Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Carnival of Etymologies

[A regular Thursday feature of "Done With Mirrors"]

Today's list of words to be dissected was dragged, writhing and begging for mercy, from phrases that appeared in the Google "Zeitgeist" and the top 50 searches on Lycos for the week ending April 10.

This could be the showdown week in the U.S. Senate's debate over the filibuster. Some immoderate Republicans have threatened to change the rules to end the minority party's ability to block action through endless debate. Have the Republicans already forgotten what it was to be the minority party? Do they really think it never will happen to them again?

filibuster in the legislative sense is first recorded in the early 1850s, during the contentious U.S. Senate debates that preceded the break-up of the country and the Civil War. The notion is of seizing the debate, like rebels seize a state or a pirate seizes plunder, and that's what filibuster originally meant.

The word emerges into English in Shakespeare's day, as flibutor, meaning "pirate." It came to English from Dutch vrijbuiter, which, if you say it out loud (Dutch -j- is pronounced like English -y-), you'd recognize as freebooter.

The Dutch word was used in reference to pirates in the West Indies, and in addition to English it found its way, much mangled, into Spanish (filibustero) and French (flibustier). Either or both of these gave the word filibuster to American English, where it was used in the 1850s and '60s in reference to lawless adventurers from the U.S. who tried to overthrow Central American governments. That probably was its direct source when it was borrowed in the legislative sense.

Filibuster and freebooter are thus the same word, or really separated-at-birth twins, raised in different countries.

Dutch vrijbuiter was from vrijbuit "plunder," literally "free booty," from vrij, the Dutch form of the general Germanic word for "free," and buit "booty."

Yup. Booty. As in what the government will be looking for from me if I get my taxes done today like I'm supposed to. What the Republicans are fighting to kill in the U.S. Senate is, etymologically, a booty call.

Another possible family member here is buddy, which turns up in American English around the same time as filibuster. Linguists debate where it came from. Some think it is an alteration of brother, and others connect it with the 19th century British colloquial word butty "companion," which is itself perhaps a variant of booty in the phrase booty fellow "confederate who shares plunder" (attested from 1530). But butty, meaning "work-mate," also was a localized dialect word in England and Wales, attested since the 18th century, and long associated with coal miners.

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Tiger Woods won his fourth Masters Tournament this week. According to the official history of the event:

Looking to provide a service to golf by hosting a tournament, Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts decided to hold an annual event beginning in 1934. The final decision was made at a meeting in New York at the office of member W. Alton Jones. Roberts proposed the event be called the Masters Tournament, but Bobby Jones objected thinking it too presumptuous. The name Augusta National Invitation Tournament was adopted and the title was used for five years until 1939 when Jones relented and the name was officially changed.

Jones had a point. The noun master, which has been in English since the Anglo-Saxon days, means "one having control or authority." It comes from Latin magister, which meant "chief, head, director, teacher." Among its other descendants are French maître, Italian maestro, and German Meister, all of which have slightly different shades of meaning, at least to an English-speaker.

The Latin word is a contrastive adjective formed from magis, itself a comparative form of magnus "great." Ultimately, it comes from the ancient Indo-European root meaning "great," which also survives in Hindi mahatma, the Greek prefix mega-, and English much.

Another place you can find Latin magnus is in the common Scandinavian male proper name Magnus, which was popular with early kings in Norway and Denmark. The first to use it was Magnus I, who died in 1047. He evidently took the name in emulation of Charlemagne -- whose name in Latin was Carolus Magnus -- under the mistaken impression that magnus (literally "the great") Charlemagne's personal name.

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The moon passed between us and the sun this week, and some people were lucky enough to see the eclipse. The word comes ultimately from Greek ekleipsis, the ancients' word for an eclipse, but literally "a leaving out, a forsaking." It's a compound of ek "out" and leipein "to leave," which comes from the ancient root also found in lend and relinquish. Which reminds me, I have to do my taxes.

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50 cent is a popular performer, judging by his Internet traffic. I haven't found much to do with him etymologically, but since taxes also figure in this weeks lists, I think it's time to riff on the names of our currency denominations.

Cent is Middle English, from Latin centum "hundred." The Middle English meaning was "one hundred," but it shifted to "hundredth part" under the influence of percent. Like all the currency unit names, Congress chose it in 1786. The name cent had been suggested by Robert Morris in 1782 under a different currency plan. Before the cent, colonial dollars were reckoned in ninetieths, based on the exchange rate of Pennsylvania money and Spanish coin.

There's actually a smaller currency unit in America than the cent, the mil, which is worth one-tenth of a cent. It's now used only for tax calculation purposes.

Dime is an old Middle English word for "a tenth, tithe," from Latin decima (pars) "tenth (part)," from decem "ten" (as in December, the tenth month of the old Roman calendar). In the 1960s, dime began to be used colloquially as a verb, meaning "to inform" (on someone). That's how much it used to cost to make a pay phone call. Pay phones are vanishing, and they don't cost a dime to use any more, but the word may survive, like record album and lower case, long after its source has gone obsolete.

The nickel is named for the metal in it. But it's not an official currency name like dime, cent, or dollar. In fact, the original nickel was the 1857 U.S. penny, made of nickel to replace the old bulky copper pennies. These were short-lived (the government switched back to copper by the end of the Civil War), but after 1883 Americans began to use the word in reference to the new five-cent piece (originally one part nickel, three parts copper). Before that, the five-cent denomination in the U.S. was a silver half-dime.

The metal name nickel was coined in 1754 by Swedish mineralogist Axel von Cronstedt, from a shortening of German Kupfernickel, which literally means "copper demon." Nickel "demon, goblin, rascal" is really a pet form of the masculine proper name Nikolaus, which was used in German dialect for the devil just like Old Nick was in English. The miners gave the ore that disparaging name because it looked like copper but yielded none.

Dollar is another German word. It was the name of a 16th century German coin, variously spelled daler, taler, thaler, and in any case an abbreviation of Joachimstaler, literally "(gulden) of Joachimstal." The coins were minted first in 1519 from silver from a mine opened three years earlier near Joachimstal, a town in the Erzgebirge Mountains in northwest Bohemia.

German Tal is cognate with English dale. The German thaler was widely circulated in Continental Europe, and English colonists in America used the word in reference to Spanish pieces of eight. Congress adopted dollar on the suggestion of Gouverneur Morris and Thomas Jefferson, because the term was widely known but not British.

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OK, one more before I do my taxes. The verb tax is the original form of the word in English, and the ultimate source of it is Latin taxare, which the Romans used to mean a lot of things: "evaluate, estimate, assess, handle, censure, charge." But it really means "to touch a lot;" it's a frequentative form of tangere "to touch." Its use in Luke ii by Tindale (and the King James translators after him) to render Greek apographein "to enter on a list, enroll" is etymologically correct, but confusing to modern readers, who are liable to picture Joseph and Mary going to see an IRS agent and giving birth along the way.

Excuse me now, I have to go let the government touch me.