Thursday, October 25, 2012

Demons, both devilish & angelic

Demons, both devilish & angelic

As All Hallow’s Eve comes closer…

The word devil, has always referred to something bad – or at least something dangerous. Deofol was an Old English word meaning evil spirit, false god, or diabolical person. It came from Late Latin’s diabolus, a term used both in Christianity & Judaism to mean Satan, accuser or slanderer. By 1600, English speakers had added the meaning clever rogue, as in “you devil, you.” By 1835 in American English the word devil also referred to sand spouts & dust storms.

Demon, on the other hand, went from good to bad over time. Demon entered English as early as 1200. It came from the Latin word daemon, meaning spirit. The Latin came from the Greek, daimon, which meant deity, divine power, lesser god, guiding spirit, tutelary deity, or souls of the dead. Daimon also had an intriguing secondary meaning: one’s genius, lot, or fortune. The Greek and Latin meanings are a far cry from demon’s negative meaning today. This “demonizing” of the word demon occurred about the time of the establishment of Christianity. Though Socrates wrote of his demon as the divine principle or inward oracle, over time, the grandmothers of our modern word demon were translated to words like idols, fiends, devils and hellknights, How different would our world be today if demon had maintained its Socratic flavor, & had been equated with that still small voice within?

If it gives you a chuckle, may you hear some still small voices at your door the evening of October 31st.  If you’d rather embrace your inner curmudgeon, may the little devils walk right past your place to spread their brand of joy elsewhere.

Dear followers, what are your thoughts on the demonizing of demon? Might that etymology have inspired series like Pullman’s His Dark Materials? Would any of you care to grab some presently evil word & propose a glowing past for it?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,, The OED & Wordnik.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Ghostly Etymologies

Ghostly Etymologies

It seems the right season to consider some ghostly etymologies.

Ghost was spelled gast in Old English, and meant soul, spirit, life, breath, angel or demon (yes, both good & bad spirits). It made it to English through various Germanic languages, all beginning with the Proto-Indo-European root gheis-, to be excited, amazed or frightened.

Spook showed up in the language in 1801 from the Dutch word, spooc, meaning spook or ghost. Its sister words include: from Danish, spØg, meaning joke, from German, spuk, meaning ghost or apparition, from Swedish spoc, meaning scarecrow. It may have relatives in Lithuanian, Lettish, & Prussian, where the root words in question meant respectively to shine, dragon or witch, & spark. Spook didn’t move into the world of verbs (meaning to unnerve) until1935.

Spirit showed up in English in the 1200s, meaning animating principle in man & animals. It came from the Latin word spiritus, meaning soul, courage, vigor, or breath, from the verb spirare, which meant to breathe, to blow, or to play the flute. By the 1300s, spirit also referred to supernatural beings, by 1610 it picked up the meaning volatile substance, by the 1670s it began to mean strong alcoholic liquor, & by the 1690s spirit also meant the essential principle of something.

The Scots gave us the word wraith. Its roots may be in the Old Norse word vorðr, meaning guardian, or the Gaelic word arrach, meaning apparition or spirit. Even as I type, intrepid & dedicated etymologists are duking it out over wraith’s true origin.

Good followers, what have you to say about flute-playing spirits, angelic ghosts, Scottish wraiths, or other topics in this ghostly vein?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,, The OED & Wordnik.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Facewear #3

Facewear #3

Facial hair is an admittedly odd thing, as are the etymologies of the words we use to refer to facial hair.

The Latin word for beard, barba, is also the root for barber, & though it seems logical that the clean-shaven Romans would have labeled those bearded, pillaging tribes barbaric because of their beards, I can find no evidence. Sources connect barbarianism with foreignness, rudeness, strangeness & a lack of culture, but to my surprise, the beards of the attacking Goths, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Huns & Picts never enter the discussion.

The word mustache heralds from the French word of the same spelling & meaning. It entered English during the 1400s after making its way to French via Greek and Doric (moustakion & mystax respectively), all coming from mastax, meaning jaws, mouth, or that with which one chews. Having worn one for years, I can attest that, no matter what the Doric & Greek say, the mustache is not a very good chewing tool, but if allowed to grow long enough it can function like a whale’s baleen.

The noun goatee came to English in 1844 & was derived from the adjective goaty, meaning like a goat. Goatee is a direct comparison to the hairs on the chin of a goat.

The word sideburns was born of the unfortunate shaving decision of General Ambrose Burnsides, and appeared in English in 1887. Sideburns were called burnsides during & directly after the Civil War & mysteriously switched themselves around into sideburns twenty-some years later.

The bristles on a man’s unshaven face were referred to as stubble in English as early as 1600, but the term stubble had previously been used in English to refer to stumps of grain stalks left in the ground after reaping. The word came from the French word estuble. Its great grandmother was a Latin word meaning stick or trunk.

Recently, the word scruff is being applied to facial hair. In the late 1700s scruff referred to the nape of the neck & came from Dutch, North Frisian & Norse terms referring the withers of a horse. Those terms seem to have their source in the Old Norse word skopt, which comes back around, oddly landing closer to today’s meaning, as skopt meant the hair of the head.

Any thoughts on facial hair etymologies? Please leave a comment.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,, The OED & Wordnik.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Facewear #2

Facewear #2

This week we’ll continue our look at things worn on the face.

The verb smile showed up in English about 1300, from Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, or possibly Middle Low German. It eclipsed smearcian, the Old English word for smile, forcing smearcian’s unfortunate progeny to become the unpleasant word, smirk. Smile didn’t enter the realm of nounliness until 1560, and all along it has meant exactly the same thing.

Frown has been an English word since the early 1500s, and came from the Old French word frognier, to frown, scowl, snort, or turn one’s nose up. It appears to have entered French from the Gaulish word for nostril, frogna. Frown became a noun in the 1580s.

Blush also entered the language as a verb, appearing in the mid-1300s, from the Old English word blyscan, to glow, blush, or become red. Blush is related to a Germanic word for torch, a Danish word for blaze, and a Proto-Indo-European word meaning to shine, flash or burn, which is the grandmother of the word bleach. In the mid 1300s, the noun form of blush meant a look or glance. This understanding of the word shows up today in the phrase, at first blush. It wasn’t until the 1590s that these two noun meanings of blush started competing, with the redness in the face meaning quickly eclipsing the look or glance meaning. By 1818 the noun blush became something one could apply manually to one’s face.

In last week’s comments section, S.K. Figler asked about the origin of zit (along with some arguably less judicious terms). Zit is a word with unknown origin, and showed up in English in 1966, introduced by American teens. Interestingly, zit’s synonym, pimple, also has no confirmed linguistic source, though it’s been around singe 1400. Some etymologists have suggested pimple may have come from pipligende, an Old English word meaning to have shingles.

Next week we’ll move into the etymologies of styles of facial hair, unless, of course, one of you suggests something more fun to consider. Please leave a comment.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,, The OED & Wordnik.