Sunday, 30 November 2014

Naming Baby (Her)

I admit I roll my eyes, even cringe at times when I hear some of the names given to babies. I know I'm not alone. Personally I think parents should think of the school years of the child - recently heard a mother calling her daughter Ocean and my first thought was "does she make her feel sick". Recently a storyline in The Archers saw a character toying with the idea of naming her new baby Mowgli and, following the voiced disapproval of both grandmothers, resorted in a naming ceremony dubbing it Mungo - which still didn't go down particularly well.

Of course this will have been true of every generation. I used to work with a woman named Gay. Once popular (for both males and females) it is easy to see why a young baby would not be named such in the modern age. Today there is a whole generation of young ladies known as Kylie, a name which became commonplace when their mothers' were glued to the actress (later singer) appearing in Neighbours. Such is nothing new for earlier the name of Tracy did not become popular until the big screen successes of actor Spencer Tracy.

Whilst I would be associated with place names, there are other proper nouns of interest to me. Over the years my research has uncovered details of the origins of personal names. Many have fallen out of use but may well return one day. There has always been those who use a relevant surname as a christian name - ironically some of the earliest surnames are adaptations of christian names - but it those which have some etymological interest which attract me. Some will have been insults, others whimsical, and even a few complimentary.

Beginning with the female names I offer a list of examples in alphabetical order.

ANDREA would seem to be a quite normal name. It comes from the Greek and means 'manly', something which would not bother Andreas in Italy, Romania and Albania where Andrea is a male name.

BARBARA comes from the Greek and is the female version of 'barbarous' and hence means literally 'barbarous woman', although this should be understood as 'foreign woman' as, to the Greeks, anyone not a Greek was a barbarian.

CECILIA and CHLOE are two seemingly inoffensive names, these mean 'blind' and 'green' respectively. Incidentally for those who think CHELSEA is a good idea, they might like to know it means 'landing place for chalk'.)

DEBORAH would seem innoccuous enough, until we learn it is from the Hebrew for 'bee'. I also noted DELILAH meant 'flirtatious', prompting me to think "Why, why, why Delilah".

ELEANOR means 'pity'. Judging by the lyric to Eleanor Rigby, I think Sir Paul may have known the origin.

FAYE or FAY means 'fairy' (I instantly thought she would be good for washing dishes).

GEORGINA is clearly the female equivalent of George. The female form thus means 'earth woman' as in 'woman of the soil' rather than in the sense of a deity.

HAILEY actually began as a place name and effectively means 'woodland clearing, woodland clearing'.

IO is increasing in popularity, probably as a result of the space programme with this being a moon of Jupiter. Unfortunately this came from the Greek for the girl loved by Zeus but loathed by Hera, thus the god turned her into a heifer to protect her from his jealous wife, and the name does mean 'heifer'.

JADE and the name conjures up images of the stone. However it was also once used to refer to 'a woman regarded as disreputable or shrewish'.

KLAUDIA or CLAUDIA comes from a term meaning 'lame'. Incidentally those who named their daughters Kylie all those years ago may not have known it meant 'boomerang' while another modern offering Kia means 'go well'.

LEA and LEIA have several sources but the earliest is probably Hebrew meaning 'cow' (I wonder if George Lucas was aware of this?). Incidentally the increasingly popular Leena (probably only a variant spelling of Lena) comes from the Arabic for 'palm tree'.

MATILDA and a name which fell out of favour in 15th-century England as it was more often used as a euphemism for a prostitute. Of course this had been forgotten by the time it returned, maybe as a result of the song Waltzing Matilda.

NINA is most often a shortened form of many other names. However it is also a Quechua word meaning 'fire' (inspired by a passing fire engine at the time of birth and/or conception?)

OPHELIA is ultimately from the Greek meaning 'help'. Possibly worth mentioning that Oprah was not her given name, she was named Orpah which was constantly mispronounced and stuck - it means 'back of the neck'. (Parents who could see far into the future, apparently.)

PHILIPPA, clearly the feminine form of Philip, is of Greek origin and means 'lover of horses'. (Not even tempted.)

QUEENIE and only because it was the only one I could find and with obvious meaning. (All I can hear is the ending of Now I'm Here.)

REBECCA or RACHEL, both biblical names and from Hebrew meaning 'tie' and 'ewe' respectively. Here 'tie' is used in the sense of 'married to or associated with', although the literal meaning would have been 'cattle stall'.

SHANIA, increasing in popularity through singer Shania Twain, it comes from Native American meaning 'I am coming'. Saffron, another of increasing popularity, comes from a word meaning 'yellow'. (Jaundiced, perhaps?)

TALLULAH, the most famous being actress Tallulah Bankhead who popularised the name, comes from a Native American word meaning 'terrible'. (Never saw her act.)

ULRICA began as a female Scandinavian name meaning 'wolf power'. I have no idea what a female wolf is called. Nor do I know what a 'female bear cub' is called other than it is the meaning of the name URSULA.

VANESSA is really a cheat as there is little to choose from. It is quite interesting as it was created by writer Jonathan Swift, a pet name coined for his friend Esther Vanhomrigh and pieced to together from both her names. (Incidentally ESTHER is a Persian name meaning 'star'.)

WENDY is, like VANESSA, a created name and much more recently. First appearing in the 1904 play Peter Pan by J M Barrie, it was adapted from his childhood nickname of 'Fwendy-Wendy'. Hence perhaps it could be said to mean 'friend'.

XENA has been popularised by the television warrior princess. However her name comes from the Greek meaning 'stranger, foreigner'.

YVETTE is the feminine form of YVES, a French name and thus meaning 'the female tree tree'.

ZIA is thought to come from the Arabic for 'splendour' but in Italian zia does mean 'aunt'.

To address any suggestion of sexism I shall cover male names next time.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

An A-Z of English Loanwords

After looking at the origins of some of the newer words and phrases added to the English language last time, I began thinking about earlier loanwords. English is positively rife with examples, hence I chose a simple A to Z format, paying particular attention to those which have been around long enough to have seen a change in meaning.

A is for Admiral
Comes from Arabic amir, where it shares a root with emir, and originally spoke of a commander on land, whereas English usage is a naval rank.

B is for Bully
A very negative expression in modern English and one coming to our language from Dutch boel meaning 'lover' or 'brother'.

C is for Carrot
Not seen in English until the sixteenth century, it is thought to come from the Proto-Indo-European root ker meaning 'horn, head'.

D is for Drug
Today medicinal and coming to our language through Old French droge 'supply, stock, provision' and from Middle Dutch and Low German drog-vate 'dry barrels'. The Old French meaning shows it was misunderstood as referring to the contents and not a barrel containing dry goods.

E is for Easel
Today the stand used to support a canvas, for an artist, or a chalkboard, for a teacher. Originally this was the Dutch ezel meaning 'donkey'.

F is for Fetish
In the modern era most often used to refer to unusual sexual preferences. It comes from Portuguese fetiches where it referred to the charms and talismans worshipped by the inhabitants of the coastal region of Africa near Guinea and also adopted by the Portuguese sailors and merchants who discovered them.

G is for Garble
Today's meaning of incoherent or jumbled speech is remarkably recent. Until the nineteenth century it was used to mean 'to sift' and first came to Western Europe as Catalan garbellar meaning 'to sift' and invariably used in reference to spices and dyes.

H is for Hug
Probably used more today that it has ever been, it is first seen in Old English as hycgan meaning 'to think, consider'.

I is for Indigo
Today only ever a colour and rarely mentioned unless speaking of the rainbow or spectrum. It originates as a Portuguese reference to the 'dye from India', one which, rather predictably, produced such a colour.

J is for Jeer
Today's use of 'to mock' is rather different to the German scheren 'to shear'.

K is for Knickerbockers
Perhaps some would see this as an item of attire. Others, such as I, would instantly think of a rather large dessert. Both are very much removed from the original Dutch meaning of 'toy marble baker'.

L is for Lambada
A well-known dance one would think, but beware accepting an invitation to dance for it was originally Portuguese lambada meaning 'beating, lashing'.

M is for Macrame
The modern use of a textile made from knotting rather than weaving or knitting is very different from the original Arabic qaram. By the time it reached English in the nineteenth century it had evolved through Turkish, Italian and French and very much changed since the Arabic meaning of 'to nibble persistently'.

N is for Nasty
Another Dutch loanword and one originally seen as nestig or 'like a bird's nest'.

O is for Orange
Originally a reference to the fruit in English and first seen in the 13th century. As a colour it was not used until the 13th century, prior to that the colour orange was known as geoluread or 'yellow-red'. The House of Orange has a completely different etymology, coming from the place name and named after the Celtic water god Arausio. The colour was not adopted by the House of Orange until the sixteenth century.

P is for Poppycock
Probably seen in the 21st century as a rather polite way to describe another's opinion with which one disagrees. The original Dutch pappekak meant 'soft dung'.

Q is for Quisling
As many will know a word not used until the Second World War and a reference to Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian traitor who headed the puppet government under German occupation for which he was tried and shot.

R is for Robot
Another word recently introduced to English, somewhat predictably considering the scientific usage of today. It comes from the Czech language where robot originally meant 'labour, drudgery'.

S is for Slim
Today something many would strive to become and spend a great deal of time, effort and money in doing so. The original Dutch slim could be 'bad, sly, crooked'.

T is for Tariff
Today is a tax, particular on goods crossing international boundaries. Originally this Arabic word was arraf meaning 'to notify'.

U is for Ukelele
Possibly the best known of this list, for while the instrument may come to mind the original Hawaiian described a 'jumping flea'.

V is for Vernacular
Common speech today, originating from Latin verna meaning 'home-born slave'.

W is for Widow
Either the female 'widow' or the male 'widower' describe a marriage ended by the death of one individual. It can be traced to the Latin viduus meaning 'bereft, void' and ultimately from the root weidh 'to separate'.

X is for Xenophobia
Something of a cheat as I was unable to find anything beginning with X in fairly common use in English. However as the idea was to find a different original meaning 'xenophobia' does fit. This is from the greek xeno 'foreign, strange' phobia 'fear', but was earlier used (until at least 1884) in the same context as 'agoraphobia' would be today.

Y is for Yacht
Coming to English from Dutch, where it referred to a'hunting ship'. it can be traced to the Proto-Indo-European yek meaning 'to hunt'.

Z is for Zebra
Today the image of black and white stripes comes to mind, however the Portuguese zebro described the female of a kind of deer.

Sunday, 16 November 2014


Regular readers of my blog will already know of my fascination with words and etymologies. As we grow older with have a natural resistance to change – the old music, films, actors, et al were always better. The same is true with language. Slang terms used by younger generations become part of the language remarkably quickly and loan words from other languages pepper the English tongue. Cola, boogie, admiral, tea, yacht, orange, candy and ginger are all common enough English words but all are borrowed from other languages.

In recent years we in the United Kingdom have been treated to the introduction of various phrases introduced from the United States of America. Some arrived through business contacts and many others through the medium of television. It did occur to me that some who use the phrases would have no notion of the original meaning. For example to say “Stepping up to the plate” is, as most will know, a reference to take responsibility and a baseball term. Those who have no knowledge of this particular sport should be made aware this is where the next player takes his stance when coming in to bat. For those in the United States to hear the phrase “Walking to the crease” (or perhaps “Taking guard”) would perhaps be equally mysterious, cricket being even less popular west of the Atlantic than baseball is to the east.

This made me think about other popular phrases.

“Touch base” – another baseball analogy. For those who don’t know it’s the bit where the running chap has to get in order to be ‘safe’ and not run out. I have to say I have never felt at all safe when anyone suggests it is time we touch base. The message here is to make contact and first used in the United States around the 1970s and in the United Kingdom in the 1990s.

“Thinking outside the box” – a reference to unconventional thinking and thought to originate in a puzzle test. The aim is to connect all nine dots (three rows of three) with four straight lines and never lifting the pen from the paper nor going over the same line a second time. Answer is searchable online and I won't spoil it. Suffice to say the solution involves in drawing the lines outside the area of the ‘box’ formed by the nine dots.

“Proactive” – one of my personal hates (probably because former England cricketer turned commentator Nasser Hussain uses it incessantly) and coined in the 1930s. Here the intention was to create a word to have the opposite meaning to ‘reactive’ – ie don’t react to a situation but do something to prevent the situation ever happening.

“At the end of the day” – in the modern era has only been seen since the late 1970s or early 1980s. In the 21st century it is used as ‘in the final analysis’ when the original usage was instead of ‘eventually’. Both these alternatives are infinitely better – and I’m not the only one to loathe this phrase, for in 2008 it was voted the most irritating,

“Going forward” (also “Moving forward”) – nearly always accompanied by an equally irritating gesture and meaning ‘in the future’ or even ‘soon’, nobody seems to have any idea when it came into use (outside board meetings) or just why anyone thought it made any sense at all.

“Paradigm” (also “Paradigm shift”) – began as a scientific term. Now I fully understand the need to create words in the name of science. Imagine Sir Isaac Newton having to write about gravity for the first time and deciding upon a name for this force, what would you have come up with? The original use of “Paradigm shift” was by Thomas Kuhn in his The Structure of Scientific Revolution published in 1962. For example science showed how germs were the cause of disease when previously it was thought to be a result of “bad air” and exactly how ‘malaria’ got its name. As a buzzword it is among the newest, appearing as recently as the late 1990s.

“Push the envelope” – was not first used in Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff published in 1979 but likely the reason for its popularity. The use of ‘envelope’ here is nothing to do with letters but is a mathematical envelope defined as “The locus of the ultimate intersections of consecutive curves”. In some circles the phrase is altered to “Max the envelope”, a ludicrous idea as we are all aware envelopes are called Manilla, not Max.

“Cut to the chase” – or ‘get to the point’ is thought to have come from silent film director Hal Roach. In the days when all film comedy was visual, a chase was the inevitable conclusion to a film as it made for good viewing and could be extended to fill the void left by the lack of dialogue. However there is a record of an earlier form coming from around 1880 (and well before Hollywood). Here the phrase is given as “Cut to Hecuba”. Shakespearian devotees will know this as Act II, Scene II of Hamlet, thus avoiding the long speeches and soliloquies.

“Downsizing” – first used by car manufacturers to refer to the size of the vehicles they produced and almost immediately used by them to explain why they were reducing costs by cutting numbers of employees and/or wage bills. Today, especially in the United Kingdom, it has been introduced into daily speech by the innumerable presenters of daytime television programmes who like to show us other people looking to buy their next home (and who seem obliged to use the word ‘property’ at least once in every sentence). Oddly these same presenters do not use ‘upsizing’ for those who want a bigger home but always speak of needing “More space” or “A bigger home”.

“Decluttering” – ye gods what an appalling word! It would make more sense if we had introduced ‘cluttering’ as a verb meaning ‘to make a mess or untidy’ either at the same time or earlier. Indeed instead of telling my mother “Nothing!” or “Not much!” when she asked what I had been doing in my room, I would have enjoyed saying I was “Busy cluttering, Mumsie”.

All these do bring to mind a phrase my father used a lot and one which I wish would have or maybe will catch on. On hearing some gibberish being spoken he would describe it as “Talking scribble”.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Search for the Oldest Joke

In writing about the origins of place names I often come across examples of names clearly transferred from elsewhere around the world. Among the most common are Botany Bay, New Zealand, California and even World’s End. Clearly these cannot have been named before the more famous examples and were probably suggested as those places were in the news at the time.

These are known as remoteness names, not a direct reference to the other side of the world (as in the case of Botany Bay) but a name coined for the far corner of the parish. In times when virtually everyone earned their living from the land, there were times when that patch of land at the extremity of the parish required tilling, sowing or reaping, and some unfortunate fellow had to walk there and back each day. He would have joked about it being at the other side of the world and eventually the name stuck.

There are also streets named Zig Zag Lane and similar. Whilst some do indeed have significant bends there examples where the road is as straight as any Roman road and, once again, this has been named by some wit who thought it quite inappropriate.

Doubtless these examples will have been the source of great guffaws of laughter at one time. Today they might raise a small smile at best. The question of why is undoubtedly because humour changes over time, and a remarkably short period of time, too.

The examples of place name humour is only about three hundred years old at most. More recently our grandparents or perhaps great-grandparents will have found Charlie Chaplin and similar silent screen stars hilarious – yet this slapstick will hardly amuse anyone today. When the talkies arrived it meant humour did not have to be visual. In the classic musical Singing in the Rain we see how a silent movie star’s voice ruined her career when the audience could really hear her rather than read her words on screen.

Later radio shows saw comedy actors play regular roles and the development of the catchphrase. We also saw some apparently ‘classic’ comedy routines on the big screen, thereafter television introduced other forms of comedy including Monty Python, The Young Ones and Morecambe and Wise.

From a personal viewpoint I never have understood just why Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on first” routine was amusing. I’m sure Charlie Drake and Dickie Henderson must have amused many during the 1960s, although I never met anyone who admitted such. Mike Yarwood’s impressions were once primetime television in the UK. And remember that ‘bear’ on The Andy Williams Show always demanding milk and cookies? Did you laugh? I didn’t.

Having said that I still find reruns of The Goons and Round the Horne on radio compulsive listening. The improvisational talents of Colin Mochrie and Ryan Styles are still of great amusement. While messrs Merton, Fry, Edmondson, Carrott, Connolly, Atkinson, et al can always be relied upon.

Hence clearly what is funny depends upon one’s era (there is also the cultural factor but that complicates things far too much). All this had me thinking about the earliest jokes. Would they be funny? Clearly these would have to be in written form. But would we even recognise these as a joke?

A little research uncovered three absolutely hilarious witticisms. Prepare to split your sides:

From the 1st century BC comes this little gem featuring Emperor Augustus who is touring a small part of his empire when he meets a man who bears an amazing likeness to himself. The emperor asks if his mother was ever in service at the palace? He replies “No, but my father was.”

From 1600BC and another from around the Mediterranean, this time it is the pharaohs of Egypt who are the target of the joke when the comedian asked “How do you entertain a bored pharaoh?” And answered himself with “Sail a boat full of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile – and urge the pharaoh to go fishing.”

Wet yourself yet? Thought not. Then perhaps the oldest known joke in the world, which must surely merit it being considered a classic through age alone, will have us all rolling in the aisles. It is not much earlier than the Egyptian offering, dating from around 1900 BC, and a Sumerian gag which is recorded thus: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.” You’d think we would have heard that as it is approaching 4,000 years old, although it is easy to see why we haven’t.

I also managed to find the oldest British joke. Found in a 10th-century book of Saxon poetry in Exeter Cathedral known as the Codex Exoniensis, the joke is in the form of a question and reads “What hangs at a man’s thigh and wants to poke the hole it’s often poked before?” The answer is, of course, “A key.”

Perhaps it’s the way I tell them.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

An A-Z of Homonyms (Almost)

While working on my last post I was reminded of a question posed to me at a recent talk. Specifically a member of Stone Historical and Civic Society asked about the use and origins of the word ‘plant’ when speaking of heavy machinery. Did it have an entirely different etymology to its more common use? Of course at that moment I had absolutely no notion. However I did promise to cover such in my blog and here it is.

Any word having the same spelling and pronunciation but having more than one meaning is described as a homonym. Correctly these should be seen as different words for, as we shall see, they have rather different histories. When contemplating this post I had wondered just how many examples I could discuss and whether there would be enough to make it worthwhile. I will admit to being a little surprised by just how many there are and hence have opted for a simple alphabetical list. No apologies for omitting the letters X and Z for there are no homonyms beginning with these two letters – unless you can show me otherwise.

Ash – referring to the tree and also the residue from a fire. Doubtless one of the oldest words as it is one of the simplest sounds and an examination shows this to be true. Related to Greek azein ‘to parch’, to Latin ardus ‘dry’, and even Sanskrit asah ‘ashes, dust’. All have the common root of Proto-Indo-European ai meaning ‘to burn, glow’ and what was originally a reference to the fire later used in a plural form to give the modern meaning. When it comes to the tree, as with many tree names, it is the use of the wood we should look to. Ash was used to make the shafts of spears, indeed Old English aesc referred to both the tree and the spear, and comes from Proto-Indo-European root os for the ‘ash tree’. Over millennia this gave Old Norse askr, Dutch esce, German esche, Armenian haci, Latin ornus, Russian jasen, and Lithuanian uosis.

Bank – either the financial institution or used topographically. Clearly the latter will have been known and described thousands of years before even the concept of finance existed. However from an etymological perspective there is virtually no difference in the two. Both are known from around the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries and both seem to be derived from an unknown Proto-Indo-European word meaning something akin to ‘build up’, ascend’. The modern words have been derived from Old Italian banca ‘table’, in the case of the financial institute, and early Germanic bankiz or ‘bench’, when speaking of a feature in the landscape.

Carp – is either a fish or to complain. The piscine form is by far the simplest, ultimately from an East Germanic karpa and the name given to a fish found in the Danube. Once the carp was prized as a food fish, indeed this was the reason for the creation of the many fish ponds into which these fish were introduced – they satisfied the need for protein in a diet, especially when religion deemed it wrong to eat red meat on Fridays. We do not know the original use of the word, however anything other than a reference to food is highly improbable. When it comes to the use of ‘complaint’, the word comes to English from Latin carpere ‘to slander, revile’ and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European kerp meaning ‘gather, pluck, harvest’. Hence the phrase ‘to pick or pull apart’, as in an argument, has the identical origin and ‘carp’ in this sense shares an origin with ‘harvest’.

Dock – as in a place where craft come to be unloaded or in the sense to remove the tail of an animal. The former appears to have been used initially to refer to a rut created by the passage of a wheel through wet or muddy ground. As a dock is a man-made feature, the cutting to where the goods can be unloaded would resemble the wheel rut. To remove part of an animal’s tail is first used in the late fourteenth century, ultimately this comes from Proto-Germanic dokko meaning ‘a bundle’ or ‘something round’ and its use for a shortened tail a reference to the muscle which had been cut.

Egg – the obvious reproductive reference is ultimately from Proto-Indo-European awi meaning ‘bird’. When it comes to meaning ‘to incite’, it comes to English from Old Norse eggja and from ‘edge’ as in ‘to advance slowly’ and thus misunderstood pronunciation.

Firm – meaning ‘solid, stable’ and another word for a company or business. The former is ultimately from Proto-Indo-European dher ‘to hold, support’ and evolved before coming to English through the Latin firmus ‘strong, steadfast’. When used in the business sense the origin is also Latin but here from firmare or ‘to sign’, this giving us the modern ‘affirmation’ in the same sense.

Gum – can be a part of the mouth where the teeth erupt or an adhesive. In the latter the use can be traced to Latin gumma, Greek kommi and Egyptian kemai, all meaning ‘resin’ and used in this sense to refer to texture. When it comes to a part of the mouth we can trace it back to gheu, the Proto-Indo-European word meaning ‘to yawn’. Later we find Lithuanian gomurys, Old High German goumo, and Old Norse gomi, all meaning ‘palate’.

Hail – used to describe frozen rain and to refer to a greeting. The latter was first used as a nautical greeting, first seen in print in the sixteenth century, and from the religious salutation Hail Mary or ave Maria. Weather-wise it is related to Greek kakhlex ‘round pebble’ and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European kaghlo ‘pebble’.

Inch – as in the imperial measurement and also a small Scottish island. The former comes from the Latin root uncial meaning ‘a twelfth part’. The island is much earlier and seen in Gaelic innis, Old Irish inis, Welsh ynys, and Breton enez, all from the earliest meaning of ‘land by a river’.

Jade – used for the ornamental stone and also in ‘to weary’ and possibly my favourite homonym, at least from the etymologies. The stone can be traced back to Latin ilia meaning ‘flanks, kidney area’. It came to English through Spanish piedra de la ljada around the sixteenth century to mean ‘pain in the side’ or ‘stone of the colic’. It was thought jade could cure such an ailment. Its use meaning ‘to tire’ seems to be from the earlier noun referring to ‘a worn-out horse’ – and was also once used as a derogatory term for a woman.

Key – either that used to open a lock or a musical reference. The former is of uncertain etymology but thought to come from the Proto-Germanic ki meaning ‘to cleaver, split’. Musically the reference is from Latin clavis and French clef and thought to come from a reference to ‘the lowest note on the scale’.

Lark – either the bird or meaning ‘a prank’. The latter has been suggested as coming from ‘skylark’, a nautical reference to the play of sailors in the rigging likened to that of the singing of the skylark – hence ‘larking about’. As for the bird the modern etymology is all we have, although some sources suggest a compound of Norse and Saxon referring to a ‘treason-worker’, the reason for which is unexplained.

Mace – is either a weapon or a spice. The weapon is ultimately from the Latin matteola or ‘type of mallet’. The spice is less certain but may be related to Latin macir, this the name of an Indian spice obtained from the bark of a tree, although this is disputed.

Nap – can be a short sleep, or a reference to the smooth surface of cloth. The sleep is known in earlier tongues, such as Old High German hnaffezan and Norwegian napp, yet with identical meaning the source is unclear. Of course it is always possible that ‘nap’ was the original word for ‘sleep’, certainly the latter has no very earlier references. When it comes to cloth the term comes from a root giving Old Swedish niupa and Gothic dis-hniupan ‘to tear, and a description of removing anything from the cloth which would spoil the finish.

Ounce – and when it comes to the imperial measurement of weight is ultimately from Latin uncial ‘one-twelfth’ and thus sharing an origin with ‘inch’. Of course there are 16 ounces to the pound in the avoirdupois system, this refers to the Troy system of weights. Note the abbreviation oz is from Italian onza. The ounce is also an alternative name for the snow leopard, this comes from the Old French word lonce, originally referring to the lynx.

Plant – was the original question posed and can refer to either flora or to heavy machinery. The more common usage is clearly the oldest for plants were plants before the Industrial Revolution. Whether used as a noun or verb the origin is Proto-Indo-European plat meaning ‘to spread’ or ‘flat’ and clearly first a reference to where the plants were planted, literally ‘a place’. In its modern sense it is not seen before the sixteenth century. In the machinery sense it is first recorded in a document dated 1789, where the reference is to where something had been constructed for industrial purposes, literally the machinery had been placed or planted.

Quack – used to refer to the sound made be a duck and a medical figure of dubious qualifications. Taking the anseriformes first, the sound can be traced back through Middle Dutch quacken to the Latin coaxare ‘croak’, and Greek koax meaning ‘the croaking of frogs’, and Hittite akuwakuwash ‘frog’. In a medical sense it is short for ‘quacksalver’, a Dutch phrase ‘hawker of salve’ where salf meant ‘salve’, and originally used as ‘to play the quack’.

Race – either a reference to cultural heritage or to a speed contest. That meaning ‘of common descent’ is only seen from the sixteenth century, itself from Middle French razza meaning ‘lineage, family’ and first used in English to denote those with a common occupation. The predictably earlier use, although not by much, comes from Scandinavian rasen meaning ‘to rush’ is first seen in the thirteenth century.

Sage – is used to describe wisdom and is a herb. In the former we find Latin sapere ‘to have taste’ as well as ‘be wise’. This is from Proto-Indo-European sap ‘to taste’. As a herb it came to English from Old French sauge, itself from Latin salvia meaning ‘healthy’. Interestingly the English ‘safe’ has identical origins. The herb gets its name through usage, sage being used to clean teeth, ease soreness of the gums, and as a cure for arthritis.

Tender – either meaning ‘soft’ or ‘to offer’. The former comes to English through Old French and from Latin tenerem not only used for ‘soft, delicate’ but also ‘youthful’. Here Proto-Indo-European ten ‘stretch’ was used in the sense of ‘thin’ then ‘weak’ and finally ‘delicate’. The latter comes to English from tender Old French for ‘to offer’ and from Latin tendere ‘to stretch, extend’.

Utter – either ‘to speak’ or ‘absolute’. Sharing an origin with ‘out’ and from Proto-Indo-European ud which has the same ‘to put out’ meaning. The use of ‘to the utmost degree’ comes from Old English uterlic meaning ‘external’. Thus both have a loosely common root. Note ‘utter’ was also used until comparatively recently to mean ‘to release’.

Vault – is either a leap or a strong-room. The athletic reference is ultimately from Latin volvitare ‘to turn or leap’, coming to English through the Old French volter. The other origin is from an Old French vaulter referring to ‘an arched roof’. Today used more often as in a bank vault, the term originated as a reference to a vault in a crypt. Architecturally this referred to the arch.

Wax – is either used as a noun or as a verb. Originally wax was seen occurring naturally in honeycombs and thus Old English weax, Old Slavonic vosku, Polish wosk, Russian vosk and Proto-Indo-European wosko all referred to ‘that substance made by bees’. As a verb and meaning ‘to grow’, the term comes through Old English weaxen, Old High German wahsan, Old Norse vaxa, and Proto-Indo-European weg.

Yak – is either a wild Asian ox or a term meaning ‘to talk idly’. The former is first seen in Europe from the end of the eighteenth century and comes from Tibetan g-yag ‘a male yak’. Idle chatter was originally seen as ‘yack’, a term unheard before the twentieth century and having no etymological history to speak of.

Naturally many are monosyllabic, itself a reasonable, albeit general, explanation of why two words of different etymological beginnings and sources sound identical and consequently have the same spelling.