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Wednesday, March 13, 2013


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

1. INK, a chemical color used to write your name with a pen, comes from the Greek "en kaio", which meant "to burn in" and referred to the manner in which they stained stucco to create a mural. The Romans used the term encaustico for the act of signing their name in ink, and the term got shorter and shorter until the English called it ink.

2. INSOLENT, arrogant disrespect and defiance of authority, comes from the Latin words "in soleo," which meant "not according to custom." The term evolved over time, with the understanding that someone who did not follow the traditions and customs was perhaps trying deliberately to offend or defy authority.
3. INSULT, meaning to verbally denounce someone, comes from the Latin "insulto", which meant "to leap upon" in the context of an attack. (Doctors will use the term "insult" to mean physical damage to the brain.) The derivation from that point is obvious.
4. INTERLOPER, one who sneaks or barges uninvited into a conversation or arrangement, comes from the Latin inter (between) and the English loper (runner). The term first appeared in the 1500s. A British business enterprise had a monopoly on trade with the nascent Russia. Spanish and other English businesses tried to bribe their way into the Russian marketplace, and were denounced as interlopers.
5. INTOXICATE, meaning drunk with alcohol, comes from the Greek word toxikos, which referred to the poison that barbarians smeared on their arrows. (The Greek word toxon was the word for an archer's bow.) From there, the term "toxic" (poison) came into use, and "intoxicate" meant "to poison someone" by physical means. Even by today's definition, that term is not far from the truth.
6. INTRANSIGENT, someone who will not be moved or persuaded by any argument, comes from an almost identical Spanish word with the same meaning. From 1868 to 1875, the Spanish throne was vacant and there were endless political maneuvers to get someone to accept it, or seize it. One of the political factions wanted to build a communist society, and refused to consider any other outcome. They became known as the Intransigentes because the would not "come together" with other factions in any compromise. The word may well have been around in Spanish for centuries but it came into English due to news reports of the political situation in Spain.
7. VESTIGE, a sign or trace, and INVESTIGATE, meaning to look for the truth, come from Latin, where vestigium referred to the footprints of a game animal.
8. ITALIC, a slanting typeface used for ship names and foreign words, was invented by a Venitian printer named Mannucci sometime around 1500. He had decided to make Venice the center of publishing the finest of books for use by scholars, nobles, and governments. He succeeded primarily because of the magnificent and clearly readable type faces which he either carved himself or which his pupils carved under his supervision. He named the slanting typeface Italic after his homeland of Italy (perhaps because Italy slants, albeit backwards, on a map oriented north-south).
9. JADE, a lovely green semi-precious stone, was brought to Europe in large quantities by Spain, which found the stone in Peru. Somehow, people got the idea that wearing a jade stone would protect you from the colic. The Spanish term for colic was ejada. The French called it le'jada and the English called it simply jade. Curiously, the English already had the word jade, taken from the Norse, which meant a female horse. The term had fallen out of that use (other than sometimes being applied to a cranky old woman, which is where we get "Jaded").
10. JANISSARY, a term which means a fanatical soldier, comes from the Turks. About 1300, the Turkish sultan decided that he wanted to conquer Europe, but he found his Army was not up to the task. Various means were tried to build a better fighting force, resulting in a number of unique and colorful units, few of which were any more effective than the corrupt and lazy Army the sultan already had. One idea, however, worked. The idea was to take 1,000 young male children away from Christian families every year and raise them in a closed and rigidly disciplined military lifestyle. They were called the yeni cheri or New Army, a term that was corrupted into Janissary. The idea worked, and the Janissary corps was the most powerful in the Turkish Army. After reaching a strength of 20,000, enough new boys were recruited each year to maintain that number, and the corps remained that size until 1700. While Janissaries received little pay, they had many privileges, and Christian families began to compete to have their sons accepted. The boys were not forced to become Moslem, but many did. After 1700, the Janissary corps began to expand, reaching 135,000 by 1825, apparently with no loss of quality. The larger force began to consider itself above the law, and rebelled. The problem was that the sultans, having seen the effect of professionalizing their Army, had instilled drill, discipline, and other soldierly virtues into their other units, and the Janissaries were annihilated by Moslem units of equal discipline and combat power.