Monday, September 5, 2011

Etymology of Meat

Meat: It’s what was for dinner.

Until around the 13th century, meat and its predecessors simply referred to ‘food,’ be it flora or fauna, including food for animals. In English, it traces back to the O.E. maet. The words mast (as in nuts and pig feed) and must share similar OE roots, maest and must, which respectively meant the juice expressed from grapes before the fermentation of wine.

There are a couple of different PIE roots referred to in the literature, but I’ve yet to find a coherent enough etymology of meat past Old English to merit posting here.

During the 1300s, meat became associated solely with animal flesh just as the Fr. viande underwent the same development. More figurative uses of the word did not appear until the turn of the 20th century, just as the commoners developed enough means to begin getting into trouble. Victorians began whispering in parlor rooms of a woman’s light and dark meat in reference to her breasts, as both genders slinked off to dimly lit meat markets. The appearance of still lewder uses of the term have been lost to the pages of early yellow publishing houses where seemingly few etymologists have dared to thread.

The use of meat as the essence of a a matter also appeared at this time.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Etymology of Gnome

After spending some time looking at how guttural phonemes entered English by way of Norse languages (so barbaric!), I recently found myself looking up some words with silent initial g’s and ended up following the origin of “gnome” down its etymological rabbit hole. There’s not a bit of Norse involved, of course, as its ultimate base seems to be rooted in the Greek base genomos, meaning ‘earth-dweller.’
Accepting this as the root, however, takes a bit of a leap of faith. The clearest trail stops cold in the Modern Latin gnomus from the 16th century revival which referred to ‘elemental earth beings,’ which can be traced pretty clearly up to the inanimate garden inhabitants we so know and inherit today. Others prefer to point a different trail for gnome that leads instead to gnomic, which meant ‘intelligence’ and was closely related to the origin of the term gnosticism.
My guess is that these conflicting etymologies are two sides of a single coin. If you happen to have a source that will clear this up, please comment below or message me on Twitter @etymologynow .

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Etymology of Freedom

The etymology of powerful terms like ‘free’ and ‘freedom’ reveal a lot about how attitudes about the implications of freedom have changed over the centuries. If you take a look at the etymological trail leading to the origin of freedom, you’ll eventually find that the root is the PIE base *pri- (*preyh2- or *preh2y if you want to get particular. Interestingly, the meaning of *pri is ‘love,’ which was incorporated into a variety of other terms in the years to come with meanings like ‘beloved,’ ‘help,’ ‘peace’ and ‘affection.’ Gradually, words like ‘free’ and ‘freedom’ came into its modern sense of not being bound by law, society, circumstances, etc, possibly due to the social divide between free and beloved friends and family members as opposed to slaves and servants.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Etymology of Doom

The etymology of doom reveals a lot about the complicated relationship that mankind has had with the concepts of law and judgement throughout history. The modern sense of the term has been associated with implications of fear and ruin since the early 1600s. Originally, however, doom is rooted in the Proto-Indo-European dhe-, meaning "to put or set" and has been used for a variety of words associated with "law" throughout linguistic history.

In Old English, doom was used to refer to law and judgement, and the term dombec stood for a book of laws. Over the century, doom became increasingly associated with the final judgement at the end of days prophesied by the Christian tradition. The finality of that judgement and the fear associated with the day of reckoning eventually evolved into the modern sense of doom that we use today.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Etymology of Golf

To the uninitiated, golf seems to hold all the charm and promise of a march into the heart of mother Russian in late fall. To players of the game, feelings regarding the game can range from the simple pleasure of enjoying a sunburn and a warm beer with the fellows to an existential confrontation with one's own inadequacies both inner and outer. Either way, the history of golf and the etymology of golf itself both betray the simple truth that the alleged sport attracts no middle ground: you either play it with pleasure or regard it the disdain of a malinformed homophobe.

The most commonly quoted etymology of golf both wrong and one of those false word histories that leaves a bad taste in the brain, or whatever the equivalent for taste in a brain would be. Golf haters in particular love to give brief, indignant and unsolicited lectures on the history of the word golf that claim it to be an acronym standing for:


Golf, of course, has a bit of a boy's club reputation, much like, say, poker, fishing, first-person shooters, primal screaming, the Stonecutters and any other of a long list of strategies that men have devised over the years to escape hearth, home and hag. The implied notion, however, that the golf green is the very sanctum of a Skull and Crossbones like plot over woman and sissy kind would instantly implode if any of conspiracy theorist were to listen in surreptitiously on the discourse that takes place between each man's stroke. At best, discussions range from genitalia to certain movements. At worst, it's commiseration over the pleasantries of family and property at its very lowest.

In any rate, this false etymology of golf is what is known as a backronym, an acronym ascribed to a term long after its origin, much like similar false claim that the term news was designed as an acronym representing North East West South. All lies and slander.

Instead, the etymology of golf dates back to the land and times of its origins amongst the wise, sober and clean shaven Scots. A similar word goulf was in use at the time to describe the striking and cuffing of any number of things, possibly derived from a Dutch kolf, which described bats, clubs and the like, so sayeth Wikipedia.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Etymology of Soccer

The United States has pretty much dug in its heels on refusing to acknowledge the sport of football by any other name than soccer. Beneath the thin film of good humor that both sides of this topic try to maintain lurks an unabashed sense of nationalism that is no doubt at the root of countless soccer riots. Excuse me, football riots. The weird thing is that nobody even remembers where the term soccer comes from. The root: soccer hooligans. I mean football hooligans.

When the sport of football was first getting organized, various football clubs joined office football associations. When they could take their lips off of their tankards of sour port in between games, football players would refer to the organization as socka, socker and, eventually, soccer as a slang abbreviation of association. Unfamiliar with the reference, Americans assumed that the soccer was the name of the sport itself.

To be honest, that's kind of an oversimplification of the etymology of soccer, but this is just a short post. We'll get back into our discussion of the shared root of money, monster and so many other barely related words later this week.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Etymology of Monster

Following yesterday's etymology of money and its curious relationship to a warning from the gods, I spent a little bit of time before work this morning looking over some other similar words that have related roots. As the second part of what might be a series of posts on this dysfunctional family of divinely rooted words, the etymology of monster gives us a good picture of what we might be getting into here. The final Latin root for monster is monstrum, meaning "an omen, supernatural being or object that is an omen or warning of the will of the gods." Monstrum, as it turns out, is derived from monere, "to warn or to advise, particularly in a divine sense," and the same root as money.

Monster entered the English language between the 12th and 14th centuries from the Old French term monstre, and it appears the monstre was used in Middle English as either an evil omen or frightening physical deformity well into modern English when it became monster. One of the earliest examples of monstre being used in the sense that it is used today appeared in 1385 in Chaucer's Legend of Good Women when discussing a minotaur that inhabits the underworld:

This Mynos hadde a monstre, a wiked best,
That was so crewel that, withoute arest,
Whan that a man was brought in his presence,
He wolde hym ete; ther helpeth no defence.

Monster came to also mean huge or enormous around 1500 and soon came to describe things that were figuratively absurd, such as a particularly disturbing thought. While the original meaning of monstrum as an omen is no longer present in the modern monster, this sense lingers on in words derived from the OF and ME monstre like premonition, demonstrate and muster, which will be the target for another related posting somewhere down the line.