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Tuesday, December 16, 2014


Steve Cole ponders the curious origins of interesting words:

1. PARAPHERNALIA, any sort of miscellaneous baggage or equipment carried by an individual, comes from the Greek para (beside) and phero (that which was bought). It originally referred to the personal property of a bride which did not become the property of her husband; it was separate from her dowry.

2. PARASITE, some person or other animal who lives entirely off the resources of someone else, is from the Greek para (beside) and sitos (food). Originally it was not derogatory and was used to refer to priests who existed from the donations of their flock. Later the term applied to guests at dinner (who were expected to flatter the host if they wanted to be invited back).

3. PARIAH, someone who is outcast, comes from an Indian word parai, which referred to workers who spent all day beating a drum to control the pace of work by other workers. When the Aryans invaded India about 2,000BC, they subjugate the dark-skinned natives and reduced them to the lowest caste, which were called pariahs not because they beat a drum all day but because they worked in low level drudgery. The British, hearing (and not completely understanding) the term used it to refer to anyone who had been cast out or banished.

4. PATROL, which means to walk around an area checking for trouble, comes from the Old French word patouiller which meant "to dabble in the mud." Later French soldiers assigned to walk around the outside of the camp to prevent anyone from approaching adopted the term, and the British (who copied many French military terms) copied and shortened it to patrol.

5. PATTER, a word used by the English (but rarely if at all by the Americans) to be babble or mindless recitation comes from the Latin pater (father). Peasants in the middle and dark ages recited their Latin prayers without knowing what the words meant; the the pater noster (our father, or the Lord's Prayer) was the most common of those.

6. PAVILION, once an elaborate tent and now often a public building where exhibitions are held, comes from the French papilio, which means butterfly. The French used that term because tents used by the officers and nobles were often of brightly colored cloth. Over time it passed into English.

7. PECULIAR, which today means strange or odd, comes from the Latin peculiaris, which originally referred to the cattle owned by a farmer. Over time, peculiaris began to refer to all of the wealth (and then to all of the possessions) of a farmer, worker, or soldier. Something you owned was "peculiar to you." Unusual creatures or cultures were said to have peculiarities, that is, attributes unique to them.

8. PEDAGOG, which technically means a schoolteacher but is often used today for "know it all," comes from the Greek and meant "leader of boys." A rich family would assign a specific slave the duty of caring for the sons, guarding (perhaps herding) them as they went outside of the house (perhaps to the gym or some other outing). Over time, it became highly desirable to buy a slave for this duty who was an educated man captured in battle, and he was expected to be more of a teacher and guide than a mere nanny.

9. PEN, PENCIL, now the most common writing instruments, would appear to be derived from a common root, but they are not, and their similarity is only coincidence. Pens came from goose quills, which were called Penna in Latin. Pencils were originally the finest of brushes used by artists, and peniculus was the Latin word for "little tail."

10. PERSON, which today means a unique human, comes from the Latin persona, which means mask. (It is easy to see how the modern word persona derives.) Greek actors always wore masks with unique exaggerated features so that those members of the audience in the most distant seats could tell who they were. Thus, in every play you saw, a particular mask (used over and over) was always a 40-year-old father, while a different mask was always a sickly boy, another was always the god Apollo, and so forth.