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Sunday, March 25, 2012


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

1. Collation, collection, and conference all come from the Latin verb confero and its participle collatum, which meant in those days exactly the same thing they mean now, that is, to collect and organize information.

2. Colonel, a military officer who commands a regiment of a thousand soldiers (these days, a brigade of five thousand) come from the Italian world collonello, meaning a little column of marching troops. (The bigger version of column was the entire army of which the regiment was only a part.) We pronounce it kernel because it came to English by way of the French version, coronel.

3. Colossal, colossus, and coliseum all come from the Greek kolossos which simply means a larger-than-life statue. The word came into English as meaning something really, really big because the Colossus of Rhodes was in fact really, really big.

4. Comedy comes from two Greek words, komos (revel) and oide (song, the same word ode comes from). The original comedies were for men only, were extremely vulgar and pornographic, and included political satire that would cause riots or mass arrests today. Over time, tastes improved and the lighter form of drama kept the word komodia. (The darker form was tragedy, in which the hero almost always died or fell from power in disgrace or both.)

5. Commando, which today means special forces (such as the Green Berets or Army Rangers), originally meant little more than a force that was under command. Portuguese, then Dutch, then British settlers in South Africa organized small mobile commands to raid into black-held territory and destroy their villages, driving them out. Later, the Boers used commando tactics against the British. Decades later, in World War II, the British revived the name commando for their elite Marine raiding units. It got to the current use (not wearing underwear) during Vietnam when troops operating in swampy areas noted that walking around all day in wet clothing caused chaffing, and wet underwear (being the tightest and the slowest to dry out) caused the most problems. Troops took to wearing no undershorts inside their fatigue uniform pants.

6. Company and companion come from the Latin words con (with) and panis (bread) and originally meant friends or co-workers so close that you would be willing to share a loaf of bread with them. Now, company means a business organization or a group of 100 soldiers.

7. Complexion comes from the Latin words con (with) and plecto (to braid) and originally meant how the four humors of the body combined to define your disposition, attitude, and actions. Since these qualities were often evident on the face, the word came to mean the color of the facial skin. Someone who was angry would have a red complexion, which is to say that the humor blood was the strongest of the four in that person.

8. Comrade became as the Latin word camera, meaning a chamber. (The first picture-taking devices were the size of an entire room.) This went into Spanish as the word camarada, those fellow soldiers who shared the same room in the barracks or billet, and came into English about 1650.

9. Constable, now the term for a minor law enforcement official in the US, began as the Latin words comes stabuli, or master of the stable. In time, the master of the emperor's stable became a powerful official, often the commander of the Army. During the 1500s and 1600s, the Constable of France (and the Lord High Constable of England) was the title given to the selected commander of the entire army.

10. Copper, the reddish metal we use for small coins and electrical wires, comes from kuprus, the Roman word for Cyprus, where most of the Roman Empire's copper was mined.