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Saturday, June 14, 2014


Steve Cole ponders the curious origins of interesting words:

1. NIMROD, a biblical name noted as mighty hunter. Today nobody remembers this, but a few generations ago the term was used to refer to anyone who who was a great hunter.

2. NOON, or 12 o'clock, or the middle of the day, or lunchtime, was originally at 3 o'clock in Greek and Roman society. (More or less, if one assumes that sunrise was always at 6 o'clock.) In that earlier time, the workday lasted for nine hours from sunrise. Then everyone ate a big lunch, napped during the heat of the afternoon, and partied ("supped") in the evening. This was known as nona hora or the ninth hour from sunrise. Nona hora eventually became noon hour and then just noon. This lasted until the 1300s and was the time of the principle meal of the day or "dinner". (After 1360, one was expected to eat lunch a little earlier and then work until dark.)

3. OMELET, a fried creation including eggs and usually other foodstuffs, originated as lamina, the Latin word for a type of small thin plate. (Laminar and laminated also come from this source.) In French this was la'lamelle and since a fried omelet looks something like a small thin plate that was what French chefs called the item. When it came into English this became l'alamelle and from there alamelle and from there omelete.

4. OSTRACIZE, to shun or ban someone who said or did something socially offensive, comes from the old Greek word ostrakon, which was a fragment of a broken pot. Because there were always broken pots laying around, ostrakons became the scratch pads of the day (as paper and papyrus were very expensive). Once a year (under the constitution of 508BC) Athens asked the assembled citizens if anyone was acquiring too much power and might overthrow the democracy. If the crowd said that this was so (no one was named) then a second meeting was scheduled for two months later. People came to the second meeting with their ballots written on an ostrakon (the only ballot done in writing); if the citizen felt no one was being a problem he cast a blank one. If a majority of the ostrakons named someone as having too much power, that person was banished for ten years as "ostrakon-cized."

5. OSCILLATE, to swing back and forth, comes from the Latin verb oscillo, which means the same thing. That word came from "os-cillo" which were small faces of Bacchus that Romans hung in grape vineyards (twirling in the wind) to scare away birds.

6. OTTOMAN, the empire that is now Turkey and the small backless sofa that was its most memorable export, came from the name of the leader (Osman) who led the warlike tribe from Persia into Turkey.

7. PAGAN, someone who is not Christian, came from the Latin words pagus (village) and pagani (anyone who did not live in a major city). Since Christianity grew most rapidly in the major cities (where the missionaries found the most people they could try to convert) the rural villagers often remained non-Christian for a century after the city dwellers converted.

8. PALACE, a large house for the ruler of a nation, comes from Palatine, the most central of Rome's seven hills and the center of its government. Augustus built a great house there that was used by several generations of emperors. As it was on the hill of Palatine, it was known as the palatium, and a few mispronunciations later that became palace.

9. PARABLE, a story that illustrates a fundamental point, come from the old Greek words "to throw" (ballo) and "beside" (para). The term para-ballo remains in the language as a type of geometric curve, but the Greeks used the term to mean "a story that compares two things" which comes to use a parable. (This is why paramilitary now means an armed force beside the military but not part of it.)

10. PALAVER, an extended conversation including much polite small talk and a few serious points, comes from palavra, the Portuguese version of parable. Portuguese traders landing in Africa used the term to refer to the long-winded conversations with African leaders, who expected to exchange much small talk before getting to the point. English traders later encountered the descendants of these African traders and leaders who expected to "hold a palaver" before any money or trade goods changed hands.