Issue 111, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Amar:

I've been told that quark first appeared in Finnegan's Wake [by James Joyce] in the following lines: "Three quarks for Master Finnegan".  However, someone recently told me that it appeared even earlier in a sci fi book.  Please shed some light on the origins of this word.

The line from Finnegans Wake [no apostrophe] is actually "Three quarks for Muster Mark!"  We have the etymology of quark straight from the horse's mouth.  The horse, of course, is Murray Gell-Mann,Murray Gell-Mann the Nobel-prize winning physicist.  He wrote the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary a letter, in 1978, explaining where he came up with the word quark:

I employed the sound "quork" for several weeks in 1963 before noticing "quark" in "Finnegans Wake", which I had perused from time to time since it appeared in 1939... The allusion to three quarks seemed perfect... I needed an excuse for retaining the pronunciation quork despite the occurrence of "Mark", "bark", "mark", and so forth in Finnegans Wake. I found that excuse by supposing that one ingredient of the line "Three quarks for Muster Mark" was a cry of "Three quarts for Mister…" heard in H. C. Earwicker’s pub.

Quark first appeared in print in 1964.  And before anyone writes, there is no apostrophe in "Finnegans Wake".  (Well, there is in the old song called "Finnegan's Wake" but not in the title of Joyce's novel.)

From Martin Fraser-Allen:

What is the origin of git as in "He's a right git!"?

This is a surprisingly recent word, at least in writing.  It's difficult to tell how long it was around before it was memorialized in print in 1946.  It's actually a corruption of get "that which is begotten; offspring."  That usage dates from the early 14th century.  By the early 16th century get was used to mean "bastard" and, hence, "a fool, an idiot."  That usage continued through the 1960s:

I'm so tired, I'm feeling so upset
Although I'm so tired I'll have another cigarette
And curse Sir Walter Raleigh
He was such a stupid get.

- Lennon & McCartney (actually Lennon), I'm So Tired,
from "The Beatles" [a.k.a. "The White Album"] 1968

Since then, it seems that git has replaced it.  It's simply the result of a change in spelling based upon a gradual change in pronunciation.  Get dates back to old English, at which time it was used only in compound form; surviving compounds are beget and forget.  The Indo-European root is *ghend- "to seize, take", which also gave us guess (the sense being "to try to get"), and words deriving from Latin prendere "to seize, to get" such as pry, apprehend and impregnable.

From Dan Laabs:

What is the origin of the word arrogant?

This word came to English from French arrogant in the 14th century, and the French adopted it from Latin arrogantem "assuming, overbearing, insolent", the past participle of arrogare "to be overbearing or insolent".  Arrogare is formed from ad- "to" + rogare "ask" (source of interrogate, among others), and it originally meant "to claim for oneself".  The shift from "claiming for oneself" to "being overbearing" is not difficult to see, and that shifted even further in French to "making or implying unwarranted claims to dignity, authority, or knowledge".  English adopted the word with the French meaning.

From Harvey Herman:

What is the etymology of alien?  Which came first, the "foreigner" meaning or the "extraterrestrial" meaning?

Click to visit an alien web site.Alien is, perhaps to some, surprisingly old.  English adopted it from Old French in the 14th century.  The French took it from Latin alienus "of or belonging to another person or place", from alius "other, another".  The -en suffix was added to denote "having the characteristics of".  Alien originally referred to something or someone that was "strange" or "not of one's own".  By the 15th century it was used to refer to "foreigners", and by the 16th century it referred also to "foreign things".  It was not until the 20th century that the word came to be applied to "extraterrestrials".   The OED identifies the source of the first usage with this meaning as the June, 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.  

It was in this century, too, that alien came to refer to introduced plants that become naturalized.  The Indo-European root is al- "beyond", which also gave us alias and alibi, among others.

From Francine Tan:

How did the phrase steal [someone's] thunder come about?  Did it have something to do with a Greek myth?

The origin of this phrase is far removed from Greek mythology, but there is a tenuous link between its origin and Greece in that it has to do with the theatre.  John Dennis, a playwright and critic (born 1657), wrote a play called Appius and Virginia (1709).  He was also involved in the production, and he created a sound effect of thunder using a sheet of tin.  Unfortunately his play stank on ice and was cancelled due to audience demand.  Shortly thereafter, Dennis happened to attend the same theater for a production of Macbeth when he heard his sound effect.  He is said to have remarked, "Damn them!...they will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder!"  The term came then to be used for any situation in which one's ideas or work was used by another for his advantage.  It first appeared in print in 1900.


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