Etymons

Etymons are the heart of etymology. The root meaning of etymology is “finding the underlying’’ or “true meaning of words.” The root of etymology is Greek etumos, “real, true.” From this was derived etumon, “true or literal sense of a word” (acquired by English in the 16th century as etymon).

Post-classical grammarians came to use etymon in the sense “root from which a particular word was derived,” as a result of which modern etymology, the study of etymons, deals with their history rather than their meanings.

—John Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins.Arcade Publishing; New York, 1990. 208.

Words are the fossils of language, and the DNA of history. English, more than any other language, is adaptive and acquisitive. We have ransacked the vocabulary of every language we have come into contact with, taking the words and phrases that fulfill unmet gaps in our language, and making them our own. In an era when some foolish souls propose "English only" legislation, English as pilfered, filched and outright stolen great swathes of words from, well everyone, and everywhere. As James Nicholl noted twenty years ago:
The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."

James D. Nicoll rec.arts.sf-lovers 1990-05-15

Words are the fossils of language, and the DNA of history. These are posts about words, and language and rhetoric and meaning.

  • Etymons

    Aglet

    An aglet according to the AHD is 1. A tag or sheath, as of plastic, on the end of a lace, cord, or ribbon to facilitate its passing through eyelet holes.2. A similar device used for an ornament. The OED s.v. aglet offers: a. A tag attached to the end of a lace, originally of metal and now also of plastic, intended primarily to make it easier to thread through the eyelet holes, but also developed as an ornament. The aglet is that small plastic sleeve on the end of your shoelace. Sometimes aglet refers to ornaments at the end of a lace, especially on shirts or other items of…

  • Etymons

    Haggis

    If you mention to anyone, at all, that you’re going to visit Scotland, you’re bound to be warned about Scotland’s national dish; haggis. Haggis is, according to the AHD “A Scottish dish consisting of a mixture of the minced heart, lungs, and liver of a sheep or calf mixed with suet, onions, oatmeal, and seasonings and boiled in the stomach of the slaughtered animal.” The closest thing I can compare with haggis to in terms of standard American dishes is stuffing, made with giblets. People tend to think of haggis around the 25th of January, the date reserved to celebrate the birth of Scottish poet Robert Burns. All over the…

  • Etymons

    Sommelier

    I happened to see a post at one of the wine blogs I follow regarding the derivation of the word sommelier. But while the post is accurate, mostly, as far as it goes, it doesn’t to my mind go nearly far enough. First, a bare bones definition of sommelier: A restaurant employee who orders and maintains the wines sold in the restaurant and usually has extensive knowledge about wine and food pairings (AHD). You’ll sometimes see a sommelier defined as a wine steward, though technically there’s a fair bit of expertise that’s well beyond that of a steward. Now, for the etymology. Sommelier is a word English borrowed from French;…

  • Etymons

    Olive

    Olives, deliberately planted and tended for thousands of years, are intimately tied to the early diets of ancient humans, who carefully cultivated them wherever we roamed, so much so that a plant with Afro-Asiatic ancestry is now grown even in Washington state. It’s no small thing, that, and it marks the importance of the olive tree in human history, given that the plant is used not only for the fruit (the olive), but for the oil, pressed from the fruit, and the leaves, and even the wood. English, etymologically speaking, obtained the word olive via Old French, olive, from Latin oliva, “olive, olive tree,” from Greek elaia “olive tree, olive.”…

  • Etymons

    Pumpkin

    A few days ago I noticed that the local markets are already selling pumpkins for carving, and for eating (there are some pumpkin varieties that are known especially for sweet flesh, appropriate for pies and puddings and sweet breads). And I’ve seen the appearance of pumpkin lattes and pumpkin-inspired beers. In other words, yes we’re in the season known as autumn, and fast approaching harvest. A woman at the grocery store noticed me admiring the pumpkin display, and told me that they’re native to America, and that the word pumpkin is itself a native American word. I nodded politely, and didn’t correct her, but no, pumpkin is not a native…

  • Etymons

    Scatosyntheton

    There’s been an unfortunate increase in the last four of five years of people who want to offer critical, opinionated reviews of books they haven’t read. This is usually done in an effort to prevent anyone else reading the book. A review of a book the author hasn’t read is, on the face of it, such an odd idea that many people are surprised it happens. It not only happens, it’s become downright common. The habit of critiquing a book the critiquer or reviewer has not read is in part related to people who want to ban books that they take issue with; like the parents of Litchfield, N.H. who…

  • Calendar,  Etymons

    Christmas and Xmas

    I noticed an online acquaintance the other day becoming extremely agitated that someone had referred to Christmas using the colloquialism Xmas. She felt that this was insulting, and offensive in the extreme. What she didn’t realize was that Xmas as a shortened form for Christmas has a venerable (and solidly Christian) history. The word Christmas is a compound of Christ + mass; we see it first in Old English in the form Cristes mæsse in 1038, according to the OED. The Old English form eventually evolved to the Middle English Christemasse. The word Christ is derived from the Greek word Christos, meaning “anointed,” a literal translation of the Hebrew cognate of messiah. Mass, as in the Christian ritual, derives from Middle English masse,…

  • Etymons

    Ye Olde Shoppe

    Right smack dab in the middle of Main Street in Keene N.H. in the 1970s was Ye Goodie Shoppe, purveyors of fine hand-made candies. They are, to this day, the only place I’ve ever known to make Dark Chocolate Cashew Turtles. (They also make really good Milk Chocolate Turtles). Ye Goodie Shop opened in 1931, and is still going strong (though no longer on Main St.). The use of “ye” and “shoppe” in the name (like “Goodie”) Ye Goodie Shoppe are deliberate attempts to present a brand that is old fashioned, and even quaint. Finding a store that used ye, goodie and shoppe is a trifecta of sorts. However charming…

  • Etymons

    Sanguine

    The business with Ajay Naylor had been concluded to mutual satisfaction; she was not adverse to providing him rugs on commission, though she was less sanguine, even, than Audrey regarding the possibility of shipping off-planet. Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. I Dare. when, as sometimes happened, filial respect wore a little thin, at least these regrettable lapses did not last for long, and were not difficult for a man of his sanguine temperament to forget. Georgette Heyer. The Grand Sophy. Sanguine is a fairly common word, but it’s a bit disconcerting to look at the way sanguine is usually used compared to the dictionary definition of sanguine and its etymology.…

  • Etymons

    Humor

    humor noun The quality that makes something laughable or amusing; funniness: could not see the humor of the situation. That which is intended to induce laughter or amusement: a writer skilled at crafting humor. The ability to perceive, enjoy, or express what is amusing, comical, incongruous, or absurd. See Synonyms at wit1. One of the four fluids of the body, blood, phlegm, choler, and black bile, whose relative proportions were thought in ancient and medieval physiology to determine a person’s disposition and general health. That’s not the complete definition from the American Heritage Dictionary, but it’s enough for now. Modern English humor derives from Middle English, where humor largely referred…