Issue 177, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Hope Morrison:

I keep hearing the phrase casus belli on news programs dealing with the situation in Iraq. I started thinking about the English words bellicose and belligerent, which come from the Latin word for war, but am wondering if the word embellish is also related, and if so, how?

Casus belli ("an event or political occurrence that brings about a declaration of war") is, of course, Latin and means literally "war event".  Its current usage dates from the mid-19th century.  Belligerent comes from Latin belligerare "to wage war" and, ultimately, from bellum "war".  It is interesting to note that the original spelling was belligerant, from belligerantem, the present participle of the Latin verb.  A learned assumption that the English word derived from Latin gerere (the present participle of which is gerentem) led to today's spelling.  Belligerent (-ant) dates from the mid-16th century.  Bellicose comes directly from Latin bellicosus and entered English in the early 15th century.

Embellish is not related.  The bell portion of this word comes from Old French bel "beautiful", so that something embellished is beautified with adornments.  It dates in English from the early 14th century.  The Old French word from which it derives is embellir.

From Dustin:

Gone or fallen by the wayside: just wondering where in the world this little phrase came from? Which side is the wayside? Why is it bad to go there?

The wayside is the side of a road or path, or the side of the wayWayside dates from the latePages from one of the Tindale Bibles 14th century.  However, to fall by the wayside comes directly from the Tindale translation of the Bible into English, 1526.  There, in Luke 8:5, the Parable of the Sower speaks of a man who sowed grain and the different places that his seeds fell.  One of those places was along the sides of the path.  As Tindale put it, "As he sowed some fell by the waye syde."  Those seeds that fell there were stepped on or eaten by birds.  So to fall by the wayside is "to fail to stay the course, to drop out".

The other places that the sower's seeds fell were upon rocky ground, among thorn bushes, and in good soil (Luke 8:6-8).  The seeds are a metaphor for the word of God, and the different areas where the seeds fell are analogies to the different manners in which the word of God is heard and heeded. 

From Kiran Mathew:

I work as a teacher of English in India. Here, good etymological dictionaries are hard to come by. I searched for the web to get the etymology of rendezvous to settle dispute in my English class. I remember that some time in my youth I read some where that rendezvous means a secret meeting, especially between lovers. Is it true? The meaning provided by the Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary says nothing of that sort. Please help us out.

We are happy to help!   Rendezvous "assemble, meet" or "a place to meet" dates in English from the late 16th century as a noun.  It was borrowed from French rendez vous, "present yourself [at the appointed place]". Rendez is the plural imperative form of rendre and is a cousin of English render.  The French command "present yourself" became one English word meaning "an appointed place to present oneself" and then, in the mid-17th century, "[to] meet at the appointed place".

It was originally a military term but did not take long to enter mainstream usage.  However, while it may often be used as such, there is no specific meaning of "secret meeting" nor any special connection with lovers.  

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From A. Nonymous:

I am doing a presentation on firing employees and am interested to know where this use of fire originated. Can you help?

An entire presentation about firing employees?  Yikes, this must be a sign of the times!  In the U.K. one is sacked, of course, but here in the U.S., if one's employment is terminated for some infraction or the like, one is fired.  It was originally fired out, and it is first recorded in the second half of the 19th century in the U.S.  The Oxford English Dictionary gives the earliest instance as 1885: "If the practice is persisted in, then they [pupils] should be fired out" (from the Milner The Pall Mall Gazette(Dakota Territory) Free Press).  However, etymologist Robert Hendrickson says that the earliest recorded example comes from 1871, though he does not cite it.  [Naughty etymologist!] 

By 1887 the out had been dropped, as in this example: "Postmaster Breed says the next time such a thing occurs he will fire the offender bodily."  Interestingly, this quotation is from the Lisbon Star, another Dakota Territory newspaper.  By 1889 we have the following: "A Commissioner who should be discovered to have reported a subordinate unjustly would be fired from his high post."  This is from the Pall Mall Gazette, an evening paper published in London. However, though it seems the term was exported to England, it didn't really catch on there.

It is thought that the original fire out "eject a person" was an allusion to the discharge of a firearm. 

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