Issue 196, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Buffy Hamilton:

Where did the word trump come from and does it really have to do with Donald?  I thought it predated him but someone recently told me it was [related to] him.

Heavens, we will do our best never to be absent from the word-origin scene for soDonald Trump long again - look what has happened in our absence.  The etymological world is falling apart: human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, and the rise of the popular belief that Donald Trump has had an impact on the English language - mass hysteria!

Well, perhaps it's not that bad, but trump has been around a lot longer than The Donald and his hair.  It dates in writing as a noun from 1529, and we are pretty sure that Donald Trump isn't quite that old.  It is actually a corruption of triumph and was first used in card games.  As today, it referred to the high-ranking suit in a card game, any card of which could outrank cards of the remaining three suits.

The verb form with the literal sense "to take with a trump [in cards]" dates from the late 16th century.  At about the same time the figurative sense "to beat" arose.  

There is also the phrase to trump up or trumped up, as in trumped up chargesTrump in this sense means "to forge, fabricate, invent".  It is not clear whether it came from the cards usage or from an obsolete word trump "to deceive, cheat".  If the latter, it would have derived from English trump "to sound a trumpet", which came from Old French tromper, but the path of such a change in meaning is unclear.

From Ken Wasyluk:

I was wondering where the use of "k" to denote thousands (as in salaries) came from.  Is it a short form of a longer word?

Actually, k in this sense came into use as a result of the proliferation of computers.  It is an abbreviation of kilo- (as in kilobytes), which means "one thousand".  (A kilobyte is actually 1,024 bytes, but we'll get into that another time).  So if you are making $56K a year, you are making $56,000.  The use of k in this sense arose in the computer world in the mid-60s and came to be used more broadly (especially to refer to salaries) by 1968:

Engineers, Mini-Micro Programmers, Analysts+Salaries $15–45K.
-- Data Communications, September 1968 (advertisement)

So, Ken, your last name could be rendered as Wasyluthousand.

From Fred Krum:

What is the origin of embarrass?

Cognates exist between English and Spanish.  Melanie speaks some Spanish.  In her days of youthful naiveté, she would sometimes turn English words into Spanish, assuming the two forms were cognate.  However, embarrass in English and embarazada in Spanish, while cognate, diverged in meaning some time ago.  If Melanie announced demurely to a dinner party that she was embarazada, she would be telling them all that she was pregnant!

English embarrass derives from the French embarrasser "to block, obstruct", from en- + barre "to bar". Its original meaning in English was "to encumber, hamper, impede" (1683).  Around that same time it also meant "to perplex", presumably because when one is perplexed, one is hampered.  It wasn't until the early 19th century that embarrass came to refer to making a person feel awkward or ashamed.  The notions of encumberment and perplexity were carried to extremes, here, and soon the feelings associated with such states, rather than the states themselves, were conveyed by the word.

We presume you have figured out how embarazada came to mean "pregnant" in Spanish.  After all, pregnancy may be looked upon as a form of blockage or obstruction.  The obstruction is removed when the baby is delivered!  "Ah, your former obstruction looks just like you!"

From Tom Sellers:

I noticed that there were quite a few comments on first names and their origins and I have searched over the Net looking for the place of origin for a particular surname and its meaning.  The surname is Sellers.  It is very  hard to search the net for it. 

Your question is timely, because after our long hiatus, we are now delving into the origins of surnames.  You may be surprised by the likely source of your last name.  Sellers is an English and/or Scottish surname, and the -s on the end suggests that it is patronymic (Greek patro- "father" and nym "name"), meaning that it is derived from the given name of a father or ancestor.  For example, the son of a man named Roger might be called John Rogers, the -s suggesting possession, with "son" implied, that is, John Rogers is really "John Roger's son".  So Sellers suggests that the name started with someone named Seller.  What does Seller mean?  Interestingly, a seller was a saddler, or a maker of saddles for horses.  It comes from Anglo Norman seller, which derives from Old French sellier.  That came from Latin sellarius, "saddle maker", from sella "seat, saddle", and ultimately from sedere "to sit" (source of, among others, English sedentary).

Without the final -s, your surname  could be topographic in origin, referring to someone who lived in an animal hut (a selle (Middle English)), or it could be occupational, referring to someone who worked in the cellar of a large house or even a monastery.  Finally, it could refer to a merchant (one who sells).

The Italian version of your surname is Del Sellaio.

We are just getting back into the saddle, as it were, this week and we don't want to overdo it, so we will leave you with four word discussions here.  We'll eventually work back up to our normal five.

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2005 TIERE
Last Updated 02/06/05 09:46 PM