Thursday, December 22, 2005

Carnival of the Etymologies

A regular Thursday feature of "Done With Mirrors."

The vice presidency always has been an odd bird in the American system. The result of an obscure compromise in 1787, to head off fears that never materialized, it once upon a time went to the runner-up in the presidential election (Kerry would have been in there now) until the two-party system arose and the politicians figured out how to game it. It lacks even the practical function of the Spartan double kingship.

But perhaps it could be made useful. Dick Cheney, the current incumbent, seems to have hit on it, inadvertently.


America needs a Devil's Advocate in these times. Someone to make the best, most shameless case for the most odious and objectionable policies we might consider. Not because they deserve to prevail, but because our situation is sufficiently serious that we ought to seriously consider their benefits and uses before we decide to reject them.

Devil's advocate, the linguists tell us, translates Latin advocatus diaboli, a description or title for one whose job it is to urge against the canonization of a candidate for sainthood. I know too little to say if this is so; perhaps the Church members among the readers can inform me if there ever truly was such a post or whether this is a Prot fantasy.

The word devil was in Old English as deofol "evil spirit," but it was a Christian import, from Late Latin diabolus, which itself is from Greek diabolos "accuser, slanderer." The verb behind it is diaballein "to slander, attack," literally "to throw across," a compound of dia- "across, through" and ballein "to throw."

The Greek word took on a religious sense when it was used as a Scriptural loan-translation of Hebrew Satan, the proper name of the supreme evil spirit in Christianity. The Hebrew word satan literally means "the adversary, one who plots against another." The Semitic root is s-t-n "one who opposes, obstructs, or acts as an adversary."

"In biblical sources the Hebrew term the satan describes an adversarial role. It is not the name of a particular character. Although Hebrew storytellers as early as the sixth century B.C.E. occasionally introduced a supernatural character whom they called the satan, what they meant was any one of the angels sent by God for the specific purpose of blocking or obstructing human activity." [Elaine Pagels, "The Origin of Satan," 1995]

In the Septuagint, this usually was translated into Greek as diabolos, though epiboulos "plotter" is used once.

St. Jerome re-introduced Satan into Latin translations of the Bible, and English translators have used both in different measures. In the Vulgate, as in Greek, diabolus and dæmon (source of demon) were distinct words and ideas, but they have merged in English and the other Germanic languages.

Other names, nicknames, or words for "the devil" over the years have included Old English puca, a word of unknown origin and the source of the Puck in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Apollyon, a name sometimes given to the Devil, is actually the name of the destroying angel of the bottomless pit. It is a Greek translation of Hebrew Abaddon and is literally the present participle of apollyein "to destroy utterly," a compound of apo- "from, away from" and olluein "to destroy."

Tantarabobs, is recorded as a Devonshire name for the devil, which some trace as the utimate origin of bogus, via tantrabobus, a late 18th century colloquial Vermont word for any odd-looking object. The old medieval Devil was goat-like and shaggy, and raggamuffin, which contains Middle English raggi "ragged" originally was among his names.

Old Scratch "the Devil" is attested from 1740, but the earlier word was Scrat, which comes from Old Norse skratte "goblin, monster," a word which was used in late Old English for "hermaphrodite." Old Nick "the devil" is attested from 1643, evidently from the proper name Nicholas, but for no certain reason. The same name acquired the same meaning in German: Nickel, a pet form of Nikolaus, was used for "demon, goblin, rascal." German miners called a certain kind of ore, which looked like copper but deceptively was not, Kupfernickel, literally "copper demon." A shortened form of this passed into English as the metal name nickel. Tom Walker, U.S. Southern colloquial for "the devil" is recorded from 1833, but again the exact signification is unclear.

Advocate "one whose profession is to plead cases in a court of justice," a technical term from Roman law, is from Latin advocatus, originally the past participle of advocare "to call" (as witness or advisor), a compound of ad- "to" and vocare "to call."

Americans this week are trying to sort out exactly how much power they've managed to give their presidents to spy on them.

The word spy has been in English since about 1250, but it's not an English word. It's French. Old French espier, the source of the modern English verb, probably was a Germanic word, either borrowed by the French from their German neighbors or inherited from the (Germanic) language of the Franks. It is from the productive Proto-Indo-European root *spek- "to look." Other children of this parent include Latin specere "to look at," and Greek skopos "aim, target, watcher," and skeptesthai "to look at."

New York's ill-advised transit strike appears to be over.

Strike in the noun sense of "concentrated cessation of work by a body of employees" is recorded from 1810; as a verb in this sense ("refuse to work to force an employer to meet demands"), it is recorded from 1768. The obvious source is the other verb strike "to hit, to deal a blow, to collide," but the exact notion in the labor sense is not certain.

Perhaps it is from the archaic notion of striking or "downing" one's tools, or from the sailors' practice of striking ("lowering") a ship's sails as a symbol of refusal to go to sea, which, coincidentally, also is first recorded in 1768.

It can't be from the baseball sense of strike, which is first recorded 1841, or the bowling sense, which is attested from 1859. The meaning "sudden military attack" is attested only from 1942.

The verb strike is an old one, represented by Old English strican (past tense strac, past participle stricen). This originally meant "to pass over lightly, stroke, smooth, rub." The nautical strike, in reference to sails, is the only surviving one that preserves the verb's original sense of "make level, smooth." Sailors' slang is among the most fiercely conservative subcultures of English. Many ancient words survive only there (belay, lubber), and others are used there in their original senses that have elsewhere passed from use.

I can only guess why this is so, but sailing, especially on an old rigged ship, was a dangerous business and communication had to be quick and exact. Sailors also are notoriously superstitious. English ship's crews at all eras were made up of men from many lands, who might not understand one another if they introduced words from their local vernacular. All of these might tend to make a speech highly conservative.

Old English strican also had a secondary sense of "go, proceed," but this survives only in the phrase strike for meaning "go toward."

Other Germanic relatives of strike have stayed closer to their roots. German streichen "to stroke, rub," for example. The words are related to the roots of streak and stroke. The sense of "to deal a blow" developed in English by 1325.

It looks like Kate Moss's dip into the cocaine is about to get her deeper into trouble.

Cocaine entered English in 1874, from French cocaine (1856). The word was coined in German, by Albert Niemann of Gottingen University, from coca (which is from the Inca word cuca) and -ine, an arbitrary use of the Latin noun ending -inus, -ina. The drug was used 1870s as a local anaesthetic for eye surgery, etc.

The artificial -caine ending, which rips elements from both parts of the compound, has since become widely used in medical coinages, e.g. novocain, coined in 1905 as a trademark name (by Lucius & Brüning, Hoechst am Main, Germany), from Latin novus "new." Novicain was created as a local anaesthetic substitute for cocaine.

And finally, I pass along, without comment, this site, which takes a tongue-in-cheek look at "catymology."