Posts Tagged ‘etymology’

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.


The Candidate and the Idiot

Posted in General on November 2nd, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

(From the archives but worth repeating….)

The candidate has always been conscious of his image. In the days of the Roman Republic (509 B.C.-27 B.C.), long before there were press releases, the aspiring politician announced his campaign for public office by putting on his very best-whitest-toga and proclaiming his virtues in the Forum. There was a term for this spectacle, “candidatus” meaning clothed in white. Unfortunately, Roman politics were so tumultuous that “candidates” increasingly found it safer to wear armor than togas. Indeed, by 100 B.C. and for the remaining five centuries of Rome’s dominion, civil war was the most common method of election. By the Middle Ages, the idea of a “candidate” had lapsed into Latin obscurity.

Seventeenth century England revived the idea.  The growing power of Parliament attracted ambitious men. Many were tantalized by the prospects for social-climbing and the opportunities for graft. The Puritans wanted to impose their principles on everyone else. All of these aspiring megalomaniacs were vying for seats in Parliament. Whether this new occupation was a career or an affliction, it still required a name.

Fortunately, the Renaissance had revived literacy, and some English scholars remembered the term “candidatus.” Of course, the term was not meant literally. At the time, the only white clothing would have been shirts, which also served men as their pajamas and underwear. (The Roman practice of hygiene had yet to be revived.) The idea of publicly parading in only a shirt would have disqualified the Puritan politicians. Candidate now was a generic term.

The scholars had also revived the Roman word for white: candidus. People like John Milton always flaunted their erudition, and so they would speak of a candid cloud. Ironically, “candid” soon began its evolution, first mixing with other synonyms for white and then acquiring its distinct definition. To phrase it as etymological formula: Candid=white=shining=clear=open=frank. This evolution proved surprisingly quick. By the end of the 17th century, candid had assumed its current meaning. So, the similarity between the words “candid” and “candidate” is not an accident: it just is an oxymoron.

The voter was not always treated like an idiot.  On the contrary, in Ancient Greece the epithet was applied to those who didn’t vote. Idiot is derived from the Greek word, idiotes, meaning private citizen. In its broadest and snobbiest definition, it applied to any citizen not in the ruling class. Of course, in a democracy-like Athens– every citizen was in the ruling class. (However, not everyone was a citizen: the women and slaves learned that.) From the Athenian perspective, an idiot was that myopic, apathetic soul who did not participate in the city’s democracy.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine anyone who could witness the birth of Democracy and yet be oblivious to it. There was as much drama in Greek politics as in any amphitheater. Combining politics and theater, the Greeks had created the art of rhetoric. Pericles and Demosthenes treated the public like an audience, flattering, moving and dazzling the citizens. And the citizens were expected to argue back and debate the issues. Think of the topics that those Athenians decided: building a fleet, the construction of the Parthenon, war with Sparta. (The latter was not Athen’s most brilliant decision: imagine Meryl Streep starting a fist fight with Vin Diesel.) Yes, the Athenian citizens probably discussed zoning ordinances for chariots, too. Even classical Athens had its mundane matters.

Anyone so indifferent to this vital and dramatic process deserved contempt. The apathetic citizens were neglecting their rights and self-interest, abandoning their role in the democratic state. The word idiot became their stigma. Twenty-five centuries have broaden the word’s application but not improved its meaning. Of course, democracy and idiots are the not our only political legacy from Greece. We also have inherited a term for anyone whose politics differed from yours. The Greek word for fool is moron.

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:

Monday Medley

Posted in General on December 28th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 4 Comments

New Airport Security Measures

For flights lasting longer than two hours passengers will be subjected to a drug-induced coma.    (In deference to their religious principles, Christian Scientists will be knocked unconscious.)  Upon arrival at their destination, the comatose passengers will be placed on the baggage carillon until they are ready to reclaim themselves.

For flights lasting less than two hours, why don’t you just take the damn Greyhound.

Luggage will no longer be permitted on  flights.  If you need anything, you probably can buy it wherever you arrive.  Of course, you will have to get rid of it before your return flight; but the TSA was thinking of opening pawnshops at airports.

Truth in Advertising

The following story is 99 percent true.  Only the names have been changed to protect the guilty (an investment firm) as well as one litigation-fearing writer (alias me). 


The litigation-fearing writer caved in.

Pure Italian

Posted in General, On This Day on July 23rd, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

On this day in 1929, Fascist Italy made a stand for linguistic purity and banned the use of foreign words.

However, if Il Duce wanted to be consistent he would have had to change his name to Guido Mussolini.  Benito is embarrassingly Spanish.  Worse, he could not have his rebaptism at St. Peter’s Church–at least until the Church changed its name.  Peter is a Greek word, you know.  In fact, so are Catholic, Jesus and Christ.  (Fortunately, the word Pope would be acceptably kosher in Italian.)  The Church might have agreed to being Mondo instead of Cattolico, but it likely would have objected to renaming the focus of its worship.  Divo Carpentiere? 

There also would need be new nomenclature throughout Italy.  Sicily and Naples are Greek names.  Tuscany is Etruscan.  Lombardy is named for the long beards on the German barbarians who seized the region.  In fact, even the name Italia might not have passed the purity test.  Those big mouth Greeks were the first to use that term, applying it to the southern part of the peninsula which they colonized.  If Italy were named after the legendary Sicilian ruler  Italos, then the derivation would have been unpatriotically Greek.  However, some etymologists believe that the Greeks took (and mispronounced) the indigenous people’s word for their major occupation–raising cattle.

So, going back to the word’s pure roots, Mussolini should have changed the country’s name to Vitalia–land of veal.


Gino (I wouldn’t want to upset Mussolini)

“Sakartvelo On My Mind”

Posted in English Stew, General on August 8th, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Joseph Stalin would not want you to think that he was Southern. There were no Confederate flags decals on his troika, and he never mixed his vodka with Dr. Pepper. In other words, he would never call himself a Georgian. He and everyone from his native region called themselves “Kartvelebi“, the inhabitants of Sarkartvelo.

The real name of the alleged “Georgia” refers to the legendary figure Kartlos, the father of this misnomered people. So, how did his Kartvelebi descendants become confused with the Dukes of Hazzard. I know that this sounds too easy but “blame the Arabs.” The Arabs’ attempts to conquer the mountainous territory proved more difficult than they anticipated. (Not everyone was as effete as a Byzantine or as an incompetent as a Persian.) So, in begrudging respect, the Arabs referred to the region as a “land of warriors“–Gurjistan.

Our cartographers and geographers took the Arabs’ compliment as the actual name. Gurjistan became Georgia. The Russians made a similar mistake and called the area “Gruziya.” But a misnomer is the least that Russia has done to Sakartvelo–even now as I am writing.

The Armenians’ name for their northern neighbor is also incorrect but at least original. They refer to Sakartvelo as Vrastan, which invokes the ancient name of the area: Iveria. So it seems that Sakartvelo was fated to be confused with one region or another.

The Road to Irrelevance

Posted in English Stew on April 29th, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – 3 Comments

Trivia literally means “three roads” in Latin. Seven roads led to a Roman education. The scientific routes were arithmetic, astronomy, geometry and music. The literary paths were grammar, rhetoric and logic. Those three roads–the Trivia– were not as esoteric as they seemed. If you were begging Nero for your life, you would want to be grammatical and eloquent.

However, as the Roman Empire disintegrated and was inundated by barbarian invasions, a well-rounded education became irrelevant. The Goths, Vandals and Huns really did not care about proper Latin grammar, and they had felt that brute force had its own logic. Yet, arithmetic remained important; barbarians liked to count what they stole. And music was still esteemed; the Germans always thought that they liked music, although a nation of Wagner fans obviously has more patience than pitch.

But even literacy would eventually revive in the Middle Ages. Someone had to write the place cards for the Round Table. However, the classical standards of literacy had become irrelevant. The Latin language that once linked all of Western Europe had either fragmented into the pidgin dialects of French and Spanish or had been completely eradicated by unappreciative barbarians like the Angle-Saxons. Latin standards for grammar really could not apply to different languages. Rhetoric was too estoric for a society that settled debates with a broadsword. Logic actually could be dangerous; the Medieval Church suspected it led to heresy.

So, by medieval standards the Trivia had become meaningless, irrelevant and questionable. Today, grammar, rhetoric and logic have regained some respectability; but the term “trivia” has not.

The Quality of Mercy

Posted in English Stew on February 25th, 2007 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

Mercy was the stock and trade of the Roman Empire. True, an Empire of mad Caesars, blood-crazed mobs and well-fed lions would not seem very charitable or lenient. (You could ask a Carthaginian if there were any left.) However, in its original Latin, mercy had nothing to do with virtue. It meant “trade.” The Latin word “mercari” proved remarkably versatile, the root for market, merchant, mercenary and even the name of a God. Fleet-footed and sleight-of-hand, Mercury was the patron of traders…and thieves. Mercari also provided France a way to say “thank you.” Finally, and unintentionally, mercari became the English word for clemency.

Let’s begin this mercurial odyssey. The Romans introduced “mercari” to Gaul but it hardly made a good first impression. After all, at Roman insistence, the Gaulish traded their liberty, land and livestock in exchange for the right to keep breathing. For four centuries, mercari meant supplying the local garrison with wine and pornographic pottery. Beginning in the fifth century, however, the word was reinvented, “new and improved” by a software company called Christianity.

Its sales force understood the principles of marketing. Prospective converts needed an incentive if they were to trade Jove for Jesus. So, the missionaries offered their customers a mercedes. No, it was not a deluxe German chariot, but it was a miracle of marketing. The word mercedes , in fact, was a variation of mercari, but its meaning had been embellished and burnished. A mercedes was more than a mere trade; it was a bargain, a reward, a blessing!

Those missionaries made a compelling sales pitch, guaranteeing morality and salvation. All that paganism could promise was provocative theater. The Gaulish realized which religion was the mercedes. In the fifth century, the conquering Franks came to the same conclusion and traded in Wotan. Since mercedes was synonymous with reward or blessing, the French began saying it to express appreciation. They did abridge it to two syllables-“merci”-but the French were never long on gratitude.

The English learned “mercy” from the Normans, and the lesson was in both Latin and French. The Norman conquerors included bishops as well as barons. The new prelates of England were bound by the tenets of Christianity, and the Church still promised “mercedes.” However, after six centuries in the Dark Ages, the Church really wasn’t feeling chipper. In this bleak 11th century perspective, the world was sinful, and mankind was unworthy of God’s mercedes. Such blessings were an undeserved favor. Of course, the Norman clergy were eager to terrorize their conquered congregations, promising eternal damnation unless the English proved abjectly servile. Even then, their hope of salvation was slim, dependent upon the generosity of Heaven. Any fate other than Hell was an act of mercedes.

Living under the Normans, the English already had a familiarity with Hell. The Normans were descended from Vikings who had overrun France. Over a century, they had acquired a facade of French culture, although the Norman idea of Christian conduct was limited to shaving. Now the new masters of England, they made no attempt to endear themselves to their subjects. On the contrary, the Normans routinely terrorized the English to teach them their place-with the livestock. The battered and cowed English became accustomed to abuse and degradation.

Then, the unexpected occurred in the 12th century. It might have been during Lent or in the wake of the Chivalry craze. An English servant had just finished his debasing drudgery (perhaps licking the stables) and now expected to receive a slap or a kick from the Norman lord or lady. Instead, the Norman muttered “merci.” The servant kept waiting for some affliction but nothing happened. The Norman repeated “merci” and waved the Englishman away. The amazed and relieved servant had never before heard the word “merci” but he could guess its meaning. The Norman was saying, “I won’t hurt you.”

By the 13th century, the distortion of mercedes and the misinterpretation of merci had converged into our meaning of mercy. So, from Roman greed, medieval gloom and Norman arrogance, we derived an expression of virtue. Whether or nor mankind is inherently sinful, we are habitually ironic.