Archive for the ‘Etymology’ Category

Quarantine

October 19, 2014

As the dreadful story of the Ebola virus in Africa unfolds, and with it the parallel story of the panicked response to Ebola in the U.S., the word quarantine is much in the news. The stories explain that the quarantine for Ebola is 21 days. But now look at NOAD2 on the word:

quarantine noun  a state, period, or place of isolation in which people or animals that have arrived from elsewhere or been exposed to infectious or contagious disease are placed: many animals die in quarantine.

verb [with obj.] impose such isolation on (a person, animal, or place); put in quarantine.

ORIGIN mid 17th cent.: from Italian quarantina ‘forty days,’ from quaranta ‘forty.’

and note the origin, involving the Italian word for ‘forty’. We have here a straightforward case in which morphological material from the etymological source is still visible in the word, yet its current use no longer respects the semantics of the source. I’ll call such words decimators, after one famous English example that has led peevers to seethe in word rage at an offense to etymology.

If you take etymology dead seriously, then referring to a 21-day isolation period as a quarantine is just wrong.

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The uses of etymology

September 18, 2014

From The Economist, 9/13/14, a letter, p. 22, from Mark Watson of Galway, Ireland:

I have lived in France for the past three months and each day I heard François Hollande in the media talking about “croissance”. I assumed he was invoking citizens to support their local bakery, until I realized he was speaking about growth. My observation is that in France croissance can happen between 10am and 12 noon, and again after 2pm but no later than 7 pm…

That is, Watson understands the noun croissance to mean something like ‘supplying croissants‘, those yummy rolls. There’s a nice etymological story here.

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toast

July 29, 2014

A recently reprinted Calvin and Hobbes:

 

The strip exploits the ambiguity of toast as a noun (delightfully, to my mind). But, astonishingly, the two nouns (though clearly quite distinct in modern English, as are the corresponding verbs) have a common historical source. The tale is one of those stories that might make you believe in any damn fanciful etymology.

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peonies

May 1, 2014

Continuing a thread on flowering plants that don’t thrive where I live now (in Palo Alto CA) but do thrive where I lived before (in Columbus OH); the key is needing cold winters, with at least some freezing.

Earlier (6/20/13)I posted about lilac (Syringa) — for which the so-called (unrelated but physically somewhat similar) “California lilac” (Ceonothus) can stand in:

they are both ornamental flowering shrubs, and Ceonothus can fill much the same function in landscape gardening in Mediterranean or semi-tropical climates as Syringa, most species of which thrive only in places with decidedly chilly winters.

Then more recently (4/24/14) I took up forsythia:

We don’t see much forsythia in these parts, because they require a winter freeze to flourish. They do grow in California and elsewhere in the West, but only in areas with cold winters; the Sunset New Western Garden Book enumerates these.

Now it’s peonies.

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flamenco

February 11, 2014

Today’s Mother Goose and Grimm:

You say flamenco, I say flamingo. Amazingly, these words turn out to share a history.

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Cartoon etymology

January 26, 2014

A link from Karen Chung to this Joseph Fall cartoon of the 16th:

 

A naturalistic theory of word origins, based on letter shapes in the Latin alphabet. Preposterous, but entertaining.

Two cartoons

January 8, 2014

Two recent cartoons, a Bizarro and a Dilbert:

(#1)

Either a portmanteau of pseudo and sudoku, or just a pun on sudoku,

(#2)

Comic-strip etymology.

amaze

December 31, 2013

It starts with tlhe clipping amaze for amazing and then goes on to the playful extension amazeballs (or amaze balls). Then both of these can be modified by the slang clipping totes (for totally). And another slang intensive modifier, def, can be added to the mix, giving things like the slogan on this tea towel:

(#1)

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Sunday Book Review language and sex

October 9, 2013

Two items from the NYT Sunday Book Review (the sex issue): the etymology of buddy and the grammaticality of zipless.

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on the fritz

August 21, 2013

A while back, when Ned Deily was visiting me, my iTunes produced an album of Joshua Bell playing Fritz Kreisler violin music, and Ned joked about my computer being on the fritz — and we both wondered about the source of the slang idiom. It turns out that it’s not very old — the OED‘s first cite is from 1903 — but is nevertheless of unknown origin, and the etymologies that come first to mind are very unlikely.

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