Issue 180, page 2

Search Home FAQ Links Site map Book Store


New Ask Us Theory About
AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes)

Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Christian Schneider:

I like English words with an archaic ring, although it is not my mother language - and up to now I could fancy myself somewhat clever for instinctively knowing the meaning of most of them.  But when I tried to guess this one, my idea was actually so far off that I got curious about its origins.  Just why would an "event or person foreshadowing coming events" be called harbinger?  I can't make out any obvious connections to Latin or some other Indo-Germanic language, but after all, that's why YOU are out there, right? 

Well, we like to think so.  Sometimes.  Your name suggests that German might be your mother tongue, and if that is true you may be surprised to find that English harbinger comes ultimately from Old High German!  Yes, the word dates back to the 12th century in English, when it was herberger.  Does that look any more familiar?  It came to English from Old French herbergere "one who provides shelter or lodgings", which was formed from Old French herberge "lodging, quarters (for an army)".  The French seem to have gotten it from Old High German (and Old Low German) heriberga "shelter for an army", formed from heri "host, army" and berga "protection, shelter".  Berga is cognate with English berg/burg (as in Edinburgh).

So how did herberger "one who provides lodging" (the original English meaning) become harbinger with the meaning "one that announces or foretells the approach of something or someone"?  The word mutated to herbenger, apparently after the pattern of messenger, passenger, etc.  The meaning, on the other hand, shifted over time from "one who provides lodging" (12th c.) to "one sent before to purvey lodgings for an army" (14th c.) and then "one that goes before and announces the approach of someone" (16th century).  It is the latter sense that came to be used figuratively and gave harbinger its meaning of today.

From Vickie Sayer:

My husband argues that tea towel must be somehow related to the tea drink, whereas a friend and I theorize that it is more likely related to the evening meal [known as] tea.

Well, first, in the U.S. we usually say dish towel, and that gives us a hint as to where tea towel comes from.  It first appears in the written record in 1863.  After that we also find tea cloth (first in 1888).  Apparently the tea towel or tea cloth was the cloth that was placed on the tea tray or tea table underneath the dishes used for serving and drinking tea.  Then it came to refer to the cloth used to wash up and/or dry the tea things.  Today it is a kitchen towel used for wiping counters or drying dishes.  It does not appear that the tea towel ever referred specifically to the evening meal known as "tea" in Commonwealth countries. 

From Darla Havens:

I work in a school and would like to know the origin of the phrase holy mackerel.  It was requested by one of our students and we didn't have a clue!

Holy mackerel, which dates in writing from 1899, is thought by H.L. Mencken to be a minced oath formed from Holy Mary,  However, Eric Partridge, borrowing from Robert Claiborne, says that holy mackerel is euphemistic for holy Michael, perhaps perpetuated as a jab against "mackerel snappers", Catholics in the U.S. who ate fish on Fridays.  Partridge characterizes the phrase as "a mild oath".  Whoever is correct about its derivation, there is little doubt that the phrase originated in the U.S. 

Do you enjoy reading Take Our Word For It?  Give us a small token of your appreciation and help keep the site running by making a donation.  It's easy, and you can pay via credit card.  To donate, just click the  button!  You can donate as little as 50 cents or as much as you desire.

From Tracey McTague:

I searched your site for doctor and found it, thanks.  What I am really looking for is the origin of the nickname Doc for a doctor.  When was this first used?  The nickname is to be used in a historical fiction work placed in the 17th century, so I am looking for references earlier than Bugs Bunny and Star Trek.

Doc Holliday.  Click to learn more! (Doesn't really look like Val Kilmer, does he?)Believe us, if you ask for the earliest reference, you're going to get it, Bugs Bunny and Star Trek not withstanding (of course, Dr. McCoy in Star Trek was "Bones"). 

The earliest reference to the shortened form of doctor dates from 1850, in Three Years After by E.Z.C. Judson: "‘Where's the Doc?’ asked the old lady."  This casual remark pressumes familiarity with the term, suggesting that it dates from several years before.  And no, the infamous Doc Holliday wasn't born until 1851, and he didn't become a doctor until quite a few years later, so his nickname doesn't constitute an earlier occurrence of the word.

From Nikki Ruggiero:

What is the origin of the word frog "soft part of a horse's foot"?

This one interested us hippophiles (speaking of hippophile, did you know that theA horse's hoof.  Click to learn more. name Philip is etymologically identical: "lover of horses", from philein "love" + hippos "horse"?).  Melanie's been cleaning her horse's hooves for years and knew the names of the parts but hadn't given them much thought etymologically.  Why on earth would a part of a horse's foot be called a frog, indeed?  Well, most sources were not very helpful except that they suggested the word derives from the Italian or French word for the same anatomical part, forchetta and fourchette, respectively.  Well, what do those words mean, etymologically?  They mean "little fork", suggesting that the frog was seen to resemble a fork in shape.  Look at the diagram above, and note part 7: that is the frog.  We can certainly see the fork shape.  Remember that early forks had only two tines.  This makes frog (in this sense only) cognate with English fork!  It dates from the early 17th century in English.  Frog may also simply be a version of fork that underwent methathesis (the r and the o changed places) rather than being a derivative of the French or Italian word.

For the insatiably curious...

The rest of the numbered parts in the above diagram are as follow:

1. Bulb of the heel
2. Bar
3. Sole
4. Ground border of wall
5. Toe
6. White line
7. Frog: 
    A. Central groove
    B. Ridge
    C. Lateral groove
     D. Apex.


Comments, additions? Send to Melanie & Mike:
Copyright © 1995-
2003 TIERE
Last Updated 04/04/03 09:27 PM