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Saturday, December 17, 2011


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

1. Caliph is the Arabic word for successor. Back when Islam was one big empire, those who held the primary leadership position after Mohammad died were designated as his successor, or caliphs. The empire was known as the Caliphate. After a few of those, the empire fragmented into separate nations (some of which survive to this day, others of which underwent various changes, divisions, and amalgamations to produce other Arab countries we see today.

2. Calliope, a kind of steam organ used by circuses to attract a crowd and set the pace for the performers, was the name of the ninth Greek Muse, the goddess Calliope. Her name was a combination of the two Greek words for beautiful and voice, and she was in charge of poetry.

3. Calumet, the name for a ceremonial Native American pipe used originally to establish fur-trading deals with French explorers in the Saint Lawrence valley, is the French word for "reed flute" which was the closest thing the French could compare it to. At the time, nobody from Europe knew what tobacco or smoking was.

4. Camera, the device that takes pictures, is the old Latin word for chamber. In 1802, Thomas Wedgewood invented photography, and went to the store where he bought a camera which was made by a company that had been making very fine cameras for over 200 years. The concept goes back to ancient Greece, where it was known that if you stood in a dark room which had a tiny hole open to the outside sunlight, an upside down image of the outside world could be seen on the opposite wall. (This was the camera obscura, or dark chamber.) This quaint phenomenon was mentioned in scientific literature at various times over the next two thousand years. (Some think that Leonardo da Vinci used this method to produce a "photograph" now known as the Shroud of Turin.) Over the two thousand years, people discovered that various lenses and mirrors could sharpen the image and even turn it right side up. By 1600, someone had figured out that you did not need to darken an entire room, just a small box, which was known as a camera. The open back of the box would be covered with oil paper or a glass plate. An artist could set up a camera pointed at his subject and lines on the glass plate or paper would give him the proportions of his subject. Lines drawn on the blank canvas created a framework for the painting. What Thomas Wedgewood invented was a means for using silver nitrate on a glass plate to form a permanent image. Tin quickly replaced glass (producing "tin types") and eventually paper replaced tin.

5. Camouflage, a pattern of paint or colors intended to avoid the enemy detecting the ship, tank, or soldier, is an old Persian word meaning "smoke blown in the eyes". This was often done as a joke but some Persian entertainers would use a smoky room to make sure that the audience did not learn all of the secrets of their performance. The French adopted this as camouflet which was a smoke bomb used when you detected the enemy trying to tunnel under the walls of your castle or your battle position. You would dig down to meet their tunnel, and drop a camouflet smoke bomb into it, then block up the hole. The enemy tunnel crew would then abandon the tunnel in a panic, and your own troops could move in somewhat later and block up the tunnel, preventing it from being used to plant explosives. The British then adopted the word into the current form as a term for painting battleships in World War I in patterns of light and dark to make them harder to see. In World War II, camouflage was applied to tanks and even some infantry uniforms.

6. Canard, a false or unfounded story, is the French word for duck. It goes back to an old French expression, which was "to half-sell a duck" meaning to convince someone that you could deliver a wild duck seen flying overhead, that is, to make a fool of them with a silly claim or story.

7. Canary, a small songbird originating on the Canary Islands, is derived from the Latin word Canis, or dog. The first explorers to reach the Canary Islands noted that one of them was populated by wild dogs, and hence the islands became the "Isles Canis" or "Islands of the dogs". By the time the islands were actually inhabited and the local songbirds were domesticated and exported, the dogs were long exinct.

8. Cancel, to retract or withdraw, comes from the Latin world for lattice. Monks and scholars copying scrolls would notice mistakes. As no one had invented erasers, one would simply mark out the mistake with criss-cross lines (looking somewhat like a lattice) and write the correction next to this.

9. Candidate, someone who is running for election to office, comes from the old Latin word for shining pure white. Someone declaring his candidacy, or apply for a job, or ask the a girl's father for permission to court her, wanted to look his best. To accomplish this, he would have his toga laundered and then rubbed with certain types of white chalk to achieve the sparkling appearance of newly fallen snow, thereby declaring that his character and intentions were as pure as the fallen snow. The word Candor comes from the same source.

10. Cannibal, one who eats the flesh of others of his own species, comes from the voyages of Columbus. Wanted to write his reports, Columbus asked the locals what they called themselves. They responded with "caribe" from which we get the Caribbean Sea. However, Columbus thought that he was in Asia, and that the natives were trying to tell him that they were the subjects of the Great Khan, so he reported the name as Canibes, from which the word cannibal derives as it moves from Spanish to French to English. Later it was found that some of the people of the West Indies ate human flesh, and some Europeans thought they all of the Cannibals did, and so the incorrect name was incorrectly applied. Later, explorers of Africa and South America found other flesh-eating cultures, and applied the term to them as an adjective, not a noun. Later, scientists applied this to various animals species that were found to consume their own kind.