Issue 183, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Christian Miner:

In looking for the origin of the word ass, I have learned that the second definition, that of a slang/grotesque origin, derives from the Old English word ars, meaning "ears". Also from the Indo-European word *ors.  I wanted to know how a word meaning "ears" came to become a word for "buttocks" in the modern English language. I also wondered how and why it became a derogatory statement.

Thank you, and good luck in your findings. You have an amazing site.

Well, for this one we do have to go way back to Indo-European roots. You are correct that the IE root is *ors, "hindquarters, buttocks". Old English took it as aers, and we first find it in the written record in about 1,000 AD. It also turns up in early versions as ears, which might explain how you came to think the word meant "ears" originally. It didn't. It has always referred to the hindquarters, originally the hindquarters of animals, in fact.

There are cognates in the Teutonic languages, as one might suspect for a word referring to a body part - those are usually quite old. It is ars in Old High German, Old Norse, Old Danish and Old Swedish, ers in Old Frisian (Frisian being the Germanic language closest to English), and German arsch. The Old Teutonic root form has been hypothesized as ars-oz, which is the source, also, of the Greek word for "tail", ouros.

The Old English ears "arse" turns up in the name of a bird called the wheatear. Not only does it have no external ears but it has nothing to do with wheat, either. In earlier days, the bird was known as a wheatears (i.e. "white-arse") on account of its conspicuous white rump. Even more surprisingly, the word squirrel comes from the same Indo-European source. The first element in squirrel refers to "shade", a possible allusion to their preference for living in trees but more probably referring to the second element in the word, "tail", with the etymological meaning of "shade tail". 

Why is ass considered derogatory? A moment's reflection on the condition of most human hindquarters before the advent of modern hygiene and the answer becomes readily apparent. In fact, many Old English words for parts of the body that we normally conceal came to be considered vulgar during the prim and proper Victorian Era, and ass became an unspeakable word. This so much so that we even stopped referring to donkeys as asses, too (donkey is a diminutive of Duncan, a common name given to asses).

More importantly, how did we get ass from arse? British English speakers still spell it arse, but as they are non-rhotic (not pronouncing r's between a consonant and a vowel) it comes out as "ahss". That approximate pronunciation was kept in the U.S. but the spelling was changed to match it. 

From Tim Gibbs:

Sometimes I recall words for no apparent reason.  I encountered widdershins in some folktale or fable years ago. It is a curious word.

It is indeed, but a great one, too! It's considered to be a chiefly Scottish dialectical word. In case you don't know what it means, its definition is: "in a direction opposite the usual; the wrong way". Scottish got it from Middle Low German weddersin, which came from Middle High German widersinnes. That is formed from wider "wither" (an old word in English meaning "against") + sin "way, direction". That word sin is related to English send, "put something or someone on its/their way".

From Chelsey Needham:

No one seems to know where jacuzzi comes from.

Well you've come to the right place to discover jacuzzi's origin. A turn in the jacuzzi sounds pretty good right about now. Too bad we don't have one!

Jacuzzi was the name of the man who invented the jacuzzi: Candido Jacuzzi (1903-1986), an Italian born engineer who developed the jacuzzi here in the U.S. as a form of therapy for his young son, who apparently had rheumatoid arthritis. It first turns up in the written record in a general sense in 1966.

From Mike Tilleman:

What is the etymology of the word jar?

This one is fairly simple. English got it either from French jarre or from Spanish jarra. In Provençal it was jarro and in Italian giaro. Italian got it from the Arab jarrah "earthen water vessel". It first turns up in the English written record in 1592 as iarres (this was before the letter j was widely used in English).

From Bart Reece:

A friend and I were discussing storms and searching through interesting sites on the web and she asked me if I knew what "hoar-frost" was. I know what it is, but we thought the word hoar was unusual and I attempted to find out what that word meant and where it came from. Hence, my search through your site and the desire to ask you this question.

Hoar-frost.  Click to learn about Canada, where they get hoar-frost!  Brrrrr!Yes, hoar is a lovely word. Hoar-frost first turns up in written English in 1290 as hore frost. Strictly speaking, hoar-frost is the kind of frost that turns everything it forms upon white or gray. Due to the fact that hair turns gray with age, things that are white or gray are often associated with old age and this is the original sense of hoar. Old English har and Old High German her both meant "old" or, as a secondary meaning, "venerable, august".

The Old Teutonic root is *hairo-z which derives ultimately from an Indo-European color word, *kei-. Some words related to hoar are horehound and hue.

Just in case you were wondering what hoar-frost is in meteorological terms:

Hoar-frost is a crystalline deposit of ice formed by the sublimation of water vapour; rime is a more amorphous deposit formed by the rapid freezing of super-cooled droplets of water when they are brought by air currents into contact with a cold surface.

Now you know!

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From Adam Parker:

A railway museum's web page contended that the phrase so quiet you could hear a pin drop arose from the railway. They say that its origin was a compliment to an engineer who could back his engine and couple it with a car so quietly that you could hear the pin slid into place. Being a rail fan myself, I would love for this to be true, but it seems to be just too general to have originated from this specific instance. Do you have any other suggestions as to the "official" origin?

We do indeed and we are sad to report that it has nothing to do with trains. It refers to the same kind of pin that one used to see in the Sprint ads here in the US - a straight pin with a head at one end. The earliest known instance of the phrase, though not quite in the form we recognize, dates from 1775: "Had a pin fallen, I suppose we should have taken it at least for a thunder-clap". The next example cited by the OED is from 1814, and it gives a better idea of the kind of pin in question: "It was so still you might have heard a pin drop on the pavement". 


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