Thursday, September 29, 2016

To take

To take

The Indo-European root that meant take or seize was ghend. It made its way into Latin as prendere, and made its way from there to many places, & one of those places is the English language.

We find it in the word prey, which arrived in the 1300s originally meaning to plunder, pillage & ravage, all arguably forms of taking. Over the years prey has come to be both a noun & a verb. Its primary modern meanings are an animal hunted or taken for food & to seize food.

Latin for bird of prey was osprey, which showed up in English in the 1400s. Interestingly, Latin-speakers called the bird we now call an osprey an ossifrage, but somewhere on the way to English through Medieval Latin & Old French, the similarity of the two words confused things and the ossifrage became the osprey.

The word spree (meaning a drinking bout) appeared in English in 1804 from Scottish. Though its earlier source may have been the French word esprit, it more likely came from a Middle Irish word meaning takings or booty, which, as you’ve already guessed, came from the Latin word meaning take.

When we win something we take it home & call it a prize, & when we pry into someone’s life or physically pry something from its place, it’s another sort of taking, all from that same root.

When we take someone unawares we surprise that person. And when we take someone & lock him/her up that person becomes an imprisoned prisoner in a prison, all words that started out as a little word meaning take.

And a person involved in taking this for that is an entrepreneur, a word that appeared in English in 1828. Entrepreneur came from combining the Latin prefix entre- (between) with the Latin root prendere (to take or seize).

I’m hoping some of you will have something to say in the comments section. Perhaps you’ll offer your take on all this.

Big thanks to friend Aaron Keating, for suggesting this week’s topic, & thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam-Webster, Wordnik,  Etymonline, Collins Dictionary, & the OED.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

A smattering of Romany

A smattering of Romany

One of English’s many underappreciated donor languages is Romany. Sadly (& historically), like their language, the Roma people have been similarly underappreciated.

In 1788 the word pal appeared in English. Pal comes from a Romany word meaning brother or comrade.

The noun cove, a word generally understood to be English slang for fellow, chap or man, arrived in English in the 1560s. Its source? A Romany word meaning that man.

Another colloquial English word for fellow, chap or man is bloke. Though some etymologists argue that bloke may have Celtic origins, many connect it to the Romany word loke, meaning a man.

The phrase “put up your dukes” is likely born of the Romany word dook, a word that refers to a hand read in palmistry.

Since the 1890s the word lush has meant drunkard. This meaning of lush most likely comes from a Romany word having to do with alcohol.

Though those of my era might assume the word nark is a shortening of narcotics, its source is Romany. The verb nark appeared in English in 1859 meaning to act as a police informer, and most likely came from the Romany word meaning nose.

The Romani - or Roma - people arrived in Europe some time around the 1100s from the region around India, and suffered incredible prejudice. Many European nations enacted laws that expelled Romani. In Medieval Denmark, England, & Switzerland Romani were simply put to death. In other parts of Europe, Romani were enslaved, & this slavery continued as late as the1800s. And during WWII two million Romani perished in Nazi “concentration camps”.

Even after all that persecution, some twelve million Romani still walk the earth (& give our language great words).

Big thanks to friend Aaron Keating, for suggesting this week’s topic, & thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam-Webster, Wordnik,  Etymonline, Collins Dictionary, LiveScience, & the OED.

Thursday, September 15, 2016



I’ve always been fond of the word muck. What a pleasure to discover muck has an intriguing etymology.

The noun muck came to English in the mid-1300s, followed within a half century by its verb form. Initially, the noun meant cow dung & vegetable matter spread as fertilizer, which helps explain why the verb initially meant to dig in the ground or to move manure. Apparently all this mucking about made its way through Scandinavia after starting off as a Proto-Germanic word meaning soft.

And most sources suggest that same Proto-Germanic word meaning soft also gave us the word meek, which came to English even earlier (in the 1200s), meaning gentle, courteous, benevolent.

Interesting that a word meaning soft grew to mean both cow dung mixed with vegetable matter & those who will inherit the earth.

Pondering this unlikely association led me to have a look at the etymology of manure, which first arrived in English as a verb meaning to cultivate land or hold property (possibly a synonym for inheriting the earth?). It came through Anglo-French & Old French from the Latin word manuoperare, literally to work with the hands. It’s easy to see how one of the most humble forms of working with one’s hands is/was to spread fertilizer, or work the earth. It wasn’t until1540 the noun manure was born, meaning exactly what it means today.

And what other words did the root of manure become? How about maneuver? Its humble roots of working with the hands morphed in time through Old French to land in English in 1758 meaning planned movement of troops or warships. All this suggests there is at least etymological truth in those epithets thrown by military grunts on the ground regarding the instructions given them from above.

Which brings us to humus, a word meaning earth or soil. Humus showed up in English in the late 1700s after a trip through Latin from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning earth. Another branch of that same word meaning earth made its humble way into Latin to become the word humility, which seems to bring us back to meekness.


Good readers, I hope you’ll have a comment on these humble, meek, manure-ish words & their histories.

Big thanks to friend Aaron Keating, for suggesting this week’s topic, & thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam-Webster, Wordnik,  Etymonline, Collins Dictionary, & the OED.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

A smattering of Sanskrit

A smattering of Sanskrit

English really does deserve the “melting pot” description it often receives. One of the countless languages that have contributed to English is Sanskrit (from the region we now call northern India), & here is a tiny fraction of Sanskrit’s contributions to English.

The mynah bird got its English name in 1769 through Hindi from a Sanskrit word meaning delightful or joyful.

Some time around 1839 the Sanskrit word loptram, meaning stolen property or booty, made its way through Hindi & Anglo-Indian to become the English word loot.

It’s very likely that the Sanskrit word drona-m, meaning wooden trough, morphed its way through Hindi to become the English word dinghy. Dinghy joined English in 1810.

Our English word bandana appeared in 1752 from bodhnati, a Sanskrit verb meaning bind. To get to English it passed though through Hindi.

It’s likely the Sanskrit word kandha, or piece of cane sugar showed up in English in the late 1200s as candy. On the way to English it traveled through Persian, Arabic & Old French.

The Sanskrit word for twisted or matted hair was juta-s, which showed up as jute  in English in 1746 after a trip through Bengali.

The board game Parcheesi came from the Sanskrit number twenty-five, (panca vinsati-s), which moved through Hindi to arrive in English in 1800.

The Sanskrit word sramana-s, meaning Buddhist ascetic, passed through Prakrit, Chinese, Tungus, and German to become the English word shaman. When? The 1690s.

It’s very likely the verb shampoo, which showed up in English in 1762 came from the Sanskrit verb meaning pounds or kneads. To get to English it passed through Hindi & Anglo-Indian. In English, shampoo originally meant to massage, & didn’t mean to wash the hair until 1860. And it wasn’t until 1866 that shampoo became a noun.

Since these source words were spoken a long time ago, I’ve chosen to write of Sanskrit in the past tense even though modern Sanskrit is alive and well in many parts of India.

Please click on comments below if you were surprised by any of these etymologies.

Big thanks to friend Aaron Keating, for suggesting this week’s topic, & thanks to this week’s sources: Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, Etymonline, & Collins Dictionary, & the OED.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Eight uncommon words

Eight uncommon words

English is jam-packed with oddities. Here is a smattering I find entertaining. I hope you will, too.

Unmarried couples of Essex in the 1200s who had lived together for a year and a day without arguing could be awarded a flitch. Flitch showed up in English a few years beforehand & refers to a side of bacon.

A Dutch word meaning property made its way into English in 1833 meaning crowd (because?) By 1858 it meant counterfeit money (ahem). That word is boodle, now meaning counterfeit, a bribe, a crowd, or swag. Though we don’t often hear boodle going solo these days, it plays a role in the term kit & caboodle.

A cantle is a part or portion cut from something else. It came to English in the early 1300s through Old French from a Latin word meaning corner.

The word quincunx has been around since the 1640s. Quincunx translates in Latin to five twelfths & initially referred to planet alignment. Later, it picked up a monetary meaning (5/12 of the Roman unit of currency). In time, it was applied to the arrangement of five spades, diamonds, clubs or hearts on a playing card (which would make more sense to me if someone years ago had killed the kings, leaving queens as the highest – or twelfth – card).

In the 1700s the word chrestomathy was born. It referred to a collection of literary passages. It came through French & Latin from a Greek word meaning useful learning.

And don’t we all stay up at night wondering what to call the assemblage of pews in a church? A pewage, of course. Pewage can also be used to refer to the amount of money it takes to purchase the pews. Though pew came to English in the 1300s through Old French from Latin, no one is certain when pewage was born.

In 1819 the word tabagie was born through French & Spanish from tobacco, a Carribean (most likely Taino) word. A tabagie is a group of people who gather to smoke. One must wonder if a tabagie were to assemble in a pewage whether non-smokers might refer to the whole enchilada as a spewage.

And we’ll finish up thinking of those who choose to shave their chins & wear long sideburns. Such folks are sporting dundrearies. The term appeared in 1867 & comes from Lord Dundreary, the “witless, indolent” protagonist from Tom Taylor’s play, Our American Cousin.

Please click on comments below & let me know how many of these eight words were new to you.

Big thanks to friend Aaron Keating, for suggesting this week’s topic, & thanks to this week’s sources: Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, Etymonline, & Collins Dictionary.