Issue 134, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Dick Mackin:

What is the origin of stock still?  I have also seen stalk still, which makes more sense to me as it seems to refer to the stalk of a plant standing straight and firm.

Well, that's actually what stock means, or it's at least close: it is a log, a stump, or a tree trunkA lovely tree trunk standing stock still!  Click to see more photos. deprived of its branches.  In Old English it was stoc, and there are cognates in Old Frisian, Middle Low German, and Middle Dutch ( all stok), Old Norse (stokk-r) and Swedish stock and Danish stok.  The Teutonic root is *stukkaz "trunk".  The Indo-European root is (s)teu-, the ultimate meaning of which is "to push, stick, knock, beat", with derivatives that refer to projections, fragments, and related attributes.  Other words that derive from the "projections" form of the root are stucco, stoker, and even shtik (from Old High German stück "crust, fragment, covering", and then "piece, slice", and finally "an act" or "a piece or part of an act").

Stock still dates back to the mid-15th century, when we find it in the Scottish poem Golagros and Gawain: "In stede quhare he lay, Stok still as ane stane."  Dickens used it in Barnaby Rudge: "The clock - which was very near run down, and would have stood stock-still in half an hour."  Both Dutch and German have their counterparts, stokstil and stockstill, respectively.

From Larry Blim:

I was just reading an article about technical limits on computer hard drives and came across the word petabyte.  Here's an excerpt from the article:

WHAT'S A PETABYTE?  Just as a gigabyte is 1,000 megabytes or 1,000,000 kilobytes, a petabyte is 1,000 terabytes, or 1,000,000 gigabytes.  That's a lot of bytes.  By the way, after petabytes come exabytes (and you wondered where the tape drive company got its name), zettabytes, and yottabytes.  A yottabyte is a million billion gigabytes.

Do you have any clue where they got these suffixes or what they mean?

You're talking to computer-literate etymologists here.  Did you think we'd let you down?  The petabyte, which can also be expressed as one quadrillion bytes, got its name in 1975 when the International Committee of Weights and Measures (CIPM) decreed that 10 to the 15th power be dubbed with the prefix peta- (symbol P) and that 10 to the 18th power be called exa- (symbol E).  And the CIPM did not pull these prefixes out of thin air.  Peta- is supposedly from penta- "five", because peta represents 1,000 to the 5th power.  We'll backtrack and mention that tera- comes from tetra- "four" because, you guessed it, tera- refers to 1,000 to the 4th power.  Then we move on to exa-, from hexa- "six", zetta-, from septa- "seven", and yotta-, a variation on octo- "eight".  See the table below for the number values that correspond with each of these prefixes:

Prefix Power of 


kilo-  1 thousands  1,000
mega-  2 millions  1,000,000
giga-  3 billions  1,000,000,000
tera-  4 trillions  1,000,000,000,000
peta-  5 quadrillions    1,000,000,000,000,000
exa-  6 quintillions    1,000,000,000,000,000,000
zetta-  7 sextillions   1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000
yotta-  8 septillions   1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

Things are never quite this simple, however.  As digital computers work in binary arithmetic, powers of two have more significance than powers of ten.  This meant that 1,024 (the 10th power of 2) was a commonly encountered number and, being so close to 1,000, was informally called "1K".  This meaning has passed into general usage as far as computers (but not science generally) is concerned.  Accordingly, a megabyte is 1,048,578 bytes, not 1,000,000.

See the table below for the exact number of bytes in each group:


Actual number of bytes/Hertz/Baud, etc.

kilo-   1,024
meg-    1,048,576
gig-   1,073,741,824
ter-   1,099,511,627,776
pet-   1,125,899,906,842,624
ex-   1,152,921,504,606,846,976
zett-   1,180,591,620,717,411,303,424
yott-   1,208,925,819,614,629,174,706,176

So what about mega- and giga-?  Mega- comes from Greek megas "great", from the Indo-European *meg- "great", which also gave us magnitude, major, and even maharajahGiga- also comes from Greek, this time gigas "giant", from which we get gigantic and giant, among others.

From Mark:

I'm surprised nobody has asked about mortgage yet.  After all, don't most of us have one?  Anyway, how old is mortgage as a term, and is it French in origin?  "Death of a loan", perhaps?

You're not very far off, Mark.  A mortgage is etymologically a "dead pledge".  Here is a great quotation from Sir Edward Coke, a barrister and, eventually, attorney general, chief justice of the Common Pleas, and chief justice of the King's Bench, all in the early part of the 17th century:

It seemeth that the cause why it is called mortgage is, for that it is doubtful whether the Feoffor will pay at the day limited such summe or not, & if he doth not pay, then the Land which is put in pledge upon condition for the payment of the money, is taken from him for ever, and so dead to him upon condition, &c.  And if he doth pay the money, then the pledge is dead as to the Tenant, &c. (1628)

The term first appears in the written record in about 1390, in John Gower's Confessio.

We should explain how mort + gage = "dead pledge".  Mort is, of course, French for "dead" or  "death", and gage derives from Old French guage "something of value, a pledge", and is first recorded in the 14th century.  Interestingly, a variant of the Old French word was waige, which gave English wage "pay".  The same Teutonic root (*wadj-) that gave English gage and wage also gave us wed "a pledge", hence wedding, when a man pledged himself to his wife.  (Yes, it was a Teutonic root, and the Romance languages adopted it.)

From Todd Haidet:

Why are the recorded proceedings of meetings called minutes?

That's a good question.  What do notes of a meeting have to do with time?  Well, actually, etymologically they really have nothing to do with time.  Instead, it seems that English minutes in this sense comes from French minute "small", the notion being that the rough copy of notes taken in such meetings is "small" or made in small writing, versus more formal works that were written in carefully executed script, or even printed via printing press.  The original sense of the word was "rough draft" or "a note or memorandum for preserving memory of current transactions".  We first find minute with this meaning in the early 16th century.  The meaning "official memorandum" is recorded by 1564.  The Indo-European root is *mei- "small", which has also given us mince, diminish, minor and minuscule.  

Notice the spelling of minuscule.  Own up, now... how many of you thought it was mini-scule?  This is surely another candidate for the ten most difficult English words to spell.

From Dan Russell:

I was watching the History Channel last night and heard an interesting word origin:

The wrong side of the tracks referred to the side of the tracks that, due to the wind, usually received most of the locomotive's black, sooty smoke.

Railroad tracks.And so you've come to us for the final word on this phrase?  Smart man, Dan!  Well, etymologists like Christine Ammer don't think the phrase has anything to do with soot.  There would have been plenty of soot from everyone's fireplaces, because most people did not have any kind of heating other than fireplaces, and for a long time that is also where cooking was done.  Ms. Ammer suggests that the phrase is simply the same as "the wrong side of town" or "the wrong side of the street".  Why, there's even a phrase born on the wrong side of the blanket.  When railroads were built and became the primary mode of long-distance transportation, the tracks became an important fixture through town, literally dividing the town's more prosperous half from its poor half, or perhaps only figuratively doing so.  However, another etymologist, Adrian Room, recently revised Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, and he does believe that soot, smoke, and prevailing winds did result in poor or industrial areas being located on the downwind side of the tracks, which then gave rise to the phrase.  Whatever the precise notion behind the wrong side of the tracks, it arose in the U.S., probably in the 19th century, though the OED's first record of it is from 1929.


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