Issue 137, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From A Reader:

Re-nig - I'm not sure if this is even a word; that's why I can't find it.  I feel like I have heard people say this before, and the word I think I hear sounds like "re nigg".  I had always assumed it was a word, and one with racist origins, but now that I can't find it, I'm a little confused.

No, this word does not have racist origins!  It is spelled reneg or renegue.  We come across the former spelling in the U.S. and the latter is British.  It comes from medieval Latin renegare, formed from re- "again" + negare "deny" (source also of negate, among others).  It makes its first appearance in the written record in 1548 with the meaning "to deny".  In certain parts of England, and then in the U.S., it was also used in playing cards to mean "to refuse or fail to follow suit; to revoke".  That meaning is first recorded in 1680.  By 1784 we find the meaning that we most recognize today in the U.S.: "to change one's mind, to recant; to break one's word; to go back on a promise."  That meaning arose in the U.S. and remains mostly there, though it is not unknown in the U.K. today.

Some other related words are renegade, deny, and negative.

From Summer:

I've been wondering where a word like discombobulate came from.  My literature teacher, Mrs. Blazejack, and I would appreciate knowing the word's etymology.

It's such a great word but it really has a rather boring etymology.  Most sources agree that it is a jocular formation based on something like discompose or discomfit.  It dates in writing from 1834.

From Manning:

Here is the story I heard regarding the etymology of bonzer, an Australianism meaning "good": The word is derived from some flavour of Chinese (purportedly Cantonese). It is a mispronunciation of a phrase meaning "good gold", and entered the Australian vernacular during the gold-rush of the mid-to-late 1850's. (It is true that a significant number of Chinese did arrive in Australia, and they did have a reputation for being good 'diggers'. )

You'd have to agree this explanation sounds very plausible. (Whether it is even remotely true is another story.) What are your thoughts?

Most etymologists seem to think that it is actually an alteration of bonanzaBonzer (or bonza), in the form bonser, is first recorded in 1904.  Bonanza, while we're on the subject, comes from a Spanish word meaning "fair weather; prosperity", ultimately from Latin bonus "good".  It is first recorded in English in 1842.  It was initially used with reference to mines that yielded large profits.  By 1878 it was being used figuratively for anything "good" or "good and plentiful".

Back to the Asian connection:  there is actually a Japanese word, bonso, which English adopted, meaning "a Buddhist monk of southeast Asia", but a connection with bonzer/bonza has not been found.  We haven't found a shred of evidence for the Cantonese origin you suggest, but we have one more source to check and must do so after this "goes to press".  If we find anything interesting we'll add it here and send a short newsletter (to subscribers) to alert you.

We've since checked with Cantonese speakers who cannot come up with a term for "good gold" that might conceivably be corrupted to bonzer/bonza.  It's not impossible, but it does seem unlikely and must be treated only as a guess unless some bona fide evidence turns up.

From Jennifer Delrieu:

I have been having some treatment recently here in France from a midwife. She asked me the English translation of her profession but I was unable to give her the origin of the word. In French it is sage-femme which translates as "wise-woman". I was wondering if English has a similar origin. Midwives seem to be more common in Europe than North America, am I right?

We've known a few midwives in our time, and midwifery is certainly not uncommon here in the U.S.  As for the word's etymology, it is not easily surmised from the word itself.  One has to be familiar with Old English to decipher midwife.  The mid- element is actually a very old word for "with".  In fact, there are cognates in German mit, Dutch met and Swedish and Danish med, all meaning "with".  And if you know that Old English wif meant "woman", you can see that a midwife is, etymologically, a "with-woman", or a woman who is with a mother who is in the process of having a baby.

The midwives of ancient Greece and Rome appear to have had some formal training.  However, medieval midwives in Europe gained all of their skills from experience.  In the 16th century, when the medical field began to bloom, schools of midwifery were founded in Europe and midwives were once again formally trained.  Modern midwives gained popularity as a cost- effective alternative to having a doctor in the birthing room.

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