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Sunday, March 16, 2014


Steve Cole ponders the curious origins of interesting words:
1. MONSTER began as the Latin word monstro, meaning "to warn about" or "to point out." We see this in the English word demonstration, meaning something done to illustrate or prove a point. Monstro was used in association with evil portents from the gods, which always meant that really bad things were coming. Monstrum then became the thing itself, being something abnormally large that caused fear.
2. MORPHINE, a powerful pain killer, comes from the Latin Morpheus, the god of dreams (which later writers confused with Somnus, the god of sleep, except that Graedo-Roman mythology had no god of dreams. The poet Ovid invented the new god of dreams about 3AD in order to use him as a plot device. At that time the old Graeco-Roman gods were barely remembered and worshiped mostly in government-declared celebrations. (The people had moved on to worship Mithras, Jesus, Isis, or others.)
3. MORTGAGE comes from two French words meaning dead pledge. It referred (then as now) to money borrowed with land as the security. If the borrower paid the loan the pledge was then said to be dead, and if the borrower died without paying the loan the land was confiscated on his death.
4. MOUNTEBANK, a dishonest person who tricks and cheats others, comes from the Italian words meaning "to mount the bench." Traveling entertainers would bring a bench with them so they could stand on it and be seen by the crowd. Since bankers also used benches (banks in Italian) to conduct their business, a banker who "put on a show" to lure gullible people into worthless investments was given the derisive name intended for clowns, jugglers, or others of that type.
5. MUGWUMP variously means an independent person, or someone who could not make up his mind. It comes from the Algonquin Indian term "mukquomp" which meant a great man or a chief other than the head chief of a tribe. It was used when translating the Holy Bible for the American Indians to read as it was the closest approximation for "duke" which is itself an approximation of an ancient word for a nobleman next in line below a king. It was derisively used in 1884 to label those Republicans who supported the Democratic Party candidate for President (and were his margin of victory). Republicans said these men were "too good" vote for the Republican nominee, but the Mugwumps adopted the name as a badge of honor saying they were great enough to make up their own minds. Contrary to the Harvard Lampoon it has nothing to do with those who serve beer.
6. MUSCLE, the flesh of an animal that pulls bones and thus creates motion, comes from Latin and was adopted by most European languages. To the Romans it meant "the little mice" because the rippling muscles of an athlete looked like a pack of small mice under the skin making the body move. The Romans used the same term to refer to a particular bivalve sea creature eaten as a great delicacy, and that comes to us as MUSSEL.
7. MUSEUM, a collection of art or other exhibits, is based on the nine Roman "muses" who inspired human creativity. Shrines to the muses became the place where artists, poets, or others gathered to discuss and display their works.
8. MUSKET, an old firearm, comes from a time when each kind of firearm was named for an animal. Musket was the French term for the Sparrow Hawk, and the French words for hawk and falcon applied to larger firearms. (Dragon was used for a type of cannon.) The original French word came into English as the name for the mosquito, a stinging insect, and some today think that the original word musket meant a mosquito, or a tiny stinging insect.
9. MYSTERY, an unknown thing (or a story about an unknown thing) comes to use from the Greek mysterion, which referred to the secret and hidden rituals of a religious or other group. Such rites and practices were conducted behind closed doors or at night so that non-members did not learn them.
10. NABOB, a disgustingly rich person who gets anything he wants and feels compelled to declare his opinions on everything (expecting them to be instantly accepted because, well, he's rich and gets anything he wants) originated as the Arabic word "na'ib" which was adapted by the east Indians as "nawwab" which in either case meant "deputy". These were local Indians used by the Mogul Dynasty and British Empire to run provinces and towns of India. Because of their power and corruption, the typical nabob managed to become very rich while in office.