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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Random Thoughts #224

Steve Cole ponders the curious origins of interesting words:

1. PETTICOAT, now referring to a lady's undergarment, simply means little coat. Men wore petticoats from 1300 to 1500 by which time they were called waistcoats. (They might today be called Eisenhower Jackets.) When women adopted grand dresses that were designed to balloon out from their legs, tailors adopted the old term for little coat to describe the undergarment that produced the required volume.

2. PHAETON, a word now used occasionally to name a particularly sporty vehicle (from a two-horse buggy in the 1700s to a Rolls Royce today), was the name of the son of Helios, who drove the sun chariot across the sky. Phaeton convinced his father to let him drive one day, but he could not control the horses and Zeus killed him to save the Earth.

3. PHANTASMAGORIA, meaning a dreamlike fantasy in which characters appear and fade almost randomly, was the name of a kind of slide projector invented in 1802. Theaters had used the "magic lantern" for many years to project images on a screen. Mr. Philipstal's improved device inset transparent characters into opaque slides, so that only the character was projected (onto a thin screen, from the back side). The think screen could be mechanically pulled forward and backwards, making the characters grow or shrink in size. He invented the name for his device in a very early version of "branding." His concept of slides was quickly copied by other theaters.

4. PHOTOGRAPHY, the science and hobby of printing a picture onto paper, has a long history. Cameras had existed from the 1600s, but the only thing they would do is focus an image (by their lens) onto a canvas. An artist would then sketch out the key outlines and points with a pencil, then paint over the marks. No end of inventors tried to find a way to permanently capture an image. (It is arguable that somebody succeeded in the 1600s based on one artifact that may be something else.) Possibly the first to succeed was a Frenchman named Niepce who took a photograph of his garden with an eight-hour exposure in 1826. He called this a heliograph. Niepce's friend Louis Deguerre improved the process and by 1835 could produce permanent images on copper plates coated with chemicals in a few minutes, and this became the deguerreotype. (Both used cameras produced by a German company with 200 years of experience in making them.) In January 1839, an Englishman named Talbot improved the process using tin plates and called it photogenic drawing. These are the "tin types" found today as family heirlooms or museum pieces. In March 1839, Sir John Herschel finally achieved a truly practical process (which still took several minutes) and named it photography, combining the first part of Talbot's device and the last part of Niepce's.

5. PIANO, a musical instrument with 88 keys, was first invented in 1709. (The name comes from the Italian "piano e forte" which means "soft and loud" because it could make sounds of both qualities.) Harpsichords had been around for 200 years and clavichords for a century before that, but these "plucked" the strings, producing a sound that was loud enough only for a small room. The piano, which hits the strings with a hammer, could be heard throughout a concert hall, but with an adjustment, could be "turned down" to play in a smaller room.

6. POMPADOUR, a high-swept hairstyle similar to today's "big hair," is the name of a French estate and a minor title of nobility. Jean Antoinette Poisson was a young French lady adopted and educated by a rich banker. She became the mistress of Louis XV. A beautiful woman and perhaps the first to define high fashion, she set the styles for Parisian fashion for her entire lifetime and beyond. Louis XV loved her so much that he bought her the estate of Pompadour and with it the title of marquise (later elevated to duchess). Sometimes a modern woman who is obsessed with fashion will be nicknamed "Madame Pompadour." The first syllable (pomp) is now used to signify a ceremony carried out in a grand style.
7. POPLIN, an English word for a type of cloth woven from silk threads in one direction and worsted yarn in the other, is simply the English mispronunciation of the French papaline (Pope's Town). The cloth was invented and first manufactured in Avignon, which had been the seat of the papacy from 1309 to 1376 and remained the property of the pope until 1791.

8. POST, as in mail, originated as post (same word), meaning a station or depot (which it still means today if you happen to be in the Army, hence the Post Exchange). For thousands of years, great kings would keep their kingdoms an empires in order by establishing a post every 25 (or so) miles along the main roads. If the king needed to send orders to a nobleman or general in the far reaches of the kingdom (or even to another king) a rider took it to a post, where other horses and riders were based. A fresh horse and rider then took the letter to the next post. The letter thus kept moving around the clock. This system (obvious if you think about it) was used by Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, and before them all by Darius of Persia. The posts became small towns in their own right and it was not unusual for local leaders and traders to pay to have an outgoing rider take their own letters, since a few extra letters hardly overburdened the horse. Marco Polo noted that the Chinese used such a system, and described the stables every 25 miles as "posts" in the sense of a small military fort (or "outpost"). His popular writings were widely read in Europe, where the system still existed in various forms in some areas. As European civilization grew, postal systems became very common and the upper classes often exchanged letters by regularly scheduled couriers. The term spawned words such as postman, post office, and posthouse. The term "posthaste" means "go as fast as those guys who ride between the posts."

9. POTATO, the edible tuberous root we now eat (in one form of another) almost every day is simply the English attempt to pronounce the Spanish word potata, which in turn is the Spanish attempt to pronounce the West Indian world batata. This was first discovered by Spanish explorers. (It is first mentioned in a document dated 1526 which does not describe it as something new.) That plant was what we now call the sweet potato or yam. It was cultivated in Europe as a novelty but few people thought it was edible. By 1550, Spanish explorers in Peru had encountered the unrelated white root vegetable that is the actual potato. The Incas called it papas but the Spanish were convinced it was just a white batata. That plant proved far more amenable to European pallets.

10. PRECIPICE, a cliff, comes from the Latin praecipito which means "head first." In ancient Rome, some criminals were executed by being thrown head first from a cliff. The term also produced precipitate meaning "to fall" (rain is precipitation) or "to rush in head first."