Issue 205, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Heather:

I've heard the origin of hussy is simply housewife.  Was housewife commonly pronounced as "hussy", or is that more a colloquial thing?  When did it take on the negative connotations it has today?

Yes, you are correct, it is a contraction of housewife.  It dates in writing from the 16th century.  Originally it simply meant "housewife" or "mistress of the household".  However, it soon also had the meaning "thrifty woman".  In 1722, we find, "Her being so good a hussy of what money I had left her" from Daniel DeFoe's The History and Remarkable Life of the Truly Honourable Colonel Jacque.

By the middle of the 17th century, the word hussy took on negative connotations and was used to refer to women in a rustic or rude manner.  For example, in Thomas Hobbes' translation of Homer's The Iliad (1677), Hobbes wrote, "Then Venus vext, 'Hussie!' said she, 'no more Provoke my anger.'"

Around that same time, in rural dialects, the word came simply to mean "woman", and then, as country women were thought rough and rude by their more genteel counterparts in the cities, it came to refer to a badly behaved or mischievous woman, and even a lewd or wanton woman.  This change in meaning had occurred by the 18th century.

Oliva Hussey in "Romeo and Juliet"Interestingly, the word hussy also came to refer to a case that held sewing needles and thread.  It also derives from housewife, and its more common forms are huswife or hussive, which reflect a pronunciation that remained closer to the original word.  This dates from the mid-18th century.

And what about the English surname Huss(e)y?  Remember Olivia Hussey from Franco Zeffirelli's film Romeo and Juliet of 1968?  This surname can derive from several sources: a Norman placename Houssaye, which comes from Old French hous, a collective noun for "holly"; a nickname for a woman who was mistress of her own home (from housewife); or from Old French heuse "booted", referring to someone who wore special boots or wore boots when everyone else (among the peasants) wore leggings or sandals.

From A Reader:

I am interested in knowing the origins of puma, cougar and mountain lion. I think puma is actually a Native American word for this cat, but is the word specific to a particular tribe or was it used across all tribes?  It looks like mountain lion must be an English invention to describe the large cat in the Americas as compared to the cats seen in Africa (I'm assuming this particular cat is native only to the western hemisphere, but if I am wrong, feel free to correct me). But I cannot even venture a guess on where cougar came from. Would you please explain the etymology of each of these words for me?

Of course.  That's why we're here, and we are diligently trying to be "here" more frequently.  Check out our discussion of this in our blog.  But enough about us, back to the lions.  Puma is ultimately a Quechua (Peruvian Indian) word, but English took it from the Spanish, who adopted it in the 16th century from the Quechua.  The OED's earliest record of it in English is from 1777, though it was likely being used well before that.

Cougar has a remarkably similar history.  It came to English from French, though it is etymologicallyFelis concolor, or cougar a Guarani (South American Indian) word.  Here's how it got from French to English: French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon adapted it to French form (couguar) in the mid-18th century, from German naturalist Georg Marcgraf's rendering (cuguacu ara) of the Guarani term (guaçu ara).  Marcgraf's rendering was reproduced by his associate, Dutch naturalist Willem Pison, in 1648.  It was then adopted by English naturalist John Ray in 1693.

Mountain lion's etymology needs no explanation, but it dates from 1859 in writing, from the diary of G.A. Jackson of Colorado (printed in 1935 in Colorado Magazine).  There is also catamount, short for catamountain or "cat of the mountain".  It originally referred simply to wild cats, but it was taken in the 18th century in the U.S. and applied to the puma.  Panther was also used, as was a variant form, painter.  And for those of you curious about the scientific name of this cat, it is Felis concolor, where Latin concolor means "one color".

From Collette:

daftar in India, an office, esp. a military orderly room; a bundle of documents.

I'm reading the Raj Quartet (The Jewel in the Crown is based on these novels) and daftar is on every other page. The story is set in 1940's India, characters are largely British Army. What I found above was on a Scrabble definition list. At first I thought the daftar was a psychologist (thinking daft = "crazy")

Mike, the Asian-language guru here at TOWFI Towers, before researching this term, guessed that it's related to the Arabic daftarun meaning "a list." If that were true, he figured the word came to Hindi from Urdu (Hindustani) and entered that language via Farsi.

He was pretty much on the money.  Daftar is indeed Hindi and means colloquially "the office".  ItThe Jewel in the Crown comes from Arabic daftar "account book", and, surprisingly, the Arabic word comes from Greek diphthera "skin, hide, piece of leather" and, thus "parchment" or "thin paper" (membranum in Latin).  This, of course, is also the source of English diphtheria, so named because of the formation of a false membrane in the area affected by the disease (most often the throat).  In Arabic the daftar was a collection of loose sheets organized on a string, making a record of accounts.  Any book of accounts is still known as a daftar in Arabic today.  The name of the papers was simply transferred to the room/office where those papers were kept.  In the south of India, a collection of papers bundled together inside a cloth is a daftar.  The word dates in English from the late 16th century, though the OED does not record it; it has instead the variant form dufter, first recorded in 1776.

From Tony Saxon:

In parts of the south the word fixin' is used when you say you are going to start a task, e.g. "I am fixin'/fixing to go to the store." Is this slang or is the word being used correctly?. 

That's an excellent question.  The original meaning of fix used in this sense was "to make preparations".  The first quotation that the OED provides is from the U.S. in 1716: "He fixes for another Expedition".  By 1779 we find "Troops are busy in clearing and fixing for laying the foundations of the huts."  Then, the usage becomes more familiar to us in this quotation from 1854-55: "Aunt Lizy is just fixing to go to church."  It is in this form that we can see how the "prepare" meaning shifted, due to context, to "about", so that, in 1970, we find this definition: "Fixin' to, about to do something; to be ready or intend to." 

Ultimately fix comes from Latin fixus, the past participle of figere "to fasten".  To fix something was originally (and still is, of course) to make it stationery or secure, not to repair it!  The word has developed many seemingly disparate meanings since its earliest appearance in English in the 14th century.  The "about" sense (fixin' to) is strictly American.  Probably the most common meaning of fix in the U.S. is "to repair", coming from the general sense of "to make firm or stable", something being "stable" once it is repaired, or so the repairer hopes!  And with that we're fixin' to go to bed!

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