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’.

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.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Planet

Hello good (and not-so-good, we don’t judge) people!
It’s Tuesday and it’s time for our appointment with the history of the English vocabulary.

Today’s word is “planet”.

Everybody in the modern world knows of planets, whether it be from astronomy classes in school or science fiction, and we all know what a planet is, right?
Well, it turns out that amongst astronomers, the actual definition of “planet” is still a bit controversial. The currently accepted definition is the following: “an astronomical body massive enough to be rounded by its own gravity (which excludes asteroids), not massive enough to initiate thermonuclear fusion (which excludes stars), and which has cleared its orbital neighbourhood of planetesimals (i.e. small rocky bodies)”. The addition of this last clause to the definition famously resulted in the “demotion” of former planet Pluto to “dwarf planet”, or “Kuiper belt object”, a decision that was made firstly because of its very small size (it’s smaller than Russia!), and secondly because the cascading discovery of similar objects would have made the Solar System have thousands of planets. You don’t want to memorise thousands of names at school, now, do you?

To the ancient Greek, though, the definition of planet was very simple: it was a star which moved instead of staying still. This is why they gave them the name “planetes”, which in Ancient Greek means “wanderer”, and from which our modern word “planet” comes.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Concert

Hello, my smart followers!
It’s Tuesday and as (somewhat less than) usual, it’s time for our weekly Fun Etymology!

Today’s word is “concert”.

When we think of concerts today, we mostly think about music. Whether it is a roaring rock or metal concert, or a refined classical concert, most of us have probably taken part in and, hopefully, enjoyed at least one of two.
The story of the word, however, is pretty curious, and at one point its meaning even flipped 180 degrees.

The word “concert” ultimately comes from Latin “concertare”, from “cum”, ‘with’ + “certare”, ‘fight’. The original meaning was ‘fight against’. How did it go from that to a music get-together? Well, in medieval Italian, the meaning of the word unexpectedly flipped to mean ‘to work together’, the exact opposite of its original meaning! We don’t really know how this happened, but the most likely explanation is that the first switch happened due to confusion between the two meanings of Latin “cum”: ‘against’ and ‘together with’. The word would then have switched from meaning ‘fight against’ to ‘fight alongside’.
From there it moved to English in a musical context through the influx of Italian musical vocabulary that accompanied the formalisation of musical theory in the late 17th century.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Paper

Hello, my sweet, sweet followers. I hope you’ve been well!
After a rather baffling two-week hiatus, we bring back what you’ve all been craving for: our weekly instalment of Fun Etymologies!

Today’s word is “paper”.

Paper is a wonderful material. Invented in the 2nd century by the Chinese Han imperial court eunuch Cai Lun, this humble wood fibre byproduct has revolutionised the world.
Thanks to paper, writing became immensely easier, no longer being dependent on laboriously curated animal skin, or fragile clay, or intractable rock. And writing is just one of its uses: it can be used for cleaning, packaging, art and much much more, and it ushered in the paper money revolution.

The word “paper” comes to English from Old French “papier”, itself derived from Latin “papyrus”. That’s right: the same as the modern English word “papyrus”, the name of a plant native to Egypt whose fibres allowed the creation of a material very similar to paper, which made the Egyptians the undisputed masters of ancient writing.
The origins of the word “papyrus” itself are uncertain.

So next time you find yourself writing a letter, or an essay, or a novel, or whispering your most intimate secrets to a padlocked diary, remember to stop and appreciate paper, that most versatile and useful of materials.

A preposition is not a good word to end a sentence with

Lies your English teacher told you: You can’t end a sentence with a preposition

Hello and welcome to the third episode in our ongoing series on stuff about the English language people in positions of authority misled you into thinking was true! Last time, Lisa showed us why it is perfectly fine (and in some cases, even preferable!) to split an infinitive.

Today, I will tackle a “rule” that’s every bit as well-known as it is routinely disregarded: “you can’t end a sentence with a preposition”.

This rule is interesting, as far as prescriptive rules go, in that its is hardly ever observed in practice. We all end sentences with prepositions, and it’s no use denying it. But don’t worry: the grammar police will not come busting down your door just yet. The reason we do it is because it’s perfectly natural in English, and in many cases even unavoidable!

The process of ending sentences with prepositions is technically known as preposition stranding, or P-stranding, and it is fairly common amongst Germanic languages.

This phenomenon is due to something we in the biz call wh- movement. Let me explain quickly what it is.

When you turn a statement into a question, you unconsciously perform a series of operations that transform that statement. In the case of wh- questions (what?, who?, when? etc.), the steps you follow are these:

  1. Take the statement.
    The boy ate the apple.
  2. Turn the part you want to question into a wh- word.
    The boy ate what?
  3. Move the wh- word to the beginning of the sentence.
    What the boy ate?
  4. For a series of hellishly complicated reasons I won’t go into here, transform the verb into it’s do-supported form (i.e. with “do”).
    What the boy did eat?
  5. Invert the subject and the verb.
    What did the boy eat?

And Bob’s your uncle! Pretty insane that you do this all the time and don’t even realise it, huh?

The process is basically the same for relative clauses (i.e. “The apple (which) the boy ate”), except without steps 4 and 5 (because it’s not a question), and with an extra step where you copy the “questioned” part to the start of the sentence before turning it into the wh- word. So:

  1. The boy ate the apple.
  2. The apple the boy ate the apple.
  3. The apple the boy ate which.
  4. The apple which the boy ate.

What interests us is what happens when this process takes place in a sentence where the moved object (or constituent, to use the proper lingo) is preceded by a preposition.

  1. The boy went to the cinema with the girl.
  2. The girl the boy went to the cinema with the girl.
  3. The girl the boy went to the cinema with who(m).

And here we hit the point of contention. What should be done on step 4? Until the 18th century, the answer was easy: the most natural option was to move the wh- word and leave the preposition where it is. Stranded, if you like.

  1. The girl who(m) the boy went to the cinema with.

The same applied to questions (“Who(m) did the boy go to the cinema with?”). However, there was a second option, in which the wh- word dragged the preposition along with itself to the start of the sentence or clause, so that step 4 would look like

  1. The girl with who(m) the boy went to the cinema.

This particular construction is technically known as pied-piping, from the German fairy tale “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”, where a magic piper freed the city of troublesome mice by playing his flute and mesmerising them into following him out. He applied the same procedure later to kidnap all the city’s children to punish the inhabitants for their ingratitude. Talk about overreacting.

This option, while always possible, was seen as rather cumbersome, and therefore dispreferred. Until the 18th century, when a sustained campaign by a number of intellectuals flipped the status of the two constructions in the public consciousness. What happened?

Well, as you might remember from many of our posts about the history of prescriptivism, people in the 18th and 19th century displayed an unhealty obsession over Latin. Since Latin was The Perfect Language™, each and every aspect of the English language that didn’t look like Latin was, of course, wrong and barbaric, and had to be eliminated. I’ll give you one guess as to what Latin didn’t do with its prepositions during wh- movement.

If you guessed “stranding them”, then congratulations! You guessed right.

In Latin (and all the languages which descend from it), only pied-piping is acceptable when applying wh- movement to a sentence with a preposition. Our example sentence in Latin would go like this (cum = with, quā = who(m)):

  1. Puer ad cinematographeum cum puellā īvit.
  2. Puella puer ad cinematographeum cum puellā īvit.
  3. Puella puer ad cinematographeum cum quā īvit.
  4. Puella cum quā puer ad cinematographeum īvit.

Needless to say, the prescriptivist scholars twisted themselves into logic pretzels to justify why this should be true of English as well. Some just openly admitted that it was because English should be similar to Latin, others tried to be clever and argued that a “preposition” is called that because it goes before a word (pre- = before + position), and must have thought themselves exceedingly smart, notwithstanding the fact that the word “preposition” comes from Latin, where P-stranding is impossible, so of course they would call it that.

Some got caught in their own circular reasoning and inevitably found sentences in which preposition stranding is obligatory, giving rise to comically frustrated rants like the following, courtesy of one Philip Withers, from 1789:

“It may be said, it is absolutely unavoidable on particular occasions. v.g. The Stock was disposed OF BY private contract. But an elegant writer would rather vary the phrase, or exchange the verb than admit so awkward a concurrence of prepositions.”

A little tip, kids: if someone tells you he would rather avoid or ignore pieces of data that they dislike, or actively tells you to do so, they’re not a scientist. In the case of linguistics, you’ve spotted a prescriptivist! Mark it on your prescriptivist-spotting book and move on.

What of the writers that came before them and regularly stranded prepositions? Robert Lowth (a name you’ll become wearily familiar with by the end of this series) commented that they too were somehow universally speaking bad English, and a guy named John Dryden even went so far as to rewrite some of Shakespeare’s plays to remove some of the unsightly and atrocious “errors” he found in them, preposition stranding included.

Such are the lengths fanatism goes to.

Stay tuned for next time, when Rebekah will explain to you why a negative plus a negative doesn’t necessarily imply a positive.


Fun Etymology Tuesday – Electricity

Hello fantastic fellows!
P1: If it’s Tuesday the HLC posts a Fun Etymology.
P2: It’s Tuesday
C: The HLC posts a Fun Etymology

Today’s word is “electricity”.

It’s hard to overstate the revolution electricity brought about in the course of human history. Our entire civilisation runs on it: I’m using it to write this post now, you’re using it to read it, and we’re all using it to keep warm, to have light at night, to cook, to pump water in our houses, to drive our cars, and millions of other things. And to think that just a century and a half ago it was nothing more than an academic curiosity!*

It is a testament to the capacity of the human mind to get used to just about anything that we wake up every day in a world in which people move from one continent to another in giant metal birds powered by the chained might of lightning and we still manage to be bored.

The discovery of electricity goes back surprisingly far in history, to the time of our favourite nerd-jocks: the Ancient Greeks. They discovered that when you rub a piece of amber on a rough cloth, it develops the property of attracting other materials, including water. This is due to what we today call static electricity or the triboelectric effect. It has to do with electron exchange, look it up! It’s really cool.
In Ancient Greek, the word for “amber” was “elektron”, so this property was called “electricity”, the property of being amber-like. This name was given to it by the English scientist William Gilbert, who first brought electricity to the academic world in 1600. Fun fact: in his “His Dark Materials” trilogy, Philip Pullman gives a different etymology to the word “electric”, which becomes “ambaric”, directly from “amber” (which comes from Arabic ‘anbar. Double etymology!)

It took millennia before someone discovered this property of amber was the same thing that made lightning work, when Benjamin Franklin famously tied a key to a kite string and let it fly in a lightning storm, demonstrating that lightning is electrical because it grounds itself through metal.
Don’t do this at home kids, it’s a miracle he survived.

*Which reminds me of something that really grinds my gears: when people disparage pure theoretical research as useless. “Why do we pour so much money in smashing particles together when we could spend it on hunger relief?” Well, if people in the 1800s hadn’t poured resources in useless (at the time) stuff like electricity, our modern civilisation wouldn’t even exist, and with it, all the benefits that it brings. Including hunger relief!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Gym

Hello, good people of the nets! It is Tuesday and in the best HLC tradition, I bring to you today’s Fun Etymology!

Today’s word is “gym”!

The gym: some weird people love it. As an academic, I find it an unsettlingly hellish mire of sweat and uncomfortable clothing where people go to voluntarily subject themselves to torture through astonishingly inventive implements. Though I’m told it’s actually good for you. Personally, I prefer a good long walk in the countryside, or, if you have them, mountains.

Oh well, no accounting for taste, I guess. Or, as Caesar used to say, “de gustibus non disputandum est”.

Speaking of classical antiquity, do you know who was REALLY into gyms? The Ancient Greeks, that’s who! In fact, they invented them!
The ideal Greek was at the same time a philosopher and a sports person, busting once and for all the myth that nerds and jocks are incompatible categories. In fact, many of the most famous Greek philosophers started their careers as sportsmen: Plato, whose real name was Aristocles, was a wrestler, and his nickname means “the broad-shouldered”; Chrysippus, one of the founders of the Stoic school, was a long-distance runner; and Eratosthenes, the man who first measured the size of the Earth, was a gymnast.

Our modern word “gym” is the abbreviation of the word “gymnasium”, which comes from the Ancient Greek “gymnasion”, from the verb “gymnazein”, literally “to train naked”, from the word “gymnos”, “naked”.
This reflects the attitude the Ancient Greeks had towards physical exercise, where clothing was seen as an impediment and a shameful covering of the athlete’s body.

Thank Zeus that’s not the case in modern gyms anymore!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Museum

Hello, followers of all ages and none (timeless entities welcome)!
It’s Tuesday and your internal calendar has probably adjusted to our schedule enough by now that you don’t need me to tell you it’s time for another Fun Etymology!

This week’s word is one of my favourites: “museum”!

Museums are temples. Temples to knowledge, to curiosity, to discovery. There are no bad museums. Even small or impossibly niche museums are beautiful and important, yes, even the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets, or the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum.
All knowledge is precious, and none deserves to be lost.

Which is why it’s sad to see so many museums around the world close or be forced to sell part of their collections because money more readily flows towards “important” stuff such as making weapons or paying politicians.

None understood the sacredness of museums better than the Ancient Greeks, from whom the word actually comes to us. The word “museum” comes from the Ancient Greek “mouseion”, which indicated a school, an exhibition or a place of learning, but, most importantly, a temple to the Muses, from whose name the word actually stems.
The Muses were the ancient Greek goddesses of art and science, daughters of Zeus and the goddess Mnemosyne. Their name comes from the PIE root *men- “to think”.

Traditionally, there are nine of them: Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Euterpe (music and song), Erato (love poetry), Melpomene (tragedy), Polyhymnia (hymns and agriculture), Terpsichore (dance), Thalia (comedy), and Urania (astronomy).

So, next time you go to a museum, remember to treat it like the sacred space it is, and soak in the decades of learning and curiosity that went into its making.
It’s one of the best things we humans have.