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Issue 81   

April 10, 2000
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

the Easter bunny

We found, this weekend, that cross-buns had appeared on supermarket shelves, heralding the arrival of that old pagan festival Easter.  (That's right, "pagan", - seeA cool Easter egg.  Click to learn about a different kind of Easter egg. Issue 34.)  Easter takes its name from Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn.  Hence the similarity between Easter and east.  In case you are an  inveterate city-dweller or just one of that group at the back of the class, dawn happens in the east.

According to Charles Panati's Sacred Origins of Profound Things, Eostre was the goddess of fertility [wrong], and people sacrificed oxen to her  and baked buns marked with horns which, in time, evolved into hot cross-buns [wrong again].  This author even goes so far as to suggest that all buns take their name from this practice as boun is Old English (he calls it Anglo-Saxon) for "sacred ox" [very wrong].

Let's take a look at the real story.  The Old English word for "ox" (sacred or otherwise) was oxa.  No doubt Sacred Origin's author was thinking of the Greek bous or the Latin bovis.  As for bun, it has nothing to do with oxen and didn't even show up in the English language until about 1370, long after the Anglo-Saxons had been converted to Christianity and conquered by the Normans.  Bun seems to be related to the French word beignet and the Spanish buñuelo "bun, fritter".  Some have suggested that bun has its origin in the Old French word bugne, meaning "a swelling caused by a blow".  If this is correct, then it would be related to bunion.

Although small loaves of leavened bread scored with a cross have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, the cross had no symbolic significance; it was just a convenient way of breaking the bread.  The cross-buns with which we are familiar are not mentioned until the 18th century.  The first recorded mention ("Poor Robin's Almanack" for 1733) refers to the bakers' street-cry "one a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns".  This street-cry is still recalled every Good Friday by children of the British Isles when they sing this song:

Hot cross-buns! Hot cross-buns!
One a penny, two a penny, hot cross-buns!
If you have no daughters,
Pray give them to your sons!
One a penny, two a penny, hot cross-buns!

The "one a penny, two a penny" of the street-cry seems confusing.  Just what price were they being sold at?  We can only assume that hot cross-buns of two different sizes were being sold.  For a recipe see .

The Middle English plural of bun was often written bunnys but there is no connection between these buns and the Easter bunny.  This remarkable oviparous rabbit is familiar to all our American readers but is unknown in Britain.  This is because the tradition of the Easter bunny was introduced to American folklore by the German settlers who arrived in Pennsylvania during the 1700s.  The White House Easter bunny!  Click to visit a site listing events at the White House (the Easter events will be removed after Easter, of course, but the site should still be worth a glance, at least for curiosity's sake).Pennsylvania Dutch (i.e. "German") children believed that if they were good the Oschter haas would lay a nest of colored eggs for them.  The children would build their nest in a secluded place in the home, the barn or the garden.  Boys would use their caps and girls their bonnets to make the nests.  Thus, in the original tradition, the adults had to hunt for the nests made by the children whereas these days the children have to find the eggs hidden by the adults.  The use of elaborate Easter baskets would come later as the tradition of the Easter bunny spread throughout the country.

The word bunny bears no resemblance to rabbit, so, where does it come from?  Curiously, bunny is closer to the original word and for centuries rabbit was applied only to the young of the species.  Until the 18th century the most common word for these creatures was cony, hence Coney Island where settlers found an abundance of rabbits.  The word cony was not pronounced as the Coney in Coney Island, however.  It was pronounced "cunny".  Unfortunately, cunny was also the common English word for a certain unmentionable part of the feminine anatomy.  When faced with the task of naming this species in public, delicately-raised souls had two options.  They could either  use the word for the animal's young (rabbit) or they could deliberately mispronounce cony as (you guessed it) bunny.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From T. Pimperl

I teach High School mathematics and I've always wondered where the word asymptote comes from.

There may be one or two readers (we're thinking of that group at the back of the class) who may not be familiar with the word asymptote.  It is a curve (most commonly a straight line) which another curve continually approaches without ever meeting it.  (Rather like the curves of our income and expenditure.)

Asymptote is best understood if broken into its component parts.  The right angle represents the x-y axis, and the curve is the asymptote.The core of the word is ptote, from the Greek verb piptein "to fall" which, more distantly, finds its origin in the Indo-European root *pet- "to fly".  This root also gives us impetuous and feather.  The "falling" word, ptote, is qualified by sym-, a Greek prefix meaning "together".  Finally, there is an additional prefix a- meaning "not".  Thus, the whole thing means "not falling together" so an asymptote is a curve which does not fall together with another curve.

Did anyone notice the resemblance between asymptote and symptom ?  This is no coincidence.  A symptom is bodily condition which "falls together" with a disease.   Note that the adjectival form of asymptote is asymptotic and a disease which does not reveal itself in bodily manifestations is said to be asymptomatic.  Etymologists call pairs of words like asymptotic and asymptomatic "doublets".  These are words with the same origin which have found their way into a language by different paths.  An informal definition of a doublet might therefore be "same root; different routes".   

From Fiona:

Does anyone else have this curmudgeonly complaint?  There seems to be a growing trend to say "sikth" rather than "sixth", especially by newscasters.  Furthermore, why do we say first instead of one-th, etc.

Don't get us started on newscasters' enunciation... grrr... The mispronunciation of the ordinal numbers is something which we may well address in a future Curmudgeons' Corner.

As to first... it represents the superlative form of the Teutonic root *fur- "early", thus relating it to such words as foremost.   Going further back to its Indo-European root, we find that it comes from *pr-, the origin of Greek protos "first", Latin primus "first" and Latin pristinus "primordial, ancient".

Come to think of it, we should (logically) say two-th but we say secondSecond comes from the Latin secundus "following" via Old French.  Strange to relate, Old English had no ordinal for the number two - in those days, they just said other.  As this was undoubtedly ambiguous, Middle English readily adopted the Old French word second.

In Old English, first could also be written frist which shows its relation to primus a little more clearly.  Note that the r has shifted to the other side of the vowel.  This kind of shift is called metathesis and also occurred in the word third.  The English county of Yorkshire was so large that it came to be administered in three sections.  Just as a division of an English penny into four resulted in four farthings (farthing = "fourth-ing"),  a division of an English county into three resulted in three thirdings or thridings.  In time, the initial th became lost and these sub-counties became known as the three ridings of Yorkshire.

So, why isn't one-th a word?  Don't ask us, our erudition is deficient in the etymology of non-words.

From Lee Scheerer:

I am an animal control officer and sometimes write for a county newsletter.  Word origins are part of that.  What is the origin of pound as in dog pound?

Dogs in the pound.  Click to follow the link.One might think that such pounds are a recent invention, but they actually date back to at least the Middle Ages!  The word in Old English was pund, but we only find it used in compound words such as pund-fold and pundbreche (i.e. pound-breach - "the breaking open of a pound to take the goods (cattle) from within").  We also find the related pyndan "to dam up (water)" and forpyndan "to exclude, to bar".  All of these words are related to the Middle English form pownde or pounde.  Since that time, the early 15th century, the word has referred to "an enclosure maintained by authority to hold stray or trespassing cattle".

Of course, cattle are rarely kept at the pound, these days.  Usually dogs and cats are taken there.  But the principle is the same.  Prior to Old English, the word's origin is not known.  However, it is known that the Old English form also gave rise to modern English pond "small body of water, usually man made".  The relationship can be seen in pyndan "to dam up".  It suggests that the root of these words had a general meaning of "confine".  Yet another relative of this group is impound which is, etymologically, "to put in the pound".

From Andrew Conomy:

As usual, I must begin with the usual compliments about your witty and informative pages.  I am sure you are so sick and tired of hearing them...  A long time ago you explained the fascinating origin of bellwether.  Now, a friend of mind in France has asked me what happened to the extra e in shepherd.  I said that it was very careless of them to lose an e, especially as losing thins is exactly the sort of thing that shepherds are not meant to do.  seriously, we presumed that it was a phonetic adjustment, but what is the actual process?

Speaking of lost e's, it seems that you've been practicing an economy of letters and have dropped an e from the beginning of your surname!  As for those absent-minded shepherds, it actually wasn't their fault that an e was dropped from the name of their occupation.  In Old English the word was scéaphirde, where Old English sc is pronounced sh.  The shortening of the vowel in the first syllable of a compound word like shepherd is actually quite common, linguistically.  Say sheepherd rapidly about 50 times and you'll see how it happens.  There were cognates of the Old English term in Middle Low German and Middle Dutch schâphirde (modern Dutch schaapherder) and Middle High German schâfhirte (modern German dialectical schafhirt).

While we're on the subject, allow us to explain why sheep refers to one of the animals or many.  The Old Teutonic plural for "sheep" was skaepu.  Its final vowel was lost in Old English, and so the singular and plural forms of the word became the same.

Herd comes from the Indo-European root kerdh- "herd".

From Cassey Croner:

I was wondering if you could help me out with the etymology of poverty.

But of course!  You may suspect that poverty and poor can't be very closely related because they seem so different, but they're  much more similar than they appear.  They both come ultimately from Latin pauper "poor", but via Old French which had two forms of the word: poverte and pouerte.  English took the former for poverty.  One might then guess that it must have taken the root of pouerte for "poor", but this actually does not appear to be the case.  Instead, it seems that English took povre (Modern French pauvre) for "poor" and then, in the Middle Ages, contracted the word to poor, much as poets contract over to o'er.  Confusion arises in discussing these words' etymology today because it is very difficult to distinguish between the letters u and v in writings that predate the 17th century.  However, Latin pauper and the existence of forms like Spanish pobre help support the suggestion that the original English form was povre (that is, the third letter was pronounced like today's v, whether spelled with a u or a v).

Poverty (as pouerte) goes back to the 12th century, while poor goes back to about the same time (as pouere).   The Indo-European root of these words is pau- "few", which also gave English few and paucity,  and Spanish poco.  The sense in poor and poverty was, of course, having "few" possessions.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

Barb Dwyer hopes that those who say as American as apple pie get their just desserts.

Proud as I am of my American heritage and fond as I am of apple pie, I just cannot stomach the expression as American as apple pie.  Almost every temperate country in the world grows apples and eats apple pie, so just how American can this pie be?  Does as American as apple pie imply that apple pie was invented by Americans?  No, but apple pie is really common in the United States and Americans really enjoy it.  Well, a recent survey revealed that the most popular food in England is chicken curry so, by these criteria, we could say as English as chicken curry.

The word pie comes from the Gaelic pighe (see Spotlight, Issue 49).  These pies originally contained meat but by the 1500s fruit pies began to appear in England.  And guess what the very first fruit used in pies was... yes, apple!   It would just serve us right if those damned Limeys started saying as English as apple pie.

As the pecan nut is indigenous to the North American continent and as pecan pie is almost unknown elsewhere, I propose that, henceforth, we all say as American as pecan pie.  We just have to decide whether it's PE-can or pe-CAN.

I pronounce it the proper way, of course.

Sez You...

From David Seeger:

I just want to note a Dutch term you didn't mention [in Issue 80]. It is one of my favorites. That is: Dutch wife referring to a pillow or bolster used in hot and humid climes. The sleeper takes it between the legs at night to soak up sweat.

From Lieutenant of Angband:

Seeing as I am descended from Dutch ancestors, I was very interested in the origins of the Dutch phrases you listed.  However, there was one I did not see: Dutch auction [where several items are bid on, rather than just one item being bid on]. Was that of a derogatory origin as well?

From Consuelo Lopez-Morillas:

In your list of Dutch-related expressions I missed Dutch courage, meaning "liquor".

The French list reminds me (though I don't think this has entered the language at large) that in a British family I knew, "French shorts" meant 'trousers slung so low at the hips that one's rear cleavage showed.'

From Piet:

I was told once that I speak like a Dutch uncle. After many apologies and me asking what it meant the speaker told me that it is a person who does not beat around the bush.  Being an immigrant from the Netherlands and thus not versed in certain American terms, this was acceptable to me because I have a tendency to to so.  What is the true origin of this phrase?

Sorry we couldn't include every Dutch- term we came across.  (There are a lot, you know.)  We found Dutch wife in the dictionary but the explanation seemed too far-fetched to be credible.  Thank you, David, for confirming that one.

We considered including Dutch auction but couldn't decide whether it was derogatory or not.  Still can't, for that matter.  Thanks for reminding us about Dutch courage, Consuelo, we should have thought of that one.  French shorts... now that's a new one to us.  A Dutch uncle is not just a plain-speaker, Piet, it is someone who tells you off, in no uncertain terms, regarding something you have done wrong.  Once more, we can't decide whether it is derogatory or not. 

From John McKenny:

I enjoy your page and admire your work very much. I would just like to comment on your reference to French cricket [in Issue 80].  Ironically, it seems that cricket originated among peasants in Brittany, France and was brought to England by English Catholic schoolboys who had been sent there to study because of the prohibition of Catholicism in England. Thanks for your great work.

Judging from the date at which cricket first appeared in English (mid-16th century), your story may well be correct.  What a shame the French don't still play it.

From Ian Rowlands:

After reading Issue 80 I searched a bit more diligently.  Having eliminated Shakespeare, the Holy Bible ( King James Version) Mary Shelley, lots of Poe and some Thomas Hardy, I remembered reading somewhere that grim derived from the brothers Grimm of fairy tale fame due to the content of their tales which were a far cry from the sanitized versions I grew up with.  Accepting this as true together with the fact that most translations into English were done after 1850, it does not seem unreasonable for it to take until the twentieth century for it to turn up in conjunction with "reaper".  I write all this to explain why I stopped searching for any references earlier than this: 

Title: Dawn O'Hara, the Girl Who Laughed; Author: Ferber, Edna; Publisher: Grosset & Dunlap; City: New York; Date: 1911; in which the phrase appears.

I think my conclusions reasonable, but wonder whether the original premise is itself a fairy tale.

You certainly take the prize for the earliest occurrence of grim reaper that we've heard of, but there is a flaw in the premise that grim derives from the Brothers Grimm.  Actually, grim is a very old word, going back to Indo-European ghrem- "angry".  It is thought that it is imitative of the sound of rumbling, such as thunder (Russian for "thunder" is grom).  It is another name for the Norse god Odin, the sky god.  Grumble is one relative of grim, grimace is another and the English port of Grimsby is understood to mean "Odin's town".  So it is quite possible that grim reaper could have appeared in English before  1850.

Earlier references, anyone?

From Joshua Daniels:

According to my history books in grade school and high school, and further reading since, one not only had to be male and free-born, but had to own property to be a citizen [Issue 80]. The franchise of voting came with citizenship.  This was true not only of Athens and Rome, but Carthage as well, giving rise to Will Cuppy's splendid quote from "The Rise and Fall of Practically Everybody:" "Carthage was ruled by its rich men and was therefore an oligarchy. Rome was ruled by its rich men and was therefore a republic." 

Also, did the Latin "findere," "split," give rise to the English "founder," as in a boat splitting open and sinking? Brits pronounce "founder" almost exactly the same as "finder." Do they do that because that's whence it arose? (Educate the world, please, sometime, on "whither," "whence," "hither," "hence," etc.)

Thank you for the correction regarding citizenship, Joshua.  As for founder, yours is a good guess that it might derive from findere, but it actually comes ultimately from Latin fundus "bottom", referring to the fact that a foundering ship sinks to the bottom of the sea (or other body of water).  Interestingly, the term is also used with reference to horses, and it denotes a kind of lameness that strikes them, because lame horses often fall [to the bottom, i.e. the ground].

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