Issue 126, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Ted J. Hannig:

Is there any truth to the rumor that attorney derives from the days of King Arthur when a person could take a turn for thee in a joust?

Or that it comes from the word tourney, "tournament"?  While these explanations are entertaining, they are false.  The origins of the word attorney are not quite so glamorous!  In Middle English it was attourney, from Old French atorné meaning "appointee", the past participle of atorner "to appoint" (from a- "to" and torner "to turn").  Etymologically then, it means "to turn to", which then became "to appoint".  Torner derives from Latin tornare "to turn in a lathe", from tornus "lathe", which the Romans took from Greek tornos.  The Indo-European root here is *ter~- (where ~ = "schwa") "to rub, to turn".  Other words from the "rub" meaning of the root are trite ("rubbed or worn thin") and thresh ("rub to remove grain from hay") .  Words deriving from the "turn" meaning include throw and thread ("twisted/turned thread").

So, does this mean that an attorney is someone who "twists words"?  No, it doesn't.  Attorney meant "appointed", then "someone appointed to act as an agent", and finally "a legal agent".  It entered English in the late 13th century.  The term is now prolific in America, but it fell out of use in Britain in the late 19th century.

From Tonya:

I am a pastor in the process of developing a Bible Study on the "fruit of the spirit", one such fruit is "joy." Each definition I have found seems very superficial and I was hoping that having an understanding of this word's origin would help me to gain a deeper understanding of its biblical significance, if any. 

This is one of the very few times when the etymology of the word might actually be pertinent to yourJewels. project!  Joy was joie in Middle English (early 13th century), coming from Old French joie, which derived from Latin gaudia, the plural of gaudium "joy".  The singular noun was formed from the verb gaudere "to rejoice".  The Indo-European root is interesting: *gau- is defined as "to rejoice; to have religious awe".  So while there are not necessarily any religious connotations to the word today, there are in its earliest roots. 

The cognates in other Romance languages, Spanish joya, Portuguese joia, and Italian gioja, all mean "jewel" today.  The Italian form also means "joy", and Middle English joie actually meant "jewel" as well!  Perhaps jewels were thought of as little joys or joy-givers. 

From John Hanson:

I have done searches for vice in your archives, but haven't found anything to describe how the word came to be used as a subordinate position such as vice-president or vice-principal. I was wondering if there is any connection with the role of the subordinate being typically in charge of the carrying out of some of the mundane roles of policing the overseen group. For example, typically the vice-principal deals with the vices of the students. Any thoughts?

Well, let's see.  The word you have in mind was originally Middle English, coming from Old French vis-, which derived from late Latin vice-.  Its earlier form was vice, the ablative form of vix "change".  *Weik- is the Indo-European root, with the meaning "to bend, to wind", with an extended sense having developed of "turn, change" and then "change, substitute" such that a vice principal is a "substitute" for the principal.  Related words are wicker (twisted, bendy pieces of willow), weak (twistable or compliant), and week ("a turning" series of days), along with vicar (a "substitute for" or "representative of" God) and vetch (a "turning, twining plant").

Vice "wickedness" is a different word entirely.  It came to English in the 13th century from Old French vice, which got it from Latin vitium "defect, offense".  Related words are vicious and vituperate.  The root here is *wei- "vice, fault, guilt".

Vice (or vise in U.S. spelling) "tool for holding something in a fixed position" is yet another different word, deriving ultimately from Latin vitis.  The Latin word originally meant "tendril" (as that on a climbing plant), and then "vine".  The "tendril" sense gave the word the meanings of "winding staircase" and "screw" early on.  The tool vice/vise is tightened by means of a screw, and that is where it got its name!  Interestingly, the "vine" meaning gave us the related word viticulture.  The Indo-European root is *wei- "turn, twist".  Very similar to *weik-, you say?  Indeed, but they are considered separate roots, at least by Calvert Watkins, who bases his work on that of Julius Pokorny. author of Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, considered by many to be the standard work regarding Indo-European roots.

From Philippe Leduc:

I once saw a professor talk about the story of the eggplant, aubergine in French, berenjena in Spanish.  He said that the Arabs brought it back to the Mediterranean from India, and that the au- of the French word is actually the Arabic article al.  Do you know the story of the eggplant?

Click to learn about eggplants/aubergines.Yes we do, and we love to tell it at bedtime, when we really want to put each other to sleep!  

The venerable eggplant, as it is known in America because of its shape, size and color (white), or the aubergine, as most other English-speakers know it, has been cultivated in India, according to one source, for over 4,000 years!  The Chinese and the Arabs were growing it by the 9th century, and it is the Arabs who gave it to the Mediterranean cultures.  British traders brought it back to Britain from North Africa in the 17th century, and they called it guinea squash.   (The 17th century Brits couldn't keep up with all the new countries that were being discovered and just called every place Guinea.)  It was reportedly introduced to the U.S. by Thomas Jefferson in his garden at Monticello in the 18th century and originally grown as an ornamental plant.  Until very recently, it was advised to soak the sliced fruit in salt water to remove bitterness and anything that might disagree with the diner.  Today's varieties have been bred to be less bitter.

Enough about the history of the eggplant!  Now to the etymology.  The Arabs called it al badinjan, from Persian badenjan.  In Catalan it was adopted as albergina, incorporating the Arabic article into the word.  The French took that word into their language as aubergine, and so yes, the au- is the Frankified form of the Arabic al-, though the French probably didn't know that at the time!  The English took aubergine directly from French in the late 18th century.

The Italian word is a bit different from the other Romance languages: it is melanzane, which comes from mela insana "mad apple", referring to the fruit's original reputation as being poisonous.

From Joe Feagin:

In the major dictionaries I have consulted there is little on the etymology of the words Mexico or Mexican.  One source I saw on the Net says the word is from Indian languages and mean something like "navel of the moon".  Why don't the OED and Webster's do a better job on the etymology of this word?  What is its origin and history?

Many dictionaries don't deal with the origin of place-names as they are notoriously difficult to research, and there aren't a great many resources dealing with such information. However, we have our ways of researching etymologies, and we can tell you what at least some historians and etymologists believe is the origin of the name Mexico.

It is said to be  from a Nahuatl word.  The Nahuatl people were also known under the broader term of Aztec.  It is from the Nahuatl that we get words like coyote and tomato.  They built a huge city on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco, which used to lie where Mexico City is today (it has since been drained).  As many as 300,000 people lived there, and they traveled between the island and the mainland via several large causeways (causing very little smog in the process).  One name of this city was Metzthixihtlico.  Pronounce the name of this city at a party and someone is sure to say "Bless you".   It shares this property with Gdansk

Etymologists believe that Metzthixihtlico meant "in the middle of the moon", a reference to the island, which was called Metzthiatl, from Metztli "moon" and atl "water", together meaning "moon place in the water".  The name of the Aztec city was transferred by the Spanish to the land that is now Mexico, which is their approximation of the Nahuatl word.

As Metztli was also the name of the Aztec moon god, it is possible that Metzthixihtlico actually meant simply "place of the god Metztli".


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Last Updated 08/18/01 06:37 PM