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Sunday, July 08, 2012


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

1. DIVAN, a word for a sofa, comes to Europe from Persian by way of Turkey. The word originally meant any bound collection of pages (such as a few poems) smaller than a book. Then it became an account ledger, and then a government official who used such a ledger during a meeting. The meetings were conducted in a council chamber with a ring of sofas around the edge. Europeans noticed this when visiting Arab countries, Persia, or India. To European visitors, the word "dewan" came to mean first the ledgers and then the officials, and finally the fact that the officials reclined at ease instead of sitting up in rigid-back chairs. (Europeans thought the foreign leaders to be lazy and more concerned with comfort than with getting work done.) From there, it was only one step for the word to mean the furniture itself, rather than the ledger held by the official sitting on it.

2. DOILY, a fancy fringed table napkin placed under a plate, bowl, or glass, was originally the surname of a shop owner in London's Strand district. Around 1720, he found a local weaver who would make a cheap wool cloth that looked quite fancy. It became (for few years) commonly used in clothing, which would then be cheap and rich-looking. In order to impress upper-class customers, he had special napkins made to put under glasses and bowls (so they did not mar the furniture finish) and these were known as Doily napkins, which many people copied. Eventually, the term was shortened to doily.

3. DOLLAR, a unit of currency, comes from the German word thaler, which means valley. In 1516, silver was discovered in the Joachim Valley of Austria, and the local count minted his own coins (as was common at the time). These had the face of Saint Joachim and were known as Joachimthalers or simply thalers. His coins circulated widely under that name, and the term was soon applied to any silver coin of that approximate size. (The size was common as that amount of silver was equal to the gold florin that was the standard currency of the era.) The British colonies in America used Spanish "oros" (silvers) as their standard currency (they did a lot of trade with the Spanish) and those coins were nearly the same size as German or Australian thalers. The Spanish coins displayed a vine wrapped around a column, which produced the dollar sign. For trade, it was common to use a cold chisel to cut a Spanish oro into eight pieces, each of which was close enough to the English shilling that such "bits" became common as small coins.

4. DRAGON, a large reptile with wings (and the ability to spew fire) were common in legends the world over due to the occasional discovery of dinosaur bones. (Homer mentions a drakken in the Illiad.) When firearms were first invented, some of them were called dragons because they spewed fire. Men armed with firearms were sometimes called dragons, a term that eventually was limited to mounted infantry (since the heavy firearms were more easily carried by men on horses), and of course, a mounted infantryman is even today a dragoon.

5. DUMBBELL, a weight used in exercising, comes from dumb (silent) and bell. People noticed that the village or church bell ringer had a very well developed chest and arms, a true "manly man" of great physical prowess. Those who wanted to develop such muscles used a device that simulated the effect with weights (not a bell) in their home (the first exercise machine). As these exercise machines made no noise (at least, they did not ring a bell) they were known as silent bells or dumb bells. The term eventually meant the "free weights" used today.

6. DUNCE, a stupid person, derives from a real person who was anything but stupid, Jon Duns Scotus, a scholar who died in 1308. He was a Franciscan who spent his career contradicting the theories of the Dominicans (mostly Saint Thomas Aquinas). His theories of logic dominated until 1500, when they came to be seen as hair splitting and obstructionist. At this point, opponents of the Scottus School called their ideological foes "Dunsmen" and later "dunces."

7. DUNGEON, a prison area in the basement of a castle or fort, comes (ironically) from the French term donjon which applied not to the castle's basement but to its tallest (or dominant) tower (the one that Englishmen called a keep). The prison cells were in the basement of this tower, which was the best defended part of the castle.

8. EASLE, a stand on which a painting or sign is placed, comes from the Dutch word ezel, which means donkey or ass. To the Dutch, such a stand was a smaller version of the carpenter's horse (or sawhorse), and thus was a donkey.

9. EASTER, the Christian holiday celebrating the resurrection of Christ, comes from the German goddess of spring, Eastre. Every culture in the world (at least where it snowed) had a spring holiday. With plenty of food about to be available, the last of the food stored for winter could be combined with the first new food available to hold a feast, celebrating that the winter was over and that the group had survived the most challenging part of the year. Christians decided that it would be easier to convert pagans if existing pagan holidays were simply converted to the new religion, and it seemed appropriate that the rising of new life in the spring would commemorate the rise of the resurrected Jesus.

10. ECHO, the reflection of sound, comes from the name of a Greek nymph. Zeus (king of the gods) liked to party with with the nymphs, which upset his wife, Hera. She tried to follow him around to keep him out of trouble. He arranged for Echo, a natural chatterbox, to distract Hera with pointless small talk. Eventually catching on, the outraged Hera cursed Echo to wander the world unseen, unable to speak until spoken to, and then only able to repeat the words just spoken.