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Saturday, May 04, 2013


Steve Cole muses: Just thinking to himself about the curious origins of interesting words:
1. LADY, which today means any well-behaved woman and a century ago meant a woman of the higher classes, began as the hlaefdige, or breadmaker. It evolved through several steps: levedi in 1240, levdi in 1320, ladi in 1380, and finally lady in 1500.
2. LARVA, the worm that becomes a full-sized insect, is the Latin word for mask, as it was believed that caterpillars contained (masked) a complete butterfly.
3. LEECH, a blood-sucking worm (or a person who lives off the wealth of another) is the Old English word for doctor, who used blood-sucking words in his medical practice.
4. LEGEND, and old tale with a kernel of truth but with much added material, began as the Latin term for "something you need to read." It moved into its current use (although it is still sometimes used as an alternate to caption) by way of a book published around 1290 called Legenda Sanctorum or Lives of the Saints. As later books containing stories of saints were far more fanciful than the first book, the term legend came to mean an embellished version of the real story.
5. LETHARGY, or drowsiness, comes from the Greek Lethe, a river in Hades. Any soul entering the dark realm drank from the river and forgot everything, including any pain or sorrow, and their past lives, sometimes allowing the soul to be reincarnated. Greek doctors applied the term Lethe-argy to a sickness that caused drowsiness.
 6. LETHAL, or deadly, comes from the Roman extension of the Greek myth for Lethargy. The Romans reasoned that total forgetfulness came only with death, and so created the word lethalis to mean deadly.
7. LIBEL, a published lie, and LIBRARY, a collection of books, both come from the Latin word Liber, which was the inner bark of a tree and often used as a substitute for paper in the ancient world. Liber quickly became the word for book. Libellus was a small book or any published work smaller than a book. Librarus was a collection of books.
8. LIBERTINE, a person of loose morals and wild behavior, comes from Libertinus, the Roman word for a slave who had been freed and (in the exuberance of freedom) ignored all social customs and moral laws.
9. LIVERY, meaning a uniform or colors denoting the affiliation to a nobleman or later a corporation, comes from the old French word livree which meant the rations and other allowances given to a servant or retainer. In time, rations came to be a matter of course and the term livery (which came to England with the Norman invaders) meant the uniform. Today, the term is (rarely) applied to the uniforms worn by hotel employees, or to the paint schemes of airliners or steamships or taxicabs.
10. LORD, meaning a nobleman in charge of some area or castle, began as the Old English hlaefwaerd or "Keeper of the loaf." This term was a formal way of saying "head of the household" since he would be in charge of distributing the just-baked bread. It went through a similar evolution to the term Lady (above): hlaford, laford, leverd, louerd, and finally lorde.