Issue 194, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From David Foose:

My mom used the word smidgen often when I was growing up.  She would say things like, "It just needs a smidgen of salt."  I know it means "a little bit", but I have always wondered where the word came from.

It's not an easy one to trace.  It first turns up in 1845.  Most sources say simply "origin unknown" or even simply "?".  The Oxford English Dictionary is a bit braver and suggests that it may come from smitch, a word found in Scotland and the U.S. meaning "a particle, a bit" (1840).  What about the -en of smidgen, you ask?  That's thought to be a dialectical form of -ing.  That's all well and good, you say, but where on earth did smitch come from?  One guess is that it derives from smit  "a very small piece or portion", which is thought to come from the verb smite, the sense being "a small piece that has been struck off something else".  Smit in this sense dates back to about 1300. 

From Jeremy Stuart:

The oldest reference to abomination is circa 14th century English.  Could and would you please enlighten me as to the more ancient roots of this word, and if there is nothing earlier, what ancient Greek and/or Hebrew words are most closely aligned with its currently accepted definition?  Thanks.  I'm new to your site - hope you're still there!

We're still here.  Holidays and day-jobs have kept us too busy to publish until now (subscribers to our companion newsletter will recall that Melanie was out of town on business for the month of November).  Our absence could be called abominable, but we'd prefer "understandable"!

Abominable is the earliest form of the abomina- words.  English took it from Latin via Old French.  The Latin form was abominabilis  "deserving imprecation or abhorrence", derived from abominari "to deprecate as an ill omen", formed from ab- "off, away" plus omen "omen".  English first borrowed it into writing in the mid-14th century.  Interestingly, folk etymology spurred a misspelling in Old French which continued into English: abhominable, thought to come from ab- plus homine, meaning "away from man, inhuman, beastly", but that derivation is, as we said, folk etymology and not correct.  However, that supposed derivation did affect the word's usage and meaning in a lasting way, as evidenced by its use in the abominable snowman.

The word omen can be traced back a bit further.  It is thought to come ultimately from a word related to audire "to hear", so that an omen was something heard.

From Bill Radding:

'Tis the season, and my stereo [has been] blaring Christmas carols near continuously.  Occasionally, I listen to the words, as I did this morning when I heard, "Long lay the earth in sin and error pining."  One assumes to pine comes from the tree, but how? 

There's the rub: how?  We can see no sensible connection between "wasting away" (or, more commonly today, "languishing with intense desire") and trees.  Well, there is the usage of pine to mean "shrink" with regard to wood that has been cut.  But that meaning did not arise until the 19th century, and the "wasting away" sense has been around since the late 13th century, and the verb itself (with slightly different meanings) has existed in English since the time of King Alfred the Great!  So, whence did it come?  It seems that it derives ultimately from the same root as pain, and there are cognates in many of the Germanic languages, as well as some of the Celtic languages.  The Indo-European root is *kwei- "to pay, atone, compensate".  New readers, the asterisk indicates that the word is hypothetical, having been back-formed based on the known laws of the development of languages.

Our favorite use of the verb to pine comes from Monty Python's The Dead Parrot Sketch.  "It's probably pining for the fjords."  Indeed!  That particular meaning ("languishing with intense desire") arose in the 16th century and was first recorded by Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet.  There!  We managed to get Monty Python and Shakespeare into the same paragraph!

From Elizabeth Coverdale:

When did the word hustle, of Dutch origin, gain usage in the U.S.?  The following quote is often attributed to Abraham Lincoln.  In your opinion, do you feel that the word hustle would have been commonly used enough by that time for these words to likely be used by Lincoln?

Things may come to those who wait, but only things left by those who hustle.

That quotation is indeed attributed to Lincoln but its origin has not been verified.  You are right to question whether the words in the quotation are anachronistic.  Hustle in that sense may seem too modern, but, perhaps surprisingly, it has been around for some time.  The word in English dates from the late 17th century, at which time it meant "to shake to and fro".  By the 18th century it meant "to push or knock a person about roughly or unceremoniously", and by the mid-19th century, especially in the U.S., it was used to mean "to obtain, produce or serve by hustle or pushing activity".  By 1821 there was a parallel development: "to move hastily, to hurry, to bustle; to work busily."  There is a quotation containing this usage that dates from about 1867, which puts it in Lincoln's time (for remember, a word was probably in oral use for quite some time before it first turned up in the written record).  That quotation comes from Edison, in Temple Magazine: "I've got so much to do, and life is so short, that I am going to hustle."

So, yes, Virginia, er, Elizabeth, there is a Santa Claus - oops, we mean, hustle could very well have been used by Lincoln in the sense attributed to him.  Of course, that still doesn't prove the attribution. 

Gee, while we're at it, we should probably discuss hustle's etymology!  It does indeed derive from Dutch: modern Dutch has husselen/hutselen "to shake, to toss", from Middle Dutch hutselen "to shake the money in the game of hustle-cap".  Hutselen is the frequentative of hutsen. The hut- stem appears throughout the High and Low German dialects with that same sense of "shake".  The notion of pushing or knocking a person about, which eventually gave rise to the current "move quickly" or "work busily" meaning, became associated with hustle only in English.

OK, and what the heck is "the game of hustle-cap"?  The OED says "a form of pitch-and-toss, in which the coins were 'hustled' or shaken together in a cap before being tossed."  Pitch-and-toss is a general terms for games of chance where bets are placed regarding which way up, heads or tails, coins will fall after being tossed into a designated area.

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2003 TIERE
Last Updated 01/08/06 02:19 PM