Thursday, March 09, 2006

Carnival of the Etymologies

[A regular Thursday feature of Done With Mirrors]

This one had my fellow copy editors reaching for the dictionary: Bodies found garroted in Baghdad.

Ah, the garrote, the death which Major John Richardson, in "British Legion" (1837) pronounced without hesitation "at once the most manly, and the least offensive to the eye."

As a method of capital punishment, it was associated with Spain, thought it became a common criminal's trick in mid-19th century Britain. The word itself is Spanish, and it refers not to the cord or the strangulation, but to the stick used to wind the cord or collar tightly enough to kill the victim. Garotte meant "stick, club."

The origin of the word is unknown, but it may come from Old French guaroc "club, stick, rod, shaft of a crossbow," which is probably ultimately a Celtic word.

Don't confuse your garrote with your gibbet. A Gibbet is a gallows; it's a Middle English borrowing from Old French gibet, a diminutive of gibe "club," which is perhaps from a Frankish word meaning "forked stick." The verb meaning "to kill by hanging" is recorded from 1646.

All this got me thinking about words for execution, including execution, which comes from Latin executionem, an agent noun from exequi, a compound word which literally means "to follow out."

Its sense of "a putting to death" is from Middle English legal phrases such as don execution of deth "carry out a sentence of death." The literal meaning "action of carrying something into effect" also came into English in the Middle Ages, giving the word a double sense that John McKay, coach of the woeful Tampa Bay Buccaneers, punned on when asked by a reporter what he thought of his team's execution. He replied, "I think it would be a good idea."

Executor and executioner formerly were used indifferently, since both are carrying out legal orders.

One common modern method of legal execution is to electrocute the condemned. This word was coined in American English in 1889, when the first one was introduced in New York as a humane alternative to hanging.

The word was coined barbarously from electro- and the final syllable of execute. The sense involving accidental death is first recorded in 1909 and ill-fits the word, etymologically. Fry as a slang verb for "execute in the electric chair" dates from 1929.

Another notorious machine of execution that began as a humane alternative is the guillotine, a name coined in 1793, in allusion to Joseph Guillotin (1738-1814), the French physician who, as deputy to the National Assembly (1789) proposed, for humanitarian and efficiency reasons, that capital punishment be carried out by beheading quickly and cleanly on a machine. The first one was built in 1791 and first used the next year.

Behead was Old English beheafdian. The be- in this word has privative force, which is an unusual use of it in English. It more typically is intensitive (e.g. belabor = "to labor very much"). But the prefix also can be causative, or have just about any sense required. It was highly productive in the 16th and 17th centuries in forming useful words, many of which have not survived, e.g. bethwack "to thrash soundly" (1555), and betongue "to assail in speech, to scold" (1639).

The other old method of execution, of course, was hanging. Extra-legal execution by hanging in the 20th century was called lynching, though that words in the 19th century had a much broader application to any sort of summary justice, especially by flogging.

The origin of the word is the subject of raging debate. Clearly it comes from the common surname (which represents either Old English hlinc "hill" or Irish Loingseach "sailor"). But which one? The most likely candidate seems to be William Lynch (1742-1820) of Pittsylvania, Virginia, who c.1780 led a vigilance committee to keep order there during the Revolution. Other sources trace the name to Charles Lynch (1736-96) a Virginia magistrate who fined and imprisoned Tories in his district c.1782, but that connection is less likely.

An old and gruesome type of execution was drawing and quartering. Usually this is explained as "drawing" or pulling the condemned into four pieces by tying his extremities to four horses pulling in different directions. But some early 14th century uses suggest the drawing was dragging the criminal to the place of execution -- drag and draw being etymologically the same word.

As for quarter, the sense of "parts of the body as dismembered during execution" is the earliest recorded use of that word in English, dating from before 1300.

Burning at the stake is another famous form of legal execution, primarily reserved for heretics, since such a death enacted popular beliefs regarding the punishments of Hell. The stake as a place of execution is attested in English from c.1205.

The fires were kindled with bundles of twigs, called faggots, so that the phrase fire and faggot was used to mean "punishment of a heretic." Heretics who recanted were required to wear an embroidered figure of a faggot on their sleeve as an emblem and reminder of what they deserved.

This has led to the widespread but mistaken insistence that the modern slang term faggot "male homosexual" originated because male homosexuals were burned at the stake. This is an etymological urban legend. Burning was sometimes a punishment meted out to homosexuals in Christian Europe (on the suggestion of the Biblical fate of Sodom and Gomorah), but in England, where parliament had made homosexuality a capital offense in 1533, hanging was the method prescribed.

Any use of faggot in connection with public executions had long become an English historical obscurity by the time the word began to be used for "male homosexual" in 20th century American slang.

The slang use of faggot instead is probably from earlier contemptuous use of the word to mean "woman," especially an old and unpleasant one, in reference to a "bundle of sticks," as something awkward that has to be carried. The word was used in this sense in the 20th century by D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce, among others. It may also be reinforced by Yiddish faygele "homosexual," literally "little bird." It also may have roots in British public school slang fag "a junior who does certain duties for a senior," with suggestions of "catamite," which comes from ther verb fag.

Faggot meaning "bundle of twigs bound up," ultimately comes from Latin fascis "bundle of wood." This word has another connection with executions, via Latin fasces "bundle of rods containing an axe with the blade projecting," a symbol of state authority carried before a lictor (a superior Roman magistrate). It represented his power over life and limb: the sticks symbolized punishment by whipping, the axe head execution by beheading. The word fascis probably is cognate with Old English bæst "inner bark of the linden tree," which is related to modern bast and baste.

When the anti-communist political movement in Italy organized itself in 1919, it used the same word, which in modern Italian had become fascio, with a secondary sense of "group, association," but they certainly also had in mind the Roman fasces, since they used it as their party symbol. The world now knows them as fascists.

Some other words we use whose connection to executions have grown somewhat obscure over time include:

  • shrift, as in the phrase short shrift. Old English scrift was the word for "confession to priest, followed by penance and absolution," a verbal noun from scrifan "to impose penance" (modern shrive). Short shrift originally was the brief time for a condemned criminal to confess before execution; the figurative extension to "little or no consideration" is first attested in 1814.

  • reprieve, which originally meant "take back to prison," which seems to come from a Frenchified form of the Latin word that also came into English as reprise. It's etymological meaning is "to take back." But since being "taken back" to prison was the fate of one whose execution had been stayed at the last minute, the meaning shifted.