Issue 132, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Geri:

What is the derivation of the term within earshot?

Yes, how does one shoot an ear?  Well, that's not exactly what's going on here, but it's close.  We first find earshot in the written record in 1607: "Hark you Sir, there may perhaps be some within ear-shots" (from The Woman Hater, Sir Francis Beaumont).  The word was simply formed after words like bowshot "the distance to which an arrow can be shot from a bow."  Therefore, earshot is "the distance within which something can be heard."  Bowshot, by the way, dates from about 1300.

The quotation above, from The Woman Hater, spurs us to discuss hark.  It means "listen" and derives from a hypothetical Old English word heorcian.  In Middle English it was herkien, and it eventually evolved to hark.  That change is not irregular.  Bark was originally beorc and dark was deorc.  We first find hark in 1175 (as herkien). By 1385, in the work of Chaucer, we find "Dido, Now herkith how he shall his lady serve."  Where does hearken (or the American variant, harken) fit in?  It is a surviving form of the Old English word.  What about the phrase hearken back to, as in this article title from "Transportation problems hearken back to city's earliest days"?  Most people think that it means "remember back when", but it literally means "listen back to".  Doesn't seem to make sense, does it?  Well, the phrase was originally hark back, a hunting term applied to dogs.  When they lost the scent of their quarry, they would hark back or retrace their steps to find the scent again (literally "listen again").  So today hark back means figuratively to "go back" (to think or speak about something from the past).  It has simply gotten confused with hearken.

By the way, hear, hark, and hearken all come from the same Indo-European root: *kous- "to hear".  Greek akouein "to hear" comes from the same source and gave English acoustic.

From David Bradford:

I'm a dwarf and a member of the Little People of America, a non-profit organization that supports people of short stature. I'm curious to know more about the origin and early usage of the word midget. Webster's Online identifies it as originating from the word midge, and first used in 1865. But who first coined the term, and why?

I'm curious because most dwarfs consider the use of the word midget in describing a little person to be highly offensive, much as is calling a person of African descent  n*gger. Yet, while any dictionary will start off identifying the word n*gger as "usually offensive", few do so for the word midget (including Webster's Online). I was wondering how words such as this come to be officially classified as offensive, and/or who sets the standard on what is and is not offensive? Thanks, and great site. I love it!

Let's start with midget.  It was formed, as you suggest, from the word midge "small fly" + -et, so that a midget is etymologically a "very small small fly".  We first find midget in 1848 in Canada with the meaning "sand fly".  Where does the word midge come from?  In Old English it was mycg, and it goes back to an Indo-European root, *mu-, which also gave us mosquito and, by a circuitous route, musket.  The Indo-European form is thought to be imitative of the humming sound made by such insects.  By 1865,  midget was being used to describe a very small person.  By 1884 it referred to small people who were exhibited in shows or circuses.  By 1930 we find the word being used for small vehicles or aircraft.

Now to the offensive nature of the word: the OED does not list the word as offensive.  However, others do, for example, the Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary says, "OFFENSIVE TERM" (yes, in upper case) before even listing the definition.  How does a dictionary decide to label a word as "offensive"?  If the word is universally considered offensive or taboo, it is labeled as such.  If there are exceptions, or if it is not universally considered offensive, it will be labeled with something like "often considered offensive".  Perhaps midget is not labeled thus because it does have what most consider an inoffensive use: for small items (versus people).  Who sets the standard for offensiveness?  The groups to whom the word is applied, of course, or hypersensitive, politically correct people outside those groups.  Why doesn't the OED consider it offensive?  Perhaps the next edition will label midget as offensive.  It's only fairly recently (within the last 20 years or so?) that awareness about the offensive nature of the term has become widespread.

We should also discuss dwarf while we're here.  It's of Germanic ancestry, coming ultimately from the proto-Germanic root *dhwergwhos "tiny".  In Old English it was dweorg and meant "person of abnormally small stature".  That remained the only meaning until the late 18th century, when, with the influence of German mythology, dwarf came also to mean "small, manlike creature that lives underground and works metal".  The modern German form is zwerg, which, John Ayto suggests, gave English the word quartz.  Other etymologists do not seem to agree and feel that the word quartz entered German from a Slavic source.

You didn't think we'd escape without discussing musket further, did you?  It derives from Italian moschetto, which means "sparrowhawk", but which literally means "little fly".  There are at least two explanations for why the firearm was so named.  One source suggests that moschetto was the darkly humorous name of the bolt of a crossbow, and that was then applied to the firearm.  Another source suggests that the firearm was named directly after the sparrowhawk, as other firearms were named after birds of prey.

From Denise Delgado:

I am curious about the punch in the horse breed name Suffolk Punch.  I know the breed originated in Suffolk County, England, and that it is a large draft horse breed.  Buy why Punch?

Melanie, who is a bit of an equestrienne, often wondered that as a child.  You may be surprised toThe Suffolk Punch.  Click to learn more. learn that the Suffolk Punch's name is related to Punch of Punch and Judy!  Punch was a short, squat, chubby fellow, and his name soon came to be used to describe any short, fat man, or anything short and thick.  Certain  horses that were short and sturdy came to be called punches, and soon a specific breed was known as the Punch, and it came from Suffolk, as you suggest.  We first find the name Suffolk Punch in writing in 1813 in Sporting Magazine: "The breed of horses, denominated Suffolk Punches."

Punch of Punch and Judy fame came to England from Italy.  He was first known in England asPunch, the character, on the cover of Punch, the periodical. Polichinello, and Samuel Pepys was the first to record the character's name in English.  It was Polichinello in 1666, and thereafter Pepys spells it several different ways.  The enduring form was Punchinello, soon shortened to Punch.   The Italian form Polichinello is said by some to be a corruption of Puccio d'Aniello, the name of a peasant from Acerra whose ugliness was supposedly the model for the mask used to play Polichinello (and Punchinello, and Punch...).  Others claim that the inspiration for the character was a Paulo Cinella of Naples.  However, yet another group calls the former explanations legends and suggests that the Italian word comes from Neopolitan dialectical pollecenella, diminutive of pollecena, the turkey-cock, which possesses a hooked bill that resembles the hooked nose of the mask.

From Murphy and Monty:

Can you tell [us] the origin of the word monk?

We find it in Old English as munuc, having come from a hypothetical *muniko, which derives, via popular Latin monicus, from monachus.  The Romans took it from late Greek  monachos, a noun that was originally an adjective meaning "single, solitary", from monos "alone".  As you can see, monks were named for the solitary life that they led.  The word has been associated with Christianity since its entry into English.

The English word was originally applied to religious hermits who lived alone, but early on it came to refer to religious men who lived in a community with others.  Interestingly, not all religious men were known as monks.  Religious beggars (mendicants) in England prior to the Reformation were known as friars (ultimately from Latin fratrem "brother").  They wandered abroad and had no affiliation with any particular abbey or monastery.  Monks were associated with and usually lived in a monastery or abbey. Starting in the 16th century, however, friars were a class of monk.

The first occurrence of the word monk in the written record is in Bede's History, from about 900, where it was munuc.  It was in the early 14th century that the word first took on a form most closely resembling today's spelling.   The Indo-European root is *men- "small, isolated", which also gave us mono- and minnow

From Yonna:

We just returned from a trip to Greece, where the Greek key (called the Meandros) is everywhere.  However, there was a lack of consensus as to what the key means.  Some people thought it meant "eternal". Some thought it had to do with the waves of the Meandros River.  One person even told us that it was tired into a story of Alexander the Great and the Meandros River.  Does the word meander come from this?  Thanks for your help - can't wait to find out.

We assume that, since you couldn't wait, we should just pass over your question.  What's the use of replying if you couldn't wait around for an answer?  (Just kidding!)  Actually, the English verb meander does, in fact, come from the name of the river.  That particular river is a winding one that doesn't seem to know exactly where it wants to go.  It was from the nature of that watercourse that the Greeks took the word maíandros as a general term for a "winding river".  Latin adopted it as maeander, and English borrowed it as a noun in the late 16th century.  The first occurrence of the word in the English written record (1576) is with the meaning "confusing and bewildering ways".  By about 1586 it meant "a winding or labyrinthine course or plan", and not until 1599 do we find it with the original Greek meaning "sinuous windings of a river".  The verb form did not make an appearance until about 1612, and then it was used only in reference to rivers.  It wasn't until the mid-to late 18th century that the word came to be used in a more figurative sense, as it is used today. 

Meandros, or the Hellenic (Greek) Key.  Click to learn more.

The "Greek key" pattern (shown above) was called the meandros because it wanders like the Meandros River.


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