Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Etymology of the Names of African Nations (A to L)

Having thought about my last post and the first words spoken as our earliest ancestors embarked on the long trek out of Africa, I began to wonder about the names of the nations as they appear in the 21st century.

Africa is the obvious starting point as it also happens to come first alphabetically. A name which may come from that of the ancient Berber tribes of the north of the continent as 'cave dwellers' and named by the Romans around the time they captured Carthage. As a name it is unrecorded before the 2nd century BC and originally only applied to a small province of what is now Tunisia before slowly spreading to the rest of the continent.

Algeria is named after its capital, Algiers coming from the Arabic al-Jaza'ir which means 'the islands' and reminds us this city was built on four islands which were joined to the mainland in 1525.

Angola is from the Bantu of Ngola, a name of uncertain meaning but thought likely to be a royal title.

Benin taken from the Edo-Bini kingdom and thus the Bini people. Prior to 1975 this was Dahomey, thought to be a combination of the personal name Dag and a Sudanese word meaning 'intestines'. In the 17th century poor Dag was slit open by a member of his own palace staff, giving the capital the name of 'Dag's belly' and continued to be used in the metaphorical sense of 'a part of Dag'.

Botswana is named after the people native to these lands, the Tswana tribes also giving their name to the former name of the country, before 1966 this was Bechuanaland.

Burkina Faso literally translates as 'honest men country', the nation known as Upper Volta until 1984, named after the River Volta, itself meaning 'the river of return'. The river was named by an early expeditionary group, although whether they were referring to its turning or winding course or their means of returning from their destination was not recorded.

Burundi is ultimately named from its population, the Barundi. Before independence in 1962 this was united with neighbouring Rwanda as Ruanda-Urundi.

Cameroon is named after the river, which comes from Portuguese camaroes telling of the 'prawns' the sailors found in its waters.

Cape Verde is situated on a group of islands in the Atlantic, named from the Portuguese name for the 'green cape' or Cabo Verde in Senegal, these found off the coast of this mainland country.

Central African Republic is exactly what it says it is.

Chad is named after the lake, itself from a Bornuan word with an overly simplistic meaning of 'large expanse of water'.

Comoros is an island group in the Indian Ocean, north of Madagascar. The original Greek name, as recorded by Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD, was Ore Selenaie 'the moon mountains' and translated to Arabic for the modern name from kamar 'moon'.

Cote d'Ivoire is a translation of the original Portuguese name who referred to this place on the coast where they traded ivory by 1447.

Democratic Republic of the Congo named after the one of the world's great rivers which, rather ironically, means 'mountains' and is derived from the Bantu kong.

Republic of the Congo as with the above, named after the river Congo.

Djibouti was originally known as French Somaliland and now takes the name of the capital city, itself from an Afar word gabouri meaning 'plate'. This is a ceremonial plate, woven from palm fibres and placed on a pedestal.

Egypt is an ancient name and it comes as no surprise to find at least four possible meanings. The ancient capital was Memphis, the city of Pta, and maybe this represents Ga-Ka-Pta 'the house of the god Pta'. This could be Greek aia koptos 'the land of the Copts'. Alternatively we have the Phoenician kap-thor meaning 'island', the early settlements supposedly within the delta of the Nile. While another reference to the river may be in the Arabic kemi as the 'black land' in the colour of the waters or possibly the colour of inhabitants' skin.

Equatorial Guinea the first element is self-explanatory, this necessary as their are three 'Guineas' in Africa. All share an origin in Berber aguinau or 'black', the skin colour of the indigenous peoples.

Eritrea is certainly from the Greek erythros meaning 'red', although it is debatable whether this refers to the red soil or the Red Sea.

Ethiopia is popualrly from the Greek aithos ops and referring to 'the people with sunburnt faces'.

Gabon is another named after the river, itself named by the Portuguese from its estuary seen in 1485 as gabao 'the cape' and presumably referring to the clothing worn by the local people.

Gambia is, once again, a river named by the Portuguese who 'discovered' this in the 15th century. They can hardly have 'discovered' it in the true sense as their corruption of the name given by the indigenous people of Ba-Dimma which means simply 'river'.

Ghana took the name of the tribal leader, their version of 'king' being ghana.

Guinea as with Equatorial Guinea from Berber aguinau or 'black'.

Guinea Bissau and again from Berber for 'black'.

Kenya is thought to be named after Mount Kenya, which maybe Swahili for 'mountain' or perhaps a Kikuyu word kerenyaga describing 'the mountain of whiteness' for it is permanently snow-capped.

Lesotho is named after its people, the Sotho, whose named is derived from the river name meaning 'brown' and coloured by the sediment.

Liberia is from the Latin liber 'free' for this was where American slaves were allowed to return to their homeland and freedom from 1822.

Libya is the oldest name on the continent and is recorded on Egyptian hieroglyphics over 4,000 years ago. Unfortunately the origin is completely obscure.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

The Weather

Always a topic close to the heart of any Brit, the weather. For such a temperate climate we spend a quite ludicrous amount of time talking about something which is never right. It's too hot or cold, wet or dry, windy or humid. Yet this cannot be anything new. If we find the weather such an important topic when we spend so much of our time in today's artificial environments, logically it must have been as important to our ancestors who were forced to spend a much greater proportion of their lives out of doors. Thus it stands to reason the Proto-Indo-European tongue, the ancestor of just about every European language, will have given us many of the words we use today.

Whilst it is impossible to know the Proto-Indo-European tongue, for no written form existed, we can trace something of the etymology by comparing the many branches known through written histories.

Sky - speak of the weather and our first instinct is to look up, no surprise as the weather hardly ever occurs in the atmosphere below shoulder height. One would think this would be a really early word and yet it does not appear in English until the thirteenth century when it meant 'a cloud'. This meaning can be traced to a Proto-Indo-European skeu but that meant 'cover, conceal'. Hence while we refer to the sky as that bit which is blue during the day and dotted with stars at night, to the ancients the sky was the cloud and the rest was nothing at all which I suppose is almost correct.

Cloud - is the next obvious thing to look at and, once again, has a really odd history. This comes from Old English clud meaning 'mass of rock', there is still a summit known as 'The Cloud', and first used in the modern sense in the thirteenth century. We have no notion of what the Saxons called those white (fluffy) /grey (foreboding) / black (ominous) big things which have a tendency to move across the sky. Yet this is not to say the term had never been used prior to this. Indeed there is a reference dating from 414 BC in The Birds by Aristophanes, here he speaks of Nephelokokkygia, an imaginary city in the air which translates as a phrase everyone has heard of: 'cloud cuckoo land'.

Rain - surely the most talked about aspect of the weather. Commuters insist it rains more often to and from their place of employment than when they are in the dry at either end. In the days before the washing machine and dryer it was the bane of housewives everywhere on 'wash day'. On the school run you will never fail to hear how it "Always waits for the kids to come out of school" - which is utter drivel, the weather gods actually hate the educators and target the teachers, it is mere coincidence the pupils go home at roughly the same time. As a word it can be traced to Latin rigare 'to wet, moisten' which has also given us 'irrigate', and perhaps represents a Proto-Indo-European reg 'moisten, wet'. Of course 'rain' is not the only word describing liquid water from water vapour.

Drizzle - a fine rain, which is from a fourteenth century drysning meaning 'falling of dew'. We also find Old English dreosan 'to fall', likely from a base of Proto-Indo-European dhreu 'to drip'.

Muggy - what I considered a very British term is related to the above. From Middle English mugen and Old Norse mugga it originally described 'drizzle'.

Shower - refers to the duration not the amount of rain to fall. Both Old English scur and Old Norse skur have a Germanic base skuro and a Proto-Indio-European origin in kew-ero 'north wind'.

Deluge - unsurprisingly from Old French deluge and ultimately from Latin diluvium 'flood, inundation'. It is related to dis 'away' and luere 'to wash'.

Snow - is a comapartively late English word, in Old English it was sniwan. While it is often said the Inuit have fifty words for snow, nobody bothers to mention the English also used snew until at least the seventeenth century. Interestingly the other use, as in 'snowed under' or 'overwhelm', is also the original meaning of the white fluffy stuff much loved by those who enjoy making snowmen and snowballs (or perhaps than should be overwhelmed-men and overwhelmed-balls).

Slush - shares an origin with the Danish slus for 'sleet', an accurate description.

Sleet - is unknown in Old English, most likely because it went unrecorded for the Germanic group have enough examples including Middle High German sloz, Middle Low German sloten, Norwegian slutr, Danish slud, Swedish sloud, and all from Proto-Germanic slautjan and Proto-Indo-European slaut. This is related to 'hail' in its development and together probably described something which was not quite snow. Much as a weather forecast in February of this year which promised the snow would turn first to sleet and then icy rain, as if we would be aware there was a difference between the latter two.

Hail - in Old English was hagol, in Old Frisian heil, Old Norse hagl, and several others. All traced to Greek kakhlex and Proto-Indo-European kaghlo meaning 'round pebble' and 'pebble' respectively.

Wind - the Old English wind is from Proto-Germanic wendas 'winds', ultimately from Proto-Indo-European went 'blowing' from the verb we 'to blow'. Other early releated tongues include Sanskrit va, Hittite huwantis, Breton gwent, and many others. Those who read lots of early poetry may be aware this was pronounced to rhyme with 'kind' or 'rind' until the eighteenth century, the present short vowel is due to the influence from 'windy' which is not easy to vocalise with the longer vowel sound.

Gale - to a meteorologist any wind between 32mph and 63mph. Historically it applied only to an ocean wind, perhaps connected to Old Norse gol 'breeze' or Old Danish gal 'furious'.

Hurricane - as many will be aware this is from Spanish huracan, itself from a word in the Arawakan language spoken by the Caribbean peoples. Seen in English from the late sixteenth century there were at least 39 different spellings of this word, Shakespeare speaks of a 'hurricano'.

Tempest - and on the subject of Shakespeare clearly this was in use before the Bard of Avon penned the play of this name. It is seen in Old French tempeste and Latin tempestas 'storm, commotion, disturbance'.

Tornado - is from Spanish tronada and Latin tonare both meaning 'thunder'.

Thunder - is from the Germanic group, Old English thunor, Old Norse thorr, Swedish tordon all from Proto-Indo-European stene meaning 'to resound'. This can be seen to be related to Sanskrit tanayitnuh and Persian tundar.

Lightning - is seen in Old English as lihting and is, rather predictably, from the same origin as 'light' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European leuk 'brightness'.

Storm - can be traced to Proto-Germanic sturmaz 'onset, tumult'.

Fog - is a late addition to the English language. Danish fog 'spray, shower' is less likely than Old Norse fok 'snow flurry', thus used in the sense of difficult to see through.

Mist - is earlier than the above, found in Proto-Germanic mikhstaz, Sanskrit mih, and Proto-Indo-European migh or meigh it describes 'dimness' and, as with fog, difficult to see through.

With all these words decribing inclement weather, very few can be found for good and the main one includes an adjective from the noun which must have existed since well before it was worshipped as a god. This is really odd for, ignoring the cloudy bits, statistically there are more hours of sunshine than of rain. Which is even more amazing when considering it can only rain for 24 hours in any day, while 12 hours is the most sunshine we expect to average in a day over a year.

Sunny - clearly an adjective from that very early word. As we would expect for words which have their roots in the dawn of humanity this is a short, monosyllabic word. Proto-Germanic sunnon, Proto-Indo-European suwen, and the possibly earlier saewel all describe the great yellow orb but are also used to mean 'shine'.

The only other words I could think of to describe good weather were scorcher, clearly from scorch and first used in 1874 to describe a heatwave although oddly heatwave is not seen until 1890 when describing a spell of very warm weather, prior to that it was used to refer to the solar cycle. Such terms as 'fine', 'hot', 'sultry', 'swelter', etc all appear to be loan words. Indeed in the case of 'swelter' in the fourteenth century it meant 'to faint' and ultimately from Proto-Germanic sweltan 'to die'.

We can be certain discussions about the elements were among the earliest conversations. Sadly we shall never know any of the first words spoken by humanity (and possibly their ancestors and related anthropoids) which must have involved references to rain, wind, heat, cold, etc.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Crossword Clues

Producing a cryptic crossword recently (or rather finishing one I'd started years ago) meant playing around with possible anagrams to produce clues. I soon found my mind wandering and before long I'd produced a selection of anagrams of famous names. I repeat some of them, it is not intended to be a test but I have split them for those who like a challenge.

First the anagrams, the answers appear below


As I said not a test but an indication of how many potential words can be made from just 26 letters of the alphabet. Clearly the shortest words contain but one letter, 'I' is a word as is 'a'.
I once overheard a conversation at the bank in which the customer used the letter 'o' as a word. And if we were to accept the apostrophe as replacing two letters then 'o' would count. Incidentally this word 'o' was the answer to the question: "How was your holiday in Spain?" to which the woman replied "Oh, ya know, 'o' " - this last word saw her drop the first 'h' and, courtesy of the abysmal glottal stop, omit the final 't'. Hence the weather was 'hot' or as she put it 'o'.
But I digress. If a one-letter word can be any of the 26 letters then there are just 26 different potential words of one letter. Today 'q' isn't a word, neither is 'k', and although 'j' is a name (correctly a nickname) it isn't a word. Yet that does not mean it may not be a word in the future and the idea is to discover potential word numbers not actual word numbers. For two letter words this is 26 x 26, for three 26 x 26 x 26, four it's 26 x 26 x 26 x 26, etc. So, the number of letters in the alphabet (26) raised to the power of number of letters in the word. This gives the following:

one-letter words = 26
two-letter words = 676
three-letter words = 15,576
four-letter words = 456,976
five-letter words = 11,881,376
six-letter words = 308,915,776
seven-letter words = 8,031,810,176
eight-letter words = 208,827,064,576
Or a grand total of 217,180,145,158
I stop at eight letters (otherwise it gets ludicrous)

To give an indication of how mind-blowing amazingly big this number is, if you were to watch a clock counting to 217,180,145,158 in seconds and it started at 00:00 on 1st January 1 AD, aside from being incredibly bored (this assuming you retain memories for longer than one second otherwise you'll be excited 217,180,145,158 times), you wouldn't even be halfway there today, in fact you'd still be sitting there on 7th January 6883.
That is, as I'm sure you will agree, a lot of words. (Henceforth I shall claim all my typographical errors to be words I will invent sometime in the future)

The anagram answers (if you're still interested):

A MAN DIVORCED - David Cameron
MY JERKY EEL - Jeremy Kyle
INKS OOZY RASCAL - Nicolas Sarkozy
SO INBORN, JOSH - Boris Johnson
WINKIE BABOON - Obiwan Kenobi
ANODISE NINJA - Indiana Jones
HARD ADVERT - Darth Vader
AIMED BLIND - Ed Miliband
MO WINS CELLO - Simon Cowell
LOCH CELERY - Cheryl Cole
TROTH PRAYER - Harry Potter
VILE SPY LEERS - Elvis Presley
CRY UM PLACENTA - Paul McCartney
FERN THE SPY - Stephen Fry
STRANGLE MINOR - Neil Armstrong
ONION BANNERS - Anne Robinson
YON CALMER JERKS - Jeremy Clarkson
SODDEN MELON - Noel Edmonds
APISH LION - Ian Hislop
DARN RHINO CRABS - Richard Branson

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Why Do We Say That?

Following on from last week's look at sayings and phrases which I have been known to confuse others with, as promised an examination of the meaning and origins of some of the more unusual expressions in general use.

To describe anything with the prefix 'Dutch' is normally the opposite of the normal understanding. I had heard of a Dutch Treat where everyone pays for themselves (most often said as 'to go Dutch'), a Dutch Auction sees the price steadily decrease, and a Dutch bargain proves quite expensive. However the phrase Dutch Wife was new to me. According to certain sources it refers to a blow-up doll (yes those), while traditionally I found it used to liken Dutch females to the full-length bolsters once found in the beds of the Dutch Indies.

Welsh Rarebit is in the dictionary although more often pronounced as 'rabbit' today, 'rarebit' was supposed to represent Welsh pronunciation. It began as the somewhat unkind suggestion of how the Welsh were so poor the could not afford rabbit but were forced to substitute it with cheese. If you don't know what Welsh rarebit is, here's Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's recipe

White Elephant is a phrase used to mean something of little actual worth. This strange expression is held to date from a court of an Eastern potentate who, wishing to bring down a courtier who he had taken a particular dislike to, is said to have presented him with one of the court's white elephants. These great beasts were sacred and none would think of putting them to work. Hence it took not only a great deal of time and effort but also a considerable amount of money to keep them in the manner to which they were justly accustomed. While the elephant suffered not a jot, the courtier would soon be broke and on the streets.

Charlie's Dead was always one of my favourites if only because it seemed so few people (effectively women) understood what I was saying. The phrase "Charlie's dead' was a discreet way of informing the lass her slip or petticoat was hanging below the hem of her dress or skirt. What seems a rather contrived explanation was all I could find which stated it referred to the death of Charles II - ok there was one individual who thought it referred to the death of Communism but I'll leave you to add your own response to that drivel. Apparently the king had had so many mistresses when women heard of his death they flashed their petticoats to wave farewell.

Halcyon Days today refers to any period which is peaceful and particularly enjoyable. The original halcyon days applied to just 15 days, the day of the spring or venral equinox and the seven days both before and after same. It was held this was when the halcyon bird (an old name for the kingfisher) built its nest which was said to have floated on the sea. Hence the calmest seas were held to be found over this period of 15 days.

Gone To Pot describes something which has deteriorated. This dates back to the time when the village blacksmith would throw broken or poorly worked items of metal into a nearby pot kept specifically for the purpose. Eventually these would be melted down and reworked.

Tommy Atkins is the nickname applied to all British soldiers. This is due to official regulations by the British Army in 1815, when the specimen sheet showed the example of one Thomas Atkins.