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Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Steve Cole ponders the curious origins of interesting words:

1. MAY, the fifth month of our calendar and third months of the Roman calendar, was named for the Sabine goddess Maia, who was known to the Romans as Fauna, the goddess of the spring season. Numa, the successor to Romulus, was a Sabine and is thought to have originated the calendar we use to this day.

2. MEANDER, to wander or twist and turn, is simply the name of a river in Turkey which is remarkable for the number of twists and turns it takes in its relatively short path to the sea.

3. MEERSCHAUM, a light and soft mineral used to carve smoking pipes and cigarette holders, is the German term for sea (meer) and foam (meerschaum). The mineral had been known from ancient times (and everyone called it sea foam) but nobody found anything useful to do with it until those clever Germans used it to make pipes because the tobacco stained it a lovely brown color.

4. MENTOR, an advisor or teacher of a young person, was the name of the friend to whom Odysseus trusted the care of his wife and son when he went off to the Trojan War.

5. MESMERISM, a form of hypnotism, comes from Doctor Friedrich Mesmer, who performed various cures by rubbing patients with magnets or his hands.

6. MILLINER, or a retailer specializing in clothing, comes from the city of Milan. Traders from that city visited England with unusually fine clothing starting in the early 1500s.

7. MINIATURE, or small of scale, comes from the old red lead paint known as minium. This was used to add fancy letters and small pictures to religious documents. An artist who did that was said to "miniate" the manuscript so his work (almost always small but theoretically of any size) was a miniature.

8. MISCREANT, and evil-doer or criminal, began as two old French words: mss (not) and creant (believer); the two combined to mean unbeliever or heretic. Over time, this came to be any person who did not follow the moral rules of an honorable society.

9. MOB, or a group of angry and unruly people, began in the 1600s as mobile vulgus, Latin for a fickle rabble. That term was shortened to "mob" by casual speakers.

10. MONEY, that is, cash or currency, became as moneta, the name of a temple the Romans erected to honor Juno for her advice in a war. The Romans first produced silver coins in that temple in 269BC, and those coins were called "monetas." This root word also covers such things as monetary and mint.