May 23

Words We Think We Understand

Tag: 2008,political correctness,wordsDonna B. @ 6:21 pm

Etymology. Callimachus explores word-pairs. His post led me to wonder what the etymology of “punish” is. That search led me to Etymologically Speaking, where I’ve spent the last two hours.

Some of my favorites:

Charlatan
From the Spanish “charlar,” to chat.
Candidate
From the Latin Candidus word meaning, “bright, shining, glistening white.” The ancient Roman candidates for office would wear bright white togas. This same word also gave rise to “candid,” which candidates rarely are.
Cretin
From the French “Crétin,” which originally meant “Christian.”
Debonair
French for “of good air.” In the Middle Ages, people’s health was judged partly by how they smelled. A person who gave off “good air” was presumed healthier and happier.
Elite
From the Latin elire, meaning “to choose,” from which we also get the modern Spanish word meaning the same, elegir.
Genuine
Originally meant “placed on the knees.” In Ancient Rome, a father legally claimed his newborn child by sitting in front of his family and placing his child on his knee.
Heresy
Greek for “Choice.”
Kampf (German) Struggle
From the Latin “campus” — for their type of fortification, where the Roman soldiers had their military drills — from which we also drive the English words, “camp,” “campus” and “champion.” Thus, when we talk about a “college campus,” there are subtle militaristic overtones.
Knight
From the Old English “cniht,” which meant “boy, servant.”
Kopf (German) Head
From Latin “cuppa,” meaning “cup”; the Romans used the cup as a metaphor for the upper part of the head. Similarly, another Latin word for “cup,” “testa,” has now become the French “Tête,” for “head,” too. Note that both the Germans and the Celts used a “skullcap” “top of the human head”) as a drinking vessel; this was part of the honoring of the enemy ritual. Thus related to “chief” and “capital” (and “testicle” as well).
Liberty
The Latin words “Liber,” “Libera,” and “Liberum” — with a Long I — came from the root meaning, “to pour.” From this, we get the word “Liberty” (hence pronounced with a short I), from the freedom we feel when we get drunk.
Mistress
From the French “Maîtresse,” which originally meant “bride.”
Money
From the Latin word “moneta” which originally meaning, “warning.”
Nice

From the Latin “nescius,” for “ignorant,” and, at various times before the current definition became established meant “foolish” then “foolishly precise” then “pedantically precise” then “precise in a good way” and then our current definition.
Occasion

From the Latin Occasion, meaning, “accident, or a grave event.”
Old; and Alt (German) Old

“Alt” originally meant, “Grown up”; the participle of “growing”; related to “Alan,” which meant, “to grow” but no longer exists in modern German. In Old English, the word “Alan” was also used in this same sense of growing or nourishing. Related to the Latin “alt” meaning “high.”
Pagan

From the Latin paganu(m), for “someone who is not from the city, rather from the country.” In late Latin, this turned into pagensis, “one who is from the country,” and this utimately became the French pays and the Spanish País, both meaning “nation.”
Pay

Pay goes back ultimately to Latin, “pax” peace, by way of, appease, pacify. So “pay” originally meant “pay off,” to keep the peace.

Salary; Salt
In the early days of Rome its soldiers were given a handful of salt each day. The salt ration was subsequently replaced by a sum of money allowing each man to buy his own, and relieving the commisariat of the trouble of transporting it. The money received was referred to as their “salt money” (salarium in Latin). Eventually, the term would make its way into medieval France, where a soldier’s payment was known as his solde (which is still in use today as the term for a soldier’s or sailor’s pay), and it was in paid for with a special coin called a sol. By extension, the word also came to refer not only to a soldier’s wage, but also to the soldier himself, evidenced by the medieval French term soldat, which itself came from the Old French soudier. For its part, the English word “soldier” comes from the Middle English souder, which also derived from soudier [Footnote: Contrary to popular belief, salt--necessary as it was and unlike other spices--was never very expensive. It only became expensive towards the end of the twelfth century A.D., when it was used as a means of taxation and people often went without it, as a result--a fact not unconnected with the famines and deficiencies that afflicted so many generations of Europeans at the time).].
Senator
From the Latin “senex,” meaning “old”; thus related to “senile.”
Silly
From 1550 to 1675 was “very extensively” used in the sense of deserving of pity and compassion, helpless. It is a derivative of the Middle English “seely,” from the German “selig,” meaning happy, blissful, blessed, as well as punctual, observant of season.
Sinister
From the Latin “sinister” for “left.” Hence, left is evil. 
Sleazy
The Eastern European region of Silesia was known for its fine cloth. Eventually, so many low-quality imitations wound up on the market that Silesian turned into sleazy.
Utopia
Greek for “no where.”
Villain
From “Villaneus,” meaning, “inhabitant of a villa,” i.e., a “peasant.”
Wit
From the Old English “witan,” meaning to know; intelligence.

Oh, and “punish.”

Gue

4 Responses to “Words We Think We Understand”

  1. Talina says:

    Well, I learned lots of new words today! Great list!

  2. gcotharn says:

    also a wonderful, debonair post.

  3. amba says:

    “Old” and “Alt” reminded me of this: I have one particularly witty sister. I was once holding forth to her on the etymology of the word “adolescent”: it’s from Latin “ad-alescere,” related to “aliment,” and its literal meaning is “to feed up.” My sister shot back: “So ‘adult’ means ‘fed up.’”

  4. Donna B. says:

    Fed up. Wonderful! It reminds me again of the song “I’m An Adult Now”.