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.)