Thursday, October 27, 2016

Eight possibly presidential words

Eight possibly presidential words

Countless groups have published lists of words most used by our presidential candidates. Here’s a look at a sampling of those words whose etymologies I find most intriguing.

The word huge has gotten a lot of attention. Huge appeared in English in the 1100s from the Old French word, ahoge, which meant extremely large, enormous, or powerful. Nobody knows the source that preceded Old French.

Though a segment of the voting population is embracing the word nasty, etymologists haven’t quite come to terms with it. One school of thought gives nasty’s origin as the Dutch word nestig, meaning dirty, (it literally translates to like a bird’s nest). An opposing school of thought suggests nasty came through Old French from the Latin word villenastre, meaning infamous or bad. A third group says we simply don’t know where it came from. At least we can all agree nasty appeared in English about 1400.

An oft-used word that hasn’t received so much press is constant. Appearing in the 1300s through Old French from Latin, constant originally meant steadfast & resolute. It was constructed of the Latin parts com- & -stare, to stand together.

The opposite of constant would be inconstant, which happens to be one of the meanings of another oft-used word this electoral season: inequality. Coming from the Latin word inequalitas, which meant unequal, different in size, changeable or inconstant, the word inequality appeared in the early 1400s meaning difference of rank or dignity.

The words racism & racist have played quite a role in speeches and debates. The earliest forms, racialism & racialist came from South Africa in the 1870s. These early forms were eclipsed in the 1930s by the forms we know today. The root for these words, race, came to English in the 1500s through Old French & possibly Italian & had many meanings:
- wines with a characteristic flavor,
- a group of people with a common occupation,
- a generation, &
- a tribe, nation, or group of people of common stock.

Quagmire showed up in English in the 1570s meaning bog or marsh. By 1766 quagmire picked up the figurative meaning, inescapable, bad situation.

The word classy (now meaning stylish) comes from a meaning of class that appeared in 1772, a division of society according to status. However, the word class first showed up in English from French in the 1600s meaning a group of students, which interestingly came from a Latin word originally meaning the people of Rome under arms.

Please leave any huge or nasty thoughts on all these constant, classy, yet quagmire-like election-induced words in the comments section.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

What are you feeling?

What are you feeling?

Nothing inspires an emotional response like politics. Whether the present election cycle is getting you down or goading you to action, it’s affecting you. Join me in exploring the nuances of words that might pertain to your feelings.

On the not-so-positive side, you might be feeling:

appalledterror or dismay at a shocking but apparently unalterable situation

daunted – disheartened or intimidated

dismayedfear or discouragement at the prospect of some difficulty or problem which one doesn’t know how to resolve

horrified  -- horror, loathing or irritation at that which shocks or offends one

enervated – a loss of force, vigor, or energy

debilitated – temporarily weakened

undermined or sapped – weakened or impaired by subtle, gradual, or stealthy means

Or you might find this race for president is filling you with energy. If so, you might be feeling:

exhilarated – an enlivened elevating of the spirits

stimulated – roused from inertia, inactivity or lethargy

invigorated – filled with vigor or energy in a physical sense

vitalized – invigorated or animated in a non-physical sense

quickened – roused to action

Most of us are a hodge-podge of all these. I’m hoping you might leave a comment noting which reactions seem strongest in you.

(the above offer is good for the first ten folks who respond)

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam-Webster, Wordnik, Etymonline, Collins Dictionary, Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, 1959, & the OED.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

To rise like smoke

To rise like smoke

I’ve just stumbled upon a Proto-Indo-European word that meant to rise like smoke, vapor or mist. The word is dheu-, & it has some intriguing offspring.

Because things that rise like smoke eventually disappear, dheu-‘s offspring include both dwindle (1590s through Old & Middle English) & die (die has been around forever & came through Old English). Dead & death were also born of dheu-, and like die, came to English so early we have no date of entry. A related term that may have come from dheu- is the word funeral. Though nobody has nailed it down, it appears that after sometime while it was visiting the Latin language, funeral’s original source was the root dheu-.

At some point it seems rising like smoke suggested a limited ability or intelligence, as dheu- also gave us dizzy (also an Old English word that’s been around forever, initially meaning stupid or foolish). Dheu- also gave us dull, as in witless, blunt, not sharp. Dull showed up in English about 1200. Another word that showed up from this vein of dheu- is dumb (meaning both unable to speak & lacking in intelligence, now considered rude in either usage). Dumb appeared early enough in English, we have no date for its arrival.

The word dew also came from this source, appearing very early in English, from Old English.

Both airborne & settled smoke can be called dust, which came from dheu- through old Germanic languages.

Any of you who have walked across a patch of thyme while inhaling have experience with why it might have come from a word meaning rises like smoke. Thyme came to English in the 1300s after a voyage through Greek, Latin, & Old French.

Fume made its way to English in the 1300s, also from dheu-.

And apparently because swirling dust can make one confused, the mental confusion & stupor associated with the disease typhus gave that disease its name in 1785, taken from the root dheu- after it spent some time vacationing in Greece & Rome.

Because an animal in cold weather creates small clouds of vapor with its breath, the deer got its name from dheu-, which came through old Germanic tongues to land very early on in Old English.

Dwindle, die, dead, death, funeral, dizzy, dull, dumb, dew, dust, time & typhus: they all started as a cloud of smoke, vapor or mist.

 Anything to say about all this? Please leave a comment.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam-Webster, Wordnik,  Etymonline, Collins Dictionary, & the OED.

Thursday, October 6, 2016



As I’ve noted before, I’m fascinated with the prejudices history has imposed on the English language. One of these began nearly a thousand years ago, after William the Conqueror thrust Norman nobility on the unsuspecting inhabitants of what eventually became England. The nobles mostly spoke Norman French, Latin, & Greek. The peons spoke various Germanic & Celtic languages.

Ever since, English speakers have perceived the languages of that imposed nobility to be “classier” than the languages spoken by those who ended up serving them. Authors regularly use this prejudice to give us a feel for characters’ levels of education, though this can backfire & annoy the reader.

The words on the left, taken from books I’ve recently read, came from the mouths of characters the authors presented as educated. In the right column you’ll find a jumbled list of simpler synonyms with Germanic roots. See if you can match them.

ablutions (Latin)                     yawning (Middle English)
demulcent (Latin)                   hurtful (probably Old English)
feculent (Middle French)        wooded (Old English)
lambent (Latin)                       licking (Old English)
sylvan (Middle French)           washing (Old English)                 
cerulean (Latin)                      fiery (Middle English)
deleterious (Greek)                muddy (Middle Low German)
empyrean (Greek)                  soothing (Old English)
oscitant (Latin)                       blue (Proto-Germanic)

I’ve put a key to the matched pairs in the comments section. I’m hoping you’ll leave a comment either regarding this anti-Germanic prejudice, or your success at pairing the synonyms.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam-Webster, Wordnik,  Etymonline, Collins Dictionary, & the OED.