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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Peter Kocharov:

Would you, please, write what is the etymology of America.  As far as I know it goes back to personal name Amerigo, so what is the origin of the latter?

It is assumed that America takes its name from one Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian who wrote an early account of the New World.  Scholarly opinion differs as to whether Vespucci described his own visit or whether he simply compiled and retold the tales of actual travelers.

Before we examine the origin of Amerigo, let us explain that we don't do etymologies of names.  Please don't ask us - they're just too complicated.  Take, for instance, the case of the Norse name Olaf.  It's simple enough in Old Norse (anu "ancestor" + leifr "heir") but then Vikings settled in Ireland (and founded the city of Dublin) and the name got into the hands of the locals.  A peculiarity of Celtic languages is that the pronunciation of some consonants depends on the preceding sound.  This obviously affects the spelling of words and so, in Gaelic, every possible pronunciation is catered for.  Thus, Olaf is spelled Amhlaoibh (note that the last -bh is considered one letter and pronounced -v).  A few hundred years after the Vikings, along came the English and, confused by the alien jumble of letters in Amhlaoibh transcribed it as Humphrey.  These Irish Humphreys are, of course, no relation to the English Humphreys whose name comes from Old Norse hun- "bear-cub, warrior" + -fred "peace".  Now do you see why we don't do names?

Fortunately, Amerigo isn't quite that bad.  It's an alternative form of Enrico and is therefore related to the English name Henry.  All these derive from the Germanic name Henrik (heim "home" + ric "power"), and Amerigo  was probably introduced to Italy by the Ostrogoths, around 500 AD.

From Mary Funke:

What is the origin of the word shamus with the meaning of "private detective"?  I am familiar with the Irish name Seamus but I don't see any connection between that and a "private detective".

Erm... didn't we just say that we don't do etymologies of names?  Oh, well, at least Séamas is an easy one. This Irish name (also spelled Séamus, Seumas or Seumus but pronounced Shay-muss) is the Gaelic form of James which itself is an English form of the Latin Iacobus, from Hebrew Yaakov "Jacob", a name of uncertain origin but which could mean "ankle-grasper" (don't ask).  Scots Gaels spell it Seumus which is sometimes Anglicized as Hamish.

Shamus, as an American slang term, first meant "policeman", not "private detective".  This almost certainly arose as an Anglicized spelling of Séamas because so many of the policemen "Private Eye" the satirical magazine in America's cities were Irish or of Irish descent.  From "policeman" the meaning shifted to "detective" to "private detective".  In 1925, Flynn's Magazine featured a "Dictionary of the Underworld" which glossed shamus as "a detective; a cop".  By 1950, the word was understood, at least by some, to mean "private eye":

Men in my profession don’t call each other shamuses... We private operatives call ourselves private operatives.

- Deadly Miss Ashley, ‘S. Ransome’ 1950

But even in the 1970s some writers still considered it necessary to specify that a shamus was "private":

I think my wife is having me tailed by a private shamus.

- New Yorker, May 2, 1977

Some have suggested the Hebrew shamas(h), "a beadle or sexton in a Jewish synagogue" as a possible origin.  We think there is a (slim) chance that this may be so but we lack hard evidence for either case.

From Ashley Thomas:

What language did the word radical, meaning "root", come from?

That's an easy one! Radix means "root" in Latin and radical, the adjective, means "of the root".  A political radical wants to change things "down to the roots". A mathematical radical is a symbol that represents the [square] "root" of a number.

Radish also came to us from Latin radix, via the Old French radis.  English added the "h".

Radical "of roots" dates from the 14th century in English.  The metaphorical meaning arose in the 17th century, the political meaning in the early 19th century, and the mathematical usage first appears in the 16th century.

From Linda Hardie:

What is the word for someone who loves words?  Is it a philologist?

Various answers spring to mind but I think the one you want is logophile.

A philologist is "one who is versed in, or devoted to, philology". That would certainly have worked in Chaucer's day when philology meant "a general love of language and learning". Its meaning has altered in the 700 years since then, though.

One is unlikely to encounter philology these days except as a British term for the systematic study of the structure and development of language. In academic use it is usually restricted to the study of the development of specific languages or language families, especially research into phonological and morphological history based on written documents. The term has never been current in the U.S. and linguistics is now the more usual term for the study of the structure of language, even in Britain.

From Kate Porter:

What is the word for the rhetorical device whereby the word Washington is used to mean " the US Government" or Westminster instead of " the British Government".

The word you want, Kate, is synecdoche.  This originally Greek word refers to the substitution of a part for the whole.  Thus, if a rancher states that he has hired four new "hands" we know that he means four people, not just their appendages. And when he speaks of two hundred "head" of cattle we know that they come with bodies attached.

A little confusingly, synecdoche also refers to the substitution of the whole for a part.  Thus, the phrase "the White House announced..." means that the president's press office spoke - not the building.

The word synecdoche came to English in the 14th century from Latin synodoche, an alteration of synecdoche, which it borrowed, of course, from Greek.  The Greek word, transliterated as synekdoche, came from the verb synekdechesthai "take on a part of".


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