Thursday, October 31, 2013

Word Orphans

Word Orphans

Etymology is all about sleuthing back to the origin of words. Often, though, even the most hardworking teams of etymologists come to the end of the line still asking the word history equivalent of, “Who’s your daddy?” When a word’s parentage is in question, its word history in the dictionary is listed as “origin unknown.” This week’s post will cover just a few of the many orphans in the world of words.

In 1809 the word hike showed up in English (spelled hyke). It meant to walk vigorously. It has no known origin, though at the time the similarly parentless word yike carried the same meaning.

Pokey, meaning jail or prison was first recorded in 1919. Some etymologists have suggested it may have come from pogie – an 1891 term meaning poorhouse, but like pokey, pogie is of unknown origin.

Pooch was first recorded in 1924. Though a few word historians believe pooch may have some relationship to the word pouch, this American-born synonym for dog has never been officially nailed down.

Hanker – as in “I’ve got a hankerin’ for possum stew” – first showed up around 1600, & though it probably came from the Dutch word hunkeren (to hanker), hunkeren is also of unknown origin.

Arbor, arboreal, arboretum & arborist all originate in the Latin word arbor, meaning tree, & showed up in English in the 1500s, but the Latin word arbor is an etymological mystery.

Squeamish showed up in English in the mid-1400s, meaning disdainful or fastidious. Its Anglo-French parent word escoymous is of unknown origin.

Scare showed up in English in the 1590s meaning to frighten. It came from the Norse word skirra, to frighten, shy from, shun, prevent or avert. Skirra is a form of the Norse word skjarr, meaning timid, shy or afraid of. Skjarr has no known parent.

About 1600 the verb rant showed up in English, meaning both to be jovial & boisterous, & to talk bombastically. It comes from randten, a Dutch word of unknown origin meaning to talk foolishly or to rave.

I find the nearly opposite original meanings of the last two words remarkable. Fellow word-folks, were any of these word orphans worthy of your remark?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Wordnik, &  Etymonline.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Prejudice Lives

Prejudice Lives

In last week’s post I mentioned my fascination with a prejudice we English speakers appear to have. Indulge me by considering each set of four synonyms, then speedily categorizing them into two lists, one labeled “classy” & one labeled “not classy.”

big                   large                  vast                great 

compact          miniature          little                small             

thin                  slender             gaunt              skinny          

chubby            stout                 fat                   obese                       

clever              astute                smart             intelligent                 

Next, compare your lists with these:

big                                         vast
great                                      large
small                                     compact
little                                       miniature
skinny                                   slender
thin                                        gaunt
chubby                                  stout
fat                                          obese
clever                                    astute
smart                                     intelligent

The words on the left are words derived from Norse, Frisian, Dutch, and various Germanic sources. The words on the right mostly come through French from Latin, though one comes directly from Latin, one is Latin through Italian and stout is a Middle Low German word that came to English through French (that last stage being salient to this topic).        

If you placed most of the words on the left in the “not classy” column and most of the words on the right in the “classy” column, like me, you have absorbed a prejudice that linguists attribute to the events following the Battle of Hastings in 1066. After the big win, the Norman nobles who supported William the Conqueror (formerly known as Guillaume, since he was born in Normandy, France) became the ruling class of England. French became the language of the courts and royalty. This set French and its mother language, Latin, far above the everyday Germanic, Anglo-Saxon & Celtic tongues spoken by the lowly peasants. This system lasted for centuries, as have the prejudices born of it.

This prejudice has some intriguing applications for those who write. Precise application of classy vs. non-classy words can subtly influence readers’ impressions of characters & events, encouraging or discouraging trust or likability.

Dang, those authors are tricky cusses, aren’t they?

Please let me know whether any of this rings true. Did your lists look mostly like my lists or am I just some nutcase who puts too much time into thinking about words?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Wordnik, &, &  Etymonline.

Thursday, October 17, 2013



Last week we took a look at things “of the earth.” Why not move this week to just plain old dirt?

The word dirt came to English through Middle English (drit or drytt, which meant mud, dirt or dung) originating in the Norse word, drit. Back in the 1300s it was also used figuratively to make fun of people. The word dirty was born some two centuries later (originally dritty to match its Middle English kin). Though dirty originally meant muddy, dirty or dung-covered, by the 1590s it had grown to also mean smutty or morally unclean.

When compared with its synonym soil, dirt is one of the myriad words that reflects a prejudice against Germanic, Anglo-Saxon & Norse terms in favor of Latin and Greek (due in part to the events following the Battle of Hastings). We English speakers generally consider soil (from the Latin word solium or solum) to be a classier person’s term for that lowly, horrible word dirt. I have a fascination with this prejudice & hope to expound on it more thoroughly soon.

But, back to dirt.

In the 1670s, English speakers could pull dirty tricks on one another.

By 1764, we could ask someone to do our dirty work.

By 1821 the term dirt cheap was born.

In the 1850s the mining trade gave us the literal term paydirt. By 1873 that term had become figurative, meaning profit or success.

It wasn’t until 1926 that dirt picked up the meaning gossip, This usage was introduced by none other than Ernest Hemingway.

Though dirty looks have been going on for centuries, we didn’t call them that until 1926.

And in 1932 the term dirty old man was born, to be artfully portrayed by Arte Johnson as Tyrone F. Horneigh a mere 40 years later.

Please, good followers, leave a thought regarding Tyrone F. Horneigh & his unrequited love for Gladys Ormphby, or maybe say something about dirt.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Wordnik, & Etymonline.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Of the Earth

Of the Earth

Last week’s post had to do with the words human & humane, which originated in the Latin word humus, meaning of the earth. It’s reasonable to expect Mother Earth to be pretty darned good at giving birth, and in that regard, humus doesn’t let us down.

In the early 1400s the Latin word humare (a verb form of humus meaning to bury), linked with the prefix ex- made its way into English as exhume, meaning to unearth. I’ll leave it to the sociologists to explain why modern usage continues to embrace the grisly word exhume, but has - for the most part -forgotten the kinder, gentler term, inhume, to put into the ground (which entered English two centuries later).

Though Genesis 1 couldn’t possibly lead to this, it’s no surprise – given the Genesis 2 telling of creation – that the Hebrew equivalent of humus, adamu, became the name Adam. Humus & adamu admittedly aren’t cognates, but they both mean of the earth, & both have many offspring.

Camomile entered English in the late 1300s through French & Latin, originating in Greek chamaimelon, which has its roots in humus & means apple of the earth.

Also from humus, chameleon came to English in the mid-1300s, through French & Latin, originating in the Greek term khamaileon, meaning lion of the earth, which most likely comes from a species of chameleon whose crest resembled a lion’s mane.

Another Latin offspring of humus was the word humilis, meaning lowly or humble, giving us images of the lowly folk prostrating themselves before the mighty, literally on the ground. In the 1300s, humilis gave us the English words humble & humility. By the 1530s, these words gave birth to the noun humiliation, which in turn, gave us the verb, humiliate.

Good readers, please comment on all of this humus-ness, or possibly on Oscar Levant’s commentary on humility:

“What the world needs is more geniuses with humility, there are so few of us left.”

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, The Quotation’s Page, Wordnik, & Etymonline.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Humane vs. Human

Humane vs. Human

I find it intriguing that human behavior isn’t always humane, at least by my understanding of humane. Like so many things, humane is in the eye of the beholder.

Both human & humane have their roots in the Latin word humus, or of the earth (as opposed to of the heavens). Before the Latin made its way to English, though, it passed through French, becoming humain or umain.

English speakers in the 1500s used the adjectives human & humane interchangeably. Meanings included:

-of man
-having qualities befitting human beings

After a couple of centuries, though, the two adjectives bifurcated. Humane began to mean having qualities befitting human beings, while human meant of man. Interestingly, even after the bifurcation, the opposite of humane can either be inhumane or inhuman.

Some words closely related to humane & human include:

humanity (1300s) meaning kindness or graciousness
(1400s) meaning human nature or human form
(1450s) meaning the human race

humankind (1640s) meaning mankind

humanitarian (1794) meaning one who affirms the humanity of Christ, but denies his pre-existence & divinity
(1824) meaning a philanthropist who advocates or practices human action to solve social problems

humanoid (1906) was the brand name of a type of cow’s milk the purveyors claimed was closer to human milk than the milk sold by competitors
(1920) meaning an anthropological hybrid
(1940) meaning having the appearance of being human

Good readers, what in this post did you find most unlikely, startling, or just plain weird? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Wordnik, & Etymonline.