[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 previous week.
* * *
The top search engine terms tend to be proper names. But this week it occurred to me how many of those surnames also are words: (Martha) Stewart, (Vin) Diesel, (Anna Nicole) Smith, (Tyra) Banks, (Howard) Stern, (Donald) Trump.
The names don't necessarily connect with the words. "Stern," for instance, is German for "star": for some reason German Jewish families often had beautiful, almost American Indian-type surnames. In my high school were Morgensterns ("Morning Star") and Rosenzweigs ("Rose Bough").
In most cases they are the same, however. The Diesel
type of engine was named for Rudolf Diesel (1858-1913), a German mechanical engineer who designed it. Whether he is realted to the action movie hero, I do not know.
Nonetheless, it's an excuse to have some fun with words, so here goes:
* * *
, the adjective not the surname of the radio host, is a good, solid Anglo-Saxon monosylable, virtually unchanged in sound and sense from Old English styrne
. It's a common Germanic word (German has starr
"obstinate"), and as its German cognates suggest, the root sense is "stiffness."
The original sense of the root is preserved in Lithuanian tirpstu
"to become rigid." But in other Indo-European languages, it has branched off into senses that mean either "barren" (e.g. Sanskrit starih
"a barren cow"), "strong, hard, solid," or even "dead."
In fact, among the word's relatives in English are stare
"to gaze on fixedly," and sterile
, from Latin sterilis
"barren, unproductive." The notion there is of "stiff, rigid" = "barren, unproductive," obviously with the female, or perhaps agricultural, sense of reproduction in mind.
Another cousin, from a variant form of the root without the initial s-,
, from Latin torpere
"to be numb." Unless you're a military historian, you might not recognize another word in this group, torpedo.
Before that word meant "self-propelled underwater missile" (1860s), it meant "floating mine" (1770s).
It was named, like many modern missile systems (e.g. sidewinder, viper) for a stingy thing, in this case a stingray. The Latin word for "stingray" is torpedo,
which literally means "numbness." The ray was so called for the effect of being jolted by its sting.
The Greek family from this ancient Indo-European "stiffness" root is represented by stereos
"solid, firm, stiff, hard." This came into English as the prefix stereo-
, in such words as stereotype
(originally a "solid plate of type"), and stereophonic
, to describe sound systems with more than one point of projection, which create a "solid" (three-dimensional) effect.
People my age (44) still call an in-home sound system a stereo,
even though that word only distinguishes it from a monophonic
system, which nobody has anymore. Will that word continue to be used as music systems merge into computer systems?
For that matter, how much longer will we talk about an artist putting out an album
, when in fact he or she has put out a CD in a little plastic box, nothing like the big production that used to accompany a vinyl record. You'd open it up for the first time and inhale that fresh scent of ink and plastic you'd know you were about to hear some great music. That or you were about to clean the seeds out of your stash. No subsequent packaging technology has ever been so useful.
Yet another relative of stern
which now has the specialized sense of "to die of hunger," but which in Old English (steorfan
) was one of the basic words for "to die." German sterben
still is used in this general sense. And the connection between "dead" and "stiff" is an easy one to imagine. Slang still uses stiff
as a noun for "a corpse." (The adjective stiff,
however, is from a different root, one that means "packed close together").
The sense of starve
in English narrowed to "to die of cold" (14th century), then later "to kill with hunger," or "to die of hunger" (16th century). In early Middle English, you had to say "starve of hunger" to be understood. The sense of the word has shifted so far that people now commonly say "starve to death," which, to our linguistic ancestors would seem as silly as saying "to die to death."
I used to love listening to Howard Stern when he first came on the radio in the Philly market in the late 1980s. I remember driving in to work laughing so hard I was afraid I'd have to pull over. I never had to do that, but sometimes if he was on a roll when I was pulling up to the office, I'd drive around the parking lot a few times rather than shut it off in the middle.
Since I switched to night shift, I don't get to hear him much anymore. But I think he's invaluable. If you listen to him long enough, eventually he will say something you consider over the line. Great! How else would you find out where your "line" is?
* * *
, the surname almost certainly is the same word as steward
(Old English stigweard
"house guardian"), which comes from stig
"hall, pen" (which morphed into Modern English as sty
) and weard
"guard." So a "Stewart" is etymologically a "sty-guard."
The English word was used after the Norman Conquest as the equivalent of Old French seneschal
, and it became a more elevated job title. By the 15th century it was the name for the officer on a ship in charge of provisions and meals, and later this was extended to trains and passenger aircraft. It also became the title of a class of high officers of the state in early England and Scotland, hence the meaning "one who manages affairs of an estate on behalf of his employer."Stewart
, is the Scottish form of the word, and in Scotland it became the name of the royal house, from Walter (the) Steward, who in 1315 married Marjorie de Bruce, daughter of King Robert. Stuart
is a French spelling, adopted by Mary, Queen of Scots.
* * *
The whole trump
group of words in English is of murky lineage. Some of the senses seem clearly derived from trumpet,
or words related to it.
The verb meaning "fabricate, devise" goes back to Middle English, and may be another relative of trumpet.
The noun meaning "playing card of a suit ranking above others" (1529), however, is an alteration of triumph,
which was the name of an old card game.
itself is a bit obscure. Its earliest ancestor seems to be the 12th century French trompe,
but this may have been borrowed from a Germanic word, and some linguists think the word is imitative of the sound of a long, tube-like musical instrument.
* * *
The two banks
in Modern English ultimately are the same word, from a Germanic root meaning "shelf." The word meaning "earthen incline, shelf of earth on the edge of a river" comes directly from this source.
The word meaning "financial institution," however, came to English with the rise of modern banking in the 15th century, via Italian or French. Those languages had borrowed the Germanic word in ancient times, but they began using it to mean "table" or "bench," and eventually narrowed the sense to "money-lender's table or bench," from whence it came to mean "financial institution." By the time it got back to English, dressed up in foreign finery and flush with cash, it was hard to recognize as the prodigial brother of the "dirt at the side of a river" word.
* * *
also features in another word that's been in the news recently, bankrupt,
as in the abominable bankruptcy bill now kicking around in Congress. It seems the fractious Internet voices of American politics can agree on nothing else, but they are merging on the notion that this is a bad bill for honest folks, and a boon only to those who neither need nor deserve it.Bankrupt
comes from Italian banca rotta,
and literally means "broken bench," meaning, of course, the money-lender's bench. The rotta
is not "rotten," but rather a descendant of Latin rumpere
"to break," which is the source of rupture