Issue 121, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Susan Rollins:

I am a college student taking a paralegal program and in my Introduction to Business class, my professor has asked us to research the origin of the word cash.  Why do we use it when we talk about money or currency?  Where did this word come from?

Linnaeus. Click to learn more.It was either the French or the Italians who gave English this word - it was casse in French and cassa in Italian.  Both meant "money box", but they had come to refer also to the money itself by the time English borrowed the word in the 16th century.  Those Romance languages got casse/cassa from Latin capsa "box".  English lost the "money box" meaning in the 18th century and kept only the "money" meaning, so that now we hear the term cash box, which is etymologically redundant!  Capsa derives from capere "to hold", which also gave English capsicum "genus of peppers" (1644) and capsule (1652), among others.  Capsicum is usually explained as referring to the pepper fruit being a "case" for its seeds, though Linnaeus said that it came from Greek kapteo "to bite".  The active, or "hot", ingredient in peppers is called capsaicin.

From Carolyn Devine:

I would like to know the origin of hullabaloo.  I suspect it may be from another language, and it may be connected with carnival.

Though no one knows for sure, this word is thought to derive from halloo/hullo, the source of hello, with the balloo portion being a rhyming reduplication.  It first appears in writings from Scotland and the north of England and did not take its current form until the 20th century.  The first form in the written record is hollo-ballo from 1762.  The meaning has always been "tumultuous noise" or "commotion".  There is the suggestion that the baloo part is related to baloo "a lullaby word", deriving from the phrase bas le loup, supposedly part of an old French lullaby.  This sounds a bit iffy to us, as no one seems able to find this lullaby or explain why there is a wolf in it (loup means "wolf").

Another source claims that hullabaloo was the Irish word for "wailing at funerals", but again, there is no evidence to support this.

From Allysa:

What is the origin of titanic?

Why the Titans, of course!  In Greek mythology they were the six sons and six  daughters of Uranus, god of the heavens, and Gea, goddess of the earth.  We mentioned Tantalus, last week, as being one of the Titans.  He was descended from one of these 12 original Titans.  

The six sons were thrown into Tartarus by their father, Uranus.  As a result, Gea persuaded her daughters, the Titan women, to rise against Uranus.  They dethroned their father, liberated their banished brothers, and raised one of themselves (Cronus) as ruler of the world amid much sibling feuding.  Eventually, Cronus sired Zeus, after having swallowed all of Zeus' preceding siblings for fear one of them would dethrone him, as had been foretold.  Zeus' mother slipped Cronus a stone wrapped in cloth and escaped with her child.  When he was grown, he was reunited with his brothers and sisters after Cronus was given a potion that made him regurgitate his swallowed children.  It was then that the Titanomachia, or the war between Zeus and the ruling Titans, began.

Why did these mythological figures give their name to a word meaning "huge in size"?  The Titans were giants (being a child of gods and all tends to do that to one).  The word was first used to mean "colossal" in 1709.

From James Wooten:

Why is the letter y called a "wye"?  In most European languages, this letter is called either ipsilon or "the Greek I", reflecting its origin as a Greek letter borrowed into Latin.  One would expect that if English departed from this tradition, it would use a name based on the letter's sound.  The name "wye", which cannot be explained either way, seems strange to me..

The Romans imported the Greek letter upsilon , and the letter was then passed on in the Roman alphabet.  Upsilon was an altered form of the ancient letter V (from which we also get the modern U and V).  When adopted as V, it expressed the sounds of u and w.  When adopted as Y, it expressed the upsilon found in some Greek words adopted by Latin (e.g. asylum).

You're correct about "Greek I" being the name given to the letter in French and Spanish, and ipsilon being the German, Italian and Portuguese name of the letter.  The derivation of the English name "wy" is not known with certainty.  There is a grammatical treatise of 1150 which calls the "Greek Y" ui, something that might explain the English name of the letter.  A quote from 1573 makes a similar suggestion:

Y hath bene taken for a greeke vowel among our latin Grammarians a great while, which me thinke if we marke well we shall finde to be rather a diphthong: for it appeareth to be compounded of u and i, which both spelled together soundeth as we write "wy".

The letter represented by modern-day y goes all the way back to Old English, where it expressed the i-mutation of u.  Interestingly, the y used to be dotted, to distinguish it from another letter of runic origin which later fell into disuse.

From Barb Mosny:

Why is the letter w called "double u"?

When the Latin alphabet was adopted for use in English, in the 7th century, a letter was needed to represent the "w" sound that Latin had not possessed.  The Roman U or V (basically the same letter to them, and interchanged in English for some time, too) was closest to the English "w" sound, but using simply a U or V would have been too confusing.  Therefore, two V's (also known as "yous") were employed: vv.  By the 8th century, however, a rune was adopted to represent theTerry Jones.  Click to learn more about him. w in England, yet the vv had caught on in German and French writing.  The Norman invaders of England (in the 11th century) reintroduced the vv, now joined in what is called a ligature, as w, and by the 13th century it had completely replaced its runic equivalent in England.  It never lost its "double u" name, from England to France and back again.

Interestingly, as an aside, mispronouncing an r as a w, usually considered a speech defect, has actually been fashionable in the past!  Today we notice a subtle form of the w-for-r phenomenon, mostly in non-rhotic English speakers (i.e., speakers who do not pronounce final r's, such as the English).  You can just detect it in the speech of Terry Jones, well-known for his work with Monty Python, now a creator of films and documentaries (although he's Welsh, he's got what is mostly an English accent; Welsh-speakers tend to be rhotic).

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