Issue 169, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Raghavendra Kulkarni:

What is the origin of the phrase cloak and dagger?

This phrase, referring to mystery, intrigue, or espionage, dates in English from the early 19th century.  It is a translation of French de cape de d'epee and Spanish (comedia) de capa y espada.  The French and Spanish terms refer to a genre of drama in which the main characters actually wore cloaks and carried swords.  Longfellow wrote about the genre in 1840: "In the afternoon read La Dama Duenda of Calderon - a very good comedy of 'cloak and sword'".  Dickens uses cloak and dagger a year later.

From Susan Angus:

Although my search for the meaning of the word Brooklyn turned up part of a sentence Brooklyn bridge. that I am sure answers my question, I can't find it in Take Our Word For It Issue 82.

Your search turned up a discussion of terms that begin with or contain Dutch, and the meaning of Brooklyn doesn't turn up there.  However, it's about to turn up here.  Brooklyn was founded by Dutchman Joris Jensen de Rapelje in 1636, and he named it after his hometown Breukelen (near Amsterdam).  It was anglicized to Brooklyn, presumably by folk etymology based on the assumption that the name had something to do with a brook.

From Ian Armstrong:

I was wondering how the Biblical Land of Nod came to be associated with sleeping.

If you don't know it is Biblical, you might assume it was originally a poetic fabrication referring to sleep.  After all, we nod off, don't we?  Well, the phrase, which in the Bible refers to the place where Cain went after murdering Abel (Genesis 4:16), came to be used as a pun for "sleep" because of the obvious similarity between nodding and falling asleep.  This usage began in the mid-18th century.  Once the land of nod became a cliché for "sleep", if anyone wanted to refer to the place to which Cain was exiled, he would probably use the land God gave to Cain or something along those lines. 

The first recorded use of the phrase to mean "sleep" comes from Jonathan Swift in about 1737.

From Joe Flood:

I am working on a book on worldwide slums for the United Nations, and part of what we have to do is define the term.  Looking through various dictionaries, it appears that the origin of the term is unknown but it apears to be quite recent, around 1820.  One theory is that it derives from colloquial slummock, a marshy place or dirty person.  Can you do any better than this?

First, we have to stress that the etymology of a word should not be confused with its meaning. However, in discussing a word, it is sometimes interesting to provide its etymology. Let's see what we can find.

The earliest meaning of slum is "a room".  This dates from 1810, according to Eric Partridge in his A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (8th edition).  He suggests one theory of the word's origin in that sense: slumber.  One slumbers in one's slum [room].  However, a different meaning altogether is recorded around the same time for slum: "nonsense" or "Gypsy jargon". Which came first is not entirely clear; the "room" meaning is defined in J.H. Vaux's Flash Dictionary of 1812 and the "nonsense" meaning is used in Egan's Boxiana of the same year.

The problem with the slummock derivation is that slummock doesn't show up in the written record until the mid-19th century, 40 years after slum "room".  

That's all we (or anyone else, it seems) knows about the derivation of slum.  It came to mean "a street, alley, court, etc. in a crowded district of town inhabited by the poor or people of low class" by 1825 (that's when it first appears in print with that meaning), often in the phrase back slums.  In the U.S. it also came to refer to cheap jewelry by 1914.

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From Sheila:

I have searched several sources for the origin of the word nee.  I  know that it means "name prior to marriage", but where does it come from?

We don't see this word so often these days, but when we do it is usually née.  It used to be that a recently married woman might be introduced as "Julia Winters née Summers", where the née indicated that her maiden name followed.  Why, you ask?  Because née is the feminine form of the past participle of French naître "to be born", so that "Julia Winters née Summers" means, literally, "Julia Winters born [Julia] Summers".  It first turns up in the written record in 1758.


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