Issue 120, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From From Shreeram Shetty:

I heard that the word agnostic was coined by Thomas Huxley.  Is this true?  Or did he just give it its present meaning?

T.H. Huxley.  Click to follow the link.R.H. Hutton, in a letter of March 13, 1881, claimed that T.H. Huxley (1825-1895) suggested the word  agnostic to encompass his belief that God was unknowable.  He built the word using gnostic, which came from Greek gnostikos "pertaining to knowledge", and added the prefix a- "not".  The word was not known in Greek as, in Greek, the ending -ikos was not used with the prefix a-.  Anyhow, Huxley coined the term in response to the religious gnostics of his time, who felt that God was knowable.

T.H. Huxley was the grandfather of Aldous Huxley and a friend of Charles Darwin, as well as a  supporter of Darwin's theories.  His works and views on religion, philosophy and evolution greatly influenced the major thinkers of the 19th century.

R.H. Hutton was, by the way, editor of the Spectator and wrote mostly theological essays.  He has preserved, in his 1881 letter, a description of exactly when Huxley supposedly first uttered the word agnostic publicly: 

Suggested by Professor Huxley at a party held previous to the formation of the now defunct Metaphysical Society, at Mr. James Knowles's house on Clapham Common, one evening in 1869, in my hearing. He took it from St. Paul's mention of the altar to "the Unknown God".

From Jamie Vitonis:

I would like to know the origin of loophole.

The narrow, slit-like windows often found in Medieval castles were called loopholesLoop is a now obsolete word for "window", so a loophole was a "window hole".  These narrow windows were used for defense of the castle - it was easy to launch arrows and other projectiles out of the castle through such slits, but awfully difficult to get them in.  So it would make sense that this word might come to mean "some means of escape" and then "some technicality that allows one to evade some consequence of a contract".  

However, that's not where today's loophole comes from!  Well, at least not directly.  Instead, it has been suggested that it comes from Dutch loopgat, the loop part of which comes from loopen "to run" (related to English lope and leap).  It was probably influenced by the similar word loophole "window slit", perhaps even by folk etymology of the type we tried to fool you with above.

Loophole in the "technicality that allows evasion" sense was first used by the poet Andrew Marvell in 1663.

From D.K. Shaw:

I'm curious as to the origins of the term best man.  Is it simply the "best friend" of the groom, or is there more to it?  I recently ran across an unsubstantiated theory that it referred to the "best swordsman" in the clan who would help fend off the bride's family if they came to steal her back [having been kidnapped for marriage'.  I imagine the truth is much more prosaic.

Well, you mention clan, and best man does, in fact, come from Scotland.  However, it simply meant "a friend of the groom".  There was also a best maid who was equivalent to our maid of honorBest man dates from 1814 in English.

The practice of marriage by bride abduction is certainly performed in some cultures (such as the Hmong of Laos) and remnants survive elsewhere (Tibet, for example).  While we have heard the story that the best man was a friend who helped the groom capture his bride  from another tribe or clan, we've yet to see any evidence of this or even that bride-abduction was ever practiced in Britain. 

From Ron Martina:

I just wanted to know the etymology of tantalize.

This word has its roots in the Greek myth of Tantalus. He was a titan, the son ofTantalus - click to follow the link. Zeus and Pluto (a nymph, not the god) and was said to be king of Phrygia.  The titans were enemies of the gods and fought them in a great war known as the titanomachy which was won by the gods.

The gods meted out individual punishments to the titans for their hubris and Tantalus was sentenced to stand chin-deep in the river Tartarus.  The fruit-laden branches of a tree above him pulled their fruit from his reach when he tried to eat, and the river water receded when he tried to drink. The word tantalize was formed by adding the suffix -ize to Tantalus. The suffix comes from French -iser, which itself comes from Latin -izare and Greek -izein, all of which form a verb from an adjective or a noun. 

The word tantalize first appears in 1597, and it meant "to subject to torture or teasing like that inflicted upon Tantalus." The meaning of the word today is not quite as intense as it was originally, but it still means "excite another by exposing something desirable while keeping it out of reach."

Tantalus' fellow titan Sisyphus was condemned to roll a perfectly spherical rock up a perfectly conical mountain.  Whenever he managed to get it onto the summit it would roll back down again.  Now, that's rock and roll.

From Feisal:

What is the etymology of several; does it come from the number seven?

No, but it's easy to see why one might think so.  Instead, it came to English in the early 15th century from Anglo French several, which came from medieval Latin separalis and ultimately from Latin separ "separate, distinct".  We find that meaning still today in the legal phrase joint and several, meaning "together and separate" (which is first recorded in the early 16th century).  This "separate" meaning slowly metamorphosed into "a number of different [things]", the notion of "separateness" being taken a step further.  That usage we find in the early 16th century.  By 1661 the term had come to mean specifically "more than two or three but not very many", and that is still its chief meaning today.  

Another sort of legal meaning of several arose in the early 15th century, with the notion of something being "privately owned" versus something common, as in this phrase written by Gervase Markham in his treatise "Cheap and Good Husbandry" regarding the management of domestic animals: "This ground is best if it be seuerall and inclosed, yet may be bred vpon though it bee open and in common."  This sense came about due to a slightly different change to the notion of "separateness". 


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