Issue 171, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Claire:

Tell me about the word grits.

Mike says he doesn't recall having heard this word in Wales, but it has been used in England to refer to coarse oatmeal since the 16th century.  It seems that it is only in the U.S. (perhaps also Canada) that the term refers to hominy that has been coarsely ground.  The ground hominy is boiled in water and salt and served with butter, or in some locations, cheese, mixed in.  In the U.S. grits are considered peculiarly southern, but they are more widely known than they used to be.  Melanie loves grits; Mike can't recall if he's ever tasted them!  Oh, and hominy, for those who do not know, is hulled and (sometimes) coarsely ground corn (maize to those outside North American) that has been boiled in water or milk.  We say "sometimes" because there is such a thing as whole hominy.

Grits.  Yum.  They're better with butter!The word grits is related to groats and to gritGrits was grytt (singular) or grytta (plural) in Old English, and it came from the Germanic root *greut-, which Calvert Watkins (of the American Heritage Dictionary) takes back to the Indo-European root *ghreu- "to rub, grind".  The Germanic root is the source of groats and grit, as well.  Grit was originally "sand, gravel" but is now "minute particles of sand as produced by attrition or disintegration".  Groats, of course, refers to hulled or hulled and crushed grain, usually oats, but it can apply to wheat, barley, and even corn (again, maize).

While we are on the subject, we must mention something called huitlacoche in Mexico, a fungus that infects corn (maize).  It is known as corn smut in English, and most American farmers consider it a disease and destroy infected plants.  However, Mexican farmers are delighted when it appears in their corn crop, for they can get a very high price for it, and some even inoculate their corn with the fungus!  We have not tasted it yet, but we hear that it is quite good, and being mycophiles, we will happily try it when we get the opportunity.  You can learn more about it here.

From Ross:

Jaded - I know what it means but I'd love to know why it means it!

If one is jaded, one is "dull or sated by continual use or indulgence".  Why?  Another meaning is "worn out".  This gives us a clue to the source of the word.  There is a noun jade which is a contemptuous name for a horse, referring to an inferior breed, or an ill or worn out horse, or even a vicious horse.  This meaning dates from Chaucer's time (latter half of the 14th century); in fact, the first quotation the OED provides comes from Chaucer: "Be blithe though thou ryde vp-on a Iade, What thogh thyn hors be bothe foule and lene."  (Be happy though you ride upon a jade, evenJade.  Read an interesting article about the Maya and climatic change: click this image. if your horse is both foul and thin.)

How jade came to apply to a horse is not known, though it has been suggested that it might come from a Germanic source, as there is the Icelandic word jalda meaning "mare". Jaded dates from the first half of the 17th century.  

Jade "green, translucent stone" comes from an entirely different source: Spanish piedra de ijada or "stone of the flanks".  It was named so because of the belief that it could be used to treat kidney ailments.  The French took it as l'ejade, which became le jade, and English borrowed it at the end of the 16th century.  It took the form jade by the 18th century.  Another term for jade, neprhite, comes from the Greek word for kidney, nephros.

From Yusimi Barrios:

I did search your website but cannot find the origin of the word business. I can only seem to find origins of phrases including the word business. Thank you for your time.

Business is a funny word.  Melanie remembers coming across this word for the first time when she was very young. She had heard it many times prior to then, but she had always assumed it must be spelled buisness, as that was how it was pronounced.  Of course, thereafter she remembered how to spell it by thinking of it as busy-ness.  That was her earliest effort as an etymologist.  Business  is, in fact, etymologically busy-ness.  It dates from Old English bisignis, which was formed from the equivalent of busy (bisig) plus the equivalent of -ness.  Strangely, the only other known relative of bisig is Dutch bezig.  No one knows where these words came from!

Business in Old English meant "anxiety, uneasiness".  However, thereafter it came to mean "the state of being busy" and it attained various other related senses.  It wasn't until the late 14th century that the word ceased to refer only to a state of being busy and came to refer to appointed or official tasks.  By the early 15th century it was being used to describe serious occupation or work, versus something done for pleasure.  By the late 15th century it was applied to a person's professional or official duties as a whole. And by the mid 16th century business referred to "a particular matter demanding attention; a piece of work, a job".  It is in the 16th century that we also first find the specific sense of "trade; commercial transactions or engagements".  It is not until the 19th century that we find commercial establishments referred to as businesses.

The phrase "mind your own business" first turns up in the written record in the work of Bacon, from 1625. 

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