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Saturday, November 19, 2011


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

1. Butcher, the guy who cuts up meat in the grocery story, originated as bochier, a man who slaughtered goats and sold the meat. The first part (boc) was the word for he-goat (the females were kept for milk and breeding) and later became the English word "buck" for a male deer.

2. Cab, short for taxicab, is itself short for the French word cabriolet, which means a prancing young goat. This word was applied to a two-wheeled horse-drawn carriage, which (because of the heavy springs from a cargo wagon) bounced around a lot. The carriage arrived in England in 1800 and had been contracted to cab by 1825. By 1832, a man named Hansom had designed a better version for the carriage, which was known as the Hansom cab. Later (but still before internal combustion engines were invented) such carriages were offered for hire in Paris and a device called a taximeter would be used to "tax" the number of "meters" which the carriage traveled. The result was the taximeter cabriolet (the French still used the long form) and this was quickly adopted in London as the taximeter cab (charging by fractions of a mile). This was shorted to taxicab by the time internal combustion engines replaced horses.

3. Cabal, or a secret group involved in a conspiracy, actually comes from Cabala, the occult Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament. The word would never have reached English ears except that someone noticed that the five principle cabinet ministers of the English King Charles II were Clifford, Ashley, Buckingham, Arlington, and Lauderdale, and some editorialist combined that into "cabal" because they secretly signed a treaty with France without permission of Parliament in 1672.

4. Cabbage, a leafy vegetable, came from the French caboche (and the Latin caput, both of which mean the head of a human or another animal). It gets better. In the 1600s, rich people would buy a bolt of expensive cloth and hire a tailor to make them a garment. The scraps of expensive cloth (rightfully the property of the rich client) would be kept by the tailor, who used them as accents or details of cheaper garments. The pile of such scraps resembled a pile of cabbage leaves, and the word "to cabbage" became a form of "to steal" but also was frequently misspelled as garbage and that's where THAT word comes from.

5. Cad, a disreputable scoundrel, goes back to the French word cadet, which meant the younger son (or brother) of a nobleman. Thus the "cadet branch of the family" was the relatively poor cousins who did not inherit the land, title, or money. As the younger sons often went into the military (the only profession where they did not lose social status), a general might be surrounded by the (barely old enough to shave) sons of various rich noble bigshots. Being educated, these sons were somewhat useful around headquarters as clerks, messengers, or doing odd jobs. Other officers referred to them as "the cadets" which meant "the surplus children of big shots" who had no commissions and got no pay, and subsisted on money from home and tips from officers for whom they did small services. They learned the art of war and were (after a few years) commissioned and sent to command companies of troops. (In America, which had no nobility, the term was applied to officer trainees selected to attend the prestigious military academy at West Point. From there, that meaning of the term returned to Britain and France. The Germans continue to use the term aspirant instead of cadet.) The British mispronounced the term as caddie, which then came to mean an unemployed young man who could dress and speak well and was always looking for a job (while waiting for a career opportunity), such as carrying a gentleman's golf clubs. The young students who hung around Oxford looking for such jobs were then called cads, and in time, the term spread to any young man on the lookout for any opportunity, and was applied to individuals of lower social standings. (The term might well be applied to young men today who join street gangs.)

6. Cadre, a small group of officers and senior sergeants around which a entire new unit might be built, comes from the French cadre, which meant a picture frame or some other framework. It goes back to quadrum, a Latin word for any four-sided object such as a square or rectangle.

7. Cajole, to harass, coax, or encourage someone, came from the French Cajoler, which means to babble. It had an earlier meaning of to wheedle, which is more or less the same as cajole.

8. Cake, something from a bakery, is an old Scottish word intended to be distinguished from a loaf. A loaf was rectangular, fluffy, and rose in a pan, while a cake was flat, round, hard, and was turned over during cooking (e.g., pancake). In general use, a loaf didn't travel as well and was eaten at home, while a cake was harder and could be carried on a journey. English travelers discovered the things and told their home bakers, who decided to experiment, adding spices, sugar, and (eventually) the same yeast or soda they used in bread.

9. Calculate, to determine an answer by mathematics, is the Latin word for pebble. The ancient Greeks had a counting system based on small beads on a counting board called the abax. The Romans copied this as their abacus, but their counting board and a series of small troughs that held pebbles.

10. Calico, a cotton cloth with a printed pattern (or the pattern itself) comes from Calicut, the Indian city which produced cotton cloth for British markets. (This is a different city from Calcutta, by the way.)