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Saturday, April 05, 2014


Steve Cole ponders the curious origins of interesting words:

1. NAMBY-PAMBY, which now means weak or too gentle, originated in a flame war between Ambrose Phillips (who wrote some simple sentimental verses for young children) and Alexander Pope. Pope based the phrase on "amby" which he derived from Ambrose. The phrase entered the language about 1726 and then meant sweetly sentimental.

2. NARCOTIC, a pain killing medication, got its name from the plant that was first noted to have that property, the narcisum. That plan was named for Narcissus, the Greek youth of legend who was so attractive that he fell in love with his own reflection and died when he could not return his own love.

3. NECKLACE: In the middle ages, garments had a string sewn into the neckline which was called a "lace" and is still used by us for that purpose in shoelace. Rich people made the lace out of gold or silver chain, and over time the really rich hung gold ornaments or precious stones on it. When the idea of a lace for the neckline went out of style, the rich people still wore their gold chains with precious stones or gold bangles.

4. NEIGHBOR, someone who lives nearby, comes to us from the Old English words neah (near) and gebur (peasant workman). Together they meant "the peasant who lives near by." Neah descended to us as "nigh" (which still means near but few use it any more) while gebur became "boor" or a low-class person who waste our time with stupid chatter.

5. NEMESIS, a personal enemy or antagonist out to ruin your life, was the Greek goddess who was responsible to visit bad luck on people who had too much good luck.

6. NEPOTISM, the granting of jobs and honors to relatives, comes from the Latin word nepos, meaning nephew. A pope's illegitimate sons were often given great honors, but in polite society they were referred to (with a wink) as the pope's  nephews. Detractors of corrupt popes (which were the norm during 1400-1600 including Rodrigo Borgia) used the term to deride that corruption.

7. NEWT, a small amphibian, has carried that name for two thousand years, although it was originally spelled efeta. Changes in pronunciation and spelling led to the current form.

8. NICKEL, a metal often used to alloy with structural steel or with copper in coinage, was unknown until a Swedish scientist extracted it in 1751. German miners who thought they had found valuable copper ore (but who had actually found nickel ore which is very similar) smelted it like copper ore, got nothing out of it, and named it kupfernickel, or "copper ruined by demons." When Axel Cronstedt isolated the metal he called it "nickel" from the German term. (Cobalt got its name the same way, as Germans thought a kobold had ruined silver ore.)

9. NICKNAME, a friendly name for someone that is perhaps more fitting or at least shorter than the name given by their parents, is a custom thousands of year old and was called an "added name." In Old English "eke" meant "added) so "an ekename" was "an added name." Over time, the "n" from "an" was attached producing "nekename" which is one short step from the current "nickname."

10. NICOTINE, the oily and addictive liquid in tobacco, comes from Jean Nicot, the French ambassador to Portugal around 1560. He noticed some curious seeds that Spanish explorers had brought back from America, and was given some as a courtesy. He sent them to Queen Catherine (the same one seen on the TV show "Reign" about Mary Queen of Scots). She had them planted in her garden producing the first European tobacco crop. Scientists named the crop Nicotiana after good old Ambassador Jean.