On The Origin Of Words
In common with many people, we find the origin of words interesting, especially when the origins turn out to be not what we expected…
exuberance – the quality of being full of energy, excitement, and cheerfulness – comes originally from the Latin words ex meaning ‘out’ and uber meaning ‘udder’, and refers to an animal making so much milk that it dripped or sprayed from the udder.
temerity – as in, for example, having the temerity or rash audacity to question authority – comes originally from the Sanskrit word tamas meaning ‘darkness’. Perhaps a blind leap into the dark?
dissident – meaning a person who opposes the policy of an authoritarian state – has its origin in the Latin word dissidere meaning to sit apart, be remote, be removed.
Do you think of dissidents in connection with modern political states, such as the Russian dissidents of the 1980s?
What may surprise you is that the word is recorded as being used in the seventeen hundreds to describe dissident Protestants in relation to the Catholic church.
thimble – being the metal, bone, or plastic protection placed over the finger or thumb to make it easier to push needles through material when sewing – has its origin in the word for thumb – so nothing surprising there.
The interesting part though is the le at the end. This comes from old English, where the suffix le means ‘belonging to’ or ‘an instrument for use with’ – like with the word handle.
guile – meaning a sly, cunning ability or intelligence – comes from ‘wiglia’ which is an early Frankish word for a trick. The word wily comes from the same source.
Thus guile – beginning with the letter ‘g’ – has sprung out of a word beginning with a letter ‘w’. There are parallels in Middle Eastern languages where the letter ‘g’ is introduced into Arabic but it absent in the same word in other languages of the region.
testicle – meaning either of the oval organs in the scrotum that produce sperm – has a never-to-be forgotten origin. I came across it while looking for synonyms for the word ‘testimonial’.
That led me to ‘testimony’ – the evidence given by witnesses. From there I discovered that testis – the Latin for testicle – comes from the observation that the testicles are ‘witness’ to a man’s virility.
aplomb – meaning to do something with assurance or confidence – derives from the Latin word for lead – the metal that was formerly used in household water pipes by plumbers.
It comes from a 16c. French phrase à plomb meaning to be poised upright or to be balanced in the manner of a ‘plomb’ or plummet. And a plummet is the lead weight attached to a line that, when left to hang free, measures verticals.
larder – meaning a place to store food – is from the Middle Latin word lardarium. It means a place to store meats, rather than food generally.
With that information it is easy to see that the word larder and lard come from the same source.
sardonic – meaning mocking, cynical, contemptuous,or scornful laughter – was coined by Homer to describe the proper manner with which to greet death.
He derived the word from ‘Sardinia’ where old people no longer able to look after themselves and criminals were disposed of with a poison that caused a twisted or ‘sardonic’ grin on the face of the victim.
As reported in the Journal Of Natural Products in May 2009, scientists at the University of Piedmont Orientale in Italy have discovered what they believe is the plant from which the poison was derived, namely Sardinian water-dropwort (Oenanthe crocata) – a plant which resembles celery and grows in damp ground in Sardinia.
garret – meaning a room on the top floor of a house, perhaps an attic or a small room tucked under the eaves – derives from the word to guard or to preserve. Because a garret is likely to be a room that is furthest away from the front door, it is easy to see how the word came into being.
host has its origins in the Latin word meaning ‘enemy’ or ‘stranger’ – not what you might expect for meaning of host as a person who entertains guests.
The derivation seems more obvious from its meaning of an organism which provides a home for a parasite.
And i’s not too much of a stretch to see its origin in a third meaning – an army or a large number – as in William Wordsworth’s famous poem The Daffodil:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
that floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
a host of golden daffodils,
beside the lake, beneath the trees,
fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
impecunious meaning ‘having no money’ has its origins in the Latin words for money, property, and wealth – so nothing unexpected there.
But what is interesting is the word from which the Latin word ‘pecunaria’ and the modern words impecunious and pecuniary sprang. It is ‘pecu’, meaning a flock, a herd, and cattle – fundamental measures of wealth.
bumper as in ‘a bumper crop’ is an upbeat word and is derived from the very word ‘bumper’ which was the name used in the 17th century for a particular drinking vessel that was filled to the brim.
aristocracy is from the Greek, where it means ‘the rule of the best’.
milieu is from the combination of two French words meaning ‘middle + place’.
brawl is from a dance of the Middle Ages called the Brand, or Branle, or Brawle, that was noted for being rowdy and boisterous.
phew is one of those onomatopoeic words the origin of which is uncertain, but which for some reason I thought was a fairly modern word. So it was a surprise to learn there is a recorded instance of the use of the word from 1604. It is somehow pleasant and interesting to think of someone in Shakespeare’s time saying “Phew, that was a close shave.”
haggard is a word whose meaning has drifted from its meaning of ‘wild’ or ‘unruly’ as recorded in the 1500s, through to ‘careworn’ as recorded in the 1800s, until its meaning today.
Othello calls Desdemona haggard when he accuses her of being an unfaithful wife, and he surely did not mean that she looked gaunt and starving. The word comes from the French, and is the adjective that was used to describe a wild falcon that has been captured young for training rather than one reared in captivity from birth.
leporine is an adjective meaning hare-like and is derived straightforwardly enough from the Latin for the genus of the hare family, which is Lepus. Leporicide means the killing of hares (a good word for a flagging conversation) and a leporine lip is an alternative to describe the birth defect of a hare lip.
It’s interesting to ponder for a moment why a hare was chosen to indicate a lip that divides. It could have been a guinea pig lip, because they do the same. Speaking from personal experience, it is quite startling to see a guinea pig draw back its lips to reveal that its upper lip is in fact divided into two halves.
lurid is an adjective. It is an interesting word because it has meanings that are diametrically opposite. One meaning is the one I always associate with the word, namely to describe something shocking and sensational, as in ‘the lurid details of the murder’. But there is a second meaning, which is to describe something pale in color, even death-like in its paleness. This meaning harks back to the Latin origins of the word, luridus (pale) luror (paleness).
I must give the attribution for this tidbit to Joseph Heller, the author of Something Happened, one of the most revealing books I have ever read. The hero of the story mentions the meaning of lurid and points out to himself that not a lot of people know it means ‘pale’.
planet is an interesting word derived from the ancient Greek word meaning to wander. And that is because the planets move in the skies, unlike the stars, which appear fixed in place. Except that a sidereal day (the time it takes the Earth to rotate relative to the stars) is four minutes shorter than a solar day (the time it takes the Earth to rotate around the Sun), so that the stars do appear to wander, but very slowly, with some disappearing over the horizon as the weeks progress, while others appear over the opposite horizon.
frugal – meaning the sparing use of the things one has – derives from the Latin word frugi, meaning the proper profit or value from something.
That in turn derives from fructus or fruit, as in the reward from the fruit of the earth that is to be used sparingly. It is interesting to think of frugal as the ‘proper’ profit or value in a thing.
ostracize – meaning to exclude from a group – derives from the word for potsherds (pieces of broken pottery), which was the material upon which citizens of ancient Greece wrote the names of those who they thought were a danger to the State. Anyone whose name came up repeatedly was banished or ostracized.
coupon – a noun meaning a printed form that offers a discount – derives from the french verb couper meaning ‘to cut’. In its narrow sense, a coupon is a detachable part of a ticket or advertisement and this is obviously where the cutting or clipping aspect originates. I wonder whether you have used the word as I have, and not thought about its origin?
tour – as in a tour of duty or a visit to a number of interesting places for pleasure and then back home – has its origin in the Latin ‘tonare’ meaning to round-off something as one might on a lathe, so there is that sense of visiting and returning to one’s starting point.