Issue 125, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Jaime Nicolas-Muiz:

What is the origin of the word glamour?

Do you think of someone who is glamorous as being good at grammar?  Usually those two words do not enter one's head simultaneously.  However, they may from now on, as glamour is the Scots form of the word grammar!  How on earth could this be, you ask?  First, we should bear in mind that in earlier times grammar was often used as a synonym for Latin - a grammar school was originally a place where one learned Latin grammar!  Also, all church ritual was conducted in Latin - which most lay people could not understand.  It was assumed that if one could read Latin one had access to the same power as that of the priests.  Thus the Middle English word gramarye meant both "the rules of sentence formation" and "occult knowledge or necromancy" and the Old French gramaire, "grammar" became Modern French grimoire, "an encyclopedia of spells and incantations".  The Scots glamour originally meant a special kind of spell which causes its victims to misperceive reality. 

Grammar came to English from Greek gramma "letter [of the alphabet]", via grammatikos "of letters", Latin grammatica, Old French gramaire, and Middle English gramere.  The Scots pronounced it (and spelled it) glamour.  So a word that meant "magic, spell" then shifted in meaning to "magical or fictitious beauty", then shifted again to  "fashionably attractive", losing all connection with "magic".  Walter Scott popularized the word in English in his writings of the early 19th century.

The Indo-European root from which grammar and its forebears came is *gerbh- "to scratch" as in writing.  Related words that come from this same root are carve, graffiti, sgrafito, and the -graph and -gram suffixes.

So perhaps now you will think of your English teacher as glamorous! 

From Patricia Christmas:

I have heard a couple of different derivations for the word warlock, and I would be interested to know the true source. 

Beaitufiul doberman-pinschers.  Click to learn more.English warlock was warloghe in Middle English and in Old English was wrloga, literally "oath breaker, traitor", from wr "pledge" and loga "liar".  The meaning shifted from "traitor" to a general term of abuse.  It was also used as a name for the Devil in Old English.  It is that connection that probably gave the word the meaning of "evil sorcerer", which first turns up in the 14th century.

Wr derives from the Indo-European root *wer~-o- (where ~ is "schwa") "true, trustworthy" and gave us words like verdict, verify, and veryLoga comes from *leugh- "to lie" and gave us lie and belie.

Interestingly, certain Doberman-Pinschers are known as a warlocks.  Apparently the designation refers to larger animals in the breed.

From K. Ball:

What is the origin of hysteria..

Those of you who think that hysteria and hysterectomy may be related are correct.  One who is hysterical has the roots of one's behavior in one's womb, etymologically speaking.  This seems to limit hysteria to people who have wombs: women!  That is originally what the word hysteric referred to, "a neurotic condition in women" that was also known as "the vapours".  It was thought to be rooted in disturbances in the womb, an idea that went all the way back to ancient Greece.  Of course, we now know that that is not the case, and hysteric can apply to anyone.  It entered English in the mid-17th century from French hysterique.  The ultimate source is Greek hustera "womb".

The word hysteria was coined in the early 19th century as a noun form of hysteric.  The Latin uterus is related.

From Angel:

Having grown up in the South (U.S.), I know the meaning of yonder but always wondered where it originated.

Yes, yonder is a word that is somewhat peculiar to the Southern U.S., but it is actually a very old word!  It dates from the end of the 13th century with the same meaning as today: "at or in that place; there, usually implying that the object spoken of is at some distance but within sight".  Yon is an earlier word, having the Old English form geoh and meaning "that [object or thing]"  The earliest example of yon (as geoh) comes from the writings of Alfred the Great in about 897.  There are cognates in the Germanic languages as well as Sanskrit, Old Slavonic, and Lithuanian.

The Indo-European root here is *i-, which is what is known as a "pronominal stem" that gave us other words like identity, item, ilk, if, and reiterate.

Here's what the American Heritage Dictionary has to say about yonder's usage:

The adverb yonder, from Old English geond, is not exclusively Southern but is more frequently used there than in any other region of the United States, and not only by older or uneducated speakers. Yonder is not merely a Southern synonym for there, which in the South tends to mean only a few feet from the speaker. Yonder carries with it an inherent sense of distance farther than there and is used if the person or thing indicated can be seen: the shed over yonder. Or it might be nearby but completely out of sight, as in the next room. 

Another reader asked about iterations, and since that word, like yonder, derives from *i-, we'll discuss it here.

From Ray Adams:

We publish press releases after going through several iterations with our clients.  Why do we call this an iteration?  Why not a variation?

Iteration and reiterate both derive from the Latin iterum "again".  So to reiterate is etymologically to "repeat again", and an iteration is something that is done "again".  Iteration is used in the sense you describe because it refers to the same press release being written over and over again with what probably amount to rather small changes each time.  Variation implies several versions of something with slightly different characteristics, each version worthy of standing alone and possibly being created at the same time.  Previous iterations of press releases, on the other hand, are probably discarded.

From Michael:

Sometimes a word pops into my head whose origin may be amusing. Gams is a word that came to me yesterday.  Thanks for your site, it's wonderful.Click to learn about GAMS!

One source thinks this word comes from Parlyaree (theatrical argot), which supposedly got it from Italian gamba "leg", from Late Latin gamba "hoof".  Another source doesn't mention the Parlyaree derivation, but takes it from gamb "leg of an animal on a coat of arms", which came directly from Old French gambe, the northern form of jambe "leg".  Then the Latin gamba comes into the picture again.  Some say that Latin got its form from Celtic camba "crooked", referring to the crook in most animals' hind legs (also evidenced in the term dogleg used to mean a S-type curve in a road).  Gam has been around since at least 1781.


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Last Updated 06/11/01 09:23 PM