Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Since there have been several recently. Photo is of Pago Pago in American Samoa.
Earth - An Old English word meaning ground or soil. At least a thousand years old, the word has either Germanic or Norse roots.

Quake - Also Old English, so old it apparently has no known source outside of England. Original meaning to tremble.

Earthquake - Dates back to 1288, spelled eorthequakynge, and meant then exactly what it means today.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Casus Belli

Entered the English language as a phrase in 1849. Latin, literally "the case for war." Also a European rock band.

Monday, September 28, 2009


As in "going rogue."

Rogue (n) - A vagrant; an idle, sturdy beggar; a vagabond; a tramp. A deliberately dishonest person; a knave; a cheat. From 16th Century thieves slang for a vagabond who begs by pretending to be a scholar. In horticulture, a worthless plant occurring among seedlings of some choice variety.
Which leads me to remember that old Dorothy Parker story. In a parlor game, Miss Parker was asked to use the word "horticulture" in a sentence. Her reply was, "You can lead a horticulture (whore to culture) but you can't make her think.
Which is my way of saying that Sarah Palin choose an absolutely perfect, totally appropriate title for her book.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

College and University

What is the difference between these words?

A college may be part of a university but a university can never be part of a college.

College - A society of scholars incorporated for study or instruction. From the Latin collegium, meaning community. Entered the English language in the 14th century to describe the subdivisions of the universities at Oxford and Cambridge.

University - The definition is essentially the same as for college. From the Latin phrase
universitas magistrorum et scholarium, meaning "the whole community of masters and scholars." Of course, universe derives from the same root.

In the "chicken and egg" aspect, university came first and college followed.

Friday, September 25, 2009


Cat, on the other hand, is unique because it is nearly universal.
  • Cattus - Latin, wildcat
  • Kattuz - Proto-Germanic (prior to Latin influences)
  • Kadis - Nubian
  • Qitt - Arabic
Cat, in English, is a very old word dating to 700 AD.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Did you hear about the dyslexic atheist who insisted that there is no Dog.

Dog - These origins are lost in the mists of time. It is known that the word comes from the Old English word docga, but where did that come from? It is not Germanic (hund) or Latinate (canis) or Gaelic (madra). Other European languages like French (dogue) and Danish (dogge) are clearly connected but etymologists believe these words derived from the English word rather than a common root.

Equally mysterious is the Spanish word for dog (perro) which also has no apparent origin. Both dog and perro probably come from local dialects that disappeared thousands of years ago.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Perhaps my favorite linguistic quirks are heteronyms, words that are spells the same but have different pronunciations and different meanings. Words like bow and bow or lead and lead (Okay, that doesn't work too well in print). What can be more confusing for someone trying to learn the language than dealing with words like this?

Lead - As a noun, lead is an elemental metal (symbol Pb). The origin is the German word Lot, meaning plumb weight. As a verb, lead (pronounced LEED) means to be in front and comes from a Saxon word, lithan, meaning to travel.

Bow - The verb, to bend at the waist, is from the Germanic bugon, meaning to bend. That is also the origin for the noun meaning of an archery bow. However, the bow of a ship has its origin in the Dutch word boech, meaning shoulder.

Minute - A personal favorite. Both meanings, one-sixtieth of an hour (stress on the first syllable) and a tiny bit (stress on the second syllable), come from the Latin word minutus, meaning small.


I've been quiet for a month and I've already done vacation so let's look at another word for taking time off.

Sabbatical (a/n) - A leave of absence generally taken every seven years. Literally, "suitable for the Sabbath," the term refers back to Mosaic Law where land was to be kept fallow every seventh year. For university professors a sabbatical was as period intended for extensive research but is now mostly an excuse for a really long vacation.