Thursday, October 13, 2005

Carnival of the Etymologies

Special Supersized Halloween Edition

Halloween is a mid-18th century Scottish shortening of Allhallow-even, the "Eve of All Saints," which was the last night of October. Hallowmas as the name for All-Saints Day is first attested in 1389. The Christian calendar day Halloween corresponds to the last night of the year in the old Celtic calendar, where it was Old Year's Night, a night for witches. Thus it is another example of a pagan holiday given a cursory baptism during the Dark Ages conversions and sent on its way.

The hallow in this word is Old English halgian "to make holy, to honor as holy," which of course is related to halig, the ancestor of modern holy. It was the word used in Christian translations to render Latin sanctificare. The group of words goes back to an ancient root, *kailo-, meaning "whole, uninjured, of good omen," which also produced health (Old English hælþ), heal (Old English hælan), and whole (Old English hal).

Mischief Nights in 19th century England were the eve of May Day and of Nov. 5, both major holidays, and perhaps the original point was pilfering for the next day's celebration and bonfire; but in Yorkshire, Scotland, and Ireland the night for mischief was Halloween.

Mischief originally came into English (c.1300) meaning "evil condition, misfortune, need, want." Its source is Old French meschief (Modern French méchef), a verbal noun from meschever "come or bring to grief, be unfortunate" (literally the opposite of achieve), which is formed from mes- "badly" and chever "happen," literally "come to a head," ultimately from Latin caput "head."

The meaning "harm or evil considered as the work of some agent or due to some cause" is attested from 1480; and the softened sense of "playful malice" first is recorded in 1784.

The useful Middle English verb mischieve has, for some reason, fallen from currency.

The phrase trick-or-treat is recorded only from 1947, though obviously the customs of dressing up in costumes, and of making food offerings, around this time of year have roots deep in historical and pagan practice.

Candy, on the other hand, was one of the first Asian words to be borrowed into English. It first is attested in a document from 1274, and the immediate source of the borrowing was Old French sucre candi "sugar candy." This word, from the time of the Crusades, was a Frenchified form of Arabic qandi, which itself was borrowed from Persian qand "cane sugar," whicch in turn probably came from Sanskrit khanda "piece (of sugar)." The Sanskrit word itself may have been a borrowing from an earlier Dravidian language of India, since it bears a similarity to Tamil kantu "candy," kattu "to harden, condense."

Jack o'lantern is attested from 1663, a local name for a Will-o-the-wisp (Latin ignis fatuus), the flickering lights sometimes seen over marshes at night. The Jack o'lantern personification is mainly attested in East Anglia but also in southwestern England. The extension to carved pumpkins is first recorded in 1837, in the U.S.

Pumpkin is a 17th century alteration of earlier pumpion "melon, pumpkin," a word known since 1545 (Shakespeare used it in "Merry Wives of Windsor").

Evidently the French encountered pumpkins in their exploration of the New World, gave them a French name that means roughly "large melon," and the word passed from French to English. The word is Middle French pompon, which comes from Latin peponem "melon," which the Romans borrowed from Greek pepon "melon." This probably originally meant "cooked by the sun, ripe," since it seems to be related to the Greek verb peptein "to cook."

Thus the name of the American Halloween pumpkin comes from the language of Socrates and Homer, who never met the thing.

The first record of pumpkin-pie is from 1654. In the time of the American Revolution, when long hair for men was the fashion, pumpkin-head was colloquial for "person with hair cut short all around."

Skeleton was a medical word originally (our non-medical ancestors likely would have referred to it simply as "bones"). It first was used in English around 1578, adopted from Medical Latin sceleton, which in turn was taken from Greek skeleton soma "dried-up body, mummy." The root of this is the verb skellein "to dry up" (source also of sclerosis), from the Proto-Indo-European base *skele- "to parch, whither."

The Greek word had been borrowed into Late Latin as sceletus, which was the direct source of French squelette, Spanish esqueleto, and Italian scheletro.

The meaning "bare outline" is first recorded for skeleton in 1607. This is somewhat obscure now, but it is preserved in the phrases skeleton crew (1778) and skeleton key. The phrase skeleton in the closet meaning "source of secret shame to a person or family" was popularized in 1845 by Thackeray, though he likely didn't coin it.

Ghost is easily recognizable in Old English gast, which meant "soul, spirit, life, breath." It comes from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic root *ghoizdoz, which provided the general word for "supernatural being" across the range of the West Germanic language group (cf. Old Saxon gest, Old Frisian jest, Middle Dutch gheest, German Geist "spirit, ghost").

The surviving senses from Old English, however, are in Christian writing, where the word is used to render Latin spiritus, a sense preserved in Holy Ghost. But comparison with the other German languages makes it clear that the English word, too, certainly originally had a sense more macabre than theological.

In fact, the source of the Germanic words seems to be the Proto-Indo-European base *ghois- "to be excited, frightened" (cf. Sanskrit hedah "wrath;" Avestan zaesha- "horrible, frightful;" Gothic usgaisjan, Old English gæstan "to frighten").

Thus the modern English ghost in the sense of "disembodied spirit of a dead person" (attested from c.1385) returns the word toward its ancient sense.

The gh- spelling was used in works printed by William Caxton, the first English printer, who set up his business in Flanders, then the center of the nascent printing industry, and was influenced by Flemish and Middle Dutch gheest. But this spelling did not become common in English until after c.1550.

Most Indo-European words for "soul, spirit" also double as the word for "supernatural spirit." Many have a base sense of "appearance" (e.g. Greek phantasma; French spectre; Polish widmo, from Old Church Slavonic videti "to see;" and Old English scin, Old High German giskin, originally "appearance, apparition," related to O.E. scinan, Old High German skinan "to shine").

Other "supernatural spirit" concepts are found in French revenant, literally "returning" (from the other world), and Old Norse aptr-ganga, literally "back-comer."

Breton bugelnoz is literally "night-child." Latin manes, literally "the good ones," is a euphemism, a result of Roman superstition against even saying the word for "ghost."

Just as skeleton came to mean "bare outline," ghost in the early 17th century acquired a metaphoric sense of "slight suggestion" (preserved in ghost image, ghost of a chance, etc.). The sense in ghost writing is attested from 1884, but that exact term is not found until 1927.

Witch belongs here, too. I already did that one, but it's fun, so let's do it again.

Witch is Old English wicce "female magician, sorceress," in later use especially "a woman supposed to have dealings with the devil or evil spirits and to be able by their cooperation to perform supernatural acts."

English used to be a fully inflected language, with genders like German or Latin, and wicce is the feminine form of wicca "sorcerer, wizard, man who practices witchcraft or magic."

The nouns all come from the verb wiccian "to practice witchcraft," which has relatives in Low German. But the exact origin of it is lost in the murk of history.

The Oxford English Dictionary simply dismisses it as of uncertain origin. Ernest Klein's etymology dictionary suggests a connection with Old English wigle "divination," and wig, wih "idol."

Calvert Watkins, another noted modern etymology writer, suggests the nouns represent a Proto-Germanic *wikkjaz "necromancer," and thinks this may mean literally "one who wakes the dead." He bases this on the notion that the root of the word is Proto-Indo-European *weg- "to be strong, be lively" (the root of wake (v.) and vigil).

The early 20th century English etymologist Ernest Weekly notes a possible connection to Gothic weihs "holy" and German weihan "consecrate," and writes, "the priests of a suppressed religion naturally become magicians to its successors or opponents."

That wicce once had a more specific sense than the later general one of "female magician, sorceress" perhaps is suggested by the presence of other words in Anglo-Saxon describing more specific kinds of magical craft. In the Laws of Ælfred (c.890), for instance, witchcraft was specifically singled out as a woman's craft, whose practitioners were not to be suffered to live among the West Saxons:

"Ða fæmnan þe gewuniað onfon gealdorcræftigan & scinlæcan & wiccan, ne læt þu ða libban."

The other two words combined with it here are gealdricge, a woman who practices "incantations," and scinlæce "female wizard, woman magician," from a root meaning "phantom, evil spirit."

Another word that appears in the Anglo-Saxon laws is lyblæca "wizard, sorcerer," but with suggestions of skill in the use of drugs, since the root of the word is lybb "drug, poison, charm." Lybbestre was a feminine noun meaning "sorceress," and lybcorn was the name of a certain medicinal seed (perhaps wild saffron).

In Anglo-Saxon glossaries, wicca renders Latin augur (c.1100), and wicce stands for "pythoness, divinatricem." One glossary translates Latin necromantia ("demonum invocatio") with galdre, wiccecræft.

But the Anglo-Saxon poem called "Men's Crafts" has wiccræft, which appears to be the same word, and by its context means "skill with horses." And in a c.1250 translation of "Exodus," witches is used as a word for the Egyptian midwives who save the newborn sons of the Hebrews: "Ðe wicches hidden hem for-ðan, Biforen pharaun nolden he ben."

If witch once had a narrower meaning, after the Christian conquest it acquired a much broader one. "At this day," Reginald Scot wrote in "The Discoverie of Witchcraft" (1584), "it is indifferent to say in the English tongue, 'she is a witch,' or 'she is a wise woman.' "

The word bat meaning "flying rodent" is a strange 16th century dialect alteration of Middle English bakke, which probably is related to Scandinavian words like Old Swedish natbakka and Old Danish nathbakkæ, both meaning "night bat," and Old Norse leðrblaka, literally "leather flapper." So the original sense of bat likely is "flapper," and the word may have been somehow imitative of the sound of flapping wings. The shift from -k- to -t- may have come through confusion with the extinct Middle English bakke "nocturnal insect," which derives from Latin blatta "moth."

Given the Scandinavian connections, bat likely is one of the words the Vikings brought to England which displaced the local word. The Anglo-Saxon word for the animal was hreremus, literally "shaky mouse," from hreran "to shake." That's closer to the German fledermaus.

Goblin is a mystery word. It turns up in English about 1327, and it seems pretty clear that it comes from Old French gobelin, but there the trail goes cold. The French word is known from the 12th century, as Gobelinus, the name of a spirit haunting the region of Evreux.

Perhaps the word is related to German kobold "goblin," a compound formed from Middle High German kobe "hut, shed" and *holt "goblin." The second term in this was a euphemism (like Latin manes, under ghost, above), from hold "gracious, friendly." Complimentary words were used to avoid the wrath of troublesome beings.

Harz Mountains silver miners used kobold as their term for rock laced with arsenic and sulphur (so called probably because it made them ill). A metal was extracted from this rock, and identified in the 18th century as an element. It was given the name cobalt.

But it's just as possible that gobelin comes from Medieval Latin cabalus, from Greek kobalos "rogue, knave," kobaloi "wicked spirits invoked by rogues." Yet another suggestion is that it is a diminutive of the proper name Gobel.

Haunt is another Middle English word from French, in this case from Old French hanter "to frequent, resort to, be familiar with." Most of French is from Latin, but French, like English, has a body of words from Old Norse, brought over by the Vikings who settled extensively in Normandy and elsewhere in the Dark Ages.

Thus hanter probably comes from Old Norse heimta "bring home," from the Germanic root of home. The sense is of a spirit returning to the house where it had lived.

The verb originally was not limited to supernatural presences, and it could be applied to living beings, too (a sense preserved in the noun haunts "place or places one frequents"). But the ghostly sense probably was present in ancient Germanic, and its modern use was reinforced by Shakespeare's plays, where it is first recorded in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1590).

By coincidence, the Old English verb formed from the word for "home" was hæman, which evolved from "to bring home" to "take home as a sexual partner, co-habit with."