Melanie & Mike say...

 Tow.jpg (63573 bytes)

      the only Weekly Word-origin Webzine
Search Home FAQ Links Site map Book Store


New Ask Us Theory About

Archive of Your Etymology Questions


A - D | E - G | H - J | K - M | N - P | Q - S | T - Z

T - Z

  team | teamwork | teller | they | tidbit | tidy | tiffin | toe the line | tom foolery | tomboy | traipse | transform | trial by fire | trinitrotoluene | trombone | tumbrel |turkey | typhoon | uncle | understand | vessel | veterinarian | virus | vowels in English | war | whole nine yards | which | wife | [on a] wild goose chase | window | wisdom | witch | woman | won't | wonder | xylophone | Yahweh | yard | yuck | zero | zymoscope


From Samuel Dallessandro:

I am looking for the etymology of illustrate, illustration, and window for my doctoral dissertation. I cannot get access to the OEDs on line, and when I found you, I thouught you might be able to help.  Thank you very much.

Window: A window is etymologically a 'wind-eye' -- that is, an 'eye'-like opening for admitting the air. The word was borrowed from Old Norse vindauga, a compound noun formed from vindr 'wind' and auga 'eye.' Danish vindue is descended from the Old Norse form, which was also taken over by Irish as fuinneog. (See the entries for illustrate and illustration under "L").

From Michele Williamson:

Hi Melanie, I found your web page in the internet. I have to write a paper in my German linguistics course comparing the different origins and reasons for the words witch and Hexe. If you can help me, I would greatly appreciate it.

Witch -- the close Germanic relatives of witch have died out, but it seems that it may be related to German weihen 'consecrate' and even distantly to English victim (etymologically, 'someone killed in a religious ritual'), so the word's underlying signification is of 'priestess.' Wicked was derived from Old English wicca 'wizard,' the masculine form of wicce, ancestor of modern English witch. (See the entry for Hexe under "H").

From George Westerfield:  UPDATED JANUARY 2006

The whole nine yards: I have tried to find this expression in several resources to no avail. Suggestions have ranged from an athletic origin to a nautical explanation involving the sails of boats. Any help would be greatly appreciated.  Thank you.

There are several explanations for the phrase the whole nine yards, though none can be substiated. One comes from the fact that rotating cement-mixer trucks had a capacity of nine yards (I assume nine cubic yards in volume), and when the mixer emptied its load, it had discharged the whole nine yards and had completed its job. Another theory is that the phrase originated due to the fact that the construction of prisons at one time included an outside wall and then, nine yards outside of that, a fence. If a prisoner attempting to escape made it over the wall, across those nine yards, and over the fence, he was said to have gone the whole nine yards.

Tim Powell writes that his military friends explained that "the whole nine yards referred to the ammunition cassions carried during World War II to supply the .50 calibre machine gun. A small case carried three yards of ammunition, whereas a full case carried nine yards of connected rounds. Obviously, a full case was three times as heavy, and harder to carry over a lot of ground. When preparing to go on a mission, men were often heard to ask, when told to shoulder their ammo, 'Do we have to carry the whole nine yards?'"

These all appear apocryphal, at least as far as explaining the origin of the phrase (the phrase may well have later been used in these senses, of course).  No one really knows where this phrase came from!  It first dates in writing from the 1960s in the U.S.

From KEB9561 :

Webster's date for the first usage of the English word teamwork is 1886. Any idea as to who, where or how the word was originally used?

I have no information on exactly who used that term first or on any other aspects of the word's original use. However, it is interesting to note that etymologically, the first half of the compound word teamwork, team, means `pull,' as in a "team of horses." The modern sense `group of people acting together' did not emerge until the 16th century. However, the term teamwork, in its original use in the late 19th century, may have referred to people working in concert or horses pulling a load, though I suspect the former is the most likely.

From M.J. [Mike] Harmon:

[What is] the etymology of wisdom?

Wisdom is an amazingly old word in its current form. It first appears in Beowulf as wisdom though with a long i and o. It is simply a combination of Old English wis `wise' and the Old English suffix -dom. This suffix, which is added to adjectives to show a state or condition, is, in its noun form, dom, also the source of doom, and it meant `judgment.'

From Suren:

I was curious to find out the origins of the word tiffin. Can you shed some light on this?

Tiffin, `a light midday meal,' especially in India, first appears in the 18th century. It is actually short for tiffing, the gerund form of tiff, `to sip,' a slang or dialectical word.

From a Reader:

What is the etymology of woman? Is it related to womb?

Woman is literally a `female person,' and no, I'm not being flippant. In Old English (prior to 766) a woman was a wifman, that is, a wif `woman' man `person.' Wif is also the source of modern English wife. Wifman, by 1000, had become wimman, by assimilation of f to m, and before 1200 the word was wumman. By 1250 the word had taken on its present form, woman. Woman is not related to womb. That word developed from Old English wamb `belly, uterus.'

From Mike Kuzma:

What is the etymology of tomboy? Why are two words which typically refer to males joined into a compound word to describe a female who has some male characteristics?

Interestingly, tomboy originally referred to a `boisterous, rude boy,' tom denoting `agressiveness associated with males.' Tom was used from the Middle Ages as a term for `common man,' based on the common name Thomas. Tomboy referring to a boisterous boy dates from before 1553. In 1579 we find it being applied to a `bold or immodest woman,' and in 1592 it refers to `a girl who behaves like a spirited, boisterous boy.'

From Will:

My 4th grade class is trying to find out if any words with three vowels in a row, like iou, are from any language except French. Do you know of any? Thanks.

There are several, and I will give a few examples here: pious, spurious and ingenuous are all of Latin origin; ingenious and turquoise are of French origin. Due to the hybrid nature of English, I would not be surprised if some words with three or more consecutive vowels come from language sources other than French and Latin. An interesting exercise for your class might be to search a computerized dictionary for words with consecutive vowels and then look up those words' etymologies.

From Malcolm Dennis:

I am looking for the origin of the word veterinarian. I have found a paper on the subject by one E.A. Lawrence from Tufts University, USA, but I can't find Tufts on the internet to confirm his work. So, can you help? It appears from what Mr. Lawrence says that the word has quite dubious origins and the profession cannot claim any great heritage.  Thank you. We're looking forward to seeing our team do great things in Atlanta!

Hello to you in New Zealand! Good luck at the games this summer -- be prepared for heat and humidity in Atlanta. As for veterinarian, this was formed from Latin veterinarius (perhaps by influence of French veterinaire), a derivative of veterinus `of cattle and similar domestic animals' or `of beasts of burden.' Veterinus is thought to come from vetus (genetive veteris) `old,' `experienced,' or possibly `accustomed to the work of a draft animal.' English veteran comes also from Latin vetus, so it is etymologically related to veterinarian! Veterinarian entered English in 1646. As for the profession having dubious origins, I cannot say, but certainly the word's etymology does not preclude veterinarians from being members of a profession with an admirable heritage.

From Kathryn McGuinness:

This morning, a colleague said in passing, "I wonder where the word tidbit comes from?" I thought I'd find out. Unfortunately, so far I haven't found it and I thought perhaps you could tell me!

Of course! And the answer is fairly short and simple. The noun first appears around 1640, and it is thought that it was formed from dialectal tid `fond, solicitous, tender,' and bit `morsel.' While I have no additional information on tid, bit is etymologically related to bite -- it is a piece that is `bitten off.'

From E. Neal McNamara:

I'm most interested in finding out the actual origin of the phrase Mexican standoff. Any help would be appreciated. Also, the origin of aunt and uncle.

Mexican standoff's origins are not known, but one source supposes that the term, which means `a situation from which nothing at all can be expected,' comes from a derogatory origin. This source notes that adjectives of nationality are often used in derogatory manners. Several expressions were coined by the English in the 17th century to put down their Dutch rivals: Dutch treat `pay for yourself,' Dutch defense `surrender,' and do the Dutch `suicide.' The same is true regarding the Mexicans: Mexican athlete `an athlete who goes out for a team but does not make it,' Mexican promotion `a promotion in which the employee gets a new title but no raise in pay,' Mexican breakfast `a breakfast consisting of a cigarette and a glass of water,' and Mexican standoff .

An aunt is etymologically a mother. The word comes ultimately from *amma, which is a hypothetical non-Indo-European word for `mother.' It is similar to Indo-European *mamma- and originated, like *mamma-, from syllables perceived to be uttered by babies. *Amma was borrowed into Latin as amita `paternal aunt,' and it passed into English via Old French ante (modern French tante is an alteration of ante) and Anglo-Norman aunte.

Uncle comes via Anglo-Norman uncle and late Latin aunculus from Latin avunculus `mother's brother, maternal uncle' (source of English avuncular) This was a diminutive noun derived from the prehistoric base *aw- `grandparent,' and it has relatives in Latin avus `grandfather,' Welsh ewythr `uncle,' Polish wuj `uncle,' Armenian hav `uncle,' etc.

From Michael Clugston:

Could you tell me the origins of the words wife and husband? A Japanese friend tells me that the Japanese word for wife (okusan) is derogatory (i.e., it literally means `the one who stays in the house, or behind the scenes') and she wonders if there is any such exclusionary notion behind the English word.

English wife does not have quite the derogatory notion that the Japanese equivalent does. In fact, wife originally meant, simply, `woman.' It attained its `married woman' meaning in the Old English period, however, and that meaning has remained. The ultimate source of wife is said to be unknown. Interestingly, the Old English meaning of wife, `woman,' remains in such terms as fishwife, midwife, and old wives' tale. Also, a woman is etymologically a `wife-man,' that is, a `woman-person.'

Husband has origins which are unrelated to wife. In the 13th century it was used to replace wer `husband.' (Wer remains today in the term werewolf, literally `man-wolf'). Husband originally meant `master of a household,' coming from Old Norse husbondi. Husbondi, in turn, was a compound of hus `house' and bondi. Bondi was a contraction of boandi `dweller.'

From Bruce :

I am looking for some information on references to God in the New and Old Testaments, particularly in the Book of Isaiah. God is referred to as I am and as Yahweh, as well as Jehovah. Please provide information on these words also as they may be related to my search/study. God refers to himself as Abba, also, in the New Testament. Can you provide the roots of that word? One word which I am not sure how to spell exactly but for which I search was based on hearing someone speak of God referring to himself as Rahamein (sp?) in Isaiah, I believe. Can you help me with this?

I'll do my best. Interestingly, Jehovah and Yahweh apparently come from the same root. Both words are from an erroneous transliteration (the expressing of a word from one alphabet using a different alphabet) of the Hebrew JHVH (sometimes represented as YHWH), the `unspeakable' name of God. Jehovah was formed by adding the vowels from adonai `my lord' into JHVH, and Yahweh was formed by adding those vowels into YHWH.

Abba means, simply, `father' or even `daddy.' It is Aramaic. The words abbot, abbess and abbey are all descendants of Aramaic abba.

While I have no information on the non-English word Rahamein, I am happy to ask any readers who do to contact Bruce.

From Richard Coonce:

Do you know the meaning and origin of the word which used as a noun? The word has been used in conjunction with the word tumbrel, which is a cart.

A tumbrel is indeed a cart, the type that can be tipped up. The word with that meaning dates from the 15th century. In the 14th century, one source notes, a tumbrel was an instrument of punishment! The word comes from Old French tomb- `fall.' As for which being used as a noun in conjunction with tumbrel, I find no information in that regard. Perhaps the etymology of which the pronoun/adjective will help you. Which has been with us since Old English times, though in different forms. Before 1300 it was whiche, and before that it was hwich and whilch (around 1200). In Old English it was hwilc, from Proto-Germanic *Hwilikaz, a compound formed from *hwi- `who' and *likan `body, form.'

From Jeanne Steidtman:

I am looking for the origin of the word teller as in `bank teller.' I have been looking for it for a while now and have had no luck.  Thanks.

Teller is a derivative of the verb tell. While tell has its source in Old English, teller came about in the late 15th century. Tell's original sense was 'to mention in order,' and the 'order' sense of the original meaning stuck with teller, while tell kept simply the 'mention' meaning. Some other examples of tell's original `count' sense are all told and to tell one thing from another.

In Old English tell was tellen. It came from the Proto-Germanic root *taljanan 'tell.' Some cognates were Old Frisian talja, tella `tell,' Old Saxon telljan `tell,' Middle Dutch, modern Dutch, Middle Low German, and modern Low German tellan `count, reckon,' Old High German zellen 'tell' (modern German zahlen 'reckon, count'), and Old Icelandic telja `tell, count' (Swedish talja, Danish taelle `count, reckon'). Tale comes from the same source.

From Steve Sphar:

I have heard that originally, the third person pronoun they was used to refer to both the singular and plural, much like you refers to both the singular and plural in the second person.

A story was related to me that during the late middle ages, when property started to pass by patriarchial lineage, it became more important to differentiate when one was referring to men versus women. Our language changed to use he when referring to the third person singular, in part because it was assumed that only references to men were important. The use of they as a singular third person pronoun fell off. Is this true?

Apparently not, because he/his/him have been around since Old English times, used as third person singular. The third person plural they/their/them entered English via Old Norse at the end of the Old English period and replaced the Old English third person plural hie/hiera/him. So it seems that they/their/them have never been used as the third person singular form. Whether he/his/him have sexist connotations as far as their referring to the third person singular in general (i.e., "If one is hungry, he should eat"), the usage very likely did arise because of what can now be construed as sexist reasons, but as today's society is so incredibly gender-enlightened, I can't see how this usage might negatively affect anyone, and I have no problem with continuing this usage and not allowing "political correctness" to artificially influence the development of language. But that's just my opinion.

From Spawn :

My roommate and I can't decide where the word typhoon comes from. The Webster's On-Line dictionary gives the following:

    ty.phoon \ti--'fun\ n [alter. (influenced by Chin - Cant - taai fung typhoon, fr taai great + fung wind) of earlier touffon, fr. Ar tufan hurricane, fr. Gk typhon whirlwind; akin to Gk typhein to smoke]: a tropical cyclone occurring in the region of the Phillippines or the China Sea.

Our problem is where does the English typhoon come from?  Chinese civilization is older than Greek civilation; can it still be possible thta Greek influenced both English and Chinese? Or did Chinese influence Greek and English?

This is a very good question. If we look at the dictionary entry you so kindly provided, I think we'll find the answer. It says that the word typhoon is an alteration of the earlier English word touffon, which comes ultimately from Greek typhon 'whirlwind' (related to Greek typhein 'to smoke') via Arabic tufan 'hurricane.' And it also notes that the ultimate English form was no doubt influenced by the Cantonese taai fung 'typhoon.'  So, in summary, the word comes to English from Greek, but the ultimate English form was also influenced by Cantonese. Typhoon entered English in the 16th century. The Greek and Chinese words are not related. In fact, I have seen another rendering of the Cantonese as daai feng, and one source believes that typhoon comes from the Cantonese with influence (upon the English form) from the Greek!

From Hiroshi Ishii, Professor of English:

I would like to know about the origin of an exclamation of yach or yack to show disgust or unwillingness, used by children. If the exclamation can be traced back to 1940 or earlier, then it may be of American origin.  If it was used after 1941, it may be a borrowing from Japanese.

I believe the word about which you are inquiring is spelled yuck (sometimes yecch).  It is likely of imitative origin.

From Charles Fox:

What is the etymology of war? My wife needs the information for a piece of art she is creating.  Can you by any chance suggest sources (like universities) that we could send this same message to, to get the information for other languages' words for war and the etymology of the words?

I'll address your final question first. If any readers can supply etymological information for the word war in any language other than English, please e-mail me or Charles Fox (his e-mail link is above).

As for the English word war, it comes from Old North French werre `war,' a dialectical form of Old French guerre `war.' In the early 12th century it was wyrre in English, then uuerre, and then werre. The Old North French term comes from prehistoric Germanic *werra `confusion, strife.'

From Arch EOMHD:

I seek the etymological study of the words knowledge, wisdom and understanding. I possess information through "lexogramming' that knowledge is `know the ledge/know the edge,' wisdom is `wise - dom (dumb),' and understanding is `under stand.' Not a very informative method of origin, but interesting to say the least.

First, I apologize for not having your e-mail address -- blame it on operator error (and I'm the operator!). Second, you've chosen some interesting words!

Knowledge was formed from the Middle English equivalent of know plus the ending -lych/-leche/-lege `-ness' (as in goodness). Know comes from Old English cnawan, whose past tense was cneow, which came from Prot-Germanic *knaeanan. The Middle English form of know was cnowen, and then knowen. Knowledge comes from knowen plus -lych. It was knowlych in the early 13th century, knowelech in the mid-13th century, and knowlege by 1400.

Wisdom has already been addressed herein and you can find that etymology in the Archive of Etymologies.

Understand, whose gerund form is understanding, comes from Old English understandan `comprehend, grasp the idea of.' The Old English term means literally `stand in the midst of, stand between' and is a compound formed from Old English under- `between, among' and standan `stand.' Understand is the only current surviving word which employs this Old English meaning of under-.

Lexogramming happens to work with understand if you know the Old English meaning of under-. It works partially with wisdom, which you'll see if you refer to the archived etymology of wisdom. And it works partially with knowledge, as well, for knowledge is something one knows. However, because lexogramming does often work only partially, if at all, it is certainly not a reliable source of information on a word's etymology on its own. But it's a good place to start!

From Don Pullen:

Please explain the origin and history of the word tidy.

This word, which in 1250 was tidi and meant `in good condition, healthy,' came from the word tide `season' (which survives today in yuletide, etc.). The original sense of tidi was `in season, timely.' The sense of `neat, orderly' arose in the early 18th century.

From Jim Taylor:

Please give the etymology of the word wonder.

The noun version of this word was wundor in Old English, and it meant `marvelous thing.' It, along with several cognates in the Scandinavian and Germanic languages, comes from Proto-Germanic *wundran. The word attained its present spelling in the beginning of the 14th century. The verb form developed from Old English wundrian `marvel,' which was related to wundor. It also has cognates in German and Icelandic.

From Gene Anderson:

Someone flippantly wrote in e-mail "won't -- is it a contraction of wo and not? Wo! I mean whoa! Makes you wonder..."  Well, it did. Make me wonder, that is. What is the origin of won't? Is it a variation of wouldn't (would not)?

It's actually a contraction of will not, whic is what won't means today. The contraction form of these two words first appeared in the mid 1400s as wynnot. By the late 16th century it was wonnot, and in 1667 came the first recording of the won't form.

From bjt330:

Please send any reference to the word virus related to origin and meaning.

Virus entered English in the late 14th century with the meaning `venomous substance.' It came from Latin virus `poison, sap of plants, slimy liquid.' The meaning `a poisonous substance or agent that causes an infectious disease' first arose in the early 18th century.

From Oliver duCille, Sr.:

I would like to know the etymologies of ruddy, macrobiotic, propriety, excursive, and zymoscope. Thank you.

My, you've got quite a variety of words there! Ruddy is related to red. In Late Old English (pre-1100), it was rudi, likely from rudu `redness.' Red comes from the Proto-Germanic word *raudaz.

Macrobiotic is a word formed from macro- 'long' and biotic `life.' Simply put, it is a diet (and a lifestyle) which prolongs life.

Propriety comes, via Old French propriete, from Latin proprietatem `appropriateness, propriety, ownership.' Propriety is related to proper and property.

Excursive `pertaining to digression' comes from Old French excursion `digression,' which comes ultimately from Latin excurrere `run out' (from ex- `out' + currere `to run').

Finally, zymoscope comes from Greek zyme `leaven (yeast)' and, ultimately, skopein `look at.'

From Patrick Aziza:

Fine work with the web site...  Is the phrase toe the line a boxing term?

What are your best etymological sources?

Thank you for your complimentary words!

I can help you with toe the line, however! It is in fact a phrase which comes from the requirement in foot races to place one's toe on the line or mark before starting the race. The phrase came to have the more general meaning of `conform to rules.' It first appears in print in The Diverting History of John Bull and Brother Jonathan, from 1813.

My best etymological sources? I can't reveal those! Actually, my favorites are among those listed in my bibliography.

From Stephen M. Lawson:

I was traipsing around the WWW and couldn't get past your page! Yesterday I received e-mail that included the word traipsing and I can never remember seeing it in print previously. I have heard it often from earlier generations on my mother's side, and I suspect it is more common in the southern states [of the U.S.], her family's origins being in the hills of western North Carolina. I cannot locate a derivation in the usual sources.

This word first entered English in the late 16th century. Due to the existence of some dialectical forms of the word, such as trapass and traipass, it is thought that this word comes from dialectical French trapasser `pass over or beyond,' a form of Old French trespasser, from which English gets trespass. The French comes from Latin trans- 'over, beyond' + passer `go by, pass.'

From Mikel Kaufman:

I'm curious to know the origin of Tom Foolery.

This phrase's origin is quite surprising. The general public was allowed into mental hospitals or asylums in the Middle Ages in order to be amused by the actions of the residents there. Interestingly, one such asylum was called Bedlam, a corruption of Bethlehem, its real name. The audience's favorite "performers" were often nicknamed Tom Fool, and that popular nickname came to be applied to the antics of the asylum residents, and then its meaning was softened to mean `silly behavior' in general.

From Suresh Raman:

I was wondering if you knew the history of the word team.

We discussed team briefly in a previous column when examining the etymology of teamwork, but I'll go into more detail about team now. In Old English the word had the same form, team. It referred to a `set of draft animals yoked together,' and it had many cognates in the Germanic languages, such a Old Frisian tam `bridle' and Old Icelandic taumr `bridle, rein, rope.' Team and its cognates came from Proto-Germanic *taumaz `the action of drawing or pulling.' English tow comes from the same source. The Proto-Germanic root comes from the Indo-European base *deuk- `pull,' which gave Latin the word ducere `pull, lead,' source of English abduct, duke, etc.

The word team was first used to refer to a group of people working or acting together in about 1529.

From Adam Boyd:

I am trying to find information for the origin of the word turkey (the bird, not the country). All I know is that it was domesticated by Mexicans in the early 16th century. Any ideas?

The original turkey was the guinea fowl, which was brought to Europe from Africa by way of Turkish territories. In the 16th century, the British were introduced to the American bird that is now called turkey, and they apparently felt that it resembled the guinea fowl, because they began calling the American bird a turkey.

From Joe Papalia:

Can you help me with trial by fire and first among equals? I've checked appropriate references but no luck.

Originally I indicated that I had no information on first among equals. However, two kind readers wrote in to say that the English phrase is a direct translation from Latin primus inter pares. Julius Caesar's killers were caught by Caesar's heir, Octavian, later called Augustus. He wanted to overcome the reputation his father had gained as an autocrat. In an effort to do so, he feigned a desire to re-establish the Republic. Since that precluded his being Emperor, he was known as primus inter pares.

As for trial by fire: during medieval times, if there was insufficient evidence to prove a person guilty or innocent, one proved his innocence or guilt by way of a trial by ordeal, which amounted to seeking God's judgment of the accused. If one got through the ordeal, one was innocent, saved by the hand of God! One such ordeal was that of fire: walking across hot coals or holding a red-hot bar of iron.

Interestingly, the word ordeal, which was ordal in Old English, meant, literally, `a trial in which a person's guilt or innocence was determined by a hazardous physical test.'

From Darren Clark:

I've asked before about related groups of words (day names, month names, etc.), so in keeping with that theme I find myself wondering how we got our names for common measurements of length, area, and volume: inch, foot, yard, mile, league, acre, pint, quart, gallon, etc.

Darren, do I look like an etymological dictionary? Actually, I'll address inch, foot, yard, and mile this week, and we'll look into the rest in the following weeks.

Yard `three feet' is not related to yard `enclosed area.' It comes from Proto-Germanic *gazdaz `pointed stick' (also, interestingly, the source of gad in gadfly, the gad being the fly's `stick' or `stinger') as it was a stick which was used to measure. Some cognates with yard were Dutch gard `twig, rod,' and German gerte `sapling, riding cane.' The length of a yard was about 15 feet in Anglo-Saxon times, but it had shrunk to three feet by the 14th century. In 1385 the word was yerd, and prior to that it was gerd in Old Mercian and gierd in West Saxon. The current spelling arose in the 15th century.

From Chris Pullen:

What is the etymology of zero and who were the inventors of the concept?

This word's etymology is quite fascinating. The concept of zero apparently arose with the Babylonians who devised a symbol for it by about the second century B.C. This likely influenced the adoption of the concept in India somewhere between the 6th and 8th centuries A.D. Their word for the notion of `zero' was (Sanskrit) shunya `empty.' By the 9th century the Arabs had got hold of the idea, which they called as-sifr. It was not until the 13th century that the word entered Latin as cifra and zefirum. By the 14th century, French had the word chiffre and Italian had zefiro and zevero. The Venetian dialect produced zero from the latter. In the 15th century we find zero in English and zéro in French, as well as the synonym cipher.

Cipher diverged in meaning in the 16th century with the sense `encrypted communications' due to the fact that its prior meaning had been broadened to mean not only `zero,' but `any numeral' and the earliest code-type ciphers often were composed of numbers which represented letters.

From Mark Frankel:

I'm curious about the origin of the phrase on a wild goose chase. It seems to me that the current usage -- in pursuit of something that isn't there or that isn't the true object of one's search (as in the criminal sending the detective on a wild goose chase) -- is at variance with what I imagine was a difficult but pretty valuable thing to catch: a wild goose. So how (if I am correct) did a difficult and possibly fruitless search for a valuable object (one that could feed an entire family) become a useless running around for nothing? How is it that now, a wild goose chase, even if successful, is not worth the effort?

Apparently, the pursuit of a wild goose was often futile, especially before firearms were readily available. The phrase a wild goose chase had already been in use for some time by Shakespeare's heyday. He, in fact, uses the phrase in Romeo and Juliet. So, even though a goose might have been a valuable thing to have, getting one was not easy, and so any fruitless pursuit came to be known as a wild goose chase.

From Jay:

I am doing a research paper on the word trinitrotoluene and I need to know its etymology.  Would you please have pity on me and post its etymology as soon as possible?

We  feel that we should wait a week or two before replying to requests for assistance with research papers because we do not wish to defeat the purpose of such papers, which is, of course, research by you as opposed to research by us! With a good dictionary, such as the Amerian Heritage College Dictionary, the etymology of trinitrotoluene can readily be determined from its parts.

This word was conustructed from three parts: tri- `three,' which comes from Latin tres and Greek treîs; nitro- `nitric acid' from Latin nitrum, which came from Greek nítron, which itself came from Egyptian ntr; and toluene `a flammable liquid, CH3C6H5, used in fuels, dyestuffs, explosives, and as a solvent' from tolu `Balsam of Peru' (so named as it came from Tolú, a port in NW Colombia) + -ene `an unsaturated organic compund' from Greek -ene, a feminine adjectival suffix.

From Joy & Ken Ferguson:

I take a few minutes to read your page every day. I was wondering about the origins of certain instrument names. Trombone, guitar and xylophone are a few possibilities, but any others with an interesting history would be appreciated. Thank you for a great site.

Thank you for singing the praises of this site! I will address the three instruments you have named this week, and next time I will address others.

Trombone entered English in about 1724 (prior to that the instrument was known as a sackbut in English). Trombone was borrowed from French trombone and directly from Italian trombone. The Italian is an augmentative form of tromba `trumpet.' Tromba is Germanic in origin; trumba and trumpa both mean `trumpet' in Old High German. One source believes that trumpa was originally imitative of the sound made by a trumpet-like instrument. This sense may have been the notion behind the instrument name tromba marina. It is not a trumpet in shape or function (nor has it anything to do with things of the sea (marina)!). Instead, it is a six to seven foot long resonant box with one string which is played with a bow. The sound is not what one would expect from a stringed instrument and may have been considered reminiscent of a tromba-like sound.

The word guitar goes back ultimately to Greek kithára, which was a stringed instrument related to the lyre. Several medieval and Renaissance instruments received their names from the original Greek. One is the citole, a medieval stringed instrument, which English acquired via Latin cithara. Zither came to German via Latin cithara, also, and it entered English from German in the 19th century.  English cittern (16th century), a Renaissance plucked stringed instrument, got its name via an early form of the French word for guitar, which was guiterne, combined with Latin cithara. English got guitar itself from French guitare, which came, via Spanish guitarra, from Arabic quitar. The Arabic, of course, came from the Greek kithára.

Xylophone is a recent word, having been coined in the 1860s from Greek xúlon `wood' and -phone `sound.' The name refers to the tuned wooden bars of the xylophone.

From Meir Shani:

Last week you indicated that Gaulish galla means `vessel.' Does galleon, the Roman ship, come from the same root? And does this reflect the connection between vessel `ship' and vessel `container'? What is the etymology of vessel, anyhow?

This is an excellent question! Actually, galleon comes from Spanish galeón `an armed merchant ship.' It was formed from galea `galley,' which came from Medieval Greek galéa `galley,' of uncertain origin. It does not appear that galla and galleon are related, then.

Vessel entered English in its current form in about 1300 from Old French vessel. The French came from Latin vascellum `small vase or urn,' and it was a diminutive form of vasculum, which was itself a diminutive form of vas `vessel.' The ship sense in English arose not long after the word entered English, at least by 1325. Therefore, it is likely that the application of the word to a ship was metaphorical in origin.

From Chuck Bean:

Where do we get the term transform?

Transform entered English in the mid-14th century as transformen `change the form of .' It was borrowed from Old French transformer and also directly from Latin transformare `change the shape or form of,' from trans- `across' and formare `to form.' There is no direct Greek source here.

Comments, additions? Send to Melanie & Mike:
Copyright © 1995-2000 TIERE
Last Updated 10/09/06 07:49 PM