Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Philology 101


I love words. That's why I enjoy my Word Origin Calendar so much. Each day of the week I learn the origin of a particular word or phrase. I'd like to share some of my favorites with you. 

glamour (or glamor): Did you know that it comes from the word grammar? Few people in Scotland and England could read or write in the Middle Ages. Those who could were considered magical. A local dialect transformed the pronunciation  of "grammar" to "glamour". So, someone who was glamourous could use grammar. Today, it still has that sense of magic. Those who are glamourous have an "enchanting beauty." Well, I do think it's beautiful when someone uses words well!

O.K.: There is quite a lot of disagreement on this one. The most reliable explanation is that it came from President Martin Van Buren. His nickname was "Old Kinderhook" after his home town of Kinderhook, New York. Some suggest that when he approved documents, he would use the initials of his nickname, so they would literally get his "O.K.". Another report discounts this and suggests that it comes from the OK Club which was formed to get Van Buren re-elected in 1840. They were not successful in that endeavor but they were successful in popularizing the  expression "O.K." and it is used today, not only in English, but all over the world. 

dandelion: Who's scared of a dandelion? The word comes from the French for Lion's Teeth or dent-de-lion which describes the jagged leaves of this unpretentious plant. 

Velcro: How did we ever live without Velcro? In 1948, Swiss chemist George de Mestral used a microscope to examine some cockleburs that caught on his socks during a hike. He noticed that the burs contained hundreds of tiny, hairlike hooks that grasped his clothing. He was inspired to invent a synthetic fabric he first called "locking tape." He patented it in 1955 as "Velcro", a blend of "velvet" and "crochet." In French, "crochet" mean "little hook." It's an invention that has stuck with us to this day.

geek: If you call someone a "geek", is that a compliment, an insult, or a bit of both? Carnival workers used to describe a "geek" as someone who performed bizarre or memorable acts such as sticking needles through their cheeks or biting the heads off chickens. Of course, the meaning of this word has mutated over the years to now mean someone who understands the seemingly bizarre world of computers. So the next time your computer isn't working don't be surprised if a young "geek" shows up, complete with some kind of face piercing and munching on a chicken sandwich - no doubt an unconscious ode to "geeks" of old. 

weird: From the Old Norse, "weird" meant "fate." Since the twistings of fate can often be unpredictable and surprising, the word took on the meaning of "strange, and not pleasantly so." That's weird!

hideous: The medieval English word hideous meant not ugly, but rather extremely terrifying. You might notice that the word hideous has the word "hide" in it. In the past, I guess great big beasts with hides were pretty terrifying. Of course, the word "hide" can refer to anything that conceals or covers (including the great bristling fur of a wild animal). Other words such as husk, huddle, hut or house, and even husband (from the Old Norse for someone who dwells in a house (hus (house) + bondi (dwell)), which all have that sense of covering or protection. I know I'm going on and on here but . . . C.S. Lewis wrote a book called "That Hideous Strength" very much using that older sense of terrifying. It's the third book in his science fiction trilogy. The protagonist is Dr. Ransom, who is, of all things, a Philologist, someone who studies language or literally someone who loves words (from the Greek, philos (love) + logos (word)). Who knew that such an ugly word had such an interesting origin?

Audi: From the Latin, audi means "listen." Audio means "I hear." August Horch was the founder of a car company in Germany in 1899. Horch, which is similar to the English word "hark", means "listen" in German. He was forced to resign from his original company and started a new one in 1909. Of course, he named this new company after himself but used the Latin form, Audi, instead. We had an Audi growing up. It was quite a noisy car, as I remember, one that forced you to listen to it, whether you liked it or not!

Duncan Parlett: Duncan is a Celtic name meaning "Brown Warrior." (Some farm people will recognize a dun mare as a brown female horse). Parlett is a little more obscure. It seems pretty obvious that it shares the same root as Parler, the French verb meaning to talk or speak. So, I guess I was destined to fight a battle of words. Thanks for joining the cause!


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