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Issue 56

October 11, 1999
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Spotlight Words on our minds this week.
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Sez You . . . Wherein we graciously permit challenges to  our profound erudition.
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

some more musical instruments

A few weeks ago we took a look at some woodwinds.  We now turn to the origin of a few other instrument names.

There are several instruments which derive their names from the Italian tromba meaning "trumpet".Bertie Wooster plays trombone while Jeeves looks askance. As is only fitting for the land of brass bands, this word is German in origin.  Trumba and trumpa both mean "trumpet" in Old High German and some authorities believe that trumpa was originally imitative of the sound made by a trumpet-like instrument.  The word trumpet itself is a diminutive form of trumpa, from Old French trompette.

A tromba marina. One of the more peculiar instruments to inherit the name tromba  was the tromba marina (literally "trumpet of the sea").  This Baroque instrument was not a trumpet in shape nor function.  It wasn't even a wind instrument.  Rather, it was a six to seven foot long resonant box with one string which was played with a bow.  Unlike the violin and its relatives, the tromba marina was played by touching (not stopping) the string with the fingers of the left hand while bowing with the right.  This produced what string players call a "harmonic tone".  Now these  "harmonic tones" are produced only when the string is touched at certain specific points, known acoustically as "anti-nodes".  As there are relatively few "anti-nodes", there are several notes which are unavailable to the tromba marinist and it was nearly impossible to play a scale on it.  In fact, the only scale which one could play upon it was a pentatonic (Greek, literally "five note") scale.  This just happens to be the same kind of scale which is played on a bugle and all other simple trumpets.  So, that explains the tromba part of the name but the origin of the marina portion of its name remains a mystery.  

But wait, there was another, even weirder, member of the tromba marina family.  The barytone (from Greek barys, "deep" + tonos, "sound") was a tromba marina with several "sympathetic" strings inside it.  These extra strings were not meant to be played, they just resonated "in sympathy" with the notes which were being played, producing a sound reminiscent of a bass sitar.

The word trombone entered English about 1724.  It was borrowed from the Italian tromboneMan playing a sackbut. (pronounced "trombo-nay"), an augmentative form of tromba via French trombone (pronounced "trombone").  Prior to that the instrument was known as a sackbut - which is not to be confused with cul-de-sac [tee-hee].  Sackbut was not found as the name of a musical instrument earlier than the 15th century.  Before that, the Old French saqueboute was a lance with an iron hook on the end for pulling men off their horses.  A more plausible alternative derivation is from the Spanish sacabuche, "sackbut" which also meant a kind of pump.  This is curiously analogous to slush-pump (or sludge-pump), modern jazz-players slang for "trombone".

The tuba, that mainstay of military and marching bands, takes its name, most appropriately, from that of a bronze war trumpet of ancient Rome.  The Roman tuba, unlike the convoluted modern instrument, was a straight tube.  Thus, the similarity between the words tuba and tube (from Latin tubus, "a tube") is no coincidence.

Another splendid instrument of with a deep tone like the tuba was the serpent.  It was about 8 feet long, made of wood covered with leather and formed with three U-shaped turns resembling a huge, black, well... serpent.  This simple, if bizarre, instrument without keys eventually evolved into the brass, eleven-keyed ophicleide (from Greek ophis, "snake" + kleis, "key").

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Keith Schlesinger:

I have heard that mafia is an acronym in Italian that roughly translates into English as "Death to Frenchmen is the Italian Cry".  Any truth to this rumor? If not, then what is the real story? If you do not know, then where might I find out?  Thanks for any help you can provide

Infamouse mafioso John GottiMafia, first recorded in English in 1875, comes from an Italian dialect of Sicily, and as a proper noun originally described a secret and violent anti-government society in Sicily. Eventually it came to be applied to organized crime in general.  The term mafia in Italian means "boldness, bravado" and likely comes from Arabic mahya "aggressive boasting, bragging". So there's no truth to that rumor that mafia is an acronym for morte alla francia italia anela.   By the way, the term for a member of the mafia, as you may know, is mafioso, and the plural of that is mafiosi.

From Michael K. Ogle, Ph.D.:

I would like to know the origin of the word mosaic.

This word means, etymologically, "of the muses".  It comes from Greek mouseion "of the muses".A portion of a Tunisian mosaic.  Click to visit the site on this subject. In medieval Latin it was changed to musaicus/mosaicus and passed via Italian mosaico and French mosaique into English as mosaic.  The Indo-European root from which mosaic, muse, museum, and music derive is men- "to think".  Different forms of the Indo-European root refer to different states of mind and kinds of thought (some other derivatives are mind, mental and amnesia).

Mosaic is an entirely different word, etymologically and otherwise, from Mosaic with a capital M which means "of Moses".

From Ron MacKinnon:

What is the origin of the word testify?

It is first recorded in English in the late 14th century as testifie, having come from Late Latin testificare "to bear witness, proclaim".  That word was formed from testi(s) "witness" and ficus "making".  Testis comes from the Indo-European root trei- "three", with the sense of a "third person standing by (as a witness)".  

There is a popular notion which suggests that Latin testis "witness" is related to testis "testicle", by the idea that a testicle "bears witness" of virility.  This has not been proven, and some believe that testis "testicle" is actually related to Latin testa "pot, shell".

From Jnotten:

I want to find out the origin of drunk as a skunk.  I just had a conversation with a native of Brazil.  She says that the same expression exists in her homeland and that it comes from a method of catching skunks using tequila.  They drink it until they fall down drunk.

Most etymological sources agree that the term drunk as a skunk arose due to its rhyme.  Prior to its appearance in English there were several other drunk as a ____ phrases, some dating back to Chaucer's time.  Lord was skunk's immediate predecessor, the notion there being that the rich could better afford alcoholic drink than the common folk.  Some of the other forms of this simile were drunk as a an ape (14th century), as a besom (19th century), as a boiled owl (late 19th century), as David's sow (17th century), as an emperor (late 18th and early 19th century), as a  fiddler (mid-19th to early 20th century), as a mouse or as a drowned mouse (14th century) and as a piper (18th century).

Your Brazilian friend's explanation is interesting but seems apocryphal and there is no evidence for it in English.  (Do they even drink tequila in Brazil?)  By the way, the word skunk itself arose in print for the first time in 1634 as squuncke.  It comes from an Abenaki (American Indian) word for the animal, segankw.  Variant forms of that word occur in other American Indian dialects of the Algonquin family.  It is formed from proto-Algonquin sek- "urinate" and a'kw "fox".

The verb to skunk "to defeat without allowing one's opponent to score" is first recorded in 1845, and it is thought to simply come from the noun.

Defendant: I was drunk as a judge when I committed the offense.
Judge: The expression is "sober as a judge". Don't you mean "drunk as a lord"?
Defendant: Yes, my lord.

From Terry Reeder:

Can you help with the etymology of preponderance?  I'm running into dead ends.  No, it's not for a class or anything formal.  I was thinking about its origins this morning after I heard it mentioned on Morning Edition (National Public Radio) and it has been bugging me ever since.

This word comes from preponder, which is formed from Latin pre-  "before in importance, superior to" + ponder "to weigh", giving the word the meaning "to outweigh in importance".  Preponder dates from 1502 in Atkynson's De Imitatione: "He...prepondereth the gyver before all thynges gyven."  Preponderance made its first appearance in writing in 1681: "Little light Boats...To the side whereof, this Fish [remora] fastening her self, might easily make it swag, as the least preponderance on either side will do."  The meaning here is closer to simply "weight".  The first use of the word in a more legalistic sense occurred in 1780: "The good would have an incontestible preponderance over evil."  Today the word is most often heard in the courtroom phrase "preponderance of the evidence".

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

Random ranting about

Arctic in the attic

Reader Betsy in Hawaii asks: What about artic for arctic?

Indeed!  That c is completely elided these days, at least in America.  The same is true for Antarctic.  Sure, it's easier to say Artic or Antartic, but, as we mentioned in a recent issue of Take Our Word For It, both of those words come from Greek arktos "bear".  Perhaps, some time in the distant future, etymologists will look at what became Artic and Antartic and wonder what the earth's poles have to do with art!

Sez You...

From Ikokuma:

In a recent reply, you said you didn't know where the term hobo came from.  Well, I do!  (Sorry, I'm excited because I'm only 15 and I know this.)  I was told that the term stood for "homeward bound".  Make sense?

Gosh, we hate to sound like pedantic curmudgeons, but your source of information on hobo's etymology is incorrect.   A hobo is not "homeward bound"; he is on his way to another job.  To quote the hobos' own definitions: a hobo is an itinerant worker, a tramp is an itinerant non-worker and a bum is a non-itinerant non-worker.

However, we applaud your interest in etymology at such a young age and even more so your writing us!  The lesson here is to carefully scrutinize sources of information.  There are many anecdotal and spurious etymologies lurking out there.  Beware! 

As we mention in the Archives, which is where you read about hobo, its etymology is unclear.  (Incidentally, the material in the Archives is actually fairly old and in the process of being updated; our Back Issues are much more recent.)  All we do know is that hobo originated in the late 19th century as a "new name" for a tramp.  Interestingly, it was Hobo in those initial instances, and initial references to the word identify it as the tramps' new name for themselves, implying that it arose among them.

From David Seeger:

Well, obviously I have held to an erroneous derivation of the term gaudy.  I heard that the large beads of the rosary were called gaudes and during a period of time before Henry VIII these beads became increasingly extravagant even to the point of being "gaudy".  Is there nothing to this?. 

Gaude, also seen as gaud, is thought to come from Latin gaudia "joy", as the first five mysteries of the rosary are called the Joyful Mysteries.  Gaudy (Issue 55) is no relation.

From Ezio Regolati:

You might have made a mistake in your explanation of the German word beiszen which, in this form, means "to bite", while you might have meant beitzen for "To steep in lye". (But who am I to correct you?)

This word came up in our discussion of bated breath in Issue 55.  There is an alternate spelling of beiszen:  beissen "to macerate, to steep in lye". While today this does, in fact, mean "to bite", it had an earlier meaning of "macerate".  Though we are not students of German etymology, it seems logical that a word meaning "to soften (macerate)" could develop the meaning "to chew (soften)" and then "to bite".  We can find no evidence of a German word beitzen (but we are not infallible in German, just English). 

From Jorge Potter:

You say there is no evidence that minding your p's and q's comes from typesetting.  Tell that to any of the vanishing breed who have actually set type by hand!  A printer's devil was always given that admonishment when he got started.  At first you have trouble with mixing all of the p's, q's, d's and b's, and then suddenly you get your brain tuned into the matter, and it becomes difficult to make a mistake.

[Mr. Potter was a printer's devil from 1942-22 in New York state.]

We do say there is no evidence for the connection between mind your p's and q's (Issue 53) and printing (Issue 54, Sez You...); however, there is no evidence for any of the other explanations, either.  They are all conjecture as the phrase has been around for quite some time.  It is possible that it originated in some context unrelated to printing and was then taken up by printers.

From Zev A. Shanken:

I have just discovered your site and am thrilled.  One question I have is a pedantic one.  Why do you put the punctuation AFTER the quotation marks when the standard American form, I believe, is to put the punctuation BEFORE the quotation marks, an exception being the semicolon?  Is there a reason?

Yes, and as your question was pedantic, the answer happens to be so, as well.  In brief, commas and other small punctuation placed within quotation marks are a convention of moveable-type printing, and as we're working with virtual type, now, we see no need for an outdated rule.  See Issue 35, Curmudgeons' Corner.

It seems that our rebellious streak is showing!

From Tom Conroy:

I was reading one of your back issues recently (by the way, I love your site), and I noticed that in a discussion of the word atlas, you referred to Sisyphus (as in sisyphean) and Tantalus (as in tantalizing) as Titans. My dictionary (Webster's New World) describes them as merely wicked mortals (even though Tantalus was a son of Zeus).  As for Atlas (the Titan who bears the heavens on his shoulders), I noticed that his name is related to the Latin-derived word tolerate (as in "bear"), a relationship shown by the t and l that appear in both words.  Of course, my dictionary could be wrong.

Tolerate is possibly related to both Atlas and Tantalus by way of the Indo-European root tel#-1 "to lift, support, bear".  Atlas was most certainly a Titan while Tantalus was a half-titan, being the son of Zeus, king of the gods, and a titaness called Pluto (not to be confused with the Roman god of the underworld of the same name).

Apparently your dictionary is only partially wrong!

1# represents schwa.

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