Issue 139, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

Some of our past Halloween-inspired discussions make another appearance in honor of the holiday.

From Janet Fryman:

Please tell me the origin of the word goblin.

Standard scholarship holds that English took goblin from the French gobelin. The problem with Goblin this is that, while Middle English had the word goblin as early as 1320, there is no record of the French word  gobelin until the 16th century. Interestingly, a 12th century cleric called Ordericus Vitalis mentions Gobelinus as the name of a spirit which haunted the neighbourhood of Évreux. It is possible that gobelin evolved from the ancient Greek kobalos "rogue, knave", via the Medieval Latin cobalus. If so, it is related to the German kobold, and hence to the name of the metal cobalt.

German silver miners (that's German miners of silver, not miners of "German silver") named cobalt after the kobold, a "goblin or demon of the mines" as it was not only worthless but caused sickness. Nickel (a German name for "the devil") has a similar origin.

From Scott McMillan:

What is the origin of cemetery?

Ultimately, it comes from the Greek koimeterion "dormitory" (i.e. a room for sleeping) via the Latin coemeterium .  In its original   usage, it referred to the ancient Roman underground cemeteries which we now call catacombs.  We are not certain whether the choice of this word is merely euphemistic or whether it reflects the Christian belief that the dead will "wake" one day, but the word was first applied to burial grounds by Greek Christians.

From David Monroe:

What is the origin of the word zombie?  I have a friend who is not satisfied with the OED's answer to that question.  Apparently...

Well?  Apparently... what?  It seems that David was unfortunately stricken with a tongue-binding spell while writing that last sentence. 

According to the OED, a zombie, in the West Indies and southern states of America, is "a soulless corpse" said to have been revived by witchcraft.  It goes on to state that it was formerly the name of a snake-deity in voodoo cults of (or deriving from) West Africa and Haiti.A Hollywood zombie

Now, which part of that does your friend contest?  I think most would agree with the revived corpse part.  Is it the purported lack of soul?  According to  the Vodoun religion (that's the correct name for what is popularly called voodoo), people have several components to their souls, the two most important being the gros bon ange and the ti bon ange.  Traditionally, when creating a zombie, a Vodoun bokor (i.e. "sorcerer") captures the victim's ti bon ange and keeps it in a jar.

Perhaps your friend disagrees with the suggestion that Zombi was ever the name of a snake deity.  If so, then we can see his point.  We can find no evidence for this allegation.  There is a snake deity in Vodoun but he is usually known as Damballah-Wedo.  There is, however, a Congolese word nzambi which means "god".

Wade Davis, in his book, "The Serpent and the Rainbow" describes a concoction of puffer fish toxins which is thought to be responsible for the state of suspended animation seen in some real-life zombies.   This concoction bears no relation to the mixture of rum, apricot liqueur, lime juice and pineapple juice known as a zombie.

From Paul Parnell:

I seem to remember that the word ectoplasm was coined by a Nobel prize-winning physicist during the spiritualism craze, but I don't trust my memory.

The head of actress Monna Delza appearing as ectoplasm above medium Eva C's head (or so you are supposed to believe).  From about 1920.Gee, and we thought the word was invented for the movie Ghostbusters (just kidding).  Ectoplasm dates from the late 19th century in English.  Its earliest known use was by J. E. Ady to describe an amoeba: "[The amœba’s] jelly-like body becomes faintly parcelled out into an outer firm (ectoplasm) and an inner soft (endoplasm) layer."  That was in  1883.  However, a year earlier, we have a botanist using the term ectoplasmic, so it's not exactly clear which came first, the chicken (noun) or the egg (adjective).  Either way, the word is formed from two Greek parts: ecto- "outside" and plasma "something molded or formed".  We have the earliest meaning, above, and by 1901 ectoplasm was used to refer to "a viscous substance which is supposed to emanate from the body of a spiritualistic medium and to develop into a human form or face".  So there's your spiritual connection, Paul.  It appears that that usage was developed by F. W. H. Myers in his Human Personality.  Mr. Myers, incidentally, was a co-founder of the Society for Psychical Research (1882), which dealt with what we today might call the paranormal.  He was also a poet and critic.  He had apparently been obsessed, since childhood, with the notion of life after death.  Some other members of the Society included Ruskin, Tennyson and Gladstone!  One of the Society's most noteworthy acts was the debunking of Helena (call me "Madame") Blavatsky, who founded the Theosophical Society in 1875. 


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