Sunday, 26 March 2017


Currently reading Michael Wood's A Story of England. This book accompanied the television series of 2012. The BBC also put together a series of events at museums up and down the country and I was lucky enough to be invited to events at Coventry and Gloucester.

In the earliest part of the book the author speaks of archaeologists uncovering teeth, at which point the etymologist kicked in and I found myself wondering how these ancient ancestors referred to their dentition. Furthermore just when did the modern terminology evolve? And most importantly, why is 'tooth' the singular and 'teeth' plural?

Tooth is of Proto-Germanic origins, similar words are found in Old English, Danish, Swedish, Dutch, Old Norse, Old Frisian, Old High German, and Gothic. This root (no pun intended) is also the reason why words such as Old English toth saw a plural as teth or tith. The other major source of English words, the Latin group of languages, takes us on to the next in the list .....

Dentist or dentition may be though of as a modern word but these go back to Proto-Indo-European dent, identical to the modern French word for 'tooth' and also giving us Sanskrit danta, Greek odontos, Latin dens, Lithuanian dantis, Old Irish det and Welsh dent and all with exactly the same meaning.

Bicuspid is first seen in 1826, a technical term derived from the Latin bi cuspidem or 'having two parts'.

Canine is not difficult to understand, their very shape is reminiscent to those of the dog and it comes from the Latin caninus or 'pointed tooth'. This is first seen around 1600, while the adjective for a dog has no surviving records prior to 1620 - this is not to say they were not used prior to this but simply no records survive.

Incisor is a Medieval Latin word meaning 'cutting tooth', coming from the Latin incus or 'to cut into'. The same root also gave us 'incision' and 'scissors'.

Molar is from the Latin molaris dens or 'grinding tooth'. This comes ultimately from Proto-Indo-European mel 'to rub, grind' and which is also the source of the word 'mill'.

Wisdom is best defined first in the sense of 'sage, learning, experience'. This Germanic word is a compound of wis, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European weid 'to know', and dom, a Germanic suffix meaning 'judgement' (this the same root as 'doom'). The first reference to 'wisdom teeth' is found in 1848 (prior to this the term was 'teeth of wisdom') and so-called as they erupt around the ages 17 to 25, early adulthood when a person is deemed to be wise.

Cementum is the hard substance covering the root. Clearly this is derived from the same root as 'cement', itself from Latin caementa 'stone chips used for making mortar' and ultimately from caedere 'to cut down, chop, beat, hew, fell, slay'.

Crown is obviously from the use of the royal headwear, albeit used as a verb. The word is of Latin origins, where corona originally meant 'wreath, garland'.

Enamel, the hardest part of the tooth, takes its name from the other use where en is a French term preceding esmal, Frankish smalt and Proto-Germanic smaltjan 'to smelt'.

Gum, when referring to the soft tissue of the mouth, comes from a Germanic term meaning 'palate'. Ultimately this shares an origin with Proto-Indo-European gheu 'to yawn'.

Root shares an origin with the underground part of the plant, the dental sense first seen in the late 12th century. The Germanic root of 'root' is wrot and ultimately from wrad, the Proto-Indo-European word which is still found when writing a shopping list for a salad, this being the origin of 'radish', literally 'root-ish'.

Nerve had been used to mean 'sinew, tendon', never used in the modern idea of a conduit for sending impulses to the brain until around 1600. This originates in Proto-Indo-European sneu 'tendon, sinew'.

Incidentally the reason so many teeth are found in comparison to other parts of the skeleton is because they are so resilient. In humans there is the added bonus that teeth, in particular those of children, were not disappearing into the night in the pocket of the tooth-fairy as, quite astonishingly, there is no written record of such before 1964.

Sunday, 19 March 2017


Whilst my taste in music is varied it could never be described as eclectic - incidentally this is number two on my list of least favourite words, albeit a considerable way behind the P-word. But I digress. My mentioning music came after I was recently sent a list of classical composers, these were to be included in a quiz-style crossword. Followers of my blog will not be surprised to discover some of the clues were based on the etymologies of their names.Thus this time a look at the origins of a selection of the names of composers which many will infinitely better acquainted than I - and yes, 'a selection' means I have only included those I could define.

Bach - being German he took his name from the word for a stream, rivulet, brook, or creek.

Bartok - this Hungarian takes the pet form of a the Christian name Bartalan or Bertalan, itself a form of Bartholomew.

Beethoven - another of German origins where beeth, meaning 'beet', and hofen, the plural of hof, meaning 'farms', tell us this most famous of deaf people had ancestors who farmed beetroot.

Bellini - Italian operatic composer Vincenzo has a surname translating as 'the little beautiful one'.

Borodin - the Russian translation is, quite literally, 'well height' and understood to as 'tall'.

Brahms - a German name which is ultimately of Hebrew origin in Bram where it meant 'high or good father'.

Bruckner - a topographical name, the earliest meaning being for a person who lived on or near a causeway or bridge. However it is more commonly applied to those who worked at such a location, gathering tolls and/or maintaining a bridge.

Chopin - a French surname derived from an old liquid imperial measurement. In France it would be seen as roughly equal to a quart but in Scotland became corrupted to refer to a half pint.

Debussy - a French surname taken from any of several Norman place names all of which mean 'mouth' and of which there is even an example of a Norman landholder in Domesday, this being Robert de Buci.

Delius - a name of Greek origin meaning 'from Delos', a Greek island of 1.32 square miles and a population at the 2001 census of 14.

Dvorak - a common Czech surname referring to a rich landowner in a manor house.

Elgar - a name of Germanic origins, it literally means 'shining spear'.

Faure - an Occitan name, a Romance language, meaning simply 'blacksmith'.

Franck - comes from the French reference to those Germanic peoples living around the Rhine during the times of the Roman Empire, the Franks.

Glinka - a Polish name, one referring to those who came from Glinki.

Gluck - is taken from a Yiddish word glik meaning 'luck'.

Grieg - is ultimately from the Greek gregorein 'be awake, watchful'.

Handel - a Germanic name meaning 'trade' or 'commerce'.

Haydn - a Welsh name derived from the Celtic Aidan, itself meaning 'little fire'.

Holst - refers to someone from Holstein, the German town having a name coming from the people who lived here the Holcetae or 'dwellers in the wood'.

Liszt - a Hungarian name which literally translates as 'flour'.

Mahler - is a German surname and, like the above, is a trade name. Whilst it is derived from the word for 'painter', the name is very specifically used to refer to those who painted stained glass.

Mozart - derived from the Latin, this meaning 'the love of God'.

Purcell - another of Norman origin where the literal translation is 'piglet', however it would have been used a nickname or to refer to a swineherd.

Rossini - an Italian name derived from rosso meaning 'red' and originally applied to one with red hair or ruddy complexion.

Schoenberg - is another topographical name, here German scoene berg refers to 'a beautiful hill'.

Schubert - is a trade name of German origin where schuoch wurhte meant 'shoemaker, cobbler'.

Schumann - has an identical meaning, albeit here the German schuoh mann refers literally to 'a shoe man'.

Smetana - a name of Czech and/or Ukranian Jewish origins. The origin is undoubtedly smetana meaning 'cream', although whether it was a nickname, perhaps for someone who liked cream (or ironically one who did not) or a trader in this and other dairy products is unknown.

Sousa - a name of Portuguese origins, being particularly common in former Portuguese colonies. Archaically it refers to a place, any place where the people came from for it describes them as being 'of the rocks'.

Strauss - a Germanic surname which has at least three equally plausible origins. It may be the family lived in a place named Straus, itself referring to 'the ostrich'. Here this may point to a place where the feathers of this bird were used in heraldry or, and this an alternative origin, as a nickname for those who habitually wore same as an adornment. Alternatively this may also be a nickname for someone known for arguing or confrontation, for the German struz means 'quarrel, belligerent'.

Tchaikovsky - a Russian composer whose name comes from the Russian for a bird, specifically the gull.

Verdi - an Italian composer with an Italian name meaning 'green'.

Vivaldi - another Italian composer whose name is derived from vita or 'life'.

Wagner - a German name from waganari meaning either 'wagon maker' or 'wagon driver'.

Walton - an English place name, where wahl tun means 'the farmstead of the foreigners' (Britons).

Weber - a German name and another representing a trade for this translates as 'weaver'.

Sunday, 12 March 2017


Nothing political here, I am talking about metrication. Those of you of a certain age will recall the days before metres and litres when measurements may have been a little more complicated but were certainly more fun.

Being of a certain age I recall the initial confusion from February 1971, when the pound sterling ceased being divided into 240 pennies but now only had a hundred. I've often thought it would be fun to change these values annually, where the pound is divided into smaller denominations. Perhaps reintroduce the shilling but this time there will be 17 shillings to the pound and 31 pennies in a shilling. Prime numbers are far more interesting.

If this seems rather odd, cast your mind back to the days when our exercise books had a series of tables on the reverse telling us how many pecks were in a bushel and other imperial measurements the younger generations may never have heard of. Each of these seeming oddities has a beginning and therefore a meaning. There are so many it is impossible to work all of them but here are a selection and taken in alphabetical order.

Acre is probably one of the better known imperial measurements. It is commom to many languages and originates in the Proto-Indo-European root agro which simply meant 'field' and not used as a measurement in the modern sense until the 13th century.

Bar, as a unit of pressure, comes from the Greek baros 'heavy' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European gwere 'weight'.

Bushel, a measure of volume for dry goods, came to English from Old French. Of much more interest is where the French got the term, for it is derived from Gaulish bosta 'palm of the hand', a term still seen in the Irish bass and Breton boz 'hollow of the hand'.

Chain is most often associated with the length of a cricket pitch - 22 yards - and was named because it was measured by using an actual chain. Yet it began with surveying land, the length conveniently being one-tenth of a furlong and any field measuring one furlong in length (220 yards) and a chain in breadth (22 yards) has an area of 4,840 square yards or one acre. It is also still used in identifying any given point on a length of railway track, it seen expressed in miles and chains, and also in distances quoted in horse racing.

Dram comes from the Greek drakhma 'measure of weight' and originally simply meant 'handful'.

Foot holds no surprises, it has always been said to be the length of a man's foot - meaning the measurement varied with the size of the person's feet. As a body part the word dates from Proto-Indo-European (and probably earlier) when ped meant 'foot'.

Furlong is derived from the Germanic furh lang 'the long furrow', and clearly originated through ploughing. Although the mile is the basic measurement of distance today, until Elizabethan times the furlong was the standard and so much so the mile was redefined to make it equal to eight furlongs.

Gallon comes from galleta meaning 'bucket, pail' but also used to refer to 'a measure of wine'.

Grain is clearly related to the same word being used to describe the seed of cereals, and that is exactly what the Proto-Indo-European gre no meant.

Hour predates the clock and can be traced to Proto-Indo-European yor-a meaning 'year' and 'season' and understood as 'point of time'.

Inch is derived from the Latin unus 'one', used in the sense 'a small amount' before becoming a unit of length.

Mile comes from the Latin for 'one thousand' and refers to the number of paces. Now although the mile was rather shorter than the modern 1,760 yards (see furlong), it would still seem a good stride to walk 1,600 yards in a thousand paces. That does not mean the Romans were giants or had impressive inside leg measurements, it is simply the Roman 'pace' would be seen as two paces by us.

Minute has two pronunciations - as a sixtieth of an hour and to refer to something small. Originally the former meaning was the only one used and this became the name of the part of the hour, ie a small or minute part of the hour (see second).

Month takes its name from the moon.

Ounce, as with 'inch' can be traced to Latin unus 'one'. What is not well known is the 'ounce' has not only been a measurement of weight but also of time (about 7.1/2 seconds) and length (3 inches).

Peck is another used to refer to volume of dry goods, particularly associated with oats. It is thought to be a variation on 'pick' and used in the sense of 'allowance'.

Perch was a linear measurement of 5.1/2 yards and marked out using such a stick or pole, the reason why it takes the name - this is the French version, also seen in the Old English 'rod' and 'pole' and even 'yard'.

Pint has the same origin as 'paint', for early vessels marked the liquid volume equal to a pint with a painted line.

Quart, or two pints, is also a quater of a gallon and the latter is where the name originates.

Second, as in a sixtieth of a minute, was originally secunda minuta and, as seen in 'minute' above, this was also a 'small part' of an hour but the 'second small part'. Thus as the minute was originally as in 'diminuntive' and the first part of an hour, this measure of time was spoken of as 'the one after the first'.

Ton shares an origin with 'tun', a large cask of wine or beer - most often seen today in the many pubs known as the Three Tuns (symbolising the guilds of brewers and vintners). Thus the weight 'ton' began as a volume 'tun'.

Week is thought to be related to the Old Norse vika, which had the original meaning of 'a turning'. Thus as 'month' is from 'moon', perhaps the four distinct phases of the moon are referred to as 'changes' or 'weeks'.

Year is so old it is impossible to know for certain, the annual cycle clearly not only known to the ancients but what they lived their entire lives by. With similar forms common to many early languages, the root ei with a sense of 'that which makes (grows, produces)' seems likely.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Blooming Etymologies

With spring fast approaching here in the UK and, undoubtedly aided by a mild winter, the flowers associated with the season are already adding a splash of colour. Snowdrops have come and will soon be gone, crocus are putting on an excellent show, yellow daffodils are out or nearly so, and tulips will soon be flowering and looking past their best seemingly hours later.

As with all nouns, names of flowers were originally created in order to be recognised. Over the years these have been corrupted and changed beyond recognition, or named by science for reasons usually only they understand. Thus this time, as you may have guessed, a look at the origins of some flower names. Taken in alphabetical order we begin with .......

Agave is named from the Latin, itself from Greek Agaue, a proper name in Greek mythology. Her name, and thus that of the flower, is derived from the Greek meaning 'noble, illustrious' and thought to have been used by scientists to refer to the flower stem rather than the flower.

Alyssum certainly comes from another Latin loan word from the Greek, although just why alyssos describes the plant as 'curing madness' is not clear.

Amaryllis also has a Latin/Greek origin and comes from amaryssein meaning 'to twinkle, sparkle'.

Anemone is a Greek word meaning 'wind flower', literally 'daughter of the wind' and can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European animus, to breathe', with a feminine suffix.

Aster is named from the Latin and Greek for 'star', a refernece to the flower shape.

Azaleas like sandy soil and is named from the Greek azaleos 'dry'. Related words are found in Hittite hassa 'hearth' and Sanskrit asa 'ashes, dust'.

Begonias are named after the French governor of Santo Domingo and patron of botany Michael Begon (1638-1710).

Chrysanthemum comes from the Greek khrysanthemon literally meaning 'golden flower' and unites the elements anthemon 'a flower' and Proto-Indo-European andh 'bloom'.

Cowslip is named for it was thought to grow only on ground where cow dung could previously have been found.

Cyclamen comes from Latin/Greek where ultimately kyklos meant 'circle', a reference to the bulbous shape of the root.

Dahlia comes, as many will know, from Anders Dahl, the Swedish botanist who first found and identified it.

Delphinium is another of Latin/Greek origins. Here Greek staphis agria literally means 'wild raisin'.

Edelweiss, as Vince Hill will undoubtedly have told you, is from the Old High German edili weiss of 'noble white'.

Erica is a plant genus named from the Greek ereike 'heath'.

Forsythia, which just so happens to be showing the first signs of the yellow flower through the window, is named after Scottish horticulturalist William Forsyth (1737-1804). His family name is of Gaelic origin, Fearsithe meaning 'man of peace'.

Fuchsia comes from German botanist Leonard Fuchs (1501-1566) whose name means 'fox'. While the term 'fuchsia' has been taken for the red colouring of the same name, the idea of 'red' referring to the colouring of the fox is, to say the least, fanciful.

Geraniums are named from the Greek and Latin, where grus means 'crane' and refers to the seed pods resembling a bill of the crane, indeed the plant is still sometimes referred to as 'cranesbill'.

Gladiolus is Latin for 'small sword', a reference to its sword-shaped leaves.

Gypsophila comes from the Greek, where gypsos philein literally describes 'to love chalk'.

Hydrangea comes from the Greek hydor angeion meaning water vessel' and a reference to the seed pods.

Lavender came to English from French and ultimately from Latin, where lavare meant 'to wash' and a reminder the scent was used to wash and perfume fabrics.

Magnolias are named after the French physican and botanist Pierre Magnol (1638-1715).

Narcissus comes from the Greek narke 'numbness' and related to narcotic becuase of the sedative alkaloids obtained from the plant.

Orchids are the favourite flower of many because of their numerous forms and extraodinary colours and shapes. It is also my favourite flower, but for very different reasons. It came to English from Latin orchis and Greek orkhis meaning 'testicle' because of the shape of the root. Around 1300 it was known in England as the 'ballockwort', where 'ballock' is simply the diminutive of 'ball'.

Poinsettias are named after Joel Poinsett, the US ambassador to Mexico who is credited with bringing the plant to the attention of the rest of world - but this may be a load of orchids.

Rhododendron is the Greek for 'rose tree'.

Snapdragon flowers are said to resemble the mouth of a dragon - and also, since 1704, the name of a game where players pluck raisins from burning brandy and them eat them while still burning.

Tansy is a herb, its name from the French and ultimately the Greek athanasia 'immortality'., itself a a prefix meaning 'not' and thanatos 'death'. This may seem a strange meaning until we learn the plant has always had negative associations with pregnancy, either as a contraceptive or to bring about a miscarriage.

Tulips are my least favourite flower, the leaves begin to droop even before the flower emerges and the petals fall far too easily. It came to English through French and ultimately from Turkish tulbent 'a turban' as it is said to resemble such.

Wisteria was wrongly named after American anatomist Caspar Wistar (1761-1818), making it rather less of an honour.