Fun Etymology Tuesday – Cabal

It’s Tuesday, which means a new Fun Etymology!

Today’s word is cabal!

From around the 1520s, this word refers to a “mystical interpretation of the Old Testament”. Around the 1660s, it also came to mean “an intriguing society, a small group meeting privately”.

This word has come a long way.

From French cabal, from Medieval Latin cabbala, from Hebrew qabbalah, meaning “reception, received lore, tradition” from qibbel, meaning to receive, admit, accept.

Interestingly, though, the word didn’t become popular in English use until 1673, when it, interestingly, came to be seen as an acronym for five intriguing ministers of Charles II. Specifically Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley, and Lauderdale, whose initial letters of their surnames spelled out CABAL. The men became quite famous as they signed the Secret Treaty of Dover, which essentially allied England to France in a prospective war against the Netherlands.

And that is the story of cabal!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Cab

It’s Tuesday! Time for another Fun Etymology!

Today’s word is cab!

For most of us, perhaps, when someone says cab, we think of this:

Image result for cab

But, originally, it actually referred to something more like this:

Image result for cabriolet horse

Known especially for their springy suspensions, these passenger-vehicles, commonly drawn by two or four horses, were known as cabs. This was a colloquial London shortening of cabriolet, which was a type of covered carriage.

The word was borrowed from the French word cabriolet, from around the 18th century, a diminutive of cabriole, meaning “a leap, a caper”. Earlier, around the 16th century, it was known as capriole, from Italian capriola, meaning “a caper, frisk, leap” – which literally translates to “a leap like that of a kid goat”, from capriola, meaning “a kid, a fawn”!

Now, where did the goat come from, you wonder?

Well, the Italian word comes from Latin capreolus, meaning “wild goat, roebuck”. This comes from caper, capri, meaning “he-goat, buck” from PIE *kap-ro, meaning the same thing.

Interestingly, the PIE ancestor is also the source of Irish gabor, Welsh gafr, Old English hæfr and Old Norse hafr, all meaning “he-goat”.

From goat to a yellow car that drives you around, this is the story of cab and this week’s Fun Etymology!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Baboon

It’s Tuesday, which means a new Fun Etymology!

Today’s word is baboon!
Image result for baboon
A yellow baboon, Tanzania

A primate classified as a type of Old World Ape – which is an interesting English term for Cercopithecidae, a family of primates with 24 genera and 138 species – this word came to English around 1400 as babewyn (or something similar – we all know how unpredictable Middle English spelling is).

Borrowed from French (either Anglo-Norman French or Middle French or why not both?), this word remains in modern French as babouin from Old French baboin, this word actually meant something like “foolish or stupid person” around the early 13th century. It could also refer to a grotesque figure or monster in architecture – that is, a gargoyle.

Image result for gargoyle

Around the mid-13th century (in French that is), it came to also mean what we would identify as a baboon today. And then, like many other French words, it made its way over to the English vocabulary.

And that’s the story of baboon!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Babe

Welcome back to the HLC!

It’s Tuesday and that means another Fun Etymology! Today’s word is babe!

Nowadays, this word is often superseded by the form baby, which is actually the diminutive form of babe. Baby was used figuratively from the 1520s. The slang baby, referring to an attractive young woman, didn’t actually occur until around 1915.

Anyway, back to babe.

From the late 14th century, this word means infant or young child of either sex. The word itself is a shortened form of baban, from early 13th century.

Its etymology is uncertain, but, much like babble from last week, it is likely imitative of baby talk.

You see, the combination ba is considered one of the easiest ones to pronounce. If you have kids, you’ll probably recognise that children tend to begin talking by combining the vowel a with some consonant. Specifically, this is usually the labial or dental consonants.

The result?
“Words” like ba, ma, pa, ta, da.

And that is pretty much what we know about babe!

An interesting side-note, though, is that, in some languages, similar words mean something along the lines with old woman. In Russian, for example, babushka means grandmother. Whether that has any relation or not, I’ll leave unsaid (though Etymonline appears to suggest that this might be the case).

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Babble

As promised, your weekly Fun Etymology remains!

Today’s word is babble.

Recorded from the mid-thirteenth century, this verb refers to the practice of uttering words indistinctly or talking “baby-talk”.

Similar words are found in other Western European languages (such as Swedish babbla, Old French babillier) which are attested from roughly the same time (though some are likely borrowed from other languages). Though one might wonder if the name Babel might be related, there is no such evidence. However, the OED notes that the perceived connection may have come to affect the sense of the word.

The word is likely imitative of baby-talk. According to the OED, the syllable /ba/, which is often used by babies in early vocalisation, came to be seen as typical of childish speech. It then combined with the suffix –le, a verbal formation from Old English –lian and from Proto-Germanic *-ilôjan, with a frequentative1  or, sometimes, a diminutive2 effect.

And suddenly, we have babble!

It is recorded with the meaning “to talk excessively” from around 1500.

But let’s not forget that there is also a noun! The noun babble, meaning “idle talk, foolish or incoherent talk”, is, however, derived from the verb and therefore follows the same etymology. It is recorded from around the 16th century.

And that’s our Fun Etymology for today!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Baa

It’s Tuesday and time for another Fun Etymology!

Today’s word is a little bit different from our normal words as it doesn’t have an etymology as such.

Today’s word is baa!

Okay, perhaps we could discuss the term word here, but let’s not get into that discussion. Baa is an onomatopoeic word, meaning that it is a word that mimics the sound that it describes – in this case, the sound that a sheep makes.

It is attested from around 1580 as both a verb and a noun, but it is likely even older than that. Prior to its description of how a sheep sounds, it is recorded to have been the name for a child’s toy sheep!

Similar words are found in other languages, of course, though slightly different (in Swedish, for example, it is ), depending on how that language (or, rather, its speakers) perceives the sound itself.

And that is really all we can say about baa (though I do find it quite intriguing that a toy sheep was common enough for there to have been a dedicated name for it)!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Abaft

Another Tuesday = another Fun Etymology!

Today’s word is abaft!

Slightly unusual in modern English (estimated by the OED to occur between 0.1 to 1.0 times per million words, nowadays mostly used in nautical terminology), this word, in its current form, is recorded from the late 16th century.

However, before that, we still see it in slightly different forms.

A native Germanic word, abaft comes from Middle English on baft, meaning “back, behind, to the rear”, from Old English on bæftan. Today, it refers to something toward the back of a ship (or at least something farther back than you currently are).

As I am sure you remember, I’ve previously talked about the element a- when it occurs in words such as these, to mean something like “on, in, into”, which indeed also appears to be true here1.

But what about baft?

Well, baft is actually a compound of two other words: be, meaning ‘by’, and æftan, meaning ‘aft’.

Old English be is Germanic too. From Proto-Germanic *bi and PIE *bhi, it came to be used as an adverb during Middle English, meaning “near” or “close at hand”.

Old English æftan is slightly more tricky. Although all the Germanic languages appear to have a similar word, the ultimate origin remains disputed.

We know that æftan shows a derivative form with a Germanic adverbial suffix. We also know that it is from the Germanic base of Gothic afta, but then… Things kinda stop.

It might be a suffixed form of the Indo-European base of an ancient Greek word (ἐπί), and might thus be the only non-Germanic element of abaft, but that remains disputed.

And that is our Fun Etymology for today!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Abacus

Welcome back to HLC! Another Tuesday, and, as always, here I am with a new Fun Etymology!

Today’s word is abacus!

But first, what in the world is an abacus?

Well, an abacus is a simple device for calculating something. It consists of a frame with wires attached to each side and several beads that you can slide back and forth. You’ll probably recognise it when you see it, so here it is:

Image result for abacus meaning

However, originally, it referred to a type of drawing board, which was covered with dust or sand. On this board, mathematical equations or calculations could be traced and then erased. The word abacus didn’t actually refer to the kind of beaded frame you see above until around the seventeenth century (or potentially even later) in English.

But what about the word itself? Where does that come from?

As we’ve been on this trip for a while now, I am guessing that you can probably tell that abacus is not likely to be a native English word.

And, if so, you’re absolutely right!

The word abacus came to English around the late fourteenth century (then referring to the sand/dust board mentioned above). It was derived directly from the Latin word abacus. This, in turn, came from Greek abax (which in genitive form became abakos).

The Greek word, though, is of uncertain etymology. It might be derived from a Semitic source, such as Phoenician or Hebrew abaq, which literally means dust.

This might be derived from the Semitic root a-b-q, meaning to fly off. However, its origin has been questioned by some etymologists.

So, in the end, as many times before, we know it came to English from Latin and to Latin from Greek and there… the trail turns rather chilly.

But that is the life of a historical linguist! Join me on Thursday when we take a closer look at Old English syntax (or, if you prefer, next week when we look at the origins of the word abaft)!

See you then!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Aback

It’s time for another Fun Etymology!

This week’s word is aback!

A contraction of Old English on bæc, meaning “backward, behind, at or on the back”, this word can be divided into two: a- and –back.

As is clear from its origins, a-, in this context a prefix, originated as a separate preposition: on. This is quite a common change, from Old English on to a, actually. Other words that share this origin are, for example, aloud, along and abroad. In this form, it is a word inherited from Germanic.

However, it might be easily confused with some words with Latin origin, such as accursed or afford. This a-, however, is a shortened version of Latin ad, meaning “to, toward”. In some other words, like abound, it might be easy to think that it should be divided as a- + bound, but it is actually from Latin ab- + undare.

Clearly, one needs to be slightly careful when determining where the a- in a specific construction comes from.

When it comes to back, it comes from Proto-Germanic *bako-(m), which has no known connections outside of the Germanic languages. It might come from a word related to spine or shoulder 1 though.

The word aback, in its current form, appears around the early 13th century, then meaning “toward the rear”. Nowadays, it mainly survives in the construction taken aback. This construction originally referred to something very specific: when a sea-going vessel’s square sails are flattened against the masts and stops the forward motion of the vessel due to a sudden change in wind.

Today, it is mostly used in its figurative sense: “suddenly or unexpectedly checked or disappointed”. This is a relatively late innovation and showed up for the first time around 1792.

And there you have it – the story of aback!

Join me again next week, as we take a closer look at abacus! See you then!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Aardvark

Ah, the very first Fun Etymology of the new year – like new-car smell, it never gets old.

Today’s word is aardvark!
Image result for aardvark

This cute little animal is actually a South African groundhog!

Looking a bit more like a pig (sporting some donkey- or rabbit-like ears and a kangaroo-like tail), it is clear that our ancestors thought so too as the word aardvark comes from Afrikaans Dutch aardvark, literally meaning “earth pig”.

The name can be divided in two: aard, meaning “earth”, and vark, meaning “pig”.

Aard- comes from Proto-Germanic *ertho-, potentially an extended form of the PIE root *er-, meaning “earth, ground”.

-vark comes from Middle Dutch varken, meaning “small pig”, which comes from Proto-Germanic *farhaz, meaning “young pig, sucking pig”. This comes from the PIE root *porko-, meaning “young pig”.

However, the aardvark is actually not related to pigs at all (or donkeys, rabbits or kangaroos for that matter).
It is actually the only living species of the order Tubulidentata (or Orycteropodidae), a family of afrotherian mammals!

So, despite that its looks and its name’s etymology might appear to suggest otherwise, the aardvark is actually quite unique in the current animal kingdom!



aardvark (n.) with related entries in the Online Etymology Dictionary

The Aardvark in the National Geographic