Issue 122, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From John Olsen:

Where does pedigree come from?

It came to English in the late 14th to early 15th century and is first recorded in 1410, when it was written pedicru.  It has been traced to Norman French pied de grue "crane's foot".  What on earth does a crane's foot have to do with genealogy?  Well, descendants in a pedigree are indicated with something like this /|\, branching out from the names of their parents.  That mark does somewhat resemble the foot of a crane.  Pied comes from Latin pes "foot", and grue from Latin grus "crane".  The suggestion that pedigree derives from Norman French par degrés "by degrees" (which is how names in a pedigree are listed) is superficially plausible but it lacks any supporting evidence.

Speaking of cranes, the Indo-European root from which grus comes is ger¿- (where ¿ represents schwa), which means "crane" and also "to cry hoarsely".  It is from the "hoarse" meaning that English crow derives.

One of the old variant spellings of pedigree is pettigrew but the British surname Pettigrew (first recorded in the 13th century) does not appear to be related.  None of the Pettigrews we consulted knew exactly where the name originated, but the most popular guess seemed to be a French placename. 

From Lisa Marty:

What is the history of the English word butter?

Old English took the word as butere from Latin butyrum.  The Romans adopted their word from Mmmmm butter!  Click for more information. Greek bouturon, and other German languages have very similar cognates (German butter and Dutch boter, to name two).  For some time etymologists suggested that bouturon came from bous "cow" (related to English cow) and turos "cheese".   However, now many scholars are suggesting that the Greek word is not so easily dissected and that it may have been a  borrowed word from the Scythians.  Apparently, early forms of the word in Greek don't match the bous + turos formula.

The Scythians were a nomadic people who wandered through Asia and eastern Europe, and the Greek historian Herodotus wrote that the Scythians so loved butter that they had blind slaves churn it so that they would not be distracted from their important work.  It may have been the Scythians who introduced butter to the Greeks; hence the suggestion that the Greek word was borrowed from these nomads.

One etymologist notes that the previous Old English word for butter was smeoru, which gave English smear.  However, smeoru actually appears to have referred more to "oil", "grease", or "lard". Another related word, via Danish, is smorgasbord. 

In modern Greek turos turns up in tiropita "cheese bread" and English has borrowed it to form tyrosine, a substance found in cheese.  Another English word that is related to bouturos is butyric as in butyric acid, the chemical that makes old socks smell so bad and rind-washed cheeses taste so good.

From Elisa Amsterdam:

I've heard a couple of suggestions on how the term green room came to mean "the room backstage where the musicians and their friends hang out before and after concerts".  One story says that it comes from the gypsies who would perform on stages in front of their caravans, and the green room simply meant the "great outdoors" (behind the caravan, in the green field).  Green rooms are invariably painted green (although in touring 37 cities recently, I found that there's been a real move to burgundies and grays).  So do you have any idea where the phrase truly originated?

Oh dear, what a great, but wrong, suggested etymology for green room.  We'll have to add that toThe green room at NBC Studios. our collection.  Meantime, green room with the meaning you suggest (though not restricted to musicians; it arose in the theatre) dates in writing from 1701, in Colley Cibber's Love Makes the Man: "I do know London pretty well, and the Side-box, Sir, and behind the Scenes; ay, and the Green-Room, and all the girls and Women-actresses there."  Most believe that green room simply arose because such rooms were painted green, or perhaps because one of the more famous of such rooms, at London's Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, was painted green.

There are other suggestions: that the name comes from the color green being soothing to actors' eyes after the harsh limelight of the stage.  Well, if you read our discussion of limelight in Issue 118, you'll recall that limelight wasn't in use until 1840.  That is over 100 years after the term green room is first recorded.  Another spurious etymology has it that the green room was where actors were paid in cool, green cash.  Think again, because in 1701 actors would have been paid with coin (if at all).

From James Morrison:

It is possible to reasonably assume where the word haywire came from, but why and when did we come to use the phrases gone haywire or went haywire?

To go haywire dates, in writing, from 1929 in the U.S.  It meant "to go wrong; to become excited or distracted; to become mentally unbalanced" much as it does today.  The phrase was formed using haywire "wire used to tie a bale of hay", again originating in the U.S. (1917), this time in the early 20th century.  The notion is one of haywire being difficult to manage or handle, or the fact that, when it broke, it could snap about dangerously.  Interestingly, before the first recorded use of haywire meaning "wire used to tie a bale of hay", we find haywire "poorly equipped, roughly contrived" (1905), which derives from the practice of using haywire for makeshift repairs.

To go haywire is probably patterned after phrases like to go crazy or to go mad.

From Taj:

Being a doula is not the same as being a midwife.  I'd like to know what the difference is in terms of the words.  I'm wondering how similar these two roles are and have been to each other in the past.

You are correct, today a careful distinction is made between a midwife and a doula.  One kind of doula  provides comfort and emotional and physical support to the expectant mother during labor, and another type helps the new mother and family after the baby has been born.  The midwife, on the other hand, delivers the baby.  The doula performs no clinical duties, while the midwife's work is more like that of a doctor or nurse.

Doula comes from Modern Greek doula, which derives from Greek dialectical doula "servant-woman, slave".  The word appears in Biblical Greek as doulos "slave, bondsman, servant, attendant".  One source claims that the feminine form, doula, actually referred to "the most important female slave or servant in the ancient Greek household, who probably helped the lady of the house through childbirth."  We have found no evidence to support that specific distinction, but that does not affect today's meaning.  Visit this doula site for more information on what doulas do!


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