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      the only Weekly Word-origin Webzine

Issue 108   

December 12, 2000
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Spotlight Words on our minds this week.
Words to the Wise Our world-famous question and answer column.
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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...

absolutely fabulous animals

A reader recently asked if we could explain the names of certain mythical animals and legendary creatures.  Well, this is quite a large topic and, rather than give a perfunctory reply in Words to the Wise, we thought we'd take time to answer it in a more leisurely fashion here.

To prepare for this column we read through some medieval bestiaries (in translation).  Bestiaries were books which described the animals of the world and, usually, derived some moral from their habits.  Their compilers made no distinction between real and legendary animals as, to them, they were all real.  Sometimes perfectly real animals are described in such a fantastic fashion as to occasion disbelief.  Take, for instance, the antelope which was said to have saw-shaped horns which it used to fell trees.  And the description of the crocodile begins "The Cocodryllus is so called from its crocus or saffron color".  Ah, yes, lumberjack antelopes and bright yellow crocodiles... those were the days!

We are all familiar with the legendary animal which looks like a horse with a single horn projecting from itsYe mediaeval phonograph styli forehead.  It is, of course, the unicorn but what would you call a creature with a body resembling that of a horse, the head of a deer, the feet of an elephant, and the tail of a lion, with one black horn projecting two cubits [about 3 feet] from the middle of the forehead.  This is how Pliny described the unicornus (Latin uni- "one" + cornus "horn"), an animal which the Greeks knew as the monoceros (Greek mono- "one" + ceros "horn").  Cornus is also the root of cornucopia (Latin "the horn of plenty") which was fabled to be the horn of the goat Amalthea which suckled the infant Zeus.  Pedants who wish to show off their knowledge of Latin insist that it be written cornucopiae (plural cornuscopiae). 

Medieval scholars firmly believed that every land animal had an equivalent in the sea.  Thus, the existence of the narwhal (a whale with a single horn) was seen as confirming the unicorn's reality.   Many of our readers will be familiar with the medieval notion of how unicorns are caught: a naked virgin (preferably beautiful) stands in the forest and waits for a unicorn to come along, the unicorn is so impressed with the purity of the virgin that he lays his head in her lap and the hunter slips a halter around his neck.  Some authorities have suggested that this is a distant echo of an Indian tale about catching a rhinoceros (Greek "horn-nose", from rhinos "nose" + ceros "horn"). In this unlikely tale, a trained female monkey strokes the rhino until he falls asleep.  While find this one a little hard to swallow, we deem it quite possible that the odd "unicorn hunter" may have persuaded virgins to disrobe in the forest.

There is only one phoenix (or fenix).  The distinctive feature of this Arabian bird is that every 500 years or so, when it feels death approaching, it immolates itself on a pyre of fragrant spices.  Soon thereafter, a worm crawls out of the ashes and grows up to become the next phoenix.  The name phoenix is Greek for "Phoenician" because the bird was said to be purple and Phoenicia was the source of a purple dye which was so valuable that, in Roman times, only the nobility were permitted to wear it.  The dye (sometimes called Tyrian purple) was extracted from a species of shellfish which the Greeks called porphyra.  This became purpura in Latin and, after a little phonetic mangling, purple in English.  The purple, igneous rock called porphyry takes its name directly from the Greek.

The dragon is perhaps the most famous of all legendary creatures.  Dragon was the Old French version of the Latin dracon which in turn was a form of the Greek drakon (from Greek derkesthai "to see clearly").  Apparently, dragons have keen eyesight.  The military dragoon was armed with a dragon - in this instance, a crude musket which belched flame like a dragon.  Though, actually, the dragons of legend breathed fire only in paintings.  Those who study Gothic iconography tell us that the painted flames were merely an indication of poisonous breath and sometimes this was denoted by frogs and snakes instead of fire.

There was a rank of draconarius (Latin for "dragon bearer") in the Roman army.  This prestigious title wasSt. George is also patron saint of Greece borne by the standard-bearer of a platoon because the standard was was often in the form of a dragon.  Old Welsh borrowed this word to form dragwn "cavalry troop".  By a misunderstanding, this word spawned the legend of Uther Pendragon, King Arthur's supposed father.  The earliest treatment of the Arthurian legend is written in Old Welsh by an author known to us as Nennius.  He wrote "arthur mab uthr pen dragwn..." which meant "Arthur, the wild child, head of the cavalry troop..."  Unfortunately, when Geoffrey of Monmouth (fl. 1100 A.D.) was writing his version, he took this passage to mean "Arthur, child of Uther Pendragon...".  Geoffrey then had to account for Uther, so he concocted a tale which, in our humble opinion, is suspiciously similar to the story of Nectanebo in the Late Latin "Romance of Alexander".  Owain Glyndwr (c. 1349-1416), the leader of the last Welsh rebellion against England, chose a red dragon as his standard because of an ancient prophecy.  The English countered by adopting Saint George, the dragon-slayer, as their patron saint.  Owain's red dragon standard is now the national flag of Wales.

There were many Teutonic legends about treasure-hoarding dragons.  This is why the Anglo-Saxons, when they  discovered that some of the Bronze Age and Iron Age burial mounds contained gold and silver, they called them dragon hills.  But, as we have seen, dragon was a French word which came over with the Norman invaders so what word did the Anglo-Saxons use?  Worm.  Yes, this word meant any long, roughly cylindrical creature whether it be a lowly earthworm, a snake or even a monstrous dragon.

Well, as we have barely scratched the surface of this fascinating topic we will definitely return to it at some later date.  Before we leave, though, we simply must offer you more slices of lunacy from the minds of the medieval scribes...

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Carol Klingel:

Reading the theatrical adaptation of "A Christmas Carol", I came across the term beetling shop, which seems to refer to a pawn shop or second-hand store.  What is the origin of the word beetling?

As etymologists, we frequently have to explain that we are not experts on insects.  That's entomology.  However, just to confuse matters, lets talk about beetles.

First of all, beetle means an implement with a heavy head (often of wood) and a long handle which was (is?) used for driving wedges, crushing, flattening or smoothing.  Apparently such beetles could be very large as we have found a reference to a three-man beetle.  The word comes from Old English bietel "maul, mallet" and essentially signifies a "beating implement" (from Old English beatan "to beat").  The word is related to batter and to the Middle High German word bozel "cudgel" and to Low German betel "mallet".  

One source from 1413 shows that the use of beetles was not confined to inanimate objects:

Somme were brayned with betels and somme beten with staves.

Because the essential part of a beetle was a large, heavy head, beetle made an ideal insult for a dimwit.  Hence, in The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare wrote:

A horson beetle-headed flap-ear’d knave.

What mellifluous invective!  And the protestant cleric John Foxe, in his Actes and Monuments (1596), has this heart-felt cry:

Learne, learne yee beetle-headed asses.

What teacher has not expressed similar sentiments?

In the 16th and 17th centuries there was an expression between the beetle and the block which was equivalent to between Scylla and Charybdis or, as we might say today, between a rock and a hard place.

A stone carving of a beetleAt this point you must be thinking "What about the other kind of beetle - the class of coleopterous insect which is characterized by a pair of modified wings called elytra?"  Funny you should ask, we were just getting to that.  This beetle also has an Old English origin but in this case it was bitula  a word which is related to bite.  In an Anglo-Saxon glossary, bitula is translated into Latin as mordiculus ("little biter").  Why these harmless insects should be maligned in this manner, we can't imagine.

Incidentally, large heavy boots are sometimes referred to as beetle-crushers and to beetle off means to depart hurriedly, as a beetle flies away.  The expression beetle-browed is applied to someone with particularly bushy eyebrows but it is not at all certain why.  Perhaps it alludes to the short, tufted antenna of some beetles.  The French certainly do make this connection in their phrase sourcils de hanneton ("cockchafer's eyebrows") which describes a kind of fringe.  The Volkswagen "Beetle" was called a Käfer ("beetle") in German.  This is obviously a relative of our English word chafer.

One of the most commonly used and wide-spread drugs in the world is the betel-nut (Areca catechu) which is a mild stimulant.  Its name comes from the Malayalam vettila via Portuguese and, although many people pronounce it "beetle-nut", it is really "bay-tell".

Oh, you asked us about a beetling-shop, didn't you?  We can't find any connection to pawn-shops but it might have been a place where fabric was embossed with a beetling-machine.

From Theresa Furtaw:


There is a curious disparity between the meaning of pot-luck in the U.S. and the rest of the English-speaking world.  In Great Britain, a guest who takes pot-luck dines on whatever happens to be in the host's pot.  

The term first appeared in the 16th century but the best illustration of its usage we could find comes from 1773:

If they have any prospect of more sport, they take pot-luck at any cottage.

In the U.S., however, a pot-luck dinner is one in which each guest contributes a prepared dish.  How this usage came about we cannot explain.  Perhaps one of our erudite readers will elucidate. (It is also spelled potluck or pot luck.)

From Stephanie Cates:

I have told many people about your site that I recently discovered. Today, an 85-year-old retired school teacher asked me to try to find the origin of the word manhandle.

Thanks for a great site and newsletter.

You're welcome.  (And keep spreading the word.)

Manhandle originally meant "to wield a tool" or "to operate by force of men, without levers or tackle", as inA mangle - a device for to hacking, cutting and lacerating laundry this quotation from 1457:

The mattok was man-handeled right wele a whyle.

This version of the word is quite simply man + handle.  However, the modern meaning of "to handle [a person] roughly" is possibly derived from the Devonshire dialect word manangle.  This word is related to mangle which originally meant "to hack, cut or lacerate".  Both manangle and mangle come from the Anglo-French mahangler, which is also the source of maim and mayhem.

From DC:

What is the origin of oyez (oyez oyez) as heard in court (at least the election case before the Supreme Court)?

From Stan:

Recently, in the Florida Supreme Court, it sounded as if the session was opened with "Oh Yeah, Oh Yeah, Oh Yeah". Just a few days later, the United States Supreme Court opened with a similar "Hear Yee, Hear Yee, Hear Yee" I have also heard these types of calls when a session of U.S. Congress was convened (the impeachment trial of President Clinton comes to mind).  I assume these phrases are related. why the difference from one court to another and where did this tradition start?

While we would dearly love to hear a Supreme Court session open with the exclamation "Oh, yeah?", the word is oyez, an Old French word which was the imperative plural form of oir "to hear".  In other words, oyez translates to "hear ye" or, less formally, "listen up, y'all."

In Old French a z was pronounced ts so the original pronunciation of oyez was something like o-yets.  In modern practice, however, it may be pronounced as if it were Modern French (o-yay) or Modern English (o-yezz) or even, in U.S. courts, as something resembling a Yiddish exclamation (oy-yay).

In former times, before CNN, before newspapers, the latest tidings were announced by a town-crier.  This official would roam the streets of the town ringing a hand-bell and commanding the citizens to listen with a cry of "Oyez, oyez!".  Unfortunately, as these criers were not as literate as they might have been, this often emerged as  "Oh yes, oh yes!".  Thus Barham writes in his "Ingoldsby Legends" (1842):

But when the Crier cried, "O Yes!" the people cried, "O No!"

From Tamara Lee:

I love everything about horror movies and novels, and was wondering how the word horror came about.

Horror comes from the Latin verb horrare meaning "to shudder" or "to bristle".  From the 16th to the 19th centuries, horror was interpreted literally as "shuddering" or "shivering" and was considered to be a symptom of disease.  Hence: 

Horrour:..Among Physicians ’tis taken for a shivering and trembling of the Skin over the whole Body, with a Chilness after it.  [Phillips, 1706]

Scary, huh?There used to be another meaning of "roughness" but this fell into disuse during the 18th century.  The modern usage of "loathing and fear" is an allusion to the literal meaning of "shuddering" and has been in use since the 14th century.  Thus, in 1386 Chaucer wrote:

Ther shal horrour and grisly drede dwellen with-outen ende.

When you watch a horror movie, do you get goose-bumps?  Does your hair stand on end?  When this happens you are suffering from horripilation (from Latin horrare "to bristle" + pilus "hair").  There used to be a Middle English word horre which meant "to dread".  Although this is no longer used, we still use abhor, a closely related word.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

Guest curmudgeon Dr. Moffatt whines about this weekend.  Or is it next weekend?

Frequently, when I use the expression next weekend, I am asked "Do you mean this coming weekend or the one after that?"

I find this response exasperating as this weekend and the coming weekend are totally different concepts.  The phrase this weekend means "the weekend which is currently occurring" and makes sense only if it is used on a Saturday or Sunday.  Conversely, next weekend and the coming weekend both mean "the weekend which will occur next" and may be used at any time.

Surely, the meanings of these expressions are quite clear and should be obvious to anyone equipped with the tiniest grain of intelligence.

Sez You...
From Greg Umberson:

Love your site. Being a native Texan, I wanted to toss in my thoughts on the San Antonio billboard W'all eat at.... When growing up in Dallas it was common among my family and friends to use we all... for "we". When speaking quickly, and in a Texas drawl, it tended to rhyme with y'all, hence w'all

Y'all keep up the good work!

Thanks for the explanation, Greg.

From Mats Tölöberg:

Thanks for a thoroughly enjoyable site with its wealth of useful (and useless - but perhaps even more enjoyable) language information.  Just a quick comment regarding the currently ever so popular word chad.  You give an invention of a certain Mr. Chadless as the origin for the word.  In his latest edition of his weekly newsletter "World Wide Words" Michael Quinion, however, refutes this explanation. I'm totally unable to judge who is right or wrong.  Just thought you would like to know. 

From W. Russ Long:

The Urban Legends Reference Pages disputes your explanation of the origin of the word 
chad, stating that the word was in use prior to the invention of the chadless keypunch. 
See for details.

From Steve Parkes:

I'm rather doubtful about the Mr Chadless theory. My searches on the Net have come up with literally dozens of instances of it, nearly all with the same wording, which suggests to me that they all came from the same source.  I know about the chadless punch, but I can't find any reference to Mr Chadless anywhere, and I've never heard the name before - Chadwick, Chadburn, but not  Chadless

Michael Q says:

I've not been able to turn up any evidence that Mr Chadless ever existed, or indeed that anybody of that name exists anywhere. There is no reference to it in the US patents and trademarks registry, and it doesn't occur anywhere in telephone directories in the US, Canada, UK or Australia.  We must deduce that chadless was derived from chad to describe machines that didn't litter. Damn, another good story broken on the wheel of academic research.

I agree, it's a shame!

Well, I'll give you the same observation that I e-mailed to him: 

Half-listening to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 last week [vis-à-vis the Election], I heard them talking about chards; it was some time before I surfaced enough to realise they meant chads.  As a computer whiz-kid of many years standing and many fond memories of hand-punching cards (and even paper tape),  I knew immediately (or at least eventually) what they were talking about. But it made me think: could chad have been derived from chard/shard/sherd, meaning a fragment? (Or maybe it was a Freudian slip relating to "picking up the pieces"!)

Maybe this is destined to remain one of those Great Philological Mysteries?

From Rick Booth:

With regard to the postulated back-formation of the word chad from Chadless, I checked several people search and genealogy sources on the Web and could not find any evidence of anyone named Chadless anywhere in the world ever.  This makes it unlikely that Chadless is an eponymous surname given to a keypunch.  If such a keypunch ever did exist (or is it urban myth?), perhaps it really did mean "lacking chad." 

Yes, it seems that you are all right.  We found our explanation in an online dictionary of technological terms but we must say that's the last time we trust anything we read on the web.  ;-)

From Noah Sturr:

As I was looking through your links page, I noticed a surprised missing link! It is to the Oxford English Dictionary site ( The wonderful people at OED also have a free word of the day ( 

Once again - thanks for a great site!

Missing link?  For a moment, we assumed that you meant the recently discovered fossil of an upright, bipedal humanoid.  The remains have been carbon-dated and appear to be 4,500,000 years old.  ("Happy birthday to you.  Happy birthday to you.  Happy birthday dear apeman...")

Rest assured, Noah, that we will add the Oxford English Dictionary site to our links page.  The OED is an extremely valuable resource but we must warn you that the subscription fees are quite high.

From Rick Booth:

I would also like to suggest that you add the following two books on Indo-European to your bookstore list:

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, Calvert Watkins

A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages,
by Carl Darling Buck

The former is a slightly expanded version of the AHD's Indo-European root index, but it's small and much easier to browse than the full AHD. The latter book contains hundreds of entries showing how a given "idea" is expressed across many languages. The main drawback to this book is that it is a photo-reduced version of the out-of-print original, with four pages of the original mapped onto one page of the current version. Get out your eyeglasses!

I'd also like to say a few kind words about Elsevier's Concise Spanish Etymological Dictionary. When I bought it through your bookstore, it was by far the most expensive book I had ever purchased. I don't know if you've seen or used it yourselves, but I think it's great and well worth the money (to me).  I just wish there was an English language etymology book as concise and as well organized for finding cognates through Indo-European roots.  I also really appreciate the author's philosophy of tracing all words, including place-names and personal names, to their origins. Most other etymological resources seem to take the attitude that once you've traced a word to a place-name or personal name, the hunt stops.  Not so here.

Thanks, Rick.  We do own (and use) the two books you reference above but the last time we searched for them at to place in our book store, we couldn't get them.  We do admit it's been a while and we'll search again in the next few weeks.

Well, that's all for now. Thanks for running the best e-zine on the Web.

You are entirely welcome.  Thanks for reading it.

From Jean Jacobi:

1) You don't need me to defend you, I know, and your explanation of the spuriousness of the "rule" regarding ending a sentence with a preposition was convincing.  I would only like to add that "Funny stuff we occasionally stumble across" is not a sentence to begin with, so it can end with any part of speech that it likes.

2) Do the British have a problem with math or did they just think that Americans wouldn't  notice that the 98.85 % of Americans who are not aware that there is a world outside our borders and the 2.15% of us who are aware that there is a world outside our borders add up to 101%? Actually I loved the "press release" and think it might present a very good solution to the ongoing debates over pregnant and dimpled chad.

1)  Thanks, Jean

2)  Oh, what a silly bludner!  It's a good job we didn't write it ourselves.

Laughing Stock
The following is yet another example of what passes for humor on the internet these days.  It is sexist, highly offensive and not at all funny.  In fact, we strongly advise that you not read it.


Last year a friend of mine upgraded from Girlfriend 4.0 to Wife 1.0 and found that it's a memory hog leaving few system resources for other applications. He is also now noticing that Wife 1.0 is also spawning child-processes which are further consuming valuable resources.  No mention of this particular phenomenon was included in the product documentation, though other users have informed me that this is to be expected due to the nature of the application.  Not only that, Wife 1.0 installs itself so that it is always launched at system initialization where it can monitor all other system activity.  Some applications such as PokerNite 10.3, Bachelor Party 2.5, and Pubnite 7.0 are no longer able to run in the system at all, causing the system to lock up when launched (even though these apps worked fine before).

Wife 1.0 provides no installation options.  Thus, the installation of undesired plug-ins such as mother-in-law 55.8 and the Brother-in-law Beta is unavoidable.  Also, system performance seems to diminish with each passing day.

Some features my friend would like to see in the upcoming Wife 2.0: 

  • A "Don't Remind Me Again" button.

  • Minimize button.

  • An install shield feature that allows Wife 2.0 to be installed with the option of uninstalling at any time without loss of Cache and other system resources.

  • An option to run the network driver in "promiscuous mode" which would allow the system's Hardware Probe feature to be much more useful.

I myself wish I had decided to avoid all of the headaches associated with Wife 1.0 by sticking with Girlfriend 3.0.  Even here, however, I had found many problems.  Apparently you cannot install girlfriend 4.0 on top of Girlfriend 3.0.  You must uninstall Girlfriend 3.0 first, otherwise the two versions of Girlfriend will have conflicts over shared use of the I/O port.

Other users have told me that this is a long-standing problem that I should have been aware of.

To make matters worse, the uninstall program for Girlfriend 3.0 doesn't work very well, leaving undesirable traces of the application in the system.  Another identified problem is that all versions of Girlfriend continually pop-up annoying little messages about the advantages of upgrading to Wife 1.0.


**********   BUG WARNING   *********

All users should be aware that Wife 1.0 has an undocumented bug.  If you try to install Mistress 1.1 before uninstalling Wife 1.0, Wife 1.0 will delete MSMoney files before doing the uninstall itself.  Then for some reason Mistress 1.1 won't install at all, claiming insufficient resources.

To avoid the aforementioned bug, try installing Mistress 1.1 on a different system and never run any file transfer applications (such as Laplink) between the two systems.

Wasn't that just awful, girls?  Well don't say you weren't warned.

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Last Updated 10/15/06 12:41 PM