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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Maryanne:

What is the origin of the abbreviation Mrs.?

It is simply an abbreviation of the word mistress, which used to be pronounced "mistress" and was a title of courtesy.  The contracted form of the word, pronounced "missus", became attached to the abbreviation, and using mistress (pronounced "mistress") as a title of courtesy fell out of disuse.  It was most certainly by 1828 that the "missus" title was the only pronunciation of the word mistress and of its abbreviation Mrs.  We find this quotation in that year, referring to mistress: "to pronounce the word as it is written would, in these cases, appear quaint and pedantick."  Eventually the spelling mistress for "missus" fell out of disuse, and only Mrs. was left with that pronunciation, and it was only used as a title, preceding a name, as is still the case today.

Since we've mentioned mistress no longer being used in the above sense, we should explain how it came to mean "a woman who illicitly occupies the place of wife".  It began as a snide metaphorical reference in the 15th century and simply stuck.

Mr. is simply the abbreviation of master, used as a title, like Mrs.  The "mister" pronunciation arose simply as an alteration of master.  Rather like its female counterparts, the "mister" pronunciation stuck with Mr., while master retained its "master" pronunciation, and the two were considered distinct words, this by the 18th century.  Interestingly, the plural abbreviation is Messrs., taken from Messiurs as there was no extant plural form from the English word.

The ultimate origin of the above feminine forms is Old French maistresse, which is basically formed from the Old French equivalent of master (maistre or maître) + the feminine ending -essMaster, maître and maistre all derive from Latin magister, magistrum, which come ultimately from magus "great".  The master and mistress were originally the "great" man and woman of the household, estate, etc.

From Keisha Padgett:

Why do people cross their fingers for luck?

Well, this isn't exactly an etymological question, but it is interesting nonetheless.  One source weCrossed fingers. checked on this matter (The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable) claims that crossing one's fingers is first recorded in the 20th century.  We found this quite surprising.  Peter and Iona Opie, in their Lore and Language of School Children, talk about crossing fingers as being an institution among kids in Britain in the first half of this century.  This suggests that the notion had been around for quite some time before that, as many children's play practices and words can trace their roots quite a long way back (for example, some claim that "Ring Around the Rosie", a.k.a. "Ring a Ring of Roses" refers to the Great Plague of 1665).  Nevertheless, the OED gives the earliest instance of the phrase as 1924 in Ladies' Home Journal: "This is the year to keep your fingers crossed and announce yourself from Missouri."  There is an earlier example of the term cross-fingered (from the 17th century), but this seems to be referring to two people holding hands.

Charles Panati talks about crossing fingers in his interesting (yet frequently questionable) book Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things.  He suggests that the practice is rooted in pre-Christian Europe, when the cross was an important pagan symbol and a wish made on a cross was more likely to come true.  He, however, provides no sources for this.  We tend to believe that crossing one's fingers is rooted more in Christianity (the Christian cross is the source of several English words and practices, like criss-cross and marking one's signature in the form of an X) until we can find evidence to the contrary.  The notion was, of course, that making a cross, the symbol of Christ's cross, would encourage God to grant one good luck.

Interestingly, the Opies report that two children were needed to cross fingers - one would lay his index finger across the index finger of the other.  This practice was likely reduced to one person crossing his index and middle fingers.

From Anna Rabberman:

As a social studies faculty we have discussed the possible first uses of the phrase divide and conquer. We do not have concrete evidence of its initial use.

This concise bit of governing (or wartime) advice comes to us from Latin divide et impera ("divide and rule").   It was a Roman maxim which was first used in its English form in the late 16th to early 17th centuries.  This quotation is from 1608: "For a Prince, that he may have good successe against either rebels or forraine enemies, it is a sure axiome, Divide and rule."  Various other quotations claim the phrase to have been a maxim of Machiavelli and a motto of Phillip of Macedonia (father of Alexander the Great),

From Pat Ready:

The term silkie is used in a book I am reading. I think it means a feline that has the ability to transform into a human. Am I even close?

Photo by Melanie.  Click to learn more about seals.You got the "transform into a human" part right, but what is a silkie when it's not in human form?  The spelling preferred by the OED is sealchie, which gives a hint at the identity of this mystery creature.  It is a seal.  Sealchie is the diminutive form of Gaelic sealgh "seal", so that sealchie means, etymologically, "little seal".  The word first entered English from Scotland, and the earliest quotation in the OED is in Scottish English of 1550: "Ane ile callit Ellan Askerin,..guid for fishing and slaughter of selchies."  Sealchie was also used to refer to the non-magical, regular ol' seal, too.

Here's what John and Caitlín (which is the original Gaelic form of Kathleen, by the way, and pronounced Kat-LEEN) Matthews have to say about sealchies in An Encyclopedia of Myth and Legend, British and Irish Mythology:

Selkie (Scottish) Seal people who have the ability to become human.  They leave their seal-skins concealed and take human shape, or else a mortal man conceals the seal-skin and thus entraps a female selkie to live with him as his wife.  When she finds her skin again she leaves her home and children, returning to the sea.  In the ballad "The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry" the selkie begets a child with a human woman and comes to claim his child, prophesying their certain death at the hands of her fisherman husband.  Manannan makes a similar prophecy to Bran mac Febal about Mongan.

The Matthews team uses a variant spelling: selkie.


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