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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Mark:

I was wondering if the origin of the word fruition is from fruit. On the online etymology dictionary it states that fruition was "first recorded 1885 by mistaken association with fruit", which seems to indicate no true relation. Yet both words apparently stem from the Latin frui meaning "enjoy". Please help clarify this.

Let's start with fruit and get it out of the way.  It does indeed derive from Latin frui "to enjoy".  It dates from about 1175 and originally meant any vegetables that could be consumed by humans or animals.  Now we hear it in the phrase fruits of the earth.  The most common meaning today refers to the edible produce of a plant or tree, composed of a seed and the seed's case or covering (the flesh), especially where the seed cover is fleshy or pulpy (like that of an apple, plum, peach, etc).  It came to English from French fruit "fruit, produce, profit".  The connection to enjoyment should be quite clear - the fruit of a tree is the part of the tree one enjoys.

Fruition derives ultimately from the same Latin source, and in the early 15th century, when it first appeared in the written record, it referred to "the act of enjoyment" or "the pleasure arising from possession."  Indeed it retained that meaning into the 19th century.  However, in 1885 we find the word, in Harper's Magazine, used with the meaning "the state or process of bearing fruit": "The greenish nuts, ripened as always from the flowers of the previous year and now in their full fruition."  It's easy to see how the word was thought to mean "the bearing of fruit." Etymologically that meaning is quite correct.   Interestingly, the OED notes that this usage error was not caught by lexicographers, and the new, erroneous meaning, stuck, supported by the word's derivation from Latin frui.

It's unclear if Harper's was the first to use the word in this sense, or if it had been used before and they simply picked up on it, but the Harper's example is the earliest known (so far) usage with the "bearing of fruit" meaning.  However, the word with this "new" meaning was popping up in newspapers all over the U.S. by 1886, suggesting it had been around for a while before the Harper's article.

From D:

In the phrase "Occham’s razor”, razor means a theorem or a postulate. However, I cannot find any other phrase that uses razor in this manner. Can you help me reveal the mystery behind the etymology of razor?

Actually, razor means "razor" here.  Ockham's razor is not something that a man calledClick to visit the site that compares Twitter to Occam's Razor! Ockham used for shaving, but instead it is a principle suggesting that the simplest explanation is usually the best.  The image conjured is one of a razor slicing away unnecessary explanations to get to the simplest one.  The maxim was not actually invented by Ockham.  He simply used it and referred to it a great deal.  Earlier philosophers, like Thomas Aquinas, and even Aristotle, employed this maxim.  It was Sir William Hamilton who christened it "Ockham's razor" in 1852.  Incidentally, it is usually spelled "Occam's razor" or "Ockham's razor".  William of Ockham, a Franciscan friar and philosopher of 14th century England, is the razor's namesake.

It is also known as the law of parsimony, or the law of economy, rendered in Latin as lex parsimoniae.

While we're here, we might as well look into razor.  English adopted it from Old French rasor, which ultimately came from Latin radere "to scrape" - which is exactly what one does with a razor - scrape off beard or hair.  It turns up in the English written record in about 1290 in the form rasores (plural), which shows the French connection.

From Carl:

A phrase I hear a lot is cut to the chase, which we all know means to keep the explanation short and simple.  I can understand cut, but what in the world is the chase.

As is often the case with phrases like this, dissecting the phrase into parts and examining their meanings will not give us the origin of the phrase.  Instead, we have to look back to the earliest known instance of the phrase and work forward from there.  In the case of cut to the chase, it first appears as a script direction in a novel of 1929 entitled Hollywood Girl, by J.P.  McEvoy. Here cut refers to the cutting of celluloid film.  Cut to the chase means, in this sense, to go directly to the chase scene of the movie, deleting less exciting scenes that were not necessary.  The chase was usually the climax of the film in those days, so cutting to the chase was equivalent to skipping the boring parts and getting to the good stuff, and that's pretty much what the phrase means today

After 1929, the next example of the phrase cited by the OED comes from 1955, but we found it in the Winnipeg [Canada] Free Press of March 10, 1944: "Miss Deutsch has another motto which has to do with the writing of cinematic drama.  It also is on the wall where she can't miss seeing it, and it says: 'When in doubt, cut to the chase.'"  Probably good advice for a movie script writer!

From Reginald:

Why shouldn't people who hone in on something say whet in instead?

Good one!  That's a common mistake.  Hone means "sharpen" while home in means "to be guided to aClick the link to visit a site that offers knife sharpening by mail! target or destination".  The noun hone originally referred to a whetstone, and then it came by association to refer to the act of sharpening on a whetstone.  It's an Old English word, not surprising since people have been sharpening knives for millennia.  There are cognates in other Germanic languages.  The figurative sense of sharpening, such as honing a skill, arose later.

The phrase home in is first recorded in 1956, but the sense of homing "be guided to a target" arose around the time of World War I, when aircraft were homing in on beacons and signals.  In fact, Wireless World of 1920 says, "The pilot can detect instantly from the signals, especially if "homing" towards a beacon."

So be careful when using hone and home in.  Don't get those two confused, or you'll confuse your listeners!

From Rebekah:

I am most interested in the origin of the word delivery.  I am interested in the English transitions as I have reason to believe this word has to do with livery or horses for hire.

Well, it does have something to do with livery, but not in the horse sense [no pun intended!], which is a later development.  Delivery is the noun form of the verb deliver, which came to English from Old French delivrer.  There were cognates in many of the Romance languages.  The word came ultimately from late popular Latin delibrare, having the same sense as Latin liberare "to set free".  It first turns up in writing in English with this meaning in about 1325 as delyveryd.  The sense was "to set free, liberate, release, rescue, save."  Think of the Our Father: "Deliver us from evil."  Delivering a baby carries the same sense and also dates from around 1325. Interestingly, the sense of giving or distributing letters or goods dates from 1297!  Keep in mind, however, that the word was probably in use with these senses for some time prior to its appearance in the written record, so it's unclear what the first meaning was in in English.  The word may have had all of these meanings from the beginning, having been borrowed from French.

Now to the livery connection: in the late 13th and early 14th century, this word turns up in English with a couple of meanings: the handing out of food, provisions, or clothing to one's servants; and a suit of clothes, or, early on, a badge or other identifying item, bestowed on a servant to identify whom he served.  The food sense carries with it the notion of delivery - giving or distributing goods.  The clothing/badge sense is less clear, but it is again related to the notion of "giving" - these clothes, containing the master's badge or identifying colors or marks, were given or "delivered" to servants to wear.

The horse sense arose a century or more later.  To be at livery meant the horse was stabled, fed and groomed for a fixed fee paid by the owner.  This practice still exists today, where horses are stabled and cared for by third parties who are paid by the horses' owners.  Such stables were known as livery stables, though the term is not seen much these days.  The sense here is one of the horse's feed and care being "delivered" by the stable owner.

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