Issue 135, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Warren Brown:

Why the term bank holiday to denote a public holiday, when there are plenty of other non-public holidays when banks are closed?

Plenty of other non-public holidays when banks are closed?  Like Sundays?  In America, at least, banks are usually closed on holidays that are observed by government agencies but not necessarily by other sectors of the working world.  For example, banks (and government agencies) are closed on President's Day but most other businesses are not.  But enough about that - what is a bank holiday?  

The term started out referring to days when banks (in the U.K.) were closed so that bank employees could have a holiday.  Before 1834, banks observed 33 days a year as bank holidays, and these were mostly saints' days and the typical church holidays like Christmas and Easter.  In 1834, however, bank workers had most of those taken away such that the only holidays left were Good Friday, May 1st, November 1st, and Christmas Day.  Yet, someone felt for the poor bank workers, so that in 1871, Sir John Lubbock's Act was passed, naming the following as bank holidays in England and Ireland: Easter Monday, Whit Monday, the first Monday in August, and Boxing Day (December 26).  In Scotland they got New Year's Day, May Day, the first Monday in August, and Christmas Day.  These holidays came to be appropriated by non-bank workers, but the term had already stuck.  So, no matter for whom one works, one gets bank holidays.

From 'beth Hayes:

What is the earliest contraction (won't, can't, where's)  used and is it one that's still in use?

Well, we can look into this by examining the history of the apostrophe.  It is named after the Greek word apostrophos "of turning away, or elision".  So apostrophe was the elision of a letter or letters in a word.  That usage dates in writing from about 1611.  Interestingly, it was earlier that the punctuation mark apostrophe came to be so named as it represented the letters elided.  Shakespeare first uses the word in this sense in 1588 in Love's Labour Lost.  It is possible that the word for the process preceded the word for the punctuation mark but didn't make it into the written record.  English took the word from French apostrophe, which came from the Greek via Latin apostrophus.  

Keep in mind [there'll be a short test, later] that this apostrophe is a bit different from the poetic device known as apostrophe, in which a thing, place, or deceased person is addressed as though it can understand what is being said.  A good example comes from Wordsworth: "Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour: England hath need of thee."

While we're on the subject, we should mention that the apostrophe used to denote possession is the same as the one described above that is used to denote a missing letter or letters.  How, you ask?  Well, the apostrophe in a word like fox's represents what was originally an e as in foxes.  So, before the apostrophe was adopted, a possessive was formed just like a plural: "Look at the foxes beautiful tail."  The use of the apostrophe for the e was then expanded to all words in order to denote possession.  This became widespread after 1725.

Now for contractions.  We know when the apostrophe was named, so we can surmise that it was probably around that time that the first contractions appeared with an apostrophe.  Prior to that time, contractions existed, but the missing letter or letters were not identified with a punctuation mark.  For example, as early as 1420 we have wynnot for will not, cant (1706) for can not/cannot, and dont (1670) for do not.  Then we find won't in 1667, can't in 1741, and don't in 1672.  Fowler says that the apostrophe was introduced in the 16th century, and this jibes with what we've found, as it takes a while for new entries in the language to make it into the written record.

From Kristen Silver:

A friend of mine is slightly obsessed with finding out where the phrase just deserts comes from, and I am quite curious myself.  He wonders if it might come from just deserves.  Can you help us out?'s just desserts!  Click for more food.Yes, but only after you explain how one can be "slightly" obsessed!  Your friend is correct, desert in this sense is a remnant of an now obsolete word desert "something deserved".  It is a derivative of Old French deservir "to deserve".  It dates from the late 13th century in English.  It is in 1599 that we find just desert used: "Upon a pillory...that al the world may see, A just desert for such impiety."

Funnily, today we tend to see just desserts.  This usage is possibly influenced by a local confectioner who named his shop Just Desserts (with the motto "We serve you right").  Actually, it is probably misspelled because desert in this sense is pronounced just like dessert.

From Tanja:

My psychology teacher and my political science teacher do not agree on the origin of the word idiot.  The political science teacher said it originated in Greece.  My psychology teacher said that Sigmund Freud invented it.  Who is correct?

Your political science teacher is ultimately correct.  Idiot came to English from French in the mid 14th century, turning up in writing in 1377.  In Latin it was idiota "uneducated, ignorant person", deriving from Greek idiotos "person, common man", which later denoted "one without professional knowledge" and, hence, "an ignorant or uninformed person".  Interestingly, we find what one might call the modern meaning in the English written record almost a century before the Greek meaning: in about 1300 it meant "a person so deficient in mental or intellectual faculty as to be incapable of ordinary acts of reasoning or rational conduct."  The word idiosyncracy is related, meaning etymologically "the personality traits of a person".

Freud had nothing to do with the origin of idiot but he did invent the word id.  And that's 40% of idiot.

From Dan Russell:

Where does Eskimo come from and why do the Inuit find it offensive?

If someone called you a "raw flesh eater", would you be offended?  This word took a winding road toAn Inuit.  Click to learn more! English.  It started out in one of the Algonquian languages (native to North America).  We find a cognate in Abenaki askimo, and the Proto-Algonquian roots of the word are *ask- "raw" and *-imo "eat".  The French took the Algonquian word and rendered it as Esquimaux (plural), and the Danes took it as Eskimo (and the Swedes as Eskimå).  We first find it in English in 1584, in the work of Richard Hakluyt, an Englishman who had devoted his life to collecting and publishing accounts of English explorers of the period.: "The more northerly partes of the lande amonge the Esquimawes of the Grande Bay."  Presumably the Inuit find it offensive because it is the white man's name for them, not their own.


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