Issue 189, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Kate Oland:

I was explaining to my two-year-old that a plum's seed is called a pit.  My four-year-old remarked, "A pit is a hole - so why do you call a seed a pit?"  Not wanting to pit one child against the other, I thought I'd better ask the experts.  Small word, many meanings.  What's the story?

Clever kids and cleverer mom!  You may be surprised to learn that the pit which means "stone of a fruit" originated in America and South Africa.  It comes from Dutch pit (it was pitte in early Modern Dutch), and the same word is found in Middle Low German, and West and East Frisian, and these are cognate with Old English pitha "pith".  In fact, the word originally referred to "pith" but the sense changed to "kernel" and then "stone".  It dates in writing from 1841.

The verb pit "to set to fighting for sport" and then "to set in opposition or rivalry" arose from the fact that the sport fighting of the earlier sense was done in a pit "hole" or "enclosure".  It dates from the mid-18th century.

From Gabrielle Randall:

Totleigh/Totley is at least a fictional English place-name (Wodehouse, Totleigh-in-the-Wold, etc.), but I am hoping you can help me with the word's origins.  

Perfect timing, since this week's Spotlight is about English place-names.  Totley is indeed a real place, located in South Yorkshire.  It was Totingelei in the Domesday Book, and etymologically it means "woodland clearing of the family or followers of a man called Tota."  It is formed from the Old English personal name Tota plus -inga- "family or followers" plus leah "wood, woodland clearing" and later "pasture".  Leah is often represented in place-names as leigh.

From DW:

I am curious as to the origin of the phrase no holds barred.  I subscribed, for a 14-day trial, to Webster's Unabridged but they didn't have information on the origin of the phrase so I searched until I came upon you!

Lucky search!  This phrase comes from wrestling and refers to a match where the regular rules are suspended and, basically, "anything goes", so that the wrestlers may use any kind of hold (on their opponents).  It is first recorded in print, according to the OED, in 1942 in a dictionary of actors' slang, but it had probably been in use since at least the late 19th or early 20th century. 

From Joey:

What did it mean in 13th century England when one was called a Moor?

This term originally referred to natives of Mauretania, an ancient country on the Atlantic coast of North Africa (not to be confused with the modern country on the Atlantic coast of North Africa, which bears the same name).  Later, the term was used more widely to refer to most of the people of northwest Africa, who were part Berber and part Arab and practiced the Muslim religion.  They conquered Spain in the 8th century.  In medieval times Moors were thought to be black or at least very swarthy, so the term came to be interchangeable with Negro (Italian for "black").  That is what Shakespeare had in mind when he penned Othello.

The word Moor (More in Middle English) comes from Latin Maurus and Greek Mavros, which both referred to natives of Mauretania.  Moor, Maurus, Mavros and Morocco probably (suggests the Oxford English Dictionary) derive ultimately from an ancient North African language, and the OED opines that the Greek mavros "black" may even come from the same North African name. We imagine that Maghreb, the region's Arabic name, is also related but have found no hard evidence.

Moor is not recorded in English until 1390, which is the 14th century, by the way.

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Last Updated 01/08/06 01:58 PM