Sunday, April 20, 2014


Mesclun from
The latest blog entry is a bit late because I was traveling to, attending, and returning from a funeral, and thereafter I was caring for an ill (now fully recovered) cat.  My travels and care-giving experiences turned up quite a few words that piqued (not "peaked"!) my curiosity.  Some of these words are connected, while others are not.  This will, then, be an etymological mesclun salad.  Mesclun is defined by the OED as "young leaves and shoots of a variety of wild plants, used to make a salad."  The term has also come to refer to a salad of mixed young leaves that are not necessarily wild. Mesclun came to English from French, and it derives from Latin mescere "to mix." The ultimate source is Proto-Indo-European meik- "mix" which gave us words like meddlemedleymélangemiscellaneous (and miscellany), mixmixture, and even mustang and promiscuous.

After the funeral, I wondered about the origins of funerary words. Funeral came to English via French from Latin funus "funeral, corpse" but beyond that very little is known about the word. However, some conjecture that it comes from the Proto-Indo-European root dheu- "to rise in a cloud" as do dust, vapor and smoke, among other things. The connection here would be cremation of the dead and the resulting rising smoke and ashes.  That would make funus and fumus (Latin for "smoke") cognates.

There were other rituals observed around the funeral.  The evening before the funeral a gathering at the funeral home called "visitation" occurred.  This appears to be the twenty-first century version of a wake.  A wake was traditionally the time between death and burial when the family of the deceased sat with and watched over the body. This meaning of wake preserves an older sense of the word, which was "be watchful" and that further morphed into "guard."  Thus, during a traditional wake, the body was watched and guarded until burial.  Burial occurred much more quickly in earlier times, before undertakers mastered their art of preserving the body so that the time to burial could be extended.  The English word watch comes from the same source a wake.

In the case of the funeral I attended, the deceased was cremated some time after the visitation and funeral. Cremate was borrowed from Latin cremare "to burn." Calvert Watkins (see the TOWFI bibliography) ties the Latin word to the Proto-Indo-European root ker- "heat, fire." This would mean that hearthcarbon, and cremate are all related (with metathesis of the e and r in ker- for cremate).  Watkins also thinks that ceramic may derive from the same root.

One of two cats in the TOWFI household has idiopathic tachycardia (idiopathic = Greek idio- "personal" and Greek -pathic "relating to a disease," and idiopathic has the meaning "disease arising by itself" (literally "from the person") though now it also means "of unknown etiology") (tachycardia = Greek tachy- "swift" and Greek -cardia  "heart" and means "rapid heart rate").  This condition requires him to take medication (the beta blocker atenolol) twice a day.  Thus, we had to board the cats at our veterinarian's office while we were away, because the cats are very shy and it would be impossible for our normal cat sitter to administer a pill, not to mention that it would be an inconvenience having to do so twice a day.  Anyhow, I mention the boarding for two reasons: to add another etymological discussion to our mesclun salad, and to give a possible reason for the non-tachycardic cat's subsequent illness.

Smorgasbord from
First comes the etymology of board in this sense. The phrase was originally room and board, which meant one got a room and meals.  The meal sense of board arose metaphorically from the "table" meaning of the word (this sense is also seen in the bord element of Swedish smorgasbord). Eventually the room and portion was dropped and board came to have the meaning of the entire phrase.  It was then turned into a verb meaning "to provide [room and] board."

The second reason I mentioned board above was to provide a segue into the next discussion.  You see, our until-then healthy cat got sick a day after returning from boarding, so we wondered if he picked up the feline equivalent of a norovirus while housed in proximity to other cats.  He was vomiting and anorexic (meaning he did not want to eat, from Greek elements meaning "lack of desire [for food]).  He had vomited all night and when that continued until midday, the vet asked that he be brought in.  Ultimately he was diagnosed with gastritis of unknown cause, and he has since fully recovered.  However, while shuttling him back and forth to the vet's office and discussing his prolific vomiting with the doctor, I did wonder about words related to vomit.  Luckily I was not eating during most of these mental musings.

Vomit and emesis are related, perhaps surprisingly, both deriving from the Proto-Indo-European root wem- "vomit." There is also an English word wamble "feel queasy" that derives from the same root but came to English via a Germanic source, while the others came via Latin and Greek, respectively. Then there is the word barf, which the OED considers to be chiefly American. No one is sure, but the prevailing thought is that the word is echoic.  Retch goes all the way back to Old English.  An alternative form is reach.  It originally meant "spit, clear the throat." I must also include chunder in this discussion, of course.  We dealt with it a while back in TOWFI.  Here is an excerpt:

As for chunder, that's a great Aussie word, indeed.  The OED has no idea about its etymology, but Eric Partridge suggests derivation from the English dialectical chounter "mutter, murmur, grumble", supposedly echoic in derivation.  However, he mentions another etymologist's¹ proposed derivations: an abbreviation of watch under ("look out below"), a call that seasick sailors could have made to their mates below; or rhyming slang, from Chunder Loo meaning "spew," Chunder Loo of Akim Foo being a cartoon character in ads for Cobra boot polish, carried in the Sydney Bulletin starting in 1909. Michael Quinion notes that Barry Humphries (known today as Dame Edna) popularized the term chunder in his comic strip about Australians in London in Private Eye magazine.  The strip was called Barry McKenzie.
¹That etymologist is G.A. Wilkes, in his A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms of 1978.

While we are on the subject, did you know that butyric acid is what gives vomit its characteristic smell?  Butyric comes from Latin butyrum "butter" because butyric acid was first isolated from butter.

Image from (interesting article)
Now that we have broached the subject of chemicals that cause distinctive smells, how about geosmin?  I learned recently that this is the chemical that gives beets their "earthy" taste.  It is also a component of the familiar smell of rain after a dry spell, or of freshly disturbed soil. Geosmin means, etymologically, "earth smell," formed from the Greek elements geo- "earth" and -osmo "smell." This chemical is released when bacteria of the genus Streptomyces die. These bacteria are found in soil and decaying vegetation.  If geosmin is only a component of the smell that occurs when rain falls on dry ground, what is the smell itself?  It is called petrichor, from Greek petrus "rock" and ichor "the ethereal fluid that flows in the veins of the gods."  The word was coined and first published in 1964 by Australian mineralogists Isabel J. Bear and R.G. Thomas in the journal Nature.  These scientists determined that the smell comes primarily from an oil produced by some plants in dry conditions.  That oil is absorbed by surrounding rocks and clay and released by rain. (Here's a Scientific American article on the subject, by the mellifluously named Daisy Yuhas.)

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