Issue 165, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Brian:

So why is the phrase the powers that be and not the powers that are?

To those who learn English as a second language, the verb to be is not just irregular, it's insane. This is because its various forms (be, is, was, are) are derived from several disparate sources:

  • Is comes from the ancient Indo-European stem *es- and is related to the Latin words esse ("to be") and est  ("it is").
  • Was is related to various words which, like the Old High German wesan, meant "to stay".
  • Relatives of be may be found in Sanskrit bhava ("becoming") and, though you'd never tell by appearances, Latin fuit ("it will be").
  • The use of are was originally confined to the north of England, being borrowed from the Old Norse eru. It eventually replaced the Old English sind which was related to German sind, Latin sunt and Sanskrit santi.

There was some overlap in usage of be, is, was, are and sind and the use of be for are persisted in some dialects until the 16th century. The phrase the powers that be is an archaic relic of this period.

From Anurag Sharma:

What is the origin of the word sköl, the traditional greeting when drinking in Scandinavia? My Scandinavian friends do not agree that this is because Vikings drank from skulls. They say the Vikings raised their glasses to their heads (i.e. skulls) to show that no one had a hidden dagger in their hands while drinking.Valkyrie withdrinking horn

We're sorry, Anurag, the story that the word sköl comes from the practice of drinking from skulls is untrue, despite being frequently repeated. 

On the bright side, however, your Scandinavian friends were also wrong. Even if we assume that hidden daggers were an ever-present danger at drinking parties, wouldn't it be (a) rather awkward to hold one in the same hand as one's drinking vessel and (b) rather easy to conceal one in the other hand? 

The real story is that sköl comes from the Old Norse skal, meaning "bowl" because that's what they drank from. In case you were wondering, the Old Norse word for "skull" was skoltr.

Drinking vessels made of skulls have existed, though, and the poet Lord Byron possessed one. Also, some gods and goddesses of tantric Buddhism are said to drink blood (or "the elixir of immortality") from a human skull-cup.  The Sanskrit name for this kind of vessel is kapala which is very distantly related to our word cup.

From Jonathan:

I'd like to know about trench coat.

For the sake of brevity, we will assume that you are familiar with the words trench and coat. In 1901, Thomas Burberry, a tailor from Hampshire, England, designed a waterproof overcoat made of gabardine. Much of World War I was fought in muddy trenches in France and Belgium so the British War Office commissioned Burberry to adapt his overcoat for use by officers. The resulting garment was called a trench-coat.

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From Terry Page:

We've had a lot of discussion at work about the phrase an arm and a leg when referring to the cost of something. Unfortunately, we've been unable to come to any consensus. One of our office mates came up with a humorous story about a discussion between God and Adam where God offers Adam a creation that will pick up after him, cook his meals, wait on him hand and foot and also provide him with great sex. Adam says to God "That sounds great... how much will it cost me"? God replies, "It will cost you an arm and a leg." Adam then asks, "Can you throw in a rib?"

Another theory had something to do with a practice of artists (portraits/sculpture) charging their clients based on the inclusion or exclusion of limbs in the finished work. Arms and/or legs cost more if included in the artistic product.

Terry, when you are in a wood, do you ask "Which way to the trees?"?

Let us put it this way... Imagine you are in a market and you ask the price of a commodity. The trader replies "It's yours if you give me your right arm and your left leg." Would you pay?

The phrase dates from the mid-20th century.,

From Gary L. Bertrand:

Your recent discussion of hogwash set me to thinking of folderol which has also been replaced in common usage by various references to bodily (why not just "body"?) functions.

A medieval knees-upPicture, if you will, a medieval minstrel singing a ballad. He is making it up as he goes along but every now and then his inspiration fails him.  Rather than commit the sin of silence, he sings fal-al-deral, folderol, or some similar gobbledygook. It was the medieval equivalent of la-la-la. From being a nonsense word it came to mean "nonsense words".  It dates from the late 17th century

From Mara:

Why is it called the eastern seaboard? You never hear of the western seaboard.

You didn't say so but we would guess that you are an American. Other countries also have eastern seaboards, too, and that affects our answer.  For example, England has an eastern seaboard but it has no real western seaboard because Wales gets in the way. 

Board is related to border and signifies an edge or margin. Thus, a seaboard is that place where the land borders the sea. That meaning dates from the late 18th century. There is another use of board to mean the side of a ship and this crops up in such words as starboard and larboard. Just to complicate matters, there once was another usage of seaboard with this kind of -board.  It meant the side of the ship. Yet another more specific meaning was "a plank used to cover up a port hole".

Depending on the geography of the country, the seaboard  "coastline" can be face any direction. Take Australia, for instance.  It has eastern, western, northern and southern coasts that could quite easily be called seaboards.

As far as we can see, there is nothing to stop you calling the west coast "the western seaboard" if you want to.


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