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Tuesday, April 02, 2013


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

1. KALEIDOSCOPE, a children's toy that uses mirrors to reflect bits of colored glass in an amusing pattern, was named by its inventor (Sir David Brewster) in 1816 for the Greek words kalos (beautiful), eidos (form), and skopos (watcher). A self-taught scientist, he also invented the stereoscope (Greek for solid watcher).

2. KANGAROO, the signature animal of Australia, was named by Captain Cook and his science officer, who asked locals what they called it. A second expedition a few decades later found no local who knew the word, leading to endless debates over just who told Cook that name and what the name actually mean. (Perhaps "I don't know" or "who cares?")

3. KETCHUP, also CATSUP and even CATCHUP, a tomato sauce used as a condiment for burgers and fried potatoes, comes from the Chinese term for the original condiment, ke-tsiap. The Dutch were the primary customers for this, and they called it ketjap. The original sauce was made from mushrooms, not tomatoes, but when a tomato version began to appear in England, people thought it was the sauce that the Dutch loved so much.

4. KHAKI, a dusty brown cloth often used by the military, comes from India, as does its name. British Army units in India first used it in 1848, finding very suitable for hard use in hot climates, and an excellent camouflage. These days, the cloth might be made of any sort of fiber, and the color has settled on a dusty tan. At various times, other colors including brown and olive drab were called khaki.

5. KHAN is the Mongolian term for king or supreme ruler. Europeans first heard it in 1222 when a Mongolian army under Genghis Khan wiped out the Russian army and broke into Europe itself. No one really was sure what it meant until Marco Polo wrote his book, telling about Kublai Khan, one of the grandsons of Genghis.

6. KIDNAP, to capture, transport, and imprison, originated about 1670, combining the English words kid (child) and nap (steal). The demand for young laborers in the British colonies of the new world was high, and the number of unemployed youth in British cities was so high, that the two problems solved themselves. Unscrupulous ship captains would kidnap hundreds of youngsters and transport them to Maryland or Virginia, where they were offered two choices: exist on their own in the wilderness with no help or supplies, or sign up as indentured servants for seven years of labor (at which point the colony gave them 50 acres of land and their employer gave them enough farm equipment to get started raising their own food).

7. KNAVE, a dishonest person, comes from the German knabe, which simply means a young boy. The British knave also meant any boy, but later came to mean a boy employed as a servant or apprentice (and the Jack in a deck of cards is this knave). As the knaves were often provided only the barest of necessities (scraps of food, cast off clothing, and a chance to sleep in the stable) they had to improve their lot by petty theft or other nefarious schemes. This led to the meaning of a dishonest person, although the term probably hasn't been used for anything in the US for a century or more.

8. KNICKERS, a British term for underwear, comes from a Dutch farmer who settled near Albany NY in 1682. His name was Knickerbocker. His great-grandson was a wealthy man and was the object of a humorous book by Washington Irving which purported to be a history of the colony explaining the value and virtue of the original Dutch colonies. This book was known as Knickerbocker's history. It included drawings of Dutch men and boys wearing short pants that had buckles just below the knee. These became popular boy's wear in about 1850 and continued to be so until about 1910. Those short pants were known as knickerbockers. An even shorter version of these became underwear or knickers. That term recrossed the Atlantic and is still used in England today. Most Americans know the term but few use it.

9. LACE, which means a fancy trimming for clothing or a cord for tying ones shoes, comes from the Latin word lacius, which means noose. The term was originally applied to snares to trap animals and came into English from the old French word las. It was common for clothing in the middle ages to be tied with laces instead of buttons, and the word continues in that meaning today (e.g., shoelace). As clothing grew fancier, the laces and nooses used to tie in closed were made fancier and evolved into the frilly version of the word lace.

10. LACONIC, meaning someone who uses few words, comes from the old Spartan province of Laconia, where their youths were trained (in addition to normal Spartan virtues) to use as few words as possible in communication.