Issue 141, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Lindsie:

I recently used the expression called on the carpet and the person to whom I said it looked bewildered.  he had never heard it before.  I assured him it was a common expression, but then I couldn't find it anywhere to prove my point.  I could speculate (the boss ha carpet, the workers don't), but it's probably not as simple as it appears.  Please explain the origin of the phrase.

You are correct to surmise that the derivation of the phrase is not as simple as the boss having carpet, though some books on etymology do suggest that it is, indeed, that simple.  Instead, one has to look at the earlier meaning of carpet.  In the medieval Latin of England, the word originally referred simply to a thick cloth (13th century), but by the 14th century it had come to refer specifically to a table cloth.  By the 18th century the phrase on the carpet had arisen with carpet being a metaphor for "table", so that on the carpet meant "under consideration or discussion".  That sense, with contamination by the "floor covering" meaning of carpet, which had arisen by the mid-15th century, is what gave rise to called on the carpet in the late 19th century U.S.  Bosses usually did have offices, sometimes carpeted, while the regular workers did not, so if you were reprimanded by your boss in his office, you were called on the carpet

Some sources suggest that on the carpet (without called) attained the meaning of "reprimanded", deriving from the fact that reprimands were often delivered before the council table that was covered with a carpet, but we could find no record of that meaning existing before the 19th century in the U.S.

From Justin Fisher:

How did odds, as in "What are the odds that it will happen?" come to be associated with chance?  Why not evens?  I have searched the etymology of the word to Old Norse, but I can't see the connection

The odds on racing.  Click to visit the site from which the image came.  You will be surprised.There is little dispute that odds comes from odd.  The plural formation is likened to that of news ("things or information that are new"), so that odds originally referred to "things that are unequal".  The word was actually seen as a singular noun in the 16th-18th centuries!  The things that are unequal in today's sense of the word are the advantages of each of two contending parties, so that the "balance of advantage [is] for or against one", as the OED puts it.  That sense first arose in the 16th century, while the more general sense of "unequal things" arose in the late 15th to early 16th centuries in the phrase make odds even.

Odd's etymology is less obvious.  English did, in fact, borrow it from Old Norse oddi "indivisible by two" (a sense which still survives in mathematics).  The Old Norse word derived ultimately from the Indo-European root *uzdho- "point upwards".  How on earth did that evolve into "indivisible by two"?  Apparently the "point upwards" sense gradually changed to "pointed vertical object" and then to "triangle" and finally to "three" before the "indivisible by two" sense arose.  Today's other meaning, "peculiar", arose in the 16th century from the notion of "the odd one out".

From Emily R. Self:

I recently went to see the play Othello. In the middle of the intermission there was some discussion as to William Shakespeare's contributions to the English language. It was said that he created many words for his plays, and that some of those words and phrases were adopted into the English language. Some examples were tranquil, jealousy is a green eyed monster, and the word sport. A heated argument then ensued about whether or not the word sport was created by William Shakespeare. So my question is, did Shakespeare in fact create the word sport

Shakespeare did first create the image of jealousy as a green-eyed monster in his Othello, and tranquil is also attributed to him.  He got it by truncating tranquility.

Sport was formed as an abbreviated form of disport, but not by Shakespeare.  It first appears in a Middle English romance called Ipomadon in about 1440, 150 years before Shakespeare flourished.  Disport derives from Anglo Norman desporter "to carry away" or, metaphorically, "to divert, entertain", formed from des- "apart" and porter "carry".  The word originally referred to "amusement".  It did not gain its modern sense until the 19th century.

From Paul-Michael Vincent:

I searched through your site for hours and while I found it interesting, I couldn't find anything relating to where the word human actually comes from.  I'd really like to know.A young Obi Wan Kenobi : he's a human!  Click to visit a Star Wards-related site.

O.K., we'll see what we can do.  A human is etymologically "one of the earth".  This description originally contrasted humans with the gods of the heavens, who were far removed from people of the earth.  So a human is both an "earthling" and "made of earth".  The word derives from Latin humanus via Old French humain.  The ultimate Latin root was humus "earth".  The Old French form suggests that humane is related, and it is, along with humble.  The Indo-European root here is *dhghem-  "earth".

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