Fun Etymology Tuesday – Christmas

Friends! A merry Christmas to you all! Aside from being Christmas Day, today is also…. Fun Etymology Tuesday!! You did get a taste yesterday with the Scandinavian word ‘Jul’ and today, we’ll continue on that line of words: today’s word is ‘Christmas’ itself!

Christmas is actually a shortened version of ‘Christ’s mass’ and the first time it pops up in English is in 1038, as ‘Crīstemæsse’. Of course, the word itself can basically be split in two: Crist- and -mæsse. Crist- refers to Christianity’s Jesus Christ, but the word itself comes from Greek Khrīstos, which is a translation from Hebrew Māšîah (Messiah) meaning “anointed”.
The second part of our word for today,
-mæsse, comes from Latin ‘missa’, which refers to the rite of Holy Communion in the Christian faith.

But did you know that, before “Christmas” became the popular word on the block, Anglo-Saxons also used the word “Nātiuiteð” from Latin nātīvitās, meaning “birth”. The modern English word is “nativity”. So, if Christmas hadn’t stuck around, you might have been walking about, telling your (non-pregnant) neighbour to have a great nativity!

But, of course, that didn’t happen, and so, the HLC wishes every one of our readers a very merry Xmas! (Did you know: the abbreviation has actually been around since Middle English, during which we find ‘Χρ̄es masse’ where the Χρ̄ is short for Greek Χριστός, ‘Khrīstos’?)

Merry Christmas, dear friends, from all of us here at the HLC!

Fun Etymology Special – Jul

God jul, dear friends!

We know, we know, it’s only Monday, but, this week, we have a special etymology for you: Today’s word is “Jul”!
‘Jul’ is the Scandinavian word for, you guessed it, Yule (though, technically, it functions more like ‘Christmas’). The word comes to us from Old Norse jól, meaning ‘midwinter season’, which comes from Proto-Germanic *jehwlą, meaning ‘festivity’, which comes to us from PIE *jekə- meaning ‘joke, play’. The English equivalent, Yule, comes from Old English ġeōl, also meaning ‘midwinter season’, which may either share the same root as jul or simply be borrowed from those savage Vikings plaguing the land (we’re not really sure)

But, it’s not Tuesday, so why etymology today, right? Well, today, at least two of us here at the HLC celebrate Christmas, or jul! You see, in the Scandinavian countries, you celebrate on Christmas Eve, not on Christmas day! Why? Supposedly, people here used to consider the day ended when the sun set (and let us assure you, it does that really early here in Scandinavia in December), so they thought that what we now think of as Christmas Eve to be Christmas Day!

So, in true (Swedish) fashion:
Från oss alla, till er alla: en riktigt god jul!
(From all of us, to all of you: have a very merry Christmas!)

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Kitchen

Hello, my dear followers! It’s Tuesday, and, as usual, it’s time for another word history to come your way!

Today’s word is “kitchen”.

Where I come from, in the Mediterranean, the kitchen is a temple. It’s one of the most sacred spaces in the house. It’s where food is prepared and brought to the table.
The source of all deliciousness.
Every Italian person has fond memories of their grandmothers lovingly crafting some masterpiece in that holiest of sanctums.

The word “kitchen” and its sibling “cook” are a splendid example of two related words which have diverged so much in sound that it’s hard to tell they’re cognates.
“Kitchen” comes from Old English “cycene”, itself from Proto-Germanic *kokina. This word was probably a very early loanword directly from Latin, as the first Germanic tribes were nomadic and did not have kitchens. In Latin, it is “coquina”, coming from “coquus”, the etymology of the English word “cook”!
They all come from the PIE root *pekw-, ‘to cook, to prepare’.

Who told the first lie?

Hello there, faithful followers!

As you may have noticed, we have recently been running a bit of a series, called ‘Lies your English teacher told you’. Our ‘lies’ have included the prescriptive ideas such as (1) you should never split an infinitive; (2) you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition; and (3) two double negatives becomes a positive (in English). We’ve also taken a look at the ‘lies’ told to those taught English as a second, or foreign, language.

Now, dear friends, we have reached the conclusion of this little series and we will end it with a bang! It’s time, or rather overdue, that the truth behind these little stories be unveiled… Today, we will therefore unveil the original ‘villain’, if you will (though, of course, none of them were really villainous, just very determined) and tell you the truth of who told the very first lie.

Starting off, let’s say a few words about a man that might often be recognized as the first source of (most) of the grammar-lies told by your English teachers: Robert Lowth, a bishop of the Church of England and an Oxford professor of Poetry.

Robert Lowth, after RE Pine.jpg

Bishop Robert Lowth

Lowth is more commonly known as the illustrious author of the extremely influential A Short Introduction to English Grammar, published in 1762. The traditional story goes that Lowth, prompted by the absence of a simple grammar textbook to the English language, set out to remedy the situation by creating a grammar handbook which “established him as the first of a long line of usage commentators who judge the English language in addition to describing it”, according to Wikipedia. As a result, Lowth became the virtual poster-boy (poster-man?) for the rise of prescriptivism and a fascinating amount of prescriptivist ‘rules’ are attributed to Lowth’s writ – including the ‘lies’ mentioned in today’s post. The image of Lowth as a stern bishop with strict ideas about the use of the English language and its grammar may, however, not be well-deserved. So let’s take a look at three ‘rules’ and see who told the first lie.

Let’s start with: you should never split an infinitive. While often attributed to Lowth, this particular ‘rule’ doesn’t gain prominence until nearly 41 years later, in 1803 when John Comly, in his English Grammar Made Easy to the Teacher and Pupil, notes:

“An adverb should not be placed between a verb of the infinitive mood and the preposition to which governs it; as Patiently to wait — not To patiently wait.1

A large number of authorities agreed with Comly and, in 1864, Henry Alford popularized the ‘rule’ (although Alford never stated it as such). Though a good number of other authorities, among them Goold Brown, Otto Jespersen, and H.W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler, disagreed with the rule, it was common-place by 1907 when the Fowler brothers note:  

“The ‘split’ infinitive has taken such hold upon the consciences of journalists that, instead of warning the novice against splitting his infinitives, we must warn him against the curious superstition that the splitting or not splitting makes the difference between a good and a bad writer.” 2

Of course, to split an infinitive is quite common in English today; most famously in Star Trek, of course, and we doubt that most English-speakers would hesitate to boldly go against this 19th century prescriptivist rule.

Now, let’s deal with out second ‘rule’: don’t end a sentence with a preposition. This neat little idea comes from a rather fanatic conviction that English syntax (sentence structure) should conform to that of Latin syntax, where the ‘problem’ of ending a sentence with a preposition is a lot less likely to arise due to the morphological complexity of the Latin language. But, of course, English is not Latin.

Still, in 1672, dramatist John Dryden decided to criticize Ben Jonson for placing a preposition at the end of a sentence rather than before the noun/pronoun to which it belonged (see what we did there? We could have said: … the noun/pronoun which it belonged to, but  the rule is way too ingrained and we automatically changed it to a style that cannot be deemed anything but overly formal for a blog). Anyway.

The idea stuck and Lowth’s grammar enforced it. Despite his added note that the fanaticism about Latin was an issue in English, the rule hung around and the ‘lie’, while certainly not as strictly enforced as it used to be, is still alive and well (but not(!) possible to attribute to Lowth).

Last: two double negatives becomes a positive (in English). First: no, they don’t. Or at least not necessarily. In the history of English, multiple negators in one sentence or clause were common and, no, they do not indicate a positive. Instead, they often emphasize the negative factor, an effect commonly called emphatic negation or negative concord, and the idea that multiple negators did anything but form emphatic negation didn’t show up until 1762. Recognise the year? Yes, indeed, this particular rule was first observed by Robert Lowth in his grammar book, in which it is stated (as noted in the Oxford Dictionaries Blog):

“Two Negatives in English destroy one another, or are equivalent to an Affirmative.”

So, indeed, this one rule out of three could be attributed to Lowth. However, it is worth noting that Lowth’s original intention with his handbook was not to prescribe rules to the English language: it was to provide his son, who was about to start school, with an easy, accessible aid to his study.

So, why have we been going on and on about Lowth in this post? Well, first, because we feel it is rather unfair to judge Lowth as the poster-boy for prescriptivism when his intentions were nowhere close to regulating the English language, but, more importantly, to tell you, our faithful readers, that history has a tendency to change during the course of time. Someone whose intentions were something completely different can, 250 years later, become a ‘villain’; a ‘rule’ that is firmly in place today may not have been there 50 years ago (and yes, indeed, sometimes language does change that fast); and last, any study of historical matter, be it within history; archeology; anthropology or historical linguistics, must take this into account. We must be aware, and practice that awareness, onto all our studies, readings and conclusions, because a lie told by those who we reckon should know the truth might be well-meaning but, in the end, it is still a lie.


Sources and references

Credits to Wikipedia for the picture of Lowth; find it right here

1 This quote is actually taken from Comly’s 1811 book A New Spelling Book, page 192, which you can find here. When it comes to the 1803 edition, we have trusted Merriam-Websters usage notes, which you can find here.

2 We’ve used The King’s English, second edition, to confirm this quote, which occurs also on Wikipedia. The book is published in 1908 and this particular quote is found on page 319, or, right here.

In regards to ending a sentence with a preposition, our source is the Oxford Dictionaries Blog on the topic, found here.

Regarding the double negative becoming positive, our source remains the Oxford Dictionaries Blog on that particular topic, found here.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Checkmate

Hello, sweet followers!
It’s Tuesday, and it’s time to bring you another interesting tidbit of word history!

Today’s word is “checkmate”.

Chess is the prototype of the “smart” game. When we think of a very intellectual, scheming person we more often than not picture them as playing chess in their spare time.
There’s good reason for this: this game, which originated in India around 250 AD, is easy to learn, but difficult to master. It requires deep thinking and a keen eye for opportunity, and it’s one of the most complex games we play (though not the most complex: that honour probably belongs to Go, invented in China before the 6th century BC. It is so complex, the number of possible board positions has been estimated at 10 to the 107th power. That’s 1000000000000000000000000000 times the number of atoms in the known universe! Chew on that a bit).
From India, the game made its way along the caravan routes to Persia, from where it reached us.
Everybody knows the word that signals victory in a chess match: “checkmate”. It’s become almost synonymous with intellectual victory: you’ve seen it pronounced by detectives and supervillains alike in many movies and books.
But it is a peculiar word, isn’t it? Why “check”? And why “mate”? Are you inviting your friends to take a look at the sick winning move you just pulled?
Well, no. The word comes to us from Old French “eschec mat”, which itself comes from the Persian phrase “shah mat”, meaning “the king is dead”, the ultimate winning condition in chess.

Next time you outsmart your archnemesis, regale them with this tidbit of etymological trivia for extra smugness points!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Moon

Hello, my language friends! It’s Tuesday again and this means, you guessed it, another fun etymology!

Today’s word is “moon”.

Ah, the Moon. If the Sun is the originator of all life and movement on Earth, the Moon is certainly the great timekeeper. Various animal species use its light to time their reproductive cycles, and, since time immemorial, humans have used its convenient phase cycle to determine where they were in time. It’s also the closest astronomical body to Earth, and our greatest companion. Countless poems have been written of its beauty, and its pockmarked face is a constant friend in the sky: Europeans saw a man looking down at them in the patterns of craters and dry lava seas; the Chinese a bunny zealously working on the elixir of immortality.

From its use as time measurer, the Moon gets its name: it comes from Old English “mona”, from Proto-Germanic “*monan”, itself from Proto-Indo-European “*menses-“, which means “a measure of time”, and is the same root that gave us our word “month”. The ultimate root is PIE *me-, ‘to measure’, which arrived to English also as the word “meter”, through Ancient Greek.