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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Christine Duez:

Someone told me hymn comes from the word hymen.  Can you verify if that is true or not?

We must admit that our first reaction was "of course not" then we discovered where the confusion may have arisen.

Hymn comes from the Latin hymnus - a word meaning "a song or ode in praise of gods or heroes".  A letter y (the Roman form of the Greek letter upsilon) in a Latin word is a sure sign that it was borrowed from Greek.  In this case the original word was hymnos While it has only one letter different, hymen, the medical term for the maidenhead, comes from a different Greek word - hymen[os], "a thin skin, a membrane".  Linguists derive this from the Indo-European root *syu-.  

However, Hymen with a capital H was the name of the Greek and Roman god of marriage,"Then there's my son, Hymen, the god" - Apollo usually depicted as a young man bearing a torch.  In classical Greek, a hymn addressed to this god was called a hymenaios but in later Greek this was abbreviated to hymen.  In the early 17th century, some English writers alluded to this classical meaning and used hymen as a poetic synonym for "wedding song". So, although hymn doesn't come from hymen, some hymns were called hymens, sometimes.

The Indo-European root *syu- is believed to be the common ancestor of sew, seam, suture, couture, the Latin subulus ("an awl") and Sanskrit sutra ("a thread").  Some readers may be familiar with the use of sutra to mean "treatise", as in the Kama Sutra ("Treatise on Desire").  The reason lies in the construction of ancient Indian books. Each page was a long strip of sturdy palm leaf with a hole near either end.  Through the holes ran two strings (sutra) which held the book together.  A class of later Indian works called themselves tantras, probably as a word-play on sutra - whereas sutra means "thread", tantra means "weave" or "weft".

From Ramona Boersma:

As a happy coincidence, I found your site when doing a search for skid row, and the same issue had a Sez You from my brother in law.

Anyway, last year my husband gave me a subscription to the OED online for my birthday. For some reason, the first word I looked up was booger, and it wasn't there!  I know the OED is not complete on American slang, but I thought this was so commonly used that it should be there. The American Heritage dictionary lists it as 

1. Bogeyman (which I know is frequently pronounced boogeyman) 

and 

2. Dried nasal mucus. 

It is this second meaning I was interested in (again, for some reason!), but the American Heritage Dictionary lists its origin as unknown. Any ideas? And why isn't it in the OED?

Actually, it is there but only in its British form (try looking under bogy [1]). Hey, there's an idea for a song: "You say booger; I say it's not..."

Now that we've looked up bogy (meaning "nasal mucus"), we see that the OED attributes its origin to the bogy which means "devil". As regular readers will know, this bogy is related the Welsh bwg and also to Puck, the spirit of the forest.  The OED offers no explanation for the connection to nasal mucus and we are beginning to wonder if it has a sound basis.  Readers?

Just for the record, Mike says that in South Wales it's a boogy (pronounced as in boogie-woogie).

From Larry Barrieau:

The term alewife may relate to an alemaker's wife doing most of the work in producing ale, but how does it apply to the fish of the same name?

My question came about from an email I got from a naturalist friend in Buzzard's Bay.  He is the local herring commissioner and was waiting for the annual spawn.  He writes, "...the days are getting longer, and the alewives out on the stormy continental shelves are getting valentines from their lusty ale-husbands. ("I've got this great place up on Cape Cod... what do you say we take a trip up there this Spring for a little...")

Lonely up in Buzzard's Bay, is it?  Please urge your friend to seek professional help.  There is always a possibility that, with a few years of intensive therapy, he could pass for normal....and slide number 78, the "alewife-fish"

Actually, the -wife in alewife has its original meaning of "woman".  In days of yore, every household brewed its own beer and the brewer was usually the lady of the house.  Consequently, when beer was made for public consumption it was often women (alewives) who made it.   

In 1587, William Harrison published his "Description of England", which includes a detailed description his wife's brewing techniques.  The Harrisons' beer would probably taste odd to modern palates as, in addition to hops, it was flavored with "orris [= violet root] and bayberries" which they much preferred to long pepper, another common ale additive of the time.  Harrison also mentions honey-based liquor called metheglin "whereof the Welshmen make no less account (and not without cause) than the Greeks did of their ambrosia and nectar".  He clearly distinguished this elegant elixir from the "kind of swish-swash made... with honeycombs and water, which the homely country wives, putting a little pepper and other spices among, call mead".  This latter, opined Harrison, was "very good for such as love to be loose-bodied at large and a little eased of the cough".

The alewife fish (a member of the herring family) takes its name from its remarkably large belly.  Apparently, this reminded New England fishermen of the capacious abdomens of lady brewers.

From David Gould:

I love your site and I read it religiously. [Every Sunday? - M&M]

My question is regarding happy hour.  In the references I have read, it defines it as the time in the late afternoon/early evening when some bars offer discounted liquor and/or food.  However, no source has offered an origin for this term, although one did list the origin date as 1961.

Yes, we think 1961 is the earliest on record:

"All went home happy except the Newport police... and those deprived of their happy hour at the cocktail bar." - Providence Journal, 4 July 1961

One must assume, however, that it must have been widely understood before this date as we suspect that Providence, Rhode Island was not the origin of this term. We have no clue, as yet, which bar dreamed up the term but its origin is obvious - the patrons are happy because they have cheap booze.

But that's not the whole story.  In the late 1800s, members of the theatrical profession in England used the term happy hours as rhyming-slang for "flowers".  This implies the prior existence of happy hours as a commonly understood phrase.  [But meaning what? - M&M]

From Simon Mahon:

I remembered the word snafu being used on the news in relation to the Bin Ladin video tape.  It appears to be American military slang (etymology: Situation Normal: All Fouled* Up). Being from England, I had not heard this before. 

Is this an everyday word in America or perhaps a chad for 2002? If the former is true could we have a rare case an acronym?

No, it's not an everyday word here. Snafu originated in the allied forces in the second World War but the word seems to be enjoying a comeback after being a minor theme in the movie "Saving Private Ryan". And, yes, this is a rare case of a real acronym - several  acronyms (e.g. radar, sonar) come from military usage. 

An extreme form of snafu is fubar (= Fouled* Up Beyond All Recognition).  For some reason, fubar, foobar, foo and bar are commonly used as "nonsense" names in computer training classes.

* We fully appreciate the possibility of an alternative to fouled. - M&M

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