Tag Archives: Etymology

Basque Musings

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I just returned from a long weekend away with my husband in Bilbao, Spain.  I say that with trepidation, as, according to many Basque people, it is not Spain, but Basque Country.  There are some who are content to remain part of Spain and France, and others who want independence, so when in Basque Country, say it the Basque way.

As a lover of history, linguistics and just about everything else except strenuous exercise, I can say that it was a great weekend (even though a lot of exercise snuck in)!  Great weather, great food, great architecture, confusing languages, and interesting sites all round.  Here are some highlights:

Guggenheim Museum:  The building itself is well worth the visit!  The architect, Frank Gehry, literally designed the building on one of his free-form doodles. With only one straight wall that I could see, I can imagine that he was doodling when the phone rang and made his hand jerk, causing the straight line…  it’s an engineering feat, to say the least.  Just outside the Guggenheim are several sculptures, notably a giant dog made of flowering plants; it was intended to be a temporary display, but the people of Bilbao fell in love with it, and it’s now a permanent landmark.  There’s also one for us odd arachnophiles out there, a giant spider.  Two sculptures look like they’d float away, even though they weigh tons:  “Tulips”, and a tower of balls.

The weather was perfect, so we took a “Bilboat” tour down the waterway; it gave us the chance to see areas of the city which are usually far from the tourist route; areas that are in the throes of rejuvenation and restoration.

Pintxos:  You can’t go to Basque Country and eat in a usual restaurant!  You need to go (what my husband and I dubbed) “Pintxopping” – like pub crawling but for a Pintxos (“Pinchos”) dinner.  They are similar to Spanish tapas but far more elaborate; 5-6 will make a meal.  12 Euro will get you 6 Pintxos and a pint of beer.  Any Pintxos bar worth their salt will spread out a wide variety of the treats along the length of their bar, and diners choose a selection of hot and cold delicacies.  Bars pride themselves on signature creations; one bar we ate at had a mound of crab meat baked under a layer of squid-ink-tinted cheese, in the shape of a regional mountain.  Most are served atop toasted slices of Baguettes, though there are also many on skewers, or served as spring rolls.  If you’re now hungry, sorry about that – but you can find recipes all over Pinterest.

Language:  The Basque language (Euskara) is a language isolate – in other words, it is unrelated to any other known language. Within language families, one could interpret this or that word based on a known relative language, e.g. between English street and German strasse.  But looking at a road sign in Bilbao, you would have NO clue as to which word is the street name, and which is the word for street, road or path.  Unless you know Basque, you would have no chance of interpreting anything – even if the context is known. An example sentence from the article on Wikipedia illustrates that point:  “Martinek egunkariak erosten dizkit” means “Martin buys the newspapers for me”.  It is the last remaining descendant of one of the pre-Indo-European languages of Western Europe,  with every other language that might have existed in relation to it having gone extinct, so there’s no way to decipher it based on a comparative method, linguistically.  It may have been related to the Aquitanian language, which was spoken in the region before the Roman Republic’s conquest in the Pyrenees region, but the exact origins are unknown.  It’s a fascinating study, if you’re interested!

One of the images above was taken on my flight home; the Alps were in fine form, and the weather great for flying; Matterhorn can be seen in the centre. I hope you enjoyed my mini-tour, and I would recommend that you get yourself a pintxo or two to tide you over until your next meal…

 

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History Undusted: Naval Slang

In our everyday language, we often use sayings without really knowing how they originated.  Sayings such as “to swing a cat” or “down the hatch” or “break the ice”.  These three have something in common:  They all began life as naval slang.

cat-o_-nine-tails__psf_The first, “to swing a cat,” has a rather gruesome beginning:  It refers to the cat-o’-nine-tails, a whip made up of nine knotted cords roughly 75 cm long that was designed by the British Royal Navy to inflict severe pain and lacerate the skin.  It was used in flogging for anything from drunkenness to mutinous talk to stealing.  It was known as a “cat,” and obviously they needed room to swing it, to get the full effect.  Today it merely refers to the size of a room or space as being “too small to swing a cat”.  Another nautical idiom with cat was “to cat the anchor”:  The cat referred to here was a large wooden beam on either side of the bow of a sailing ship which was used to support the weight of the anchor as it was raised or lowered; since there was usually the head of a lion or large cat carved at the head of the beam, it was called a cathead.

“Down the hatch” is more straightforward:  The hatch was the covering of the hatchway on a ship, an opening in the deck which allowed vertical access into the hold for loading cargo.  It means the act of drinking in particular, the mouth being the “hatch”.

“To break the ice” means to remove the invisible social barriers between strangers to ease conversation and social contact.  It comes from the specialized ships called “ice breakers,” which were designed to plough through icy waters, making the passage of other vessels possible.  Without such a ship, arctic expeditions could find themselves frozen in, land-locked by shifting ice sheets.

For many more sayings relating to naval history, check out “Not Enough Room to Swing a Cat” – Naval Slang and its Everyday Usage by Martin Robson.

Originally posted 28 on History Undusted.

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History Undusted: Decisions, Decisions

In May 2013, I began blogging here on WordPress; at the time, I had several topics of interest that I wanted to pursue, and to that end I began several blogs.  As time has marched on sometimes other priorities took over, or focus changed, and now I have three active blogs.  This eponymous blog is my home-base, but one of my favourite blogs to write besides this one is History Undusted.  I love finding the dusty bits of history and “undusting” them for the unsuspecting public.  But sadly, it has never really seemed to find notice by WordPress, and many of the posts have gone unseen.

Because history and the research thereof is a big part of my writing process, whether it be Viking history, archaeology, Scottish history, 18th century England, science, technology, advertisement, historical characters, or any of a dozen other topics, I have decided to combine the two blogs into this one.  If history isn’t your thing, don’t worry – I will still enjoy posting articles regularly about the writing process and the nuts and bolts involved!  I will begin “importing” (and, if necessary, augmenting) those blogs gradually, until they’re all safely here.

So without further ado, here is the first offering:

Decisions, Decisions

gieves-dress-wheelHave you ever heard of a butler (or male servant, in general) referred to as “Gieves” or “Jeeves”?  This might just be where it all started:  The Gieves Gentlemen’s Tailor Company was founded in 1771, and became a limited company in 1785; their dress wheel aided naval officers in choosing what to wear at any particular occasion, for any part of the world they might have found themselves in at the time.  Dressing, even for men, was an extremely complex social signal in bygone eras.  By 1935 there were twelve styles of dress, including tropical options.  By turning the wheel, an officer could see just what to wear on any occasion.  A handy little marketing device, it gained Gieves loyal royal naval customers, and the company has thrived ever since, with loyal customers including members of the British royal family today. For an interesting history of the company, click here.

Sir P.G. Wodehouse, an English author and one of the most widely-read humorists of the 20th century, named the comical fictional character of his shrewd valet “Jeeves”; the name was taken from Percy Jeeves, who was a cricketer killed during the First World War. Both the wheel and the fictional character served to cement the name in the collective conscience of the western world as a reliable servant.

Originally posted 27 May 2013 on History Undusted

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Musings about Advent

For those of you in highly commercialized countries (I won’t name names, but the initials are USA, for one…), before Thanksgiving is past, Christmas decorations have hit the shop shelves.  Before Christmas is really digested, Valentine’s ads appear.  I hope that you’ll bear with me, as I contemplate a holiday between your Thanksgiving, and Christmas:  Advent.

In today’s global village, people around the world are aware of holidays such as Christmas and Easter, though it might not be a part of their indigenous culture or religion; they may even celebrate them, though that be more of a marketing incentive rather than a religious one.  I grew up in Kansas, and though we were aware of Advent as an event leading up to Christmas, we never celebrated it – we rarely, if ever, had an advent calendar, or advent wreath of candles.  Here in Switzerland, Advent is like an extended Christmas; our personal advent calendar contains small gifts, and of course chocolate; this year, with a teenager in the house, I also included gag gifts. Our particular form is the Tischibo bags, hung from a rustic red metal heart frame with hooks.

What is the history behind Advent?  What is its true meaning?  Advent, which comes from the Latin Adventus (which is actually a translation from the Greek word parousia), had two meanings:   In relation to Christmas, it is the inner preparation for remembering the first coming of Jesus as a babe into the world as a human, so that he could fulfil God’s plan for salvation for all.  For Christians, the second meaning is a time to reflect on, and prepare for, the Second Coming of Christ, which will be the end of time for Earth (no one knows the day or hour, and so the Bible tells us to be prepared – like someone on call needs to be ready to go when the call comes).  As an event, it begins on the fourth Sunday prior to Christmas; this year that would be the 27th of November, as Christmas itself falls on a Sunday.

There are several expressions of celebrating Advent:  The calendar, the wreath, and  devotions.

The calendar was first used by German Lutherans in the 19th century, and usually begins on the 1st of December.  They can take on any form imaginable, from a simple paper calendar, to gift boxes, or gift bags labelled 1 – 24.  Consecutive numbers are opened one per day from the 1st to Christmas Eve.  Sometimes the calendar includes a Bible verse and a prayer or Christian devotion for that day of the Advent.  There are even some towns that become living Advent calendars; this tradition began in Stockholm, Sweden.

The wreath, usually a horizontal decoration placed on a table, is made of evergreen boughs (real or synthetic) with four or five candles, representing the four Sundays prior, and Christmas day.  The four are usually red, with the white Christmas candle centred.  One candle is lit on the first Advent Sunday, with an additional candle lit each week.  The concept originated with German Lutherans in the 16th century, though the modern form didn’t catch on until the 19th century, likely in conjunction with the calendar.  For a detailed history of the wreath, click here.

The devotions are readings from the Bible accompanied by a prayer, to prepare the heart and mind for the Reason for the Season – the coming of Jesus as a man to Earth.

If you’ve never made an Advent calendar or wreath before (there is still time to prepare one!), or you want to try something new, below are a few examples I’ve collected from Pinterest.  Please share in the comments below what kind you use, or what your traditions around this time of the year are!

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Musings A to Z Challenge: L

Challenge:  Write a short paragraph (100 words or less) daily on a topic beginning with the sequential letter of the alphabet.

Lackadaisical

Lackadaisical is such a whimsical word compared to what it actually means:  “Unenthusiastic, uninterested, and lethargic”.  I love the 18th century definition: “sentimentally woebegone”; it came from a 1748 interjection, “lackadaisy”, which meant alas/alack.  It seems to me the type of word that the fairy godmother in the 1955 Cinderella tale (The Glass Slipper, with Leslie Carron) would like to say just for the sound of it:  Window sill… Cinderella… meadowlark…  lackadaisical.  Or a word that should be included in lists such as Mary Poppins’ favourite word, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (which is reminiscent of long German words, though English has them too).

Lackadaisical

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Singularity vs. Anomaly

On our recent holiday in Scotland, my husband and I discussed the difference between singularity and anomaly; specifically, we were trying to decide whether we would call the Corryvreckan one or the other (as one does).

Corryvreckan WhirlpoolThe Corryvreckan, which is the strait between the isles of Jura and Scarba off the West Coast of Scotland, contains the world’s third largest whirlpool (following the Saltstraumen off of Norway, and the Moskstraumen, also off Norway), and is considered by many as the most dangerous scuba dive in the UK (there’s only a few minutes’ safe diving time there; when your bubbles start to go down, not up, you’ve overstayed your welcome).  Planted underwater in the middle of the strait is a giant pinnacle of basalt (the same rock that created the Scottish Isle of Staffa, and the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland); its position means that when tides flow in or out, they end up being churned into a broiling mass of suck-ships-under sea.

The name of Corryvreckan comes from the Gaelic Coire Bhreacain – “Cauldron of the Plaid”, and is connected with a myth of Cailleach Bheur, an old hag who was said to stir the waters of the strait in order to wash her plaid.  The English word whirlpool comes from Old English wirfelmere; in German this word paints the image of rolling dice (Würfel) on the ocean (Meer).  Harmlessly small swirling vortices of water are known as whirlpools, and you can see them when you drain a sink or flush a loo. But the more appropriate word for the ship-eating monster-vortices is the Norwegian word Maelstrom; since they have several of the largest, most dangerous ones, I think it’s only fair that they get to name them.

Now, is it a singularity or an anomaly?

Singularity:  “Anything singular, rare, or curious; the state of being singular, distinct, peculiar, uncommon or unusual.”

Anomaly:  “Something or someone that is strange or unusual; any event or measurement that is out of the ordinary regardless of whether it is exceptional or not.”

Our debate on which word to apply to the Corryvreckan is a tie, I think.  While it’s not singular as far as being the only maelstrom in the world, it is distinct, unusual and extraordinary; it’s an anomaly in the geological and topographical sense, which gives it its power and dangerous currents.  If you ever decide to check it out, don’t do it without a local guide unless you’re insane; if you are insane, enjoy washing your clothes with Cailleach Bheur.

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Ye Olde Spelling Laziness

runesymbols

Have you ever wondered about the old-fashioned “ye” in shop signs?  It was a lazy printer’s solution to saving space for “th”, and should be pronounced as “the”, not “yee”!  The Old English character “y” was a graphic alteration of the Germanic rune “Þ” (which came over with the Viking raiders and the Norman King Canute and his rabble, but that’s another story).  When English printing typefaces couldn’t supply the right kind of “P” they substituted the “Y” (close enough, right?).  That practice continued into the 18th century, when it dropped out of use.  By the 19th century it was revived as a deliberate antiquarianism – to give a shop a pedigree, so to speak (read “marketing scam”), and soon came to be mocked because of it.  And now we think of it as the quaint way they used to write…

For a short, fun video on the topic, click on Ye Olde Web link, below.

ye-olde-web-link

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Euphemisms

Euphemism 1Language is a fluid concept, constantly changing, adapting, creating, compensating and inventing itself.  Euphemisms are a prime example of that fluctuation and adaptation; successive generations come to know only the euphemism which in turn ceases to be one by that very definition, and which means that new ones will be invented to skirt the issue once again. For instance, there are hundreds of words for smell or stink, yet only a handful of satisfactory synonyms for words like fragrance, simply because hiding the ugly requires far more creativity than hiding the lovely.  For that reason alone, writers who fall back on expletives like the highly offensive F-word (a euphemism for, well, you know) are simply lazy in my book; they’re missing a great opportunity for creativity!  Interestingly, that word’s meaning has never shifted over time – it’s been in the English language since before the fifteenth century, and even then it was only written in cipher because it was too offensive to record in ink.  In my opinion it still is, and one should consider very carefully before offending unknown numbers of readers from continuing to read your book or blog; more than once have I ended reading a book when they used the word several times in the course of the first few chapters, because honestly it says something about the extent of their language abilities and their spectrum (or lack thereof) of creativity.

As a society’s norms shift, so do the euphemisms that they use to communicate.  In the Renaissance, corpulent women were considered the height of beauty; curvy, curvaceous, and shapely were instances of positive euphemisms; today they might be used by some idiot in the media to insult a Hollywood starlet who (by any other standard would be considered normal if not a little thin) gained a pound or two. Now idiot might be too strong a word; I could say brain cell-deficient, or someone who has delusions of adequacy.  I would like to point out the obvious here:  If you’re going to insult someone, at least spell it right… more often than not, you see people calling someone “dumn” or “dumm”, which smacks of the pot calling the kettle black…

For an extensive list of euphemisms, please click on the image.  That website also has lists of anagrams, clichés, metaphors, oxymorons, palindrome and pleonasms, so it’s worth bookmarking for writers!

For an interesting TED Talk (13:00) on the topic of euphemisms, please click here.

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Vague Exactitude

Grammer Flunkies 5Recently I asked my Facebook connections if they could help me with a Latin phrase; the phrase has to do with the computation of days in the Julian calendar (calends, ides, nones, etc.).  Here is my exact post:

“Calling all Romance Language speakers (French, Italian, Spanish, etc.): Does the following phrase (any of its words) render something similar in your language, and if so, what do those words mean? The phrase is in Latin, “Principium mensis cujusque vocato kalendas” I understand the first and last words, but am curious about the three middle words… Thanks for any help.”

Quite a discussion ensued; but I still don’t know if there is an etymological equivalent or relative to “cujusque.”  One person suggested the connection of mensis (month) with the medical term – which I should have thought of as the German slang term is “Mens” for women’s monthly cycle.  But all other entries tried to help me with the first and last word, and I spent more time explaining my request than I saved by asking in the first place.

This is a trend I’ve noticed on the rise on Facebook in particular, but I am aware that it’s also happening across Cyberland; too often people skim over a text and assume they’ve understood it well enough to make an informed contribution to a discussion.  It’s harmless when it only has to do with topics of grammar and language; but when it also enters the formation process of people’s opinions in the political or social arenas, society beware.  I usually ignore such discussions with a healthy dose of eye-rolling; but sometimes I have to intervene in the propagation of half-baked ignorance, or I won’t be able to sleep at night.

The illustration is a perfect example of this vague exactitude; people took the time to reply, but they did not take the time to properly read, to inform themselves of the actual task at hand.  I have only two words to add:  STOP IT!

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Toe the Line vs. Tow the Line

Toe the LineRecently I used the title’s idiom, and to be honest I don’t know if I’d ever used it before in writing; I’ve heard it said onk-times, but never had much use for it so far in written form.  Then came the question, is it “toe” or “tow”?  Actually the original phrase is nautical; but that could still be either spelling.  I did a bit of research, in both etymology dictionaries and a book of naval slang, online and in my library.  The consensus, I present here.

“Toe the line,”  according to Naval History & Heritage, comes from the practice of waterproofing between deck boards with a layer of oakum, pitch and tar, thus creating a striped deck; when the crew was ordered to fall in at quarters they would line up at their designated area of the deck, toes to the line to ensure a neat line for inspection.  Toeing the line was also used as a form of punishment for lighter misdemeanours aboard a ship, such as younger crew members talking at the wrong time; they were made to stand at the line for a specified amount of time to remind them to behave.  A logical leap later and we have our idiom, because the young lads were warned to “toe the line” – they were to mentally toe the line to avoid getting in trouble.

Tow the LineHowever, “Tow the line” could be seen as a malapropism, a mondegreen, or an eggcorn.  A malapropism (also called Dogberryism) is the substitution of an inappropriate word or expression in place of the correct and similarly-sounding word.  Example:  “Officer Dogberry said, “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons” (apprehended two suspicious persons).  A mondegreen is an error arising from  understanding a spoken word or song text incorrectly.  Example:  “The ants are my friends, blowin’ in the wind” (the answer my friends) – Bob Dylan.  An eggcorn is an idiosyncratic (but semantically motivated) substitution of a word or phrase for a word or phrase that sound identical, or nearly so, at least in the dialect the speaker uses.  Example:  “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes”.  Depending on your view of things, “tow the line could fall into any of those categories.  But it has so often been misused that it has begun to develop its own connotation independent of the original idiom:  While “toe the line” indicates a passive agreement or adherence to a particular regulation or ideology, “tow the line” implies more of an active participation in the enforcement or propagation of that “line” whether political, social, or business policy, as towing an object is not passive, but participative.

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