Issue 168, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Mike Ferrer:

I live in Hong Kong, and found your web site while looking for a definition and history of shroff, an English word often used here but rarely used elsewhere. There is another English word used here which seems to be unique to the former colony; the word godown. It is used to mean a type of warehouse. Where does it come from?

This splendid word is a historical relic which illuminates a little of your island's colonial past. It was brought to Hong Kong by the British when they took possession of the island during the Chinese Opium Wars. The British East India Company had grown a huge surplus of opium in Bengal and were attempting to unload it in China. They saw Hong Kong as an ideal location to store their wares (in godowns) and contracted with local trading vessels to carry it up the Pearl River. Unfortunately, the emperor had declared a "war on drugs" and the local authorities did not look favorably on the foreigners' activities. A great deal of unpleasantness ensued: gunboats were sent, the emperor's summer palace was destroyed and Britain ended up with Hong Kong.

What has this to do with etymology? Well, the word godown is a piece of linguistic flotsam which has drifted on the tides of history. The key point of the story is that it was not just brought by the British but by the British East India Company. So does that mean it's an Indian word? Well, yes and no... The British East India Company traded all over the far east and they encountered the Malay word gadong in the East Indies, where it means "a warehouse". But the trail doesn't end there. It is thought that the Malays, who themselves were great traders, took it from southern India. Both the Telugu word gidangi and the Tamil kidangu mean "a place where goods lie" (from the verb kidu "to lie") and are the likely origins of the Malay word. 

The earliest English usage (in 1588) spells it godon and a little later (1615) another writer gives it as gadonge yet from the 1630s onward it is consistently spelled godown.  It is possible that the modern spelling was influenced by the notion of an underground vault or cellar.

From Rhina:

The origin of the word adventure, please.

Its origin was in the future tense of the Latin verb  advenire "to happen".  Adventura meant "a thing which is about to happen [to someone]".  

When first adopted into Middle English (early 1200s) it had lost the D and was spelled auenture. This trend continued until by the early 1400s it was just antur, a form which persists in Scots dialect as anter

Meanwhile, just as the English were discarding superfluous letters, the French had rediscovered the original Latin word and re-introduced the D. In the early 1600s, English writers adopted adventure, the new French spelling, just in time for the French to change their minds and drop the D again.

The earliest meaning in English was "that which happens by chance". This is similar to the Italian usage al avventura, "by accident", which gave us the term aventurine, the name of a kind of gold-flecked glass which was discovered by accident. A variety of quartz which resembles this glass is also known as aventurine.

From the sense of "by chance" came the implication "a chance of danger", hence "a dangerous or risky undertaking".

From Richard Stein:

When I went to a pancake house called Flapjack's, it occurred to me to wonder about that word. Webster's 10th Collegiate Dictionary gives no etymology, but dates the word from about 1600. My only hunch is that the flap- part could be a variant of flip. As to the jack part, there are many English terms - compound words - with jack, one sense of which is a person (as in every man jack) and another sense of which might be fish because there were some half dozen fish names compounded with jack - neither of which seems likely to have to do with flapjack.

Or it might be that the word is the result of folk etymology (the assimilation of a foreign or obsolete word to known word elements in an effort to make sense out of it, an example being when I heard a waitress call in an order for a "Julie Ann salad")..

We can't find a connection to flip but that may not be necessary. One meaning of to flap which dates from the 1300s is "to toss with a smart movement" or, in other words, "to flip".  Jack is a little more problematic. The Oxford English Dictionary lists 39 different meanings for jack with hundreds of compound expressions like those you mention, Richard, but none of them seem especially relevant to the jack in flapjack. It could be their small size. One use of jack is to designate something smaller than normal, as in the "jack" used in the game of lawn bowls.

The word flapjack has been with us since around 1600 though it has been applied to a number of different foods. While it originally meant "a pancake", flapjack can also mean an apple turnover (a.k.a an "apple-jack") and, in parts of England, a cookie made with rolled oats and syrup.  In the first half of the 20th century it was used to mean "compact case for face powder"; this is similar to using pancake to refer to face make-up (clearly referring to the flat pad used to apply the make-up in both cases).  However, we do find this quotation from 1941 rather amusing: "Slowly opening her handbag and taking out her flapjack."  

From Bill Yant:

Phillips screw driver: where did the name Phillips come from? The inventor?

The Phillips screw.Indeed.  The 1934 patent for the Phillips recessed, self-centering screw is held by Henry F. Phillips of Portland, Oregon.  The term first appears in the written record in 1935.  Phillips apparently realized that car manufacturers needed screws that could be inserted with more torque than a single slot screw.  Additionally, they are simply easier for assembly line workers or machines to install, because they are "self-centering" and one doesn't have to work to get the blade into the slot as with single-slot screws.  Phillips was not the first to create a variation on the typical slot screw, however.  A  square-recess screw was invented by P.L. Robertson in Canada in 1908 and used by Ford Motor Company on its Model T.  The Phillips screw, by the way, was used by General Motors Company.  As it was invented for assembly line insertion, and not really made for removal, it can be a pain in the posterior to take out, as most handymen have probably discovered.

Today the Phillips screw is the standard in the U.S., while the Robertson screw is the standard in Canada.  [Thanks to Ed Smart for being so smart and having no screws loose on this one!]

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From John Stallings:

I love your site and find myself directed to it several times a month when I go to find the roots of some word or another. And, this time, it's by George, and I'm having a devil of a time finding anything anywhere!

By George is short for "by St. George" (of dragon fame) and is probably also used as a "replacement" or "avoidance" word for God (as in by God). By George is first recorded in English in 1598 by none other than Ben Johnson, Shakespeare's fellow playwright.

Since we're speaking of George, we should mention that he is the patron saint of England.  He is also the patron saint of Portugal, Germany, Aragon, Genoa and Venice.  However, all that is known about the man himself is that he was martyred in Palestine in the late 3rd or early 4th century, and he might have been a member of the imperial army.  Everything else supposedly "known" about George is mythical or legendary.  In fact, stories of him as dragon-slayer did not arise until the 12th century and were popularized in the Golden Legend of the 13th century.  The story in the Golden Legend is that George was a Christian knight and came upon a town (Sylene, Libya) being attacked by a dragon.  The townspeople were giving the dragon victims from among themselves, and the victim at the time of George's arrival was a princess.  George subdued the dragon and the princess led it into the town.  George got the townspeople to agree to be baptized as Christians, and he then killed the dragon.  More romantic versions of the tale have George marrying the princess. [Awww!]

This legendary dragon-slayer was chosen as England's patron saint during a war with Wales - which has a red dragon as its national symbol. It is hard not to see this as  heavy-handed war propaganda. St. George's cross is part of the flag of Britain (the Union Jack) and he is patron of the Order of the Garter (founded in 1347). 


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2002 TIERE
Last Updated 09/02/02 10:02 PM