Issue 172, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Silas Prophet:

I'd like to know where the phrase stream of consciousness originated.

Many of us first encountered this phrase in the literary criticism of works like that of James Joyce.  However, the phrase has its origin in philosophy of the mid-19th century.  It first turns up in the writing of Alexander Bain in 1855, in his The Senses and the Intellect: "The concurrence of Sensations in one common stream of consciousness,—in the same cerebral highway."  American philosopher William James borrowed it in 1890's Principles of Psychology: "Consciousness . . . does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. . . A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described.  In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life."  It was not until some time around World War I that the term was picked up by literary critics.

From Dan Martin:

In the loop and out of the loop - I hear them all the time, but I can't find the derivation anywhere. I searched your site, but didn't find my answer.

These are American in origin and date in print from 1970 and 1976, respectively, at least so far as is currently known (if you have earlier examples, do let us know).  In the loop, the first, simply derives from the use of loop to mean either "A sequence of control operations or activities in which each depends on the result of the previous one" or "a sequence of instructions which is executed repeatedly (usually with an operand that changes in each cycle) until some previously specified criterion is satisfied."  The former comes from science and technology in general and the latter is a computing term.

In the loop came to be used in a figurative sense to mean anyone "in the know" or made part of a process, and out of the loop derives from that.

From Bethany Shopland:

Europeans first obtained turmeric from India, but they must have gotten the name somewhere else. Do you know where?

Yes, it does come from India and, yes, the word must have come from elsewhere because in Hindi its name is haldi.

Turmeric (which many Americans, at least, misspell as tumeric) Click to learn about cooking with turmeric. has had many forms over the years. The 16th century had tarmaret, tormarith, tormarthe, tormerik, tormeryke, turmirick, 16th-17th centuries: turmericke, 17th century: turn-merick, turmerocke, turmerack, termarcke, tarmanick, tarmaluk, 17th-19th centuries: turmerick, 18th century to present: turmeric.  Note that the first r appears in all versions, so none of you anti-curmudgeons can claim that tumeric is correct!  As for the etymology of this word, it is somewhat obscure.  The most popular (and perhaps most likely) explanation is that it derives from the French terre mérite or Latin terra merita "worthy earth", apparently an early term of commerce for the spice, referring to the earth in which the root is found or grown.  That root, by the way, goes by the taxonomical name of Curcuma longaCurcuma is another common name for turmeric, and that word derives from the Persian-Arabic word for "saffron", which is kurkum.  Turmeric is often used in place of saffron in cooking, and it is also used as a dye (like saffron), and these may explain why it was given a name meaning "saffron" in Latin and some of the Romance languages.  Turmeric is also the chief ingredient in curry powder though it is not its most prominent flavor.

Some have suggested that turmeric is nothing more than a corruption of kurkum, but the phonetic shifts required for that derivation are unlikely.

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From Chris DiNunnof:

Where does asparagus come from?

Here's another word that has had several forms over the ages, but it has come back to its roots, asClick to learn more about asparagus. it were.  It comes ultimately from Greek aspáragos, which John Ayto says is related to the Greek verb spargan "to swell".  This is presumably a reference to the "swelling" shoots of the asparagus plant that first emerge in spring and are eaten because they are tender and flavorful.  The word was adopted by English via Latin quite early; the earliest reference in the written record comes from about 1000, when it was rendered as sparagi.  By the 16th century it was sperage, but by 1600 botanists and other learned men recalled the Latin form, eventually popularizing it and an aphetic form, sparagus.  However, the not-so-learned transformed the latter, via folk etymology, to sparagrass and even sparrowgrass.  Interestingly, that remained the common name, except among botanists, until the 19th century, when asparagus regained its hold, though sparrowgrass remained in use among the illiterate.

From Magic:

What is the etymology of scissors?

This fits in nicely with the current netymology* that claims that sh*t is an acronym for "ship high in transit".  (We can't get over some of the silly netymological acronym stories people are coming up with these days!)  Scissors are simply "cutters".  English borrowed the word as sisoures from Old French cisoires.  French took its word from Late Latin cisoria, the plural of cisorium "cutter".  The source of the noun was Latin caedere "to strike, beat, slay" which, when used in compounds with prepositions, had the meaning "cut" (abscidere, concidere).  Caesar comes from caedere, as well, referring to the legend that an ancestor of the Caesars was born by what we today call caesarian section.

Today's spelling of scissors arose in the 16th century by confusion with Latin scissor "tailor", which was formed from scindere "to cut, split".  This goes back to the Indo-European root *skei- "to cut, split" which gave us hypothetical Old English *scitan "to defecate", source of sh*t.  See our further discussion of sh*t.

Why scissors and not scissor?  Because there are two blades in one pair of scissors!

*Netymology is our word for incorrect etymology that is promulgated via e-mail.


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Last Updated 10/06/02 08:52 PM