English Stew

Viking Etiquette and Household Hints

Posted in English Stew, General on November 15th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

IKEA illustration FinishedLet’s solve a mystery. How can a club be both a social organization and a weapon? It actually is a case of mistaken identity that began in the Middle Ages. Old English and Old Norse are both Germanic languages. In addition to this lingual similarity, the Vikings could always make themselves understood. When a horde of warriors is sacking and slaughtering, you can usually interpret its mood and intent. One particular form of Viking expression was the “klubba”, a blunt, heavy weapon.

When a Viking wielded his club, his British victims felt a clump. In Old English “clump” literally meant lump or mass, but the word had several uses. It could refer to an accumulation or cluster of objects; in that context, we still refer to “a clump of dirt” or “a clump of trees.” Unfortunately, a clump could also describe the mass of wood in the Viking arsenal, or the lumps it caused. Since club and clump had similar sounds and overlapping definitions, the words eventually became confused and interchangeable. Clump acquired a heavy, creepy context, while a club could be an innocuous collection.

England in the late 17th century was a wonderful time for debauchery, and the diction was as lax as the morals. When people, bound by a common interest or vice, gathered together these associations now were called clubs. Three centuries later we’re stuck with that mistake. If there had only more regard for proper English, your insurance agent would be a member of the Rotary Clump.

II.  Another Gift from the Vikings

With their effusive nature, the Vikings gave our language such words as slaughter, wreck, kidnap and-of course-club. In rare instances, however, our Viking vocabulary does not pertain to a crime. Consider the word window. It is from the Old Norse term vindauga and means “wind eye.”

But how did vindauga become our prevalent word for a scenic hole in a wall?

Of course, modern Scandinavians are renowned for furniture, but their Viking ancestors never showed any flair for interior design. There was no medieval Ikea. The Viking expressed his aesthetics by what he stole. In the ninth century the Norsemen so enjoyed looting England that they decided to seize the entire country. They nearly succeeded, overrunning Northern and Eastern England. But for King Alfred rallying the English in a last-ditch battle (and earning himself “the Great”), today Lundholm might be the capital of Anglemark.

The Vikings had been thwarted but they still controlled almost half of England. They could enjoy it and settle down. The Vikings acquired English wives–often over the bodies of English husbands–and began to assimilate. With varying degrees of sincerity, they converted to Christianity. (Odin and Thor had let them down.) This domestication was aided by the similarity between Norse and Old English.

For instance, the Angle-Saxon lived in a hus, walked through a dor, over a flor and into a rum. The Viking then stormed that huis, kicked in a dyrr, stomped the florr and into a ruim. Translation was hardly needed. When there were distinct differences in the vocabularies, the Norse sometimes adopted the English word. The Vikings found the English weall easy to breach but irresistible to say. However, the Norse were not so accommodating over what to call the scenic hole in the weall.

The Angle-Saxon called it an eyethurl, which means “eye hole.” Perhaps the Norse found it difficult to pronounce or lacking in poetry. They insisted on calling the disputed aperture a windauga, and bullies do have a certain power of persuasion. Eastern England called it that, and western England probably thought it wasn’t worth a fight.

The Rite to Vote

Posted in English Stew, General on November 4th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

Voting has always been an act of faith. In ancient Rome, a votum was a religious vow. If you were underfoot a Carthaginan elephant or had encountered Caligula in one of his zany moods, you could promise the Gods a few sacrificed sheep in exchange for your survival. Those who actually kept their promises were said to be “devout” or “devoted.” By the Middle Ages, Europe’s theology had changed but the definition of votum had not. People were still eager to bargain with Heaven. To avoid the bubonic plague, you too might vow not to beat the serfs for a month.

Votum acquired its political character in 15th century Scotland. That rugged, hardscrabble land fostered an independent, feisty spirit that would not accommodate the king’s attempts to govern. The hapless monarch had only as much power as his quarrelsome nobles begrudged him. To enact any legislation or to organize a raid on England, his majesty had to wheedle a consensus from his lairds and clan chieftains.

Of course, even a tenuous government like Scotland’s had bureaucrats, and someone was recording the proceedings of the royal council. That scribe wanted a term to describe the machinations of arriving at a political decision. Demonstrating his erudition, he naturally chose a Latin word: votum. Unfortunately, it was the wrong one. The Latin word for vote is suffragium. Perhaps the Scottish bureaucrat thought that “votum” meant voice, which actually is “vox” in Latin. His error became the common term in Scotland.

In 1603, Queen Elizabeth of England died. Her reign was glorious, but a Virgin Queen is bad for a dynasty. She was succeeded by her cousin James, the King of Scotland. The Stuarts were long used to groveling to nobles, but they were not prepared to negotiate with a Parliament full of commoners. The Stuarts obviously felt that they had more divine rights than the Tudors did. Rather than face the demands and criticism of Parliament, James I decided to avoid it; he simply wouldn’t call it into session. Of course, he couldn’t raise revenues and the Crown verged on bankruptcy, but James was a miser by nature. His son and successor, Charles I, had more expenses-wars, a French wife and all those van Dyke paintings-so he called Parliament and attempted to bully it. If you don’t know the outcome, you could read his autopsy report.

Considering the Stuarts’ hostility to Parliament, it is ironic that the Scots introduced the “vote” to England. In its political context, the word was unknown. (In its religious context, the word had become rather risky since Henry VIII.) The Parliament had been founded in 1265 and, for more than three centuries, this assembly of gentry, clergy and burghers had been using the correct Latin terms for their legislative decisions. The noun was “suffrage”. The verb was “suffragate.” This was not just legal jargon. The words were in the English vernacular. In Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus”, the title character addresses the people of Rome, “I ask your voices and your suffrages.”

However, when the English finally heard the word “vote”, they appreciated its succinct brevity. It was easier to say than “suffragate,” a word now mercifully obsolete. The term “suffrage” has survived but with a more limited meaning: the right to vote. A century ago, some justifiably indignant women made excellent use of the word. As for the word “vote”, it is now purely secular. Yet, it still retains some trace of its origins. All too often, the voter is confronted with a choice of idols, each promising miracles.



Posted in English Stew, General on February 1st, 2013 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

The similarity between February and febrile is not just my feverish imagination.  In the old Roman calendar Februarius was the last month of the year, and it seemed an appropriate time to atone for the previous 11 months.  The name “Februarius” is derived from the Latin word “februare”–to purify.  Of course the Gods would expect payment for their favor–and mere vows of future virtue would not impress or convince a Roman deity.  No, the repentant were obliged to sacrifice animals.

But the dead oxen and sheep were not left to rot on the altar.  Very few religions encourage cholera.  No, with all appropriate theatrics, the sacrificed animals were burned and so presumably were the sins of the penitents. The purification required fire, and the name February referred to the burning, “fovere.”

We still have a February, although it is generally dismissed as a runt nuisance.  And we still refer to fever and febrile; now, however, when we are the burning sacrifice, we don’t feel holier for it.


Quip Pro Quo

Posted in English Stew, General on November 26th, 2012 by Eugene Finerman – 8 Comments

In the course of a correspondence, a journalist told me that I was loquacious and bemusing.  Only half of her Ivy League education was wasted; she does know the meaning of “loquacious.”  Of course, I was too polite (or craven) to correct her; besides, in ten years or so, she may yet be right about bemusing.  But in the meantime….

What is the definition of “bemuse”:

a.  To confuse or baffle

b.  To  reflect on the humor of a situation

c.  To inspire Rimsky-Korsakov to compose the music for “The Green Hornet”

For the last three hundred years, the dictionary has insisted that the answer is “a”.  However, in the next edition the answer is likely to be “b.”  Language is inherently democratic.  If the majority of people misuses a word, the error becomes the correct definition.  Did you “voice” in the last election?  No, you voted–because a 15th century clerk confused the Latin words “vox” (voice) and “votium (vow), and the mistake proved popular.

And now bemuse is evolving into a synonym for amuse.  It is an effortless error.  Just by appearance, the word looks like “be amused.”  And, ironically, when correctly used, bemuse is still easy to mistake.  In today’s New York Times, a story described a midwesterner as “bemused by the situation in Washington.”  So Washington is baffling, the baffling can be ridiculous, and the ridiculous can be funny.  Ma and Pa Kettle are rarely confused with Noel Coward, yet we just transmuted a puzzled bumpkin into a wry cynic.

It is all quite bemusing.

And when we demean meaning, are we making it kinder?



Posted in English Stew, General on March 5th, 2012 by Eugene Finerman – 5 Comments

The following story is true.  One name has been changed to protect the guilty, although I don’t know why I am bothering.  I would win the libel suit.

The proud parents insisted on showing me their son’s business card.  It identified him as a financial analyst at a firm called “Tradere.”  The card also offered a lesson in Latin.  “Tradere means trader!”  I probably was expected to be impressed; courtesy at least required a simpering smile.  However, my response was “That’s wrong.”

I explained to the stunned parents that the Latin word for trade is “mercari.”  It is the root and etymological ancestor of such words as merchant, market and mercenary.  It even provided the Romans with the name of a God:  Fleet-footed and sleight-of-hand, Mercury was the patron of traders…and thieves.

The father, having accumulated a flotsam of facts in his doctoral studies, grudgingly agreed with my translation.  But his wife, in the fiercest tradition of the Jewish mother insisted “But it says so on the business card!”  Her son’s card had to be infallible.  What was the basis of the word “trader”?  This linguistic dispute occurred in my home, so I was only a few steps away from my office–with its shelves of reference works.  After a few minute absence, during which I was probably subjected to maternal wrath, I returned with the answers.

Our word “trade” is derived from the Angle-Saxon “trada” which means “tread.”  The nature of honest labor has its element of drudgery, and the working conditions of the Dark Ages further dampened the soul.  Ready for today’s 12 hours of serfdom!  You would more likely tread than skip to your labors.  Over time–nine centuries of the Middle Ages–the plodding, weary resignation became synonymous with work itself.  Some vocations involved the exchange of goods, and the noun evolved into the verb “trade.”  That is the etymology of the word, and Latin had nothing to do with it.

But I could offer this solace: “tradere” really is a Latin word.  As any Roman or Jesuit could tell you, it means to betray.  “Tradere” is the ancestor of our words traitor and treason.  Given the history of financial firms, the company’s name might be accurate but unwise to advertise.  Yet, checking its website the following day, I saw the proclamation means “Tradere means trader!”  Several months later, I revisited the website.  The company had not changed its name but now had a more modest assertion:  “Tradere loosely translate to trader.”  Yes, very loosely, in the same way that the word murder loosely translates to “Hello.”  Just the other day, I again visited the website and now saw that Tradere offered no explanation of its name.

As for the young man with the business cards, he now has the reputation in his company of being a classical scholar.

Remind me to blackmail him.



A Tale of Pales

Posted in English Stew, General on March 17th, 2011 by Eugene Finerman – 7 Comments

With my form of pedantic Tourettes, I have been known to start historical lectures in crowded elevators.  I am not one to miss a captive audience.  Recently, however, I was invited to speak at my synagogue.  (Unlike the late St. Stephen, who also did not first clear the topic with the Temple’s Adult Education Program.)  My topic was the life of European Jews in the 19th century, and I had 90 minutes to discuss it.  Fortunately, being in public relations I am trained to be superficial and glib. 

In fact, let me give you a summation of the various countries’ policies toward the Jews:

England and Germany:  Shut up and assimilate.

Russia:  Die, or go to America.

Austria-Hungary:   Get rich, have fun and, if you’re in the neighborhood, drop by the Palace. 

(About those rumors that I am a lobbyist for Austria-Hungary, at the advice of my lawyer I will not comment about my Swiss bank account with 1000 pounds of marzipan in it.)

However, as always, I digress.  The Jews in the Russian Empire were obliged–by the Tsar’s cossack subtlety–to live only within restricted areas.  This confined area was known as the Russian Pale.  A member of the audience asked me the meaning of that term.  “Russian Pale” does sound like a cosmetic by Max Factor; it could have covered up his bruises from the Tsarist police.  Ironically, Factor claimed to be the court cosmetologist for the Tsar and Tsarina.  I am trying to imagine Nicholas and Alexandra–the Anti-Semitic Dagwood and Blondie–arranging designated parking at the Winter Palace for Mr. Factor’s pushcart. 

But “Russian Pale” has nothing to do with Max Factor’s delusions.  Pale is not merely a deficiency of color but also a deficiency of Latin.  The Roman word for pallid was…well…pallid, and the Roman term for a wooden stake was palus.  Of course, with their Mediterranean complexions and their stone walls, the Romans were not terribly concerned about homophonic confusion between pallid and palus.  The French, with their hand-me-down Latin, maintained some distinction between pallid and palus.  They curtailed pallid to pale, and referred to a wooden fence as a palissade.  The Normans, with their hand-me-down French, imposed their rule over England but not their complete vocabulary.   The Angle-Saxons were told the French word for their complexion, but they certainly wouldn’t be given any ideas for defending themselves. 

By the 14th century the Angle-Saxons and the Normans had grown inured to each other, and discovered a common delight in attacking France.   If the harried French forces could not find the sanctuary of a castle, they would build a rampart of wooden stakes:  the palissade.  It was a useful defense against a full-frontal assault; of course, only the French were reckless enough to use that tactic.  The English longbow archers simply shot over the palissade.  However ineffectual the structure, the English liked the word and incorporated it into their evolving language.  So, to keep the livestock in–or the Irish out, a settlement would have a palisade; the extra French “s” seemed unnecessary.  In fact, so did the last two syllables.  The word soon was shortened to pale.

As early as the 15th century, the English enclave in Ireland was known as the Pale.  Outside that perimeter was “beyond the pale.”  And four centuries later, when describing the Russian territory where Jews were permitted to live, historians referred to the area as the Russian Pale.

And, on March 17th, you have learned something else the Jews and the Irish have in common.

p.s.  Let’s not forget the historic significance of this day, other than it being my birthday:  https://finermanworks.com/your_rda_of_irony/2010/03/17/too-eire-is-humor-2/

I, Evgenivs

Posted in English Stew, General on September 4th, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Yes, I can be certified as a masochist.  I am still reading “A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome”.  This alleged study of Roman study has actually proved quite suspenseful.  It is a gripping mystery:  not a “who-done-it” but a “what didn’t”.  Author Alberto Angela consistently makes historical statements that are wrong:  What didn’t happen.  And I have become engrossed; I can’t wait to read the next howler.

In just the last 24 hours, I marvelled at these revelations.

Are you familiar with the Roman Emperor Jordanus?  Well, no one else is, either.  I know the names of all the Roman Emperors–many in stupefying detail–and I was amazed to learn of Jordanus.  Was he the one in a denim toga?  Me, I prefer the Emperor Sidney.  He melted cheeze on a matzoh and invented the pizza.

Did you know that the Lombards invaded Italy during the High Middle Ages?  I thought that they had dropped by some six centuries earlier–the 6th century instead of the 12th.  Perhaps my sundial is running slow.  In fact, the Lombard invasion was the start of Italy’s Low Middle Ages–also known as the Dark Ages.  Even then, Italy was not completely eclipsed.  My friends the Byzantines held much of the peninsula and Sicily; and however obnoxiously arrogant they were (the Ivy Leaguers of the Middle Ages) they preserved civilization.

You may be getting the impression that Alberto Angela lacks some credibility.  Well, he is on television.  In fact, I am now inclined to check anything he says.  (An atlas did confirm the existence of Italy.)  So, when he wrote of the derivation of the peach, I naturally had my doubts.  Does the name peach allude to the fruit’s origin in Persia?  To my amazement, that is true.  The Romans referred to the peach as the “malum persicum”–the Persian apple.  Of course, the author would never be content with getting anything right; he had to add erroneous details.  He asserts that the Emperor Trajan, after conquering Mesopotamia, introduced the “malum persicum” to Rome.

Well, Trajan did conquer Mesopotamia although he never got back alive from there.  (That’s proved a consistent problem with Mesopotamia.)  And its very name “malum persicum” tells a different story.  The Latin word for apple is pomum; the Greek word is malon.  Four centuries before Trajan, some Greeks and Macedonians had overrun Mesopotamia and Persia.  Their commander may have limited himself to fermented grapes, but the soldiers evidently sampled the local produce.  One favorite was subsequently named the Persikon Malon; and it was cultivated in the Hellenic kingdoms set up  in the fragments of Alexander’s empire.  When the Romans conquered those kingdoms (two centuries before Trajan), they also acquired a taste for peaches.

At least Angela did not claim that Peaches was the wife of the Emperor Jordanus.

May Dei

Posted in English Stew, General on May 1st, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – 4 Comments

Yes, it is the first of May.

Before you start romping around a ribboned pole or while you are recovering from a Walpurgis Night binge, let me tell you about May.  The month had to be named for something.  Of course, the only May you knew was that elderly friend of your grandmother, and you still shudder at the memory of May’s arm flaps–they could have been used as semaphores.

In fact, the Romans had her in mind when they named the third month of their calendar.  Maiores is the Latin word for senior; it is also the gnarled old root for our words mayor and major.  The month of Maius was originally dedicated to seniors.  Coming in contact with the Greeks (and Southern Italy was really western Hellas) the Romans became self-conscious about their crude, prosaic culture.  A month in honor of senior citizens?  No, the Romans wanted to be as refined as the people they were slaughtering. 

It just so happened that the Greek pantheon had a minor celebrity named Maia.  She was the daughter of Atlas and had a fling with Zeus (who didn’t?) and that tryst resulted in Hermes.  To the Greeks, she was merely another cute nymph; but to the Romans, she was a homophonic gift.  The Romans now claimed that the month of Maius was named for her.  They promoted Maia to a Goddess of Spring (confiscating the attributes of their old Latin deity Bona Dea) and even arranged her marriage to their God Vulcan.  They weren’t even dating in Greek mythology. 

Now the Romans were sophisticated, having dumped the generic  maiores for the glamorous Maia.  So May is the trophy wife of months.

Grooming Hints from the Vandals

Posted in English Stew, General on March 4th, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – 4 Comments

Did you think that the words barbarian and barber were just phonetic coincidences?  On the contrary, etymology has more than its share of irony.

Barbarian originally comes from the Greek word for strangers: barbaroi. The Greeks applied it to anyone who had the misfortune not to be Greek. Of course, the Romans never thought that it applied to them, so they stole the word along everything else in Hellenic culture. The Romans then used the term to describe those wild thugs across the Rhine and the Danube: hence, the term: barbarian. The Romans noticed that the ancient Germans didn’t bother to shave, and the legionnaires coined the term “barba” to describe the unkempt Teutonic facial hair. That slang became the basis for the French and Italian words for beards and our term for one who trims beards–barber. 

Of course, you erudite readers–particularly you Jeopardy fans–will raise the question, “Doesn’t Xenophobia mean a fear of foreigners?”  (So you thought you caught me!)  That is how we interpret the word, but an ancient Greek would contradict us.  To him, it would mean “a fear of strangers“, specifically Greeks from other city states.  If 500 years of civil wars are any indication, the ancient Greeks had no trouble hating each other.

And if you know anyone named Barbara, don’t tell her what her name really means.


p.s.  Let’s not forget the historic significance of this day:  https://finermanworks.com/your_rda_of_irony/2008/03/04/remembering-john-garfield/

Holesome Words

Posted in English Stew, General on January 7th, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Among recent death threats from readers, the most intelligible included the word “expunge.”  That particular word inspired some etymological musings.  Does “expunge” imply that there once was a word “punge” or “inpunge”? If so, I was going to inpunge the topic here.

Expunge, meaning to erase or obliterate, comes from the Latin word pungere:  to prick.  So, ex + pungere would mean out prick.  That was not a proposition from Caligula but far worse:  a death sentence.  When a Roman tyrant felt in a murderous mood, he would compile a list of his perceived enemies.  Those with an imminent mortality had a stylus prick next to their name.  (It was a neater and more precise method than crossing a name out with ink.  An ink smeared name might even confuse the Praetorians–is that Lucenius or Licenius–and they would kill the wrong senator.) 

So the word expunge preserved its original meaning, if not fatality.  Furthermore, pungere because the basis of other familiar words.  Since the act of pricking creates a hole, a hole-making tool is called a punch.  If you want to make a hole in someone, you can punch him.   A cowboy prodding the cattle along the trail (spurs make holes, too) gave us the term cowpuncher.  And a smell that pierces your senses is pungent.

Now, don’t you feel more erudite!

p.s.  Let’s not forget the historic significance of this day:  https://finermanworks.com/your_rda_of_irony/2009/01/07/profiles-in-vacuity/