To read about or hear this episode, visit theallusionist.org/bonus2015
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, ask language where it thinks it’s going dressed like that.
This is the last show of the first year of The Allusionist. Thanks a lot for joining me on the learning curve. If this is your first Allusionist, welcome; now go off and listen to some of the other episodes before returning to this one, because this is deviating from the normal form, and I wouldn’t want your data to be inaccurate.
Today’s show will feature a smattering of anecdotes there wasn’t room for in the episodes before - and I’ll be tackling a few of the requests for word histories you’ve sent in over the year. Like this one from John-Mark in Oxford:
I was wondering whether you'd be willing to take on some meta-etymology in your podcast and shed some light on the etymology of ‘etymology’.
As you wish, John-Mark.
Not to be confused with entomology, the study of insects, 'etymology' is from Ancient Greek: etymon = true or real, logia = study. So it’s the study of the true sense of a word, which is at odds with a lot of etymological theories being bollocks.
“Is it an acronym?” No! It almost certainly isn’t! Especially if it’s a pre-20th century word. That’s just not how words were formed. Or: “Does this seemingly innocuous commonplace word have horrible racist etymology?” Usually it’s not the innocuous commonplace words with the horrible racist etymologies, but people really want to believe the worst.
Here’s an example from Matt:
I've heard simply horrible origins for the word 'picnic', which I hope aren't true.
If what you’ve heard, Matt, is the widespread assertion that picnic derived from people having a nice snack whilst watching African-Americans get lynched, be relieved - it’s not true at all. Of the word, at least - apparently that situation was all too real. But the word picnic was not associated with it; it arrived in English in the 18th century from the French word 'pique nique', which originally referred to people bringing their own wine to restaurants. The word eventually gathered the ideas of everyone bringing something to the meal and eating it outside - but not serving it with a side dish of horrific hate crimes. There’s already a lot of terribleness in the world, you don’t need to invent more.
But nonsense often has more traction than the truth, and particularly when a word’s origins are obscure, false etymologies sprout and flourish in the linguistic shadows.
Sometimes the false etymology is so fun, I want to believe it, even though I don’t, as in this request from Gav for the origin of the term “You’re fired” as it relates to employment. One ambitious suggestion is that in the early 20th century, John H Patterson, the founder of the National Cash Register company - which was a big deal in those days - was such a harsh boss, he used to communicate to employees that they were no longer required by taking their desks outside and setting fire to them.
However, this particular sense of fired predates John H Patterson, it was around in the 1880s. Some suggest that in ancient times, a community would force a person to leave by burning all their stuff.
But in reality, an awful lot of language formation was quite practical or banal, whereas these stories are too much like stories to be plausible etymologically. There isn’t a definitive explanation for ‘fired’, but I think it’s quite likely that a person being swiftly discharged from their job is analogous to a cannonball or bullet being fired from a weapon.
Invented languages might have other drawbacks, but at least there’s not much opportunity for garbage etymologies, because where did the word come from? It’s an invented language, someone made it up!
A few weeks ago, fellow Radiotopian Nate DiMeo from The Memory Palace came on the show to learn the invented language Toki Pona with me. Here he explains why he became interested in invented languages.
NDM: One of the things we did during my linguistics class is, we got a guest lecture from one of the professors’ most successful former students. And he was the guy who invented the Klingon language. I think he might also have gone on to invent Dothraki, or Elvish for LOTR. But part of what he explained was, he was inventing this language that yes, did have certain principles and syntactic and other principles of the various language groups of the world.
But Klingon was designed to sound horrible, and be very very challenging to say, because he wanted it to sound truly alien, coming from people whose vocal cords - they may only look like people wearing makeup with giant heads, but he wanted us to intuit that underneath that semi-similar exterior was a crazy interior. He wanted sounds that no language would ever put together because they’re so difficult to make one after the other, or the strain on the voice would be too much that no people living anywhere in the world would ever have stumbled upon in their thousands of years of trade and that.
[Clip: Klingon Rosetta stone ad]
Bucolic. I always thought it weird that such a horrible disease-ridden word could describe something so charming and beautiful as a pastoral idyll.
Is it disease-ridden? Are you thinking of bubonic plague?
From Ancient Greek boukolikós = rustic, from 'boûs' ox + '-kolos' keeper.
Oxen could be disease-ridden, if you insist on finding a disease connection in the word.
Alex wants to know where the word ‘garage’ comes from. From the French verb ‘garer’ which meant to shelter, or to dock ships.
I am a swimming teacher and often sort the children into teams before we play a game.
For team names, I like to choose animals from the water... sharks, dolphins, seahorses and get stuck with octopi/octopuses/octopodes.
So I may avoid looking like a fool, what is the correct plural please?
Octopus came from the ancient Greek 'oktopous', eight-footed, which is why some argue for the ancient Greek plural octopodes. I think most people would feel like tools using octopodes, and most people hearing it would be like, “What? Do you mean ‘octopi’?”. 'Octopi' is definitely not it: that came from the assumption the word was Latin and would have a Latin plural, but it’s a modern Latin word borrowed from Greek in the 1800s, and even then its plural wouldn’t be octopi. So forget octopi! It’s an English word now; let’s be practical and apply the standard modern English plural, ie 'octopuses'. Then we can stop worrying about it and worry about the giant squid at the bottom of the swimming pool.
HZ: Alice Sanders appeared in the Architecting about Dance episode, to talk about her work audio-describing films and TV shows for people with vision impairments. She mentioned the difficulty of having to put dance scenes into words, but her job is riddled with other linguistic obstacles.
AS: Sometimes we have our work checked by outsiders, like an audio description audit. They always bring up homonyms, “Won’t they think it means this?”
One of my friends was describing one of Michael Palin’s adventure series and said, “Michael Palin waves his cock over the fire.” It’s obviously not his penis. It’s already been made clear he has a cockerel; there’s not going to be any confusion about this sentence.
HZ: But maybe there would be about this sentence?
AS: I remember one in Bridesmaids, when she mimes a sexual act. I said, “She waves her hand like a cock flapping in her face.” Something along those lines.
HZ: I don’t remember any poultry appearing in that film, do you?
HZ: Do you ever put in bawdy jokes and try to sneak them past the approvers?
AS: Sometimes I do put in a little joke. I was once describing an American TV programme called Extreme Dodgeball, although as far as I can tell there was nothing extreme, it was regular dodgeball.
AS: There was this presenter and she was interviewing a contestant after a match, and she said, “So Dave, you’re literally on fire!” And I said, “No, no he isn’t.” Because I thought it’s misleading to blind people.
I grieve for ‘literally’, the helpless victim of semantic shift.
Carlos: 'pithy': related to pith, as in citrus peel? Related to a pith helmet? Where's the connection?
Right, although you think the pith is the crappy bits that you pick off a clementine, since Old English it has meant the essential part - not just of a plant, because there was also the verb to pith "to kill by piercing the spinal cord”. When you say something pithily, you’re efficiently getting to the heart of the matter. Oh and a pith helmet is made from the dried pith of the Bengal spongewood.
Stuart: I would love to know where 'nimrod' comes from.
I would love to make this happen for you, Stuart! Nimrod was the great-grandson of Old Testament starlet Noah. In Hebrew, the name means ‘rebel’.
Stuart: How and why is ‘nimrod’ an insult?
Didn’t start that way. it used to mean someone who was great at hunting, because in the book of Genesis, Nimrod is "a mighty hunter before the Lord”, and he was also king of Babylon, so it oughtn’t be an insult, because he was rather mighty, although like most people in the Old Testament, he was a bit of an arsehole. But Bugs Bunny used to insult Elmer Fudd and his hunting skills by calling him nimrod so sarcasm eventually flipped the meaning.
Talking of meanings getting distorted, here’s songwriter and singer Tony Hazzard, who appeared on the Vocables episode of the show.
TH: I once wrote a song in the late 60s. I’d had my only acid trip, and in those days it was terribly strong, so you were under the influence for quite some time. So I wrote this song called ‘The Sound of the Candyman’s Trumpet’. I’d read somewhere that in the northeast in the early 20th century, the sweet-seller would go around blowing on a bugle or a trumpet, like an ice cream van with the chimes. I used lots of acid-type imagery, and for some reason my publisher put it in for the Eurovision Song Contest.
TH: I couldn’t believe they put it in - and Cliff Richard was singing it! It was totally inappropriate! I did hear it was his favourite of the eight.
HZ: It really does make you wonder whether anyone is listening to lyrics at all.
Tony’s song didn’t win that night; it was beaten by 'Congratulations', which went on to lose the Eurovision Song Contest by one point.
Max Klein says:
Here's a question of portmanteau romance for you: When they got married my girlfriend's parents collided together their two last-names to make a new last name they could really call their own. "Pugatsch" and" Kylar" became "Afek". "P" and "F" are the same in Hebrew, and they threw in a vowel to make it make sense.
Now we'd like to do something similar. I thought that her surname "Afek" plus my surname "Klein" could be "Affine". From my maths background I think "affine" means "family" - which would make a great last name. Can you provide a more detailed etymology of "Affine/Affinity" so we can make a more informed decision?
‘Affinity’ came from the Latin for a neighbour: if you break down the word it’s ‘ad finis’, to a border - your neighbour being the person who lived on the border of where you live. In 14th century English, ‘affinity’ is a person being related to you by marriage, so I think that’s a very apt choice for your new marital name.
In contrast, this goes out to a couple of friends of mine: the etymology of 'nemesis'.
Nemesis was the name of the Ancient Greek goddess of retribution and righteous indignation. Her name was from the Greek verb 'to distribute', because one of her main pastimes was providing balance - particularly for people who were excessively arrogant or fortunate. In Greek myth, you can’t be too happy! Or at all happy. Amongst many other killjoy achievements, Nemesis was the one responsible for the undoing of the bad-mannered hottie Narcissus: she lured him to a well, where he fell in love with his own reflection and spent so much time staring at it, he starved to death.
Look, we’ve all encountered some self-infatuated people in our time, but that seems excessively mean. Nemesis was very generous when doling out vengeance, so no wonder a Nemesis came to be one’s ultimate enemy.
Not the note on which I planned to end the first year of the Allusionist, because it’s been a joy and a privilege to make it and to have you join me. And iTunes UK chose this show as the best new podcast of 2015, which I’m very chuffed about, as I am to be part of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the finest podcasts in the world - hear all of them at radiotopia.fm.
Radiotopia is here thanks to the support of the Knight Foundation, Mailchimp, and you wonderful listeners who dug deep to raise funds to keep our shows going. Huge thanks to all of you, especially Jez Burrows, he designs, he illustrates, and now he also writes Dictionary Stories, a collection of very short stories entirely composed example sentences from the dictionary - dictionarystories.com, I reckon it’ll be your kind of thing, because...dictionaries! Of course I wasn’t going to leave you without one last randomly selected word from the dictionary for the year…
[Sound of dictionary pages being ruffled]
illywhacker, noun, Australian, informal, a small-time confidence trickster.
Several of you asked whether that’s really me ruffling through the dictionary or whether I use sound effects. I wasted all the show’s budget on visual effects, like a fool, so the dictionary sound is real. I record it every time, using a Concise Oxford English Dictionary. I admit, one time I wasn’t recording the show in my usual place and didn’t have the dictionary to hand so had to use a copy of Thomas Picketty’s Capital, which is almost as big - but it just didn’t sound right.
This is the sound of a bona fide dictionary. [Sound of dictionary pages being ruffled]
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman. I’ll be back on 27th January 2016. In the meantime, you can catch up on my other podcast Answer Me This, and I’m at facebook.com/allusionistshow and twitter.com/allusionistshow, and at theallusionist.org.