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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Chuck Gale:

We use the phrase: "Taking Information to Task" as the corporate slogan for our company, Information Task Force. What does it mean to take *something* to task? Seems like "serious business," but I'm curious. Thanks.

Chuck, we've got to take you to task for choosing a corporate slogan whose meaning you aren't sure about!  What were you thinking?  Though we aren't really here to give meanings, we will tell you that today, to take to task means "to reprimand, or to blame or censure".  Why would you want to reprimand information?  Might be a little bit difficult to do.

All right, all kidding aside, why does to take to task mean "to reprimand"?  The phrase originally meant "to undertake as one's task", "to challenge (a person) to a task" or "to take (a person or thing) in hand, deal with".  The phrase is first encountered in the written record in 1546 with the first meaning above.  It is the third meaning that led to today's "reprimand" meaning.  It arose from the notion of "dealing with" something or someone by finding fault or censure with it or him.

Today's meaning developed in the early 19th century.  We find it in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's work Captain Polestar of 1890: "My employer took me severely to task". 

From Tye:

The word peruse seems to have two contradictory definitions. Several dictionaries (mostly 10 20 years old) have it meaning "to read carefully or thoroughly". However, common usage seems to be, and some dictionaries (generally newer and online - but not always) list it as "to read or look at something in a relaxed and not very detailed way". Which is correct? Has the definition changed in the last decade?

Not according to the old guard.  The OED has no mention of the "scan" or "read quickly" meaning.  However, the word does seem to have a history of double meanings.  When it was first recorded in the early 16th century, it meant either "to use up" or "to go through (a series of things or persons) so as to deal with one after another; to handle things one by one".  Etymologists suspect that these two meanings may represent two separate formations of the word.  The first may have been formed from the verb use plus the prefix per- "thorough", having the sense of "thoroughly using" something until it has been "used up".  The second formation is the puzzling one: the per- element is obvious, retaining the "through"  meaning, but the use portion is not so easy to explain.

It is easy to see where the current widely accepted meaning arose: from the notion of going through things one by one, the meaning went to "to go through things carefully" and then came to apply especially to reading carefully.  Today's "read quickly" usage is relatively recent (Melanie remembers it from her childhood) and comes from a mistaken understanding of the word's true current meaning. 

From Jason:

What is the origin of celestial?

This one comes ultimately from Latin clum "sky", via Old French celestial "of the sky".  It first turns up in the work of Chaucer at the end of the 14th century with that very meaning.  He also used it to refer to "heaven".  The musical term celeste is actually short for voix celeste, French for "heavenly voices", a description of the sound that that particular organ stop produces.  That makes celeste and celestial cognates.

Ceiling, on the other hand, which one might think must certainly be related to clum, is actually a bit of a mystery, with Latin celare "to hide, conceal, cover up", Latin clare "to carve", and Latin clum being suggested sources.  Ceiling is a verbal noun, deriving from ceil, a verb dating from 1428 with the meaning "to cover the interior roof or walls of a house with a lining of woodwork or plaster".  John Ayto cites a quotation from the account books of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland in 1497 that may point to the caelare derivation: "Item, to the kervour that tuk in task the siling of the chapel, in part of payment, ij lib. xiiijs."  To those of us unfamiliar with late 15th century English, that means "Item, to the carver who carved the ceiling of the chapel, payment of 2 14s"(2 pounds, 14 shillings).

From 'beth Hayes:

A friend asked me when it became fashionable to drop the 'n' and pronounce kiln as 'kil'. That's what I was taught in Southern New Jersey when I studied pottery. My Webster lists that pronunciation first with 'kiln' second. Her OED doesn't list 'kil' at all. I know we're both right, because we always are, but where would the pronounciation 'kil' have been derived?

You may be surprised to learn that this "fashion" is actually not as ephemeral as most fashions today.  The silent n in kiln dates from the 15th century, in Middle English,  The word even appears in the written record from that time in the form kill.  However, even though it was not pronounced, the n hung on, so that the spelling was eventually standardized as kiln.  Despite the spelling, the silent n pronunciation remained the popular one until recently,   We suspect the n is now being pronounced simply because people read the word before hearing it and have no reason to assume that the n is silent.  Additionally, the n sound after the l is not all that easy to hear when spoken, anyhow.  That may account for the n dropping off in Middle English.

Another similar English word is mill.  It was originally miln, but the n became silent and was dropped in this case so that miln was obsolete by the 17th century.  It can still be seen in  the surname Milner.  However, milliner is not related.  It comes from Milan + -er, for the goods milliners dealt in were originally from the textile factories of Milan, Italy.  It dates from the early 16th century.

Back to kiln: it dates from 725, when it was cyline.  It came from Latin culina "kitchen, cooking stove".  One obvious relative is culinary, and some less obvious members of this family are cook and kitchen, both deriving from the parent of culina, which was coquina "kitchen", from the Latin verb coquere "to cook". The Romance languages have cognate words for "kitchen", such as Italian cucina and Spanish cocina.  And yes, we do see that culina is a rather odd child of coquina.  Where did that L come from?  No one is quite sure.


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2002 TIERE  
Last Updated 05/02/02 10:05 PM