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Issue 64   

December 13, 1999
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In ancient times, all manner of things were imagined to foretell future events. In classical Rome, theWaterhouse's "The Crystal Ball" most respected of all methods of divination was augury, the observation of birds' flight patterns. The result of this divination was known as an auspice, from avis, "bird" and spicere, "to observe".  No serious matter of state was undertaken without first consulting the auspices.

Rome also had a special class of Etruscan priests called haruspices who foretold the future by examining animals' entrails. The official who did the actual examination was called an extipex.  Interestingly, the Etruscan language has not been deciphered and we don't know quite where it fits in the general scheme of Indo-European languages. However, there may be a clue in that the haru- of haruspex resembles the Sanskrit hira, "entrails".

Apart from these official state oracles there were many other forms of divination  practiced informally by ordinary folk. There is a gloriously obscure word for "a method of divination" - fatidency. For most of these ancient fatidencies we know little more than their names. These names are usually formed by attaching a Greek prefix to -mancy (from the Greek manteia, "prophesying"). Here is an abbreviated list of some of these obscure but splendid words. (All derivations are from Greek unless otherwise stated.)

fatidency is by means of...  derivation
aeromancy the air, including augury. In the 17th century this word was used for weather-forecasting or meteorology. aer, "atmosphere"
alectromancy a rooster alektros, "a rooster"
anthracomancy burning coals anthrax, "a burning coal"
astragalomancy dice or knuckle-bones. astragalos, "die"
astromancy the stars; ‘astrology’ in the modern sense. astro- "star"
austromancy observing the direction of the winds Latin Auster, "south wind"
belomancy arrows belos, "arrow, dart"
capnomancy smoke kapnos "smoke"
catoptromancy a mirror (see also enoptromancy) catoptron "mirror"
cephaleonomancy broiling an ass's head kephale, "head" + onos, "ass"
chiromancy the hand; the art of telling the characters and fortunes of persons by inspection of their hands; palmistry cheiros "hand"
cleidomancy, clidomancy  a key kleis, "a key"
coscinomancy the turning of a sieve held on a pair of shears koscinon, "a sieve"
crithomancy barley flour scattered over sacrificial animals krithe, "barley-corn"
dactyliomancy a finger-ring dactylios, "a  finger ring"
enoptromancy a mirror (see also catoptromancy) enoptron, "mirror"
graptomancy handwriting graptos, "written"
gyromancy walking in a circle till the person fell down from dizziness, the inferences being drawn from the place in the circle at which he fell gyros, "a circle"
halomancy. salt halon, "salt"
ichnomancy footprints ichnos, "footprint"
ichthyomancy  the heads or entrails of fishes ichthys, "fish"
libanomancy the burning of incense libanos, "incense"
molybdomancy observing the shapes formed by molten lead molybdos, "lead"
myomancy the movements of mice my(o)s, "a mouse"
œnomancy wine oene, "a vine"
oneiromancy dreams oneiros, "a dream"
onomatomancy names or the letters of a name onomatos, "a name"
onychomancy finger-nails onycho-,  "finger-nails"
pegomancy springs or fountains pege, "a spring"
pyromancy fire pyro-, "fire"
rhabdomancy a rod or wand.  More specifically, this is the art of discovering ores, springs of water, etc., in the earth by means of a divining-rod rhabdos, "a rod"
rhapsodomancy. randomly selecting a passage of poetry (see also stichomancy) rhapsodos, "a poet"
scapulimancy the cracks in a shoulder-blade put into the fire Latin scapula, "a shoulder"
scatomancy examination of feces skor, "dung"
sciomancy communication with the shades of the dead scio, "a shadow"
scyphomancy a cup scypho-, "a cup"
stichomancy randomly selecting a passage of poetry (see also rhapsodomancy) stichos, "row, line, verse"
sycomancy figs or fig-leaves. sykon, "fig"
tephromancy ashes tephra, "ashes"
theriomancy the movements of animals therion, "wild beast"
tyromancy cheese tyros, "cheese"
uranomancy the stars; astrology uranos, "sky, the heavens"

Scapulomancy is a particularly ancient practice which was know to widely separated groups. Certain Athabascan tribes in North America use it to predict the location of caribou herds. In ancient China it was used for more general questions: a query would be engraved on a sheep's shoulder blade and a red-hot poker pressed against it. The type of crack which resulted determined whether the question was answered "yes" or "no". The type of writing which was used is known as "oracle bone script" and is one of the earliest forms of Chinese writing.

Many of the divination methods listed above were used medically as diagnostic aids. Oneiromancy was practiced by the Greek cult of Asklepios. The sick would present themselves at an Asklepian temple with an animal for sacrifice, usually a sheep. The animal would be slaughtered, then skinned and the patient would be given a sleeping draught, then sewn into the skin of the slaughtered beast. Next morning the patient would report any dreams to an attendant who would interpret them to find the cause of the disease. These attendants were known as therapeutae and it is from this that we get our words therapeutic and therapy.

Anthracomancy was practiced in Northern England at least until the 19th century except that it was called ash-riddling and was practiced only on St. Mark's eve, You will see from the derivation that the Anthracite Greek word anthrax meant a burning coal. By extension, a painful boil or carbuncle was also called anthrax; hence our name for the fatal disease which is characterized by boils. On a pleasanter note, the Greek anthrax also gives us anthracite, a pure, hard form of coal also known as steam-coal. Actually, there is a purer, harder form of coal: jet. But jet is so highly valued as a semi-precious stone that it is rarely considered as a fuel.

One thing puzzles me: just how do you perform divination with cheese?

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Anna:

What's the origin of the word grape?

Well, the Old English word for "grape" was wineberige "wine berry".  Old English had only two words Pinot noir grapes. for fruit: berry and apple; that is because berries and apples were the only fruits indigenous to the  British Isles.  The grape looked more like a berry than an apple; hence the Old English name.  

As was often the case, a French word usurped the Old English form in the Middle Ages.  Grape originally meant "a bunch of grapes".  It was a derivative of the verb graper "to gather grapes", which was formed from the Old French noun grape "hook".  The implication  here is that bunches of grapes were gathered by hooks.  Some relatives of the latter grape are grapple, cramp, cripple, creek, crutch and crimp.  These all derive from the Indo-European root ger- "curving, crooked".

From Bill Walsh:

The words aisle and island share a spelling similarity in a silent s.  What's that s doing there?  Who put it there and why?

Aisle entered English as ele, which came from Old French ala "wing", a word that applied to wings ofThe nave of Westminster Cathedral (yes, you Americans, Cathedral) birds and wings of buildings.  In English it came to refer exclusively to "the side of the nave of a church".   That part of the nave soon came to be thought of as a distinct and separate area, and so the notion of an "island" entered and influenced ele such that it became ile or isle.  In the 18th century French played a role again when aile "aisle" influenced the spelling of the English word, though that extraneous s remained.

Old French ala came ultimately from the Indo-European root aks- "axis" (with the notion of something turning on the axis), which is the source of several other English words, such as axis, axle, axilla, and axon.

Isle comes from a different source: Latin insula "island", via Old French ile.  English insulate comes from the same source; the notion is one of an isle being insulated by water.  That s was added in the English form in the 15th century as a nod to its Latin roots.  You may be surprised to learn that island does not come from Latin insula.  Instead, it derives from the Germanic root aujo- "thing on the water".  The source of aujo- is the Indo-European root ak(w)a- "water", source also of Latin aqua and all its derivatives.  Aujo entered Old English as ieg, to which land was soon appended.  In Middle English it became iland.  It was in the 15th century that, by influence of isle, the was added to form island.

From Tracey:

What is the origin of tautology?

This one's short and sweet.  Tauto means "the same" in Greek, and logos is, of course, Greek for "speech, discourse, reason", derived from a verb meaning "to say".  A tautology is therefore a repetition of the same statement, or saying the same thing using different words. It entered English in the late 16th century, arriving via late Latin tautologia.

From Ann Thu Nguyen:

I was wondering if you could tell me the origin of the phrase snake oil.

This American term for a quack remedy doesn't appear in the written record until 1927, in S.V. Benét's John Brown's Body: "Crooked creatures of a thousand dubious trades,...sellers of snake-oil balm and lucky rings."  Clearly the term had the same meaning then as it does now.  Christine Ammer indicates that it refers to the age-old belief in the ability of snakes to deceive, which dates back all the way to the time that the Old Testament was written.  It may be that, but it may also be simply that people knew from experience that a medicine made of snake oil wouldn't do anything for them, and so anyone trying to sell it was trying to pull the wool over their eyes (which is another expression originating in the U.S.).

From Anisha:

From where did the word word come into modern English?

Word is a very old term, coming from Old English and not having changed a bit since then.  The first written record of it comes from Cynewulf's Juliana, c. 900: "gif þas word sind soþ."  Word may be the only word you can recognize in that excerpt!  It derives from the Indo-European root wer- "to speak", which also gave Latin verbum "word" (which gave English verb and adverb, among others) and Greek rhetor "public speaker" (source of English rhetoric) and eirein "to say, speak" (source of English irony), along with Sanskrit vratám "decree, law".

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

wherein Malcolm Tent compiles

Various examples of misuse/abuse

I heard an NPR correspondent say hand and hand recently when she meant hand in hand.

After thirty-plus years of continuous popularity, I STILL hear science fiction fans and non-fans alike say Star Track instead of Star Trek.  C'mon, trek's a word, folks!

An acquaintance of mine got Arthur and author confused so badly that he spelled his friend Arthur's name as Author and he wrote that "X Company is the arthur of a paper on soil amendments".  He's not the only one, though!

Sez You...

From Joel Hettger:

Do you remember the 1959 TV show - 'The Last Word' with John Mason Brown and Malcom Muggeridge? This was an excellent program that was broadcast on a network affiliate in NYC. My two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Iran, 1970-72, provided me with enough knowledge of Persian (Farsi) to do a truncated embedded search on the OED CD ROM for  the word 'pers'; thus providing a list of all words in English derived from Persian. I was amazed at how many words in English have this derivation.

Neither of us had the pleasure of seeing the television show, but we have heard of it; you are not alone in thinking highly of that program.  Malcom Muggeridge was editor of Punch, the humor magazine, at the time. He later "got religion" and turned extremely prudish, publicly denouncing "Monty Python's Life of Brian" as blasphemy. Oh, well!

As for searching the OED on CD-ROM, that is yet another reason that all logophiles should own a copy of it!

From Ann Hogan:

I really enjoyed your discussion of surnames. I do, however, have to ask for more explanation of the 19th century law that said pick a last name and stick to it, thus ending the ...son tradition (...dottir, too?) Don't Icelanders still practice that naming convention?

The Norwegians actually ended up choosing either a patronymic surname, or a place name.  Our friend Doug Lynner's family chose the name of the farm that they lived on as their surname.  He tells us that 50% of the population chose place names and the other 50% chose patronyms as their surnames.

From Angela:

I visited your page to find out about word origins (actually looking for info on swear words).  However what prompted me to write was, your reference to the "Celt and his squaw" reference (Issue 63).  Now as fate would have it, it was a major controversy over this very word squaw which put me in mind to search for swear words.  To many Native Americans this is very derogatory (as a reference to female genitalia) and on the newsgroup alt.native there are fires raging over the use of this word.  The origin seems lost in the murky waters of the past, with Algonquin words seeming to be the root.  However I am wondering, as people who derive great pleasure from word origins, what are your feelings on the changing meaning of words, especially if they become offensive and derogatory?  Even if there is no real basis that squaw ever meant "female genitalia", if it is now offensive and demeaning, should people fight to have its use removed, like the "N" word, which I believe stems from the French negere, or Portuguese negro for black?  There has been some success in having the word removed from some state monuments etc. There are discussions going on in many other states about its removal.

See Issue 26, where we discuss the intent of the speaker determining whether any word should be construed as offensive.  Our intent in using squaw was not derogatory, as Melanie is of Cherokee and Comanche descent.  It was similar to a black person calling another black person nigger.  As for squaw deriving from Algonquin roots meaning "female genitalia", there is absolutely no proof of this, as discussed in Issue 41

From Kaa Byington:

This week's remarks on "surname" reminded me of something that has always bemused me. We lived in Turkey for several years. Turks did not have surnames until the 1920s when Ataturk ("Father of the Turks") ordered them to take one. So what names did a people who had never had surnames and didn't know anything about surnames in other cultures take? (Forgive me that awful sentence, but it's very early in the morning!) Carpenter, Cooper, Weaver, Shepherd - occupations, and "son of ___" just like everybody else in the world. It must be in the genes.

I love Take Our Word For It - long may you wave.

Thanks, Kaa!  That reminds us of the practice in Wales, where, once the English required the Welsh to take formal surnames (they were patronymic up to that point), there were so many Johns that the most common surname in Wales became Jones, from Ap Siôn "son of John" (another form of Ap Siôn is the surname Upjohn).  Well, with so many Joneses, the Welsh had to find additional ways to tell them apart.  Therefore, Mr. Jones the barber became "Jones the hair" and Mr. Jones the butcher became "Jones the meat". 

Mongolia recently passed a law stating that everyone should henceforth use their family names on official documents. Unfortunately, most Mongolians don't know their family name and an official government department had to be set up to inform  people of their own names. 

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