Issue 142, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Frank Martinez:

What is the origin of the word pornography?

This is a surprisingly young word in English.  Pornographer is first recorded in English from about 1850.  Pornography appears by 1857.  These words are from Greek pornographos "writing about harlots", from porne "harlot".  In English pornography referred primarily to ancient Greek and Roman texts of that subject.  It wasn't until the late 19th century that it came to be used to refer to newly written works.  It also applied to art of a licentious nature from its earliest use in English.

From Kirsty:

What does the word Gaul mean?

Gaul.  Click to learn more about Gaul and the Gauls.Well, what it means and its etymology are horses of different colors!  Today Gaul mostly refers to present-day France, and things Gallic are things French.  In the days of the Roman Empire, however, the term referred generally to the "land of the Gauls" ("a Gaul" was Gallus in Latin).  The land was named after its indigenous inhabitants.  There are several theories regarding the word's origin.  One suggests that it is a Gaulish word, that is, that the Gauls called themselves Gauls, from gal "brave".  Another suggestion is that it comes from a Celtic word meaning "white".  The final theory we've encountered holds that the word derives from Germanic walho "stranger, foreigner", source of Wales, etymologically the "land of foreigners" and walnut, the "foreign nut".

Gaul first appears in English in 1563.  Prior to that the Latin form was used.

From Beth Johns:

We were recently playing Scrabble and someone used the word aa. It is a legitimate word in the Official Scrabble Dictionary that means "lava rock." However, the dictionary does not give its origin and we were wondering where it came from. We're guessing it is a Polynesian word, but can you help?  

There's an obsolete (and obscure!) English word aa that means "a stream, a watercourse" and derivesAn example of aa.  The smooth lava in the foreground is pahoehoe. from Old Norse a, which is cognate with Old English ea "water" and Latin aqua "water".  However, the word that the Official Scrabble Dictionary has in mind is aa "rough, scoriaceous lava, one of the two chief forms of lava emitted from volcanoes of the Hawaiian type.  The other is pahoehoe."  That "other" one sounds like something someone says when he eats something disagreeable!   And aa, is pronounced "ah-ah", by the way.  Anyhow, you were correct in guessing Polynesian, as aa is Hawaiian in origin and Hawaiian is a Polynesian language.  Aa entered English in about 1859.

If you were wondering how to tell if your lava is scoriaceous, throw it in some water.  Scoria sinks but pumice floats.

From Joe Boyer:

I am a culinary student and I am trying to find the origin of this cooking term: quenelle.  The definition was easy (it is found in all of our books) but the origin is a mystery.  I hope you can help me

Quenelles.  Click to follow the link.Yes, the definition is found in most dictionaries: "A seasoned ball whose chief ingredient, meat or fish, has been reduced to a paste" is what the OED says.  The American Heritage Dictionary gives this definition: "a ball or dumpling of finely chopped meat or seafood bound with eggs and poached in stock or water."  Each definition provides slightly different information.  Neither is incorrect, though the OED is more correct with its suggestion that the meat of fish has been reduced to a paste.  Anyhow, now that we know what a quenelle is, where does the word come from?  Surprisingly, the OED says it is a mystery, but other sources claim that quenelle derives from German Kndel "small dumpling", the Middle High German diminutive of knode "knot", presumably referring to the shape of the quenelle.  The Old High German form was knodo, cognate with Latin nodus and English node.  The Indo-European root would then be *ned- "to bind, to tie".  Surprisingly, English knot is not thought to be related, but comes instead from a Germanic root meaning "round lump" versus "something tied".  Some sources do believe that Kndel and noodle are related.  Italian gnocchi "dumpling" comes from the same Indo-European root, *ned-.


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