Issue 178, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Dustin Fenton:

So I work at a camp where we do lots of high adventure activities and we teach the kids the belay contract (On belay... belay is on... climbing... climb on).  I have told the kids that it is a French word that literally means to be tied down (originally a nautical term?).  Is that true or am I steering the kids in the wrong direction?  Also, what other history can you tell me about the word?

You're pretty close, except belay is an Old English word.  It was belecgan by the year 1000, a form which shows the word's Old Teutonic heritage - it derives from *bilagjan, formed from bi- "be-" and lagjan "lay" (lecgan in Old English).  The bi- prefix (today "be-", as in beset, bedeck, etc.) is another form of by, the sense in belay being one of "laying (things) around (something)".  In fact, that is the original meaning of the word: to surround a thing with other objects.  This was a literal meaning, of course, but the word came to be used figuratively, as well.  From figurative usage it came to refer to besieging with armed men ("surrounding") and, around the same time (early 14th century) it came to refer to any kind of encircling or coiling around something.  It is from that meaning, or possibly from a cognate Dutch word, that the nautical use arose.  There to belay meant "to secure a length of rope by wrapping it around a cleat or belaying pin, especially a rope attached to sails".  This meaning was then extended to mountaineering and by the heyday of that discipline, the 20th century, to belay meant "to tie oneself, as a stationary member of a roped party, to a firm rock projection...or to a piton, order to secure oneself and to afford a safeguard to the moving climber" (from The Dictionary of Mountaineering, 1957). 

So keep telling the kids what you are telling them, with just a wee correction or so, and they'll be well-informed!

From Mark Weyenberg:

Could you please tell me the origin of the word gazebo?  I have looked many places and no one has an answer besides possibly coming from Greek, but no definitive answer.  Can you help?

Unfortunately, we don't have much more information.  The earliest use of the word comes fromA gazebo 1752, and that quotation suggests that the word might be of some Far Eastern origin: "The Elevation of a Chinese Tower or Gazebo" (from New Designs for Chinese Temples, by William and John Halfpenny).  Some have suggested that it was coined in English as a play on gaze, imitating Latin future verb forms (like videbo "I shall see"), but the OED does not seem to favor that explanation.  Robert Hendrickson, in his Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, mentions a possible derivation from German Gasse-bau "bow window", but he cites no support for that.

William Halfpenny, by the way, also known as Michael Hoare (no one knows which was his real name), was an 18th century English architectural designer.  John was purportedly his son.  New Designs for Chinese Temples is an important work because, among other reasons, it describes the  Chinese influence in England that is normally attributed to Chippendale and Chambers, whose books were published some time after the Halfpennys'.  New Designs for Chinese Temples notes that the Chinese influence had already reached England and was enjoying some popularity.  Despite all of this, however, the Halfpennys designs are not considered important; some were pretty but all apparently lacked originality. 

From Mike Jam:

I was watching an old movie and heard a character say, " We don't cotton to thieves around here." I had heard and have used cotton to, so the expression was not new to me. However, I was wondering about the origin of the idiom, "cotton to."

Melanie heard that phrase in Texas when growing up.  She was surprised, as you may be, to learn that cotton in this verbal sense dates back to the middle of the 16th century, when it meant "to prosper, succeed, to 'get on' well".  It was probably around that same time that the further notion of "getting along with others" or "[two or more people] working harmoniously" arose.  The usage cotton to something "to become drawn or attached to" dates in writing from the early 19th century, and then cotton on to something "to form a liking for" or "to understand" is first recorded in the early 20th century.

Now that we know a bit of the word's developmental history, let's look at its etymology.  There was an earlier phrase, to cotton or to cotton well, that was used to refer to textiles, and initially in the making of hats:  when the wool and other ingredients blended well and made a good material for hat-making, they were said to cotton well.  A slightly different sense was applied to the finishing of cloth: when it took on a nap it was said to cotton well, presumably a reference to the nap in cotton fabric, and when a fabric takes on a nap it is almost complete (or it is a "successful" run).  So the notion of "success" that we find in the first uses of cotton in the sense you intend, Mike, apparently was an extension of the "success" in cloth finishing or hat making.

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From David Clark:

What is the etymology of bedraggled? I could swear I once saw that it came from bed + raggled, but the dictionaries I've consulted lately only say be- + draggled.

A bedraggled archeaologist.  Click to learn more about a dig in Wigtownshire, Scotland.Hmm.  Bed raggled... sounds like something from Fraggle Rock or Dr. Seuss.  Instead, bedraggle is a word that contains the modern form of the prefix bi- (like the be- in belay), so to be bedraggled is to be "draggled around".  And what is draggle, you ask?  It is apparently a frequentative form of drag,

 One who is bedraggled  has dragged her skirts in the water, mud or dew so that she is wet "all around".  It dates from the early 18th century.  Nowadays we hear it used to refer to anyone who has become disheveled and not, necessarily, wet. 


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Last Updated 12/09/02 09:18 PM