Thursday, April 06, 2006

Carnival of the Etymologies

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

***Special belated April Fool's edition.***

The term April Fool is attested from 1687, about the time April Fool's Day customs of sending people on false errands seem to have come to England from the continent. The first mention of the custom is 1686 in the writings of the antiquarian collector John Aubrey:

Fooles holy day. We observe it on ye first of April. And so it is kept in Germany everywhere.

By the mid-18th century it was "universal" in England, though often known as All Fool's Day. A north-of-England variant of the April Fool was the April-gowk (from the native Germanic word for "cuckoo," probably imitative).

In Cumberland, Westmorland and northern parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire, however, May 1 was the day for hoaxing, and the fool was a May gosling. That custom was first attested 1791.

The original custom was to send people on errands to fetch imaginary objects ("pigeon's milk" or "a biography of Eve's mother" were early ones). Media hoaxes became popular in the later 20th century, such as the Sidd Finch story.

April is first recorded in English in 1297, as aueril. It comes from Old French avrill, which is from Latin (mensis) Aprilis "(month) of Venus," the second month of the ancient Roman calendar, dedicated to the goddess Venus.

The Roman goddess had many names, as she absorbed different regional and cultic fertility goddesses in Italy. The name used for this month is perhaps based on Apru, an Etruscan borrowing of Greek Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty. Her Greek name traditionally is derived from aphros "foam," from the story of her birth, but perhaps it is ultimately from Phoenician Ashtaroth (Assyrian Ishtar).

April replaced Old English Eastermonað, which similarly was named for a fertility goddess, Proto-Germanic *Austron, a goddess of fertility and sunrise whose feast was celebrated at the spring equinox. The month name borrowed from French was re-spelled in Middle English on the Latin model (apprile first is attested 1377).

Aphrodite's counterpart in ancient Roman mythology, Venus, was the goddess of beauty and love, especially sensual love, and venus in Latin literally means "love, sexual desire, loveliness, beauty, charm." The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European base of this is *wen- "to strive after, wish, desire, be satisfied."

Fool is a late 13th century borrowing of Old French fol "madman, insane person," which was worn down from the Latin word follis "bellows, leather bag, inflated ball." In post-classical Latin this word came to be used in the vernacular for "windbag, empty-headed person."

The Proto-Indo-European root is bhel- "to blow, swell," which has a widespread modern family, including bole (from Old Norse bolr "tree trunk"); Greek phallos "swollen penis;" Old Norse belgr "bag, bellows;" Old English bolla "pot, cup, bowl" (source of bowl); Old Irish bolgaim "I swell;" and Serbian buljiti "to stare, be bug-eyed."

For a similar sense development, compare Sanskrit vatula- "insane," which literally means "windy, inflated with wind."

Older than April Fools is the Feast of Fools (the name attested from c.1320, from Medieval Latin festum stultorum), a burlesque festival celebrated in some churches on New Year's Day in medieval times.

FOOL: ... The reason why the seven stars are no more than seven is a pretty reason.
KING LEAR: Because they are not eight?
FOOL: Yes, indeed: thou wouldst make a good fool.

["King Lear," Act I, Scene V]

Buffoons and clowns have been called tomfools since at least 1338.

Other "fool" words in English history include patch (1549), which perhaps is from Italian pazzo "fool." Mark Twain's pet word muggins is a mid-19th century invention, apparently from a surname. A proper name also seems to reside at the root of ninny (1593), which is a pet form of the proper name Innocent, perhaps here influenced by the name's literal meaning. There also may be some influence in the word of Italian ninno "baby, child."

The cuckoo has been a synonym for "stupid person" since 1581, perhaps from the bird's unvarying, oft-repeated call.

Nincompoop (1676) is a mystery word. Despite its similarity [noted by Johnson among others] to the Latin legal phrase non compos mentis "insane, mentally incompetent," the connection is denied by etymologists because the earliest forms -- nicompoop -- lack the second -n-. The early 20th century etymologist Ernest Weekley thinks first element may be a proper name, and he cites Nicodemus, which he says was used in French for "a fool," or Nicholas.

Putz is a late edition to the "fool" subgroup, first recorded in 1964, from Yiddish, from a German word which literally means "finery, adornment," and which obviously is used here in an ironic sense. It was used earlier in a slang sense of "penis" (1934, in "Tropic of Cancer"); a non-ironic use is preserved in putz "Nativity display around a Christmas tree" (1902), a Pennsylvania Dutch word.