The English language is possibly the most complex, and certainly the most original tongue on the planet. Which is, of course, amusing, since very few of the words in common use today among English speakers actually originated in English. The “great language of the common man,” as etymologist Charles Funk once put it, is as diverse as the people who speak it, and has managed to beg, borrow or steal words from virtually every other language on the planet.
This is the third in a series of articles that will ultimately look at some two hundred words. In each case, the best available authorities have been consulted, and where necessary, multiple points of view have been noted.
Current meaning: The condition of being scared
Where it comes from: The root of this word is the noun “fray,” which now means a battle or skirmish. However, in its original incarnation, the word referred to the alarm given before the battle began, and by process of time, came to refer specifically to the alarm given due to a surprise attack. From this usage came the verb “to affray,” meaning “to startle awake.” As the condition of being startled is generally linked closely with the condition of being frightened, one who was “affrayed” was generally held to be scared as well as startled. Due primarily to a lack of uniform spelling in the late seventeenth century, the word was changed to its current form.
Current meaning: A single or double long running stitch, or the use of such; the periodic bathing of roasted meat with liquids
Where it comes from: Like other words with multiple meaning, this word arose from two separate roots. The stitch arises from a French source, while the cooking term is a corruption of an old Norman word.
In Kameric (also called Cambrai), a region in France, textiles formed the bulk of the exports from the area’s industries. Among the fabrics produced was a thin and lightweight linen fabric so fine and soft that it quickly became a high-demand product. Little is known of the weaver of this particular fabric beyond his name: Jean Baptiste. English importers of the fabric had already given the name “cambric” to the fabric of the region, and so adopted the last name of the weaver as a term to distinguish the new and more desirable fabric. Accordingly, they referred to it as batiste, ignoring French spelling conventions. It was quickly determined, however, that the fabric required a longer stitch than its heavier cousins in order to avoid puckering or pulling of threads. Tailors rapidly named this longer stitch the batiste stitch and by process of time shortened it to simply baste.
The roasting of meats over low-temperature fires for long-term preservation has long been a staple method of virtually every ancient people. In the region of Normandy, however, it was common practice to brush the slowly-cooked meats with a mixture of blood and seawater during cooking, rather than using a coarse salt. The method was said to preserve the flavor of the meat for far longer, while still inhibiting rot. The Norman term for the method was “bastizo,” possibly coming from the Greek “baptizo” which means “to immerse fully.” The method, and the word, entered English shortly after the 1066 invasion of England, where it was further corrupted to “bastize“, “bastie” and, finally, to “baste.”
Current meaning: Openness or honesty; straightforward speech
Where it comes from: Roman male citizens, of any rank, were permitted and even encouraged to seek public office as a service to their fellow-man. Thus, it was not uncommon for even the most menial of the Roman citizenry, essentially anyone not a slave, declaring at some time or another as a candidate for the Senate. To narrow the field somewhat, the Roman Senate required physical display of such a declaration starting around 400 BC. The display chosen was the donning of a pure white toga, usually made of fine linen into which chalk had been rubbed to improve upon the whiteness. Thus, the new-declared “candidatus” simultaneously declared his motives to be pure and blameless, and that his integrity was unsoiled. The Latin word, which translates as “dressed in white,” has spawned the English word “candidate” from the use of the robe to declare for public office. By implication, then, the array of purity also spawned “candidus,” a Latin term that meant “truth,” “purity,” or “uprightness.” Shortly after the death of Shakespeare, the word “candid” entered the English language, and “candor” was introduced some five decades later, probably as the result of further corruption of the original Latin.
Current meaning: Benevolence or love, especially toward the poor or less fortunate
Where it comes from: Early translators of the New Testament faced several major language barriers, not the least of which was the relative paucity of Latin as compared to Greek (the Roman tongue has less than half the number of words as Greek). Jerome, a fourth century scholar who undertook the task of providing a Latin translation of the Greek text, disdained the standard Latin word for love (“amor“), since the word had the connotation of physical or sexual love. As he understood the word, it matched more nearly with the Greek word eros than it did with agape, which Jerome understood to mean a deep, close friendship, and the love which would naturally arise from such. Accordingly, he attempted to use a more neutral Latin term as a substitute, hoping that the relative neutrality of the word would allow it to take on the meaning implied by its context in a better way. The most commonly used word in Jerome’s translation for this concept was caritas, which means “dearness,” and denotes a rather colorless concept of deep affection. When the Latin text was translated by Eusebius in the early days of the Reformation, the word “charity” was born as a transliteration of the Roman caritas. As a result, the tender love of Christ as depicted in New Testament writings was referred to as “charity,” and the term came to symbolize a Christian affection toward all people. Its current meaning, while secularized, retains much of the original concept.
Current meaning: The practice of attempting negotiation or treaty-making with a foreign agency; the art of intervention
Where it comes from: The use of official documents to denote one’s status or commission was a concept that was first employed by the Roman Republic, and later was adopted by the subsequent Empire. Any individual charged with a position received, as token of that position, a piece of parchment, or two tablets of wax, upon which were written the nature of the position, the authorities possessed by the holder, and the responsibilities that the holder agreed to undertake. This parchment or wax was then either folded or laid face to face and tied shut. The Greek word for such a two-leaved document is “diploma,” and its holders, not unnaturally, were called “diplomats.” By the time of the rise of the Empire, however, these documents were used extensively as the badges of public couriers and emissaries. These emissaries were said to be practicing “diplomacy” as they traveled under the auspices of the Caesar or his magistrates, and the term become synonymous with the work done by these international liaisons.
Current meaning: Beyond reason, outsized
Where it comes from: The word stems from two Latin words “extra,” meaning “outside,” and “vagros,” which means “to wander.” Originally it simply meant “to leave the established boundaries” or “to wander away,” but by Shakespeare’s time, it had come to mean a straying of either body or mind. Hence, our current meaning of “beyond reason” is merely an extension of its original connotation.
Current meaning: A two-week period
Where it comes from: Although no longer in common use, this time period held twofold significance for the Anglos and Saxons who overran England in the fifth and sixth centuries AD. The majority of the warriors of these tribes were militiamen trained under Roman legions; along with Roman fighting techniques, the tribes adopted other Roman customs. Among these was the seven-day period of time known to us as a “week,” although the word held no significance for the Anglo tribesmen. Instead, they referred to the time period as “seofen nihta” or “seven nights.” Thus, the two-week period was “feowertene nihta” or “fourteen nights,” which became elided into “fortnight” by the end of the thirteenth century. According to the Saxons, however, the two-week period was the maximum amount of time that any fortification could be expected to hold out without reinforcements or resupply. This usage may well have contributed to the elidation of the two-word phrase.
Current meaning: Any drink containing rum that was served primarily to seamen
Where it comes from: In 1738, word reached the British House of Commons that one of the English trading ships under master mariner Robert Jenkins had been boarded by Spanish guards. Although later found to be spurious (Jenkins actually lost the boat due to a freak storm), the story spurred the departure of a fleet under the command of Vice Admiral Edward Vernon to the West Indies. Apparently known for his strict rule even in a time when stern disciplinarians made up the bulk of the British Admiralty, Vernon was referred to as “Old Grog” by his underlings, a reference to the grogham cloak he often wore. Although his later attacks were mostly inconclusive, “Old Grog’s” troops overwhelmed a number of Spanish fortifications in the early days of the assault, and Vernon was hailed as a hero. However, in punishment for some of the later failures, Vernon ordered the traditional daily ration of rum cut in half with water on board his ships. His incensed sailors contemptuously referred to the adulterated beverage as “grog” and the name stuck.
Current meaning: Any unorganized or undisciplined group of people
Where it comes from: Although many of the European governments were occasionally plagued with groups of people intent on destruction, the word “mob” did not come into being until as series of uprisings under the German emperor Henry III. Originally called a “rabble,” the fickleness of the crowd to its established leaders drew the ridicule of several noted scholars of the time, who referred to the destructive entity as “mobile vulgus.” The Latin phrase stuck, and, over time, was shortened to simply “mob,” which further incensed the ineffective purists of the times.
Current meaning: A certified genealogy or genetic line
Where it comes from: The study of descent and heritage is as old as humanity, with even texts such as the Bible listing ancestries at great length. However, the study gained fresh impetus after the Norman Conquest, with William I ordering the construction of the massive Domesday Book. Scholars also were employed in the service of nobles and would-be nobles, intent on proving or disproving claims to inheritances based on linear descent. Among the scholars, a mark shaped somewhat like our modern-day peace symbol was used to denote the line of descent; someone noticed at some point that the mark bore a more than passing resemblance to the track of a crane in fresh snow. The French term given to such a mark, therefore, was “pied de grue” or “crane track.” English commoners using the term butchered its spelling (and much of its pronunciation), leading to today’s “pedigree.”
Current meaning: To have sharp wits; to be cunning
Where it comes from: The shrew, among the smallest of mammals, is extremely fierce, although it is only about the size of a small mouse. While not poisonous or destructive, the pugnacious temper of the shrew was well known to the English commoner, who applied it to any human having a similar temper. By some means, the act of provoking such a tempestuous reaction became known as “shrewing,” and any person who had been so provoked was said to be “shrewed.” The act of “shrewing” gained some reputation as a game of wits, and eventually, the term “shrewd,” having lost its second “e” somewhere along the way, came to denote the successful “shrewer” rather than the “shrewee.”
Current meaning: A local area or group of people, larger than a village, but smaller than a city
Where it comes from: In medieval Europe, farmers did not live on the fields that they farmed; to do so invited robbery and death from the wandering brigands or the plentiful wild animals of the era. Instead, they congregated in villages that were protected by a thick, sturdy hedge or wall that would deter the animals or, in time of need, could be easily defended. Such a defense in Old English was known as a “tun” (pronounced “toon”), and the term eventually came to be applied to any village so defended. As Middle English arose, the older word was corrupted to “town” and identified a location that was defended or walled, as opposed to a hamlet or village, which were not.