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      the only Weekly Word-origin Webzine

Issue 102   

September 25, 2000
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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.
NEW! Laughing Stock Funny stuff we occasionally stumble across.
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

the Olympic games

It seems that there's some kind of fun and games going on in Sydney, Australia but we are boycotting the whole thing until they make synchronized crossword-solving an Olympic event.

The original Olympic Games were held on the Plain of Olympia in Greece and involved religious rituals as the sports were considered to be an offering to Zeus, king of the gods.  Occasionally, non-athletic events were featured, too.  For instance, Herodotus read all nine books of his "History" to the crowd at one of the games.  It was received with wild acclaim which is all the more remarkable considering that it must have taken several days to read the whole thing!  Try holding up the sports for anything longer than a limerick these days and the beer bottles will start flying.

The games were highly esteemed by the ancient Greeks who measured time in olympiads (period of four years) from the first Olympic Games in 776 B.C.  They were abandoned in the 4th century A.D. and were not revived until 1896.

Ancient geek wearing laurel wreathThere were no gold medals in the original Olympics.  Instead, the athletes were awarded a wreath of laurel leaves and a palm branch.  Thus, someone who, having achieved high renown, proceeds to take their preeminence for granted, is said to rest on their laurels.  Also, a number of modern awards, such as La Palme d'Or, the Cannes award for the year's best movie, allude to the palm branch.

Just as in ancient times, many modern Olympic contests are held in a stadium.  The stadium takes its name from a measure of distance used in the ancient world - the Latin stadium or Greek stadion.  It was usually reckoned to be 600 (Roman) feet or one-eighth of a Roman mile but it varied considerably depending on who was counting.  We imagine that the stadii of a Roman realtor ("Two whole stadii of beach frontage") would be a lot smaller than the stadii of a centurion ("Step lively, men!  Only two stadii to go.").

Greek for "contest" was athlos, origin of biathlon (= "double contest"), triathlon (= "triple contest") and decathlon (= "tenfold contest").  Similarly, a competitor was an athletes from which we get athlete.

In 500 B.C. the Ionian Greeks sacked the isle of Sardis, a Persian colony, causing Persia to invade Greece in retaliation.  On their second expedition the vast, well-equipped Persian army met a tiny army of Greeks from  Athens and the city-state of Plataea on the plains of Marathon.  All the bookies had the Persians as odds-on favorites but, in one of the greatest upsets of history, the underdogs came out on top.  Diskobolos (The Discus-thrower)

We often read that the modern marathon alludes to a long-distance run made from the Battle of Marathon to Athens.  According to this story, Pheidippides, the best runner in Athens, ran the 25 miles from Marathon to Athens, announced the good news then dropped down dead from exhaustion.  This is certainly the reason that the marathon race is approximately 25 miles long but the tale, though dramatic, is false.  The truth is actually more amazing.  Before the battle, the Athenians sent Pheidippides to Sparta to seek assistance.  He covered the entire distance of 125 miles in one day!  Unfortunately, the Spartans, due to their long-time rivalry with Athens, refused Pheidippides' request.  We imagine that he walked back.

A favorite contest of the ancient Olympics was throwing the discus.  Discus is the Latin version of the Greek diskos which meant... well... "discus".  It also meant "dish" and has cognates in a number of seemingly unrelated words - the Old High German tisc and Old Norse tiskr, both meaning "plate", German tisch "table" and English dish, desk (from the Italian desco "board, table or stool") and even dais (also from the Italian desco but via Old French deos).

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Kenneth E. Willis:

Sorry, this is not an etymological query but I wonder whether you could help?  Do you know the frequencies of the letters of the alphabet?  For instance, e is the most used, t is the second most used, etc.  For any help you can give I would be most grateful.

Well, we normally ignore all non-etymological queries but we've just had a tax refund and we're feeling magnanimous.  The list you are looking for is:


There is a similar list for pairs of letters (digrams):


Of course, these lists apply only to English.

Read about other words in our bookstore.

From Brian Degnan:

Your recent discussion regarding mushrooms, toadstools & sponges, put me in mind of loofahs.  Please, could you give me (and your readers) its derivation and time origin in English? 

Certainly, Brian. It is quite simply the Egyptian Arabic word lufah.  Many people assume that the loofah, like the sponge, is a denizen of the ocean depths.  Nothing could be further from the truth; it is the fibrous part of the fruit of the plant Luffa ægyptiaca, a relative of the cucumber.

From Pjotr:

Do you know the exact meaning and etymological roots of the word dweomer?  It is often used in fantasy literature as a synonym for "magic spell", but I was unable to find the word in any dictionary. can you help?

Of course we can help but, boy, those fantasy novels certainly go out of their way to use obscure words!  What's wrong with straightforward words like cantrap?  We are not surprised that you couldn't find this word in a dictionary.  As far as we can tell, it occurs only once in medieval literature - in a work from around 1205.  Even then it does not occur alone but in the compound term dweomer-craeften meaning "magic art".  It is thought to be related to the Old English gedwimer (or gedwomer) "sorcery".

Then again, there is the song by Supertramp: "Dweomer... can you put your hands in your head? Oh no!"

From Greg Miller:

Hi, my question is: why is the word cobweb used when we mean spider web?

Because a cob means "spider".  Actually, that is a bit of a cop-out as cob was rarely ever used to mean "spider" and when it was it was probably derived from cob-web.

The original word was the Middle English coppeweb from the Old English attorcoppa "spider".  The Old English word attor meant "venom" so attorcoppa may have meant "cup of venom", alluding to the spider's bite.  Alternatively, coppa could mean "head", so attorcoppa would be "venom head", referring to the spider's appearance as a little head on legs.

One might assume that attor, "venom" is related to adder but this is not the case.  The Old English for adder was naedre but, over time, a naedre became wrongly divided as an adder.

From Shelley Holloway:

We all use the term piss ant, but what does it mean?  I presume it means the standard derogatory "jerk", "idiot", "pain in the a@@" but when I told a friend of mine "When you look up piss ant in the dictionary, there's a picture of you" he challenged me for its definition.  Any help you could provide would be appreciated.

Well we sometimes use the term pissant, but only when discussing entomology.  Let us remind you, young lady, that this magazine is about etymology, not entomology... and isn't it about time that you progressed beyond picture dictionaries?

Seriously, the word pissant (yes, it's one word, not two) simply means "ant".  More specifically, it refers to the "wood ant" a large species which lives in conspicuous nests made of pine needles or small twigs.  These nests often smell unpleasantly like urine, hence the name.  An alternative name for this species is pismire where the -mire portion is a form of the Middle English maur "ant".

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

Guest curmudgeon Ian Rowlands vents his spleen

Congratulations on the first issue of your second hundred. You may gather from this when I think the 3rd millennium begins. However that is not the reason I write.

You don't realize how lucky you are not living under an International Monetary Fund regime. The IMF provides us with daily annoyance with its conditionalities and methodologies. The first is no doubt the result of a condition being passed by a bureaucrat. A methodology can only be a study of methods, there is no mention of what happens after one is applied.

See what we have to put up with? While I'm at it, would you please explain to your readers the gender is a matter of grammar. Sex is a different matter and is what you check in little boxes on government forms.

Yes gender is a matter of grammar but sex...  Isn't that how they have coal delivered in Cheltenham?

Sez You...
From Robert Gadient:

Living in mainland Europe, I am exposed to British English and more formal television English instead of colloquial speech of modern America. Thus, when I recently travelled back to America (New Jersey) after 12 years abroad to where I grew up, I was struck by the ingenuity of using yous as the second person plural personal pronoun by adding the plural noun morpheme s to the ambiguous you of Standard American English. Of course I am sure this is nothing new (and that other forms such as y'all exist as well), but only then did I realize that deviant (from the standard) forms of speech show how alive a language is and that they can display intelligence. Perhaps one day the mainstream will accept and institutionalize this smidgeon of speech and bring English back to a distinction in number for all personal pronouns.

In our opinion, all dialects (including Standard English) are of equal status and yous is perfectly valid in its own dialect.  Of course, Standard English used to distinguish the number of the second person by means of thou and you.  These days thou, along with thee and thine, survives only in the North of England.

From Jean Jacobi:

Wished... spaded...and of course drownded (or would it be drowneded?) Is this just an American error or do the Brits do it too?

Maybe Brits don't commit those specific blunders but they make others, equally egregious.

From Brian Degnan:

In TOWFI's Issue 101, Malcolm Tent was enraged with anyways.  I just wanted to say that English has a plethora of words to which alveolar fricatives (s-sounds, etc.) are optional, yet mean the same thing. One would see most of these occurring as adverbs or in prepositional phrases. This arises in the German language as well. While Morgen means “morning or tomorrow,” morgens means “in the mornings or daytime.” 

What I can recall are: amid and amidst, among and amongst, backward and backwards, forward and forwards, in the wood and in the woods, outward and outwards, toward and towards, and while and whilst.  Some of these are interchangeable; others are British or American counterparts. Regarding anyways, grammarians would consider this an abomination, but it does follow to some degree the pattern of the rule that applies to certain adverbs, etc. 

Another instance at which I cringe but hear every so often is Alls I have to do is… I am not saying that anyways is “in any way” the correct usage, but there are variants of other similar parts of speech that have fluctuating equality. 

As another aside, Malcolm Tent should in no way have been bothered so much by the use of “I sure [sic] wish I was” as tense-equivocal, but rather as “mood-equivocal". The phase should be in the subjunctive mood, as does occur in the construction, “I surely wish I were home.” This is definitely ungrammatical even to say, “I wish that I am home.” Only “I wish that I/you/she/he/it/we/they were…” and “I wished that I/you/she/he/it/we/they had been…” are acceptable, demonstrating the contrary-to-fact sense in stating a wish. 

Quite so, Brian.

(Blimey, we don't half have some clever readers!)

Laughing Stock

Dirigibles, blimps and hot-air balloons please move on...

Another sign found in rural South Africa.

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