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!


Anonymous said...

I'm so happy, TOWFI is back!

Jon Scott Smith said...

Thanks for the tidbits, all! These are all new to me.

Melanie (@Etymomel on Twitter) said...

Jon Scott Smith - they were mostly new to me, too! OpenID 2cb134c0-9e3b-11e3-85ef-000bcdcb471e - TOWFI is happy to be back and happy to have you here. Thanks!