[A regular Thursday feature of "Done with Mirrors"]
This week: Ripped from the headlines.Laura Bush Heckled at Islamic Holy ShrineHeckle
was journalists' verb of choice to describe this incident. But this seems an unwonted extension of its usual meaning, which is to annoy or harass, by constant interruptions, someone who is speaking. The news reports don't indicate that Laura Bush was trying to speak at the time. In fact, they emphasize her silence during the visit to the wall and the mosque.
This sense of heckle
is a figurative one that originated in Scottish English in the late 18th century. According to the "Oxford English Dictionary," the word was "long applied in Scotland to the public questioning of parliamentary candidates." Originally, the verb meant "to comb with a heckle," which was a kind of comb used for flax or hemp.
It's a Germanic word related to hackle
, which also originally meant a kind of comb before it was transfered to bird plumage in the 15th century, on supposed resemblance of comb to ruffled feathers.
A big, sharp-tined comb dragged over your skin is probably a good metaphor for the experience of being taunted in public while trying to speak. The same metaphor exists in tease,
which in Old English (tæsan
) meant "to pluck or pull apart" fibers of wool, flax, etc. The figurative sense of "vex, worry, annoy" emerged by 1619.
But the comb also has the purpose of untangling the knots in the material, just as the original heckling had the purpose of exposing cant and smoke in a politician's speech.
One of the interesting sidebar stories to Laura Bush's Middle East visit was her taping an appearance on Egyptian "Sesame Street"
The show's name is a reference to sesame
as the magic password to opens the door of the thieves' den in "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves." In English, this first appears in the 1785 translation of Antoine Galland's "Mille et une nuits."
Galland published his translation in the first decade of the 18th century from a manuscript he had purchased in Istanbul while serving there as an assistant to the French ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Apparently the phrase "Open Sesame" is a literal translation of the Arabic phrase used in the story.
The collection itself goes back, in parts, perhaps to 1000 C.E., but the Forty Thieves story, and that of Aladdin's Lamp, though authentic Arab stories, were not in the older collections, and scholars say Galland got them from a Syrian Christian storyteller from Aleppo and inserted them in his collection. But why "Open, Sesame," I cannot say. Perhaps it was just nonsense. Nowadays, it might be a reference to a brand of remote-control door-opening system. Sesame
itself ultimately is a Semitic word, which entered English circa 1440, probably from Middle French sisame,
which is from Latin sesamum
, which is from Greek sesamon
, which the Greeks got via Phoenician from Late Babylonian *shawash-shammu
, which literally means "oil seed."
This BBC story
indicates they've essentially kept the name of the American show in exporting it into the Middle East. It's called "Hikayat Simsim"
in Jordan and the Palestinian territories and "Sippuray Sumsum"
in Israel. The Kuwaiti version is called "Iftah Ya Simsim"
, which literally means "Open Sesame."
The phrase thus has made a 300-year round-trip from Arabia to America and back again.
While Americans debate the public funding of PBS,
Britons debate whether the BBC should continue to be funded by a licence fee
OK, so it's not big news, but it happens to dovetail with some of my recent readings in archaeology about the important moment when humans domesticated cattle. Some perceptive archaeologists have pointed out that owning cattle, or the ability to own them, forced great shifts in human behavior, and not just the obvious ones relating to grazing land and settlement. Cattle were more than just lunch on the hoof. During their lives, they represented money, perhaps the original form of non-human material wealth.
Livestock was the measure of wealth in the ancient world. This is reflected in the Modern English word fee,
as well as the word pecuniary,
both of which derive from a root that originally meant "cattle."Fee
is the equivalent of Old English feoh
, which meant "money," and "property," as well as "cattle." In fact, the German cognate, Vieh,
still means "cattle." But in Gothic, the equivalent word (faihu
) seems to have made the full transition to "money, fortune."
They're all from the Germanic form of the Proto-Indo-European root *peku-
"cattle." [Proto-Indo-European *p-
regularly becomes f-
in Germanic languages; compare fish/pisces, father/pater, fire/pyr
The same root, in Latin, yielded pecu
"cattle, flock," and its cousin pecunia
A similar development, from an unrelated word, is in Welsh tlws
"jewel," which is cognate with Irish tlus
"cattle," the connection being the notion of "valuable thing." Peculiar
is from Latin peculiaris
"of one's own," originally "of one's own property," from peculium
"private property," literally "property in cattle." Cowboys indeed are peculiar folk.
More details have emerged about the grenade
that someone threw at George W. Bush during his visit to the nation of Georgia.Grenade
meaning "small explosive shell" first turns up in 16th century French, where it literally meant "pomegranate." The little bombs were so called because they were filled with grains of powder (like the many-seeded fruit), or perhaps because their shape was the same. Grenadiers
(1676) originally were soldiers "who were dexterous in flinging hand-granados" (in the words of John Evelyn, whose family was in the gunpowder trade).Pomegranate
is from Medieval Latin pomum granatum,
which literally means "apple with many seeds." The classical Latin name for it was a slight variant of this, malum granatum
. "Apple" was a generic name the Romans used for any sort of fruit they did not immediately recognize.
in the American South, by the way, was named for King George II
of Great Britain, while the Caucasian nation is so-called for St. George,
who is its patron saint (his cult there may continue that of a pre-Christian deity with whom he was later identified). But the name also is said to derive from the Arabic or Persian name for the region, Kurj.George
is a Greek personal name meaning "husbandman, farmer," from ge
"earth" and ergon
Drug trafficking out of Afghanistan is worrying authorities again, as indicated by the headline 10,000 pounds of opium seized in Afghanistan
, the word, has been in English since at least 1392, and it comes via Latin from Greek opion
"poppy juice, poppy," a diminutive of opos
"vegetable juice." Poppy,
meanwhile, was in Old English (popæg
), and the Anglo-Saxons probably got it from Latin papaver
"poppy," which is perhaps a reduplicated form of the imitative base *pap-
"to swell," which would connect it with a common word in many languages for "breast."Heroin
is a modern word, from German Heroin,
which was coined in 1898 as trademark (registered by Friedrich Bayer & Co.) for their morphine substitute. Traditionally it is said to have been coined from Greek heros
"hero" because of the euphoric feeling the drug provides to its users.
Senators reach filibuster compromise
was Tuesday's top story.
is the fun word here, but I already did that one (here
). So I'll give you compromise
The first record of it in English is from 1426, but originally it meant "a joint promise to abide by an arbiter's decision." That brings it closer to the literal meaning of its Latin roots, com-
"together" and promittere
"to promise." The main modern sense was turning up by the end of the 15th century, however. It's an extension of meaning from the arbitration agreement to the settlement itself.Promise
(from Latin promittere
) itself is a compound word. The meaning of the Latin verb promittere
ranged from "send forth," to "foretell," to "promise." The first was closest to the literal sense: from pro-
"before" and mittere
"to put, send" (the root of mission
). The ground sense of promise
is "a declaration made about the future, about some act to be done or not done." It's literally a "throwing ahead" of one's words.Senate
, of course, was the name of the legal and administrative body of ancient Rome, literally a "council of elders." The Romans would have recognized its root in senex
"old man, old." Thus it's related to senile.
In post-Roman use, senate
is attested from the 14th century in reference to governing bodies of free cities in Europe and from 1560 in reference to national governing bodies. The specific sense of "upper house of the U.S. legislature" is recorded from 1775.
Published photos show captive Saddam wearing his ...
Most media filled in the blank with underwear
, which is an acceptable modern term, but it only dates to 1872 (the short form undies
is attested from 1906).
The older term for these is drawers
(so called because you draw
them on, with draw
used in the old sense of "to pull"). This word goes back to 1567.
But like all "underwear" words, it tended to get a naughty connotation, and polite speakers kept inventing euphemisms to allow them to avoid it. Underwear
was one such. Also among these was unmentionables
(1893) is from the trademark name (dating to 1876) of manufacturer Bradley, Vorhees, and Day. Skivvies
(1932) originally was nautical slang, but the exact origin is unknown. An earlier skivvy/skivey
was London slang for "female domestic servant" (1902).
Boxers or briefs? Briefs
comes first, at least in language history. It is attested from 1934, while boxer shorts
have been so called only from 1944 (in reference to their resemblance to the attire worn in the prizefighting ring).Knickers,
though the word often has a British association today, seems to have an American origin. It began to be used for "short, loose-fitting undergarment" (not originally restricted to women) in 1881, and it's a shortening of knickerbockers
(1859), which were said to be so called for their resemblance to the of pants worn by colonial Dutchmen in George Cruikshank's illustrations for Washington Irving's "History of New York," which Irving published in 1809 under the nom de plume
"Diedrich Knickerbocker." The pen-name was borrowed from Irving's friend Herman Knickerbocker, and it literally means "toy marble-baker."
An illustration by George Cruikshank, "The Radical Reformer" (September, 1819), warning Englishmen of the dangers of a French-style revolution.