Issue 138, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From a Reader:

We're all hearing about anthrax.  What's the origin of the word?

This word, currently a source of great anxiety for many, has rather humble origins.  In 1398 itCutaneous anthrax.  Click to learn more. referred to "a carbuncle or malignant boil."  It was not until 1876 that it referred to the disease of sheep and cattle that we're hearing so much about today.  It is the cutaneous form, known for its black scabs/necrotic tissue, which gave the disease its name.  Anthrax in Latin means "carbuncle", but the Romans got it from Greece, where it meant "coal".  The scabs of anthrax looked so much like coal that the Greeks named it thus.  At least that's one suggestion.  The other is that the burning (like coal) pain of the carbuncle is what prompted the Greeks to call it anthrax.

Anthracite, a very pure form of coal sometimes called "steam coal", is from anthrax ("coal") + -ite (common mineral suffix).

From Nancy LeFebvre:

I was hoping, as you discussed words on your mind this week, that you would enlighten us as to how the word afghan (that is, a blanket, a light throw, etc.) came about.  Do you know the etymology of this word?

This one's a bit of a puzzle.  It's not clear if the wraps or shawls that came to be called afghans were originally patterned after some textile from the Afghanistan region, but that's the best suggestion anyone can make about the word's application in this sense.  We heard one explanation that afghans were woven in patterns that resembled afghan rug patterns, hence the name, but the OED has afghan "wrap, shawl" dating from 1833 while afghan rug doesn't turn up until 1877.

The afghan hound did come from Afghanistan.  Another name for the breed was barukhzy, which derived from Barakzi, the name of an Afghani people.

From Liz Jamieson:

I am trying to think of a name for my new business (life coaching) and wonder about the meaning/history of the word coach

Life coaching?  Is that another term for counseling?  

Hungarian speakers, this is your moment!  The sports trainer known as a coach is, metaphorically speaking, the same thing as the horse-drawn coach.  What does that have to do with Hungarian?  Be patient.  We'll get to that.  The word coach came to English by way of French coche and German kutsche, and both of those deriving from Hungarian kocsi, short for kocsi szeker, "a carriage of Kocs".  Kocs was a village in Hungary.  It was there in the 15th century that a carriage was designed that was somehow a wonderful improvement over existing carriages of the time.   No one knows exactly how it differed from existing carriages, but it differed enough to become wildly popular such that it spread across all of Europe, taking its Hungarian name with it.

That's all well and good, but how did a college instructor (the word's second meaning to develop) and then a sports trainer (originally a coacher) come to be connected with a carriage?  Remember that we mentioned a metaphorical connection?  University students in 19th century England likened their instructors to carriages, "conveying" the students through their classes and exams.  The word in that sense first appears in the written record in 1848.  The "instructor" sense was then applied to sports trainers by 1885.

From Robert Fiorentino:

We all know the meaning of midnight oil as something late in the evening/night.  However, what is the origin?  The first reference I can find is in 1635 (Frances Quarles):

We spend our midday sweat, our midnight oil; 
We tire the night in thought, the day in toil

Who are these people?  Midnight Oil, a socially and environmentally conscious band from Australia.  Bonza!That is indeed the first recorded occurrence of the term.  The phrase, which we recognize today as burning the midnight oil, is simply a reference to the days when light was provided by oil burning lamps.  If one was using a lamp - burning oil - at midnight, one was probably up late doing something that needed to be finished by the next morning.  Midnight oil was being "consumed" in 1744, and a few years later we find it being burned.  

One source claims that Quarles coined the phrase.


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