Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Words mention here tend to be Latinate, but occasionally we need to be reminded that people on the British Isles had a language of their own. The native words tend to be more common or bawdy. Scud and its twin Scut, together with the twins Scuddle and Scuttle, represent a confluence of English and Latinate origins.
Overhead, stars shone intermittently through scudding clouds.
Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

In our example sentence, we see the English origin. Starting with scut, a rabbit's tail, we get all the meanings that have to do with speed. Metaphorically, that rabbit's tail might also be the etymological origin of meanings that include short skirts, various parts of the female anatomy, loose women and pornography, demonstrating that once a word moves in the direction of sex, no one can stop its inevitable decline.

On the other hand, we have the Latin word for dish: scutella. This etymology gives us coal scuttle, and the nautical meaning of a hatch cover, which by association led to the hatch itself, and ultimately adding a hole in the hull use to scuttle (sink) a ship.

In addition to these traditional etymologies, one more word origin needs to be considered: mouth fun. Scut, scud, scuttle, scuddle are just so much fun to say (by English speakers), that if the sounds didn't mean something, a meaning would be assigned to them, possibly many meanings as demonstrated above. This might be the etymology for the scut work, kitchen clean-up, and drudgery meanings. These just sound right.

In summary when you start with a fun sound, a rabbit's tail, and a dish, and almost a thousand years of unfettered imagination, almost anything is possible as words scud through our fascinating language.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Caparison, Palfrey, Litter

Here is one phrase describing the mode of travel employed by lords and ladies with three interesting words. carriages or on richly caparisoned palfreys or riding in litters.
Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

First caparisoned. This shares it etymological origin with cape, not Capricorn. A caparison is a cape to cover a horse, often ornate. Interestingly, this term originally applied to the dress of war horses, but in the case above, the horse is palfrey.

So palfrey. A palfrey is definitely not a war horse. Palfrey has strayed from its etymological origins which included the para- root. Para means beside, but is so non-specific that it appears in many words and contexts, including parallel parable, paranoid, paranormal, paragraph, paraphase, etc.

In this case, analogous to paranormal and paraphrase, the palfrey is a para-war horse or simply not a war horse. During the time of chivalry the palfrey was a smaller, woman's horse.

So in our quote the ornate cape for a war horse has been downsized and upgraded to a fancy dressing for the horse the lady ride upon.

If she doesn't ride on her palfrey, she is conveyed in a litter. Litter derives directly from bed. Without much linguistic gymnastics, the litter is a covered bed that is carried. Other variation of litter are more metaphorical and removed for the etymological root.

The bed for animals might be straw. So this straw became litter. The straw needed to be spread about, so the verb for that action became littering. Over time littering littering became spread stuff about, from trash by the road to kittens in the barn. One more metaphorical jump let the kittens become a litter. So we have the farmer littering litter in the barn to provide a comfortable place for the cat to litter her litter.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


Sometimes what is unsaid is more important than what is said. Recall that Catherine Middleton was given the title Duchess of Cambridge, not Princess Catherine ... since she is not of royal blood. Fitz is the flip side of this Duchess title.

Fitz started out as another patronymic (son-of). So Fitzgerald is son or Gerald, much like O'Banion, MacDonald, Swensen, Johnson, and many others.

The story become twisted with Fitzroy (Fitz Roi) or son of the king. In royal families, bastard children were simply called Fitzroy or simply Fitz, no fancier title like Duchess or Princess or any other the other titles available to royalty. By not awarding the additional titles that signified property, power or precedence, the clear conclusion was: (royal) bastard.

Over time Fitz became synonymous with bastard.
"Fitz is what Burrich calls me."
She flinched slightly. "He would. Calls a bitch a bitch and a bastard a bastard, does Burrich."
Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


While all have heard the expression Motley Fool, how many have considered the word motley on it own. The expression motley fool offers little guidance into motley itself. Another word which is more instructive and shares origins with motley is mottled or spotted, a term used by doctors for rashes and veterinarians for animals.

These words are thought to derive from Dutch mot or Norwegian mutt and the biblically famous mote, all referring to small particles. From this, motley became multicolored, many disparate colors. This is the original meaning.

So motley fool, refers to the traditional fool/jester's multicolored costume. By analogy, motley may now be used for any disparate collection. In fashion, motley refers to multicolored dress, like patchwork.
... and three young women in motley and bells.
Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Monday, August 11, 2014


Mews is wonderful example of the circuitous route from a word's origin to its current usage.

Mew begins with the French verb muer, meaning to molt. This derives from the Latin mutare, meaning to change. Thus, mew shares origins with mutate.

So the story goes like this: a mew was a cage to confine hawks when they molted, but eventually became all hawk housing.
A falconry bird is usually housed in a mews.

From specialized hawk/falcon housing, mews was extended to all hunting animals  (horses, hounds, hawks), or more generally stables. The most famous mews is the Royal Mews at Charing Cross. The important characteristic of this mews turned out not to be the stables per se, but the courtyard that the stables surrounded.

With the demise of horses for transportation, stable were converted to housing for people with the desirable characteristic that the housing opened onto a pedestrian alley or courtyard, instead of a street. These a mews is an upscale development around a pedestrian space, as in the Washington Mews in New York City.

So from molting hawks, mews has become a small neighborhood around a pedestrian-only alley or courtyard, from housing for royal animals to the royals themselves.
Burrich had quarters over the stables, not far from the mews.
Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Friday, August 8, 2014


I'm a paleontologist and taxonomist;
Steven Jay Gould, Foreword, The Far Side Gallery 3

Well everyone knows what a paleontologist is. Paleontologists study dinosaurs and other life forms from millions of years ago, but what is a taxonomist?

The word taxonomy was created in France in the 19th century. Its origins go back to the beginning of human civilization. One could argue that taxonomy is what separates human from other primates and other life forms. Also, taxonomist might be considered the oldest profession.
And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
Genesis 2:19

Adam was a taxonomist.

Taxonomy comes from two Greek roots. Taxis refers to arrangement or organization. The same root is used in tactics, the arrangement or organization of forces. The second root is nomia, referring to laws and customs, such as astronomy, economy, and gastronomy - laws of the stars, house and stomach respectively.

In this situation, the etymology is not that enlightening. Taxonomy is about name things, particularly living things, building on the work Carolus Linnaeus started in the 18th century. These days taxonomy is used by anyone wish to organize some body of information, particularly by naming things.