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Wednesday, June 22, 2016


Steve Cole ponders the curious origins of interesting words:

1. REEFER, a heavy coat of medium length, comes from the old days of sail ships. Midshipmen (cadets hoping to become officers) were given the dangerous duty of working the highest sails as a test of character. (Every sailor knew that every officer had "taken in the reefs" of the top sails as a young man and thus as brave, steady, and physically fit.) Officers wore a long coat which was impractical for reefing sales. Sailors wore a short peacoat (named from the Dutch word pij which means wool.) Midshipmen wore "reefing jackets" which were longer than pea coats and shorter than officer coats.

2. REMORA, a fish that attaches itself to boats or sharks by means of a suction cup on its head, comes from the Latin word for "delayer" because ancient mariners thought these fish slowed down their sailboats.

3. REMORSE, the feeling of regret we have when we did something bad or stupid that turned out negatively, comes to us from the Latin remordeo, which means "to bite again."

4. REQUIEM, a song or dirge for the dead, typical funeral music, comes from the Latin word for "rest." It is the first word of the Roman Catholic prayer for the dead: "Rest eternal give to them oh Lord."

5. RETALIATE, to strike back against someone who injured you, comes from the Latin "re" (again) and talis (back). It was originally used in the sense "The same to you, jerk!" in response to a verbal insult. It later became a legal term meaning "to give back what was taken" which meant to punish someone according to the injury he caused. (If you stole something, you had to give back the same value. If you injured someone, you were given a similar injury. If you killed someone, then you were killed.) When it first came into English about 1650 it was used to mean "To give you what you gave me" but in the sense of business or trade (yielding the word "retail").

6. REYNARD is simply a name, and would not even be on this list except for how it came to be. Sometime around 1100 it was made up as the name of a fox in a book of simple tales of animals similar to Aesop's Fables or Uncle Remus. No one today uses Reynard to refer to a fox, although it may be why the name was chosen for a rather clever and unpredictable police captain on a current television show. This entry would not even be here except to note that the bear in the stories was named Bruin, an ape in one story was named Moneke, and the lion was named Nobel, three name-words that the unknown author made up for his stories. Bruin is now an alternative word for bear, monkey is a generic term for the lesser cousins of true apes, and noble has become a descriptive adjective which certainly applies to lions among many others.

7. RHUBARB, a theoretically edible plant sometimes baked in pies with lots of sugar, was known to the ancient Greeks as rha. It grew along the Volga which the Greeks considered barbarian lands, and was known as rha barbar.

8. RIGMAROLE, which today means a jumble of unconnected things that one has to go through to get the relatively simply thing you actually want. It began in the 1300s as the "ragman", a list of tasks that the foreman or sergeant needed to assign to his workers or soldiers. Once the boss wrote on the list who had been assigned each job, it became the ragman roll.

9. RIVAL, someone who competes with us for the same object or resource, comes from the Latin rivus or river. Two men who lived on the same stream were called rivalis and it was expected that they would always be arguing about how to share the use of the water. The term easily came to the current meaning. Any two men who argued about sharing any resource were thus "rivalii" in Latin and rivals in English.

10. ROAD, a pathway between two villages wide enough for a wagon, comes to us from the same place as "rode," that is, to ride a horse or wagon. Both words were in Old English as "rad" or rather, were the same word. In time, the English took to spelling it separately as "road" and "rode" to denote what he was doing and where he was doing it. In Scotland, the word was pronounced and later spelled as "raid" but had the same meaning. The trick was that Scotland didn't have a lot of horses and anyone riding a horse down the road was probably a foreigner (or a local nobleman) who had come into the country to steal things (or collect taxes). Thus, the same Old English word "rad" is now three words. Actually, four, since "inroad" meaning "to push into someone else's territory" comes from the same place.