Issue 127, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Guy Smith:

I have searched many areas (encyclopedias, the web, articles, etc.) looking for the origin of the name for the jewfish (Epinephelus itajara).  I remember reading somewhere that the name has no origin in Judaism, nor any relationship to Israelites, but I don't recall where I read it.  Any help is greatly appreciated.

A black grouper.  Click to learn more.It may not come directly from Judaism or Jews, but it does come from their cultural/religious practices.  We first encounter the word in English in 1679: "The Jew fish crowds to be one of the first three of our most worthy Fish," wrote T. Trapham in his Discourse on the State of Health of Jamaica.  It was only 18 years later that W. Dampier wrote "The Jew-fish is a very good Fish, and I judge so called by the English, because it hath Scales and Fins, therefore a clean Fish, according to the Levitical Law."  So based on Jewish dietary laws, Epinephelus itjara (and others), also known as the grouper, was fit for human consumption.  The name jewfish was applied to several different species of fish, most belonging to the family Serranidae.  These include Promicops guasa, Epinephelus nigritus, Megalops atlanticus, Aralichthys dentalus (all from the U.S. Atlantic coast), Stereolepis gigas (from the California coast), Polyprion americanus and Polyprion couchii (from the waters around Madeira), and Sciaena antarcitca and Glaucosoma hebraicum (from Australia).  Note that the last one, Glaucosoma hebraicum, contains the Latin adjective for "Hebrew".

While we're at it, let's talk about grouper.  Do these fish group?  Not exactly.  The English name comes from Portuguese garupa, which is thought to be a borrowing from a South American Indian word.  It first turns up in 1697 in the work of Mr. Dampier, whom we met earlier in the discussion of jewfish.

From Richard Schamp:

Recently, my teenager came to me to deliver a complex telephone message.  "OK, here's the scoop," he began.  I know that reporters will refer to "getting the scoop" on a breaking story.  The American Heritage Dictionary identifies an informal meaning as "current information or details".  Can you explain the origin?

You probably know what it means to scoop dirt out of a hole or use an ice cream scoop.   That word is the source of the reporter jargon.  The meaning went from "collect or take up something with a scoop" to "take up something" to "take up or appropriate something in advance of or to the exclusion of other competitors".  That final meaning, which originated in the U.S., first appears in the written record in 1866 in Harper's Magazine: "Tell him he'll have to send this other fellow some more beans, for I've got him scooped [at draw poker]."  By 1874 the word was being used as a noun to mean "something [such as information] obtained to the exclusion of other competitors" as in this quotation from the Macomb (Illinois) Eagle newspaper: "Owing to a slight misunderstanding, the Sentinel found itself without a copy of the decision, and for a time a terrible scoop seemed imminent."  By 1886 we have the following quotation from the Phonetic Journal: "In American newspaper offices an item of news is valued largely according to the likelihood of its being an exclusive piece of information, or a 'scoop'." 

Today, after years of being associated with newspapers, the word has come to mean simply "story" or "information" or "details", all of which are things one also gets from newspapers.

From Dr. Felix S. Hayman:

I produce a radio program (here in Sydney, Australia) which has a "word of the day" segment.  We were fascinated at the reaction to the word natty.  Many listeners think it comes from the Italian netto but one listener said it had a derivation from the United States (possibly from use by gold miners from the USA in the Australian goldfields).  What is its derivation?

Most etymologists seem to favor the explanation that the word is a variation of the obsolete netty "neat, elegant" from Middle English net "clean, tidy" (14th century). This would make it a relative of modern English neat, which also comes from Middle English netNet also meant "neat, clean" in Old French, hence modern French nettoyer, "to clean".  The source of the Old French word is Latin nitidus "elegant, shiny", from the verb nitere "shine".  

Interestingly, neat dates from the 16th century, while natty first appears in the 18th century in Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: "Natty lads, young thieves or pickpockets."  The Indo-European root here is *nei- "to shine", which may have given English the word lilac, from Persian nil "indigo".

From Scott Sakowski:

My dad asked me why the word fly is used for a zipper.  I could not answer him.  Can you?

Technically the word applies not to the zipper itself, but to the cloth flap that covers the opening.  ItA fly covering a zipper.  Click to visit the site. is the same word that is used to describe a flap over the entrance into a tent, also a fly.  It comes from the notion that such flaps look a bit like wings.  The "pants opening" meaning is first recorded in 1844 in a book about military ordnance: "Open in front, with a Fly and Five buttons."  The fly on a tent dates from 1810.  Fly in these senses, and the verb, derive from *pleu- "to flow" (flying is a bit like flowing by using wings).  Other words from that root are pulmonary, pneumonia, Pluto ("overflowing with riches"), flow, flee, fletcher, fledgling, fleet, flotilla, and flutter.

From Ajay Agrawal:

I am founding an investment fund called "Gestalt Capital" which specializes in bringing several young companies together to create meaningful wholes.  I am interested in learning about the origin of the word gestalt.  Does it come from geology and refer to the formation of a large rock by combining several smaller rocks?

Well, the word doesn't exactly mean "whole".  Instead, it means, in German, "form, shape".  It was adopted by philosopher Christian von Ehrenfels in 1890 to describe a structure that, as perceived, forms a specific unity that cannot be expressed simply in terms of its parts.  It doesn't turn up in English writing until 1922, when a writer is referring to the "Gestalt psychologists".  It derives from Old High German stellen "to set, place".  The Indo-European root is stel- "to put; stand", giving us related words like still, install, stolon (a botanical sucker), stolid, stollen [yum!], and stilt.


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