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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Cricket:

I am an editor so I generally have a bit of knowledge about the origin of words and phrases, but my husband stumped me with on the lamb.  Can you help?  

Let's assume your husband meant on the lam (no final -b) and attribute the heterodox  orthography to an inadvertent digital misdirection. An editor, you say?

The verb lam meaning "run" seems to have arisen in the underworld of late 19th century America. In Thirty Years a Detective (1886) the author "A. Pinkerton" describes how a  pickpocket would cry lam as a signal to his accomplice "to get out of the way as soon as possible".  Matsell's Secret Language of Crime,*  published in 1859, doesn't have lam but does include entries for lamb, "to flog" and lambo, "to beat with a club".  These meanings are much the same as the lam which meant "to beat soundly" at least since the 1500s. It is related to the Old Norse word lemja meaning "to lame" and is also present in lambaste.

This word is often assumed to be lamb + baste and to derive from the practice of pouring fat over a leg of lamb while it is roasting by the fire, though this hardly seems congruent with the actions of an actual lambasting. The baste in lambaste is probably not a reference to culinary techniques but is related to Icelandic beysta "to bruise, thrash, or flog". The components of lambaste are therefore lam + baste and means "beat-beat".  Bumbaste is a related, though more obscure, word.  Like a lambasting, a bumbasting is a sound beating but, in this case, it is directed toward a specific region of the anatomy.

But what, you must surely be asking, has all this violent mayhem to do with running away?  Well, lam, lamb, lambo, and lambaste all mean "beat" and beat it or, more archaically, beat it on the hoof, has meant "run [away]" since the 1600s, perhaps earlier.

* We feel that readers might appreciate the full title of this invaluable volume, to wit: The Secret Language of Crime: Vocabulum or Rogue's Lexicon Containing as well a glossary of terms used by Gamblers, Billiard Players, Stock Brokers and Pugilists, Compiled from the Most Authentic Sources by George W. Matsell, Former Chief of Police of New York City.

From Dave Niz:

Why is quarters (e.g. living quarters, officers quarters, quartermaster) used to describe a dwelling or accommodation? Has this anything to do with a division by four?

Yes, it does, but not directly.  Latin quartus meant "a fourth part, a quarter". This has given us the unit called a quarter which may be a fourth part of a cauldron, a cask, a fathom, a mile, a peck, a pound, a hundredweight or a dollar, depending on context.  It is also the source of quart, "a fourth of a gallon".

When a carcass of a four-legged animal is cut up, each portion with a leg is called a quarter and this division is called quartering.  Leftover skin and fat was known as the fifth quarter, showing that the butchering trade was willing to disregard mathematical niceties.  This kind of quartering was also done to people in the archaic capital punishment of hanging, drawing and quartering.

The verb to quarter meant "to divide" and a quarter could mean "something divided up and apportioned", regardless of the number of resulting pieces.  Thus, in an apocryphal tale, a student is said to have translated Caesar's Omnia Gallia in tres partes divisa est as "all Gaul is quartered into three halves".

This notion of division, influenced by the "four quarters of the compass", gave rise, in the 1500s, to the sense of quarter (or quartier in French) as a distinct district of a city. From this meaning of "a district" it was a short hop to "a dwelling" and quarter  has been used in this sense, especially for soldiers, at least since 1590. Curiously, headquarters has always (since 1647) been plural when, logically, there can be only one head quarter.

From Mimi:

What is the origin and meaning of death throes?

Let's throw death out for a moment and just talk about throe.  Yes, that's one possible connection: throw and throe may be related.  Throe refers to "a violent spasm of the body" or "a spasm of feeling; anguish".  It may have originally meant "a throwing about" or, as in the earlier sense of throw "twisting, torture".  However, no one is quite sure, another suggested connection being Old English thrawu "painful infliction, affliction".

Whatever the ultimate source, it was spelled throwe or throw as late as the 18th century; the throe spelling paralleled that of hoe and roe, which were originally howe and rowe.  The word dates back to the first half of the Middle English period (about 1200).  Today we might hear the word most often in the phrase death throes, but it is still also used to mean "violent convulsion or struggle", usually in a metaphoric sense.

From Elizabeth Suttle:

Is the root men- derived from the masculine [men]?  If so, why do the very female-specific terms women and menstruation contain the male reference?

No, no, no, just because you see what appears to be one word within another word does not mean that they are related.  Menstruation comes from Latin menstruare "monthly courses", where mensis means "month".  No relation to men whatsoever!  In fact, the term menstrual is still used in astrology to refer to monthly events.  Menstruate the verb, referring solely to women, dates from about 1800 in English.  

As for women, we have discussed the singular form before, so we'll be brief.  Woman was originally (in Old English) wifmon "wife man", where "man" in this sense actually meant "person", so that a woman is etymologically a "wife person".  The plural women is simply "wife men" or "wife persons".

From V. Kutti:

Somehow I have the feeling that the word indigenous is derogatory, making such people The Others.  Am I wrong in feeling this way?

We think so.  The word first appears in the written record in the mid-17thindigenes century.  Most of the early examples of its use refer to plants and animals.  It has meant "native or belonging naturally to..." since that time.  There's nothing derogatory in that.

It came to English from French indegene, which derived from Latin indigena "native", formed from indi- "in" (an ancient form of  in-) and gen- from gignere "to be born".  Indigene dates in English from the late 16th century.

By the way, native is not derogatory, either - it is literally "one who lives where they were born", from Latin natus "born". Similarly, aborigines are "those who have lived [there] since the beginning", the word being taken directly from the Latin ab- "from" + origine "the beginning".


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Last Updated 09/12/02 04:17 PM