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Tuesday, October 07, 2014


Steve Cole ponders the curious origins of interesting words:

1. PALE, a colorless complexion, comes from the Latin pallis, which simply means pallid or pale. However, the Latin word pale meant a stake that was part of a fence, forming a boundary. Until 1558, the English Pale was the area of France controlled by England.

2. PALL MALL, street in London that inspired the name for a brand of cigarettes, is an old French game (palle maille) that evolved into croquet. Palle is the word for ball and maille is the word for mallet. The most popular place to play the game in London was a narrow park near Saint James's church, where Pall Mall street is today. The speed of the game also spawn the term pell-mell meaning some activity done at great speed.

3. PAMPHLET, a small document such as a brochure, comes from the poem Pamphilus, sue de Amore. This poem was very popular in the 1200s in France and Britain, and thousands of copies were printed and passed around. Quickly, any document of about that size that was handed from read to reader became a pamphlet.

4. PANDEMONIUM, a place of great noise and confusion, comes from the Greek words pan-daemonia. Milton named the capital of hell (in Paradise Los) as Pandemonium because all of the demons lived there, and it became a polite word for hell, which was somewhat impolite. In time, because hell was expected to be noisy, busy, and confusing, that became the meaning of the word. Even today, the word is capitalized in most dictionaries as it is (technically) the formal name of a city.

5. PANDER, to cater to the ego or tastes of a potential customer in order to complete a sale, comes from the character Panderus in the play Troilus and Cressida. Troilus was a prince of Troy, and wanted to woo the lovely Cressida, who didn't even know he was alive. Troilus enlisted the help of his best friend (Panderus, who was a cousin of Cressida). Panderus tried to convince Cressida to consider the suit of the dashing prince by telling her was a swell guy he was through numerous flattering stories about Troilus.

6. PANIC, a sudden unreasonable fear, comes from the Greek god Pan, who had the ability to inspire such fears in the enemies of Greece (if he were in a good mood and the offerings of the Greeks were suitable). This unique kind of fear was Panic Fear, that is, fear related to Pan.

7. PANJANDRUM, a pompous and self-important minor government official (and a British secret weapon that never worked) is the name of a fictional character. The Irish actor Charles Macklin retired in 1759, opening a tavern that catered to younger actors. After dinner was served, he would perform some of his better roles, or lecture on whatever subject came to his mind. He claimed that the key to his acting success was his ability to memorize anything after hearing it once. As a challenge, and young actor composed a one-paragraph story that was total nonsense, but mentioned the Great Panjandrum, a word the actor made up. A hundred years later, Kipling described an Indian potentate as the Great Panjandum, and the fictional title became an actual word.

8. PANIER, similar to the term pallet as something to carry cargo or goods when loading them onto a vehicle, is simply the French word for a type of basket used to carry bread. Someone came up with the idea of loaded two baskets on a mule by tying them across his back. This later became a sort of corset which fashionable women wore a few centuries ago to make their hips wider. While we're at it, pan (such as a skillet, sauce pan, or bread pan) is simply the French word for bread.

9. PANORAMA, a broad view of something, is simply the Greek words pan (all) and orama (view). Robert Baker, a painter, first use the word in 1788 to describe his art exhibit "Nature at a glance" which was a continuous painting on the inside of a sixty-foot round building. One climbed stairs into the center of the building. Robert Fulton (who much later invented the steam boat but was then an artist) introduced this art form to Paris in 1799 and the US a few years later.
10. PANTS, now just another word for trousers, comes from a character in a play produced in Italy in the 1400s. The play was popular and had a "run" of decades, being performed all across Europe. One silly character wore an unusual set of trousers that went from waist to ankle and were very baggy. His name was Pantaleone, or Pantaloon in English. At the time, men were breaches (which ended just below the knee) and stockings. Long pants became popular later, and were known as pantaloons (even if they were not baggy). When the word and garment finally reached America in 1785, it was instantly shortened to "pants" and remains so to this day.