word virgin suffered a change of context/meaning in the 1300's; that, prior to this time it had been a synonym of "virtuous" or "good" and had no direct tie to sexual purity.  This would be consistent with the early renaissance advent of the Virgin Mary's immaculate conception. If true, it would be fascinating to investigate whether or not this etymological evolution is in fact the cornerstone to an entire religion - Catholicism.

The term Virgin Mary first appears in writing in about 1300.  Virgin alone originally meant "a pious, unmarried or chaste woman" since about 1200, and by 1300 it meant also "a woman in a state of inviolate chastity".  It appears that the Virgin Mary was so dubbed after the change in the word's meaning. 

We would not say that the notion of a virgin birth is the cornerstone of Catholicism by any means, but it certainly does play a large role in the Church.

Laughing Stock

Lets face it: English is a stupid language.

There is no egg in the eggplant, no ham in the hamburger and neither pine nor apple in the pineapple. English muffins were not invented in England, French fries were not invented in France.  We sometimes take English for granted. But if we examine its paradoxes we find that quicksand takes you down slowly, boxing rings are square and a  guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig. 

If writers write, how come fingers don't fing. If the plural of tooth is teeth, shouldn't the plural of phone booth be phone beeth?  If the teacher taught, why didn't the preacher praught.   If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what the heck does humanitarian eat!?  Why do people recite at a play yet play at a recital? Park on driveways  and drive on parkways. You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a  language where a house can burn up as it burns down and in which you fill  in a form by filling it out.

And a bell is only heard once it goes!  English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity  of the human race (which of course isn't a race at all). That is why when the stars are out they are visible, but when the lights are out they are invisible.  And why it is that when I wind up my watch it starts but when I wind up this story it ends?

More English weirdness:

Why is the man who invests all your money called a broker? Why is a person who plays the piano called a pianist, but a person who drives race car not called a racist?

Why are a wise man and a wise guy opposites? Why do overlook and oversee  mean opposite things? 

If horrific means to make horrible, does terrific mean to make terrible? 

Why isn't 11 pronounced onety one [or oneteen -- Eds.]?

If lawyers are disbarred and clergymen defrocked, doesn't it follow that electricians can be delighted, musicians denoted, cowboys deranged, models deposed, tree surgeons debarked and dry cleaners depressed? Why is it that if someone tells you that there are 1 billion stars in the universe you will believe them, but if they tell you a wall has wet paint you will have to touch it to be sure?

If you take an Oriental person and spin him around several times, does he  become disoriented?

If people from Poland are called "Poles", why aren't people from Holland called "Holes?"

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