Issue 114, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Michele Beachler:

I received my first exposure to the word thalweg in a river engineering class.  I have pondered its etymology every since.

An uncommon word in everyday parlance, it is pronounced "tall-vegg", which should give you a clue asThe Adonis Valley.  Click to visit a site of photographs of Lebanon. to its derivation.  It was borrowed from German in the early 19th century and today is, in fact, pretty much confined to geographical and engineering discussions.  The German form is also thalweg (or talweg, the reformed German spelling), and it is formed from thal "valley" (cognate with English dale) and weg "way".  Its precise definition is "the line in the bottom of a valley in which the slopes of the two sides meet, and which forms a natural watercourse; also the line following the deepest part of the bed or channel of a river or lake".

Now, the next time a friend or colleague uses thalweg in conversation you will be well equipped to provide its etymology.

From John Barnes:

Albuquerque looks like Latin.  Is it just a name of a person and now a city? 

It is indeed.  The city in New Mexico, U.S., is named for a Spanish viceroy of New Spain, Francisco Fernandez de la Cueva Enriquez, Duque de Alburquerque y Marques de Cuellar (viceroy from 1701-1711).  The story has it that, in 1706, provisional governor Francisco Cuervo y Valdes suggested that the town be named after the viceroy as incentive for the viceroy to grant villa status to the town, which didn't quite meet villa standards (requiring 30 families to be living in the area; there were only 18 at the time).  The governor got what he wanted and the viceroy got his name in lights, as it were.  The full, original name of the villa was San Francisco de Alburquerque.  Phillip V of Spain apparently did not like that name and changed it to San Felipe de Alburquerque (not a bit narcissistic, that Phillip).  The king's concern with such details didn't pay off in the end, as the San Felipe de was dropped from the town's name (just takes too long to say!).

Today some may tell you that the city was actually named after a famous Portuguese soldier, Afonso de Albuquerque (1453-1515).  That is incorrect.  Interestingly, the soldier's name is Spanish in origin and comes from the name of a town in southwestern Spain, Alburquerque (the same place that the viceroy's dukedom is named after).  This word means, literally, "white oak", coming ultimately from Latin albus "white" and quercus "oak".  There was, as you may have guessed, an abundance of white oak trees in the original Alburquerque, in Spain.  And, yes, there is an extra "r" in the Spanish place name.  It was dropped in the States, perhaps by influence of the Portuguese soldier's version of the name, perhaps due to simple elision over time, or, as one legend claims, because a sign painter did not have enough room to include that "r".

From Mark Stinton:

I'm an Englishman living in the U.S. and I'm having a terrible time trying to find out why Austin Powers uses the term randy with reference to sexual desire.  What is the word origin here?  It appears to be a British term only and my work colleagues always quiz me about it.

The epitome of "randy"!  Click to visit Austin's site!This one is by no means cut and dried, but we'll give you some of the theories that exist.  First, several sources suggest that randy "wanton, lustful", which originally meant "having a rude, aggressive manner", and which was, curiously, applied exclusively to beggars, derives from rand "to rave, to rant".  Rand comes from a Flemish word, randen, a variant form of ranten "to rant".  The adjective randy first appears at the end of the 17th century, spelled randie.  The shift in meaning went from "rude, aggressive" to "disorderly, unruly" to "wanton, lustful" in less than 200 years, so that the sexual meaning had made it into the written record by 1847.

Another source has the rand derivation influenced by Hindustani randi-baz "a lecher".

Randy is British EnglishAmerican English speakers know it only from British television and media, and, as you suggest, the Austin Powers movies.  Mike Myers, the star and creator of those movies, is familiar with British English as he was raised in Canada by a Liverpudlian mother.   The closest American term is probably horny.

From Alex Wright:

What is the origin of the term to josh?

Why, that comes from Joshua in the Bible, of course!  No, we're just joshin'.  The verb to josh is actually said to be named after a more recent historical figure, one Josh Billings.  Well, allow us to clarify - Josh Billings was this fellow's pseudonym, and this fellow was Henry Wheeler Shaw.  He lived from 1818-1885 and was a very popular humorist in America, once he began his entertaining writing at the age of 45.  His most famous work began life as Essay on the Mule in 1859, and it was not accepted for publication.  He rewrote it in phonetic spelling the next year and it was accepted for publication by a New York paper.  The new title was "A Essa on the Muel" bi Josh Billings.  It was an immediate popular success.  In the 1870s he wrote an annual parody of The Old Farmer's Almanac called Josh Billings Farmers Allminax.  Today he is most remembered for his clever sayings, which can be found at several sites on the Web (here's one).   He toured the country giving comic lectures.

All right, now that you've read the above, consider this: the OED provides an example of josh from 1845, 15 years before Josh Billings' first publication: "Look out in future, and if you must Josh, why, give a private one."  Eric Partridge suggests that josh actually derives from Scottish joss "to jostle", with influence by Josh Billings, but the 1845 OED citation throws a wrench in the Josh Billings effect.  It is interesting to note that an 1852 quotation uses joss: "The squint eyed chap’s been jossin’ ye."   Both the 1845 and the 1852 quotations are American.

From Phil Baker:

Whenever I visit America I am always slightly annoyed that, as opposed to the rest of the world, where the word entree means "the beginning or opening course of a meal," the Americans insist on using the word for their main course.  I am perplexed on how such an obvious mistake has become mainstream.  Is there some kind of logical explanation for this?

Actually, there is indeed a good explanation for why Americans do this.  They got it from the English.  At some point in the 18th century, the English began using entree to mean "a ‘made dish’, served between the fish and the joint".   But in French, entrée  was defined as "qui se servent au commencement du repas" ("serving as the commencement of a meal").  So the English got it wrong first, and that "wrong" meaning simply stuck in America once it arrived here, while the French doubtless harangued the English so much about misuse of the term that the meaning was corrected in the U.K. (well, maybe not, but...).

In America the word eventually came to refer not to the 'made dish' (which was often a ham) but to the main course (usually a ham or some other meat).


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