Issue 115, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From a Reader:

Where on earth does in the doldrums come from?

Well, you are correct to ask precisely "where on earth", for the doldrums refers to a belt of calm winds and waters on either side of the equator. One dictionary notes that this area is calm because the trade winds there "meet and neutralize each other", but that is not exactly the meteorological mechanism at work in the doldrums. However, the dictionary's simplified explanation will have to do! Anyhow, sailing ships would often languish in the doldrums, waiting for a good wind to get them moving again. Time spent in the doldrums was often depressing and boring, and so the term in the doldrums was used figuratively for anyone who was down or depressed. 

Oddly enough, the doldrums did not initially refer to that area near the equator. It was a general term for any ship that was in calm waters and winds and making no headway. It is thought that the term derives from the word dold "stupid, dull", a variant of dullIn the doldrums is first recorded in the early 19th century with the meaning "in low spirits". The general nautical use turns up about 10 years after, and the specific nautical use (the equatorial doldrums) had arisen by the mid-19th century.

From Christian Grundmann:

I read up a lot on the origin of Adam's apple but many of the details remain obscure to me.  The simile of the fruit and the cartilage was apparently first made by the Arabs, but when was that and what was the Arabic word?  When did the simile pass to European languages?  Why was the original fruit in the phrase the grenade when most (all?) medieval paintings depict the forbidden fruit as the apple? 

The Adam's apple.  Click to  learn more.So many questions!  Let's address grenade first.  You note that this fruit was the first to be identified as the "forbidden fruit".  In English it is pomegranate, meaning "granular, or seedy, apple", referring to the many seeds in the fruit.  We've discussed this word before, but we'll remind you that grenade and -granate are the same words, basically, so that grenade simply means "granular, or seedy" just as  granite is a "granular" rock.  The pomegranate was an important, well-loved fruit to the Hebrews, having served as decoration on the robes of high priests, and appearing in many Hebrew place names (the Hebrew word for pomegranate is rimmon).  It was cultivated in Egypt long before Moses was there.  These are reasons that Hebrew scholars select the pomegranate as the most likely identity of the forbidden fruit of Eden.  It wasn't until Christians began depicting the Eden story in paintings that the apple gained popularity as the fruit of Genesis.  Apples had been cultivated in Europe for some time.

As for Adam's apple, it appears in an English dictionary of 1755, suggesting that it had been in use for at least some time prior to that.  We could find no reference to an Arabic source.  The cartilage that protrudes in the center of, especially, men's necks was equated with a piece of the forbidden fruit (by the 18th century it was popularly the apple) that had got stuck in Adam's throat. It served as a reminder of Adam's fall.  You'll notice that this cartilage is not visually evident in most women.

Interestingly, prior to referring to a part of the male anatomy, Adam's apple was a name given to the bergamot (for you Americans, that's a citrus which you would know best as being a flavoring in Earl Grey tea).  One cite states that this fruit was so named because the depressions in the fruit's skin were said to be made by Adam's teeth.  This usage dates from the end of the 16th century.

From Bob Band:

I got an e-mail message (is it acceptable to say simply "an e-mail"?) yesterday in which a reference was made to someone who stayed to help clean up after a party as "a real trooper".  I believe that this should be trouper, not trooper, on the principle that this idiomatic use of the word, meaning "someone who keeps going even under difficult conditions" is theatrical, in the tradition of "the show must go on".

Technically you are correct.  While both words derive ultimately from Latin troppus "flock", one was adopted for military use while the other was applied to performers.  However "a reliable, uncomplaining person; a staunch supporter or colleague" is, indeed, a trouper, likening someone to an actor or dancer who goes on despite hardship or impediments.

Troupe "group of performers" dates from the early 19th century in English, having come from French, and trouper "a performer belonging to a troupe" dates from the late 19th century.  Trouper as in "she's a real trouper" dates from the 20th century; it was already a cliché as evidenced by this quotation from 1959: "The phrase ‘she’s a trouper’ now has an old-fashioned and faintly derogatory air and is usually bandied about when someone continues to play with a high temperature or a shattering bereavement."

Troop "a body of soldiers" is earlier, dating from at least the 16th century and deriving from Old French trope.  A trooper is therefore a member of such a military group (1640), or, by extension, a certain type of law enforcement officer (especially in the U.S., where we have state troopers, who are state police.  They've been called troopers since the early part of the 20th century).

The OED does cite an example of trooper being used when trouper was intended, from 1951: "Nina Hamnett (she was a fine trooper)."  The expression forlorn hope comes from a misunderstanding of the Dutch verloren hoop which means "abandoned troop".  The Dutch does, in fact, sound very similar to "forlorn hope".

By the way, we say an email.  Malcolm and Barb might suggest an e-letter, but we figure that an email is here to stay.

From Tex Aggie:

A recently wed co-worker of mine received a call from his somewhat overbearing new bride.  I handed him the phone and told him it was his battle-axe.  After the call, he asked about what I meant by battle-axe.  I explained the meaning, but I had no idea regarding the origin.  I searched several sites and cannot find anything.

All right, Tex, we're going to help you but only because Melanie is a Texan (and because we have a catEna Sharples, a true battle axe, from Coronation Street. named Aggie).  A battle-axe in this sense is "a formidable or domineering woman".  The metaphor evokes the intimidating nature of certain women by alluding to the terror experienced when encountering a ferocious weapon on the field of battle.  The term, with this meaning, arose at the end of the 19th century.  We particularly like this, the earliest quotation given by the OED: "Say, there was a battle-ax if ever you see one. She had a face on her that’d fade flowers."

One source suggests that stand-up comics popularized the phrase in the 1950s.

A good example of a battle-axe from American television is Endora, Samantha's mother in Bewitched.  Our UK TV fans might recall Ena Sharples from Coronation Street.

From Shirbert:

Where does the term broads referring to females come from?

This one isn't an easy derivation to trace.  One source suggests that it comes from broad in the beam, a reference to wide hips, especially in women.  Another feels that it is simply a misspelling of bawd, a word that meant "a pander, one who arranged prostitution".  It originally applied to men only, but by the 17th century it had come to refer to women.  We see no evidence for the bawd derivation, however, especially considering the approximate date that broad was first recorded.  That was 1914, in a book on criminal slang.  The entry reads: "Broad,...A female confederate; a female companion; a woman of loose morals."  This suggests that it was probably being spoken for several years, if not decades, before it was recorded.  One problem with the broad in the beam derivation is that the phrase doesn't appear in the written record until 1924.  However, these dates are close enough to make the derivation plausible.


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2001 TIERE
Last Updated 03/06/01 05:35 PM