Issue 188, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Barbara Yost:

Someone recently told me she believed that the term step- (as in stepmother, etc.) came from the Dutch stoep, meaning "grieving".  How can I check this?

By doing exactly what you did - you wrote to us!  English step- does not come from Dutch, but it is cognate with the Dutch.  It was steop- in Old English, and there are cognates in the other Germanic languages.  The Old Teutonic root is reconstructed as *steupo-, defined as a combining element that designated familial relationships formed when a widowed parent remarried.  The etymological sense of the word is "bereaved", bereavement arising as a parent or spouse has died, allowing the remaining spouse/parent to remarry and create step- relationships.  There is another etymological meaning, however, which arose, and that is "orphan", so that a stepfather is "one who becomes father to an orphan", and so on.  Note that Old English used the terms steopbearn and steopcild ("stepbairn" and "stepchild") to mean "orphan".  Of course, today a death is not required in order for a stepfamily to be born.  Divorce has probably made stepfamilies all the more common.

The Indo-European root here is *(s)teu- "to push, stick, knock or beat", the sense in steop- being "bereaved" or "pushed out [of one's original family by the death of a parent]".

From Muhammad Zaki Abulmajd:

What does the word Beijing refer to?  Beijing is the capital of China. It was called Bekin? Would you please tell me the difference?

Beijing translates to "northern capital", from bei "north" and jing "capital".  WeBeijing.  Click to follow the link. are oversimplifying the transliteration of Chinese here, please note.  Peking, in simplistic terms, is a different transliteration of the name.  Beijing is currently the preferred transliteration . However, Peking turns up even still in dish names (Peking duck), etc.  Your rendering Bekin appears to be yet another interpretation of the city's name.  Interestingly, Beijing has been China's capital since 1421, except for a brief period in the 20th century when Nanjing ("southern capital") was.  Nanjing is also rendered as Nanking.  

From Carol:

I've always wondered where the term cold (viral illness) came from and why we use the word cold to describe an illness.  Two explanations I have heard (but cannot verify) are: a cold was so named because this was the time of year colds proliferated and multiplied because of closed quarters, or because of shivering, one felt "cold".

Colds were believed to be caused by exposure to cold (and damp) air, so to catch cold was to be chilled, causing illness.  In fact, as early as the 14th century, cold meant "an indisposition to the body caused by exposure to cold" (but not specifically the viral illness).  The word was not used to describe the illness itself until the 16th century.  Cold "lacking in warmth" is an Old English word with cognates in the other Germanic languages.  The reconstructed Indo-European root is *gel- "cold, to freeze".  Gelatin is related and shows its roots a little more clearly than cold.

From Nancy Harang:

Where did twiddle your thumbs originate?

This appears to be a combination of twirl or twist with fiddle or piddle, giving the notion of moving something with the hands in an idle or absent fashion.  The earliest instance of it in the written record comes from the mid-16th century, when it meant "to trifle".  It is by the mid-17th century that we find the "toy with something absently", and twiddle one's thumbs doesn't turn up until the 19th century, at which time it had the same meaning as today: to be idle.

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From Carrie Conaway:

I just called my husband a worrywart, and now I'm curious where that word comes from.  I can find an etymology for worry, but not worrywart.

Worrywart appears to be a recent creation, and the earliest record of it in the OED suggests that it started out in mental hospitals as attendants' slang for the "persevering, nagging, delusional" patients.  Wart was probably chosen not only for its negative connotations but because worrywart is alliterative.  That earliest example in the OED dates from 1956.  An earlier term was worryguts, which dates from the 1930s.


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Last Updated 01/08/06 01:56 PM