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Wednesday, October 05, 2016


Steve Cole ponders the curious origins of interesting words:
1. ROAM, to wander over a wide area, derives from the city of Rome and the wandering paths that pilgrims to the city took during the Middle Ages. The French have romier, the Spanish have romero, and the Italians have romeo which all mean the same thing -- a wanderer.
2. ROBE, an old word for clothing and now a word for cloak or a housecoat, was the word referring to the cape or cloak that a traveler wore to protect himself from the weather. The French people from 1100-1500 were notoriously destitute, poor, and starving, and English travelers through France often remarked that robbing travelers was a significant part of the economy. When setting upon a victim, the thieves would pick up the bottom edge of the traveler's cloak and flip it over his head, blinding him and making him an easy victim. Thus, thieves were called robbers because they used the traveler's robe in this way. An alert traveler might be able to escape with his money and goods by leaving his cloak behind. To the poverty-stricken French peasants, the cloak was as valuable as the purse because it provided warmth and shelter.
3. ROSTRUM, a platform for a speaker or politician to address a crowd, commemorates a battle in Roman history in 338BC (long before Rome was a major power). The citizens of Antium (now Anzio) were pirates and often preyed on Roman ships. The Romans had enough of it and one of the two Consuls (Maenius) was sent to the city at the head of an army and fleet to attack from both sides. He utterly destroyed their military (and pirate) power. He brought home as trophies the bronze ram-prows of the six major pirate ships. There had been a speaking platform in the forum for some decades, and Maenius directed that these six ram-prows be attached to this platform so that all future crowds would be reminded of the power of Rome when listening to their leaders. The platform became known as "the beaks" since the Antillan ram-prows were shaped like the beaks of huge birds. In Latin, the plural form of beaks is "rostra" and by the time of the Roman Empire all speaking platforms were called by that term. The English (with little skill and no interest in proper Latin conjugation) called any speaking platform a rostrum.
4. RUBBER, the flexible material that makes tires, beach balls, and erasers, was unknown until Columbus brought some home from his second voyage. No one could think of much to do with "elastic gum" (although some use was made in weatherproof tarps and capes) until 1790 when it was accidentally discovered to be just swell for erasing (rubbing out) pencil marks. It was thereafter known as "Indian rubber".
5. SABOTAGE, the malicious damage of the property of an employer or a government, comes from the French word for "shoe' which is sabot. French children wore wooden shoes in the early 1800s, and eventually figured out that if they didn't like what their teacher was teaching, they could simply all clack their shoes until the annoying noise got him to change the subject. The term "sabotage" then appeared meaning a minor distraction intended to force the authorities to change their positions. In 1887 the main French labor union adopted sabotage as a weapon of their collective bargaining strategy. If the employers did not give them better pay or conditions, workers would poor sand into gears, cut drive belts on machinery, accidentally damage or lose tools, spoil food, ruin products being shipped, or other things. Sabotage quickly became a strategy use by occupied nations to drive out their conquerors.
6. SACRAMENT means sacred oath, and was originally applied to that oath that each Roman soldier swore at the start of his enlistment and at the start of each campaign. (This practice began long before Christ and lasted over a thousand years.) Over time, it was applied to other solemn oaths and acts, such as the beginnings of a judicial trial. Christian writers about 250 AD were looking for a Roman word that meant the same as the Greek "mysterion" which applied to the various holy religious rituals and oaths of the time, and that usage continued long after the fall of Rome.
 7. SACRIFICE, to give up something valuable to obtain an equal or different achievement, comes from two Latin words, sacer (sacred) and facio (to make). Thus, the original meaning was "to make it sacred" and referred to the ritual cleaning needed to make an animal pure before it was given to the temple. In earlier times when health codes did not exist, a farmer might eat his own livestock but to sell it in the market required that it be cleaned and certified as disease free so that tainted meat or produce did not cause widespread sickness.

8. SACRILEGE, a violation of something sacred, comes from two Latin word: sacer (sacred) and lego (to pick up). It originally referred to people (usually the desperate poor) who stole food items that the middle class citizens had presented to the temple as food for the gods (and priests).

9. SALARY, a payment made at stated intervals for service rendered (as opposed to wages which were paid at the end of each work day based on what was actually done) derives from the word for salt. Roman soldiers were given "basic pay" but also got certain additional payments based on where they were stationed, such as extra money for warm clothing in cold areas. As the price of salt varied widely and salt was a necessity, soldiers (and other government officials) got a separate payment of "salt money" to cover this cost. In time, the term came to apply to the entire payment for all services. It is noted that modern US soldiers use the old Roman system, with "base pay" plus various allowances for uniforms, housing, food, travel, and other expenses (sometimes varying with where the service member is stationed).

10. SALTCELLAR is an old word (hardly used since our grandparent's time) for a container of salt. These days, we use "salt shaker" for the same thing. In the Middle Ages, a noble holding a party would have salt shakers are the part of the table where he and honored visitors sat "above the salt" while everyone else at "below the salt" and had to eat their food with only whatever seasoning the kitchen staff had added.