Issue 124, 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 Arlen:

What is the origin of the word dough as in "money"?

Well, let's talk about dough "uncooked bread", first.  It has an interesting history.  It goes back to Old English dag "dough", which derives from the Indo-European root *dheigh- "to form, to knead".  That root gave us the prehistoric Germanic *daigaz "something kneaded", which gave rise to German teig, Dutch and Swedish deg, Danish dej, all meaning "dough".  The Indo-European root gave related words to other languages, such as Gothic digan and Avestan diz "mold, form".  Avestan was a dialect of Old Iranian, and it is from diz that we get the last element in the word paradise (literally "a walled garden" and, etymologically, the "place around which a wall is shaped").

Another English word related to dough is, perhaps surprisingly, lady.  It derives ultimately from Old English hlaefdige "kneader of bread", the -dige coming from *dheigh-.  The hlaef element is related to modern English loaf [of bread].

Now, why is dough a slang term for "money"?  For the same reason that bread is: one needs bread (food) to live, and money is what buys it.  Dough is simply another word for bread, or vice versa. That usage of dough dates from the 19th century in the U.S. and spread to Britain and elsewhere thereafter.  One source reports that there is even Cockney rhyming slang for that use of dough and that is cod's (short for cod's roe).

From Joellen:

I gave my little cousin a piggy back ride the other day and I suddenly wondered where the phrase piggy back came from. I knew this would be the place to find out! 

Piggyback!  That's a great question!  What does carrying someone on one's back have to do with pigs, anyhow?  Well, nothing, actually.  Instead, piggy back is an alteration of pig back, which is an alteration of pickback, which is an alteration of pickpack, which is - no, that's where it stops!  In fact, etymologists aren't sure whether the original form was pickback or pickpack (though the earliest surviving form is picbacke from 1565).  The important word is actually pick, which, in this case, is thought to be a variant of the verb pitch "throw".  The back element would refer to one's back (spinal area), while the pack element would be "bundle of items for carrying".  The notion here is one of "throwing" something over one's back, or "throwing" a pack on one's shoulder.  Isn't it funny how we have a tendency turn an unfamiliar word into something more familiar?  

From Mark Hotard:

I've looked everywhere but cannot find the origin of moot.

Well, dear, we're afraid you didn't look quite everywhere, because the origin of moot isn't that difficult to find.  However, we'll make it easy on you.  Moot dates back to Old English, where we find it in such words as Witenagemot, the Anglo-Saxon precursor of today's Parliament (literally "meeting of wise men").  Mot basically meant "meet", and it comes, in fact, from the same source as today's word meet.  That common source was the prehistoric Germanic word *motam "meeting".  So a moot point is a point that is discussed in a meeting.  At least that's what it was originally.  Today the meaning has been corrupted to "no longer important, irrelevant".  How did this happen?  It is probably a result of the mistaken interpretation of the word moot in a legal sense.  Moot court is the name given to a legal exercise wherein a hypothetical case is discussed and debated.  In the end, because the case is hypothetical, it is "irrelevant", and so moot took on that meaning over time and that, today, is the more common meaning, even though most proscriptivists consider it incorrect.

From Lee Daniel Quinn:

I've been deprived all my life.  When I get hiccups, all I do is "hic"!  Are there some people who actually "hiccup"?  Or perhaps, as in the case of "throw up", it means to "hic" up?

That's a good guess!  However, if we take a look at the word's earlier forms, we find hickock and then hicket.  These suggest a derivation from French hoquet, which is a diminutive form of of the sound made when one hiccups.  So a hiccup is, etymologically, a "little hic" (the hic being imitative of the sound made when one hiccups)!  The earliest English form (1544) evolved into the current English form in this fashion: hicket, hickot, hickock, hickop, hiccup, hiccough.   

Note that hiccough is the last in the series.  It was invented, erroneously, because someone apparently thought that cough should be part of a hiccup!

The hoquet form survives as the musical term hocket.  This is where members of a group of musicians take turns in playing the notes of a melody.  Unless this is performed with great skill it sounds like a series of hiccups.

From Nathan:

I looked on your site for fart's origin using the search page. Four matches came up, all of which referred to fart already having been examined, just not archived. Could you direct me to this examination? Also, this probably is not news to you but I remember seeing a word in a Latin dictionary - either fart or fartus or something very similar - which meant wind or to break winds. Hope that helps!

In our ancient past we did lose some back issues and archived material for various reasons (one of the best reasons was theft - someone stole our computers and our back-ups!).  That probably explains the references to fart elsewhere in the site but the lack of a real discussion of the word.  We'll make it up to you now.

Bodily function words go way back in the history of language.  Fart is one of those words.  In Middle English it was farten, while in Old English it was thought to be *feorten (that is a reconstruction as the Old English form has not survived in writing).  Cute girl with giant puffball (lycoperdon).  Click to learn more about puffballs.The Indo-European root is *perd- "to fart, to break wind".  That root gave Greek perdon "fart", which turns up in the genus name of a type of mushroom, the puffball, also know as the "wolf's fart" (from the literal translation of its Greek name: lycoperdon).  Puffballs shoot their spores out in what resembles a puff of smoke, hence this name and the English dialect name puck-fist ("Puck's fart"). 

The Indo-European root *perd- is thought by some to have been imitative of the sound of farting.  Other languages with similarly-derived words are German (farzen), Swedish (fjarta), Danish (fjerte), Russian (perdet), Polish (pierdziec), and Greek (pordizo).  Oh, and let's not forget English partridge!  Etymologically it is the "farting bird" because the name derives from Greek perdix, which refers to the whirring sound the bird makes when suddenly flushed out of hiding.  The Greeks thought it sounded like farting!

We can't move on before telling you that the earliest occurrence of a form of fart in the English written record comes from a song called The Cuckoo Song, or Sumer is icumen in, from about 1250:

Sumer is icumen in
Lhude sing cucu.
Groweth sed and bloweth med
And springth the woode nu.
Sing cucu!

Awe bleteth after lomb
Lough after calve cu.
Bulluc sterteth, bucke
Murie sing cucu.

Cucu, cucu.
Well singes thu, cucu,
Ne swik thu nauer nu.

Summer is a-coming in,
Loudly sing, cuckoo!
Groweth seed and bloweth mead
And springeth wood anew.
Sing, cuckoo!

Ewe now bleateth after lamb,
For calf now loweth cow,
Bullock rouseth, buck he
Merry sing, cuckoo

Cuckoo!  cuckoo!
Well thou singest, cuckoo,
O ne'er be silent now.

Note that the Victorian translation has verteth meaning "browseth", when in fact verteth is the earliest written example of vert, the Middle English version of fart!

There is another Indo-European root for fart, and it is *pezd-.  English feisty derives from it in a curious way: a feist was originally a "fart" in Middle English (related to the fist in puck-fist mentioned above).  It came to be applied to little, snappy mongrel dogs (why?  Perhaps because they were pesky, kind of like farts can be, or perhaps "full of fight" and "full of hot air" were synonymous then), and then to anyone who behaved like a little, snappy dog - full of fight!  So next time you call a friend feisty, etymologically you'll be calling him or her "farty"!  

From the Latin pedere "to fart", which also derives from *pezd-, we get petard, so someone who is hoist by his own petard is "lifted (or 'blown up') by his own fart"!  Well, etymologically speaking, anyhow.  Literally the word petard referred to a medieval bomb used in siege warfare.  These bombs were laid in tunnels under the walls of the place being besieged and often exploded prematurely, blowing up the sappers who laid them.  Its name comes from the Old French peter meaning "fart" - probably because it caused a puff of smoke to erupt from a hole in the ground.

By the way, Nathan, we are not aware of any Latin words fart or fartus.  Are you sure you aren't thinking of that episode of The Simpsons where Bart is writing, over and over on the blackboard (as punishment), "There was no Roman god named 'Farticus'"?  (It's in episode 5F06, for you purists out there.)


Comments, additions? Send to Melanie & Mike:
Copyright 1995-
2001 TIERE
Last Updated 06/05/01 11:07 PM