“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), Austrian-British philosopher
My sister and her husband are somewhere on the Grand Canal in Venice, celebrating their 40th anniversary. I’m in St. John’s in June, where it’s so cold the armed robbers are still wearing ski-masks.
The trouble is, you can’t always travel when you’d like to, or as much as you’d like.
Would-be vagabonds can be constrained by all manner of things: responsibilities, work, financial resources, ill health.
But there are ways around it. A good book can help you transcend geographical boundaries, particularly if that book is a dictionary. I’m no etymological expert, but I take great pleasure in learning the origins of words and in realizing how many different cultures have enriched the English language.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary tells us that “ayatollah,” for example — the word Darin King should have looked up before taking offence to it — comes from the Arabic and means “token of God.” Hardly offensive, but perhaps it will encourage King to cultivate a stronger dictionary habit.
Even a word whose symbolic representation evokes revulsion in many of us can have benign roots. “Swastika,” the hated symbol of the German Nazis, comes from the Sanskrit words for “well-being.”
How they’ve changed over the years
“Judo,” a form of combat, albeit unarmed, originates from 19th-century Japanese and means “gentle way.”
The word “horde,” often used in a derogatory way to describe a group of people — as in, “hordes of the great unwashed turned out for the public hanging” — has its roots in the Turkish word for “royal camp.”
“Gaffe,” which means blunder, comes from the French word for “boat hook,” which makes you think of those old variety shows where the buffoon would be pulled offstage with a cane.
“Terrific” refers to something great, but it used to mean something that causes terror, and comes from the Latin “terrificus,” or “frighten.”
Then again, kids today use “sick” to mean something they like and “hot” where we might’ve used “cool.” Go figure.
Meanings that morph
When I hear the word “spay,” I think of a pet undergoing surgery under anesthetic, snoozing peacefully as the procedure is performed and then waking up hardly the worse for wear. But it has a violent past and comes from the Old French, “espeer,” to “cut with a sword.”
“Hysterectomy,” on the other hand, comes from the slightly more sanitized Greek term for “womb removal.”
“Languor,” a lovely word to describe a pleasant feeling of inertia — say during a leisurely picnic on a hot summer’s day in the backyard — used to mean something completely different: a state of being sick or in distress. That makes sense when you consider that both “languor” and “languish” are descendants of the Old French “languere.”
Some words evolve in mysterious ways and change meanings several times along the way. How else could we have gone from the Old French “jonquette,” which means “rush basket,” to a later meaning: “a cream cheese, formerly made in a rush basket,” which morphed into “feast, merrymaking,” to finally arrive at its current form, “junket” — “an extravagant trip or celebration, in particular one enjoyed by a government official at public expense.”
That’s quite the journey, and it took six centuries or more.
And then there are words you think you know the meaning of but the dictionary tells you otherwise. I always though flotsam and jetsam meant the same thing: detritus washed ashore from a wrecked ship.
Not so. “Flotsam” comes from the Anglo-Norman French word for “to float,” and means what I thought it meant.
“Jetsam,” on the other hand, is about 50 years older and is a contraction of the word “jettison,” and refers to unwanted items deliberately thrown overboard, particularly when done so to lighten the load.
And I always assumed that “yak,” as in to gab on and on, came from the same place as the word used to describe the wild ox of the same name. Wrong again.
“Yak,” as in to converse, comes from the 1950s (remember The Coasters’ song “Yakety-Yak”? I don’t either; I’m not that old), while “yak” the ox comes from the 18th-century Tibetan word, “gyag.”
One of the most adventurous aspects of world travel, of course, is trying the food.
Can’t get to Peking for Peking duck? Look up some culinary words instead.
Did you think “ketchup” is an Anglo word, given the Brits’ love of chips and our own fondness for fries? Actually, it’s Chinese — from the Cantonese dialect for “k’e chap” — tomato juice — and it has graced Chinese tables since the late 17th century.
“Bouillabaisse,” the elegant, rich fish stew that comes from Provence, has humble origins. It comes from the modern Provençal “bouiabaisso,” which means “boil down.”
“Linguine,” comes from “lingua” or “tongue” — not surprising given the Italians’ reputation for romance. Yet “Lasagna,” for some strange reason, comes from the Latin word for “chamber pot.” That’d put you off your pasta altogether.
Italians are fond of wordplay, so it is a delight to discover that not only do they extract oil from olives, but the word “olive” comes from oil — the Greek “elaion.”
The last stop on this little linguistic voyage is Hawaii, where, thanks to a query from a colleague this week, I was charmed to learn that the word “ukulele” comes with a definition that perfectly describes the music the small four-stringed guitar makes — or at least the way it used to sound back when I played one — “jumping flea.”
Got itchy feet? Then open up your dictionary — and happy trails.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram’s associate managing editor. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.