Issue 129, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Jonathan Barnes:

What does Manhattan mean?  What does hattan mean?

Manhattan.  Click to follow the link.First, we should tell you that you shouldn't make any assumptions regarding the origin of a place-name.  For example, you cannot assume that the Man in Manhattan means "man" and that -hattan must therefore mean something on its own.  Manhattan is a Native American word that has been variously translated as meaning "good place to collect bow wood", "place of general inebriation", and "people of the whirlpool", among others.  However, a gentleman by the name of William Wallace Tooker seems to have done the most thorough research around 1900.  He determined that the word probably derives from the Delaware Indian word mannah "island" and the northern Algonquian suffix meaning "hills": hatin, making Manhattan a "hilly island".  So, the answer to your second question, even though we chided you for asking it, Jonathan, is "hilly"!

By the way, Delaware is an Algonquian language, so Tooker's derivation is completely plausible.

From Bernard James Stanaway Jr.:

I know what the definition of rebel is.  I just wonder how the word came about.

English got rebel from Old French rebell (12th century), which derives from Latin rebellis, an adjective that was formed from re- "again" and bellum "war".  The latter Latin word is the source of English bellicose, belligerent, and antebellum.  So to rebel is etymologically "to war again" (presuming you'd already done quite a bit of warring against your external enemies and were now warring against your own government). Rebel is first recorded in English in 1297.

Latin bellum also gave English the word revel, apparently because reveling is as noisy as rebelling or warring.

From Angela:

How did shanghai, the name of a port city in China, come to mean "trick into working as a sailor"?

This use of the word originated as slang in the U.S.  It meant, in its earliest incarnation, "to drug or otherwise render insensible, and ship on board a vessel wanting hands."  The original vessels aboard which such tactics were used were bound for China, heading out of San Francisco.  Shanghai was one of China's principal port cities, from which much trade with the West ensued.  Interestingly, the term first appears in a newspaper article from the New York Tribune in 1871.  It is therefore likely that the word had been in use in that sense for some time before that year.  By 1919 it had come to mean "to transfer forcibly or abduct; to constrain or compel" more generally.

From Jan Danilo:

I am interested in the origin of the word daemon.  I work in information technology and I have always heard of system processes referred to as daemons.  I assumed that it is an older spelling of demon.  Can you shed some light on this point?

Why certainly.  Someone give us some of those phosphorescent genes that have recently been spliced to mice DNA and we'll shed light like mad.  Demon and daemon were once used interchangeably.  The former came to English from medieval Latin, while the latter was from classical Latin.  The earliest use appears to have been in the phrase daemon of Socrates, which was his "attendant, ministering, or indwelling spirit; genius".  That was in the late 14th century.  It was a short time later that the term demon came to refer to "an evil spirit" by influence of its usage in various versions of the Bible.  The Greek form was used to translate Hebrew words for "lords, idols" and "hairy ones (satyrs)".  Wyclif translated it from Greek to English fiend or devil.  This is how the evil connotation arose.  By the late 16th century, the general supernatural meaning was being distinguished with the spelling daemon, while the evil meaning remained demon.  Today daemon can mean "a supernatural being of a nature intermediate between that of gods and men" or "a guiding spirit".  

[Warning: This paragraph is about science so, if this topic causes you undue alarm, please close your eyes until you've finished reading it.]  The 19th century scientist James Maxwell once daydreamed (the polite term is "thought experiment") about a problem in physics.  He imagined a closed container which was divided in half.  In the middle of the divider was a tiny gate, just large enough to admit one molecule of gas.  This gate, in Maxwell's imagination, was operated by a tiny daemon.  This daemon observed the speed (i.e. temperature) of the molecules heading for the gate and, depending on the speed, let them through.  If he let only slow molecules pass from side A to side B and only fast molecules  pass from side B to side A, then A would get hot while B cooled.  Maxwell's daemon was only imaginary, of course, but as it seemed to evade the laws of thermodynamics it caused quite a stir.  Eventually, though, the theory of quantum mechanics showed why it wouldn't work.  [OK, you may open your eyes, now.]

As you probably know, the "system processes" called daemons monitor other tasks and perform predetermined actions depending on their behavior.  This is so reminiscent of Maxwell's daemon watching his molecules that we can only assume that whoever dubbed these "system processes" had Maxwell's daemon in mind.  Our assumption was confirmed to us directly by Professors Corbato and Saltzer, who worked on a system development project at MIT in 1963 known as Project MAC.  They and members of their team first used daemon in this sense at that time, basing it on Maxwell's daemon.

We also assume that this is the meaning behind the, host to many United Kingdom web sites.

From Paul:

I want to know if cardinal rule is derived from the Catholic cardinal.  If so, what is the etymology of cardinal generally?

Hi, Paul.  No, cardinal as in cardinal rule is not derived from the office of cardinal in the Catholic Church.  Your "if-[then]" statement asks that we provide the etymology of cardinal only if cardinal rule derives from cardinal "office in the Catholic Church".  So do we stop here?  [Sorry, we've been writing a few too many computer programs lately.]

Cardinal derives from Latin cardo "hinge", so that something cardinal is important because all else hinges upon it.  Therefore, a cardinal rule is a fundamental rule; a cardinal direction is one of the principal directions: north, south, east or west.  So what about a cardinal "guy who dresses in red robes and may eventually get to be Pope" (one of which (Richelieu) having been played so well by Michael Palin in the Monty Python series)?  Originally, a cardinal was a clergyman, the word derivingThe beautiful cardinal.  Click to follow the link. from Latin cardinalis "clergyman", the etymological sense being one of a clergyman attached to the Church much as a door is attached to a building by hinges.  The word gradually shifted so that it applied only to the "princes" of the Roman Catholic Church, the cardinals.

Why is there a bird called a cardinal?  Because male cardinals are bright red, the same color that Roman Catholic cardinals wear.

Cardinal "ecclesiastical prince" dates from 1125.  Cardinal (adjective) dates from 1300 (at which time it was used principally in the phrase cardinal virtues).  By 1440 it was being used as a general term to refer to anything fundamental.


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