(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘etymology

“Being crazy isn’t enough”*…

 

There are only three foodstuffs in American English the names of which can also mean “crazy”; learn the (fascinating) story of each at “Why Are Bananas, Nuts, and Crackers the Only Foods That Say ‘Crazy’?”

* Dr. Seuss

###

As we entitle insanity, we might spare a thought for the man who introduced “crazy” to literature, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra; he died on this date in 1616 (though some scholars put it a day earlier)– the same day as Shakespeare died, and (most likely) Shakespeare’s birthday.  As Somerset Maugham said,”casting my mind’s eye over the whole of fiction, the only absolutely original creation that I can think of is Don Quixote.”

 source

Written by LW

April 23, 2018 at 1:01 am

“I quote others only in order the better to express myself”*…

 

A recent query to the always-illuminating Language Log:

I’m reading my new copy of Soonish and came across a reference to air quotes and I got to wondering about the meme. I remember using them at least 30 years or more ago, entirely un-ironically. How does one go about looking up the history of such a thing? How would you reconcile the discoverable print references to its presumably earlier emergence as a metalinguistic thing in itself? At what point do the words, “air quotes” show up to stand for actual physically-performed “Air Quotes”?

Find the answers at: “Air Quotes.”

* Michel de Montaigne

###

As we admit that there’s probably no pithier way to be ironic, mocking, or disingenuous, we might recall that it was on this date in 1726 that Jonathan Swift’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships— much better known as Gulliver’s Travels— was first published.  A satire both of human nature and of the “travelers’ tales” literary subgenre popular at the time, it was an immediate hit (John Gay wrote in a 1726 letter to Swift that “It is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery”).  It has, of course, become a classic.

From the first edition

source

 

Written by LW

October 28, 2017 at 1:01 am

“I define nothing”*…

 

As evidenced in recent quotes from the worlds of politics, sports, and journalism, the word “wheelhouse” has become an increasingly prevalent metaphor for a person’s comfort zone or area of expertise:

“This is my wheelhouse. That’s what I do well. The economy is what I do well.”
~ Presidential candidate Donald Trump, on his economic program (9/28/15)

“He put it right in my wheelhouse. I just had to shoot.”
~ Hockey player Nikita Kucherov, on his game-winning goal (5/02/2015)

“…His values are very much in my wheelhouse.”
~ Broadcaster Tom Brokaw, on Lester Holt becoming an NBC anchor (6/22/2015)

Yet despite its increased usage, this metaphor is not well understood. Tracing its origins yields a story rooted in a technology-driven revolution that took place within the nation’s transportation infrastructure…

Explore etymology at “Wheelhouse: How Technology Changes the Meaning of Words.”

* Bob Dylan

###

As we change with the times, we might spare a thought for Geoffrey Chaucer; he died on this date in 1400. Best known in his lifetime as a philosopher, alchemist and astronomer,  he was the author of Troilus and Criseyde and The Canterbury Tales (among other works)– for which he is now widely considered the “Father of English Literature” and the greatest poet of the English Middle Ages.

Chaucer, who coined–  was the first to use– around 2,000 words (in existing manuscripts), was the first person to be buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

A 17th century portrait of Chaucer

source

 

Written by LW

October 25, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Thugs fretting under the restraints of a not very thick skin of civilization”*…

 

… The history of “thug” goes back not just to the hip-hop scene of the 1990s, to Tupac Shakur and the “Thug Life” tattoo that stretched, arc-like, across his abdomen; it goes back to India—to the India, specifically, of the 1350s.”Thug” comes from the Hindi thuggee or tuggee (pronounced “toog-gee” or “toog”); it is derived from the word ठग, or ṭhag, which means “deceiver” or “thief” or “swindler.” The Thugs, in India, were a gang of professional thieves and assassins who operated from the 14th century and into the 19th. They worked, in general, by joining travelers, gaining their trust … and then murdering them—strangulation was their preferred method—and stealing their valuables…

Who is a thug? Who is not a thug? “The thug,” the Brown University professor Tricia Rose writes in her book The Hip Hop Wars, “both represents a product of discriminatory conditions, and embodies behaviors that injure the very communities from which it comes.” Thugs, in this conception, are both victims and agents of injustice. They are both the products and the producers of violence, and mayhem, and outrage. So it is fitting that, as the word’s history suggests, there is—contrary to [Baltimore] Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s claims last [week]—a kind of universality to thuggery. Thugs are not necessarily “evil”; thugs are not necessarily opposed to “the will of good”; thugs are not necessarily unsympathetic. Which is another way of saying that thugs are human. And, being such, they evolve. Mark Twain, in Following the Equator, noted that all of human history, on some level, has found “Thugs fretting under the restraints of a not very thick skin of civilization.”

Twain continues…

The joy of killing! the joy of seeing killing done–these are traits of the human race at large. We white people are merely modified Thugs; Thugs fretting under the restraints of a not very thick skin of civilization; Thugs who long ago enjoyed the slaughter of the Roman arena, and later the burning of doubtful Christians by authentic Christians in the public squares, and who now, with the Thugs of Spain and Nimes, flock to enjoy the blood and misery of the bull-ring. We have no tourists of either sex or any religion who are able to resist the delights of the bull-ring when opportunity offers; and we are gentle Thugs in the hunting-season, and love to chase a tame rabbit and kill it. Still, we have made some progress–microscopic, and in truth scarcely worth mentioning, and certainly nothing to be proud of–still it is progress: we no longer take pleasure in slaughtering or burning helpless men. We have reached a little altitude where we may look down upon the Indian Thugs with a complacent shudder; and we may even hope for a day, many centuries hence, when our posterity will look down upon us in the same way.
Following the Equator

More at “The History of ‘Thug’.”

* Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World

###

As we examine our etymology, we might send crafty birthday greetings to Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli; he was born on this date in 1469.  Machiavelli wrote comedies, poetry, and some of the best-known personal correspondence in Italian; but he is best remembered as a Man of Affairs, first as a servant of the Florentine Republic in a time during which Medici influence was on the wane, then as an adviser to the Medici.  His most famous work, The Prince— first published as a pamphlet in 1513– was written mid-career to gain favor with the Medici, who were at that point regaining dominance in Florence.  The essay on the exercise of power (inspired by Cesare Borgia) not only failed to win over the Medici, it alienated Machiavelli from the Florentine public; he never again played an important role in government.  Indeed, when the Florentine Republic was established in 1527, Machiavelli was effectively ostracized.

But published in book form posthumously (in 1532), The Prince began its steady growth in influence.  And of course today, Machiavelli is considered one of the fathers of modern political theory… if not indeed a philosopher of thuggery.

Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito

 source

Written by LW

May 3, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Learning languages is like learning history from the inside out”*…

 

In a way that’s analogous to the evolution of morphology via mutation, the changes in the languages that we speak are driven by “mistakes” that get baked into practice.  For instance…

AMMUNITION

projectiles to be fired from a gun

It is common to misanalyze an article that precedes a word as if it were part of that word. Here the French phrase la munition was misanalyzed so the “a” of the article became part of the word, becoming l’ammunition

ARCHIPELAGO

a group of many islands in a large body of water

The etymology of archipelago seems like it should be from Greek arkhi meaning “chief” andpelagos “sea,” suggesting the importance of a sea with so many islands. The problem is that this form never occurs in ancient Greek, and the modern form is actually borrowed from Italian, with the intended meaning being “the Aegean Sea.” If that’s the case, then the archi- inarchipelago is actually a corrupted version of Aigaion, which is how you say “Aegean” in Greek…

More words that originated in error.

* Eric van Lustbader

###

As we misspeak creatively, we might spare a thought for Baruch (or Benedict) de Spinoza, the Dutch philosopher who lived a quiet public life as a lens grinder– but whose rationalism and determinism put him in opposition to Descartes and helped lay the foundation for The Enlightenment, and whose pantheistic views led to his excommunication from the Jewish community in Amsterdam.  He died on this date in 1677.

As men’s habits of mind differ, so that some more readily embrace one form of faith, some another, for what moves one to pray may move another to scoff, I conclude … that everyone should be free to choose for himself the foundations of his creed, and that faith should be judged only by its fruits; each would then obey God freely with his whole heart, while nothing would be publicly honored save justice and charity.

Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, 1670

 source

 

Written by LW

February 21, 2015 at 1:01 am

There’s (now) a word for that…

 

From Oxford Dictionaries, the OED Birthday Word Generator

Do you know which words entered the English language around the same time you entered the world? Use our OED birthday word generator to find out! We’ve scoured the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to find words with a first known usage for each year from 1900 to 2004. Simply select the relevant decade and click on your birth year to discover a word which entered the English language that year.

Please note that the dates given for these words refer to the current first known usage of the word. The OED team is continuously researching the histories of words (something you may be able to help with), and it’s therefore possible that we will find an earlier sense of the words during our research…

A full exploration of the words of one’s nativity year requires a subscription; but the graphic on the intro page (pictured above; accessible here) is live, and will generate the word-of-the-year for any year selected.  Your correspondent’s birthday word (or phrase, as it happens):  “big bang.”

###

As we marvel at how times flies, we might send dramatic birthday greetings to Jean-Baptiste Racine; he was born on this date in 1639.  One of the three great dramatists in France in the 17th century (with Molière and Corneille), Racine was primarily a tragedian, producing plays like Phèdre, Andromaque, and Athalie, considered neoclassical masterpieces.  Racine was a dramatic poet, writing in dodecasyllabic alexandrine; the linguisitic effects that he achieved have been considered essentially impossible to capture in translation– though many have tried:  Robert Lowell and Ted Hughes into English, and Friedrich Schiller into German.  (The quest continues: poet Geoffrey Argent won the American Book Award for his 2011 attempt to translate Racine’s plays into English.)

A strict observer of the dramatic unities, Racine frustrated Antonin Artaud, who wrote (in The Theater and Cruelty), “the misdeeds of the psychological theater descended from Racine have made us unaccustomed to that immediate and violent action which the theater should possess.”  Conversely, Proust developed an earlier love of Racine “whom he considered a brother and someone very much like himself…” (Marcel Proust: A Life, by Jean-Yves Tadié, 1996).

 source

 

Written by LW

December 22, 2013 at 1:01 am

“The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization”*…

 

Cretin (n), “A stupid, vulgar, or insensitive person.”

It’s ironic that cretin is used to describe an insensitive person, because its origin is terribly insensitive. Cretin, like spaz, is an insult that evolved from a very real and very dreadful medical condition. It comes from a word used in an 18th century Alpine dialect. The word was crestin, used to describe “a dwarfed and deformed idiot.” Cretinism was caused by lack of iodine resulting in congenital hypothyroidism. Etymologists believe the word’s root, the Latin “Christian,” was to be a reminder that cretins were God’s children, too.

From Mental Floss, the origin of 10 familiar insults.

* Sigmund Freud

###

As we mind our language, we might recall that it was on this date in 1919 that the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Schenck v. United States– in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s opinion famously observed that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”  As his observation passed into common parlance, “falsely” fell away and the condition of the theater was embellished– so that “shouting fire in a crowed theater” has come to stand for speech that is dangerous and unlawful.  The ever-precise Holmes recognized that, if in fact there were a fire in a crowded theater, one may rightly shout “Fire!”; indeed one might, depending on the law in operation, be obliged to.

source

%d bloggers like this: