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Issue 57

October 19, 1999
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Please accept our apologies for the tardiness of the current issue; things have been hectic in the Scriptorium this week.  So maybe we should discuss the word hectic itself.

Today hectic means "characterized by intense activity, confusion or haste", but that meaning arose in the first part of the 20th century. The word originally meant "suffering from fever, particularly of the sort that characterizes tuberculosis or septicemia" (it should be easy to see how this meaning progressed to mean, metaphorically, "feverish activity"). English hectic is descended from Greek hektikos, whose literal meaning was "habitual", and hence "suffering from a habitual or recurrent fever (such as malaria)" via late Latin hecticus and Old French étique.  The Greek hektikos was derived from hexis "condition, habit", from the verb ekhein, "hold, be in a particular condition", which is also the source of English epoch.  Incidentally, the original English  version of today's hectic was etik; hectic came to English from Latin in the 16th century.

Regular readers will remember that the literal meaning of malaria is "bad air".  Observers as early as Julius Caesar noticed that people who lived next to swamps were susceptible to malaria.  They jumped to the obvious conclusion that it was the smell of the swamps which caused the disease.  The fact that the occurrence of malaria dropped after Caesar drained swamps near Rome merely perpetuated the prevailing assumptions.  Nobody realized it was those pesky mosquitoes.  Mosquito is, of course, "little fly" in Spanish.  ("Fly" in Spanish is "mosca"; "Spanish Fly" is something entirely different.)A statue of the Buddha

Believe it or not, nirvana is another word which relates to disease.  In Magadhi, the dialect of Sanskrit spoken by Gautama Siddhartha (a.k.a. "the Buddha"), nirvana meant "the state of health achieved after a fever had subsided".  Gautama used this colloquial word as a metaphor for "the state of sanity achieved after desires are abandoned". 

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Joseph Randolph:

I heard Casey Kasem explain the origin of the word bizarre on his radio show (American Top 40).  He says that the word's original meaning is related to facial hair and that people with such hair were considered different.  He said, "That's how we went from beard to weird in a few hundred years."  Can you please set the record straight?

Well, Casey Kasem isn't far off the mark, though the word's etymology is far from certain.  English got bizarre from French bizarre "odd, fantastic", though there was an earlier meaning in French: "brave, soldier-like".  Spanish and Portuguese had bizarro "handsome, brave", while Italian had bizzarro "angry, choleric".  

It has been suggested that the Spanish bizarro is derived from Basque bizarra "beard", but despite the almost identical spelling of the two words, a concrete connection has not been found (see Weekly's criteria for sound etymology).  One basis for the Basque connection is the existence of the Spanish idiom hombre de bigote which translates literally as "the moustached man" but means figuratively "a man of spirit".

The notion that bearded men were at one time considered odd is found in the erroneous explanation of the origin of barbarian.  We have found no basis for such a notion.

Oh, and lest you were wondering about any connection between Spanish bigote and English bigot : etymologists cannot determine if they are related.  We'll save more of that discussion for another time.

From Daniel Welch:

I would like to know the etymology of the word synergy.

The meaning of this word is "increased effectiveness achieved as a result of combined action," and this meaning is reflected in the word's roots: Greek syn- "together" (as in synchronize) and ergon "work" (as in erg, a unit of measure of work).  Syngergy first arose in 1660 with the simple meaning "cooperation".   The current slightly more complex meaning developed in the 1950's.

The word synergism derives from the same Greek roots.  It has a meaning similar to synergy, but with more specific applications.  In theology it is the name of the (heretical) doctrine which holds that human will and divine grace work together to achieve regeneration.  The word was first used in this sense in the mid-18th century.  Since the early 20th century, pharmacologists have used synergism to mean "the combined activity of two drugs or substances that is greater than the sum of the individual substances".

From Jackie:

What is the origin of peccadillo?

This word always makes us think of some half-peccary/half-armadillo chimera, but it actually comes from the Spanish word pecadillo (note only one c), which derives from Latin peccare "to sin".  It is likely that the English spelling, with two c's, was influenced by the Latin word. 

You may be surprised to learn that the Indo-European root from which all of these words derive is ped- "foot"!  The sense here is one of "stumbling" (and even today "stumbling" is a metaphoric word for "sinning"), and that meaning derives from the root ped- + ka.  Latin turned the k into cc and elided the d.

An immediate relative of pecadillo and its precursors is impeccable, while some more distant cousins are pejorative and impair, along with a whole host of ped- words like pedal and centipede

An interesting use of the Latin verb peccare was in the British conquest of India.  The general who captured the city of Sind announced this fact in a one-word message: "peccavi" (Latin, "I have sinned").

From Bob:

What is the etymology of canundrum?

We haven't seen that spelling of the word before, but it has existed in just about every other conceivable form: conimbrum, quonundrum, conuncrum, quadundrum, cunnundrum, and connunder, among others.  The word first appears in the written record in 1596 as conundrum, with the meaning "a pedant or ninny".  By 1645 it had come to refer to a pun which pivots on similarities in meaning, such as in the pair "paradise" and "pair o' dice".  By the late 18th century conundrum referred to a riddle in the form of a question whose answer includes a pun, and, similarly, any enigmatic problem or question (the latter being the most common meaning of the word today).  Overlapping that meaning, beginning in the early 19th century, was the use of conundrum to mean anything for which one cannot think of a name, i.e. a whatchamacallit.

So why have we used so much space to describe the evolution of conundrum's meaning instead of discussing its derivation?  Unfortunately, no one knows conundrum's origins.  However, there are clues which indicate that it may have originated in Oxford, perhaps as a parody word invented by students of the university there.  The OED doubts that the earliest recorded use of the word ("pedant or ninny") reflects its original meaning.

From Bryan E. Ramstack:

I'm looking for the etymology of the word wax as in "wax historical".  I heard the phrase on National Public Radio.

The verb to wax started life in Indo-European as aug- "to increase, to grow".  In Old English it became weaxan, and the past participle was weox.  There were contemporary cognates in several of the Germanic languages, including Old Frisian waxa, Old High German wahsan, and Old Norse vaxa.  Some relatives which also derive from Indo-European aug- are eke, (hence also nickname, which was originally ekename but acquired the n from an), augment, auction, author, august, and auxiliary.

The "increase, grow" meaning of wax is evident in its use with regard to the moon.  An extended meaning, "become, turn" (for which we use "grow" even today, as in "he grew angry"), occurs in such phrases as the one you quoted, Bryan.  That usage dates back to at least the early 13th century, but it had come to be thought of as poetic usage until recently. 

From Leon Lewis:

I teach English at a university, and a student of mine swears that the term Ivy League originates from IV  "four" [in Roman numerals].  I say it has always referred to the ivy growing on the buildings of the schools in the Ivy League.  Can you help settle this argument?

Brewer attributes the term to the ivy on the school buildings, as you suggest.  The earliest record of ivy being used to describe a group of colleges occurs in 1933 and tends to support Brewer: "The fatesThe Ivy League which govern [football] play among the ivy colleges..." (from the New York Herald Tribune). Ivy League is first recorded in 1935 by a sports writer.

However, there are claims that the phrase arose in the 19th century, when Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton formed an athletic league which was dubbed the Four League, for its four members.  This was written as IV League, and eventually the Roman numeral IV came to be pronounced phonetically, as ivy.  One Columbia graduate claims that there are very old trophies at Columbia with "IV League" inscribed on them.  We were unable to pay Columbia a visit before press time, so we'll have to stick with Brewer's explanation for now.

Oh, and there is a formal Ivy [sports] League now, by the way.  Its members are Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania, and Brown.  As the logo above indicates, it was founded in 1956, purportedly to give the prestigious academic schools of the American Northeast some solidarity against all of the more athletic schools elsewhere in the country.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

wherein Barb Dwyer gets her knickers in a twist about


This week being the tenth anniversary of the devastating "Loma Prieta" earthquake, there has been much talk of earthquakes in the media (at least, there has been here in California).  In one such discussion I heard a self-appointed expert declare that "Earthquakes aren't about science; earthquakes are about public safety."  This was just so preposterous that I had to reach for my quill and vitriol.

This business of events being about something began, I believe, in sports journalism.  I'm sure you must have heard such statements as "The game between the Lilliput Lilylivers and the Milquetoast Marauders was all about heart".  While this may (just) make sense in that context, it certainly does not apply to forces of nature.  

Novels are about something, songs are about something, jokes are about something but earthquakes are not for our edification or entertainment, they simply happen.  While they pack plenty of punch, they do not have punch-lines.

Sez You...

From Jerry W. Dragoo, Ph.D., Mephitologist, and Research Assistant Professor, Museum of Southwestern Biology, University of New Mexico.:

[We wrote Dr. Dragoo asking him if he was aware of the practice of intoxicating skunks with liquor in order to capture them.  We received his reply after last week's issue was published.]

I received a call yesterday (13 Oct) from a British reporter asking the same question. He was doing a story on intoxication. He said the phrase was common in England as well. This is interesting because skunks do not occur in England. There was an article in (I think) New Scientist titled "Drunk as a Skunk". However, it was about the affects of alcohol and the word skunk never appeared in the text. 

My understanding has always been that the phrase was common because of the rhyme. I can not think of anything in a skunk's behavior that would indicate the appearance of intoxication, with the possible exception of a disease. A diseased animal (any animal) may stagger or become immobile.  However, when I observe an animal acting peculiar, I think diseased not drunk.  

Hog-nosed skunks occur throughout South America. The phrase is not known in Bolivia (at least not by my Bolivian colleague).   Is it possible that the phrase originated in the 19th c. and the "idea" was adopted by the Brazilians?  

As for the etymology of the word skunk, E. T. Seton 1929 [in] Lives of game animals, Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc. has common names for skunk in several languages. He states the word 'skunk' is traced to the Huron word Scangaresse, and the Abenaki word Seganku. He also says that the Cree, Ojibway, and Sauteaux have a word, Shee-gawk, which is the origin of the word Chicago and means "skunk land".  F. Gabriel Sagard-Theodat's "Histoire du Canada" took a different approach and referred to skunks as "les enfants du diable" - children of the devil.

According to the British reporter, this practice [of using liquor to intoxicate an animal and then catch it] has been used on foxes.

Thanks, Dr. Dragoo, for your informative response.  We agree that the English and the Brazilians probably picked up drunk as a skunk from America.  By the way, Dr. Dragoo mentions that skunks do not occur in England, and they don't occur outside of the Americas.  This is why the animal has a name of Native American derivation.

From Conor McKechnie:

Nice page, but I contest your explanation of the use of commas and full-stops (periods) in or outside the quotation marks.  As a trained journalist, grammarian and English teacher I find there are good reasons for sticking to the rules for the placing of punctuation in or outside of quote marks: 

"My aunt, who is 65, flies planes," said Jack.

The full-stop ends the sentence, my sentence, not Jack's.

But: Jack said: "My aunt, who is 65, flies planes."  

The full-stop ends the sentence, Jack's sentence, not mine.  Mine does not end until I have closed the quotes.  But consider the following:

In England they say "lift", but in the U.S. they say "elevator".   The full-stop ends my sentence, the quotes mark the nouns as objects about which I am talking.  This is a tricky area.

We agree with your logic.  For clarity's sake, when using quotations marks for speech, the position of commas, periods, etc., in relation to the quotation marks is important.  However, when using such punctuation as we do (as in the following: cabeza "head", tête "head"), the comma doesn't need to be inside the quotation marks for clarity or anything else, so we leave it outside the quotation marks.

From Patrick Lier:

Just a comment the etymology of hobo.  I remember reading that a possible source for this word came from the French "Ho, beau!" ("hey handsome!"), which was a mocking interjection in 18th century France when beggars tried to get the attention of well-heeled people passing by.  The expression stuck and may have become another word for "beggar".  I do not know how it became hobo and how it emerged in English though.  

We had not heard this explanation before.  However, while it is interesting, it is likely apocryphal as there is no evidence of the transfer of the French ho beau into English.  See Weekley's threefold etymology test.  The third prong of the test is violated in this instance.

From Zev Shanken:

Hobo is a short form of Hoboken, the New Jersey city at the end of the continent.  It was a way of saying that "we" hobos come from "the other end of the world." 

As with Mr. Lier's explanation above, there is no evidence to support this etymology.  For the time being, hobo's etymology remains a mystery.

From Richard Regan:

I love your site, but the new layout is much worse for Explorer on the Mac - the page is way too wide. It was fine before. And the load time is no better.

We've done some more tinkering since you sent the above message, and we hope the page fits your screen now.  We've adjusted it so that it will fill any size monitor without being too wide.  We appreciate hearing from Mac users, as it's difficult for us to test the site for Macs.

From Terry Reeder:

I really love your web site; the content is fascinating, your knowledge - both breadth and depth - are amazing, and the presentation is great!  You easily show how words and language can be fun as well as interesting. Keep up the good work!  There is a preponderance of evidence supporting numerous awards for Take Our Word For It

Thanks very much, Terry, for your kind comments, and thanks also for your query regarding preponderance last week.

From Chris Sidorfsky:

In Issue 56, you state that the barytone (which, incidentally, is more commonly spelled baryton) is a member of the tromba marina family.  The instrument famous for its Haydn connection (some 175 works for his baryton-crazed patron Esterházy) is actually related to the viola d'amore and other viols.  Some versions of the instrument had frets, while others did not, but in all cases it was played by pressing the string against the fingerboard, and not by producing harmonics as with the tromba marina.  An interesting detail is that, unlike the viola d'amore, hurdy-gurdy, or harp-guitar, the sympathetic strings were intended to be plucked in addition to vibrating in sympathy with the bowed strings.

Thank you for this clarification/correction.

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