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14 Word Origins Hiding In Plain Sight

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It’s fair to say that some word origins are pretty straightforward—straightforward being a fine example of that. Then there are those word origins that are so obscure, the word in question offers few clues to its history. Tragedy, for instance, might come from the Greek for “goat song” (perhaps a reference to actors in Ancient Greek tragedies dressing in animal furs, or maybe because a goat was once offered as a prize). A glass of punch takes its name from the Hindi word for five (because the original recipe for punch had just five ingredients: water, liquor, lemon juice, sugar, and spices—although the Oxford English Dictionary says that the original recipe was milk, curd, ghee, honey, and molasses). And the less said about avocados and orchids the better, frankly.

But then there are those word origins that are hiding in plain sight: words whose origins, after a just little consideration, seem obvious once you know them.

1. SECRETARY

The original secretaries were officers or aides working in the courts of European monarchs, a sense of the word that still survives in the titles of positions like “secretary of state.” As close associates of the king or queen, these secretaries were often privy to a lot of private information—which made a secretary literally a keeper of secrets.

2. PANDEMONIUM

You might well know that this word was coined by the poet John Milton, who used it as the name of the capital of Hell in Paradise Lost in 1667. And you might also have figured out that the pan– here is the same as in words like pandemic and panorama, and literally means “all” or “every.” Put together, that makes pandemonium literally “a place of all demons.”

3. PREPOSTEROUS

Preposterous is one of a handful of so-called oxymoronic words in the English language, whose roots combine elements that contradict one another. A pianoforte, for instance, literally produces a “soft-loud” sound. And the contradiction is even more obvious in words like bittersweet, bridegroom, and speechwriting. The preposterous meaning of preposterous derives from the fact that it brings together the prefixes pre–, meaning “before,” and post–, meaning “after”—and so literally describes something that is back to front or in the incorrect order.

4. BREAKFAST

That meal you have first thing in the morning? It would have originally “broken” the previous night’s “fast.”

5. MONTH

The months of the year were originally calculated from the phases of the moon, and ultimately a month is essentially a “moon-th.” Another Moon-related word that’s staring you in the face is lunatic: originally an adjective, describing someone whose behavior was affected by the phases of the moon.

6. NAUSEA

The first few letters of words like nausea and nauseated are closely related to maritime words like nautical and nautilus. That’s because nausea was once specifically used to mean “seasickness,” and in fact derives from the Greek word for a ship. Moreover …

7. ASTRONAUT

… the astro– of astronaut is related to the root of words like asterisk and asteroid, while the –naut comes from the same seafaring root as nausea. Put them together, and an astronaut is literally a “star-sailor.” Likewise …

8. DISASTER

… a disaster is literally an ill-starred event: a catastrophe blamed on an ill-fated astrological misalignment of the stars and planets.

9. DISAPPOINT

It stands to reason that if you can appoint someone, then you can disappoint them; in fact, the word originally meant (and literally means) “to remove someone from office.” The current sense of “to let down” or “to fail” developed in the late 15th century from the earlier use of disappoint to mean “to frustrate someone’s plans” or “to renege on an engagement.”

10. FREELANCE

Yes, the “lance” in freelance is the same one carried by a medieval knight, at least in early 19th century fiction. That’s because the original freelancers were mercenary knights in stories like Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe—characters who carried no allegiance to any specific cause, and could instead be paid or hired to fight.

11. EQUINOX

The equinox is the date at which the Sun passes the Earth’s celestial equator, on which night and day are exactly equal; appropriately enough, the word itself literally means “equal night.”

12. BLOCKBUSTER

The original blockbusters were enormous bombs developed by Britain’s Royal Air Force for use in raids on German targets during the Second World War. To the RAF, they were officially known as HC, or “high-capacity” bombs. To the pilots involved in the raids, they were known by the unassuming nickname “cookies.” But to the press, these enormous bombs (the largest of which weighed 12,000 pounds and contained 8400 pounds of explosive Amatex [PDF]) were nicknamed blockbusters—bombs powerful enough to destroy an entire block of buildings. After the War, the military use of the word fell out of use so that only a figurative meaning, describing anything, from films to political speeches, that had a similarly impressive impact, remained in use.

13. MALARIA

Mal– essentially means “bad,” as it does in words like malfunction and malpractice, while aria is the Italian word for “air.” Ultimately malaria was so called because it was once said to be caused by the stagnant air and choking fumes the emanated from areas of marshland or swamp, rather than the infected mosquitos that inhabited them.

14. JOURNEY

Once you remember that jour is the French word for “day,” it’s easy to figure out that a journey is literally a day’s traveling—while a sojourn is literally a one-day stay; you write up a day’s events in your journal; and you can read accounts of the day’s events in journalism.

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Something Something Soup Something
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      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]

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