Issue 199, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Daniel:

What is the origin of fence "barrier system"?

Fence is an aphetic form of defence.  The prefix de- was simply dropped over time.  Defence dates from 1330 in English, and fence "barrier system" turns up by 1512.  So to talk about fence, we must start with defence.

Defence came to English in two forms, both from Latin via Old French.  Defens and defense were the French forms, coming respectively from Latin defensum "thing forbidden, defended" and defensa "defence, prohibition".  The modern spelling defence (mostly seen in British English) derives from the defens form.  Defense is the spelling used in the U.S.

The Latin words derive from defendere "to ward off, defend", formed from de- "away" plus fendere, a word that was obsolete except in compounds.  Calvert Watkins, the Indo-European expert, says that fendere derives from the hypothetical Indo-European root *gwhen- "to strike, to kill", so that to defend is to push "away" a strike or attempt to kill.

A fence, then, is an enclosing structure which protects (defends) against intruders.  There is also the swordplay meaning of fence, which first turns up in Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1598.  It comes from the noun fence, when the "defend" sense was still strongly attached.  Then there is the noun form which means "dealer in stolen property", and John Ayto suggests that this meaning, which arose in the 16th century, refers to the fact that stolen goods are dealt "under the cover, or 'defence', of secrecy".

From Judy Kay Wall:

My 8 year old granddaughter asked me today why we say just kidding or you are kidding me, etc. When and why did we start using these expressions?

When the OED gives a fairly half-hearted sounding explanation of a word's origin, you know that no one really knows where the word came from.  The verb to kid is one of those.  It's likely that it came from the noun kid "the offspring of a goat".  That dates in English from about 1200, and it is thought to be the same word as Old Norse kiš (Swedish and Danish kid), which takes us back to the Old Teutonic root kišjom "young goat".  By 1599 the word's meaning had been extended in English to refer to human children (if you have ever seen young goats playing, you may understand why).

How did we get from human children to joking?  In 1811 to kid meant "to coax, hoax or humbug" in thieves' slang, and by 1839 it had softened a bit (and expanded from the circle of thieves) to mean "tease playfully, talk jokingly".  It is thought to come from the "human child" meaning, with a notion of "to treat like a child", or from the sense "to make a kid (fool, ass) of", this kid being a goat.  

From Melissa:

Could you tell me when the word human was first used in contrast to man or mankind? Who invented it and was it for the purpose of being gender neutral?

The Romans "invented" this word.  In Latin it is humanus "of or belonging to man[kind], human".  It is related to two other Latin words: homo and hominem, both meaning "man".  Human first turns up in the English written record in the late 12th century.  Humane is basically the same word which simply diverged in meaning.  While human means, etymologically, "man", in English it has meant "mankind" since its earliest use.  It was not "invented" as a politically correct term.  It was simply a useful word which could serve as a noun or an adjective and refer to all mankind collectively.

Man, by the way, has it origins in Old Teutonic *man- "man" and is cognate with the German Mann "person".  Interestingly, in Old English man was often used to refer to either sex.  Wer was the word for a "man", and wif for a "woman".  However, man also meant "male" in Old English, and that is the surviving sense today, except in compounds like mankind.

From T. Schexnayder:

I am looking for the origin of pope, not the definition.

Good thing you made that clear or we might have gotten confused!  Actually, T., we specialize in word origins here, so no need to micromanage.  Your question is timely, as il Papa just passed away this week.  His Italian name gives us a clue as to the origin of popeIl Papa means "the Father", or, more accurately, "the Daddy", and that's what pope means, etymologically speaking.  You see, the Greeks used papas as a title of respect for bishops as early as the 3rd century.  However, by the time of Leo the Great in the 5th century the word was being applied to the Bishop of Rome who, by 1073, was known exclusively as Papa.

The word first turns up in Old English in the writings of Bede of about the year 900 as papa .  By the mid 12th century it was pape, and, by the opening of the 13th century, we find pope

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