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Tuesday, June 02, 2015


Steve Cole ponders the curious origins of interesting words:
1. PRECOCIOUS, which now refers to a child who develops (physically or mentally) faster than normal, is actually just the Latin words for "before it is cooked."
2. PREPOSTEROUS, which is now used interchangeably with "ridiculous" or "absurd" actually means "doing things in the wrong order." It is from the Latin words "pre" (before) and "posterous" (the following).
3. PRETEXT, a false reason given to hide the real reason for doing or asking something, is the old Roman word for the toga worn by high-ranking officials. It meant "before the weave" and referred to the purple border on such cloaks. Even the Romans, however, used it in the figurative sense, presumably because the high officials who wore a toga pretexta were always giving one reason for their actions and hiding the real one.
4. PREVARICATOR, someone who lies, is the old Roman word for somebody with bowed legs (either due to injury, birth defect, or spending too much time on horseback). Such individuals were said to be unable to "walk a straight line" and the term was used for lawyers who secretly made deals with the opposite party to sell out their client.
5. PROCRASTINATION, putting off to a later time something that could and should be done immediately, comes from the old Roman words pro (for the benefit of) and crastinus (tomorrow).
6. PROFANE, which today means showing disrespect for a religious institution, comes from the old Latin words pro (which here means outside) and fanum (temple). Someone who was profane was not necessarily a bad person, but someone who had not become privy to the inner secrets of the faith. Originally used by pagans, the term was later used by Christians. Since taking the name of the Lord in vain or using it as a swear word is prohibited, we call such speech profanity.
7. PURPLE, the color which today is an equal mix of red and blue, began in ancient times as porphyros, which meant a kind of brick red. It came from some kind of shellfish that lived in the eastern Mediterranean near Tyre. Because each shellfish had only a tiny drop of the dye, producing it was very expensive and only rich people could afford clothing died with that color. It became the color of kings and emperors, and may well have been more reddish than purple is today. Up to a half century ago, the phrase "born to the purple" still meant that one was born into a wealthy family, but nobody says that today.
8. PYGMY, which properly refers to a group of African tribes but is sometimes used as a generic term for a smaller version of the normal item, began as the Greek word pygmaios, which meant the 16 inches from the elbow to the knuckles. The term was applied to tales of a tribe of tiny humans (only that tall) who lived in the southern reaches of the Nile. Of course, the story shrank in the telling as pygmies are actually about five feet tall. (Several other ethnic groups of short people exist around the world of about the same size, and anthropologists apply the same word to them.)
9. PYTHON, a large snake, was originally the name of a dragon who guarded the grotto at Delphi, where it was possible to talk to the gods and discern the future. Apollo slew the dragon when only a few days old and took over the grotto, installing a succession of oracles. Or so the story goes.
10. QUACK, the sound a duck makes as well as a fake doctor selling fake cures, comes literally from the sound of a duck. (Every language in the word in contact with ducks has the same word for their sounds.) Ducks always look a little silly waddling around and making that noise, and the Dutch applied the term "quacksalver" to an endless series of medicine show men selling no end of cures (salves) in the 1500s. Most of Europe quickly used their own version of quack for such fake healers and snake oil salesmen.