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Issue 45

June 21, 1999
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

Yet more names of nations: Serendip

A few weeks ago we mentioned that the island of Sri Lanka used to be called Ceylon.  What we omitted to say was that it has had quite a number of other names over the years. 

In Sinhalese Sri Lanka means "resplendent land" but in early times it was just Lanka which presumably simplyAntique map of Ceylon.  Click on image to follow link. meant "land".  It is as Lanka that this island is known in the Hindu epic the Ramayana.  In this tale it is populated by demons and presided over by the villainous, ten-headed super-demon Ravanna.  This fiendish reputation must have spread beyond the Indian sub-continent for according to Tibetan legend, Padmasambhava, the 9th century wonder-worker, is still alive and subduing demons on the peak called  "the copper-colored mountain" on the island of Lan-Ka.

Taprobana was the name given to Sri Lanka by Greek and Roman travelers and traders.  In an odd correspondence with Tibetan tradition, Taprobana is said to come from the Greek for "copper-colored". 

This ancient word gave English Taprobane, the name by which Sri Lanka was known in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Milton refers to the island by this name in his poem Paradise Regained.  Speaking of paradise, according to Muslim legend Adam and Eve were given Sri Lanka as a kind of consolation prize after they were expelled from the Garden of Eden.  This accounts for the occurrence of Adam in several Sri Lankan place-names.   The most prominent mountain on the island is called Adam's Peak and a string of small islands between Sri Lanka and the southern tip of India is called Adam's Bridge.

Arab traders called it Serendip, Portuguese invaders called it Ceilao, Dutch colonists spelled that Ceylan, and the imperial British turned this into Ceylon.

In 1754, Horace Walpole invented the word serendipity which he derived from a Persian fairy-tale called The Three Princes of Serendip.  According to Walpole, the three princes of this story "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of".  Thus serendipity is "the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident".

According to a recent news report from Sri Lanka, a man was on his way to hospital to receive treatment for dumbness (having no faculty of speech, that is, not stupidity).  His vehicle skidded and he was thrown out.   When rescuers discovered him he had miraculously found his voice.  Talk about serendipity!

Needless to say, when they were informed of this happy accident, his family was speechless.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Tom and John:

We were just staring at clouds and drinking beer and we wondered what the etymology of the term spic and span was.  After a violent exchange, we decided to contact the experts.  They weren't available, so we contacted you guys.  John thought that maybe it came about because in the old days most of the cleaning was done by [what were derogatorily known as] spics.  I thought maybe it came about because in the old days most of the cleaning was done by spans.

Ha ha ha, very funny!  Now why is it that we get so many queries about racial and ethnic slurs?  We also get an amazing number of questions about homosexual slang.  By the way, Tom and John... Oh, never mind.

The obvious reason that the experts were not available is simply because they defer to us!

The term spic, a derogatory term used to refer to Hispanics, arose among English speakers in Central America around 1900.   Though many now assume that it is a contraction of Hispanic, its original form was spiggoty - a mocking imitation of "no speaka de English".

The spelling spick and span is preferred, although in America the cleaning product called Spic 'n' Span is probably to blame for the popularity of the spic spelling here.  The original spick spelling reveals that there is no relation between this phrase and the ethnic slur.  Spick and span, in fact, dates back to at least the 16th century when Samuel Pepys (pronounced "peeps", by the way) used it in his famous diary.  Prior to that it was span-new.  What exactly does that mean?  Well, a span was a wood chip, and such chips were used to make spoons (yes, span and spoon are related).  Something that was span-new was a freshly cut chip or, metaphorically, anything as new as a freshly cut chip.  This term dates from at least 1300 in the metaphorical sense.  Spick was added in the 16th century, though why is not exactly known - perhaps for the alliterative sense.   A spick was a spike or nail, and something that was spick and span was neat and trim.  The "clean" sense  appears to have arisen only recently.

There's also the term brand-span-new (early 19th century), the brand in that referring to something fresh off the anvil or forge.  Spank-span-new (late 18th century), an intensified form of span-new, combined with brand-span-new, gave us brand-spanking-new.



From Stephen Day:

Are you able to offer an explanation of the phrase all agog (meaning "in excited anticipation")?  My dictionary (Chambers) only says "origin obscure".  I'm all agog to know the answer.

Agog is thought to come from the French phrase en gogue "having a good time".  English borrowed it as agog because that's what en gogue sounded like to English ears.  When English took the phrase in the 15th century, it did so with the meaning eager, presumably as in "eager to have a good time".

The French word gogue "merriment" seems to have changed to gogo, though it retained its original meaning.  The phrase gogo now means merrily as well as eager.  There is also the phrase vivre gogo "to liveFollow the link to buy the boots!  Really!  We're not kidding! like a lord" or "in abundance".  This latter phrase apparently gave gogo the added meaning of "in abundance" or "galore".

The story of how English acquired go-go (as in go-go dancer and go-go boots) goes like this:  a French night club owner named his club after the film Whiskey Galore which, in French, was Whiskey Gogo.  An American night club in Washington D.C. borrowed the French club's name, thinking that gogo sounded an awful lot like English go reduplicated, with a hip and cool air about it.  The owner of this club installed cages where dancers in the newly-fashionable mini-skirts and boots performed the latest dances.  This inpired Smokey Robinson's hit song Going to Gogo and the rest is history.


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

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

Reverse Psychology

"Don't bother trying [product name].   It's probably too sophisticated for the likes of you."  In the loathsome, proto-simian world called "marketing", this form of advertising is known as "reverse psychology".  Presumably then, to say "Do try [product name], you are sophisticated enough for it" would be called "psychology".   What piffle!

We can see why "Don't buy our product" might be called  "applied psychology" but not "reverse psychology".  After all, no other academic discipline has a reverse form.   We don't speak of "reverse chemistry" or "reverse geography".   When we are told that 6 - x = 2 and then deduce that x = 4, this is called algebra, not "reverse arithmetic".


Sez You...

Sam writes

After reading Judith's comment in Issue 44 concerning the Hungarian name for Germany, I recalled that the Russian (I'm a Russian Linguist) adjective for things German is Nemyetski (masc.) and Nemyetskaya (fem.), while the name for the country of Germany is Germania. I find the similarity to Hungarian interesting.


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