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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From a Reader:

Where does the term bitch "female dog" come from and how did it get applied to women?

The word originally referred to female animals, especially dogs.  It dates from about 1000 in the Old English written record and was bicce.  Beyond that, etymologists cannot really say very much with authority.  There is an Old Norse word bikkja with the same meaning, but it is unclear whether it came from the Old English word, or vice versa, or whether they are cognate with one another (meaning they have a common source).  The OED suggests (by way of Jacob Grimm, German linguist and folklorist of the 19th century), that if the Old Norse word were the original, it may have come from Lappish pittja, though the Lappish word could have come from the Norse, too.  There is a German word betze (or petze), but word historians seem to think that it is simply the Germanized form of the English word.   Then there is French biche "bitch" and "fawn", but whether those are related to each other and/or the English word is not known.  So, to sum up, we just don't know much about the word's earliest roots.

We can, however, see how bitch came to be applied to women.  It was being used thus as early as 1400 and referred to a lewd or sensual woman.  It was not uncommon to use it in literature of the time in that sense.  It was simply a metaphor, comparing lewd women to female dogs, which, if left to their own devices, will bear pups rather frequently, suggesting sexual promiscuity.  The more modern meaning of "malicious or treacherous woman" seems to have arisen in the 19th century, and Kipling used it metaphorically (thus, etymologically using a double metaphor!) in Traffics & Discoveries: "After eight years, my father, cheated by your bitch of a country, he found out who was the upper dog in South Africa" (1904).

If you were wondering, son of a bitch (in the form bitch-son) first appears in the written record in 1330 in Of Arthur & of Merlin, but we don't find it again until Shakespeare's time (1605) in King Lear: "One nothing but the composition of a Knave, Begger, Coward, Pandar, and the Sonne and Heire of a Mungrill Bitch."

From Xianthe:

What is the etymology of volcano?

Remember Mr. Spock from Star Trek?  He was a Vulcan.  His planet was hot and dry.  Where did Gene Roddenberry get that word?  Did he pull it out of thin air?  No, he got it from Roman mythology (though hardcore fans might protest this pat explanation).  Vulcan (or Vulcanus) was the god of fire and metalworking, son of Jupiter and Juno.  His Greek counterpart was Hephaestus.  The Italians, who have a few major Click to learn more about volcanoes and geology. volcanoes to deal with, took the word volcano from the name of the god, and English borrowed the Italian word.  We first find it recorded in English in the geological sense in 1613, but by the late 17th century it was being used metaphorically to refer to "suppressed but violent feelings or passion."

One source suggests that Vulcan was not originally a smith-god like Hephaestus, but he was a god of great fires (like those of erupting volcanoes). His forge is traditionally located beneath Mt. Aetna in Sicily.  He was honored by the Romans on the Volcanalia, August 23, during the height of the dry season and when the wildfire threat was at its peak. 

Some scholars believe Vulcan comes from Cretan (the language spoken on Crete, not that of cretins) Welkhanoc, and one source traces this name back to Hittite Valhannasses.  Quite an impressive pedigree volcano may have!  

By the way, vulcanized, as in vulcanized rubber, comes from the same source and dates from 1845.

From PizzaLover:

What can you tell me about the origin of the word pizza?

A fair amount, we'd say! 

The OED says that pizza is simply Italian for "pie", but Mark Morton, author of Cupboard Love, does not agree.  He says that torta is Italian for "pie" and that pizza simply means "pizza"!  How's that for etymology?  Actually, there is a bit more to it.  Pizza, he suggests, carries the etymological meaning of "sharp point", a reference to the tartness or sharpness of the tomato sauce and the herbs in the sauce.  He cites a related Italian word and phrase: pizzicare, a verb meaning "to pluck" (cf. pizzicato, a musical term which tells a string player to pluck rather than bow), and a la pizzaiola, an Italian phrase used for any dish containing tart tomato sauce. Anyhow, as far as usage, the OED first records the word in 1935

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's talk a wee bit about the history of pizza.  A form of  pizza had been eaten by Italian peasants for hundreds of years before the modern version was created.  Once the tomato made it to Italy, a close relative of today's pizza was born: pizza alla marinara (marinara because it was popular as a food for fisherman; marinara sauce takes its name from this), made from tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, and later, anchovies.  Today's pizza is said to have been born in Napoli (Naples) at the hands of S.G. Raffaele Esposito, baker at the pizzeria Pietro e Basta Cosi.  In honor of the visit of King Umberto I and Queen Margherita to Naples, he prepared what was the typical pizza alla marinara, but he added mozzarella and basil to it.  This he named in honor of Queen Margherita.  That type of pizza, often called pizza Margherita, can be found served in restaurants today (after an absence of several decades, at least in the U.S.).   It is claimed that Esposito settled on that array of toppings because they reflected the colors of the Italian flag: red (marinara sauce), white (mozzarella cheese) and green (basil).  All of this happened back in 1889.  To this day, Naples is considered the official home of pizza, where strict pizza-making rules are enforced.

Interestingly, we have found another explanation of the derivation of the word pizza: that it evolved from picea, the corrupted form of a Latin word used to describe the black ashes and debris underneath the pizza in the oven.  However, this source does not give the uncorrupted Latin word and gives no other supporting information for this etymology.  

From Edwin Banks: UPDATED JANUARY 2006

I assume that kangaroo is an Australian Aboriginal word.  Does it have a meaning other than "the large hopping animal"?

Well, knock us down and call us Bruce, but for a while there was actually some doubt as to whether kangaroo is an indigenous Australian word!  The first records of it, from Captain Cook and his naturalist Joseph Banks, indicate that kangaroo was the word used by the Aborigines of the Endeavour River area.  From Cook's journal, 1770, we have the following quotation: "The animals which I have before mentioned, called by the Natives Kangooroo or Kanguru." Joseph Banks wrote in his journal in that same year (a month earlier):The red kangaroo.  Click to visit the link. "The largest [quadruped] was called by the natives kangooroo."  A writer in Tasmania in 1787 wrote: "We found, that the animal called kangooroo, at Endeavour River, was known under the same name here."  However, shortly thereafter, when the word had been adopted by English-speakers, we find quotations indicating that it was not the indigenous word, and that something akin to patagaran was, instead!  In 1792 James Hunter wrote: "The animal..called the kangaroo (but by the natives patagorong) we found in great numbers."  William Tench recorded, in 1793: "The large, or grey kanguroo, to which the natives [of Port Jackson] give the name of Pat-ag-a-ran. Note, Kanguroo was a name unknown to them for any animal, until we introduced it."  Where did kangaroo come from, then?  Some have suggested that it actually means "I don't understand" in one of the Aboriginal languages, but that is a recent and apocryphal explanation.  Instead, what we know now is that there were many, many Aboriginal languages in use at the time, and apparently, in one of them, ganjurru was the word for a specific species of kangaroo, not a word for all kangaroos as a whole.

What about kangaroo court?  It is apparently a reference to the manner in which cases are handled in such courts, in an unorganized fashion, rather like a kangaroo hopping this way and that.  It is first recorded in the U.S. (and in Texas, at that!) in 1853.


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Last Updated 01/08/06 02:24 PM