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I post on Monday with an occasional random blog thrown in for good measure. I do my best to answer all comments via email and visit around on the days I post.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

E is for Etymology

Etymology: Middle English ethimologie from Latin etymologia from Greek etymon+logia. Etymon literally is the meaning of a word according to its origin. Etymology then is the study of words, their meanings and origins.

You will discover as you read these next posts that I will begin each with a brief etymological history of the word's origin. I love finding out were words came from and how their definitions can changed over time.

I first learned that words change meaning when I was about 7 or 8 years old. Despite being dyslexic and bad speller my family did not give in to my whining pleas to spell a word for me.

"Look it up in the dictionary," one or more of them would say.
"But how can I look it up in the dictionary if I don't know how to spell it?" I would whine.
"Sound it out," they would respond.

I was given no reprieve. I learned there can any number of ways to sound out a word but only one way to spell it.

One time while hunting up a word I ran across another. (This happens to me a lot.) The word was "nice." You know what it means right? But do you really?

The following is children's article I wrote sometime ago that has never found a home. It's still one of my favorites. Enjoy.

It's Not Nice to Say Nice

Do you know what the word “nice” means? It comes to us from Middle English (spoken between the 12th and 15th centuries) and meant “foolish.” Before that it came from Old French (spoken between the 9th and 13th centuries) and meant “simple-minded” or “stupid.” The Old French word came from the Latin “nescius,” meaning, “ignorant” or “not knowing.” The obsolete (or no longer used) meaning of the word nice, was someone who was “ignorant, unschooled or silly.” However, by the time Shakespeare started writing in the 16th century, “nice” was already beginning to take on new meanings.

Etymology, the study of words, their origins and meaning, can be very interesting. You can not only learn about the history our wonderful English language you can also learn about the history of different peoples from around the world.

The next time your mother says, “You’re room is a shambles!” think of animal body parts at a slaughter house. A “shamble” was a kind of table used to display meat that was for sale. It comes from the Middle English word, “shamel.” Shamel was used to describe a person whose legs looked like the meat table; they were bowed or malformed. Because of the deformity, they couldn‘t move around easily. And so we get the verb, “to shamble,” which is one way to walk. Eventually, a shamble table came to mean a kind of butcher block, which in turn became another word for a slaughter house. What your mother really means to say, is, “Your room is a bloody mess!”

Speaking of meat, we all know a buccaneer is a pirate, right? Well here’s the history. Buccaneer is from the French word “boucanier.” A boucanier was a 17th century French hunter who lived in Haiti, the western half of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. A boucanier made “barbacoa.” Sound familiar? Barbacoa is Spanish for barbecue, which you‘ve probably eaten. The boucanier cooked his meat on a “boucan.” Boucan is French for the Brazilian word “buccan,” which was taken to Haiti by early adventurers. A buccan was a kind of wooden grill on which cannibals roasted human flesh and other meats. Eventually those French hunters must have gotten tired of barbecuing meat in the heat of the tropics, so they decided to try robbing ships on the high seas. Thus, from “buccan,” a cannibal’s roasting pit, we get, “barbecue” and “buccaneer.” Now, at your next family picnic see how many you can gross out with the story of cannibals and their buccans.

Perhaps you’ve seen people going berserk and vandalizing buildings on TV. A sorry sight, indeed. Berserk comes from the Old Norse words, “bjorn,” meaning “bear” and “serkr” meaning “shirt.” Literally it means, “bear shirt.” Old Norse was spoken before 1350 A. D. Way back then, someone thought berserk meant “bare shirt,” as in, “without clothes.” Ancient Scandinavian warriors were known to “go berserk” in battle. The confusion is whether they fought naked, weren’t wearing any armor, were wearing bear skins instead of armor, or were magically transformed into bears. What ever they did, when they went berserk, the warriors were filled with a mad and wild frenzy. It was also believed they couldn’t be wounded.

Vandals, on the other hand, were an ancient Germanic people. They went berserk and overran Gaul (present day France), Spain and North Africa. In 455 A. D. they arrived in Italy and sacked Rome, helping to bring about the final end of the Roman Empire. While they were visiting the city they destroyed many buildings and monuments. Now we have vandals who vandalize buildings, breaking windows and writing graffiti.

I wonder if there were any thugs among those berserk vandals? Thugs were professional robbers and murderers in India. Their trademark was to strangle their victims. They were finally put out of business by 1840. Thug comes from the Hindu word “thag,” which means “thief.” Thag comes from two Sanskrit words, “sthaga,” meaning rogue and “sthagati,” meaning to cover or conceal. Translated that means, sneaky thief. By the way, Sanskrit is one of the oldest languages in the world.

Those thugs can be real barbarians. Barbarous comes from the Greek word “barbaros,” which means, “foreign, rude or ignorant.” It’s similar to another Sanskrit word, “barbara,” meaning “to stammer;” as in a person speaking a language in which he is not fluent. In other words, speaking unintelligibly. Which is another way to say, “you’re babbling.” So we have babbling barbaric thugs who go berserk and make a shambles of things by vandalizing buildings. Maybe they got jealous of those barbecuing buccaneers.

Wouldn’t it be nice if they were all snobs, then maybe they would ignore the rest of us. The origin of snob is unknown. In 18th century England, snob was another name for a shoemaker or a cobbler. It eventually came to mean someone who was NOT from the upper-class, country-club set. An uncultured commoner was a snob. Now it means someone who thinks they’re better than you are. I bet you’ve known a snob. The next time someone looks down her nose at you, maybe you can tell her with all sincerity and from the bottom of your heart that you think she’s a really “nice” person.

A little something extra. Here are some every day words we use that are Persian (modern day Iran) and Arabian in origin: Shawl, cotton, scarlet, orange, lemon, peach, shrub, syrup, candy, sugar, coffee, mattress, sofa, caliber, zenith, chemistry, and, your favorite and mine, algebra.


  1. wow this post is so interesting.

    "Look it up in the dictionary," one or more of them would say.
    "But how can I look it up in the dictionary if I don't know how to spell it?" I would whine.
    "Sound it out," they would respond.

    This is exactly how it was for me.

  2. This post is right up my alley (wonder where that came from???)! Loved it. Will print it and capture all that word trivia in my brain. Love, love it! Looking forward to more. C

  3. The only one I knew was berserker. The belief was the individuals maybe have used some sort of drug, which caused them to hallucinate. Hence why they went berserk.

    I did research on Vikings for a novel, hence why I know this obscure fact.

  4. I love your posts and I love when you add the origin it allows me to learn a little something while I'm reading, you are certainly on to something!

    The English language is so fascinating to see the word nice start out as something completely different than it is now its amazing!

  5. Oh I so love the etymology of words. Sometimes it is even more telling than the definition.

  6. Geez. I learn something new every day with you! lol. You're like my own personal history channel! Great well thought out post!

  7. Niki, it's nice to know other families teach their kids to "look it up in the dictionary."

    Thank you Stickhorse! I'm honored.

    Stine, I read somewhere about the posibility of berserkers taking drugs, but it's not part of the etymology of the word so...I didn't include it.

    Jen, I believe with all my heart the word nice set me on the path! I can clearly remember being amazed that it once had a completely different meaning.

    I agree Matthew. Some words are more entertaining that others but they are all interesting to me.

    Oh WOW Creepy...Thanks. Sometimes I wonder if I'm not being a bit to preachy/teachy. LOL.

  8. Wow, thanks for that. That's fantastic. Now I know when I say "niiiccceeee" I'm using it correctly.

  9. I loved this post. I knew about buccaneer, but not the others. Funny though, because when I say "nice", it's often in a sarcastic manner. Guess that one I've had right all along.

    Now, of course, I have Frank Burns from MASH stuck in my head ...

    "It's nice to be nice to the nice!"

  10. I also love the evolution of words and their meanings. Great post.

  11. I read this earlier on my phone but it takes forever to log in and comment on the phone.

    I love how you managed to link so many fun and dangerous words and bookend them with the word 'nice'

    very nice!

    I took an etymology class as one of my middle school English credits. I loved it.

    My parents were just like yours about spelling!!(I'm not sure if it helped me to spell better at all...but like you I had fun searching!)

  12. Very cool! I had to look words up in dictionaries as a kid but I was seldom so open to discover all these other treasures.

    And, fighting naked in Scandanavia....doesn't sound very pleasant. Hehe

  13. Holy cow I learned a ton here. Shambles was totally disturbing, lol. It's funny to see how a word goes from a to z over time.

  14. Very interesting...I will never look at a room in shambles the same...grin...I'm going to have to learn more about etymology...Thanks for my beginner's lesson...Hugs...


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