Issue 116, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Ray Adams:

What's the origin of kudos?  I sent a congratulatory word to a college of mine and without thinking used this word, as in "kudos to Mike for a job well done".

"Gosh, gee," Mike says, "thanks, I didn't think you'd noticed!"

Kudos is simply Greek for "praise".  It is thought to have entered English as university slang.  By 1799 we have a back-formed verb kudize "to praise", so kudos itself was probably in use prior to that, though the first known recorded use of kudos comes from 1831.  Thereafter we find it used by the likes of Disraeli and Darwin.  Darwin wrote, in one of his letters: "Lyell has read about half of the volume in clean sheets, and gives me very great kudos."

Pronunciation in Britain is "cue-doss" while in America it is "koo-doze".  As with many Greek words, -os indicates a singular noun and is pronounced -oss, not -oze.  Many people assume kudos is the  plural form, with the singular being a kudo.  They are wrong.  Just wrong.

There was once a computer operating system called QDOS.  Was it named by a Brit, so that it sounded like kudos, or is that simply a coincidence?

From Lee Daniel Quinn:

The word cobweb is the problem.  I know that cob is the old term for a spider, therefore, a cobweb is a spider web.  The problem is that, in my house (and the houses of a few other people I know), there are cobwebs and spider webs.  A cobweb is a single strand of dust, whereas spider webs are multi-stranded in a pattern.  I can find no term for cobweb/spider web that is as I describe above, so I turn to you for help. 

Indy walked through cobwebs -- ick!  At least it wasn't a snake.  He hates snakes.You actually have the word you seek already.  Cobweb does mean "spider web" in its earliest incarnations (14th century).  However, less than one hundred years later it was already being used to refer to similar material produced by insects (versus arachnids), and one hundred years after that, it referred to "any musty accumulation".  

The cobwebs to which you refer are actually single strands of spider thread that collect dust (versus a complete spider web).  Based on the history of meaning discussed above, you can probably get away with calling spider webs and spider strands cobwebs, especially if they are dusty.

While we're at it, we should discuss the etymology of cobweb.  It is, as you suggest, formed from cob "spider" and webCob was originally coppe (as in Middle English coppeweb, 1323) and later cop.  It derived from Old English attercop "spider", which was formed from atter "poison" and coppe "head".  Coppe is thought by some to be related to cob "ear of corn" which would make a cob more a "head of corn".  We don't hear other uses of cob much here in the U.S., but in Britain it has other meanings: "nut" (shaped like a head), "horse" (has a large head) and "male swan" (chief or "head" swan) and a type of (head-shaped) "loaf".  Some think the links between these words tenuous, at best.

From Christina:

We conjugate verbs, and bacteria undergo a form of sexual reproduction called conjugation.  And then there are conjugal visits [in prison, for example].  What is the history of the word conjugate and how did it end up with what seems to be two very different meanings?

Conjugate derives from the past participle stem of conjugare "to yoke together", formed from con- "together" and jugare "join, yoke, marry".  It first appears in English in the early 16th century with the meaning "to inflect a verb".  Less than 40 years later it was being used to mean "to yoke together, marry, join".  The sense with verbs is "to join the stem of a verb with a suffix".  The biological sense (bacteria) arose in the mid-19th century.

Conjugal means simply "of or pertaining to marriage or husband and wife" (those who have been joined), so that conjugal visits at your local prison are visits between a married prisoner and his or her spouse.

The Indo-European root at work here is yeug- "to join", making yoke and yoga ("union" in Sanskrit) related words, along with jugular which means, etymologically, "collar bone", the collar bone resembling a yoke.

From Karen Fielding:

I am interested in the etymology of the word spring.

This is timely as we discussed Lent in last week's Spotlight.  Lent is an old word for "spring".  Spring itself came to refer, in the 16th century, to "the season of new growth", taken from the phrase "spring of the year".  That was a reference to the notion of new growth bursting forth (imagine those time-lapse videos showing plants growing and flowers opening.  You get the idea) after winter.  Prior to that, in Old English, spring referred to "water rising from the ground" and "the source or head of a stream or river".  Today it is the former meaning which remains.  The sense in all of these uses is "rapid movement", and the Indo-European root with that meaning is sprengh-.  Other Germanic languages have similar words: German and Dutch springen means "jump", just like the English verb form of the word, though Swedish springa retains more of the "rapid movement" sense as it means "run".

From Colin Jensen:

The other day I accidentally said, "There's more than one way to skin a cat," at which point I cringed and changed the subject.  What in the world does that mean?

It makes us cringe, too.  Who would want to skin a cat?  Why?  Well, we've found references toClick to visit a PBS site about cats. (For you in the UK, PBS=informative). "skinning a cat" being an indication of "cheapness" - one who would skin a cat might also be one who would skin a flea (another cliché referring to "cheapness").  However, we've not found a direct link between skin a cat with that meaning and the phrase there's more than one way to skin a cat.  But (and it's a big but) to skin the cat is also a gymnastic move which is defined thus: "to perform a gymnastic exercise involving passing the feet and legs between the arms while hanging by the hands from a horizontal bar and so drawing the body up and over the bar".  This term dates from at least 1845 (in the U.S.), whereas there's more than one way to skin a cat dates from several years later.  Perhaps these phrases are related, though it's difficult to imagine more than one way to perform the gymnastic move.

There was an old song Care Will Kill a Cat.

Hang sorrow, care will kill a cat, vp-tailes all, and a poxe on the hangman.

- Ben Johnson, Every Man in his Humour, 1598

Then we have the expressions curiosity killed the cat and there's more ways to kill a cat than choking it with cream.  Devising imaginative deaths for cats seems to have been a popular pastime in days of yore.  Good job they have nine lives.

Since we mentioned that someone who would skin a cat was one who was cheap or miserly, we figured we should mention skinflint.  This is someone who would actually skin a flint.  We don't use flint so much today, or at least we rarely have to handle it, so this doesn't immediately make sense.  Yet, in days of yore (sorry), flint was a common household item.  A piece of this stone could be broken into smaller bits which could all be used to start a fire.  A skinflint was one who would break a piece of flint down to its thinnest layer or "skin" in order to save a penny (or less!) buying new flint.  This term dates from the late 17th century.


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