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Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Steve Cole ponders the curious origins of interesting words:

1. LOTTERY, a drawing you pay to be part of so you might win a fabulous prize, goes back to the old Roman tradition of "drawing lots" to make a selection or settle an argument. The Romans would have a (free) drawing for a big prize as part of the Saturnalia festivities. Later European kings did this now and then, perhaps to convince the peasants that there was at least a chance of a better life. Then someone hit on the idea of selling tickets and using the ticket money to fund the prize (and a profit for the organizer). This first happened in Bruges in 1446, but the first drawing actually called a "lotteria" was in Florence in 1530. The first lottery in England was in 1559 to raise money to repair harbors. Thereafter, the idea took off. The first modern numerical lottery (five picks from 90 numbered chips) was in Genoa in 1620 and included various levels of prizes.

2. LOUNGE, to relax (or a place to relax) is simply the French word for "long" thus a "chaise lounge" is just a "long chair."

3. LUMBER, boards made from trees, comes from the Lombards, a warlike tribe who took over northern Italy around 568. Later, a few Lombards moved to England where they became pawnbrokers. Their establishments were known as "lombard houses." Because most of the things pawned in those days were wooden household furniture, the term "lombard" came to mean anything of wood. It's not hard to get the rest of the way to boards.

4. MACABRE, meaning spooky or something else to do with death, comes from the Arabic Makbara which meant funeral chamber. They might have gotten the word from the Jewish Macabean kings who built elaborate tombs still available for tourists visits today.

5. MACADAM, which now means a paved road, comes from John McAdam, who was the commissioner for roads in Bristol around in 1815. He figured out that the cost of road construction would drop like a rock if he used only six inches of crushed rock instead of the previous system of ten inches of crushed rock over a layer of large stones.

6. MACKINTOSH or Makinaw, a waterproof coat, is simply the name of Charles MacIntosh, a chemist who figured out in 1823 that if you dissolved rubber in naptha you could spread it on cloth to produce a waterproof jacket.

7. MACHIAVELLIAN, to employ subterfuge and a shortage of integrity and ethics to achieve a political or business objective, comes from Niccolò Machiavelli, who advocated no such thing in his book The Prince. His detractors spread lies about what the book said. Most of his advice is now part of every good government.

8. MAELSTROM, a whirlwind of conflicting forces, is simply the name of a tidal whirlpool near the island of Moskenes  near Norway.

9. MAGENTA, a reddish-purple color, is the name of a battle in 1859 where French and Italian troops won a surprising victory over a much larger Austrian force. As French chemists had just invented a new dye they decided to give that most glorious of colors it the "brand name" of Magenta in honor of the victory.

10. MAGNET, a magnetic stone, is named for the town of Magnesia, where the first natural lodestones were discovered by the ancient Greeks.