Issue 112, page 1

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Spotlight on...

table manners

Every week we sit at our desks and try to come up with an interesting topic for Spotlight.  Fortunately, this language of ours is so rich that almost any word we choose has something to recommend it.  Take... er... well, desk.  The Middle English word deske, was borrowed from the Latin desca, presumably by monks or other Latin-speaking clerics.  It originally meant simply a flat surface on which some work such as writing or counting could be done.  The same goes for table which comes from Latin tabula which could mean "a plank", "a flat board", "a writing tablet", "a painting", or even "a flat piece of ground".  It was the "writing tablet" sense which gave rise to tabula rasa (literally, "scraped surface") meaning a "blank slate".  Etymologically, the tabula of tabula rasa is related to both table and tavern, and rasa is related to razor.

Ultimately, desk comes from the same Indo-European root as dish, discus and dais.  Note that the Old English word disc ("plate") was pronounced "dish".  Also, the German tisch and Dutch disch both mean "table".  Incidentally, the use of dish to mean a "pretty woman" is a lot older than one might imagine.  It goes back at least as far as the early 17h century...

He will to his Egyptian dish again.

- Shakespeare, Anthony and Cleopatra, 1606

Of course, back in the Middle Ages, most food was served on dishes made of wood or on pieces of flat bread, both of which were known as trenchers.  This word has the same root as trench, as a trencher was originally a knife or other cutting tool (and trenches are "cut" in the earth).  Eventually, by association, the cutting-board became known by the name of the cutting implement.  To this day, one occasionally hears the term trencherman used for someone who is especially fond of eating.

The verb to dish means, of course, "to serve [as food]" but to dish the dirt means "to gossip".  This slang expression has given rise to another use of dish as a noun meaning "scandalous gossip".

Getting back to the Middle Ages (would that we could), it was the practice at great houses for everyone to eat together.  The lord and his lady sat at the head of the table and the servants at the other end with the salt-cellar in the middle.  That is why the expression below the salt means "socially inferior".  Presumably the nobs at the top end would eat the finer cuts of meat while the servants would eat an offal pie (a.k.a. "a numble pie", a.k.a. "an humble pie").

Incidentally, lord is from the Old English hlafeweard or "loaf keeper" and lady is from hlaefdiger or "loaf kneader".  The -dige portion of hlaefdiger is related to dough and duff.  The latter word is the northern English form of dough and is found in the names of those peculiarly English puddings plum duff and figgy duff.

Forms which parallel lord and lady exist in other languages, too.  Swedish, servants address their mistress as matmoder or "meatmother" and in German brotherr (i.e. brodt-herr, "bread-lord") means "employer".

For some reason, we're suddenly hungry.  Now, where did we put those cookies?

How do we know all this stuff?  Why not visit our bookstore and find out?


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Last Updated 02/11/01 02:08 AM