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Issue 10

September 28, 1998
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Spotlight We spotlight an etymological curiosity and provide an in-depth examination of the word(s) and the etymological theories associated with it.
Words to the Wise Our world-famous question and answer column in which we address your word-history queries.
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Barbecued barbarians and their barbers

This week's spotlight was inspired by several queries regarding the word barbarian.  Apparently there is no small amount of disagreement on the word's origin, despite our best efforts to enlighten.  Read on.

From Steven Komlos, from Christopher Sharron and from Malcolm S.J. Fifer:

Please can someone settle an argument? I believe the word barbarian derives from the Romans’ reference to foreign speech as bar-bar (like sheep). My protagonist claims it derives from the Roman reference to "bearded" as savages did not have razors. Please advise!

Messrs. Fifer (who wrote the above query), Sharron and Komlos all inquired separately about barbarian. Mr. Komlos (whose e-mail is too lengthy to reprint here) did the right thing and checked our archives first, and he found barbarian discussed therein, but he questioned our expertise. That’s a no-no, Mr. Komlos! Bad reader! Detention hall for you today, young man! (Why do you think it's called Take Our Word For It ?) As for Messrs. Sharron and Fifer, you should have checked the database first. No gold star on your homework today!

In the archives we were adamant that barbarian is not related to barber and other beard-related words, and we do not sway from that position now. No etymologist will agree with the notion that barbarians were thus named because of their beards or because they had no razors! Barbarian came to us from Greek brbaros "the sound foreigners make" (funny how now we say "It’s Greek to me" to mean something similar!), and the Romans got their form barbaria from the Greeks. A related word is the first word in the place name Barbary Coast, supposedly named because the inhabitants there spoke a foreign tongue, at least to European ears. The Sanskrit cognate is barbaras "stammering".

Barber (13th century) and related words barb (14th century) and barbel (a fish with hair-like protrusions around its mouth, 14th century) come from Latin barba "beard". English beard (Old English) comes from a relative of the Latin form,  Germanic bartha. Today German for beard is bart and the Dutch form is baard.

See our section on Ernest Weekley’s test for a sound etymology. While the notion that barbarians were bearded and thus were named for their beards sounds plausible, one must find evidence in the record to support that. The evidence clearly points in an entirely different direction in this case. Moreover, while Greek men did typically wear beards, Greece was the source of Roman culture. No educated Roman would ever call a Greek a barbarian.

Since we're on the topic of spurious barb- etymologies, I should mention that barbecue does not arise from the French de la barbe la queue ("from the beard to the tail"), as several readers who refuse to Take Our Word For It have written to say.  It comes from barbakoa, a word in the language of the pre-Columbian natives of Haiti, just as our database indicates. The word refers to the wooden framework, traditionally made from allspice wood, used for cooking over a fire.

Note: we do not normally address words which have already been discussed and are in the database, but we thought this was a good opportunity to stress the need to read our rules and check the database. Of course, we were only joshin’ with the three gentlemen above - we do not wish to deter anyone from questioning anything we might say, but we’ll ridicule you publicly if you’re wrong! Heehee.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Adam Turk:

What is the origin of the word delta?

The advent of the printing press caused people to examine the shape and proportion of letters and Champ Fleury, the first book on typeface design (1529), contains an incredible wealth of information, often fascinating and usually irrelevant. In his discussion of the origin of our letter d, the author, Geofroy Tory, declares that the Greek letter delta took its triangular form "in memory of the beauty of the island - also triangular - which the Nile, the miracle-working river of Egypt, makes at the place where Memphis lies...". In other words, it is triangular in imitation of the Nile Delta. He got it precisely backwards. Like the Nile Delta, most plains of alluvial deposit between diverging branches of the mouth of a river are triangular.  These deltas take their name from the triangular shape of the Greek capital letter delta, not the other way around. The Greeks got the word delta from the same people who gave them the alphabet: the Phoenicians. The original Phoenician word was daleth and meant "door". 


From Steve Coughlan:

I recall having read that the word ampersand derives from "and, per se and". Can you fill in the details for me?

Yes I can fill in the details, per se. You are correct in that ampersand is a conflation of and, per se and. However, what in tarnation does and, per se and mean?  Per se means "by itself", and so the phrase translates to "&, standing by itself, means ‘and’".  British school children were taught to recite the alphabet (with some additional characters, such as the ampersand) in this fashion. As with many recitations, this one came to lose some meaning for those reciting it, so that they came to think of the & sign as and per se and and then ampersand (with the n changing to an m before a p). Today’s spelling of the word dates from 1837.

Interestingly, & was invented in 63 BC by Marcus Tirus as shorthand for Latin et (which means "and"). You might still come across the words et cetera abbreviated as &c.


From ICU2B4U2CI:

What is the etymology of the word toilet?

Well, ICU2B4U2CI (or may I call you IC?), when we read Jane Austen say that someone was at their toilet we immediately understand that they were simply having a wash. This usage (first used 1695) comes from the  Middle French toilette (diminutive of toile, "cloth") and meant either a cloth which was put over the shoulders while dressing the hair or shaving or a cloth on which washing and shaving equipment was laid out.  Toile itself comes from the Latin tela. This is thought to be a contraction of a possible earlier word: texla and, if so, toilet would then be related to our text and textile.

In time, however, the meaning of toilet was extended by euphemism.  Now, we might even say "Oh no, the dog has gone to the toilet in the living room!" and no one would imagine that Fido had voluntarily taken a bath (much less a shave). Note that he could have gone to the lavatory (Latin lavatorium, from lavare, "to wash") or bathroom with no change of meaning.


From Pam:

Hi. We were having a discussion at work about the word mock and its etymology. My boss (the big cheese of the company) is convinced that the word originates in some way from mocking birds. Having also discussed this with another internet friend, she believes that the word mock must predate the bird, as the bird mocks other birds. Can you help?

I believe I can. The big cheese is wrong, and so I think he/she should step down as boss and hand over the boss’s hat to you. The word came first, and the bird was named thereafter.  Before 1430 the word was mokken "to deceive", and by 1450 it is found as mocken "to make fun of".  It comes from Middle French mocquer "to deride, jeer" which comes from Old French mocquer, of uncertain origin. It is possible that the Old French form comes from Vulgar Latin muccare "to wipe the nose" (considered a derisive gesture).  However, there are also some similar words in some Germanic languages: Middle Dutch mocken "mumble" and Middle Low German mucken "mumble, grumble". These may be imitative in origin.

The mockingbird does just what its name suggests: it mocks.  Well, this is anthropomorphization at its finest, but the bird does seem to tease and complain to other animals and even to humans!

Even though he/she was wrong, don’t mock your boss! Leave that to us. It means job security for you.  Well, maybe.


We've had several queries regarding the following word.   This one's fun.

From Old Pat Dowling:

Not long ago, one of my friends said he was disgruntled with the service at a restaurant.  We all knew what he meant of course but then we started kicking the term around and came up with whether it would be possible to be regruntled after being disgruntled OR whether it might be possible to be just plain gruntled in the first place.  You can see what the conversation might lead to.  Could the waiter be countergruntled?  Could one be non-gruntled to begin with?  You sure have a most interesting site.  Nice work.

Usually, the prefix dis- implies a loss of something, as in disease, disgust and disgrace. Very occasionally, as here, it means "entirely" or "very". So disgruntled means something like "extremely gruntled ". So, what does gruntle mean? It is a variant of the word grunt with the obsolete meaning of "grumble". The word appeared sometime around 1680 but was originally a transitive verb meaning "to give [someone] extreme cause to grumble".  Incidentally, a word formed by lengthening another (like gruntle from grunt) is called a  frequentative form of the earlier word.


From Kenny Epstein:

I have been unable to find anything approaching a definitive etymology for the phrase up to snuff, and maybe you can help.

Kenny had three guesses at the origin, which we have not printed here in the interest of space, and one of them is basically correct: the phrase dates from Britain where it is recorded in 1811 with the meaning "knowing; not easily deceived". In America in 1831 its meaning had changed to "up to standard". The British meaning arose from the notion of being old or experienced enough to take snuff, and the American form was an expansion of that meaning.


From Axel Reimann:

Can anyone tell me the etymology of input?   It seems to be a rather "new" word.  My dictionary tells me that the word was first used in 1753.  Is this correct and for what reason was it used?

Far be it from me to suggest that your dictionary is not up to snuff, but the vast resources of the Take Our Word For It library reveal that input was used a long time before that. In 1382, input was used in Wycliffe's translation of the Bible, with the meaning "to contribute". The complementary term, output, did not appear until 1858 and was used by ironmasters to indicate the quality of metal produced.


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

...our soapbox where we vent our spleen regarding abuses of the English language.

Like, why do we abuse like?

You've probably heard others complain about the ubiquitous word like, at least if you're in America.  An example of this word's ill-earned popularity is as follows: "He's, like, the biggest rock star since Michael Jackson!"  I don't have an explanation for this phenomenon.  I can, however, tell you that it is very, very contagious.  I find myself hurling this language abuse, albeit unwittingly (at least until after the fact), fairly frequently, much to Mike's amusement (he's immune to this contagion as he's British, of course!).

I don't know how this odd usage arose.  I don't even know what it means.  Those are exactly the reasons why it bothers me so much, even though I'm as guilty as anyone of participating in its promulgation. Like, sure, I'm being, like, hypocritical about it, but, like, do I have a choice about catching a cold?   Well, I don't seem to have had a choice about catching the "Like Abuse Syndrome", either. 


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