Issue 173, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Paul Crawczonek:

I was wondering how/when/where the word undead originated.  I know Bram Stoker used it several times in Dracula, but can we credit him with its invention or does it precede him?

Click to learn more about bats.It indeed precedes him - by almost 500 years!  However, he gave it a new meaning.  Originally it meant simply "not dead; alive".  There are some interesting quotations available using the word: "And many was şe bald berne at banned şar quile, Şat euer he dured şat day vndede opon erthe" (1400-1450); "Ane of vs sall neuer hine Vndeid in this place" [One of us shall never leave undead from this place.] (from Rauf Coilyear, c1475); and "Where as all men did eat therof, they neuertheles dyed, nether did any one of so great a number remain vndead" (Udall, 1548).  Interestingly, there is an Old Norse equivalent údauğr (that "crossed d" is the letter eth (or edh)).

Stoker applied undead to vampires (Dracula was first published in 1897) with the meaning "not quite dead but not fully alive".

From Paul:

Why is a flock of crows referred to as a murder?  Does it have something to do with the birds' ominousness, so when there's a whole flock of them it can only mean something bad?

The phrase, according to James Lipton* in his An Exaltation of Larks, dates from 1450 in the form a mursher of crowys.  It was a murther of crowes by 1476.  Whether it arose because murdering was thought to be a characteristic of crows or simply as a negative comment upon flocks of crows is not known.   The mursher form is problematic, however, as we must wonder if it was not intended as murder but was mistakenly interpreted as such.  We could find no instances of murder with a similar spelling.

*This James Lipton is the same James Lipton who hosts Inside the Actors' Studio (on U.S. cable television) and is a screenwriter, among other things.

From Frank:

What are the origin and history of moratorium?

This was originally a legal term meaning "a legal authorization to a debtor to postpone payment for a certain time" (OED).  It dates in print from 1875.  It derives from Latin moratorius "causing a delay", formed from mora "to delay" plus the suffix -(t)ory, which forms nouns.  The -orium ending is simply the Latin form of -ory.  Cognates deriving from Latin mora are demur (to delay; also a legal term (demurrer) with similar meaning) and remora (the sucking fish which attaches itself to sharks). This latter takes its name from a mythical sea-monster which the ancients thought attached itself to ships and stopped their travel.

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From Luke:

I am looking for the history and meaning of keep your eyes peeled.

This one dates in print from 1853 in the U.S.  It is simply a figurative use of peeled, suggestingThese eyes are peeled!  Click to visit a kids' site. that the eyelids are "rind" for the eyes, and to "peel" that rind is to have the eyes open.  The 1853 quotation comes from the Daily Morning Herald of St. Louis, Missouri: "Young man! Keep your eye peeled when you are after the women."  

Interestingly, peel  did not originally mean "decorticate".  It was borrowed to cover the "remove the skin of" senses.  Though the etymology of peel is somewhat complicated, it appears that it comes ultimately from Latin pilare "remove hair", which is somewhat evident in peel's original (and now obsolete) meaning "plunder".

From David Adams:

I have seen the word squiz used as a nickname but it also appears in the slang take a squiz at meaning "take a look at".  What are the origins of squiz?

It is thought to be a conflation of squint and quiz.  The quiz here is "an act of quizzing or questioning", so the sense of squiz is "a look", as in one saying "Take a look at this" in order to obtain an appraisal or opinion.  It dates from 1916 in Australia.

From Juliette:

I would like to find out the history of the word marquis and the different possible meanings that it may carry.

It came to English via Old French marchis in the early 14th century and eventually changed form to marquis.  Dutch borrowed it from English as markies.  The Romance languages had it as marques (Provençal), marqués (Spanish), marquez (Portuguese), and marchese (Italian).  All of these words derive from Latin marca "frontier, frontier territory".  We find this also in English march or marches, "frontier", most commonly used to refer to the border territory between England and Wales or England and Scotland.  The sense of Latin marca is evident in the English word demarcation, as well.  So a marquis was originally a noble presiding over a frontier or border area, but the term eventually came to refer simply to a specific grade of noble rank, falling below duke and above count (on the Continent).  In England it was adopted in the late 14th century to refer to a rank of peer between duke and earl, and it is used to this day.  Marchioness is the feminine form.

From Killian:

Suspicious and fishy both have connotations of dubiousness.  Do they share common roots?  Pisces is "fish".  Sus- denotes position below (eh?), so suspicious could be broken down to "with the fishes", couldn't it?

Pretty fancy etymologizing there, Killian!  The easy way to work this one out is to look at the parts of suspicious.  It came to English in the 14th century from Old French suspicious, which derived ultimately from Latin suspicio "suspicion".  Suspicio is the noun of action derived from suspicere "to suspect".  Here's where we get what we were looking for.  Suspicere is formed from sub- "up from under" + specere "to look at", with a compound meaning of "to look up at, to look up to, to admire" but also "to suspect", which derived from a secondary meaning of "to look at secretly".  So no fish in there, Killian.

Fish, by the way, comes from the same source as Latin piscis: Indo-European *piskos, which also produced Norse fiskr, German Fisch, French poisson, Italian pesce, Spanish pez, and Welsh pysgodyn.  The term fishy "questionable" or "dubious" is thought to have arisen from the notion "as slippery as a fish" or as Trimethylamine.  an allusion to meat with a "fishy" taste, an indication that the meat is bad.  A simpler explanation is that old fish (not good to eat) smells fishy. Fresh fish should not smell fishy.  Trimethylamine is the chemical that causes the characteristic fishy smell and it is released when the fish begins to break down.


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