Special Holiday Issue, Christmas/Solstice 2001, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

Holiday-related words from issues past

From Kevin T. Byrne:

Can you possibly tell me the origin of the word rain check?

The original rain check -- for a baseball game.Not only is it possible - it is probable!  American baseball fans will be familiar with the term, as that is where it arose: when a game was rained out, those who had tickets for that game were given a rain check which they could redeem at another game.  That might explain why efforts to prevent a baseball game from being canceled by rain (and rain checks issued) are so prodigious: covering the playing field with tarp, keeping the fans and players waiting as long as possible to see if the downpour will end.  The term was soon used metaphorically, and by the 1970s it had spread outside the U.S. and into other English-speaking countries.  The use of the term as early as 1884 gives some indication as to the popularity of baseball in the U.S. even at that time: "The heavy rain yesterday threw a damper over local operations. At each of the parks the audience had to be content with three innings and rain checks" (St. Louis [Missouri] Post-Dispatch 26 May).

From Imel Je'ar:

I am interested in the etymology of the words pray and prayer.

Before the 13th century, the word was preien "ask earnestly, beg".  By the late 13th century it had become praien "pray to a god, saint, etc.", and by the end of the century pray had taken on its current form.  The word entered English via Old French preier, which came from Latin precari "ask earnestly, beg, pray". An old word for "please" is prithee, a contraction of "I pray thee".

The ultimate Latin root is prex "prayer, request, entreaty".  Prayer too comes from Latin prex via an only slightly different route. The Indo-European root which gave Latin prex is *prek-. 

Some interesting related words which descended from precari are deprecate and precarious.  How can precarious be related?  Interestingly, it originally meant "obtained through asking".  The meaning shifted and was applied to items "held by another as a favor".  Later the idea arose that the "holding" was potentially tenuous as the "favor" could be withdrawn, and that is how the notion of "uncertainty" entered into the word's meaning.  By the 18th century it had acquired the "risky" meaning which it has today.  Precarious entered English in the 17th century.

Another word born of the Indo-European *prek- is postulate, having been formed by the shift of *prek- to *pork- and then *posk- and finally *post-.

From Richard W. Jordan:

I am a pastor wondering about the etymology of the word pagan.  One church member has told me that I should not use the word (old-fashioned, offensive, etc.).   My dictionary says the word comes from the Latan paganus for peasant. This is curious to me, how a word describing a common poor person was transformed into a word that means a non-believer. Do you have any insights on this?

Well, of course we do.  That's why you should always Take Our Word For It.

The literal meaning of the Latin paganus is "villager" or "rustic" (from pagus "rural district").  It was once thought its meaning of "non-Christian, heathen" developed because the ancient idolatrous religion persisted in the rural districts long after Christianity had been generally accepted in the towns and cities of the Roman Empire.  While it may indeed be true that the older Roman religions lingered in remote hamlets, this is not the word's true origin. 

A secondary meaning of paganus was "civilian".  Early Christian authors such as Tertullian and Saint   Augustine called themselves milites Christi, "soldiers of Christ".  It therefore became natural to refer to those who were neither Christian nor Jewish as pagani, "civilians".

From Paul Hansen:

I have found a bit of info on the roots to the word church, some very interesting. I am especially interested to see if there is any foundation to the word being connected to the Latin word circus.  This is what I found so far:

"The derivation of the word is generally said to be from the Greek kyriakon, 'belonging to the Lord'.  But the derivation has been too hastily assumed. It is probably connected with kirk, the Latin circus, circulus and the Greek kyklos, because the congregations were gathered in circles."

I don't know any other resources on that so hope you can help. 

Phew, what a tough question! The history of church is one of the most contentious etymologies in the English language.  Almost all modern scholars are in agreement that it derives from the Greek kyriakon "of the Lord" but the matter is by no means settled.  We find your quotation somewhat amusing, though.  The question of whether it has a Greek or a Latin origin has been hotly debated since Walafrid Strabo first asked it in the 9th century.  We fail to see how something determined after a thousand years of discussion could be "too hastily assumed". 

There is no evidence to support the statement that "congregations were gathered in circles" so an origin in the Latin circus ("race-track", literally "circle, circuit") or the Greek kyklos ("wheel, circle") seems less than likely.  Moreover, if the English church has its origin in circus, why did Latin itself use the words ecclesia or basilica?  Conversely, why do we find so many* cognates of church in the Germanic languages but none at all in those languages which developed from Latin?

One theory which Paul's source does not mention is that church comes from the Gothic kelikn, "tower, upper chamber".  This word was originally Gaulish and hence Celtic in origin but, as with the Romance languages, all modern Celtic languages take their word for church from the Latin ecclesia.

*  For the incorrigibly pedantic, the cognates of church include: Western Germanic kirika, Old Saxon kirika, kerika, Middle Low German and Middle Dutch kerke, Dutch kerk, Low German kerke, karke, kark, Old Frisian szereke, szurke, tzierka, tziurk, Old High German churihha, (also chiriihha, chiricha, khirihha, kirihha, kiricha, later chircha), Old Norse kirkia, kyrkja, Swedish kyrka, Danish kirke. (And that is without including cognates from the Slavic languages.)

From Serge Lemay:

My wife said she'd read something somewhere about the meaning of the word caribou, but she couldn't remember where...so here we are asking you. Do you know ?

We're sorry, we can't remember where your wife read something about the meaning of caribou, either.

But seriously, if it's the meaning you want then a caribou is a Rangifer tarandus, a species of large, gregarious deer of the Holarctic taiga and tundra. It is the only species of deer of which both sexes have antlers. (Don't you think "Holarctic taiga" is a splendid phrase? We intend to insert it into casual conversation whenever possible.)

Caribou.jpg (31490 bytes)The word itself derives from the Micmac word galipu and entered English in the 1660s. Presumably, English-speaking hunters in North America adopted this native American word without realizing that the species already had a perfectly good English name in reindeer.

Given that domesticated reindeer (another word for "caribou") are sometimes harnessed to haul sleds, one might be forgiven for assuming that reindeer means simply a deer which is reined. Actually, the rein portion of its name comes from the Old Norse hreinn which itself means reindeer. The deer part is somewhat misleading, too. In the 14th century, when this word first appeared, deer simply meant "animal". Even as late as the early 17th century we find the phrase "rats, mice and other such small deer" in Shakespeare's "King Lear".


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Last Updated 05/23/02 09:40 PM