Issue 192, page 1

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Streaming

We hear a lot about streaming these days:  streaming audio, streaming video.  Then there is a streaming cold, and there are streaming colors.  What's all this, then?  Well, it's not all, actually, by any means!  Stream is an Old English word - it was spelled the same 1,000 years ago as it is today.  It derives from the Germanic root *straumaz "stream", and ultimately the Indo-European root *sreu- "to flow", and that root has given us quite a few other words, as well.

The Maelstrom.  Click to learn more!Any particularly powerful or persistent whirlpool may be called a maelstrom, a word which looks like the last nine letters in the Scrabble bag, though its strange spelling merely reflects its history. English acquired maelstrom in the 16th century as the name of a specific (and notorious) whirlpool off the west coat of Norway.  But it isn't a Norwegian word, it's Dutch. The Dutch, being great sea-traders, needed good maps - partly to avoid dangers such as this - and were the first to label the maelstrom. The second element -strom is Dutch for "stream " (also from *straumaz, via Middle Dutch stroom "stream").  To this, the prefix mael- (from malen "to grind", related to our mill) was added, and that gave early modern Dutch maelstrom "whirlpool" (today in Dutch it is maalstroom). When one considers the many ships that may have been reduced to match-sticks by the original Maelstrom, it's no wonder they called it the "grinding stream".

Greek rhein "to flow" also comes from *sreu-, and it gave English catarrh which originally meant "profuse discharge from nose and eyes that accompanies a cold" but now refers to the "inflammation of the nose, throat, and/or bronchial tubes, causing increased flow of mucus".  The Greek form of rhein that came to English, via French, was catarrhein "to flow down".  Catarrh dates from the late 14th century in English.

Other English derivatives of Greek rhein are diarrhea ("to flow through") from the 14th century (it came directly from Greek) and rhyolite ("stream (of lava) stone").  Greek also had a variation on rhein, which was rheumaRheum in English (late 14th century) meant "watery matter secreted from the mucous membranes of the nose, eyes or mouth" or, more generally, "mucus discharge resulting from a cold".  Rheumatism (17th century), referring to "inflammation and pain of the joints", was so named because it was thought to be caused by a "defluxion (flow) of rheum" to the joints.  The same is true for rheumatic fever (18th century).

A slightly different evolution of the "stream" meaning of *sreu- gave Greek rhuthmos which in English became rhythm.  The sense here is one of a recurring  motion (as the flow of a stream) and this eventually came to refer to a recurring sound.  Rhythm came to English from Latin rhythmus in the 16th century.  Rhyme is a doublet of rhythm.  And the recurring sound we seem to be hearing at the moment is the timer bell indicating that our dinner is ready, so we'll end our discussion here!

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