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Our By Lingo! column, exploring modern words and where on earth they came from, makes etymology fun (but let's be honest, when isn't it fun?). Over the years the editors at The Big Issue have been learning a lot from the fortnightly contributions they see – here are a few of their favourites.
WISDOM TEETH Why do we call them wisdom teeth and not something like pain-and-expense teeth? The term showed up in 1668 in an anatomy book, but it’s most likely even older. We took the name from the Ancient Greeks, for whom a much shorter life expectancy meant that getting your final teeth at 20 coincided with your midlife crisis. In Thai, wisdom teeth are known as fun-khut (“huddling tooth”) because they make the mouth crowded. Korean speakers call them sarangni (“love teeth”), correlating romance with when they show up. It is possible to have more teeth after wisdom teeth. These are called “supernumerary teeth” – unfortunately the “super” means “extra” and does not refer to any powers they may bestow. (Ed#436)
RUN This short word has the longest entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is one of the most comprehensive lexical resources ever created. When you include idiomatic senses and phrases there are 645 senses for the verb alone. After all, “running to the shop” is very different to “running the shop”. The whole entry is as long as a decent novel. “Run” is one of a small handful of words with very diverse senses. Two others commonly noted are “set” and “make”. All three have held “the longest entry” record at various points, and are all words with long histories in English. (Ed#458)
PILATES It was not until I walked past a local Pilates clinic with a picture of Joseph Pilates in the window that I realised the strengthening exercise method is eponymous. Naming things after their inventor or founder is a rich source of words in English – think of the Atkins diet and the Dewey Decimal System. Joseph Pilates (1883–1967) was born in Germany, but lived in the USA. A physical-fitness expert, he not only created the exercise philosophy, but the elaborate apparatus for which it is known. While his exercise ideas were sound, his naming skills were not so great. If Pilates had had his way, today you’d be practising “Contrology”. (Ed#459)
THRONE With a certain television series set in Westeros, and a right royal British toddler called George, it seems we are all talking about thrones of late. A throne is the official seat of a sovereign or dignitary: a grand physical manifestation of their social power. Our word throne comes from Old French, and is in written records as far back as the 13th century. There were English kings before then, so what did they sit on? In Old English, Kings and Bishops sat on stools. This word has always referred to a seat accommodating a single person, but now means a small chair without arms or back. And thank goodness for that: Game of Stools just doesn’t have the same ring to it. (Ed#462)
PINEAPPLE Neither an apple, nor from a pine tree – so where does this sweetly acidic tropical fruit get its name? Today pineapples are grown in many countries, but they originated somewhere between Brazil and Paraguay, before spreading throughout South America, the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico. When European explorers came upon the fruit, the thick brown skin reminded them of the pine cones of their native climate. At that time, pine cones were also known as pineapples in English, in an older generic sense of apple as any kind of fruit. To understand the history of pineapples you have to know the history of pine cones; also the imagination of 17th-century explorers. (Ed#463)
COBWEB The “cob” in cobweb is a very old, and now forgotten, spider. The Old English word for spider was atorcoppe, with ator meaning “poison” and coppe meaning “head” – the same “coppe” that probably gave us the word corncob (“head of corn”. In Middle English the word spider (originally spydyr, “the spinner”) became the more popular word, but cobweb was still retained to refer to the home it makes. Now that “cob” has no clear meaning, it’s no surprise that over the last few centuries, people have started to use spiderweb. Web used to be a more generic word for netting – if you know anyone called Webster, their name used to denote people who worked as weavers. (Ed#465)
WINDOW Our windows are from the Vikings. At least, the word window is. Twelfth Century English adopted the Old Norse vindauga, from vindr “wind” and auga “eye”. Of course, English people talked about windows before that, but used compounds of English words to refer to them as eagþyrl “eye-hole” or eagduru “eye-door”. With the advent of fancy glassed windows, many Germanic languages adopted the Latin word fenestra (where we get the excellently inane defenestration). There are recorded uses of fenester in English until the mid-16th Century, but one borrowing was clearly enough for us, and fenester petered out of use. Physical windows were the inspiration for Microsoft’s Windows operating system, although it was going to be Interface Manager, which is perhaps even less catchy. (Ed#476)
TENNIS, in some form, has been played since the mid-14th century. The name is most probably from the Anglo-French word tenetz, from the Old French verb tenir (“hold, receive, take”), shouted by the person serving. In Middle Ages France, the game was known as jeu de paulme, “the palm game”, as racquets were not used. What we think of as tennis today was originally referred to as lawn tennis. As lawn tennis grew in popularity in the 1880s, the older form of tennis (now played with racquets) became known as real tennis. Thankfully, lawn tennis just became “tennis”, even though the inventor, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, wanted to call it sphairistike. (Ed#482)
PANTRY What do you keep in your pantry? It’s likely more than bread, unless it’s time to do some shopping. The original panetrie is Anglo-French from the early 1300s, literally meaning “bread room”. This is from the Latin root panis “bread”, which you might recognise in Italian panini. It is also where we get panniers on bikes – panier meant “basket” in Old French, but comes from the older Latin panarium “bread basket”. Pantries are not just for bread, and cupboards hold more than cups. In the late 14th Century a cupboard was simply a table (or board) for holding cups and the like. It wasn’t until around the 16th century we started closing them and using them for other items, including bread. (Ed#483)
DRONGO The drongo is a black bird with a sweeping tail, whose name comes from Malagasy, the language of Madagascar. The term now refers to all members of the Dicruridæ bird family, found across Africa, India and Australia. In Australia the word is used for someone who is not very bright. This is supposedly in reference to a pedigree horse from the early 1920s called Drongo, which never won a race out of 37 starts, despite having one of the best jockeys of the time on his back. But it’s not totally clear this Drongo was the initial inspiration, as there’s more than 20 years between his underwhelming career and the first reference to drongo in the modern Australian sense. (Ed#486)
BIZARRE It’s only fitting that a word used to describe the strange things in our lives has its own odd history. The word bizarre was most likely borrowed from French, where it also had a sense of oddness. At one point, the French word meant “handsome” or “brave”. Some have traced the French word to the Basque bizar, which means “beard”, suggesting that the French thought the bearded Spanish soldiers quite dashing. Another candidate for the source of bizarre in English is the Italian bizarro, meaning “angry” or “irascible”. The strange, the handsome, the angry and the hirsute may all have been bizarre at different points in this word’s history. (Ed#498)
FORTNIGHT Every time you plan to do something in a fortnight, you are invoking the ancient Germanic history of English. Used in Australia and the UK, but not in the US, fortnight is a Modern English contraction of Old English feowertyne niht, which literally means “fourteen nights”. Counting time by nights is a Germanic practice that predates the existence of Old English. There was also the now defunct term sennight, a contraction of the Old English seofon nihta, referring to “seven nights”. Sennight is found in written records up until around 1200. Then, tragically, it dropped out of use. (Ed#506)
by Lauren Gawne
Curious about vocabulary? Interested in linguistics? Is there a word you're just dying to know the origin of? Lauren is always happy for suggestions to feature in the column: tweet your suggestions @superlinguo.