Issue 133, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From David Brennan:

Where does deep sixed come from?  

The best explanation for this phrase, in terms of detail, at least, comes from etymologist Nigel Rees, who suggests that it is an American nautical term.  Men who took soundings would supposedly say "by the deep six" when referring to the depth of six fathoms (thirty-six feet).  Burials at sea were said to have taken place at depths of at least six fathoms, hence the term, which means "to bury at sea" and then, figuratively, to "dispose of".

One source suggested that the term was that of landlubbers and referred to being buried "six feet under", so that deep six was a grave.  This source then claims that the term was adopted for nautical use, and then came back to us landlubbers with a more general meaning.

Whether the term arose at sea or on land, it first appears in the written record in 1929, in Underworld Slang, in which it is defined as "a grave".  It was most recently popularized by Ehrlichmann during the Watergate scandal of the 1970s.

From Sanjay Vaze:

What is the difference between consulate and embassy?  Can they be used interchangeably?  Why are some foreign missions called consulates while others are called embassies?

Well, we don't really deal with word meanings,  but we will define these two words in an attempt to answer your usage question.  A consulate is "the residence of consul."  An embassy is "the residence of an ambassador."  That was easy.

Embassy is a variant of ambassy, which more closely resembles its parent, ambassadorAmbassy derives from obsolete French ambassée, ultimately from Medieval Latin ambactia "mission", and from Latin ambactus "servant".  The Latin word is descended from a Celtic word, ambagto, literally "one who goes around", from the Indo-European roots ag- "to drive, draw, move" and ambhi- "around".  Other descendants of ag- are act and agony, to name only two, and ambhi- has given us by, but, bivouac, ombudsman, and ambulate.

Consulate came to English from Latin consulatus, which derived from consul "one who counsels". formed from an element that comes from the Indo-European root sal- "go" plus the prefix com- "together", so that consul is then one who "goes together [with others]" in order to "discuss".  So, an ambassador is etymologically one who goes about [spreading good will], while a consul discusses matters [of state].

From Joseph Byrd and Beni Bennett:

At supper with friends who are spending the next year in Spain, the term tapas came up, and they professed annoyance at the use of the word by Yuppies to refer to a style of restaurant.  Of course the word refers to a snack placed over a glass of wine, back when it was illegal in Spain to serve wine except with food.  I hypothesized that the French word tapenade, an olive/anchovy/garlic paste, might be related, since it would make a lovely tapa.  Dubious looks were exchanged, and indeed the eminent Elizabeth David says the word [tapenade] is derived from tapéna, Provençal for "capers", and that it is properly a sauce, with the consistency of mayonnaise.  Do you concur?

A tapas bar (looking pretty theatrical!  Click to follow the link).Ah, we do love tapas, but we also agree that they are being maligned here in the U.S.  Melanie was at a tapas "restaurant" (versus "bar") recently where the tapas were not small, snack-sized treats, but were instead dinner-sized meals. The beauty of traditional tapas is that the servings are small, enabling one to sample many different items before feeling sated.  That seems to be lost on most American establishments that purport to serve tapas.  However, for those of you on the West Coast of the U.S., there is a fine establishment in the Russian Hill district of San Francisco called Zarzuela, where authentic tapas flow from the kitchen like water!  Zarzuela, by the way, is a name for Spanish light opera.

Now that we've had our time on the soapbox, what about tapas?  A tapa in Spanish is a "lid" (to a bottle or pot).  Why would a snack be likened to a lid?  Originally, tapas were pieces of bread with a savory spread or topping.  Patrons in a bar would get their bread and place it on their wine glass to free one of their hands and to prevent wine from splashing out as they walked to their seat.  The piece of bread was like a lid for the wine glass, and so the word tapa was applied to the bread, and later what evolved from bread  to the huge variety of snacks served with wine.  By the way, Spanish tapas should not be confused with Sanskrit tapas "heat", which comes from the same Indo-European root, tep-, that gave English tepid.  

As for tapenade, Elizabeth David is correct in asserting that it derives from Provençal tapéna "caper".  Julia Child agrees that the classic tapénade is indeed a sauce, to be served with vegetables, bread, or even pasta.  So if the Provençal word for "caper" is tapéna, where did English get caper?  Why, from the French, of course!  Their word for these edible flower buds, câpres, was different from that of their Provençal-speaking neighbors.  It derived ultimately from Greek kápparis.

From Eric Bowmaster:

Other cultures have rites of passage from child to adult, but the Americans have decided to make a group called teenagers who are not children or adults.  Where did the word teenager come from and why?

Actually, the English started this one!  The suffix -teen (as in thirteen, etc.) is simply the number ten in an unfamiliar guise.  It gave rise, in the 17th century, to the noun teen, which was usually used in phrases like in the teens or in one's teens.  Are you surprised that it appears so early?  You may be surprised again to learn that teenager did not arise until the late 1930s or early 1940s, though teenage appeared first in 1921.

From Yonna:

I would like to know why the word biscuit is sometimes seen spelled with a q instead of a c.  My husband is in a blues band called Fat Mouth Charlie and the Bisquit Rollers.  People are always saying "you spelled biscuit wrong".  I have  seen it spelled this way many times and would like to be able to explain the origin of the word spelled this way. Thanks for any help you may be able to give me.

Well, it has been spelled many ways, including besquite, bysqwyte, byscute, bysket, bisket, biskett, biskette, bisked, biskitte, biskott, bisky, bisquette, bisquite, bisquet, bisquett, biscot and even biscoct.  We've never seen bisquit but, with so many other spellings in use, we don't see that anyone could object to bisquit

The word biscuit goes all the way back to the Latin phrase biscoctum panem "twice-cooked bread" which also gave us (via Italian) biscotti (singular biscotto).  It is easy to see how these early rusks evolved into British biscuits ("cookies" in America) by the addition of sugar and flavorings.  On the other hand, no one seems to know how the word biscuit came to be applied a kind of savory leavened bread served with gravy.  After all, they're only cooked once.


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