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Etymologists at War with a Flower: Foxglove

The origin of plant names is one of the most interesting areas of etymology. I have dealt with henbane, hemlock, horehound, and mistletoe and know how thorny the gentlest flowers may be for a language historian. It is certain that horehound has nothing to do with hounds, and I hope to have shown that henbane did not get its name because it is particularly dangerous to hens (which hardly ever peck at it, and even if they did, why should they have been chosen as the poisonous plant’s preferred victims?).

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Monthly Gleanings: October 2010

By Anatoly Liberman
In 1984, old newspapers were regularly rewritten, to conform to the political demands of the day. With the Internet, the past is easy to alter. In a recent post, I mentioned C. Sweet, the man who discovered the origin of the word pedigree, and added (most imprudently) that I know nothing about this person and that he was no relative of the famous Henry Sweet. Stephen Goranson pointed out right away that in Skeat’s article devoted to the subject, C. was expanded to Charles and that Charles Sweet was Henry’s brother. I have the article in my office, which means I, too, at one time read it and knew who C. Sweet was. Grieved and

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The Rum History of the Word “Rum”

By Anatoly Liberman
The most universal law of etymology is that we cannot explain the origin of a word unless we have a reasonably good idea of what the thing designated by the word means. For quite some time people pointed to India as the land in which rum was first consumed and did not realize that in other European languages rum was a borrowing from English. The misleading French spelling rhum suggested a connection with Greek rheum “stream, flow” (as in rheumatism). According to other old conjectures, rum is derived from aroma or saccharum. India led researchers to Sanskrit roma “water” as the word’s etymon, and this is what many otherwise solid 19th-century dictionaries said. Webster gave the vague, even meaningless reference “American,” but on the whole, the choice appeared to be between East and West Indies. Skeat, in the first edition of his dictionary (1882), suggested Malayan origins (from beram “alcoholic drink,” with the loss of the first syllable) and used his habitual eloquence to boost this hypothesis.

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Deceptive Compounds, Part 2

By Anatoly Liberman
Part 1 appeared long ago and dealt with blackguard, blackleg, and blackmail, three words whose history is unclear despite the seeming transparency of their structure. Were those guards as black as they were painted? Who had black legs, and did anyone ever receive black mail? As I then noted, the etymology of compounds may be evasive. One begins with obvious words (doormat, for example), passes by dormouse with its impenetrable first element, wonders at moonstone (does it have anything to do with the moon?), moonlighting, and moonshine (be it “foolish talk” or “illegally distilled whiskey”), experiences a temporary relief at the sight of roommate, and stops in bewilderment at mushroom. The way from dormouse to mushroom is full of pitfalls. (And shouldn’t pitfall be fallpit? Originally a pitfall was a trapdoor, a snare, a device for catching birds, but then why pit?).

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Monthly Gleanings: July 2010

by Anatoly Liberman HOOSIER. Almost exactly two years ago, on July 30, 2008, I posted an essay on the origin of the nickname Hoosier.  In it I expressed my cautious support of R. Hooser, who derived the “moniker” for an inhabitant of Indiana from a family name. I was cautious not because I found fault […]

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Bamboozle

Two circumstances have induced me to turn to bamboozle. First, I am constantly asked about its origin and have to confess my ignorance (with the disclaimer: “No one knows where it came from”; my acquaintances seldom understand this statement, for I have a reputation to live up to and am expected to provide final answers about the derivation of all words). Second, the Internet recycles the same meager information at our disposal again and again (I am not the only recipient of the fateful question). Since the etymology of bamboozle is guesswork from beginning to end, it matters little how often the uninspiring truth is repeated. Below I will say what little I can about the verb.

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Unable to Put the Kibosh on a Hard Word

The young Dickens was the first to record the word kibosh. We don’t know for sure how it sounded in the 1830’s, but, judging by the spelling ky(e)-, it must always have been pronounced with long i. The main 19th-century English etymologists (Eduard Mueller, Hensleigh Wedgwood, and Walter W. Skeat) did not include kibosh in their dictionaries. They probably had nothing to say about it, though Mueller, a German, hardly ever saw such a rare and insignificant word.

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Old Slang: Rogue

Slang words are so hard to etymologize because they are usually isolated, while language historians prefer to work with sound correspondences, cognates, and protoforms. Most modern “thick” dictionaries tell us that rogue, the subject of this post, is of unknown origin. This conclusion could be expected, for rogue, a 16th-century creation, meant “a wandering mendicant.” (Skeat attributes the original sense “a surly fellow” to it but does not adduce sufficient evidence in support of his statement.)

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