Issue 201, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Thomas:

I've been looking all over the Web for the root of the word individual.  I thought that it was something like "undivided".  I don't know whether it comes from Latin or Greek.

It comes from Latin individuus "indivisable, inseparable".  It, like individuum, the word for "an indivisible particle, an atom", comes from Latin dividuus "divisible" plus the prefix in- "not", and ultimately from the verb form, dividere "to divide".  If you have studied any theology or philosophy, you may recognize that this word emerged in those disciplines in the Middle Ages.  Peter Abelard first used the adverb individualiter in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, and around the same time, Adelard of Bath (know as "the first English scientist", though he wrote in Latin, as all scholars of the time did) used the adjective individuales.  (Try not to confuse Abelard with Adelard; they're two different individuals.) Individual first turns up in English in about 1425 with reference to the Christian Trinity.  Its meaning then was "one in substance or essence", now obsolete.

In the 17th century, at the birth of the Enlightenment, it meant "inseparable", but at that same time the meaning "existing as a separate indivisible entity; numerically one, single" arose and, apparently, stuck.  Also at this time Sir Francis Bacon first used the word with a more specialized meaning of "pertaining or peculiar to a single person or thing, or some one member of a class; characteristic of an individual".  And, you may recall, Francis Bacon dabbled in philosophy, himself, being the father of inductive reasoning.  Again, in this same time period, the word was adopted in the study of logic to mean "an object which is determined by properties peculiar to itself and cannot be subdivided into others of the same kind", and, more specifically, "an object included in a species, as a species is included in a genus."

Today we think of it as meaning "something regarded as a unit", like one human being or one Tasmanian devil, but, Thomas, you are correct, etymologically, and even still in some current yet specific applications, it means "indivisible".

From Leo:

Can you give the etymology of surnames?  If so, I have an odd question.  What are the origins of the surnames of the four original members of The Who?

What a great and wacky question!  Yes, we can answer that!

The four members of The Who were Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, Keith Moon and Pete Townshend (only Daltrey and Townshend survive today).  Interestingly, they all possess some good, old, (mostly) English surnames.  Roger Daltrey's surname likely derives from the Norman place-name Hauterive (high river bank), in Orne.  So, you ask, where did the initial D come from?  Well, it was de Hauterive, which was Anglicized to various forms like Dawtrey, Daughtrey, Dowtry, and even, without that initial de, Hawtrey.  The absorption of an initial de into an Anglicized Norman surname is fairly common, and one of the most famous examples may be in the name of Thomas Hardy's character Tess Durbeyfield, who is told that her family name derives from d'Urberville.  An example of Daltrey in a more French form is Dauterive, the surname of a character on the animated series King of the Hill.  One of the writers/producers of that series shares the same name, and we suspect this is not a coincidence.

John Entwistle's surname is delightful - it makes us think of one of Tolkien's Ents whistling an old Entish tune.  It actually derives from an English place-name: Entwisle in Lancashire.  Presumably John's family hailed from there at one time or another.  The name of the village can be broken down into its Old English components: henna "hen" or ened "duck" + twisla "a tongue of land in a river fork".  Henna sometimes referred to a duck (a "water hen"), so this place-name likely refers to a spit of land in a river where ducks congregated.

Wild child Keith Moon's name could have come from several different sources.  It may have come from a Norman place-name, Moyon; it may have come from an Anglo-French nickname Moun "monk"; it could be from Cornish mon "thin", a nickname for a skinny person; or it could be from Irish-Gaelic O Mochain.  The Irish name derives from a Gaelic word meaning "early, timely".  "Early" yet "untimely" are more appropriate when speaking of Keith Moon's death.

Pete Townshend's name, despite that distracting "h", means just what it says: "town's end".  At one time, probably when Middle English was spoken (approximately 1150-1500), his family lived on the edge of town.  Apparently this spelling is specifically from Norfolk, while the spelling Townend is peculiar to Yorkshire.  The name is composed of the Middle English elements tone "village, town" (from Old English tun "enclosure") and end "end".

Who are we talking about above?  Yes, The Who...

From Kelly:

I can't find the origin of blog anywhere and stumbled upon your site.  I work in a middle school, so we will be making great use of your site in the future.

Thinking about middle school kids, we are reminded that the number one search at TOWFI is for the F word.  We were surprised the first time we saw the search statistics many years ago.  The F word has been the top search since we installed search capability back in November of 2001!  The second most popular search term is picnic, the third is the S word, and the fourth is love.  We find this ironic!  (We discuss all of those words here at TOWFI, by the way.  You just have to find them.)

Blog is a very interesting word because it practically exploded into English.  It comes from weblog, which was coined by Jorn Barger in his Robot Wisdom web site back in 1997.  Barger's FAQ from September of 1999 documents this, as do others.  He also provides the definition of weblog:

A weblog (sometimes called a blog or a newspage or a filter) is a webpage where a weblogger (sometimes called a blogger, or a pre-surfer) 'logs' all the other webpages she finds interesting. 

Barger, in addition to a couple of other sites, gives credit for coining blog to Peter Merholz, who said, in the side bar of his home page in May of 1999:

For What It's Worth
I've decided to pronounce the word "weblog" as wee'- blog. Or "blog" for short.

You can even see where Brad Graham noted it in his sidebar of May 23, 1999 (look at the right side of his page).

William Safire wrote in 2002 that the earliest incidence of blog that he could find was in the 1999 version of Barger's blog.  Yet no one happens to mention WHEN in 1999 Barger used it.  Knowing that Peter Merholz used blog in May of 1999 (even Jargon Scout credits him), we wanted to know exactly when Barger first used it.  So we searched Barger's archives and turned up blog on November 12, 1999However, Barger was quoting "Kestrel's Eric W" who had posted to a weblog on (which was later absorbed by Yahoo Groups, but the weblog from which Barger quotes is no longer available).  Here's the Kestrel quotation as it appeared on Robot Wisdom:

I find Link Watcher to be a very important service for me.  The fresh blogs list is akin to the "Hot" sign at Krispy Kreme...

Ack!  So when did the Link Watcher site first use the term?  Did they get it from Merholz?  We tried to find archived versions of Link Watcher from 1999, to no avail.  That is when we decided to contact Michal Wallace.  He is the creator/maintainer of Link Watcher, one of the early weblogs.  Michal responded immediately and affably to our e-mail inquiry and confirmed that Peter Merholz did coin blog:  Michal was "there" when it happened.

We all read each other's sites at the time.  I definitely remember reading (and cringing at) [Peter Merholz's] "we blog" pronunciation way back when he first posted it.

That's good enough for us.  Michal also told us that some other terms these pioneering webloggers were tossing around (many of them were, at the time, members of a weblog mailing list started by Jesse James Garrett, who later applied the name Ajax to a specific type of web application) were microportal and pre-surfer (which turns up in the quotation from Jorn Barger above).  The latter is still in use with the same meaning.

Interestingly, by the time of William Safire's article on blog on July 28, 2002, the meaning of the word had changed.  Here's how Safire defined it:

It is a Web site belonging to some average but opinionated Joe or Josie who keeps what used to be called a ''commonplace book'' - a collection of clippings, musings and other things like journal entries that strike one's fancy or titillate one's curiosity. What makes this online daybook different from the commonplace book is that this form of personal noodling or diary-writing is on the Internet, with links that take the reader around the world in pursuit of more about a topic.

Bloggers had moved from simply listing other web sites of note (with occasional comments) to making on-line diary entries that included their thoughts and opinions, along with links that interested them.  And that is pretty much what bloggers do to this day.  Even we have a blog now (what's the world coming to?).  We can now understand first hand why blogs are so darn popular.  It's fun, not to mention therapeutic, having that kind of outlet.

While researching blog, we ran across the Wikipedia and were reminded that we'd wondered for some time where that name came from.  Here is the entry on wiki from Wikipedia:

The first wiki, WikiWikiWeb, is named after the "Wiki Wiki" line of Chance RT-52 buses in Honolulu International Airport. The name is based on the Hawaiian term wiki, meaning "quick", "fast", or "to hasten" (Hawaiian dictionary). Sometimes wikiwiki (or Wikiwiki) is used instead of wiki (Hawaiian dictionary).

Wiki is sometimes interpreted as the backronym for "What I know is", which describes the knowledge contribution, storage and exchange function.

And there we are.  Of course, next time we'll have to research backronym...

From Ursula:

I understand that the name of the chemical used to give natural gas its characteristic odor is called mercaptan.  What is the etymology of that word?

Let's start with asparagus.  Why, you ask?  Because there is a connection between mercaptan and asparagus!  Many of you have probably noticed that, after you eat asparagus, your urine smells odd. However, there are probably a few of you who have not noticed that odor.  For a long time it was thought that not everyone produced the metabolite of asparagus that resulted in that odd-smelling urine.  While that may be true, it is now also thought that not everyone can smell that particular odor (they do not have the olfactory receptor(s) for that odor)!  The smell is caused by the breakdown of a mercaptan, and mercaptans are members of a group of sulfur compounds that are also known as thiols.   One type of mercaptan is added to natural gas so that humans can smell it, in case of a leak (since untreated natural gas is odorless). Mercaptans are found in onions, skunks, rotten eggs, and farts! And, of course, asparagus. One source says that humans can detect the odor of mercaptans at 0.02 parts per billion.  If correct that is quite astounding.

Hmm, so what do people who cannot smell the asparagus urine odor do if they have a natural gas leak? Most people happen to be able to smell the mercaptan that is added to natural gas, while some simply can't smell the one that is excreted in urine after eating asparagus.

So, what about the etymology of mercaptan?  It comes from Medieval Latin mercurium captans, literally something that "seizes" mercury, because these compounds bind to mercury. This was important in the days of alchemy, when mercury was thought to be necessary for transmuting other metals into gold.  Mercury is a metal which is liquid at room temperatures and readily dissolves some other metals, including gold. Thus it has been used in gold mining and extraction until modern times.  As an English word, mercaptan dates from 1834.

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Last Updated 02/02/06 08:20 AM