This week we'll look at some familiar words whose etymologies are particularly interesting.
dirge - The history of the word dirge illustrates how a word with neutral connotations, such as direct, can become emotionally charged because of a specialized use. The Latin word dīrige is a form of the verb dīrigere, "to direct, guide," that is used in uttering commands. In the Office of the Dead dīrige is the first word in the opening of the antiphon for the first nocturn of Matins: "Dirige, Domine, Deus meus, in conspectu tuo viam meam," "Direct, O Lord, my God, my way in thy sight." The part of the Office of the Dead that begins with this antiphon was named Dīrige in Ecclesiastical Latin. This word with this meaning was borrowed into English as dirige, first recorded in a work possibly written before 1200. Dirige was then extended to refer to the chanting or reading of the Office of the Dead as part of a funeral or memorial service. In Middle English the word was shortened to dirge, although it was pronounced as two syllables. After the Middle Ages the word took on its more general senses of "a funeral hymn or lament and "a mournful poem or musical composition," and developed its one-syllable pronunciation.
enthusiasm - "Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm," said the very quotable Ralph Waldo Emerson, who also said, "Everywhere the history of religion betrays a tendency to enthusiasm." These two uses of the word enthusiasm—one positive and one negative—both derive from its source in Greek. Enthusiasm first appeared in English in 1603 with the meaning "possession by a god." The source of the word is the Greek enthousiasmos, which ultimately comes from the adjective entheos, "having the god within," formed from en, in, within, + theos, god. Over time the meaning of enthusiasm became extended to "rapturous inspiration like that caused by a god" to "an overly confident or delusory belief that one is inspired by God," to "ill-regulated religious fervor, religious extremism," and eventually to the familiar sense "craze, excitement, strong liking for something." Now one can have an enthusiasm for almost anything, from water skiing to fast food, without religion entering into it at all.
midwife - The word midwife is the sort of word whose etymology seems perfectly clear until one tries to figure it out. Wife would seem to refer to the woman giving birth, who is usually a wife, but mid ? A knowledge of older senses of words helps us with this puzzle. Wife in its earlier history meant “woman,” as it still did when the compound midwife was formed in Middle English (first recorded around 1300). Mid is probably a preposition, meaning "together with." Thus a midwife was literally a "with woman" or "a woman who assists other women in childbirth." Even though obstetrics has been rather resistant to midwifery until fairly recently, the etymology of obstetric is rather similar, going back to the Latin word obstetrīx, "a midwife," from the verb obstāre, "to stand in front of, and the feminine suffix –trīx; the obstetrīx would thus literally stand in front of the baby.
shambles - A place or situation referred to as a shambles is usually a mess, but it is no longer always the bloody mess it once was. The history of the word begins innocently enough with the Latin word scamnum, "a stool or bench serving as a seat, step, or support for the feet, for example." The diminutive scamillum, "low stool," was borrowed by speakers of Old English as sceamol, "stool, bench, table." Old English sceamol became Middle English shamel, which developed the specific sense in the singular and plural of "a place where meat is butchered and sold." The Middle English compound shamelhouse meant "slaughterhouse," a sense that the plural shambles developed (first recorded in 1548) along with the figurative sense "a place or scene of bloodshed" (first recorded in 1593). Our current, more generalized meaning, "a scene or condition of disorder," is first recorded in 1926.
sunbeam - Though the period of European history from the 5th to the 11th century is often called the Dark Ages, writers and scholars of the time in fact did much to preserve and extend the light of civilization. A minor but felicitous contribution to the English language from this period is the word sunbeam, which is believed to have entered English in the 9th century through the work of Alfred the Great. A scholar as well as a king, Alfred undertook and oversaw the translation of a number of Latin works into the English of his time, now known as Old English. Among these was The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a work composed by the Venerable Bede. The Latin phrase columna lūcis, which we would today translate as "a column of light," occurs several times in this work. Since the Old English translator did not have the word column in his vocabulary, he used bēam, which meant "a tree" or "a building post made from a tree" (our modern word beam).Columna lūcis thus became sunnebeām, or "sun post," which survives as our sunbeam. Though perhaps less stately than "column of light," sunbeam has brightened our language. From it the word beam alone came to mean "a ray or rays of light"; it subsequently became a verb meaning "to radiate." It now allows us not only to beam with pride or happiness but also to beam our broadcasts around the earth and even to the stars.
fizzle - Philemon Holland, in his 1601 translation of Pliny's Natural History, wrote that if asses eat a certain plant, "they will fall a fizling and farting." Holland's asses provide a vivid example of the original meaning of the word fizzle, which was, in the decorous phrasing of the Oxford English Dictionary, "to break wind without noise." During the 19th century fizzle took on a related but more respectable sense, "to hiss, as does a piece of fireworks," illustrated by a quotation from the November 7, 1881, issue of the London Daily News: "unambitious rockets which fizzle doggedly downwards." In the same century fizzle also took on figurative senses, one of which seems to have been popular at Yale. The Yale Literary Magazine for 1849 helpfully defines the word as follows: "Fizzle, to rise with modest reluctance, to hesitate often, to decline finally; generally, to misunderstand the question." The figurative sense of fizzle that has caught on is the one most familiar today, "to fail or die out."
trivial - The word trivial entered Middle English with senses quite different from its most common contemporary ones. We find in a work from 1432-50 mention of the “arte trivialle,” an allusion to the three liberal arts that made up the trivium, the lower division of the seven liberal arts taught in medieval universities—grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The history of trivial goes back to the Latin word trivium, formed from the prefix tri–, "three," and via, "road." Trivium thus meant "the meeting place of three roads, especially as a place of public resort." The publicness of such a place also gave the word a pejorative sense that we express in the phrase the gutter, as in "His manners were formed in the gutter." The Latin adjective triviālis, derived from trivium, thus meant "appropriate to the street corner, commonplace, vulgar." Trivial is first recorded in English with a sense identical to that of triviālis in 1589. Shortly after that trivial is recorded in the sense most familiar to us, "of little importance or significance," making it a word now used of things less weighty than grammar, rhetoric, and logic.
In doing math words for wordcraftjr, I found an interesting etymology for googol and then Google. A mathematician, Dr. Kasner, came up with the concept of googol and asked his nine-year-old nephew, Milton Sirotta, to think of a name for a very big number. Milton came up with "googol" and also suggested the term "googolplex."
While the word "Google" isn't in the OED yet (though "Muggle" from Harry Potter is; go figure), I found that indeed "Google" was named after the number "googol." In fact, the Google headquarters are called "Googleplex!"
Today at a conference someone talked about the etymology of scapegoat, and it was so intersting! Here is what the Online Etymology site says:
1530, "goat sent into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement, symbolic bearer of the sins of the people," coined by Tyndale from scape (n.) + goat, to translate L. caper emissarius, a mistranslation in Vulgate of Heb. 'azazel (Lev. xvi:8,10,26), which was read as 'ez ozel "goat that departs," but is actually the proper name of a devil or demon in Jewish mythology (sometimes identified with Canaanite deity Aziz). Jerome's mistake also was followed by Martin Luther (der ledige Bock), Symmachus (tragos aperkhomenos), and others (cf. Fr. bouc émissaire). The Revised Version (1884) restores Azazel. Meaning "one who is blamed or punished for the mistakes or sins of others" first recorded 1824; the verb is attested from 1943.
It is particularly intriguing that the whole idea of the "goat that departs" was a mistranslation.