Issue 179, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Lucy Sommer:

My mother is an Episcopal priest.  In her sermons, she tries to say that we are forgiven our sins before we sin, because the word forgive used to be two separate words, or spelled foregive.  We know the word came from Old English, but is there any way she could be right?  Was the for in forgive really fore?  She will soon be 76 years old and is still working full time.  This question has been driving her crazy for several years.  Please help.  

Hmmm.  Not quite.  The word in Old English was forgiefan, composed of for and giefan "give".  The for there means "away, off", so that to forgive was simply "to give, to grant", the for adding a notion of "giving away".  That earliest meaning dates in the written record from 900.  By 1000, the word had the meaning "to remit (a debt); to pardon (an offense)".   It then came to mean "to pardon an offender", and then, by 1200, it had the meaning "to give up, to cease to harbor (resentment)", and it is from there that our modern meaning arose.  There is no sense of fore as in "before" in forgive.

Give derives from the Proto-Germanic root *ghabh- "to give, to receive", which is also the source of gift

From Lauren Brown:

I am student-teaching eighth grade Earth Science in Waco, Texas.  We are studying weather.  Today a student asked me where the word hail comes from.  We would appreciate your help.  The other teachers and I have enjoyed viewing your site!

Gosh, we've got weather, Texas, and kind words about TOWFI all in one message.  That's a pretty good formula for getting your question answered, Lauren!  [Melanie, a Texas native, has a degree in meteorology - M&M]

Being in tornado country, as you are, and with tornado season approaching, your question is timely.  Hail is often a predictor of tornadic activity.  It is anA hailstone of several inches in diamter.  Click to learn more. interesting word, no?  You may be surprised to learn that it is Old English in origin.  Yes, Britain gets its share of hail, though it's usually not the grapefruit-sized stuff that you see in Texas, the sort that knocks down small buildings and kills livestock and crops. [One exception occurred in Mike's home city of Cardiff, Wales, in 1953. Hail "the size of cricket balls" punched holes in slate roofs and flattened garden sheds in his neighborhood - M&M]

Hail was hagol or hægel in Old English (1000), and there are cognates in the other Germanic languages.  The Proto Germanic version was *hag(a)lo- (from the ancient Indo-European *kaghlo-), meaning both "pebble" and "hail", and it is thought to be cognate with Greek kakhlex "pebble" and Latin calculus, which also means "pebble".  Thus, taken literally, the word hailstone means "pebble-stone", a term which is simultaneously redundant and misleading.

Hail, by the way, is formed when the updrafts and downdrafts in a thunderstorm are strong enough to send water droplets up into the freezing parts of the cloud, then down to collect more water, then up again to freeze, and so on, until the hailstone becomes too heavy for the updraft to support it.  Multiple layers of ice can be seen in cross-sections of large hailstones.  Think how powerful the updraft must be to keep a grapefruit-sized (or even golfball-sized) hailstone aloft!

From Jim O'Malley:

The word propaganda came up recently in a conversation, and as I'm prone to do, I inquired of the speaker what the origin of the word was.  No valid responses could pre-date "...well, Goebbels was Hitler's Propagandaminister..."  Can you back-date this word further?

Yup.  Some might find it ironic that propaganda derives from the Congregatio de propaganda fide (Modern Latin), known in English as the Congregation (or College) of Propaganda (literally "Congregation for Propagation of the Faith").  This committee of cardinals, established by Pope Gregory XV in 1622, was in charge of the Catholic Church's foreign missions.

The word propaganda entered English in 1718 from the Church usage, and by 1790 it was being used figuratively to refer to any scheme for the propagation of a doctrine or practice.  By 1908 we find the meaning "systematic propagation of ideas in order to encourage a specific response", and this is where today's meaning arose, popularized by the Communists in the 1950s and 60s.

Propaganda is the feminine gerund form of propagare, from which English got propagatePropagare is formed from pro- "in front" and *pag- "fasten", the sense originally being "a fixing before" and used in reference to propagating plants.  The Latin noun from which the verb derived was propago "cutting, scion".  

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From Videlia:

I have searched many places and cannot find the origin for the phrase fly by night.  Can you help?

Of course.  We're no fly-by-night operation!  Today fly by night refers to anything shady or having a bad reputation.  This meaning comes from the practice of tenants or debtors fleeing their landlords or creditors during the night.  It dates in writing from 1796, but in that instance it occurs in Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, in which it is defined as "an ancient term of reproach to an old woman, signifying that she was a witch".  It is in the early 19th century that we find quotations referring to tenants, and it is in the early 20th century that the term took on the general meaning of "shady".


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