Issue 179, page 1

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Given the current preparations for war, the word charge was bound to crop up in our conversation sooner or later. Well, it did. It happened as we were replacing flashlight batteries. "What," we mused, "does the Charge of the Light Brigade have in common with the charge in our AAs?"

This gap in our etymological omniscience was soon resolved by a routine visit to the vast dictionary wing of TOWFI Towers. However, in answering this apparently harmless question we encountered something so bizarre, so freakish, so unexpected that it has profoundly shaken our world-view. We discovered a... there's no pleasant  way to say this... a mistake the OED! But more of that anon, let's get back to charge.

A reconstructed chariot. Click to learn more.The earliest known ancestor of charge is carrus (or, in Medieval Latin, carra), the Latin word for "chariot". It is thought that the Romans borrowed this word from their Celtic neighbors as carr meant "wagon" or "chariot" in Old Irish, Old Welsh and Manx. From carra came the Middle English char, a "cart" or "wagon", car, carriage and carry. As its name implies, carriage is a vehicle which carries but, if we look a little deeper, the original meaning of carry was "to convey by cart or wagon". [So, which came first, the horse or the cart? - M&M]

Other words formed from carrus were carricare, "to load" and carricum, "a cartload". Over time, as Medieval Latin evolved into the Romance languages, carricum  became carico in Italian and cargo in Spanish. Briefly, in the early 1600s, cargo was used both as an expletive and a term of abuse. The august Oxford English Dictionary, the 22 volumes of which contain a vast repository of English etymology, comments that the insult probably arose from the Spanish word cargo which it explains as meaning "burden, load, weight, bundle, fardle, truss, etc.". Fardle? This was a word we had never seen before so we eagerly sought the OED entry but... there is no fardle, only fardel. [Oh no, a spelling mistake in the OED! Obviously, society as we know it is doomed. - M&M]

In case anyone was wondering, fardel has a number of meanings including "bundle", "the baggage of a company of men", "the omasum, or third stomach, of ruminants (also called a fardel-bag)" or simply "a wrapper". A truss, by the way, is "a collection of things bound together" or "a bundle", from Old French trousser, "to bind together", and its diminutive form, trousseau, once meant any "small bundle" (or, rarely, "a bunch of keys") but now refers specifically to a bride's outfit of clothes.

The Latin verb carricare ("to load onto a cart") becameJoseph Priestley.  Click to learn more. charger in Old French and, subsequently, Middle English kark, charche and charge, all meaning simply "to load". All subsequent English meanings of charge derive from this meaning of "load", even if only metaphorically as in "the price charged"  or "to charge [someone] with a task". To be "in charge of" something implies that one is burdened with the task of its care. The maximum load a wagon was able to hold was known as its "charge" and this notion was carried over into the world of science when, in 1767, Joseph Priestley used charge to describe the amount of electrical energy held in a Leyden jar. Aha! So, that explains the charge of AA batteries, but what about the Charge of the Light Brigade

The charge which means "a sudden and impetuous assault" seems to have arisen, as one might expect, on the battlefield but in the least likely place: the artillery. As cannon and guns were charged (i.e. "loaded") with gunpowder, the order to charge was originally an instruction to load cannon with gunpowder (even today we speak of an "explosive charge") but came to mean "ready [a weapon] for action" and, eventually, "take aim". Due to this constant trend of escalation, the infantry command of charge bayonets!  came to be understood not as an order to affix one's bayonet but to advance with bayonets fixed. Similarly, the cavalry "took aim" with its "weapon" - a phalanx of galloping horses.

The use of charge (first recorded 1929) as a slang term for "marijuana" probably originated by analogy to a charge of explosive but the expression to get a charge out of [something] (1950s) appears to be an unrelated reference to a charge of electricity.

Traps for the unwary: 

Cart is not one of the carrus group; it is from Old Norse and is related to crate. Trousers was once thought to share the same Old French origin as truss and trousseau but we now know it to be one of the few English words to come from Gaelic. It first appeared in the 1500s as an Anglicised form of the Irish triubhas (often seen written as trews).

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Last Updated 03/10/03 08:02 PM