Tag Archives: etymology

lode

O, how we are misled by appearances and strange attractions! We use a lodestone or follow a lodestar to lead us to the motherlode, but so often we find ourselves stuck in load-eye again, with loadstones and loadstars and motherloads. How can we load such ill-starred stones? But, you see, it is all because we see what we want to see. We see a difference just if we want to see one. Continue reading

A macaronic feather in our cap

Originally published in The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Canada’s national editorial association

English is gloriously macaronic.

I don’t mean that it’s like a big bowl of elbow noodles, not exactly. But I also don’t mean that it’s like a macaron – well, maybe I do, but that’s not the word means. Macaronic, linguistically, refers to something that’s a mixture of languages. Macaronic poetry, for instance, may switch from English to Latin – some well-known Christmas carols do this (anything containing the words in excelsis, for starts). More broadly, macaronic refers to something that’s a jumble of things. Macaronic architecture, for instance, is exemplified by the heedless stylistic promiscuity of the McMansion style. English is macaronic: it’s made up of an almost hyperreal mixture of words from different languages. And it’s full of macaronic words, too.

A macaronic word is one that combines parts from multiple languages. The word hyperreal, for instance, uses hyper, which we took from Greek, and real, which comes from Latin (via French). And, fittingly, McMansion mixes Gaelic and Latin sources. This may seem like mixing Lego and Meccano – inadvisable or at least somehow improper. But we do it all the time, and not just with the usual classical parts. In fact, any new term that enters common usage has a pretty good chance of being an assemblage of pieces every bit as cosmopolitan as a modern city. To illustrate, let’s look at a few entries added in 2017 to Merriam-Webster dictionaries:

  • froyo: from frozen, an old Germanic word, and yogurt, taken from Turkish
  • Internet of Things: Internet is Latin inter plus Germanic net, and of and Things are also Germanic
  • ransomware: ransom, by way of French from Latin redemptio, plus ware, an old Germanic word
  • pregame: Latin pre plus Germanic game
  • photobomb: Greek photo ‘light’ plus bomb, which comes from French bombe, which comes from Spanish bomba, which comes from Latin bombus, which refers to a buzzing or booming noise and is also the source of boom
  • airball: air, ultimately from Latin by way of French, plus ball, Germanic
  • EpiPen: the Epi is in this instance short for epinephrine but, either way, is a prefix taken from Greek; Pen traces back to Latin penna, ‘feather’
  • weak sauce: From weak, which is Old Norse in origin, and sauce, which comes from French, tracing ultimately to Latin salsus ‘salted’ (which is also the source of salad)
  • alt-right: from alternate, which comes from Latin, and right, which is Germanic (so much for their “purity”)

Macaroni? The effects are more like the sandwiching of cream between meringues in a macaron. And as with our words, so with our sentences. Nearly every sentence in this article liberally mixes Germanic and Romance (Latin/French) words, plus some Greek (sometimes by way of Latin) and occasionally something else too. I think it’s delicious.

The donzerly spangles

I timed my latest article for The Week for July 4. I thought it might be nice to have something light and fun on an American theme to get away from the unpleasant stream of daily political news, at least briefly. (Oh, and if you’re raising an eyebrow at the first-person statements in the article, I am, after all, an American citizen – dual Canadian-American, in fact – and have lived in the US, though I’m happy in Toronto now.) How many of these did you know?

Impress your fellow Americans with the patriotic etymologies of these July 4 words

 

best

There’s good, and then there’s best.

There’s George Best, for one, the Northern Irish footballer counted one of the best ever to play the game. He was known for his wild and dissipated lifestyle as he was for his play, and later in life it caught up with him. “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars,” he once said. “The rest I just squandered.”

Not what you expected? Well, he was best one way at football (soccer), best another way at the rakish life, but Best all around. Something beyond a simply good player. The best is different from just double-plus-good. It’s not just more of the same; it’s something other.

As best is. We know the pattern: fast, faster, fastest; fun, funner, funnest… why not good, gooder, goodest?

It’s what linguists call a suppletive form. Just as the past tense of go is went, which is really borrowed from the verb wend (rarely seen, usually in self-conscious phrases such as “I’ll just wend my way”), our comparatives for good (and bad, but I’ll leave that for another day) come from a different adjective. In Old English, that adjective came through as bat and, with vowel shift, bet; it meant ‘good’, ‘well’, or ‘better’. It traces back to Proto-Indo-Europan *bhAd- ‘good’ (huh! that’s not bad) by way of Proto-Germanic. The comparative form of it is, of course, better, and the superlative bettest got collapsed to best.

So why did it bump gooder and goodest out? In fact, it’s about as fair to say good bumped bet out. It was well in place (oh, yes, better and best also supply the comparative and superlative of well) before English was even a distinct language; German has gut, besser, beste and Dutch has goed, beter, best. Where does good come from? If we go all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, we find *ghedh meaning ‘unite, be associated, suit’… in effect, as an adjective, the origin of good meant ‘suitable’.

Suitable? Well, that’s good. It’s always nice for something to be fitting. If the pattern has been set, sometimes we follow it with others that aren’t quite the same kind but will do as needed. If you can’t be amazing, then play your part well. Perform as expected. Until you’re nudged aside by someone better… maybe the best.

Of course, even the best isn’t best everywhere and for all time. George Best retired from football at age 26, though he did make a couple of less successful comebacks, and he had a liver transplant at age 56 and died before he turned 60. Another Best, Pete Best, was the original drummer for the Beatles. He may have been good, but he was replaced by Ringo, who was better. Pete may have been Best, but Ringo was a Starr.

Anyway, the surname Best doesn’t come from the adjective best. It comes from the same root as beast and referred to one who kept beasts – i.e., a herdsman. Best can just be pretending to be best.

And best is relative. There are some areas where we can set clear measurable standards and establish one thing as the best for that purpose (at least until we find something better). But what’s best for one purpose may be no more than good for another related purpose. And for many things, best is very much a question of personal needs, wants, and tastes. Anything in any aesthetic realm – music, literature, food, painting, etc. – is like that: one person’s best may be another person’s good, or bad, or even worst. Notwithstanding which some things will be more people’s best than others.

All of this is really leading up to a question. I’m not sure what people who read these word tasting notes like best. What you have liked best. Tell me: What of my word tastings have you liked best? Which ones stuck in your mind and spring to mind readily? If any? I’ve been writing them for nearly a decade now, more than 2,000 of them so far. I should probably find out which ones are the best ones.

So?

Not nice, not silly, actually rather awful

My latest article for The Week is about words with meanings that have travelled quite a bit over the centuries. It’s not that they’ve clouded or warped the senses, but their histories are likely to throw you, or at least leave you in doubt.

11 words whose meanings have completely changed over time

 

Going off the rails on a gravy train

Donald Trump tweeted that line about the gravy train again. How Rob-Ford-esque can he get! I decided to do a little digging to find the origin of the phrase. It’s my latest article for The Week:

Was there ever an actual train that carried gravy?

You can’t use it however you want; however, you can use it

My latest piece for The Week is on the word however, which just happens to be one of Wikipedia’s favourite words – however, people aren’t always sure how to handle it.

However: Everything you need to know about a commonly abused word