Sunday, March 23, 2014

Cobbling Together Some Etymologies

Cobb Salad: 
Cobb salad.  I love a good Cobb salad. The salad itself is relatively easy to put together — ham, eggs, tomatoes, avocado, chicken, Roquefort cheese, and greens.  It's the dressing that matters most to me, and I found a recipe I like.  While searching through recipes on-line, I also found Saveur's version, and it explained why the salad is so named. It is named after its inventor, Robert H. Cobb, part-owner of the famous Brown Derby restaurants in Los Angeles.  He came up with the dish in 1937 — it is said that he threw together what he could find in the kitchen for a late night dish, and a menu mainstay was born. Wikipedia gives even more detail on this, though a source is not cited:
The Hollywood Brown Derby is the purported birthplace of the Cobb Salad, which was said to have been hastily arranged from leftovers by owner Bob Cobb for showman and theater owner Sid Grauman. It was chopped fine because Grauman had just had dental work done, and couldn't chew well.
That is an entertaining, if possibly apocryphal, bit of information on the origin of the Cobb salad.

On researching the Brown Derby, I learned that there were eventually four Brown Derby restaurants in L.A.:
Brown Derby:
Wilshire Boulevard (the original, opened in 1926, and shaped like a derby hat), Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and Los Feliz. These restaurants figured prominently in Hollywood of the 1930s, 40s and 50s.  Stars flocked there to eat, and star-watchers flocked there to see them.  Sadly, the restaurants had all closed by the 1980s.

After researching the salad name, I began to wonder about other cobb- and cob-related words. There are several.  First is the surname Cobb, which is thought to have come from the Middle English nickname or personal name Cobbe/Cobba, related to Old Norse Kobbi. All of these are thought to derive from a word that meant "lump" — lump in this sense referred to a large (round) man.  This was curious, but interesting. However, it got more interesting when I looked up cob.  I knew this word to refer to horses, male swans, and to (sweet) corn, but the first sense in the OED is "a great man, big man, leading man" (from as early as 1420).  What could horses, swans, and corn have to do with big men or leaders?

Welsh cob:
Horses called cobs are stout, short-legged ponies.  A cob is also a male swan.  Further, a cob of corn is the seed head of the corn plant.  Two different senses are coming through here: a short, stout horse could be thought of as round, or lump-shaped.  On the other hand, a male swan is the head swan, and a cob of corn is the seed head.  Both of these senses can be connected with the body part known as the head.  It is often round (certainly so in humans) and it is, rather obviously, a head, and the figurative leader of the body.  The OED doesn't like to make this connection between the two senses of cob ("round" and "leader"), but John Ayto does (in his Dictionary of Word Origins, 1990). It is indeed an attractive suggestion, for an obsolete English word for "top of the head" is cop. This appears to have mutated into cob in the word cobweb, so couldn't it have mutated into some of the other cob words?   Cop is an old word for "spider," being short for attercop, which derives from Old English ator "poison" and coppe "head."  Ayto goes on to suggest that cop/coppe (and thus cob) could very well be related to Latin caput "head."  Other English words that derive from the Latin are cap (head covering) and cape (with the sense "hood," a type of head covering).

There are several other meanings of cob that include the round sense (some of these are dialectic): the stone of a fruit; a testicle; a small stack of hay; a knot of hair; a lump of coal; an apple dumpling.  Then there is cobblestone, referring to the rounded shape of the stones. Cobble in that sense is a diminutive form of cob. The head sense is found in an obsolete meaning of cob: "the head of a (red) herring."

Now, what about the other obvious cob/cobb words: cobbler (person) and cobbler (dessert)?  The dessert meaning is chiefly American and dates from around 1859 in the written record.  The OED does not suggest an etymology, but Robert K. Barnhart, in his Dictionary of Etymology (1995), suggests a connection with cobeler, "a wooden bowl or dish."  He dates that word to 1385, but the OED does not have it (though the OED, and the on-line Middle English Dictionary, to which the OED on-line links, have cobeler as an early form of cobbler "shoe mender"). Others have suggested the dessert is so named because it consists of fruit baked with lumps of dough placed on top, taking us back to the "round" or "lump" senses. As for the person called a cobbler, or a shoe mender, no one seems to know its origin (it dates from about 1362).  Cobble "to mend roughly" or "to put together roughly" is a back formation from cobbler "shoe mender" and dates from around 1496.

How about the UK expression cobblers for "nonsense"?  That is apparently from rhyming slang: cobbler's awls = "balls" (testicles) or "rubbish."  As I've tweeted before, Americans are not very familiar with rhyming slang, but we do use a bit.  Here's that tweet: 
Americans do use rhyming slang:raspberry (raspberry tart=fart) & dukes ([put up your] dukes=hands (Duke of York=fork (fork=slang for hand))).
The shorthand and somewhat cramped style of the above quotation were employed to keep the length at 140 characters or fewer, the cardinal rule of Twitter.

There are other words that start with cob-.  What about cobalt?  It is not related to those above.  It, instead, comes from German Kobold "goblin".  Early German miners named it thus because the mineral occurred with arsenic and sulfur, which often made the miners ill.  Further, as an impurity, it lessened the value of the silver ore being mined.  The miners attributed cobalt's presence to mischievous goblins.  Several etymologies of the German word have been suggested: that it derives from kuba-walda or "ruler of the house"; that it comes from kofewalt "a spirit controlling one room"; and that it comes from German elements meaning "spirit of the pigsty."  German supernatural creatures appear to have been quite specialized!

A cobra:
There is another cob- word that I did not think of immediately, and when I did, I felt sure it wasn't related to the words with etymological senses of "head" and "round."  Cobras are, after all, snakes that are not native to English-speaking regions (or even regions where Latinate languages were native), and surely, I thought, their name is derived from an indigenous African or Asian term.  However, that is where I erred.  The name cobra is short for Portuguese cobra de capello "snake with a little hood," referring, of course, to the cobra's ability to enlarge the appearance of its head by expanding its hood.  Cobra here derives from Latin colubra "snake." While it is not related to the above cob- words, it is Indo-European in origin, like the other cob- words.  It dates from 1817.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

T is for Texas, TOWFI and Twitter

We had some relatively wild weather in northern California this week. Some of you may recall that I have a B.S. in meteorology (weather, not meteors.  Greeek meteoron meant "something high or lofty" and came to mean "phenomena in the sky or heavens"), and I grew up with crazy weather in Texas.  When I moved to California, little did I know how much I would miss a good thunderstorm.  So when I saw an interesting cloud formation outside my office window last week, I snapped a photograph and promptly posted it to my local National Weather Service's Facebook page.  The cloud formation in question was mammatus.  If you follow TOWFI on Twitter (where I tweet links to language-related articles of interest to TOWFI readers, and I also provide brief etymologies), you may have seen the mammatus photograph when I tweeted it to Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel, followed by a tweet (to TOWFI followers) explaining the etymology of mammatus. I'll speak a bit more about mammatus later.

However, while my tweet referenced udders, the National Weather Service, on their Facebook page, responded to my post to them with the following:

The "utter" looking clouds ... appear to be mammatus from this picture.  The overall weather pattern and atmospheric stability would support this type of cloud today.  Thanks for sharing.
The word in quotation marks stands out.  Of course the writer meant udder.  How could such a mistake be made?  Utter and udder are two different words with very different meanings.  British English speakers must be particularly puzzled by this.  The key here is pronunciation.

In the U.S., we are what those of us here at TOWFI like to call non-tauic (this is not a technical term; it's just one we made up based on an existing technical term).  To explain this, we must start with the term non-rhotic (this is, in fact, a technical term and not one that we made up).  Most British English speakers are non-rhotic, that is, they do not pronounce r if it is followed by a consonant. To go with that, they have the linking r, where the r is pronounced if it is followed by a vowel (in the word roaring, British English speakers pronounce both r's, and in "far and away" the r in far is usually pronounced) .  In fact, many British English speakers also insert an r between vowels where one doesn't exist, and that is called the intrusive r.  An extreme example of this, for Americans, occurs with the Mike Myers character Simon, from Saturday Night Live.  This character is a child who likes "to do drawRings" (see the character on YouTube).  The r is inserted between draw and -ings.  Canadian Mike Myers' parents were both from Liverpool, England, and this may explain his fascination with accents of the British Isles (he also did a Scottish accent occasionally on SNL; his voice for the animated character Shrek was done in a Scottish accent, as well).  A less extreme example of the intrusive r would be a British English speaker calling someone named Amanda "AmandaR."

That's all well and good, eh?  What about utter and udder?  In America we are non-tauic, in that we often do not pronounce our t's as t's.  We sometimes pronounce a t within a word as a d, or we don't pronounce it all and substitute it with a glottal stop.  Mountain is a good example of a word where we substitute a glottal stop.  What is a glottal stop? An example of a glottal stop is the sound made when we say "uh-oh."  The dash can be said to represent the glottal stop. Many Americans say "mao-un" (or "mao-in") where the dash again represents the glottal stop.  Utter, on the utter hand (sorry), is a case where the t is pronounced as a d.  This is so common that it leads to some misspellings, such as in the case of the NWS Facebook post. The poster was apparently more familiar with the spelling of the word utter than that of the word udder, two different words that are pronounced exactly the same by many in the U.S.  Others make the same mistake: perform a Google image search for utter and you will get a few images of cows (along with many images of otters!).

Matthew McConaughey
A brief aside regarding rhotacism:  I'd like to point out that Texans are rhotic, that is, Texans pronounce their r's.  In fact, they sometimes insert r's where they don't belong (my grandmother used to say "tomater" for tomato and "pillar" for pillow, and she lived her entire life in Texas).  Actors trying to speak with a Texas accent very often decide to go non-rhotic.  This, unfortunately, is inaccurate.  There are a few dialects in the deep South of the U.S. that are non-rhotic (non-rhotic dialects also exist in New England).  The Texas dialects are not among them (and Texas is not considered to be in the deep South). Texans pronounce their r's with gusto.  Just listen to Matthew McConaughey in True Detective (a superb series on HBO in the U.S. and on Sky Atlantic in the U.K. - here's an interesting article on it). That is a real Texas accent (he is, after all, from Texas and appears to be quite proud of it).   There is apparently now an app for teaching actors how to properly speak with specific American accents.  It is called The Real Accent App: USA.  The app includes a Dallas accent, and I can't wait to hear it: I'm a Dallas native!

Now, back to mammatus.  One of the tweets in the screen shot above tells you that this cloud formation is so named because of the pendulous shape of the cloud, resembling hanging teats or udders.  You can read a previous TOWFI discussion of mamma-related words here.  Interestingly, back in Texas, I most often saw mammatus clouds in association with severe weather, which sometimes included tornadoes.  Here in California, tornadoes are rare (though they do occur), but mammatus does turn up here from time to time, without any accompanying severe weather.  However, it is an indicator of some pretty good atmospheric instability, a requirement for (but not always a producer of) severe weather.  (Here are some terms and definitions related to severe weather, from the National Weather Service.)

An udder
Since this is ultimately an etymology blog, we really should look at udder and utter.  Udder is an old word, turning up in Old English and Old Saxon, as well as several other Germanic languages.  In Latin it was uber, and Greek and Sanskrit had cognates.  The Latin form also gave us exuberant from the Latin adjective uberus meaning "fertile".  The sense went from "[lactating] teats" to "fertile" to "abundant or overflowing," and then "abundant or overflowing in emotion."  (Latin uber should not be confused with German über "over.")

Utter means, etymologically, "outer" and is, not surprisingly,  cognate with outer.  Utmost is another relative.  Utter and utmost have the sense of "outermost," and the sense shifted to "going to the most outer (or utmost) point; extreme" (from the OED). Thus, an "utter fool" is the most extreme of fools.  Calvert Watkins suggests that the Indo-European root here is ud- "up, out", which also gave us ersatz (via Old High German) "substitute or imitation," the sense being of putting something "out" and replacing it with something else.

And with that, I am utterly exhausted and will now retire to catch up on True Detective.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Origins of Some Words We Don't Use Much Any Longer

Ojibwa at Daily Kos wrote an article this week entitled, "Origins of English: Some Obsolete Words."  Strangely, the author states in the article, "I have listed only the meaning of the word, not its etymology nor the date of its last recorded use."  I'm not exactly sure how the article, then, qualifies as "Origins of English," but I'll help get it there by providing the derivations of some of the more interesting examples it contains.

Several of the words provided in the article are extremely rare, one of them appearing only twice in the written record, and by the same author (per the OED).  However, some of the examples were at one time fairly well-known words which have simply crept into obsolescence.  Still others may not have been used a great deal, but their derivations are interesting, nonetheless.

Roots from
Take radicate.  The earliest example of this word is adjectival, from around the first quarter of the 15th century, and it had already developed a figurative sense: "a quality or attribute that is deeply rooted."  The verb form turns up about a century later, first recorded in 1531.  It also had a figurative meaning.  Today the verb is considered obsolete, while the adjective survives in botanical use, meaning "growing from a root (versus a rhizome)," and as such has come full circle back to its original meaning.  It derives from Latin radix "root."  The verb eradicate originally meant "pull up by the roots" (e means "out" in Latin) and is just a little bit younger than its radicate relatives, first turning up in 1564.  Today eradicate has a broader sense of "to remove completely."

Bladderwrack from
Fucus "coloring or make-up to beautify the skin" derives from Latin fucus  "lichen."  The Romans used a lichen (among other things) to create a red cosmetic that was applied as a rouge to the cheeks.  The word fucus thus came to refer to the cosmetic itself, and that usage was picked up by English in the 17th century to refer to face make-up.  Indeed the earliest reference in the OED, from 1607, is to a cosmetic to cover up freckles.  The word doesn't seem to have survived in this sense much past the middle of the 18th century.  However, it does survive today as the name of a genus of seaweed.  One of these seaweeds, Fucus vesiculosus, also known as bladderwrack, was the first source of iodine (early 19th century) and was used to treat thyroid conditions.  The bladder- element refers to the air-filled bladders on the fronds, while the -wrack element is not as easily explained - there are at least two different derivations of words spelled w-r-a-c-k.  The OED doesn't identify which of these wracks is part of bladderwrack.  However, a long-time source of excellent etymological information for us here at TOWFI, Michael Quinion, does touch upon it.  He tells us that wrack is used to refer to several seaweeds, and it derives from Old English wrecan "to drive."  The sense here is "driven by the tide."

Silk from
Bombycinous "made of silk" does not appear to have been widely used in English.  The OED gives only four examples of it, all occurring between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.  Silk is a much older word, and it is also much shorter!  That may explain why bombycinous never caught on.  It derives ultimately from Greek bombus "silk worm."  The Greeks are thought to have borrowed the word from an oriental language.  And though bombycinous may look quite ludicrous to us, it is, in fact, related to bombastic.  How could this be?  Well, bombast is a variant of bombace "cotton," deriving, via French, from Latin bombax "cotton," which in turn derives from Latin bombyx "silk."  One word for clothing fiber came to be applied to another, perhaps visually similar fiber.  So how did a word meaning "cotton" come to mean "inflated" and then, of language, "pompous"?  Bombace "cotton" evolved into "cotton wool used as stuffing for clothes" and then the figurative senses of "stuffed," "over-padded" and "inflated" arose.

Silk, by the way, is a word that came from the Orient.  The Germanic languages that have similar forms of this word appear to have gotten them from one of the Slavic languages of the Baltic Sea region.  The Slavic and Germanic forms all share the letter l.  However, the Latin and Greek forms have an r instead of an l (Latin for silk is sericum), and that form gave rise to the name that the Greeks bestowed upon the first silk traders - Seres.  It is thought that the difference between the l-form and the r-form is the result of two slightly different source words.

Now, after all that, I hope you agree that we have helped justify the title of the article that inspired this blog entry!

Monday, February 10, 2014

That's So Cheesy!

If I read the word cheesy quickly, it looks like chessy to me, though chessy isn't a word (but see this about words that supposedly aren't words).  I usually want to spell cheesy with an e before the y (it is an accepted spelling, especially if you intend the "inferior, cheap" meaning), but I refrained here so that I had a reason to include the link to words that supposedly aren't words.

Red Leicester "Sparkenhoe"
Enough with the cheesiness.  I bought some Red Leicester cheese today.  One doesn't see it very often here in the States, so it was a pleasant surprise.  It got me thinking about cheese names.  Most traditional cheese names refer to the area or region where each was initially produced. Note that I say initially, because today cheeses that originated in specific places are often made worldwide, and some of them retain the original name.  An example is Cheddar.  This cheese originated near the village of Cheddar in the county of Somerset, in the southwest of England.  There are written records of it dating back 800 years!  Apparently there are caves near Cheddar that offer the perfect environment for ageing cheese.  At one time Cheddar cheese had to be made within 30 miles of Wells Cathedral, about seven miles from Cheddar, in order to be called Cheddar.  Today there is an EU Protected Designation of Origin that requires "West Country Farmhouse Cheddar" to be made on a farm in one of the four counties in the far southwest of England: Devon, Cornwall, Dorset, or Somerset. It must also be made using traditional techniques specific to Cheddar cheese.  One can these days find such cheeses here in the States (I particularly like Montgomery Cheddar), offering a welcome respite from most mass produced American Cheddars, which may just lose their appeal once you try a true English Cheddar.

By the way, the place name Cheddar is thought to come from Old English ceodor "ravine," referring to
the eponymous gorge near the village, Cheddar Gorge.  Thus, Cheddar Gorge is one of those names that repeats itself, etymologically, for it means "gorge gorge".  Such place names are characterized as being tautological, and there is even a list of tautological place names available from Wikipedia.  (Cheddar Gorge is currently absent from the list - feel free to add it!)

Montgomery Cheddar -
A note on capitalizing (or not) cheese names:  the standard seems to be that if the name refers to a geographical name that is normally capitalized, the cheese name should also be capitalized.  Thus, even though in American writing cheddar is often not capitalized, I am capitalizing it here.

Let's get back to that Red Leicester. (I was torn between capitalizing or not capitalizing red here.  Since Leicester is capitalized as it is a place name, I am capitalizing red, as well.).  It used to be known as Leicestershire cheese.  However, once people noticed that high-quality cheeses made with rich summer milk with added cream tended to be orange in color, due to the high carotene content from the grass (Double Gloucester cheese is an example), that color became desirable in cheese. When annatto coloring became available in the 15th century, makers of Leicestershire cheese began adding annatto to their cheese to achieve that orange shade without having to use as much of the rich milk and cream  (the Day-Glo orange color of many American Cheddars is a vestige of that).  By the mid-18th century, the production of this cheese became regulated, and it came to be known as Leicester cheese.  During World War II rationing, cheese production was standardized across the country and colors were no longer added, so cheese made in the Leicester area was known as White Leicester.  Once the cheese industry recovered from the war, and annatto was again added to Leicester cheese, it came to be known as Red Leicester to distinguish it from the run-of-the-mill White Leicester.

Leicester contains the familiar -cester element which derives from Old English ceaster and means, etymologically, "walled town".  Lei- comes ultimately, per the Oxford Names Companion, from Ligore, which is thought to refer to a specific tribe or group of people, but beyond that the word's origin is not known.  While we're at it, how about annatto?  The dye comes from the pulp that surrounds the seeds of the achiote tree, Bixa orellana.  No one seems to know where the word annatto comes from, though the OED guesses that it is from a native Central American language, as the plant is indigenous to that region.

Read more about perry:
How about a couple of unusual or interesting cheeses?  One of my favorite cheese names is stinking bishop.  It is so named because its rind is washed in perry (fermented pear juice) made from the juice of the stinking bishop pear.  Wikipedia says that the pear did not have a bad odor, but it was named after its breeder, Mr. Bishop, and Mr. Bishop was apparently not the most pleasant person, hence "stinking." This cheese, made by only one producer, gained fame after it was mentioned in the animated film Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.  Now for unusual: pule cheese.  This is purportedly cheese made from Balkan donkey's milk.  This makes it the most expensive cheese in the world.  It hails from Serbia, where pule is Serbian for "foal".

Even though the word perry used above is not a cheese name, it is an interesting word, nonetheless.  It is not heard much in the U.S. in the sense "pear cider" - we often say "pear cider."  However, it is a relatively old word, dating back to Middle English (14th century) and derives ultimately from Latin pirum "pear".  Now, how about a glass of perry and some nice Blue Stilton?  (Stilton is named after the town in Cambridgeshire in which it was first sold.)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Walk Along the Guadalupe River

Map  of Guadalupe River System from
San Jose, California is fairly progressive in preserving the riparian areas around the local creeks and rivers.  The Guadalupe River is a good example.  It flows from the north end of Lake Almaden in South San Jose and into the San Francisco Bay at the Alviso slough.  Much of the river's length is left in its semi-wild state, providing habitat to a diverse array of animals, including opossums, raccoons, otters, beavers and trout, and it is followed by a paved, two-way trail for bicycles, walkers and runners (as well as a skateboard here and there, and even a wiggle board or two).  We took a 4.5 mile stroll along the Guadalupe, and we returned with much fodder for this blog.

The most obvious etymology to start with here is that of riparian. Ripa is classical Latin for "river bank" and is cognate with English river.  So riparian is "of or related to the river bank."  There is also the cognate riverine.  Riparian dates from only 1810 in the written record, and riverine came a bit later.  We find riverain, too, which came the French route to English - it was originally a person who lived on the banks of a river.  It's the oldest of this group (not including river) and dates to the late 17th century in French.
Guadalupe River riparian area in San Jose from

Another interesting word related to our walk is slough.  In the U.S. we pronounce it "slew" (and sometimes spell it that way) but in the U.K. it is, of course, pronounced "slau".  The meanings are slightly different between the U.S. and U.K., as well.  In the U.S. a slough is a marshy or reedy pool, pond, small lake, backwater or inlet, or a seasonally dry channel, while in the U.K. it is soft or muddy ground, or a mire.  However, the basic idea of "wet" runs through both meanings.  It was slóhin Old English, but beyond that it's a bit of a mystery.  The OED suggests that it may be related to slonk, which has cognates in other Germanic languages and means "a wet hollow in the road or ground."  There is, of course, the town of Slough in England, made unhappily infamous by Betjeman's notorious poem.  It was so named as it was located in a miry area.  In 1195 it was Slo.

We saw some wildlife on the walk, including many Canada geese.  Note that some speakers hypercorrect that to Canadian, but the proper term is Canada geese. We also saw squirrels.  These busy fellows are apparently named for their plume-like tails, for their name derives ultimately from Greek words that mean "shade tail".  The word came to English from Anglo-Norman esquirel (écureuil in modern French). There are cognates in Provençal and Spanish, almost guaranteeing a Latin ancestor, and indeed it does derive from Latin (e)scurellus, the diminutive form of scurius, a metathetic form of sciurus, formed from Greek  skiouros (σκίουρος), a compound of skia and oura, "shade" and "tail," respectively (for the latter, cf. ouroboros).  In squirrel we find yet another word that separates U.S. speakers from those in the U.K.: in the U.S. it is pronounced "skwerl" (one syllable) while in the U.K. it is "SQUI-rull"(two syllables).

We close where we began - with the Guadalupe River.  Guadalupe is a curious word, and it is also
Squirrel, from
macaronic, which may add to its curiousness - it is derived from two words from different languages.  The guada element is from Arabic guadi (we know it today as wadi; in Spanish, the g is silent) - "dry river bed."  The second element is from Latin lupus "wolf."  The combination means "wolf river bed".  Anyone who lives in coyote country is probably familiar with coyotes (wolf-like animals) yipping as they run up and down dry river beds  - these beds make excellent animal roadways, and perhaps this is the sense originally conveyed by Guadalupe.  The word is a place name in Spain, and the Spanish place name is likely the source of the name Our Lady of Guadalupe (Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe) of Mexico (though some theorize the name in Mexico came from an Indian word). The river in San Jose was named Rio de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe by the De Anza expedition in 1776.  Our Lady of Guadalupe was the party's patron saint.  Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe is also the source of the popular Mexican personal names Guadalupe and Lupe.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Words from the Road

Snowshoeing at Breckenridge, Colorado
I just returned from a week of winter sport in Colorado, where there was a great deal more snow than there is in California (drought!).  In fact, we almost got snowed in, as even more snow arrived in the form of a winter storm on our last day.  We escaped just in time, with some harrowing  moments of almost zero visibility and completely obscured roadways due to blowing snow.

Photo from
Yes, it was a road trip, because road trips afford so much discovery.  For example, I had heard of the word Zzyzx, but I actually got to see the sign on Interstate 15 in San Bernardino County, California, that bears the name Zzyzx Rd.  That road leads to the location of the original settlement of Zzyzx, founded in 1944.  Wikipedia says that the settlement was founded by Curtis Howe Springer, and he called it the Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Spa.  He made up the name Zzyzx, apparently so he would have the honor of having coined the last word in the English language, when taken in alphabetical order.  The U.S. Board on Geographical Names made the name official in 1984.

Photo from
Another discovery was made as we drove through Utah.  This is high desert country, with many geological features to observe.  We passed one such feature, called the San Rafael Reef.  It is an approximately 75-mile long outcrop of sandstone that has been weathered into some spectacular cliffs, domes, and canyons. When we saw the sign telling us that this was a reef, we at first assumed it was the fossilized remains of what had been a reef back when, up to 270 million years ago, the area was under a shallow sea.  That was the only kind of reef with which we were familiar.  However, some research revealed that in Utah, the word reef refers to "rocky cliffs which are a barrier to travel, like a coral reef" (from the National Park Service web site on Capitol Reef National Park). Interestingly, all dictionaries I checked, including the OED, define this sense of reef as something that occurs only in water.  However, there is also a sense of reef that means "a lode or vein of gold-bearing quartz."  This sense originated in Australia, but the OED provides an early citation that refers to mining in Montana, indicating that the mining usage appears to have made it to the U.S.  It may be that the mining sense and the ocean sense (which contains an implied sense of blocking travel or making travel hazardous) were combined in the Utah usage.

Let us return to a subject mentioned above (in one of the above photograph captions) - snowshoes.  The snowshoes we are accustomed to seeing today, round or oblong and webbed, appear to have originated in North America, and the first instance of the term in English, according to the OED, dates from 1674 in the form snow-shoos.  A quick check of the Google Books Ngram Viewer (a fabulous tool that allows you to search Google's full-text book database for words and phrases) shows that most instances of snowshoe(s) come from North American books, though Google finds nothing before 1713.  Though the shapes varied quite a bit, all of the northern Indian tribes in North America used some sort of snowshoe.

Finally, while in Colorado, we partook of a wonderful dish called fondue (it has been a favorite of mine for some time).  It is a delightful way to warm up after a day in the snow.  The word dates in English to only 1878, per the OED, but the Google Books Ngram Viewer finds it in a cookbook of 1808 "A new system of domestic cookery: formed upon principles of economy, and adapted to the use of private families" by Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell).  Wikipedia says that the term appears in 1699 in a cookbook out of Zurich, Switzerland.  Fondue derives from French fondre "to melt," related to such English words as foundry and fondant.  These ultimately go back to the Indo-European root *ghud, source also (per John Ayto) of ingot, another word with a "melt" sense.  With that, we have come full circle: from frozen water (snow) to melting. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Etymology of a Couple of Famous Surnames

[Yes, Take Our Word For It is open for business again!  More later about what's been happening and what's in store.  For now, back to the fun stuff!]

Tom Hiddleston as himself
Actors with some wonderfully Anglo-Saxon-sounding surnames are seizing headlines of late. There's the delightful Tom Hiddleston, who plays Loki (swoon!) in the Marvel movie universe, and is soon to be seen in Only Lovers Left Alive with Tilda Swinton (must see!).  Then there's the enigmatic Benedict Cumberbatch, turning up everywhere from BBC's Sherlock (I'm addicted!) to providing the voice of Smaug in Peter Jackson's latest Hobbit installment (loved it!).  So what's a hiddle and why is it in town, and how does one get a batch of cumbers, and would that be cumbersome?

Surnames have origins similar to those of regular words.  My maiden name is Jeanes, and while some think it is simply a form of John, there are others who assert that it actually denotes a person from Genoa, suggesting that the original Jeanes folk likely went to England as mercenaries for William the Conqueror.  Jeans as in blue jeans has that same origin (fabric of Genoa).  So what about Hiddleston and Cumberbatch?

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock
Hiddleston is a form of Huddleston, which is ultimately a place name: "the settlement of (a man named) Hudel."  Hudel is a diminutive form of the name Hud(d), from which we also get Hudson (son of Hud(d)). So this must mean that Tom Hiddleston lived with Paul Newman!?!?  (Derp!) The "settlement" meaning arises from the -ton affix. It was tun in Old English and meant "settlement or enclosure" (most settlements were enclosed by a wall or fence of some sort) and of course gives us the word town.  This suggests that Tom's family came from Yorkshire or possibly even Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland (both locations are home to towns called Huddleston; the one in Yorkshire is the original). Any road... (for us Americans, that's Yorkshirespeak for "anyway..."), if your name is Hiddleson, it's possible that your family dropped the T, but it's also possible that your ancestor was the son of Hudel (making Hiddleson a patronymic).

Cumberbatch is another place name, suggesting that Mr. C's family hails from Cheshire, where there was a stream of that name.  The stream got its name from the personal name Cumbra, which ultimately means "Cumbrian" or Welsh and was a popular given name, and Old English bæce "stream" or "beck".  Alternatively, the stream could have been named for the more general "stream of the Welshmen" (no potty jokes please!).  Some people prefer to minimize any Welsh family heritage, but the Cumberbatches should be proud to be the owners of such a venerable old surname (after all, the Welsh have had professional poets since the Dark Ages and they have a National Eisteddfod - they can't be all bad!). But, of course, since Cumbra was apparently a popular name at the time, there may be no Welsh connection here at all.

Do you have an unusual or perplexing surname?  Let me know and I'll try to sort it out for you.  Now for some fun involving both Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch: Dance Off!  There is also this Benedict Cumberbatch Anagram Generator!