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Sunday, November 04, 2012


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

1. GOSSIP, rumors usually derogatory to someone, began as godsib (siblings in God, as in the current godparents). A family with several children might have different godparents for each, and all of those "godsibs" would have a connection and might talk among themselves about the news and welfare of the base nuclear family.

2. GRAHAM as in those brown graham crackers we all eat is the name of Sylvester Graham, a minister in the early 1800s of Connecticut. He was a vegetarian and health nut, and had a mill create a special kind of flour to his liking. Others liked it as well and the mill happily sold "graham flour" to any who wanted it, including bakeries that sold "graham crackers" to anyone.

3. GREENLAND, a big island at the northeast limit of the new world, was named that by Eric the Red who discovered it and felt that the name would attract colonists.

4. GREGARIOUS, a term meaning people who like to hang out in crowds, comes from the Latin for "the way of the herd." The Latin word for herd was greg or grex, and people first compared military units to herds of livestock because they all moved together and looked like. This word has spun off its own herd of words, including aggregate, segregate, congregate, and even egregious (which means an action so bad the herd kicks you out).

5. GRENADE, a small hand-thrown bomb, comes from the Latin word granam, which meant seed. That word produced grain, granary, grange, garnet, and even pomegranate (an apple with seeds). The current hand grenade comes from the pomegranate fruit, as grenades were sort of dangerous fruit full of dangerous seeds.

6. GROG, the ration of rum given to British sailors, comes from Admiral Vernon, who (in the 1740s) first watered down rum. As the admiral wore a cloak of grogram he was called "Old Grog" which was perhaps one of the kinder nicknames that admirals and ship captains have received from their crews. One of Admiral Vernon's officers was Lawrence Washington, who retired to Virginia and named his plantation Mount Vernon because of his respect for the admiral.

7. GUILLOTINE, a device for removing someone's head, is named for Joseph Ignace Guillotine, who did not invent it. He had seen a beheading machine used on criminals in other countries and when the French national assembly wrote the new civil code in 1789 he suggested this as the method of capital punishment. (Since capital is derive from capita, Latin for head, you see where we get "capital punishment" since that originally meant "beheading" not other methods of death.) anyway, the machine (first used in 1792 for criminals) was designed by Doctor Louis and built by a German mechanic name Schmidt. It was officially a Louisette Machine but the crowd insisted on renaming it for the man who first suggested it.

8. GUINEA was a place (and still is a nation) in Africa frequented by British traders. In 1663, the British crown minted special gold coins for use in trading with the place, marking them with a picture of a "guinea hen" and they were hence called guineas. In theory, they were equal to 20 silver shillings, but as dishonest people tended to shave a little silver from the edges of silver coins, the guinea was fixed in 1717 as equal to 21 shillings. The last guineas were minted in 1816 and replaced by sovereigns.

9. GUY, which currently means some average man seen on the street, was originally just a name like Bill or Joe. Lots of people in history were named Guy, which was pronounced Gee as it was originally French. After Guy Fawkes was caught trying to blow up parliament and executed, Guy Fawkes Day became something of a British holiday, and effigies of Guy Fawkes were paraded through the street hung from a gallows. Anyone who vaguely resembled him was subsequently known as "a guy" and years later the likeness was long forgotten and "some guy" was just another way to say "some man" or "some fellow" or perhaps "I know a guy."
10. GYMNAST, someone who performs acrobatic stunts, is from gymnos, the Greek work for "naked." In ancient Greece, all young people took physical education as part of schooling, and did their exercises in the nude in a gymnazo (which is now a gymnasium).