Issue 117, page 2

Search Home FAQ Links Site map Book Store


New Ask Us Theory About
AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes)

Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Joseph R. Schmitt:

I have always thought the term petered out referred to a fuse or powder trail which lost fire before reaching the charge, as in mining, where the expression is used to denote the end of a vein, or as with a flintlock or cannon, where the fire must be led to the main charge.  I find no proof.

Joseph Schmitt - don't you make chocolate truffles in San Francisco?  Oh, sorry, that's Joseph  Schmidt.  Well, not-the-truffle-guy-Joseph, petered out is one of those phrases that the OED claims is of unknown etymology.  However, we've done a little mining of our own and have found a couple of possible explanations for the phrase, though there's little to no proof for either of them.

Charles Funk admits that the phrase's origin is not known, but he guesses that it might come directly from St. Peter, who, in the Garden of Gethsemane, went from an ear-cutting defense of Christ to a lily-livered denial in a very short time.  It's not a huge leap from that image to the meaning of peter out: "to diminish gradually and come to an end."  However, Ernest Weekley thinks it could come from French péter "fart" and refers us to the term fizzle out, another onomatopoeic term (from the sound of the fuse on a firecracker or the like sputtering out).  Yet Paul C. Beale, editor of our copy of Eric Partridge's A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, likes the St. Peter story.

The term dates from the early 18th century in the U.S.  The first recorded usage is as mining slang, referring to a mineral petering out.

Another word which probably comes from St. Peter is peter meaning something which is secured with a lock.  This is because St. Peter was depicted holding the keys to heaven.  In the early 1600s a peter meant a trunk but it now survives only as British criminal slang for a "safe" or a "jail cell".  (Though, of course, in Britain, that would be written "gaol cell".)

From Lillian:

Where does the name of the city Buffalo come from? What about the Ozarks?

That is apparently in dispute.  One source indicates that it derives from the name of an Indian (Native American) chief who lived along what is now called Buffalo Creek.  However, a more convincing source (An Outline of Buffalo's History), claims that the creek was called Buffalo Creek some time before the town was founded and named.  It suggests the following:

The early village is briefly known as "New Amsterdam." But early residents do not approve of the name. They intend to call their new home "Buffalo." Although no one seems to know exactly where the name came from, it sticks. The name may have been adopted from a local Indian word, "Buffaloe." Or perhaps it came from "beau fleuve," French for "beautiful river". These are only two of the many popular legends.

The word buffalo itself appears to have come to English from Portuguese bufalo, which originally referred to the water buffalo.  (Real mozzarella cheese is made from buffalo milk.  Accept no substitutes!)  The Latin parent was bufalus, an alternate form of bubalus.  The Romans borrowed this from from Greek boubalos "gazelle" which is thought to derive from bous "ox".  The Indo-European root is *gwous "ox, bull, cow".

The Ozarks.  Click to learn more.The name Ozarks, given to an American mountain range, is purportedly a corruption of French aux arcs, one source claiming that the French phrase is a truncated form of a longer phrase meaning "toward Arkansas Post", a fur trading post in the 18th century.  Of course, Arkansas was also the name of a tribe of Indians in the area (the lower Mississippi region) who were also known as the Quapaw, and the French phrase may have been referring to them and the mountains in which they lived.  Ozarks first appeared in print in 1809. So, then, where does Arkansas come from?  One source claims that it is the French interpretation of a Sioux word, acansa (presumably spelled phonetically), which supposedly means "downstream place".  We haven't been able to find proof of that.  We do know that the original form was Arkansea, and the French apparently added that s at the endIf you're wondering, now, about Kansas, which is contained in Arkansas, it is said to derive from  the Kansa Indians' name for themselves, meaning "people of the south wind". Of course, we found a reference to Arkansas meaning "south wind", too.

From Eric Woods:

Where does the word imp come from?

It is from the Old English impian "to graft" and first appears around 1000 AD. This meaning still persists in falconry - if a bird breaks a feather, the feather of another bird may be imped into its wing. Other Germanic languages have similar words: Old High German impfôn, German impfen, Danish ympe all mean "to graft" and there is even a French verb enter "to graft" (no, it doesn't mean "to enter") which seems to have the same origin. 

By the early 1200s, an imp had come to mean a "graft, scion or sapling" and before long (c. 1400), it was being used metaphorically, in precisely the same way that we might call John Smith a "scion of the house of Smith". Thus, the author who, in 1412, referred to a prince as "the kynges ympe" was not being insulting, merely allegorical.

The next shift of meaning came when this poetic allegory became over-used and imp became accepted as a synonym for child. Finally, imp (meaning "child") of hell became a cliché as in this quote:

An ympe though I be of helle, deathe and dampnacyon.

- Bale, Gods Promises, 1538

Perhaps a modern equivalent of imp of hell (both literally and as a cliché) would be "spawn of Satan".

Fine word damp-nacyon, don't you think? Mike says it reminds him of Wales. 

From Julie Daniel:

I found reference to the word zooterkins in The Mother Tongue: English and how it got that way. The author refers to the word as a pretty "lively" word in the 16th century. What does it mean? I found one reference on the internet where someone believes it might be a Dutch word sooterkins meaning a "project that is started, botched, and quickly abandoned".

The closest English word we can find is sooterkin, meaning "sweetheart, mistress". We can find no reference to a "project that is started, botched, and quickly abandoned" but you are correct to suppose a Dutch origin. Sooterkin probably derives from the hypothetical Old Dutch *soetekijn, from soet "sweet". Having entered English, the soot- portion quickly lost its "sweet" connotation and became confused with soot thus, in 1795, it was used to mean "a chimney-sweep". The word could also mean simply "Dutchman", though. 

Over its history, this word has enjoyed several bizarre meanings including "an imaginary kind of afterbirth formerly attributed to Dutch women" as in this passage (Note, in the 1650s a stove was probably a "foot-warmer containing burning charcoal, such as is used in the Low Countries") : 

There goes a Report of the Holland Women, that together with their Children, they are delivered of a Sooterkin, not unlike to a Rat, which some imagine to be the Off-spring of the Stoves. 

- Cleveland, c.1658 

We are unsure how to understand this except as a product of the long-standing enmity between England and the Netherlands. 

From Steve:

I have tried to find the origin of the British word lorry for many years now.  Can you explain its derivation?

It's all pretty much guesswork, Steve.  In 1838 the word makes its first appearance in the writtenA lorry.  Click to visit the source of this picture, which offers a strangely interesting selection of UK links. record with the meaning "long flat wagon without sides, or a truck or wagon used on railways."  The railroad connection has led some to suggest that the word is simply a metathesis of rolley or rulley "tram used in coal mining".  It was not until the twentieth century that lorry came to refer to "a large motor vehicle used for carrying goods by road."  

Since the first occurrence of the word is in the northwest of England, it is thought by others that it may be related to a northern England dialect word lurry "pull".

Finally, we can't completely rule out an eponymous derivation.  This would assume that a Mr. Laurie (or some such spelling) had invented this kind of wagon and lent his name to it.  (Like  Mrs. Amelia Bloomer and her eponymous underwear.)


Comments, additions? Send to Melanie & Mike:
Copyright © 1995-
2001 TIERE
Last Updated 04/17/01 07:54 PM