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Archive for the 'Word Origins' Category

Maths, Aftermaths, and Foremaths

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Donald Schark discovered a new word recently and wrote in about it. Words are “discovered” in other words, and this one is quite a surprise to me. Donald wrote:

“I am reading an author who wrote of people facing the math and aftermath of their decisions. I have never heard math used before without the prefix, so I checked Webster. Math is from the AS “mowing.” Why is such a useful word in disuse? It certainly applies to those who are currently suffering the math of war or the latest earthquake.”

Indeed, the sense of “mowing” has shifted to “a disasterous event”, since this is what is implied today by aftermath. It implies another compound, too, namely foremath, as the foremath of an earthquake or sunami. Much is being written about that now as we try to forecast these events. The foremath of hurricanes, we now know, is long, tumultuous, and filled with evidence about the storm itself.

I will run this word as a Good Word soon no matter what the research turns up simply because of the excitement at discovering a new word. I felt the same way when I found ease in disease and busy in business., and at one in atonement. Finding words inside words we take for granted everyday is an exciting experience—whether those around me realize it or not.

Idyl, Idyll, and the Ideal

Monday, October 12th, 2009

I received this note from Rebecca Casper today:

“The word that came up in the debate tonight was idyll or idyl. Some believe it is related to ideal. Others said, “No.” In any event, its full meaning is not altogether clear from a simple dictionary. Have you ever featured this word so that you could share your research? It is of Greek derivation, but I thought it was also an allusion to some Greek myth or legend. (But I can’t find anything.) Tennyson wrote ‘Idylls of the King,’ but that doesn’t give us a good etymology. Can you?”

First of all, how do we spell this word: Idyll or idyl? The US dictionaries don’t seem to care how many Ls we use but idyll is the original spelling. Idyl is a later misspelling that has become acceptable.

This word is unrelated to ideal though the latter may have informed the meaning of the former. Ideal is the adjective for idea under the assumption that the idea of an object is always a perfect representation of that object.

Idyll comes, via Latin idyllium, from eidyllion, a diminutive of Greek eidos “form, that which is seen, a person’s beauty”, from the verb meaning “to see”, the one that also went into the making of English video. The diminutive of this word came to refer to a type of short idealized poem, usually a bucolic one, which is to say, a romantic poem about the countryside.

An idyll today still retains a bucolic aroma but today it means “a simple, tranquil state of affairs”. It can also refer to a peaceful interlude that is absolutely perfect, a vacation or affair in a place we normally only dream about.

Look for this word as a Good Word toward the end of October.

Last Word on the Origin of ‘Dixie’

Sunday, September 20th, 2009

Land of CottonSeveral people who read my recent Good Word Dixie, wrote in to remind me of an alternative explanation which most etymologists think little of. Tom Arfsten even backed his claim up with a quotation:
“In Stuart Berg Flexner’s book, I Hear America Talking (1976 Touchstone Books), this explanation is listed:

‘However, scholars know that Dixie comes from the ten-dollar notes issued by the Citizens’ Bank in bilingual Louisiana before the Civil War and bearing the French word dix “ten”, on the reverse side. Soon New Orleans, then Louisiana and the entire South were called The Land of Dixie, and later Dixieland and Dixie.'”

Citizens Bank $10 noteThis story on its surface simply doesn’t seem to make sense, which has led many (including me in the past) to reject it. Why would Scottish and Irish settlers on the East coast use a French word for ten from a small Lousiana bank (Banque Des Citoyens de la Louisiana) to name their region? Only a small minority of Louisianians spoke French and they probably pronounced the word correctly (dees). Why would English-speakers choose the word for ten, rather than the word for one (Unitie), or five (Sangsie), or 100 (Centsie)?

Well, let’s begin with the last question. English-speaking Lousianians, in fact, chose dix because it looks more like an English word than the others (see Folk Etymology). Second, it is true that all currency issued by Banque de Citoyens was referred to as dixies and, moreover, steamboat owners preferred that currency because the bank was one of the most stable and dependable in the South and its currency was accepted in both the French and English sections of New Orleans.

Remember, this was the 1850s, before the Federal Government printed money. Money was printed by private banks, most of which went under during the Civil War. The most dependable printed money in Lousiana at the time was that printed by the Citizen’s Bank. This made it highly desirable up and down the Mississippi and its tributaries.

We also need to keep in mind that the Mississippi was the main thoroughfare between the North and South at the time, the cotton-tobacco highway in the heyday of cotton and tobacco. For this reason, when departing from the North, and asked where they were going, stemboat captains and members of their crews often responded, “To Dixie Land,” meaning to the place where they planned to make lots of dixies.

Dan EmmettThe reason Dixie came to apply to the entire South is because the word wasDan Emmett in Blackface popularized in a song written by a minstrel musician and performer named Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815-1904; portrait left, in blackface right). Emmett was born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, served in the Army briefly in his teens, then joined the Cincinatti Circus and traveled through Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, and Kentucky. No doubt from time to time he traveled by steamboat, where he would have certainly heard the word. While in the circus he began performing “Negro” songs on his banjo. 
In 1842 he moved to New York City, where his career began to grow rapidly. He performed in blackface under the name of “The Renowned Ethiopian Minstrel” in bars, restaurants, and billiard parlors with several other performers, just as minstrel shows were becoming popular. The songs he composed during his carreer included several other popular minstrel tunes still alive today, including as “Polly Wolly Doodle” and “Old Dan Tucker”.

His most famous composition was published in 1859 on the eve of the Civil War (1861-1866), “I Wish I was in Dixie’s Land“. The song was already very popular in New York and surrounding area but when the War started, it became the veritable theme-song of the South. The color of the presumed singer was lost in the mayhem of that war and European Americans sang it even more heartily than African Americans.

Emmett’s song was a favorite of President Abraham Lincoln who said after the war ended: “I have always thought that ‘Dixie’ was one of the best tunes I ever heard. I had heard our adversaries had attempted to appropriate it. I insisted yesterday that we had fairly captured it.” So its appeal was general, throughout the nation. The meaning of the term “Dixie” had expanded to include the entire South, the Confederacy, as opposed to the North.


Riehl, Janet Grace, “Dixie: How a Ten-Dollar Bill Became a Song”, Riehl Life, Village of Wisdom for the 21st Century, September 18, 2009.

The Magazine of History with Notes and Queries, Vol. XX, 1915, pp. 1-4 (

Plus the links in the text.

Huxion Stew, Anyone?

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

Here is one from the weird and wonderful world of the world’s worst spellers. It was sent to me by Martha Hulshof.

“How about this one, huxion, found in an old 1956 cookbook from Downeast Yarmouth, Maine? My mother-in-law is from Holland and her mother used to cook like this, but she’s not sure what the word means. I looked on line and, remarkably enough, found refrence to the VERY SAME recipie but that author did not know the meaning of the word either! I wonder could you ascertain its origin and meaning.”

Hockshin stewI can’t prove this but I am so sure this is what happened. The stew is made from a hock (hough in Scotland, pronounced [hox]). The hock is that part of an animal’s hind leg just below the knee, thus located near the shin, so some people have used the word hockshin for a long time. It is still alive in parts of Northern England and Scotland, I believe; we have written documentation from as late as 1886. In some areas it has been reduced to ‘huxon’, only a letter away from huxion.

Now, what if we spelled hockshin by the Latin rules of spelling? Hoxion would certainly be a candidate and from hoxion to huxion is but a tiny skid. These types of spelling errors are common for words that are mostly heard and seldom seen in writing.

Further evidence is provided by preserved written examples of hox and huxen in the sense of “hamstring”. The examples are old and these words are clearly archaic but may well have been involved in the shift of CKS to X and the shift from O to U.

Bottom line, the spelling of the word hockshin has rambled all over the place in the past three centuries. That the spelling huxion was one of those places, doesn’t surprise me at all.

Podunk Potemkin Villages

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

Yvonne Owens couldn’t help being struck by both the phonetic and the semantic similarities between our recent Good Word podunk and Potemkin and wondered if the two words were related.

For all its similarity, Potemkin has nothing to do with Podunk. Podunk is a word from an American Indian language while Potemkin comes to us from Russian. The Russian word is a commonization of the name of Grigory Potemkin (or Potyomkin, as it ir pronounced in Russian). Potemkin was a favorite of Catherine, probably her lover, and for the majority of her reign, the most powerful person aside from Catherine in Russia.

Grigori PotemkinAccording to European legend, in order to impress Western European dignitaries visiting Russia, Potemkin very quickly built several settlements in territories taken by Catherine from Turkey in order to convince those dignitaries that the land now belonged to Russia and that Russian would not surrender it under any circumstance. To make the point, Western Europeans had to see Russian putting the land to Russian use, even though the peasants compelled to move into them left soon after the dignitaries departed.

Although unrelated to podunk, Potemkin’s action bears a striking resemblance to the action of Israelis in building settlements in the West Bank territorities siezed during the Six Day War. Both instances are based on the assumption that “possession is 9/10 of the law” plus the additional difficulty of undoing what has already been done. The difference, of course, is that Israel is building real settlements; Potemkin built nothing more than empty shells of buildings grouped to look like settlements in an unsettled territory.

Beautiful Foreign Words in English

Friday, June 19th, 2009

Mark Conn is only the most recent reader of our “100 Most Beautiful Words in English” list to ask why so many seem to be French, not English. I guess it is time to put a reply up for everyone.

The reason is that well over 50% of the English vocabulary is borrowed from French. When William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, he initiated the Norman Period of English history and the Middle English period of the language. Religious, legal, judicial, educational, and governmental institutions were conducted entirely in French and Old English became the language of the lower classes. Thousands of words were imported into English, a process that continued even after English reestablished itself as the strongly French-influenced national language again around 1300.

We can push the percentage of words borrowed from French and its mother, Latin, even higher if we include medical and legal terms, and higher still if we include the Greek language. The vast majority of current English vocabulary is borrowed, in fact. 

English doesn’t simply borrow words from other languages, it plunders other languages for their lexical treasures like a vocabulary pirate: Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Polish, Yiddish, Hindi, Chinese, Japanese, plus dozens if not hundreds more, have all seen their word stores scanned directly into the English lexicon.

Now, does that mean that English contains only a few thousand English words? That would be a hard case to make. Once we borrow a word like chatoyant (pronounced [shæto] then change its meaning and pronunciation (English [shætoyênt]), it is English. The fact that a French word is borrowed from a language associated with high culture, fashion, and epicurean sophistication does add to its beauty and allure, though.

The aspect of a native word like becoming, fetching, or comely that sets it off from the rest is a sense of being quaintly out of fashion, a warm, and cozy sense like that of a dowdy old aunt or grandmother. Here the distance is in time rather than place but it is still the sense of removal that adds elgance and grace to such such words.

That doesn’t mean that some current native words are not beautiful: love, lilt and offing certainly fill that bill. Certainly other aspects enter the lexical beauty equation. However, just as a sense of anachronism positively inclines us toward native words, the exoticity of distant cultures in words borrowed gains our vocabulary the same advantage.

I’m working on a longer, more detailed explanation of how beauty works in words for the book, The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English scheduled for August publication.

Upskirting: Sex in the Slow Lane

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

The Sunbury Daily Item this morning reported the arrest of an out-of-state visitor in the Susquehanna Mall for upskirting. (The online edition changed the headline so as not to unintentionally encourage its readership). Upskirting, according to the Deadly Item (as it is fondly called by those of us who adore it), is bending over to take a digital photograph up a lady’s skirt (or a naughty girl’s, for that matter). Given the length of skirts these days, I have difficulty visualizing this, since either the man is something of a contortionist or the skirts involved were very short.

The important point, however, is that the perp is from out of state, Missouri, to be exact. Readers in that state should be on guard! Another important point—aside from the one on this guy’s head—is that upskirting is not yet listed among the crimes in Pennsylvania, so the district attorney has to decide whether the actual crime is disorderly conduct or harrassment, neither of which carry stern penalties.

Here at alphaDictionary, of course, we are more interested in the fact that this new verb has reached the area. To upskirt, according to the Urban Dictionary, has been around since 2006, along with the misuse of photographic cell phones itself. Since the verb to skirt means “to go around, circumvent”, I would have expected to upskirt to mean “to circumvent by raising to a higher level”, as to upskirt an insult with a compliment to the insulter. Apparently, that is not the case.

Anyway, this brave new step into sexual perversion and the vocabulary it shleps with it has us all talking in appropriately hushed tones here in centrally isolated Lewisburg. Who knows where it will lead to next: peeking at girls in bikinis at the beach, no doubt. What’s the world coming to?

Hagia Sophia and Saint Peter

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

John Myes wanted to know if the hagia in Hagia Sophia is related to the hagios in our Good Word hagiographyHagia Sophia is the name of the museum in Istanbul that was once the seat of the patriarch (= pope) of Eastern Orthodoxy.  Indeed, Greek hagia “holy” is the feminine form of hagios, which is also the word for “saint”, so Hagia Sophia means “Saint Sophia”. (We find the same relation in saint, which was originally Latin sanctus “holy”.)

I always thought it interesting that the patron saint of the Roman Catholic Church was a man, St. Peter, the Rock, while the patron saint of the Eastern Orthodox Church (once a part of the Roman Church), was a woman, St. Sophia, also the Greek word for “Wisdom”. 

The several historical attempts to (re)marry these two faiths have failed. They would seem to be incompatible despite all their common interests.

If Right is Right, is Left Wrong?

Monday, June 8th, 2009

Maureen Koplow’s third question in the two sentences she wrote concerning my discussion of benight, was this: Where do we get the “various meanings of right as in ‘that’s right’ vs. ‘you don’t have the right to do that.'”

Well, that is a simple one. The association of right-handedness and the right way to do things has been with us for millennia. The Greeks, the Romans, and the (original) Indians built that into their speech thousands of years ago. The reasoning goes something like this: if 98% of the people in the world are right-handed, the doing things with the right hand is the right way and doing them with the left hand is not right, right?

OK, next step. If right = right, and everyone wants to do right and be done right to, we begin to expect to be treated in the right way. The right way then becomes a right in a third sense. We then have and to protect our rights in this third sense of the word, we need laws to protect our rights from those who do things wrong.

So, if right is right, and right our right, where does that leave left? The Latin word for “left” gives us a hint; it is sinister.

However, left-handers have rights, too, and I’m proud to say that over a decade ago my university, Bucknell, no doubt following the lead of others, began providing desks for left-handers in our classrooms, erasing the connection between left and wrong. Moreover, the rest of us have forgotten the origin of right and sinister and they may well be two sleeping dogs best left to lie right where they are.  (I hope you didn’t get left behind in this blog; that wouldn’t be right.)

Why is W Called ‘Double U’?

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009

Do you ever wonder about the names of letters? Generally, they are straightforward: A is ay, B is bee, C is see, and so on. But there is one very peculiar name: W = Double U. Did you ever wonder why?

The letters U is a fairly modern innovation. In Rome it was often carved as V to avoid the difficult-to-carve rounded bottom.  Even in Old English manuscripts you see it drawn this way.  So V years ago was a U named “you” (or “ewe”).  So, if you put two of these together, as in W, what do you get? Right.

The interesting thing about the sounds these three letters, U, V, and W, represent, is that one often morphs into one of the others over time. The sounds [u] and [w] (nothing but lip-puckering) are essentially the vowel and consonant variation of the same linguistic sound (phoneme), so that periodically you will find old typesetting with no W, so that west is spelled uest and woman, uoman.