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Wednesday, October 02, 2013


Steve Cole ponders the curious origins of interesting words:

1. MANDRAKE, a poisonous plant, is simply a short version of the scientific name mandragora. The roots of the plant often take the shape of small humans. That and the poisonous nature gave it no end of magical properties in the minds of the ancients. Mandragora means man-dragon and drake is simply a shorter word for dragon.

2. MANURE, fecal matter used as fertilizer, comes from the old French verb manouvrer, which meant to work the soil by hand. That French verb also gave us the military term maneuver meaning to move troops around on the field.

3. MARCH, the third month of our calendar and the first month of the old Roman calendar, is named for Mars, the God of war. Turns out, he was also the Sabine god of agriculture and when Rome conquered the Sabines the two versions of Mars merged.

4. MARMALADE, a spread made from fruit, was originally made from a fruit called the quince or honey apple, and the Portuguese word for that was marmelo. The Portuguese exported boatloads of marmelado spread to England, where English housewives discovered they could make a similar and cheaper delicacy from almost any fruit.

5. MARSHAL, a high military officer, was originally the groom of the king's stable. When the king went to war, the marshal went along to make sure the king's horse was taken care of. Riding beside the king led to being the king's trusted right-hand man, and then the commander of the cavalry, and from there the "marshal of the field" deployed the King's army for battle and became the "field marshal" of the British and German armies. Now, back when the stable groom became the king's right-hand man, he was made the chief judge of the Court of Chivalry. When the king wanted to prosecute somebody important, the Marshal was sent to fetch the VIP to the king's justice. Hence, today in the US (which has no field marshals because General George Marshal did not want to be Field Marshal Marshal) the US Marshals are the law enforcement officials who bring evil doers before the court of justice.

6. MARTINET, a military officer more concerned with form and discipline than battlefield tactics, comes from Colonel Martinet, who commanded the French Royal Regiment in 1660. When Louis XIV became king, he decided to change from the old system (hiring the entire army when war started) to having a large standing army. The Royal Regiment being the only unit on permanent active duty before this reform, its troops had the best drill, tactics, and discipline, and Colonel Martinet literally wrote the book on professional soldiering.

7. MATCH, something used to light a fire, comes by a strange path from the Green myxa, the mucus from a runny nose. The Roman myxus meant nose and was used for the end of a lamp where the flame burned. This led to the Italian miccia, the word for lamp wick. That led to the burning cord or slow match that was used by someone who had to walk around lighting fires in a great house. It was then used by a soldier to ignite the gunpowder in his matchlock musket.

8. MATINEE, or the afternoon showing of a theatrical performance, began as the entertainment a lord enjoyed before his dinner (which was at 3 o'clock until 1360). Since anything from sunrise to dinner was "morning" the "matinee" was simply the "morning show". Matin is the French word for morning.

9. MAUDLIN, meaning depressing or sad, comes from the old "miracle plays" that the churches staged from about 1250-1590 in England. Each displayed some miracle of the bible or the life of a saint. In time, each guild of a city would "stage" one "pageant" or scene of the play mounted on a wagon. The wagons would then progress from one part of the city to another, so each crowd would see each scene of the overall play in the correct order once or twice a year. The most popular of all such plays was about Mary Magdalen, in those days mistakenly thought to be the same person as the sinner who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears. The early English pronounced Magdalen as Maudlin (and still do to this day). Because she was crying in every scene, someone who was impossibly sad was said to be Magdalen or Maudlin.
 10. MAUSOLEUM, today any elaborate or large tomb, was the name of the tomb of Mausolus (a minor Greek king of a part of Turkey). While he started construction, it was finished (and made one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) by his inconsolable widow Artemisia.