Issue 133, page 4

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From FW:

I'm an irregular visitor to your website, so I find myself having to make use of your back issues archive to catch up to the present when I do visit.  With regard to the last several archived issues, I've noticed that the links at the bottom of each page that should point to the next page of the archived issue ( for example) point, instead, to the current issue ( The addition of the appropriate directory is missing from the URL embedded in the link.

Thanks for the wonderful site!

Yes, we're aware of that problem.  It's a glitch in the WYSIWYG html editor we use.  We'll be manually correcting those bad links while trying to work around the problem with our editor so that future back issues will be set up properly.  (Style sheets, here we come!)

From Abdlz Althukair:

Cover: There is a possibility that cover is derived from the Arabic verb kafara (to cover or conceal). Originally, the word in Arabic meant the plough turning over the sod and thus covering the top growth. Later, it came to mean the hiding of the truth about God. There is no recorded use of the word cover [in English] before the fourteenth century. Hence, several Arab linguists have suggested it was an Arabic word carried back by the Crusaders.

English dictionaries derive dates [the fruit] from the Greek daktylos. However, the date palm originated in the Arabian Peninsula, and it would be logical that the Greeks derived the word from the Arabic daql (a type of date).

Interesting suggestions, but you've got to show specific examples of how the words got to English (i.e., an early English form that resembles the Arabic word) or your suggestion remains that: a suggestion.  And it may be logical that daql was adopted by the Greeks as daktylos, but, again, logic is not the key.  Evidence is the key.

The words magic and magician have their roots in the Persian word magus. The English dictionaries indicate that these words passed through Greek, then Latin, into English. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records their first entering English in 1386 A.D. at a time when many Arabic words entered the English language through the countries of southern Europe. If, as indicated in the dictionaries, the words passed through Greek then Latin, they should have entered English at a much earlier date. Hence, there is a fair chance the Persian magus passed through Arabic into the European languages.

The evidence shows that it entered English from Latin, which was the language of the learned in the 14th century.

From Lori Howe:

I thought you might get a kick out of this explanation of the "hell in a handbasket" discussion...

Phrase Finder:
Origin of: 
Go to hell in a handbasket 

There seems to be no known source of this phrase, which originated around the turn of the 20th century. Speculation, but it may go like this: the handbasket is a reference to a wheelchair which used to be made of wickerwork. To be rendered disabled and sent to hell would be a sort of oath along the lines of the more recent 'eat sh*it and die'.

(We discussed hell in a handbasket in last week's issue (no. 132A) of our e-mail newsletter.  You can read that issue here.)  We were amused and, as we think you probably suspected, there's absolutely no basis for the speculation you found at the Phrase Finder site.  Also, the phrase is not used (at least in the U.S.) as a command ("You, go to hell in a handbasket!").  Instead, it is a descriptive phrase.  Something that is going to hell in a handbasket is deteriorating rapidly.

From James Madison:

I hope I'm doing this in the right place - I can't find anywhere else to reply to this question in today's newsletter :-) To hell in a handbasket came up about a year ago on a discussion list I subscribe to, and the consensus seemed to be that it originates either from mining or from railroad construction. One person said that double pay would be given to those who would risk being sent down into mine shafts (in baskets lowered by hand) to place explosives in order to expand caverns. Many times those being lowered into the depths of the earth would not make it back up, hence, "going to hell in a handbasket." Another said that when crossing the Rockies the railroad companies encountered enormous difficulties finding a straight line in order to lay the tracks, so from the top of a mountain they would lower small and light (usually Chinese) men in those handbaskets in order to put some dynamite in cracks and holes, with the pay (as in coalmining) very good, but sometimes the money would go straight to hell because either the men didn't make it back up in one piece, or the railroad company simply didn't pay up.

(We're biting our [collective] lip to keep from making presidential comments about your name, Jim!)  You have to remember that a word's etymology is not based on a consensus.  Historians don't get to vote on how many wives  Henry VIII had.  They consult the historical record (which indicates that he had six).

You must have evidence for your etymological position, as well.  Perhaps double pay was given to workers who would go down mine shafts in baskets, but is there evidence that such a practice produced the term?  Besides, there's no evidence that such a basket was known as a handbasket simply because it was lowered by hand.  O.K., class, it's time to review Ernest Weekley's Threefold Etymology Test

And don't get us wrong - it's fun to make educated stabs at a word's origin when there is little or no evidence, but such guesses must remain that: guesswork.

From Clara Drummond:

I found a completely different definition of gruntle  in Webster's online dictionary to that on your site.  Webster says it means to be in a good humor while you say it means "to grumble" or "to be dissatisfied".  I'm confused!

We said that to gruntle used to mean "to grumble or grunt", but that meaning fell into disuse a long time ago.  More recently, the word has reappeared as a whimsical back-formation from disgruntle and it is this modern usage which Webster defines.


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Last Updated 08/25/01 06:11 PM