Issue 181, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Carrie:

I've always joked with friends about people who sport the mullet hairdo.  I know that the haircut name could originate from something like the mullet fish, maybe, but I was wondering if you guys could tell me a little more history on the word mullet used as a haircut.  Thanks! 

This one has interested us, too, ever since we found out what that particular haircut is called.  It has a few other names, too: Missouri Compromise, Guido, and neck blanket are some.  Why would what many people consider a goofy haircut (there are make-fun-of-mullets web sites all over; just search Google for "mullet" and "hair") be named the mullet?  The word is most widely known as the name of a fish, but it is also a term in heraldry, where it means "a figure of a star, having 5 straight points . . . Given as a mark of cadency for a third son".  It also has some obscure meanings that we will not go into here.  Which one of these uses of the word came to be applied to the 'do?

Well, Carrie, you are on to something.  The currently accepted explanation is thatThe mullet haircut.  Click to read an article. the name for the cut did come from the name of the fish, via a slightly indirect route.  There is a term of derision, mullethead, which comes from the name of a freshwater fish of the U.S. that has a large, flat head.  It was thought to look stupid, and so the name mullethead came to be used to describe anyone considered dull or stupid.  It dates in the written record with this meaning from 1857.  This use of mullethead was shortened in the 20th century to mullet, retaining the same meaning, and that is thought to be the source of the haircut name.

 Interestingly, a member of the staff of the Beastie Boys' magazine Grand Royal says that the magazine received a letter from the Oxford English Dictionary telling them that their publication contained the earliest recorded example of mullet used to refer to the haircut.  We must have gotten the bowdlerized version of the OED, because we can't find any reference to that.  There was apparently an entire issue of Grand Royal devoted to the mullet!

From Vickie Sayer:

I want to know where the word Alabama came from and what it means.

Our placenames guru, Adrian Room, tells us that Alabama is the name that the Choctaw Indians of the Alabama area had for themselves.  He suggests that it means "we stay here", from alibamo, or "we clear a path through the forest", from alba-aya-mule.  Well, he's close.  It is thought that the word is actually the name given by the Chickasaw to the Choctaw; it is apparently not uncommon for Indian groups to take a name given them by a different group.  A Choctaw scholar who studied the etymology of Alabama in the 20th century suggested that it does mean "clear vegetation" or "people who cleared the vegetation", from Choctaw alba "vegetation" and amo "clear". 

A river in the present-day state of Alabama first had the name; it was later applied to the state.  Variations of the name are recorded as far back as the 16th century by members of DeSoto's party.

From Zach Sorrow:

Could you tell me about the word sorrow, which also happens to be my last name?

Interesting surname, Zach.  It could be very old, just as the noun sorrow is.  It comes from Old English sorh or sorg, which meant "care, anxiety" or "distress of mind caused by loss, suffering, etc.".  There are many related words in the Germanic languages: Old Frisian sorge, Old Low Frankish sorga, modern Dutch zorg, Old High German sorga and modern German sorge, Old Norse sorg (the same in modern Icelandic, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish), and Gothic saurga.  The English form lost the g which the other Germanic languages have retained.  It was sorwe by 1200, and sorrowe by 1400.  The earliest recorded example of the word in English comes from Beowulf.  It is unknown if it is related to any words outside of the Germanic languages.

It is interesting that the meaning of the word has not changed much over the millennia but English got rid of that G sound pretty early on. 

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From Andrew Hahnemann:

Is it true that the word villain used to describe someone who collected taxes?

Anyone who has had to pay taxes would probably like to think so.  It may have been used thus, but not formally.  Instead, villain etymologically means "one from the villa".  It came to English via Anglo-French and Old French vilein, vilain, and villain.  The French got it from Popular Latin *villanus "farmhand", "serf", from Latin villa.  By the time it got to English in the 14th century it had already acquired the meaning of "feudal serf" and "low born, base minded rustic", and the meaning became more derisive later when the word took on the meaning "an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel naturally disposed to base or criminal actions".  It was by 1822 that the word was being used to refer to the "bad guy" in novels and plays; this was of course transferred to film in the 20th century.

From Alan Barlow:

I thought that Parthian shot sounded a lot like parting shot, and the meanings are similar, so maybe the latter derived from the former.  Of course, parting shot makes sense in its own right, so maybe it's just a coincidence.  What do you think?

You're on to something, Alan!  Actually, it is fairly widely accepted that parting shot and Parthian shot are etymologically the same thing.  Parting shot, "a final insult hurled as one is leaving" or "the last word in an argument", first appears in the written record in 1894, while Parthian shot dates from 1902*.  So what is a Parthian shot?  As you know, Alan, the Parthians, great warriors of the first century B.C. in Persia who were known for their skill at archery and horsemanship, would shoot at their enemies while hanging underneath their horses, using their mounts as shields.  This was often done as the Parthians were retreating.  Partly because of these tactics, the Romans never were able to beat the Parthians.  The phrase Parthian shot became a learned metaphor in English for an insult, or even merely the "last word", that was delivered as one was departing.  Its synonym became parting shot, which, of course, means basically the same thing, though Parthian shot does have a richer background.

*The fact that parting shot appears first in the written record by no means indicates that it was coined first.

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