Thursday, October 25, 2018

Speak up!

Speak up!

Etymologists work hard studying languages. This study involves the proposal of languages that appear to have existed & can be built based on the products of these languages’ progeny. One such proposed source language is Proto-Indo-European, & one of the root words etymologists believe came from this proposed language is a word meaning speak. Though this root word was never written when this proposed language was spoken (assuming it was spoken), we write the root *wekw-. It appears to have given birth to a steaming heap of English words.

After passing through Latin:
vociferous - 1600s
vocabulary  - 1500s
avocation  - (we also refer to an avocation as a calling — & isn’t a calling voiced?) 1400s

After passing through Latin, Old French & Anglo-French:
vouch  - 1300s

After passing through Latin & Old French:
voice  - late 1200s
vowel - 1300s
vocal - late 1300s
invoke, revoke, provoke, & evoke — 1400-1600s
convocation - 1300s 
advocate - 1300s
equivocate - late 1300s

And after passing through Greek & Latin:
epic - 1500s

All that from the idea of speaking up.

Voting day is soon upon us. Speak up.

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

Thursday, October 18, 2018

All things mole

All things mole

October 23 is mole day. The creators of mole day had a very particular mole in mind, but I’m not one for mole restraint, so here are the etymologies of a healthy variety of moles

The mole being celebrated on October 23 was born of the word molecule, & was coined by German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald in 1900. This particular mole establishes a unit of measurement helpful to chemists. It reflects Avogadro’s Number (6.02×10^23), the number of molecules or particles in one mole.

A mole can also be a structure of stones, earth, or concrete creating a breakwater or pier. This mole comes through Middle French & Latin from a Greek word meaning effort, & appeared in English in the 1500s.

A mole can also be the small, burrowing mammal, Talpa, europea. This mole came to English in the 1300s, most likely from the word moldwarp, which translates to earth-thrower. In the last century, this sort of mole can also be a large machine that tunnels through rock. From this same shade of meaning came the sort of mole that is a spy that operates secretly within an organization (another sort of burrowing altogether).

And coming to us during the long, darkish time of Old English, another mole meant spot, mark, or blemish. This mole originally applied to spots & blemishes on fabric, & comes from a Proto-Indo-European verb meaning to stain, soil, or defile.

And let’s not forget the amazingly tasty chocolate/chile condiment, molé. Molé appears to have made its way into English in 1900s. For decades, historians have been engaged in academic knock-down-dragouts regarding the birth of the sauce itself, but at least linguists are sure about its etymology. Molé comes from a Spanish root meaning sauce. It’s the same root that added to the Nahuatl word for avocado, gives us the word guacamole.

Thanks for coming by & celebrating all things mole (& molé) with me. Please leave any comments, whether formole or informole, in the comments section.


Thursday, October 11, 2018

Long road to the farm & ranch

Long road to the farm & ranch

Wouldn’t you think the words farm & ranch would have pretty simple etymologies? I did, & I was dead wrong.

Ranch showed up in English in 1808 meaning country house. By 1831 ranch also referred to a stock-farm & herding establishment. What I find interesting, though, is the long, twisted road from this word’s roots.

Ranch’s great grandmother-word was a Proto-Germanic word meaning something curved. Its next incarnation was in the Frankish language, where it meant row or line. From there it moved to French to mean install in position, and from there it became a Spanish verb meaning to lodge or station. From there, different forms of that Spanish verb were born, first meaning group of people who eat together, then mess hall, then small group of farm huts. It was this last one, rancho, that became the English word ranch in 1808.

Wild, eh?

The same goes for the word farm, which started out as a Proto-Indo-European verb meaning to hold firmly. From there it moved into Latin, meaning constant, firm, strong, stable. That form gave birth to a Latin verb meaning to fix, settle, confirm, or strengthen. And when Medieval Latin came along, a form meaning fixed payment was born.This moved into Old French to mean a rental or lease agreement, & when farm finally made it into English in the 1200s, it meant fixed payment or fixed rent. By the 1300s, farm meant a tract of leased land, & it wasn’t until the 1400s that farm came to mean cultivated land. What a long, strange trip our simple four-letter word farm has had.

Who knew? 

Thanks for coming by, & feel free to leave a comment about these long, strange trips.


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

Thursday, October 4, 2018



These days we’re hearing a lot about privilege.

The word privilege showed up in English in the 1200s. It came through Old French from the Latin term privus legis, private law — a law applying to or giving favor to one individual — a law that by design did not apply equally to everyone. The term was used in France to apply to a privileged class that was exempt from taxes.

Peggy McIntosh, a Wellesley scholar who spent years studying the darker side of privilege found this way to help root out her own privileged thinking:

I asked myself, on a daily basis, what do I have that I didn’t earn? It was like a prayer. 

Over the years, other wise women have had things to say about privilege:

No privileged order ever did see the wrongs of its own victims.
-Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Privilege is the greatest enemy of right.
Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

It is natural anywhere that people might like their own kind, but it is not necessarily natural that their fondness for for their own kind should lead them to the subjection of whole groups of other people not like them.
-Pearl S. Buck

Privilege, almost by definition, requires that someone else pay the price for its enjoyment.
-Paula Ross

I’ll close off with a tribute to the spelling mnemonic method of Mrs. Fern Byrne of Capistrano Elementary School. To remember how to spell privilege, just remember that within it is a four-letter word starting with v.

Comments? Comment away!