Thursday, September 08, 2005

Carnival of the Etymologies

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

Among the little-noted heroes of the hurricane disaster on the Gulf Coast were ham radio operators.

Contrary to a common belief, ham radio is not an acronym (and thus should not be written HAM, though it often is). It's simply a shorthand way to say "amateur," and it's the same ham that means "overacting performer." The "amateur radio operator" sense is recorded from 1919, and seems to be a direct borrowing of the American English theatrical slang term, which dates from 1882.

Apparently this is a shortening of hamfatter "actor of low grade" (1880), which is said to be taken from an old minstrel show song, "The Ham-fat Man." Some claim this is a song having to do with a second-rate actor, and the allusion is said to be either from ham fat as a make-up remover or the practice among poor actors of using ham rind instead of more expensive oil as a base for their make-up. But if it's the same song reproduced here, it's a straight-up hair-raising blackface piece, and a good reminder of how far Americans have come in their perception of racism and entertainment. "The Ham-fat Man" song dates from 1863. More likely the connection between the song and the idea of "low-grade actor" is via the minstrel shows itself, where it was a popular number, as attested by its appearance in Bret Harte's "The Secret of Telegraph Hill."

Ham meaning "meat of a hog's hind leg used for food" is from Old English hamm, which was not a food item but rather meant "hollow or bend of the knee."

Jesse Jackson objects to the use of refugees to describe those fleeing the hurricane's devastation. Refugee first appears in English in 1685, and it first was applied to French Huguenots who migrated to Britain (and other Protestant nations) after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Presumably this was what the Huguenots called themselves, since the word is French refugié, which properly is the past participle of the verb refugier "to take shelter, protect." The word meant "one seeking asylum," till 1914, when it evolved to mean "one fleeing home." It was first applied in this sense to civilians in Flanders heading west to escape fighting in World War I.

The Latin root of this is refugium "a taking refuge, place to flee back to," a compound of re- "back" and fugere "to flee." This has been traced to the hypothetical Proto-Indo-European base *bheug- "to flee."

If they're not refugees, and if citizens (Jackson's suggested alternative) is insufficiently descriptive, what should they be called? Evacuees, perhaps. But that is more insulting than refugees, especially since the first use of the word evacution in English (c.1400) was the sense of Pliny's Latin evacuare, "to empty the bowels." Evacuate in the sense "to remove inhabitants to safer ground" is attested in English only from 1934.

The root of the Latin word is related to vacuus "empty;" vastus "empty, waste;" and vanus "idle, empty." The Proto-Indo-European root is *eue- "to leave, abandon, give out" (cf. English want and wane; Persian vang "empty, poor").

According to those who know such things, the inundation of downtown New Orleans was caused not by the breaking of a levee, but a floodwall. Apparently they are distinct things -- as I read it, a levee is built of earth, whereas the canal wall that gave way was concrete. But the media continues to use them interchangeably.

Levee is first attested in English in 1719, though it is older than that in New Orleans French. In French levée was "raising, lifting, embankment." The notion is of the earth "raised" up in a mound, and the word is literally the feminine past participle of lever "to raise." The English verb levy "act of raising or collecting" is the same French word borrowed 500 years earlier, directly from the Continent, with a Middle English spelling. French levée also was borrowed in 17th century Britain in a sense then current in France, "morning assembly held by a prince or king (upon rising from bed)."

The French word is a descendant of Latin levare "to raise," from levis "light" in weight. The Proto-Indo-European root of this is *le(n)gwh- "light, easy, agile, nimble," source of Sanskrit laghuh "quick, small;" Greek elakhys "small," elaphros "light;" Old Slavic liguku, Lithuanian lengvas "light;" Old Irish laigiu "smaller, worse;" Gothic leihts, and Old English leoht, source of modern light (adj.).

Among the other words to have entered American English via New Orleans French are some obvious ones, such as Cajun (1868, from dialectic pronunciation of Acadian); poor boy "type of sandwich, made of simple but filling ingredients" (invented in New Orleans in 1921); and lagniappe "dividend, something extra" (1849, a Creole word of uncertain origin, despite many guesses; perhaps ultimately from Spanish la ñapa "the gift").

"We picked up one excellent word -- a word worth travelling to New Orleans to get; a nice, limber, expressive, handy word -- 'lagniappe.' They pronounce it lanny-yap. It is Spanish -- so they said." [Mark Twain, "Life on the Mississippi"]

Less obviously from New Orleans are lulu in the colloquial sense of "remarkable person or thing" (first recorded 1886 in a baseball article from New Orleans); cocktail (first attested 1806; most likely from French coquetier "egg-cup;" In New Orleans, c.1795, Antoine Amédée Peychaud, an apothecary and inventor of Peychaud bitters, held Masonic social gatherings at his pharmacy, where he mixed brandy toddies with his own bitters and served them in an egg-cup); muggle "marijuana joint" (1926, of unknown origin); and poontang (c.1910, probably via New Orleans Creole from French putain "prostitute," probably ultimately from a combination of a Dark Ages word for "girl" and a descendant of Latin putidus "stinking").

The adjectival phrase open-and-shut "simple, straightforward" also was first recorded in New Orleans, in 1841.

Away from the disaster, gay marriage was back in the news in California.

The "Oxford English Dictionary" gives 1951 as earliest date for gay in the slang adjective meaning "homosexual" (adj.), but this is certainly too late, and the OED seems to be overlooking some pretty clear double entendre usages for a century before that. The "Dictionary of American Slang," for instance, reports that gay (adj.) was used by homosexuals, among themselves, in this sense since at least 1920. Hugh Rawson ["Wicked Words"] notes a male prostitute using gay in reference to male homosexuals (but also to female prostitutes) in London's notorious Cleveland Street Scandal of 1889. John Ayto ["20th Century Words"] calls attention to the ambiguous use of the word in the 1868 song "The Gay Young Clerk in the Dry Goods Store," by U.S. female impersonator Will S. Hays.

Gay "full of joy or mirth" was in English by 1178, from Old French gai "gay, merry," perhaps from a Frankish source related to Old High German wahi "pretty." The word gay in the 1890s had an overall tinge of promiscuity -- a gay house was a brothel. The suggestion of immorality in the word can be traced back to 1637. Probably the direct source of the modern word in the homosexual sense is gey cat "homosexual boy," which is attested in N. Erskine's 1933 dictionary of "Underworld & Prison Slang." The term gey cat (gey is a Scottish variant of gay) was used as far back as 1893 in American English for "young hobo," one who is new on the road and usually in the company of an older tramp, with catamite connotations. But Josiah Flynt ["Tramping With Tramps," 1905] defines gay cat as, "An amateur tramp who works when his begging courage fails him." Gey cats also were said to be tramps who offered sexual services to women.

As for marriage, that word is much more straightforward, entering English by the 13th century from Old French mariage, which is from a Vulgar Latin extended form of classical Latin maritatus, past participle of maritatre "to wed, marry, give in marriage," from maritus "married man, husband." This Latin word is of uncertain origin, but perhaps its ultimate sense is "provided with a *mari," that is, a young woman, if the root is in the Proto-Indo-European base *meri- "young wife," akin to *meryo- "young man" (cf. Sanskrit marya- "young man, suitor").