Issue 198, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Brad:

I had heard that a nunnery was at one time a house of ill-repute and was curious if it had any time in the past been used as that before it began to be a place for females to go and devote themselves to the Lord.

Nope.  When Shakespeare had Hamlet tell Ophelia, "Get thee to a nunnery," he meant a "house of ill repute", but the word had only recently been recorded with that meaning.  Prior to then it had referred to a community of nuns since at least the 13th century, having come to English from the hypothetical Anglo-French *nonnerie, from French nonne "nun".

How did something considered pure and holy come to refer to something thought of by many as something distasteful?  It started as an ironic usage and stuck.  At least for a while.

From R. Flaum:

There seems to be a conflict of opinion here.  Most zoology sites say that the word jaguar comes from the Tupi-Guarani phrase "beast that kills in a single bound." However, The American Heritage Dictionary at says that it means "dog." Is the first definition mythical? Did Native Americans even have dogs?

Oh, yes, Native Americans (or, again, Indians, as many of them prefer to call themselves) had dogs!  Boiled puppy was a delicacy to many of them.  They are thought to have brought dogs with them when they first entered the continent across "Beringia", the now submerged land-bridge between Asia and North America.  Many of them used dogs to carry their belongings on travoises before the horse was introduced to the continent by the Spanish in the 16th century.  In fact, the Sioux (Lakota) term for "horse" is "holy dog" ("dog" is shunka and "holy" is wakhan, forming "horse" shunkawakhan*).

As for the jaguar, none of your references has got it exactly right.  Tupi-Guarani (an indigenous South American language group) scholars indicate that jaguara was originally a word that referred to all carnivorous animals, and that it recently came to include dogs.  The Tupi-Guarani word for Felis onca is jaguareté, where -eté means "true".  Felis onca is what English-speakers call the jaguarJaguar turns up in the English written record in the early 17th century.

The ultimate etymology of jaguareté and related words is still debated.

*We are using a phonetic spelling of the Lakota words.

From Tekin:

I was wondering about the origin of the word yogurt because it is nearly the same in Turkish, yogurt with soft "g". Historically it is believed that the substance was introduced by nomadic Turkic people but the word may be from different origin adopted by Turks later.

Yes, English did get the word from Turkish, and the OED renders the Turkish form as yoghurt.  It turns up in writing in the early 17th century.   However, yogurt itself is believed to be thousands of years old, dating back to the time of the domestication of cattle.  It is thought that it originated with nomadic tribes of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, and the Turks were nomadic people, as you suggest, so it may well have been introduced by them to other peoples.  One source notes that the original Turkish word was yogurut, but it had become yoghurt by the 11th century.  The g is soft in the Turkish pronunciation but hard in English.  Yog- is said to mean, roughly, "to condense" in Turkish, while yogur means "to knead".  The general sense is of something that has thickened.

From Graham:

I'm curious as to how the term crank phone call evolved. Growing up, we would phone unsuspecting victims and ask questions like, "Do you have Prince Albert in a can?" This was called making a PRANK phone call, since we were playing a prank on someone, but lately I've heard the phrase crank phone call. Thanks for any information you can provide.

Melanie and her friends called it a prank call, too, but only after having called it a crank call for years and assuming that was a mishearing of prank call.  However, crank call is correct.  It is basically a call made by a crank, an eccentric person.  There is also a capricious element suggested by the word, which might be the notion in crank callCrank in this sense is thought to derive from the "crooked" meaning of the word, someone who is crooked being originally "dishonest" (16th century) and then "eccentric" (19th century).  Apparently one can also write a crank letter.  Doesn't sound nearly as much fun as crank calls!

Interestingly, crank "a handle bent at right angles" derives from Old English cranc, which is an alternative form of a word meaning "to fall in battle", apparently referring to the bent, contracted, or curled form that a fallen man might take on the battle field.  

From Gail:

What is the origin of the word hominy?

Since corn (sweet corn, for you British English speakers) is a New World plant, it is safeCaptain John Smith to supposed that a concoction made with corn carries a New World name.  It does.  Hominy derives from an American Indian language, probably the Algonquian appuminnéonash "baked corn".  However, another suggestion has been offered, that minne was Algonquin for "berry, nut, grain" and that h'minne referred to the preferred grain, corn.  This alternative explanation seems to have been offered only once, by the American Philological Association in 1872.

 Hominy dates in English from 1629, from the writings of Captain John Smith.

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