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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Regina:

Gumshoe: Why this name for detectives?

A real gumshoe!First, what was a gumshoe originally?  We first find it in the written record in 1863: "A little boy who wore his father's *gum shoes in dry weather."  Gumshoes were "galoshes", or rubber shoes worn in mud or water (gum being another word for "rubber").  These rubber shoes were much quieter on hard flooers than the typical leather soled shoe, and so the term gumshoe came to apply to anything done stealthily, and then, more specifically, a detective.  The earliest instance of gumshoe used to refer to a detective comes from 1906 in, not surprisingly, Confessions of a Detective.

Gumboots appears in the written record about 10 years before gumshoes.

From Jen:

Where did the sexually transmitted disease syphilis originate?  My neighbors and I were talking and one of them said that syphilis came from Indians having intercourse with sheep.  I am an Indian and I hope it's not true but would like to find out.

There is absolutely no evidence that the disease was first contracted as a result of human intercourse with sheep.  That story may have arisen in connection with the word's etymology.  The name of the disease comes from a poem, in which the first man to suffer from the disease is a shepherd named Syphilis.  Prior to that word becoming the popular term for the disease, it was known as the great pox (in contrast with smallpox).  The poem, written by Girolamo Frastoro and first printed in 1530, was entitled Syphilis, sive Morbus Gallicus.  It was translated in 1686 as Syphilis: or, a Poetical History of the French Disease.  We've spoken before about why syphilis was known as the French disease.  That term should not be construed as indicating the place of origin of the illness.  One of the current theories on syphilis is that the bacteria that causes it originated in Africa.

The explanation that syphilis was a New World disease given to Europe by Native Americans was once popular, but there is no real evidence to support it.  It gained popularity because syphilis seemed to appear more frequently after discovery of the New World.

No one seems to know the origin of the name of the shepherd, Syphilis.  One suggestion we noted was that the name was a corruption of Sipylus, the name of one of Niobe's sons.  Niobe was the daughter of Tantalus in Greek mythology.

From Kevin Cook:

Swan song - ware duz it com frum?

Wel, kevin, It orl beegan in Jermuny. [Oh, dear, we really can't keep this up.]

Although most swans possess a voice, they do not make much use of it. [This is a trait which  we dearly wish were more prevalent, especially in politicians - M&M] An old German legend held that they remained mute for most of their lives but then, just before death, they poured out their hearts in a final soulful outburst of song.  This was known as a schwanen(ge)sang or schwanenlied, both of which become swan-song when translated into English.  It is first recorded in English in 1831.

From Karen Winshman:

Where does the word zit originate from?

We don't know (nor does anyone else) but this American slang word for "pimple" is not very old so perhaps some readers could shed some light on this. [Readers?] The earliest occurrence we know is in The Manual of Skin Diseases, 1966.

From Nigel Cook:

I'm a geologist specializing in gold deposits. This question is more to settle an argument - does the word nugget have its origins in South Africa, as one colleague insists? I had always imagined that this originated in the California gold-rush, i.e long before the South African gold was even discovered. 

I'm dead curious to know your opinions. Many thanks!

It is difficult to say where exactly nugget originated and we can't trace it all the way back to the 49ers but we think it safe to say that you have won your bet.  The word is at least as old as 1852 when an author, disappointed with the Australian  gold-fields, said "Gold was not so plentiful as was anticipated, nor were nuggets to be dug up by the bushel". 

Only ten years after the  Californian gold rush of 1849, the English writer Thomas de Quincy used the term in a figurative sense: "The secret truth, that rarest of all nuggets" (c. 1859, Collected Writings)

Nugget is thought to be a diminutive of nug, a rather obscure dialect word meaning "a lump" from the southwest of England. It may be related to a word of endearment used by 16th century criminals. The Dictionary of the Canting Crew by "B. E." glosses nug as "a Word of Love, as, my Dear Nug, my Dear Love".


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Last Updated 07/12/02 11:00 PM