Friday, October 21, 2005

Carnival of the Etymologies

Special scandal and political blundering edition.

Two old words have been pushed into the headlines lately by the Bush Administration's unfortunate nomination of Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The first is cronyism, which, as a political term, is attested from 1950. It derives from the noun crony, which was 17th century Cambridge University student slang for one's old friend or companion.

Probably the student word is a slang shortening of something in ancient Greek, perhaps khronios "long-lasting," ultimately from khronos "time." Ancient Greek was a core part of a university schooling in those days.

If this derivation is right, the ground sense of crony probably is "one who was at school at the same time as me; my contemporary."

A similar example of the sort of clipped slang word popular among 17th century students is chum "friend," an alternate spelling of cham, which was short for chambermate.

Other words bequeathed to us by British university students include coach in its sense of "instructor/trainer," a c.1830 Oxford University extension of the word in its older sense of "large kind of carriage," on the analogy of a coach as someone who "carries" a student through an exam or a course of training.

The word coach itself dates from the 16th century in English, via French and German from Hungarian kocsi (szekér) "(carriage) of Kocs," the name of village where it was first made in the 14th century.

Another university word is snob, which came to be used in Cambridge University slang c.1796 for "townsman, local merchant" and which by 1831 was being used for "person of the ordinary or lower classes." The meaning "person who vulgarly apes his social superiors" arose by 1843 and was popularized in 1848 by William Thackeray's "Book of Snobs."

The meaning later broadened to include those who insist on their gentility, in addition to those who merely aspire to it, and by 1911 snob had its main modern sense of "one who despises those considered inferior in rank, attainment, or taste."

But the oldest recorded sense of snob is "a shoemaker, a shoemaker's apprentice" (1781), and its ultimate origin is unknown.

It applies to the Miers case, however, because some of her defenders have accused some of her detractors of being snobs who look down on her lack of judicial experience. More precisely, those detractors have been accused of elitism.

That word is first recorded in 1950 (and in that oldest quote the examples given were Freud, Nietzsche, and Carlyle). It's an -ism from elite, an 1820s borrowing of French élite "selection, choice," from the Old French feminine past participle of elire, elisre "pick out, choose," from Latin eligere "to choose, to select."

The French word had been borrowed in Middle English with the meaning "chosen person," especially a bishop-elect. It died out c.1450, but was re-introduced into English in 1823 in Byron's "Don Juan."

Latin eligere is itself a compound, of ex- "out" and the combining form of legere "to choose" (root of elect). The Proto-Indo-European root of legere is *leg-, but in most languages its children have moved on from that basic sense to a secondary one.

Latin lignum, for instance, which meant "wood, firewood," but literally “that which is gathered.”

A more usual evolution of the root is into "to read," or "to speak." To do both of these is to "pick out" words. Thus Latin legere also means "to read" (and is the root of lecture); while Greek legein, which in Homer meant "to pick out, select, collect, enumerate" later meant "to say, tell, speak, declare."

Also in this group are the important Greek words lexis "speech, diction" and logos "word, speech, thought, account."

The Miers pick also has been called, less accurately, nepotism. This would mean "favoritism shown to relatives, especially in appointment to high office," but there is no evidence that Bush and Miers share genetic material as well as memos.

The word in this sense originated in medieval Italian, as nepotismo, and it originally referred to Church privileges granted to a pope's "nephew" -- which was a euphemism for his natural son.

The ultimate source of the word is Latin nepotem "sister's son," which is a relative of English nephew. The English word is a 13th century borrowing of the French form (neveu) of the Latin word. It replaced Old English nefa, wich is recognizably the same word, from the same ancient root.

In fact, this is one of the most easily recognized common Indo-European words, across a wide expanse of time and place. Sanskrit has napat "grandson, descendant," Old Persian has napat- "grandson," Old Lithuanian has nepuotis "grandson," German has Neffe "nephew," and Old Irish has nia (genitive niath) "son of a sister."

As these definitions attest, the word since ancient times has carried meanings both specific ("son of a sister") and general ("any younger male relative who is not a son"). The original Latin sense may have been "grandson," while the "nephew" sense did not predominate until post-Augustan times. English, too, one had the word in its full range of classical Latin senses until the meaning narrowed in the 17th century. In the 16th century, English also sometimes used nephew as a euphemism for "the illegitimate son of an ecclesiastic."

Meanwhile, Rep. Tom DeLay was booked and photographed at a county jail Thursday and appeared in court a day later as a criminal defendant for the first time. The former Republican leader has been charged with conspiracy and money laundering in a campaign finance case.

Conspiracy comes from conspire, a Middle English borrowing of Old French conspirer, ultimately from Latin conspirare "to agree, unite, plot."

This literally means "to breathe together," as two people may be said to do when they lean close and whisper to one another. It's a compound of com- "together" and spirare "to breathe."

Laundering in the criminal banking sense is first recorded in 1961, from the notion of making dirty money seem clean; it was brought to widespread use in 1973 during the Watergate scandal.

Laundry itself goes back to c.1530, and comes, via French, from Latin lavendaria, the plural of lavandarium "things to be washed," from lavare "to wash."

Latin lavare is from the Proto-Indo-European base *lou- "to wash" (cf. Latin luere "to wash," Greek louein "to wash, bathe," Old Irish loathar "basin," Breton laouer "trough," Old English leaþor "lather").

Also in the family are lavatory (Latin lavatorium "place for washing"), ablution (Latin abluere "to wash off"), lotion (Latin lotionem "a washing"), dilute and deluge (both, by different paths, from Latin diluere "dissolve, wash away, dilute"), and probably lava (from a southern Italian dialect word meaning "torrent, stream," traditionally said to be from Latin lavare "to wash"). Originally this was applied in Italian to flash flood rivulets after downpours, then to streams of molten rock from Vesuvius.

Lavish also belongs here. It crossed the Channel in the 15th century, from the Middle French noun lavasse, from Old French lavache "torrent (of rain), deluge," from laver "to wash."

The Latin word also has influenced lavender, the name of the fragrant plant, which probably derives from Latin lividus "bluish, livid," but was associated with French lavande, Italian lavanda "a washing" because the plant was used to scent washed fabrics and as a bath perfume.