Issue 140, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Krisean Sakowsky:

Where does the phrase red letter day come from?

Some of you might recall seeing calendars on which Sundays and holy days/holidays were marked in red.  In fact, some religious calendars are still printed with those days in red.  That practice made it easier to recognize those important days.  Such special days came to be known as red letter days, and eventually, the phrase came to be used to refer to any good or special day.  It first appears in the written record in 1704, and the metaphorical sense had arisen by about 1800.

The red pigment used for such highlighting in medieval "Books of Days" was a mineral known as minium.  Occasionally, in addition to the colored letters, scribes would add little red drawings in the margins.  These were, necessarily, small and were called miniatures from the name of the pigment.

From Edz:

I need an expert opinion on this one.  It's bothered me for some time to hear the Persian language referred to in English as Farsi.  This is, as I understand, the Persian word for "Persian".  We don't refer to Deutsch or Svenska when we're speaking English.  Why Farsi?

Farsi is actually an English word!  It came to English via Arabic Farsi "Persia".  Granted, the Arabs got their word from the Persians, but the Persian form of the word is Pars, a relative of Persia.  Of course, the lineage of the word Farsi makes it a relative of Persia, too.  Farsi entered English in the late 19th century.  It is convenient to have the two words, as Persian can also refer to the language spoken by the ancient Persians, but Farsi does not.

From Lauren Block:

What is the etymology of wave?

A beautiful curl.There are two distinct words of that spelling.  The earliest is the verb "to move side to side or back and forth", which goes back to Old English, deriving from the Proto Germanic root *wab-, which has the same "side to side" meaning.  That root also gave English waver in the 14th century and wobble in the 17th.

Wave "formation in a large body of water" first appears in the 16th century.  The original word was waw, but wave took its place in the 16th century, apparently by influence of wave the verb.  Waw derived from Old English węg "motion, wave", source also of English wag

From Salina:

Where did the word pickle come from?

English got the word pickle from Middle Low German pekel, which means "sharp in taste".  Words likeWell, it does have a pickle in it!  Click to follow the link. pike and picket also derive from the same source as pickle.  That source, an Indo-European root, is (s)peik- "sharp point".  The metaphorical sharpness in pickles is, of course, their vinegary taste. The word entered English in the 14th century.

Mark Morton, author of Cupboard Love (see the section of food word etymology in our book store), discusses several other food words that come from the same source:  pie (from Latin pica "magpie", named for its sharp beak); pike "fish with a pike-like head"; pickerel, the diminutive of pike, referring to a smaller, tastier fish; piquant "sharp-tasting"; and picnic (from piquenique).

How on earth do we get from pica "magpie" to pie "filling topped with crust"?  Pie is thought to derive from English magpie, because the earliest pies (in the Middle Ages) contained many different ingredients (think of a mince meat pie), and this characteristic was seemingly compared to the many different things that magpies collected in their nests.  Or to the bird's "piebald" coloration.  Perhaps.  Further suggestions have been made that haggis derives from the French agace ("magpie"), too.  We find all such conjectures a bit hard to swallow, however. [Sorry, eds.]

The pie in "magpie" comes ultimately from Latin pica which means, well... "magpie"!  The mag- in magpie is a short form of the name Margaret.  Englishmen of the Middle Ages were fond of giving human names to species of animals (like the "martin" the "jenny wren" and the "blue jay", for another example).


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