Issue 170, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Adam Cox:

I would like to know the origin of the word marshmallow.

It derives from Old English merscmealwe, literally "marsh mallow".  Mealwe shows the word's relation to the family name, Malvaceae "mallow".  Family of what, you ask?  They are the family of herbaceous flowers which includes the hollyhock. The marsh mallow grows near salt marshes and its sticky root was thought to have medicinal properties way back when, being found in herbals and medicinal recipes from before 1000 AD.  By 1450 it was marshmalue, and by 1543 it was marche mallow.  The form marsh mallow became standard by the 17th century, and it was written as one word by the 19th century.

Until the 19th century the word referred directly to the plant or its root.  The term is used to apply to a confection made from the root by the late 19th century.  Amusingly, the word is also used figuratively to refer to anything with a soft center or, even more figuratively, anything sentimental.

Mallow, as you might have guessed from its similarity to Malvaceae, derives from Latin Malva "mallow", and the Latin is thought to be related to the Greek malake/maluke "to soften".  The medicinal value of the herb was thought to be as a softener of the skin and even the digestive system (it "softened" indigestion, etc.).  Herbalists today still use the leaves as a poultice for skin irritations and an infusion of the leaves and roots for indigestion.

Read what we said in a past issue of TOWFI about the marsh mallow.

From Mate:

I wonder why the seven liberal arts are called liberal.Philosophy feeding the seven liberal arts.  Click to follow the link.

Here is where etymology comes in handy. In Latin, liber means "free" and these arts were those considered appropriate for a "free" man (who would hence be educated and not required to perform menial work).  Those considered appropriate for working men were the servile or mechanical arts.  These descriptors (liberal, servile, mechanical) also applied to the sciences.  Later, the liberal arts were those pursued by those of high social class.  The sense here is that the liberal arts would be pursued by those who wanted intellectual betterment and did not need the knowledge in order to perform their livelihood.  That sense has remained such that the liberal arts are pursued for intellectual purposes only,  versus education in the form of technical or professional training.  The term, in its Latin form, dates from about 1375 in an English work, and it was used in its English form by 1422.

The seven liberal arts were divided into two groups, the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic) and the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy).  Trivium and Quadrivium in Latin mean "the three  ways/roads" and "the four ways/roads", respectively. As the Trivium was studied first, it was considered more elementary than the Quadrivium. This attitude gave us the words trivia and trivial.

From George Taylor:

Just heard the following between two people discussing church finances and wonder what browbeat came from: "The pastor, finding insufficient funds for a copy machine, browbeat one of the trustees until he paid for it himself to get the pastor off his back".

Gosh, we have to wonder what the pastor does to get funds for really important causes!

Browbeat dates from the 16th century.  It does not appear to refer to beating someone else's brow, but to the browbeater's own brow (that sentence will help separate our dozing readers from our alert ones!).  The sense was either "beat [figuratively] with one's frowning brows" or "beat (lower) one's brows at".  It has always meant "to bear down, discourage, or oppose with stern, arrogant or insolent looks or words, to snub, to bully" (from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)).

Brow itself is an old word in English, dating from about 1000 (during the Old English period).  It originally referred both to the eyelashes and the eyebrows.  It later came to refer to the superorbital ridge (the bone over which the eyebrows grow) and then the entire forehead.  The word's Old Teutonic root (*bru-) appears to have referred solely to the eyebrow, but the meaning was extended early on in Old English to refer to eyelashes (the primary Old English meaning) and then took a circular route to eventually refer again to "eyebrow".

From Karine Gignac:

I would like to know the etymology of the word Mecca.  I could not find it anywhere.  I sure found everything else I needed, though.  Thanks, your site is really well done!

Why*, thank you!  The word Mecca, used in a figurative sense, is first recorded in English in 1850.  The figurative meaning is "a place which one regards as supremely sacred, or which is the aspiration of one's life to be able to visit" (from the OED).  English uses it in such a figurative sense because Mecca is the birthplace of Muhammed, making it the ultimate pilgrimage place of Muslims.  There are two thoughts about the name of the city.  The first has it coming from Phoenician maqaq "ruined", suggesting that the site was home to a city that was destroyed in battle or by some cataclysm.  The second derivation suggests that Mecca derives from Arabic mahrab "sanctuary", a reference to the town being an ancient site of worship which became popular in the 7th century as the birthplace of Muhammad (570?-632).

With a lower case m, mecca today means "a place that is regarded as a center of activity or interest; a place visited by many people" as in "Take Our Word For It is a mecca for logophiles" [We wish!].

*As an aside, this usage of why dates from the early 16th century and is defined as "an expression of surprise (sometimes only momentary or slight; sometimes involving protest), either in reply to a remark or question, or on perceiving something unexpected". We were simply curious about that one and thought you might be, as well.

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From Matriacaja:

In Spanish, every single noun has a gender.  I was wondering if cyclone has a gender in English.  If so, which is it?  If it doesn't, what is its usual gender in other languages?

With very few exceptions (e.g. blond and blonde), English nouns no longer have gender.  Old English had several genders, but they were lost by the Middle English period.  As we shall see, Spanish took cyclone from English as ciclón, a masculine noun.  The French cyclone is also masculine.

The word cyclone was introduced by Henry Piddington in his The Sailor's Horn-Book for the LawA particular type of low pressure system called an Albert Clipper.  Click to learn more. of Storms of 1848.  As he said, "I suggest that we might, for all this last class of circular or highly curved winds, adopt the term ‘Cyclone’ from the Greek kyklos (which signifies amongst other things the coil of a snake) as expressing sufficiently the tendency to circular motion in these meteors."  By 1856 the word was being used to refer to tornadoes, and by 1875 it was an accepted meteorological term for a low pressure system, from the central low pressure to the winds (and clouds) rotating counterclockwise (in the Northern hemisphere) around it.  A high pressure system then came to be known as an anticyclone (1877). Other languages have since borrowed these terms from English.

The OED comments upon Piddington's derivation, suggesting that the true Greek source word was kykloma "the coil of a serpent", which might explain the early variant cyclomeKyklos actually means "wheel" or "circle" in Greek.

Read a past discussion that mentions kyklos.


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Last Updated 09/14/02 08:27 PM