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Sunday, May 01, 2011


Steve Cole muses: Just thinking to himself about where some common words came from.

1. The word "abet" which means to encourage someone else to do something illegal comes from an old Norse word for "bite" by way of the French. The French term was used for the person who handled the dogs used to "bait" a bear back in the 1300s, when bear baiting was a sport. For that matter, "bait" also comes from the old Norse word for "bite."

2. The word "abeyance" which means "on hold" or "dormant" comes from a French legal term describing any property, the owner of which had died, during the time that the courts were figuring out which of the claimants actually owned it. Back in those days (centuries ago) this was often a vitally important matter, as few people could write, possession was nine tenths of the law, and people who owned valuable things tended to die violently and leave a lot of relatives with competing claims of ownership. Wealthy people tended not to declare (while alive) who was to inherit something, as they needed to play their relatives against each other and anyway, heirs were about as likely to die violently as owners.

3. The word "abhor" which means to dislike or shrink back from comes from the same Latin word as "horror" and refers to the hair on your neck standing up. Thus, abhor originally meant to "shrink back in horror" and today, the horror part is forgotten.

4. Abigail is an old biblical name for a woman. In 1609, a playwright used the name for a spirited woman who was a lady's maid. This became one of the first "breakout characters" and everyone was quoting her humorous barbs in everyday conversation. She was so popular that other playwrights began to include a feisty lady's maid in their plays and assign her the name Abigail so she became the first "recurring character" who jumped from story to story, century to century, city to city, country to country. Eventually, "Abigail" became a common term in England for a lady's maid by 1800 and is still used as such to this day.

5. Abominable (as in the snowman, but it's also a word that now means loathsome and disgusting) comes from the Latin Ab Omen, meaning "ominous" or "inspiring dread."

6. Aboveboard (meaning open and honest) came into use in the 1500s among card players, who wanted to be sure that everyone kept their hands and cards above the table.

7. Helen of Troy was born in Sparta. Even as a teenage girl, she was so beautiful that men desired her. She was kidnapped by Theseus, the prince of Athens, who wanted to keep her locked up until she reached the legal age for marriage. The Spartans sent Castor and Pollux (her brothers) to rescue her, which they did with the help of an Athenian named Academus. The Spartans were so grateful that they purchased a lovely grove of trees outside of the city and gave it to him. He tended the grove with care and when he died, it became a city park. Plato owned the land next to the park, and tended to wander the park teaching philosophy to his students. As this went on for some decades, the Grove of Academus became the name of the group of Plato's students (Academia) and the park became known as "the academy." And of course, thousands of years later, academy means a school of higher learning and academia means the faculty of such a school.

8. Accost (to approach someone and pressure them into hearing you out) comes from old Latin ad costa (to lay along side of, since costa meant rib bone). The term was used by sailors and of course came to us as coast (shore, beach, edge of the land by the ocean).

9. Acre was originally the Roman word for unoccupied land of any sort. By the fall of the Empire, it meant land that could be farmed. When the word reached England, it became the amount of land that could be plowed in one day. Since some land was easier to plow than others, one of the King's declared an acre to be 40 rods square. Each furrow was thus 40 rods long, and became a furrow-length or furlong.

10. Admiral comes from the Arabic words Amir al (commander of the). Christians hearing the words thought they were one word, and adopted it as Admiral.