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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Aaron Kennedy: 

Does the word grocer have anything to do with the word gross meaning "twelve dozen"?

Yes it does. The original meaning of grocer was someone who bought items in bulk, a wholesale merchant, in other words. Gross comes from the Late Latin grossus, meaning "big", "thick" or "coarse". The "twelve dozen" sense arose around 1400 and was sometimes called a small gross. This seeming oxymoron makes sense when it is contrasted with the great gross which was "twelve dozen dozen".

There was a medieval English coin worth four pence, called a groat (also known as a thick penny), and a German coin called a Groschen. Both groat and Groschen are derived from gross. The "thick" sense of gross is also to be found in the name of the bird called a grosbeak which does, indeed, have a very stout bill. 

From John Faux:

How come the word is reckless when wreck-full would make more sense?

Reck, like ruth, is one of those qualities which is remarked upon only in its absence.  It means "care", so reckless simply means "careless".  The verb to reck goes all the way back to Old English reccian but, as far as we know, it has always been used with a negative sense.  We never hear of people who reck much, only those who reck naught or reck little.

Reck is quite unrelated to wreck.  It just so happens that we no longer pronounce the w in wreck so, in modern use, the two words sound the same. Wreck isn't quite as old as reck, dating only to the Norman conquest of England (1066).  As we have pointed out before, the Normans were French-speaking Vikings (Normans = "Norsemen") and they brought their Latin-based vocabulary with them.  Just a few of their words were hangers-on from their previous life in the fjords, however, and wreck is one of these.  Even more surprising is the fact that it made its way into Medieval Latin (as wareccum or warectum).

[Overheard in Afghanistan... "What happened to those buildings?"  "Warectum!"]

Now, tell us, John... Is Faux your real name?

From Robert Scarborough:

Several years ago in the rare book room of the University of Illinois I ran across a big book written by a person with a hyphenated last name - something like Xxxx-Rousshey. I  was fascinated by the way it dealt with Old English words in the King James Version of the Bible.  The U of I can't find it now. I've tried several sources with this scant info. Can You Help?

Sorry, Robert, we can't think who that author might be. Perhaps an erudite reader might know, though.  (We have very smart readers.)

There is one thing we can do, though, and that is to disabuse you of the notion that the King James Bible is written in Old English.  It isn't.  Despite its use of old-fashioned forms such as thee, thou  and thine, the King James Bible, like the works of Shakespeare, is written in Modern English.

When discussing the history of English, linguists speak of three major periods.  Old English is the language of the Anglo-Saxons which was spoken between 600 and 1100.  It was entirely Germanic, had inflected endings (like Latin) and had five genders.

After the Norman invasion (1066) many French words and phrases were introduced to the language.  As with many "creoles" (languages of mixed parenthood), English dropped much of its difficult grammar at this time and this language is called Middle English.  With a good deal of effort, Middle English is just barely understandable to a modern reader.

Finally, around 1500, the language became even simpler and from then on we've all been speaking Modern English.

From J. David Neher:

A boxty is a traditional Irish potato pancake or roll and I'm assuming that that it's an English word.  I've looked in your site, emailed Irish (i.e. in Ireland) pubs, restaurants and government agencies to no avail.  Can you help.

Well, we're a bit cautious of rushing in where the Irish government fears to tread, but here goes.

Yes, boxty is an English word but most dictionaries, if they mention it at all, simply say that its origin is Irish without divulging the precise details.  Our Irish-English dictionary tells us that bacstaid is "bread made of the raw pulp of potatoes; a boxty".  No etymology is given but we assume that it is related to the words bacail, "the act of baking", bacalaide "a baker", and bacus, "a bakery".  As the latter is clearly a Hibernian version of bake-house, it is quite likely that all these words have their origin in the English word bake.

From Richard:

I've always wondered about the origin, and meaning, of the phrase What in the Sam Hill?  When I was a boy I heard mostly older folks use it.

What in [the] Sam Hill?, who the Sam Hill? and run like Sam Hill are all "avoidance phrases" similar to the "minced oaths" we wrote about in Issue 87's Spotlight.  The most probable reason that you heard it as a boy was either that people in those days were generally more reluctant to say what in the damn[ed] hell...? The Seattle Sam Hill.  Click to learn more. than people today or that they were more likely to guard their speech in the presence of small boys.

While all authorities agree that Sam Hill is a polite alternative to damn (or damned) hell there is no unanimity as to who in the Sam Hill this Sam Hill was.

A respected English lexicographer opines that it is Cockney and dates from the early 1900s but he offers no supporting evidence nor any help with Mr. Hill's identity.  Another source claims that our Sam was a Colonel of Guilford, Connecticut who frequently ran for office but was never elected.  Yet another version says that Sam was a railroad magnate who lived in Seattle, planned the Pacific Coast Highway and had a replica of Stonehenge built for his own amusement.

By now you must be asking, who in the Sam Hill was the real Sam Hill? Well, as the phrase what in the Sam Hill...? is known to have been used in New York in 1839, we can disregard both the Cockney and Seattle origins.  This leaves us with the Connecticut Colonel. Unfortunately for this version, there is no evidence that any such person ever lived.  

We think it more than likely that there was no actual person behind the phrase but we'd love to be proved wrong.


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Last Updated 06/22/02 05:50 PM