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Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Steve Cole muses: Just thinking to himself about the curious origins of common words.

1. Barbarian: The Greek word for any outsider who did not speak Greek. The common joke was that the language of outsiders sounded like "bar-bar-bar" which I guess was the ancient Greek version of today's "blah-blah-blah."

2. Barbeque comes from the 1500s, when Haitian natives would cook meat on a lattice of green sticks. The Haitians bought metal grills from Spanish traders, which worked better. The Haitians called this "barbacoa" which may have come from the word "barbican" meaning a metal grill to protect the door of a castle from a battering ram. The Spanish explorers adopted the practice (being a simple way to cook a whole animal in short order) and the term spread into other Spanish colonies and then into the southern areas of what became the US.

3. Barnacle, a shellfish that grows on the hulls of ships, was once thought to be the egg of the barnacle goose.

4. Battering ram, a military device for breaking down walls (a log hung on chains and swung back and forth by soldiers) was (simply) named for a ram (male sheep) which fought for mating privileges by smacking into other rams.

5. Bazooka, a military rocket launcher used to attack tanks, was named for a comical musical instrument invented by Bob Burns (who stuck together parts of a trombone and other instruments). He named it a bazooka because it was a common expression at the time for a blowhard to be known as a bazoo. This musical instrument was simply a comic prop but it did make sounds when he blew into it. When the US Army (during WWII) invented a rocket launcher similar to the German panzerfaust (armored fist), someone humorously compared it to Burns's trombone, and the name stuck.

6. Bedlam, a confused and noisy group of people, is a contraction of Bethlehem. In the 1200s, the term hospital meant a hotel, not a medical facility. Saint Mary's of Bethlehem was a hospital in London that providing housing for visiting church dignitaries. When Henry VIII broke with the Catholic church, he confiscated the hospital and it was used to house the insane. By that time, the name had been shorted to Bethlehem and corrupted to Bethlem and then Bedlam. The confused noise of the inmates gave rise to the current usage.

7. Beggar, someone who makes his way in the world by asking for donations, comes from a Belgian religious order (Begue) which started with women (Beguines) but eventually included men (called Beghards). The men of the order would leave the abby to go ask for donations, and soon enough other beggars (not members of the order) were claiming to be members in order to seek donations to their own sustenance.

8. Belfry, a bell tower, started out as a siege engine known as a bergfrid (sheltered shed, a movable tower which was used by archers to shoot down into a besieged city). Every nobleman had one or more to use in warfare. When gunpowder made these obsolete, the last remaining ones became watchtowers and were fitted with bells so that the watchman could sound the alarm. The German word bergfrid had (over the course of 300 years and 500 miles) become the English word belfry.

9. Berserk, applied to someone violently out of control, started out as the Viking and Germanic Bear Shirt. Brave warriors wearing shirts made from bear skins would be used as shock troops to break the enemy's battle lines in one of the earliest uses of shock & awe.

10. Bible, the Christian holy text (or a generic term for a bound collection of shorter books), is from the Greek word biblios (little books) which came from the earlier byblos (papyrus scroll). Christians spoke reverently of "the books" in the church, and by the time they were bound into one volume the term had become bible. The term is sometimes used today as slang for the definitive documents that define a trade or practice.