Issue 200, page 2

Search Home FAQ Links Site map Book Store

BackIssues

New Ask Us Theory About
AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes)

Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Daniel:

I have found several references to the word hybrid in describing crosses or blends of two things, but what about the origin of the word hybrid  itself? What language did it come from? How did it originate?

In modern English, a hybrid is the offspring of two different species but it derives from a Latin term with a much more specific usage. In ancient Rome, the word hibrida (or ibrida) meant "the offspring of a tame sow and a wild boar".

To the delight of many gardeners, many plants will hybridize and the hybrid China is a variety of rose produced by crossing Rosa chinensis and R. semperflorens. Some hybrids will hybridize further, thus the hybrid tea rose results from crossing a hybrid perpetual with a "tea rose".

Sometimes the word is used in the sense of "mongrel", that is, having parents from different races. Thus an 18th century author could say, "At the best we [English] are but hybrids, yet, probably, not the worse for that". Eventually, the term hybrid came to be applied to inanimate sources, indicating that the hybrid in question has disparate origins. Thus, in the 1950s hybrid computers combined digital and analog components and in the present day we have hybrid cars which have two engines: internal-combustion and electrical.

From Sherry:

What is the connection between the animal mule and the shoes called mules? My husband has offered the suggestion that they are a hybrid of two different styles. I doubt this but can't offer a better alternative.  Were the shoes once made of mule-skin? Are they both forms of transport?

All nice guesses but they're not even close. (You may console yourself, Sherry, with the knowledge that your husband is just as wrong as you are.)

Some species are sufficiently similar that they may mate to produce hybrid offspring  while having enough differences in their DNA that their offspring are themselves infertile. The best-known example of this is the mule. Commonly thought to be the offspring of a horse and a donkey, a mule is the offspring of a jackass and a mare. That's an important distinction - the complementary pairing of stallion and she-ass produces an animal similar to a mule called a hinny.

Both mules and hinnies may be male or female and both are infertile but it is the mule which is emblematic of the infertile hybrid. This explains the mule-canary, infertile offspring of a canary and some other bird (typically a linnet or a goldfinch) but not the mule-rabbit. The mule-rabbit is, in full, a mule-eared-rabbit (also known as a jack rabbit) and, like the mule-deer, earned its name from its unusually long ears.  Mule "offspring of a jackass and a mare" dates from around the year 1000.  The mule deer was apparently so-named by Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805, while mule-eared rabbit first turns up in writing in 1855.

Mules are notoriously stubborn and people of a similarly intransigent temperament are called mulish or mule-headed. Despite their occasional stubbornness, mules can be very hard-working and the word mule was also used for early industrial cotton-spinning machines. The mule is also the stereotype of a beast of burden, thus the word mule is slang for "drug smuggler". Readers may be surprised to discover (we were) that this sense of mule has been current since at least as far back as 1935.

Now that's out of the way we can discuss the footwear called mules. These slipper-like shoes take their name from the Old French mule, meaning "slipper" and the first recorded use in English was in 1564. There are related words in several languages: Italian mula, Spanish mulilla, Dutch muil, all of which mean "slipper". There is no connection with the animal mule, these words derive ultimately from the Latin mulleus, a soft shoe made of colored fabric worn by Roman magistrates.

There was another Old French word very similar to mule. This was mules, meaning "chilblains". This gave English yet another meaning for the word mule. It is a rare term for a sore on a horse's heel, an equine complaint but etymologically unrelated to the equine hybrid. Come to think of it, you could probably have a sore on a mule's heel, too. This inevitably raises the question of what would happen if you made your mule wear slipper-like shoes. Would wearing mules give your mule mules?

From Robert:

Just wondering what bush league means.  I heard it in the movie The Big Lebowski.

Don't forget, you should be asking us about word origins, not word meanings.  But we'll let it slide...this time!

Bush league arose in American baseball, referring to the minor leagues, especially those not of very good quality.  Players from the bush leagues were referred to as bush leaguers.  The term has come to be used beyond baseball, so that anyone who is considered a novice or not skilled in some area may be called a bush leaguer, and his or her work referred to as [of the] bush league.

Now on to the etymology.  Why bush?  This arose, apparently first in Australia (later turning up in South Africa and New Zealand), from Dutch bosch "wood(s)", and first appears in written English in the late 18th century, referring to woods but also, and then later more exclusively, to uncleared, untamed lands, especially in the interior.  It also came to mean "country" versus "city".  By extension, bush came to refer, by the middle of the 19th century, to anything crude or roughly made, or a person practicing a craft for which he had received no formal training, like a "bush carpenter".  That sense was picked up in America and applied to the minor baseball leagues, which often played in small towns and were not as skilful as the major league players.  Bush league is first recorded in that sense in 1906, as is bush leaguer.  By 1943 it was being used beyond baseball.  In 1975 we find, "I don't care who she is and what she knows, compared to Polly she's a bush leaguer," from Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift (which, incidentally, won Bellow the Pulitzer Prize for 1976, and he won the Nobel prize for literature that same year).

Oh, and thanks for mentioning The Big Lebowski.  It's a funny movie!

From Mike:

I was reading your article on herbs and spices and wondered about sage.  A magician or wizard can be called a sage.  Is the plant named because magicians used it, or is the sage man so named because he has knowledge of plant lore?

Would that that were true!  (<--Great but bizarre old Sage, Saliva officinalisexpression, isn't that?)  It's a great story and quite logical, but it is not the real story.  Sage the plant and sage "wise" or "a wise man" are not related.  Sage, "Salvia officinalis or other members of the Salvia genus," comes ultimately from Latin salvia "save".  Why? you ask.   Sage was considered a healing plant and would "save" one's health.  The Indo-European root here is *sol- "whole", the sense being that when one was whole, one was healthy and safe.  Cognates are safe, salvage, salvo, save, as well as salubrious, salutary and salute (and the Spanish cognate salud "health", among others).  Sage first turns up in English in the early 14th century, having come to English from French sauge via the Normans.

Sage "wise" (adjective) or "wise one" (noun) comes from a different source, Latin sapere "to be wise" (from which we get Homo sapiens and Spanish gets the verb saber "to know").  It turns up in the English written record for the first time in the late 13th century and got to England via French sage

From Ted:

Way back in Issue 57, you promised that you would discuss bigot in a future issue.  I think that now, these many years later, the time is ripe.  During the Senate hearings regarding approval of Judge Alito for the U.S. Supreme Court, one of the senators asked him if he was a bigot.  It was a rhetorical question, but, nevertheless, it brought the origin of bigot back to mind.

The discussion in Issue 57 that prompted mention of bigot pertained to bizarre.  In suggesting some possible origins of bizarre, we came across Spanish bigote, meaning "moustache".  There is also a Spanish idiom hombre de bigote "a man of spirit".  So is this bigote related to English bigot?  No one really knows for certain!  Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know we already said that in Issue 57, but we need to start at the beginning for those who just can't seem to get to Issue 57!

Bigot first turns up in English in the late 16th century.  It is fairly certain that it got to English from French, for it turns up in the 12th century as a proper name in the romance Girart de Roussillon.  So, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, folks as early as the 17th century thought that the name might be an Old French version of Wisigothus "Visigoth".  These folks suggested that the Visigoths of Toulouse, France, who were Arians, were so hated by the Catholic Franks of Toulouse that the Old French term came to be used contemptuously by the Franks against the Arians*, and the usage spread from there. 

Although the Visigoth tale may sound like a reasonable explanation, experts have trouble with the phonetic changes required to turn Wisigothus into bigot.  Some scholars, though, point to medieval Latin Bigothi as support for a connection to the Visigoths.  There is also some evidence that the French applied a term of reproach, bigoz, to the Normans, and this may be related.  Interestingly, Bigod turns up as a Norman family name.  So whether it was the Visigoths or the Normans or someone else entirely who was first referred to as a bigot, anyone today can be a bigot!  And it is not reserved for someone of religious intolerance these days; one who is racially or politically intolerant may also be called a bigot.

*Arians were Christian heretics, followers of the Roman teacher Arius. They should not be confused with the Aryans - a group of ancient Indo-European tribes who were the subject of many grotesque Nazi fantasies.

From Cyrus:

Here in the U.S. there is a television program currently airing called The Ghost Whisperer.  The premise of the show is not really important; at issue is a pronouncement made by one of its characters regarding the origin of the term graveyard shift. The character claimed that the term comes from the past practice of attaching a bell, above ground, to a string leading to the interior of a recently buried coffin, so that the interred person, if he or she happened to wake up in the grave, could ring the bell and be dug up. Is this true?

Faithful (and we do not use that term lightly, given the length of our last sabbatical from TOWFI!) readers of this webzine will recall that we discussed graveyard shift in a past issue.  The original discussion was prompted by the inundation of readers' e-mail in-boxes with a Netymological* letter called "Life in the 1500s".  The claim was that people would grow ill from the lead in their tableware, and would often fall into unconsciousness and be mistaken for dead.  Due to a lack of cemetery space in England, bodies would be dug up to make room for newer corpses, and it was discovered that many of the dead had not, in fact, been dead, as evidenced by fingernail scratches on the inside lids of the coffins.  A system was devised to give anyone who might wake up in a coffin the chance to alert others to their mistaken burial, and this system included a string, one end of which was placed in the coffin, the other end being tied to a bell above ground.  Someone would have to sit vigil all night, listening for the bell, and that came to be known as the graveyard shift

To all this we say again, BALDERDASH and POPPYCOCK!  Check out Issue 39 for the full discussion.  Shame on the scriptwriter of The Ghost Whisperer for not doing better research!  He or she also claimed that dead ringer came from the same bell-on-a-string story!  Booo!  (Dead ringer is also discussed in Issue 39.) 

*Netymology is our term for any incorrect or apocryphal etymology that is promulgated on the Internet.  Help stamp out Netymology by reading Take Our Word For It, and by passing the word on with one of our "Stamp Out Netymology" t-shirts!

Do you enjoy reading Take Our Word For It?  If so, take a moment to let us know by making a donation.  Just click the  button!  You can donate as little as 50 cents or as much as California's deficit. 

PREVIOUS  |  NEXT

Comments, additions? Send to Melanie & Mike: melmike@takeourword.com
DO NOT SEND QUERIES TO THAT ADDRESS.  Instead, ASK US.
Copyright 1995-
2006 TIERE
Last Updated 02/28/06 10:04 PM