Yesterday I read a book that featured some excellent characters and a most intriguing plot. One of the reasons the story worked so well was because, in a wicked twist revealed toward the end of the book, one of those characters who had appeared throughout the story as an heroic figure turned out to be both an antihero and an antagonist, albeit unwillingly.
An antihero is a character who appears to be a champion of the cause but lacks the usual heroic qualities one might expect, such as bravery or honesty. An antagonist works against the hero or protagonist and their efforts to resolve the conflicts and complications of the plot.
Interestingly, antihero and antagonist both have roots in the same word element: anti.
To be anti-something is to oppose it in belief, thought and/or action.
The prefix anti- is very old, dating back to Ancient Greek and, even before that, Sanskrit and Proto-Indo-European. It means against, opposed to, or opposite of. It can also mean in front of or before.
From the Greek, it made its way into Latin, and thence into Italian, Spanish, English and French. That makes it a prefix that is very widely understood around the world, and one that is attached to many, many words to add a sense of opposition or contrast.
Thus, although anti-masker is a quite recent term and antichrist is a designation as old as the Gospel itself, we understand both equally well because of the simple clarity and strength of the anti- prefix.
Because I have both a very dodgy spine and fibromyalgia, I frequently find myself overwhelmed by pain and fatigue. People can find things such as motion, loud noise, emotion or anxiety overwhelming.
Overwhelm is an old word with even older roots: it evolved from Old English, and from Proto-Germanic and Proto-Indo-European before that. The original Middle English sense of the word was quite physical, but it soon became less literal in its application.
In the mid-14th century, the word overwhelmen meant to turn upside down, overthrow, or knock over. This word was derived from the Middle English word whelmen, meaning to turn upside down“, which is the origin of the word whelm, meaning submerge or engulf.
Whelm was a Middle English blend of whelve and helm, which had evolved from the Old English words gehwelfan, meaning bend over and helmian meaning cover.
Overwhem had come to mean to submerge completely by the early 15th century, which made whelm rather redundant. It is evocative of a boat being thrown about and overcome by waves, or a person at the mercy of a current, waves or tide of a body of water.
By the 1520s, overwhelm had gained another sense: to cause complete ruin or devastation. Thus, one could be overwhelmed by a storm or by debt, rather than just by liquid.
Underwhelm is a relative newcomer to the party: it was not recorded until the mid-20th century as a somewhat derisory play on overwhelm. To underwhelm is to fail to gain approval or favour, while be underwhelmed by something or someone is to be less than impressed.
April 20th is the anniversary of the birth of both my grandfather and my niece. While my grandfather is no longer with us to celebrate his birthday, we will have dinner and cake tonight in honour of my niece.
The word birthday dates back to the late 14th century, having come from the Old English word byrddæg which meant the anniversary or celebration of one’s birth. At that time, though, it was usually used to commemorate the birth of s very important people, such as kings or saints. Regular folk did not commonly speak of the day on which they were born as their birthday until the 1570s, and about fifty years later they also spoke of their birthnight.
Author’s note: I am disappointed that we no longer speak about our birthnight. I was born at 7pm on a Thursday, and I could really make a thing of saying “tonight is my birthnight!” all day, and “last night was my birthnight!” on the morrow.
By Shakespeare’s time, observation of one’s own birthday was far more commonplace. Not only does Cleopatra acknowledge her own birthday in Antony and Cleopatra, so does the Roman senator Cassius in Julius Caesar V.i: “This is my birthday; as this very day / Was Cassius born.” In Pericles II.i the first of three fishermen with whom Pericles discusses the king, Simonides, observes that it the king “hath a fair daughter, and tomorrow is her birthday, and there are princes and knights come from all parts of the world to joust and tourney for her love.” This shows that celebrating or at least making note of one’s own birthday was something understood by the regular folk who made up most of Shakespeare’s audiences in the late 1590s and early 1600s.
The tradition of birthday cake also came from Germany in early modern times: presumably as people started to observe their own birthdays, they started celebrating with special food as they had long done for kings’ and saints’ days. By the 1800s, the German tradition of Kinderfest was fully established. This involved presenting the birthday child with a cake topped with candles — one for each year of their life, plus one in the middle of the cake to represent life— which would be kept burning all day, and replaced as they burned down. This was done because they believed people were more vulnerable to evil spirits on their birthdays, and the burning candles would ward those spirits off. After dinner, the cake was presented again, with the candles still burning. The child would make a wish and blow out the candles, with the smoke rising to heaven to keep the evil spirits away once the candles had been extinguished. Then the cake would be shared among the family.
This is very similar to what many people do today, albeit without the religious superstition and all-day candle burning.
A butt-load has long been one of my favourite ways ton refer to a large amount, either physically or a figuratively— one might have a buttload of work, or have to carry or store a buttload of stuff. It amuses me, though, that butt-load can actually refer to an actual unit of measurement.
A butt is a large barrel for wine or spirits that holds roughly four times the size of a regular barrel or two hogsheads Butt came into English in the late 14th century from the Old French word bot which was the word for a barrel or wine-skin. This came from the late Latin buttis which also meant cask.
The butt used to be a legal measurement, but because the actual size and capacity tended to vary quite a bit — it could be anywhere between 108 and 140 gallons— it fell out of favour.
In Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’, the Duke of Clarence is drowned in a butt of malmsey wine. In terms of methods of execution, there are probably worse ways to go. Still, the references to the malmsey- butt never fail to make my students laugh.
This sense of the word is also used in ‘The Tempest’ where Stephano claims to have escaped the storm by floating “upon a butt of sack which the sailors heaved o’erboard”.
That’s because butt canalso mean one’s buttocks: the behind, the rump, the posterior. It first took this meaning from animal parts in the mid 15th century in relation to butchering and cookery, as a shortened form of buttocks, which was the name given to the meaty rear end of animals and people by about 1300. The application of butt to humans came later, as part of American slang in the mid 19th century.
Butt came to mean the the thick end of something or the extremity of a piece of land by about 1400, which is most likely how the term came to be used for the end of a rifle, and therefore a pistol, or of a smoked cigar or cigarette, which was first recorded in 1847.
Shakespeare’s Richard III uses this sense of the word when he responds to his mother’s invocation to “put meekness in thy breast, Love,charity, obedience and true duty” with “and make me die a good old man! This is the butt-end of a mother’s blessing— / I marvel that Her Grace did leave it out!” This is also a pun for butt as in his being on the receiving end of her insult.
By the early 1600s, butt had come to be used for the target of a joke or an object of ridicule. 1610s. This was derived from the Old French word but which meant an aim, goal, end, or a target in archery, which swans in turn the product of the Old French words bot for end and but for aim or goal which was used for a target for shooting practice or a turf-covered mound against which an archery target was set that dated to the mid 1300s.
It is this earlier sense of the word used by Richard, Duke of York in ‘Henry VI part 3’ when he tells his killer, “Come, bloody Clifford, rough Northumberland, I dare your quench.ess fury to more rage. / I am your butt, and I abide your shot.”
Othello also uses sense of this word in his final scene, where he says, “Be thou not afraid, though you do see me weapon’d; / Here is y journey’s end, here is my butt.”
The verb to butt meaning to hit with the head, as a goat, a fighter or a soccer-player might do, was in use by 1200 . This came from Anglo-French buter and Old French boter which meant to push, shove, thrust or knock. This came from either Frankish or another Germanic source which traces back to Proto-Germanic word butan, and before that to the PIE root *bhau which meant to strike.
In the banter between Katherine and Longaville‘Love’s Labours Lost’ V.ii, he admonishes her: “Look how you butt yourself with these sharp mocks, Wilt thou give horns, chaste lady? Do not so.” Katherine responds with a comment about he should die a calf before his horns grow, which is a witty little bit of innuendo as they part ways.
Another example of Shakespeare’s word play is the pun on butt in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ where Gremio describes the clash of wits between Hortensio and Petruchio thus: “Believe me, sir, they butt together well.” Bianca responds with both pun and innuendo: “Head and butt! A hasty-witted body / Would say your ‘head and butt’ were ‘head and horn.”
To butt against, meaning to adjoin or sit right next to, dates back to the 1660s,p and comes from an abbreviation of abut.
To butt into a conversation by intruding without invitation came into American English at the turn of the 20th century.
All my life I have thought of mistletoe as a European thing, and associated it with images of druids cutting it out of trees with a sickle– most likely embedded by all the Asterix books I read as a kid.
Mistletoe is, in fact, a very old word that dates back to Old English. It had closely related words for the same plant in Old Saxon, Old Norse, Old Frisian, Old High German and Gothic languages.
The plant was venerated by the druids, especially when it was found growing on oak trees, which were seen as the most powerful and mighty of trees. The druids believed that mistletoe had powerful healing properties, and it has traditionally been associated with life, renewal, hope, magic, and love.
This accounts for my enormous surprise last Friday as we were driving through southern New South Wales and I discovered that the teardrop shaped plants growing on Australian gum trees were, in fact, a native variety of mistletoe. They were different enough in colour, leaf shape and habit to be distinct from the trees on which they were growing, and a quick search online confirmed what I had jokingly suggested to my husband as we drove: “Maybe it’s mistletoe!”
Photos: WordyNerdBird. Mistletoe growing in an Australian eucalypt at Wilbriggie, NSW.
As it happens, Australia has about seventy varieties of native mistletoe, and another twenty or so that have been introduced. While they live semi-parasitically on other trees, they don’t do any harm to them or the environment as some other parasitic plants do. (Yes, Golden Dodder, I’m looking at you, you nasty weed.)
So, next Christmas when certain family and friends laugh at me for singing ‘Meet Me Under The Mistletoe’ I’ll be able to inform them that it does grow here naturally, and therefore Australians are just as entitled to sing about it as anyone else.
Most of the time when we use the word passion, we are referring to either powerful emotion or a strong desire to do something.
However, when people talk about ‘the Passion’ of Jesus at Easter, the word has a different meaning altogether.
It doesn’t mean that He had a strong desire to die the way he did— even though he was absolutely committed to doing so— nor does it refer to His emotional state, even though he definitely would have experienced a plethora of powerful emotions.
Passion came into English from French around 1200 AD, meaning physical suffering. This came from the Latin word passionem meaning suffering or enduring.
Interestingly, passionem came from the past-participle Lati stem word pati- which meant “to endure, undergo or experience.” This means that passion is a cousin of patient and patience.
By the mid-13th century, passion had also come to mean an ailment, disease or affliction; rather than just the condition of suffering one. At about the same time, any emotion, feeling or powerful temptation to sin that might be considered as an affliction” might also be called a passion.
Therefore, when medieval theologians and teachers used the phrase ‘the passion of Christ’ they had no concept of how those words might cause confusion or be entirely misconstrued in the future.
It was another century or so before passion was used to refer to the intensity of an emotion or desire. Later again was the use of the word to refer specifically to sexual love or desire, which had developed by the late 16th century. By the 1630s, it had evolved again to include the sense of a strong liking, enthusiasm, or preference”, and by the 1730s, the object of that pursuit or desire was also referred to as one’s passion.
Because language continually evolves, old words often come to have several very different meanings. The beauty of etymology is that it explains the relationships and solves the puzzles that we might otherwise find very confusing.
And fhat, friends, why everyone needs wordy-nerdy people like me in their lives, ready to answer the tough questions and enrich your word power and vocabulary. You’re welcome.
Happy Easter. x
Why is Jesus’ suffering called ‘passion’? #Easter #GoodFriday #words Vocabulary
A sleuth is a detective: most often, the word is used to describe an amateur or privately employed detective rather than a police officer. As a word, it was very popular in early detective fiction such as that written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie, and is perhaps less popular now than in previous generations. Even so, it it is a word with a fascinating history.
As a keen reader of mystery fiction for many years now I am familiar with many sleuths. I started with Tricia Belsen, the Hardy Boys and the like. Scooby Doo and the gang were my favourite TV sleuths, but my parents loved Jessica Fletcher. As an adult, Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, and Phryne Fisher rank among my favourites. As much as I love Agatha Christie’s work, I always found Hercule Poirot to be insufferably smug and somewhat condescending, but that is a different discussion.
Sleuth had come into English at some point before 1200 AD, meaning ‘a definite track or trail left by someone or something’. This came from the Old Norse word sloð which means trail. This word was used to describe dogs skilled at tracking and following a scent or trail, known as sleuth-hounds. Thus, the first sleuths were not people, but dogs!
Eventually, the word came to be used for a person who tracked prey, or fugitives, or anything else in need of finding. It was used as a noun for a keen investigator by the mid 1800s, and for someone looking for clues to solve a crime in 1872. “detective” is 1872, shortening of sleuth-hound “keen investigator” (1849), a figurative use of a word that dates back to late 14c. meaning a kind of bloodhound.
Sleuth was not used as a verb until the early 20th century, when it was used to mean the act of investigating. The first written record of sleuth as a verb was in 1905. To sleuth out meant to investigate or discover, and the act of doing so was sleuthing.
One of the catch-all phrases of the 21st century is “It is what it is.” On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer, but when you think about it, it’s a statement that can indicate acceptance, resignation, or simple acknowledgement of a thing or situation. It can communicate “that’s all you’re going to get” or “that’s the best I could do” or “that will have to do. Despite its apparent simplicity, it’s a versatile statement to keep up one’s sleeve.
The repetition in this phrase is known as ploce, pronounced plo-chay .
Ploce is a very old word which came into English from Latin from the Greek work plokē meaning complication or twisting, which came from the ancient Greek word plekein which means to plait or weave. That in itself is fascinating, as it gives a clear impression of the words twisting or weaving around themselves as they are repeated. It’s quite a visual image of what the language is doing.
Ploce is a literary and rhetorical device by which a word is repeated for emphasis.
It can be simple repetition, like Popeye saying “I am what I am, and that’s all I am”.
It can involve a change in the meaning of the word: Examples: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” “I don’t want to hear you talk the talk, I want to see you walk the walk.”
Note: This is also called antanaclasis, but you’ll probably never need to know that unless you’re studying Rhetoric, Classics or Shakespeare.
It can involve a change in the form of the word. Example: “She cried until there was no crying left in her.”
This is also called polyptoton. You’ll probably never need to know that either, unless you’re studying… you get the idea.
Shakespeare made regular use of ploce in his plays, but my favourite examples are to be found in speeches by Queen Margaret in Richard III:
Margaret often makes use of elegant imagery and rhetoric in her speeches, and her use of ploce is certainly eloquent.
I mentioned to someone yesterday that I would be at my school’s athletics carnival today.
“Ooooh, car-nee-vah-lee!” they exclaimed with a twinkle in their eye.
Brightly coloured images of vivid costumes, scantily clad women and wild parties in Rio de Janeiro flashed through my mind. “Er… not quite!” I responded. “It’s not that colourful! And it’s a school event, so let’s keep it family-friendly, shall we?”
This got me thinking about the different meanings of carnival, and wondering what a rowdy celebration or a colourful parade might have to do with a school track and field sports day.
In my mind, the answer was obvious: not much. So, as is my usual habit, I turned to Etymonline for some insights.
The English word carnival dates back to the 1540s, when it was used to refer to a “time of merrymaking before Lent”. This was derived from French carnaval, which in turn came from the Italian word carnevale which referred to Shrove Tuesday. This came from older Italian forms such as Milanese carnelevale and Old Pisan carnelevare which meant to remove meat, presumably referring to changing one’s diet for the period leading up to Easter.
Etymonline also offered the folk etymology — that is, a popular but generally untrue story about the origins of a word— that carnival came from the Medieval Latin words carne and vale meaning ‘flesh, farewell!’
In the late 1500s , carnival had come to mean feasting or revelry in general.
Carnival being used in reference to a circus, sideshow or amusement fair developed in American English in the early 20th century.
That was as far as Etymonline got me, so I looked up a few other websites, but none of them shed any more light on the answer to my question.
I am still no closer to understanding why a series of track and field events is called a carnival.
Consequently, I am left performing some folk etymology of my own: perhaps it relates to the celebration of the physical achievements of the competitors, or the cheering and noise made by the spectators. It could even relate to the pre-competition parading of competitors, team colours and mascots that used to be popular but, thankfully, is much less fashionable now.
Perhaps, though, it’s just one of those weird quirks of English that I’ll never really understand.
First and foremost, a raspberry is a small red, black or yellow fruit which grows on a bramble or vine-like style of bush, and which generally tastes delicious.
In English, the word raspberry goes back to the early 1600s, but its actual origins are a matter of contention: it could have come from Old French, Medieval Latin, or one of the Germanic languages.
The second sense of the word raspberry dates to the late 19th century, and relates to the rude sound made with one’s tongue and lips. This meaning is derived from ‘raspberry tart’, which is rhyming slang for ‘fart’, which is precisely what a raspberry sounds like.
Blowing a raspberry is also called a Bronx cheer, a term which came from the sound being used to express derision or displeasure during sporting matches in the area of New York City called the Bronx.
In linguistic terms, blowing a raspberry is an unvoiced labial fricative. This may seem like somewhat useless information for anyone other than linguists and language enthusiasts, but rude children can be quite effectively stunned into submission with reprimands such as “Don’t you dare address me with your unvoiced labial fricatives!” I know this, because I have achieved it more than once with other people’s teenagers.
This term has also been immortalised in the Golden Raspeberry Awards or Razzies, a parody of the Oscars in which the awards are given for terrible performances in film.
Finally, raspberry is also used as an adjective to describe any shade of purplish red colour, as referenced by Prince in Raspberry Beret. You don’t need to thank me for the earworm – you’re welcome!