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April 2004 Archives:

Interesting Etymologies: dirge; enthusiasm; midwife; shambles, sunbeam; fizzle; trivial

Shakesperean Words: cantle (pommel); pickthank; foison; lenity (bawcock); chuck (seel); runagate; gleek; gall

The Art of the Book: portalan (rhumb line; loxodrome); codex; repoussé; colophon; psalter (illuminate); vellum; minature [noun]

Words that made me laugh: mooreeffoc; kinnikinnik (palindrome); muckender; Pogglethrope; poppycock; panjandrum (grand panjandrum); pettifoggery


Interesting Etymologies (Week of April 5, 2004)


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.



Shakesperean Words (Week of April12, 2004)


Perhaps you've seen collections of old words, words that have fallen out of use and become obscure. Unfortunately, a collection doesn't show usage.


This week we look at some of those now-antique words as used by the greatest wordmaster of all, Shakespeare.


cantle – a segment cut off or out of something; a part, piece or fragment


Thus, where the battle has gone badly:
The greater cantle of the world is lost
With very ignorance; we have kiss'd away
Kingdoms and provinces.
Antony and Cleopatra, Act 3, Scene 10


I shall now retire to have a cantle of cake.


A reader notes: The cantle is also the back part of a saddle; contrast the pommel, or saddle horn, in front.


Yet such extenuation let me beg,
As, in reproof of many tales devised,
Which oft the ear of greatness needs must hear,_By smiling pickthanks and base news-mongers,
King Henry IV, Part I, Act 3, Scene 2


pickthank – a sycophant, a yes-man (one who would steal your gratitude and pick a thank)


Our term 'yes-man' seem like weak watered ale, compared with Shakespeare's catalog of lusty terms for this unpleasant person.


Some carry-tale, some please-man, some slight zany,
Some mumble-news, some trencher-knight, some Dick
Love's Labour's Lost, Act 5, Scene 2


foison – plenty; abundance; rich harvest

[from L. fusion, a pouring. Think of nature's gifts pouring, effusing from the horn of plenty.]


Ceres sings of a bounteous harvest:


Earth's increase, foison plenty,
Barns and garners never empty,
Vines and clustering bunches growing,
Plants with goodly burthen bowing;
Spring come to you at the farthest
In the very end of harvest!
Scarcity and want shall shun you;
Ceres' blessing so is on you.
The Tempest Act 4, Scene 1


Earlier, Gonzalo had told how he would run the island:


Had I plantation of this isle, my lord,-- ...
All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
The Tempest Act 2, Scene 1


lenity – leniency; mercifulness due to being lenient or tolerant.

(implies mildness, gentleness, and tendency to reduce punishment)


Shakespeare, understanding humankind, created characters who had differing views of lenity.


My gracious liege, this too much lenity
And harmful pity must be laid aside.
To whom do lions cast their gentle looks?
Not to the beast that would usurp their den.
King Henry VI, Part iii, Act 2, Scene 2

A little more lenity to lechery would do no harm in him: something too crabbed that way, friar.
Measure for Measure, Act 3, Scene 2

for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.
King Henry V, Act 3, Scene 6

Be merciful, great duke, to men of mould.
Abate thy rage, abate thy manly rage,
Abate thy rage, great duke!
Good bawcock, bate thy rage; use lenity, sweet chuck!
King Henry V, Act 3, Scene 2


Bonus words:

bawcock – a fine fellow (term of endearment)

chuck – term of endearment (literally 'a chicken'). More on 'chuck' tomorrow.


How ironic that villainess Lady Macbeth's (pink) husband (blue) treats her as if she were some fragile feminine flower.


there shall be done
A deed of dreadful note
What's to be done?
Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck,
Till thou applaud the deed. Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day

Macbeth, Act 3, Scene 2


chuck – term of endearment (literally 'a chicken')

seel – (not a typo for "seal") to stitch shut the eyes of a falcon

[Latin cilium lower eyelid]


But when we in our viciousness grow hard—
O misery on't!--the wise gods seel our eyes;
In our own filth drop our clear judgments; make us
Adore our errors; laugh at's, while we strut
To our confusion.
Antony and Cleopatra, Act 3, Scene 13


runagate – a runaway, outcast or fugitive.


Romeo flees after killing Tybalt. Lady Capulet plots her revenge.


Then weep no more. I'll send to one in Mantua,
Where that same banish'd runagate doth live, ...
That he shall soon keep Tybalt company:
And then, I hope, thou wilt be satisfied.
Romeo and Juliet, Act III. Scene V.


The term was 'rennegate' (from the same root as negate), meaning one who denies; an apostate. But then, perhaps from the sounds of 'run' and 'gait', it came to its Shakespearean meaning.


'Renege' changed similarly. To us it means merely "failure to fulfill a promise, or to follow suit in cards when able to do so". To Shakespeare it meant "to desert or renounce".


Such smiling rogues as these, ... / Renege, affirm, and turn their halcyon beaks / With every gale and vary of their masters, / Knowing nought, like dogs, but following.
King Lear, Act 2, Scene 2

Antony and Cleopatra, Act 1, Scene 1, as to his doting on her:
Nay, but this dotage of our general's / O'erflows the measure: ... his captain's heart, / ... reneges all temper, / And is become the bellows and the fan / To cool a gipsy's lust.


A reader notes: Juliet has a fascinating response to Lady Capulet's above speech about having Romeo killed. Juliet's words are craftily ambiguous: Lady Capulet can believe that Juliet agrees with her, but the audience knows better. Altogether, a clever piece of writing.


Indeed, I never shall be satisfied
With Romeo, till I behold him — dead —
Is my poor heart so for a kinsman vex’d:
Madam, if you could find out but a man
To bear a poison, I would temper it,
That Romeo should, upon receipt thereof,
Soon sleep in quiet. O! how my heart abhors
To hear him nam’d, and cannot come to him,
Upon his body that hath slaughter’d him.
To wreak the love I bore my cousin Tybalt


Two words today. The first is reminiscent of our previous word fleer.


gleek – to make sport; to gibe; to sneer (noun: a jest or scoff; a trick or deception); also, to spend time idly.


gall – 1. to scoff, jeer 2. to fret, vex: to be galled by sarcasm 3. to injure, harass, annoy: In our wars against the French of old, we used to gall them with our longbows, at a greater distance than they could shoot their arrows. – Addison.  ['gall' has further meanings as well.]


Go, go; you are a counterfeit cowardly knave. Will you mock at an ancient tradition, begun upon an honourable respect, and worn as a memorable trophy of predeceased valour and dare not avouch in your deeds any of your words? I have seen you gleeking and galling at this gentleman twice or thrice. You thought, because he could not speak English in the native garb, he could not therefore handle an English cudgel: you find it otherwise; and henceforth let a Welsh correction teach you a good English condition. Fare ye well.
King Henry V Act 5, Scene 1



The Art of the Book (Week of April19, 2004)


One of our members, who recently visited the British Library, provided this theme from the ancient writings there.


portolan – pertaining to maritime navigation of ports and coasts

[from Italian portolano=pilot book and porto=port]


Note: I have found this only in OED and one on-line compilation, each of which list this word only as a noun. Its usage, however, is clearly as an adjective here; noun usage can also be found.


This chart of Western Europe, the Mediterranean, and North Africa ... is from the earliest portolan atlas in the British Library's collections. Intended primarily for navigators and merchants, portolan charts show extensive coastal detail.


Readers note that information on portolans is found World Wide Words and in  this page in the James Ford Bell Library site. From the Library site they point out a related word:


rhumb; rhumb line – the line showing the path of a ship or plane that maintains a constant, unchanging compass direction. Also called a loxodrome


codex (pl. codices) – a manuscript (handwritten) volume, especially of a classic work or of the Scriptures ('manuscript' in this sense means "handwritten")


From Latin caudex, tree stump. As I understand it, the word was then used for "waxed wooden strips on which to write", then "a collection of such strips", and then "a collection of paper or parchment on which to write". The method was cheaper than writing on a scroll (lower quality parchment; writing on both sides) and easier to handle, but less durable. The codex format became more respectable when impoverished early Christians took to it for their texts, which thus came to be called codices.


The parchment codex was copied in a hand known as "khutsuri" or "priestly hand".


repousséused esp. of decorative metalwork: with raised patterns formed by hammering or pressing into the reverse side


This elaborate front cover of repoussé work on gilded base metal is one of the most lavish metalwork bindings preserved in the Library's collections.


This may be one of those definitions for which a picture is worth a thousand words.


colophonoriginally, an inscription at the end of a book, giving facts about its publication.

[Gk. kolophon summit, final touch; cf. L. culmen top, collis hill]

However, the inscription has now migrated to a title page at the front, and the term 'colophon' now includes a publisher's emblem or trademark on the title page.


When the colophon, or final description, fell into disuse, and . . . the title page had become the principal direct means of identifying the book.
– De Morgan, Difficulty of Descr. Bks. (1800s?) [Note: I cannot find further explanation of this source. Can anyone help?]

He [God] comes to the Creation of man, and makes him the Colophon, or conclusion of all things else. -- 1635 SWAN Spec. M. ix. #1 (1643) 420


The Lindisfarne Gospels is one of Britian's great nation treasures. It is thought, on grounds of its style and according to the colophon, added around 970, to have been made on the tidal inland of Lindisfarne in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria in north-eastern England in the late 7th/early 8th century.
– British Library. The library's site offers a digitised tour of the Lindisfarne Gospels.


psalter – a collection of Psalms for liturgical or devotional use


This psalter was illuminated for King Levon who ruled the Cilician Kingdom in Armenia from 1279-1287.
– British Library


We approached what had been Adelmo's working place, where the pages of a richly illuminated psalter still lay. They were folios of the finest vellum - that queen among parchments – and the last was still fixed to the desk.

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose


Bonus word: illuminate – to add embellishments and paintings (to medieval manuscripts)

Tomorrow we'll talk about 'vellum'.


vellum – fine parchment made from the skin of a young animal: lamb, calf, etc. (or paper resembling same)


You are well aware that chemical preparations exist, and have existed time out of mind, by means of which it is possible to write on either paper or vellum, so that the characters shall become visible only when subjected to the action of fire.
– Edgar Allan Poe, The Gold-Bug


We recently mentioned the word 'codex', and previously noted the word 'rubricate', each below.


By this time, the papyrus scroll used from Egypt to Rome was replaced by the vellum (calfskin) or parchment (lambskin) codex, made of separate pages bound at one side.
– Carol Strickland, The Annotated Mona Lisa: A Crash Course in Art History from Prehistoric to Post-Modern


Nearby I saw a rubricator, Magnus of Iona, who had finished scraping his vellum with pumice stone and was now softening it with chalk, soon to smooth the surface with the ruler.
– Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose


miniature – a picture or decorative letter [not necessarily small*] on an illuminated manuscript; also, a small painting, or more generally, something small of its class.

[*Note: AHD erroneously requires "small" here. ]


Pictures called "miniatures" sometimes cover a full page, or even a two-page spread, in the British Library's manuscripts. A 'miniature' need not be small because the word, despite appearance, does not come from the same root as minimum and like words relating to small size.


Rather, it comes from the red pigment, Latin minium, used in coloring manuscripts. From this came miniare to illuminate a manuscript or to color with red; miniature the illumination made; miniator the person who does that job. Only later did that the word "miniature" came to mean specifically something small.




Some sources say the pigment minium was red lead (Pb3O4); others say cinnabar (HgS). As best I can tell minium simply meant 'red pigment' of either kind, but the word subsequently evolved, and today the English word minium means red lead.


The manuscript contains more than 1200 scenes from the Bible, in addition to the traditional series of miniatures.
– British Library



Words that made me laugh (Week of April 26, 2004)


These are words, unlikely to fit under any other category, whose theme is simply, "I laughed when I learned of these words." Something, be it the sound, the meaning, or the etymology, was irresistible. I hope they tickle your fancies too.


mooreeffoc -
Dickens recalled seeing a word as a child and being much puzzled by it, until he had a sudden flash of understanding. Chesterton, struck by that story, used this as a word, indeed almost as his motto. Here's how Tolkien, equally fascinated, tells the story.


Mooreeffoc is a fantastic word ... It is Coffee-room, viewed from the inside through a glass door, as it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day; and it was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle.


mooreeffoc the queerness of things which, previously trite, are suddenly seen from a new angle


kinnikinnik – a mixture of dried leaves, bark and sometimes tobacco, smoked by certain of the American Indians


This word's claim to fame is that it is the longest palindromic word in English. It is more often spelled kinnikinnick, but that is no palindrome.


Bonus word:

palindrome – a word or phrase that reads the same backward as forward


muckender – a handkerchief


Could any word be more sharply descriptive? It's a perfectly serviceable word that seems to have fallen into near-total disuse.


But curs'd be he that gives thee pen and ink:
Those dang'rous weapons should be kept from fools,
As nurses from their children keep edge tools.
For thy dull muse a muckender were fit
To wipe the slav'rings of her infant wit,
– Charles Sackville (1643-1706), Earl of Dorset, On Mr. Edward Howard upon his 'New Utopia'.
Enjoy the full text here.


Pogglethrope – one gleefully taking joy in self-satisfaction, like a clucking strutting hen.

[This wonderful old coinage unfortunately did not catch on. It was reported in June 1871 by J. G. Porter in Hamilton Literary Magazine. The report, with minor abbreviation, follows.]


An article by Rev. Henry Ward Beecher appeared in the newspapers a short time ago, bearing the somewhat curious title of "Mr. Pogglethrope." The individuals to whom he applies this epithet are those self-complacent persons who live in a state of perpetual sunshine and satisfaction, and never know what it is to become weary of themselves and all the world besides.
       Perhaps you have a Pogglethrope among your friends. Whenever you call upon him, he recounts for your benefit all the happy turns which he has made in conversation, and the little repartees in which he always seems to himself the victor. If he happens to be a literary character, you are sure of being treated to portions of his latest productions, over which he exults with almost childish glee. And yet you have not the heart to get angry at this innocent joy in every thing that he does.
In the sphere of animal life we find something similar. Did you ever see a creature more satisfied with itself than a hen? All day long she is immensely busy: whether she has a brood of little ones or no one but herself to provide for, makes not a whit of difference. Every speck that turns up is eyed with a most discerning look, and gobbled with a chuckle of complacency, which cannot but amuse the spectator. But of all their doings, nothing fills them with so much wonder as the laying of an egg. She feels all the joy of a great discoverer; it is the beginning of a new era. She listens! Shall nothing celebrate it? It shall not die unknown! Off she flies with an exuberance of cackle, jumps down from the haymow, and goes proclaiming, "A new thing! a wonderful thing! an admirable thing! and I did it!" Her neighbors join in with as much enthusiasm as if the deed were their own.
       These are the Pogglethropes of the barn-yard, or shall we call Mr. Pogglethrope the hen of society?


poppycock – senseless talk; nonsense

In the view of some, the root meaning is "baby poop".


The sources agree that the -cock is from a root meaning "dung" (nice euphemism), but they differ on the root of the pop-. Consider the english word pap, meaning "soft or semiliquid food, as for infants". MW reads the pop- in poppycock as 'soft'; AHD reads it as 'food'. Hence poppycock would mean either 'soft poop' or 'food poop', the latter being rather a redundancy.


But I'd go with a third reading. Chiari, citing an Indo-European root "pap" meaning baby, takes poppycock to mean, at root, 'infant poop' or 'baby-poop'. This seems to convey the right sense of both immaturity and irresponsible voluminous frequency.


panjandrum; grand panjandrum – an important person, or a pompously self-important person


An amusing sound, with an amusing story behind it. In 1755, actor Charles Macklin boasted that he could memorize any passage at a single hearing. Samuel Foote pointedly punctured this pompous pretentious presumption. He promptly penned this passage to measure Macklin's memory:


So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage-leaf to make an apple-pie; and at the same time a great she-bear, coming up the street, pops its head into the shop. "What! No soap?" So he died, and she very imprudently married the barber; and there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies, and the Grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at top, and they all fell to playing the game of catch as catch can till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.


Macklin, they say, sputteringly refused to repeat a word of it.


pettifoggery – quibbling; argument over petty points (typically used in the phrase "a pettifogging lawyer")

[1564, from petty, the second element possibly obs. Du. focker, from Flem. focken "to cheat." Other etymologies are possible.]


'Pettifoggery' has a nice sound to it, but what really made me laugh was the thought of what other words might also derive from Du. focker, and Flem. focken. Whom better to quote than a lawyer?


Yet an inner voice argued against me. "How can you be such a magnificent hypocrite, such a Pharisee, such a champion of demagoguery? You, the whore- monger and gambler, now the double-faced pettifogger, how are you going to clean up gambling and prostitution? You're like a repenting whore who joins the church, and wants to lead the choir the very first day."
– Gerry Spence, The Making of a Country Lawyer: An Autobiography