The Universe of Discourse

Fri, 11 Sep 2020

Historical diffusion of words for “eggplant”

In reply to my recent article about the history of words for “eggplant”, a reader, Lydia, sent me this incredible map they had made that depicts the history and the diffusion of the terms:

A map of the world, with arrows depicting the sequential adoption
of different terms for eggplant, as the words mutated from language to
language.  For details, see the previous post.  The map is an
oval-shaped projection.  The ocean parts of the
map are a dark eggplant-purple color, and a eggplant stem has been
added at the eastern edge, in the Pacific Ocean.

Lydia kindly gave me permission to share their map with you. You can see the early Dravidian term vaḻutanaṅṅa in India, and then the arrows show it travelling westward across Persia and, Arabia, from there to East Africa and Europe, and from there to the rest of the world, eventually making its way back to India as brinjal before setting out again on yet more voyages.

Thank you very much, Lydia! And Happy Diada Nacional de Catalunya, everyone!

[Other articles in category /lang/etym] permanent link

Fri, 28 Aug 2020

Zucchinis and Eggplants

This morning Katara asked me why we call these vegetables “zucchini” and “eggplant” but the British call them “courgette” and “aubergine”.

I have only partial answers, and the more I look, the more complicated they get.


The zucchini is a kind of squash, which means that in Europe it is a post-Columbian import from the Americas.

“Squash” itself is from Narragansett, and is not related to the verb “to squash”. So I speculate that what happened here was:

  • American colonists had some name for the zucchini, perhaps derived from an Narragansett or another Algonquian language, or perhaps just “green squash” or “little gourd” or something like that. A squash is not exactly a gourd, but it's not exactly not a gourd either, and the Europeans seem to have accepted it as a gourd (see below).

  • When the vegetable arrived in France, the French named it courgette, which means “little gourd”. (Courge = “gourd”.) Then the Brits borrowed “courgette” from the French.

  • Sometime much later, the Americans changed the name to “zucchini”, which also means “little gourd”, this time in Italian. (Zucca = “gourd”.)

The Big Dictionary has citations for “zucchini” only back to 1929, and “courgette” to 1931. What was this vegetable called before that? Why did the Americans start calling it “zucchini” instead of whatever they called it before, and why “zucchini” and not “courgette”? If it was brought in by Italian immigrants, one might expect to the word to have appeared earlier; the mass immigration of Italians into the U.S. was over by 1920.

Following up on this thought, I found a mention of it in Cuniberti, J. Lovejoy., Herndon, J. B. (1918). Practical Italian recipes for American kitchens, p. 18: “Zucchini are a kind of small squash for sale in groceries and markets of the Italian neighborhoods of our large cities.” Note that Cuniberti explains what a zucchini is, rather than saying something like “the zucchini is sometimes known as a green summer squash” or whatever, which suggests that she thinks it will not already be familiar to the readers. It looks as though the story is: Colonial Europeans in North America stopped eating the zucchini at some point, and forgot about it, until it was re-introduced in the early 20th century by Italian immigrants.

When did the French start calling it courgette? When did the Italians start calling it zucchini? Is the Italian term a calque of the French, or vice versa? Or neither? And since courge (and gourd) are evidently descended from Latin cucurbita, where did the Italians get zucca?

So many mysteries.


Here I was able to get better answers. Unlike squash, the eggplant is native to Eurasia and has been cultivated in western Asia for thousands of years.

The puzzling name “eggplant” is because the fruit, in some varieties, is round, white, and egg-sized.

closeup of
an eggplant with several of its  round, white, egg-sized  fruits that
do indeed look just like eggs

The term “eggplant” was then adopted for other varieties of the same plant where the fruit is entirely un-egglike.

“Eggplant” in English goes back only to 1767. What was it called before that? Here the OED was more help. It gives this quotation, from 1785:

When this [sc. its fruit] is white, it has the name of Egg-Plant.

I inferred that the preceding text described it under a better-known name, so, thanks to the Wonders of the Internet, I looked up the original source:

Melongena or Mad Apple is also of this genus [solanum]; it is cultivated as a curiosity for the largeness and shape of its fruit; and when this is white, it has the name of Egg Plant; and indeed it then perfectly resembles a hen's egg in size, shape, and colour.

(Jean-Jacques Rosseau, Letters on the Elements of Botany, tr. Thos. Martyn 1785. Page 202. (Wikipedia))

The most common term I've found that was used before “egg-plant” itself is “mad apple”. The OED has cites from the late 1500s that also refer to it as a “rage apple”, which is a calque of French pomme de rage. I don't know how long it was called that in French. I also found “Malum Insanam” in the 1736 Lexicon technicum of John Harris, entry “Bacciferous Plants”.

Melongena was used as a scientific genus name around 1700 and later adopted by Linnaeus in 1753. I can't find any sign that it was used in English colloquial, non-scientific writing. Its etymology is a whirlwind trip across the globe. Here's what the OED says about it:

  • The neo-Latin scientific term is from medieval Latin melongena

  • Latin melongena is from medieval Greek μελιντζάνα (/melintzána/), a variant of Byzantine Greek ματιζάνιον (/matizánion/) probably inspired by the common Greek prefix μελανο- (/melano-/) “dark-colored”. (Akin to “melanin” for example.)

  • Greek ματιζάνιον is from Arabic bāḏinjān (بَاذِنْجَان). (The -ιον suffix is a diminutive.)

  • Arabic bāḏinjān is from Persian bādingān (بادنگان)

  • Persian bādingān is from Sanskrit and Pali vātiṅgaṇa (भण्टाकी)

  • Sanskrit vātiṅgaṇa is from Dravidian (for example, Malayalam is vaḻutana (വഴുതന); the OED says “compare… Tamil vaṟutuṇai”, which I could not verify.)


Okay, now how do we get to “aubergine”? The list above includes Arabic bāḏinjān, and this, like many Arabic words was borrowed into Spanish, as berengena or alberingena. (The “al-” prefix is Arabic for “the” and is attached to many such borrowings, for example “alcohol” and “alcove”.)

From alberingena it's a short step to French aubergine. The OED entry for aubergine doesn't mention this. It claims that aubergine is from “Spanish alberchigo, alverchiga, ‘an apricocke’”. I think it's clear that the OED blew it here, and I think this must be the first time I've ever been confident enough to say that. Even the OED itself supports me on this: the note at the entry for brinjal says: “cognate with the Spanish alberengena is the French aubergine”. Okay then. (Brinjal, of course, is a contraction of berengena, via Portuguese bringella.)

Sanskrit vātiṅgaṇa is also the ultimate source of modern Hindi baingan, as in baingan bharta.

(Wasn't there a classical Latin word for eggplant? If so, what was it? Didn't the Romans eat eggplant? How do you conquer the world without any eggplants?)

[ Addendum: My search for antedatings of “zucchini” turned up some surprises. For example, I found what seemed to be many mentions in an 1896 history of Sicily. These turned out not to be about zucchini at all, but rather the computer's pathetic attempts at recognizing the word Σικελίαν. ]

[ Addendum 20200831: Another surprise: Google Books and Hathi Trust report that “zucchini” appears in the 1905 Collier Modern Eclectic Dictionary of the English Langauge, but it's an incredible OCR failure for the word “acclamation”. ]

[ Addendum 20200911: A reader, Lydia, sent me a beautiful map showing the evolution of the many words for ‘eggplant’. Check it out. ]

[Other articles in category /lang/etym] permanent link

Mon, 06 Apr 2020

Caricatures of Nazis and the number four in Russian

[ Warning: this article is kinda all over the place. ]

I was looking at this awesome poster of D. Moor (Д. Моор), one of Russia's most famous political poster artists:

A Soviet propaganda poster, black,
with the foreground in yellowish-beige and a border of the same
color.  It depicts caricatures of the faces of Himmler, Göring,
Hitler, and Goebbels, labeled on the left with their names in
Russian.  Each name begins with the Russian letter Г, which is shaped
like an upside-down letter L.  Further description is below.

(original source at Artchive.RU)

This is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, in Russian, “Himmler”, “Göring”, “Hitler”, and “Goebbels” all begin with the same letter, ‘Г’, which is homologous to ‘G’. (Similarly, Harry Potter in Russian is Га́рри, ‘Garri’.)

I also love the pictures, and especially Goebbels. These four men were so ugly, each in his own distinctively loathsome way. The artist has done such a marvelous job of depicting them, highlighting their various hideousness. It's exaggerated, and yet not unfair, these are really good likenesses! It's as if D. Moor had drawn a map of all the ways in which these men were ugly.

My all-time favorite depiction of Goebbels is this one, by Boris Yefimov (Бори́с Ефи́мов):

A poster in black, blue, yellow, and muddy green, depicting
Goebbels as a hideous mashup with
Mickey Mouse. His tail divides into four at the end and is shaped like
a swastika.  His yellow-clived hands are balled into fists and spittle
is flying from his mouth. The poster is captioned (in English) at the top: “WHAT
IS AN ‘ARYAN’?  He is HANDSOME” and at the bottom “AS GOEBBELS”.

For comparison, here's the actual Goebbels:

Actual archival photograph of Goebbels, in right profile, just
like Mickey Mouse Goebbels in the previous picture, but from the chest
up.  His mouth is
closed and he is wearing a wool suit, white shirt with collar, and a
wide necktie.

Looking at pictures of Goebbels, I had often thought “That is one ugly guy,” but never been able to put my finger on what specifically was wrong with his face. But since seeing the Efimov picture, I have never been able to look at a picture of Goebbels without thinking of a rat. D. Moor has also drawn Goebbels as a tiny rat, scurrying around the baseboards of his poster.

Anyway, that was not what I had planned to write about. The right-hand side of D. Moor's poster imagines the initial ‘Г’ of the four Nazis’ names as the four bent arms of the swastika. The captions underneath mean “first Г”, “second Г” and so on.

[ Addendum: Darrin Edwards explains the meaning here that had escaped me:

One of the Russian words for shit is "govno" (говно). A euphemism for this is to just use the initial g; so "something na g" is roughly equivalent to saying "a crappy something". So the title "vse na g" (all on g) is literally "they all start with g" but pretty blatantly means "they're all crap" or "what a bunch of crap". I believe the trick of constructing the swastika out of four g's is meant to extend this association from the four men to the entire movement…

Thank you, M. Edwards! ]

Looking at the fourth one, четвертое /chetvyertoye/, I had a sudden brainwave. “Aha,” I thought, “I bet this is akin to Greek “tetra”, and the /t/ turned into /ch/ in Russian.”

Well, now that I'm writing it down it doesn't seem that exciting. I now remember that all the other Russian number words are clearly derived from PIE just as Greek, Latin, and German are:

English German Latin Greek Russian
one ein unum εἷς (eis) оди́н (odeen)
two zwei duo δύο (dyo) два (dva)
three drei trēs τρεῖς (treis) три (tri)
four vier quattuor τέτταρες (tettares) четы́ре (chyetirye)
five fünf quinque πέντε (pente) пять (pyat’)

In Latin that /t/ turned into a /k/ and we get /quadra/ instead of /tetra/. The Russian Ч /ch/ is more like a /t/ than it is like a /k/.

The change from /t/ to /f/ in English and /v/ in German is a bit weird. (The Big Dictionary says it “presents anomalies of which the explanation is still disputed”.) The change from the /p/ of ‘pente’ to the /f/ of ‘five’ is much more typical. (Consider Latin ‘pater’, ‘piscum’, ‘ped’ and the corresponding English ‘father’, ‘fish’, ‘foot’.) This is called Grimm's Law, yeah, after that Grimm.

The change from /q/ in quinque to /p/ in pente is also not unusual. (The ancestral form in PIE is believed to have been more like the /q/.) There's a classification of Celtic lanugages into P-Celtic and Q-Celtic that's similar, exemplified by the change from the Irish patronymic prefix Mac- into the Welsh patronymic map or ap.

I could probably write a whole article comparing the numbers from one to ten in these languages. (And Sanskrit. Wouldn't want to leave out Sanskrit.) The line for ‘two’ would be a great place to begin because all those words are basically the same, with only minor and typical variations in the spelling and pronunciation. Maybe someday.

[Other articles in category /lang/etym] permanent link

Thu, 12 Dec 2019


Many ‘bene-’ words do have ‘male-’ opposites. For example, the opposite of a benefactor is a malefactor, the opposite of a benediction is a malediction, and the opposite of benevolence is malevolence. But strangely there is no ‘malefit’ that is opposite to ‘benefit’.

Or so I wrote, and then I thought I had better look it up.

The Big Dictionary has six examples, one as recent as 1989 and one as early as 1755:

I took it into my head to try for a benefit, and to that end printed some bills… but… instead of five and twenty pounds, I had barely four…. The morning after my malefit, I was obliged to strip my friend of the ownly decent gown she had, and pledged it to pay the players.

(Charlotte Charke, A narrative of the life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke (youngest daughter of Colley Cibber, Esq.), 1755.)

(I think the “benefit” here is short for “benefit performance”, an abbreviation we still use today.)

Mrs. Charke seems to be engaging in intentional wordplay. All but one of the other citations similarly suggest intentional wordplay; for example:

Malefactors used to commit malefactions. Why could they not still be said to do so, rather than disbenefits, or, perhaps, stretching a point, commit malefits?

(P. Howard, Word in Your Ear, 1983.)

The one exception is from no less a person than J.R.R. Tolkien:

Some very potent fiction is specially composed to be inspected by others and to deceive, to pass as record; but it is made for the malefit of Men.

(Around 1973, Quoted in C. Tolkien, History of Middle-earth: Sauron Defeated, 1992.)

Incidentally, J.R.R. is quoted 362 times in the Big Dictionary.

[Other articles in category /lang/etym] permanent link

Tue, 26 Nov 2019


A chalupa is a fried tortilla that has been filled with meat, shredded cheese, or whatever. But it is also the name of the mayor of Prague from 2002–2011.

Tortilla  Tomáš

The boat-shaped food item is named after a kind of boat called a chalupa; I think the name is akin to English sloop. But in Czech a chalupa is neither a boat nor a comestible, but a cottage.

[ Other people whose names are accidentally boats ]

[ Addendum 20191201: I should probably mention that the two words are not pronounced the same; in Spanish, the “ch” is like in English “church”, and in Czech it is pronounced like in English “challah” or “loch”. To get the Spanish pronunciation in Czech you need to write “čalupa”, and this is indeed the way they spell the name of the fried-tortilla dish in Czech. ]

[Other articles in category /lang/etym] permanent link

Sat, 26 Oct 2019

Gringos and gringas

Wikipedia's article on the etymology of gringo is quite good, well-cited, and I did not detect any fishy smells. I had previously tried to look up gringo in the Big Dictionary, but it only informed me that it was from Mexican Spanish, which is not really helpful. (I know that's because their jurisdiction stops at the English border, and they aren't responsible for anything outside, but really, OED folks? Nothing else?)

Anyway Wikipedia helped me out. I had gotten onto this gringos thing because yesterday I learned about gringas, which are white flour tortillas. I immediately wondered: are they called gringas because (like gringos) they're made of white paste? Or is it because they're eaten by gringos, who don't care for corn tortillas? The answer seems to be: both explanations are current, but nobody knows if either is correct.

On the way to gringo I spent a while reading about yanqui, which Latin Americans use to refer to northerners.

So do people in the USA for that matter. Southerners will angrily deny being “yanqui”. They reserve that term to mean anyone from the north, such as myself. But folks like me from the Mid-Atlantic states also deny being Yankees and will tell you that it only means people from New England. Many New Englanders will disclaim being truly Yankee and say that to meet true Yankees you need to go to Maine or maybe New Hampshire. And I suppose people in Maine use it to mean one particular old Yankee farmer who lives up near the Canadaian border.

Anyway, I wonder: in Latin America, does “yanqui” always mean specifically USA-ians, or would it also include Canadians? Would a typical Mexican or Guatemalan person refer casually to Canadians as yanquis? Or, if they were drinking beer with a Canadian, and the Canadian refered to themselves as yanqui, would they correct them? (“You're not a yanqui, you're Canadian! Not the same thing at all!”)

If Mexicans do consider Canadians to be a species of yanqui, what do they make of the Québécois? Also yanqui? Or do Francophones get a pass? (What about the Cajuns for that matter?)

[Other articles in category /lang/etym] permanent link

Fri, 26 Apr 2019


What is the shed in “watershed”? Is it a garden shed? No.

I guessed that it meant a piece of land that sheds water into some stream or river. Wrong!

The Big Dictionary says that this shed is:

The parting made in the hair by combing along the top of the head.

This meaning of “shed” fell out of use after the end of the 17th century.

[Other articles in category /lang/etym] permanent link

Sun, 31 Mar 2019


Katara just read me the story she wrote in Latin, which concerns two men who chase after a corax. “What kind of animal is corax?” I asked.

“It's a raven.”

“Awesome,” I said. “I bet it's onomatopoeic.”

So I looked into it, and yup! It's from Greek κόραξ. Liddell and Scott's Greek-English lexicon says (p. 832):

The Root is to be found in the onomatop. words κράζω, κρώζω, croak, etc.

κράζω (krazo) and κρώζω (krozo) mean “to croak”. “Croak” itself is also onomatopoeic. And it hadn't occurred to me before that English “crow” is also onomatopoeic. Looking into it further, Wikipedia also tells me that the rook is also named from the sound it makes.

(J.R.R. Tolkien was certainly aware of all of this. In The Hobbit has a giant raven named Roäc, the son of Carc.)

Liddell and Scott continues:

The same Root often appears in the sense of curved, cf. κορ-ώνη … Karin cur-vus, etc.

κορώνίς (koronis) means “curved”, and in particular a “corona” or crown. Curvus of course means curved, and is akin to Latin corvus, which again means a crow.

The raven's beak does not look so curved to me, but the Greeks must have found it striking.

[Other articles in category /lang/etym] permanent link

Mon, 14 May 2007

Bryan and his posse
Today upon the arrival of a coworker and his associates, I said "Oh, here comes Bryan and his posse". My use of "posse" here drew some comment. I realized I was not completely sure what "posse" meant. I mostly knew it from old West contexts: the Big Dictionary has quotes like this one, from 1901:

A pitched battle was Rockhill, Missouri, between the Sheriff's posse and the miners on strike.
I first ran across the word in J.D. Fitzgerald's Great Brain books. At least in old West contexts, the word refers to a gang of men assembled by some authority such as a sheriff or a marshal, to perform some task, such as searching for a lost person, apprehending an outlaw, or blasting some striking miners. This much was clear to me before.

From the context and orthography, I guessed that it was from Spanish. But no, it's not. It's Latin! "Posse" is the Latin verb "to be able", akin to English "possible" and ultimately to "potent" and related words. I'd guessed something like this, supposing English "posse" was akin to some Spanish derivative of the Latin. But it isn't; it's direct from Latin: "posse" in English is short for posse comitatus, "force of the county".

The Big Dictionary has citations for "posse comitatus" back to 1576:

Mr. Sheryve meaneth in person to repayre thither & with force to bryng hym from Aylesham, Whomsoever he fyndeth to denye the samet & suerly will with Posse Comitatus fetch hym from this new erected pryson to morrow.

"Sheryve" is "Sheriff". (If you have trouble understanding this, try reading it aloud. English spelling changed more than its pronunciation since 1576.)

I had heard the phrase before in connection with the Posse Comitatus Act of U.S. law. This law, passed in 1878, is intended to prohibit the use of the U.S. armed forces as Posse Comitatus—that is, as civilian law enforcement. Here the use is obviously Latin, and I hadn't connected it before with the sheriff's posse. But they are one and the same.

[Other articles in category /lang/etym] permanent link

Fri, 24 Nov 2006

Etymological oddity
Sometimes you find words that seem like they must be related, and then it turns out to be a complete coincidence.

Consider pen and pencil.

Pen is from French penne, a long feather or quill pen, akin to Italian penne (the hollow, ribbed pasta), and ultimately to the word feather itself.

Pencil is from French pincel, a paintbrush, from Latin peniculus, also a brush, from penis, a tail, which is also the source of the English word penis.

A couple of weeks ago someone edited the Wikipedia article on "false cognates" to point out that day and diary are not cognate. "No way," I said, "it's some dumbass putting dumbassery into Wikipedia again." But when I checked the big dictionary, I found that it was true. They are totally unrelated. Diary is akin to Spanish dia, Latin dies, and other similar words, as one would expect. Day, however, is "In no way related to L. dies..." and is akin to Sanskrit dah = "to burn", Lithuania sagas = "hot season", and so forth.

[Other articles in category /lang/etym] permanent link

Sat, 07 Oct 2006

Bone names
Names of bones are usually Latin. They come in two types. One type is descriptive. The auditory ossicles (that's Latin for "little bones for hearing") are named in English the hammer, anvil, and stirrup, and their formal, Latin names are the malleus ("hammer"), incus ("anvil"), and stapes ("stirrup")

The fibula is the small bone in the lower leg; it's named for the Latin fibula, which is a kind of Roman safety pin. The other leg bone, the tibia, is much bigger; that's the frame of the pin, and the fibula makes the thin sharp part.

The kneecap is the patella, which is a "little pan". The big, flat parietal bone in the skull is from paries, which is a wall or partition. The clavicle, or collarbone, is a little key.

"Pelvis" is Latin for "basin". The pelvis is made of four bones: the sacrum, the coccyx, and the left and right os innominata. Sacrum is short for os sacrum, "the sacred bone", but I don't know why it was called that. Coccyx is a cuckoo bird, because it looks like a cuckoo's beak. Os innominatum means "nameless bone": they gave up on the name because it doesn't look like anything. (See illustration to right.)

On the other hand, some names are not descriptive: they're just the Latin words for the part of the body that they are. For example, the thighbone is called the femur, which is Latin for "thigh". The big lower arm bone is the ulna, Latin for "elbow". The upper arm bone is the humerus, which is Latin for "shoulder". (Actually, Latin is umerus, but classical words beginning in "u" often acquire an initial "h" when they come into English.) The leg bone corresponding to the ulna is the tibia, which is Latin for "tibia". It also means "flute", but I think the flute meaning is secondary—they made flutes out of hollowed-out tibias.

Some of the nondescriptive names are descriptive in Latin, but not in English. The vertebra in English are so called after Latin vertebra, which means the vertebra. But the Latin word is ultimately from the verb vertere, which means to turn. (Like in "avert" ("turn away") and "revert" ("turn back").) The jawbone, or "mandible", is so-called after mandibula, which means "mandible". But the Latin word is ultimately from mandere, which means to chew.

The cranium is Greek, not Latin; kranion (or κρανιον, I suppose) is Greek for "skull". Sternum, the breastbone, is Greek for "chest"; carpus, the wrist, is Greek for "wrist"; tarsus, the ankle, is Greek for "instep". The zygomatic bone of the face is yoke-shaped; ζυγος ("zugos") is Greek for "yoke".

The hyoid bone is the only bone that is not attached to any other bone. (It's located in the throat, and supports the base of the tongue.) It's called the "hyoid" bone because it's shaped like the letter "U". This used to puzzle me, but the way to understand this is to think of it as the "U-oid" bone, which makes sense, and then to remember two things. First, that classical words beginning in "u" often acquire an initial "h" when they come into English, as "humerus". And second, classical Greek "u" always turns into "y" in Latin. You can see this if you look at the shape of the Greek letter capital upsilon, which looks like this: Υ. Greek αβυσσος ("abussos" = "without a bottom") becomes English "abyss"; Greek ανωνυμος ("anonumos") becomes English "anonymous"; Greek υπος ("hupos"; there's supposed to be a diacritical mark on the υ indicating the "h-" sound, but I don't know how to type it) becomes "hypo-" in words like "hypothermia" and "hypodermic". So "U-oid" becomes "hy-oid".

(Other parts of the body named for letters of the alphabet are the sigmoid ("S-shaped") flexure of the colon and the deltoid ("Δ-shaped") muscle in the arm. The optic chiasm is the place in the head where the optic nerves cross; "chiasm" is Greek for a crossing-place, and is so-called after the Greek letter Χ.)

The German word for "auditory ossicles" is Gehörknöchelchen. Gehör is "for hearing". Knöchen is "bones"; Knöchelchen is "little bones". So the German word, like the Latin phrase "auditory ossicles", means "little bones for hearing".

[Other articles in category /lang/etym] permanent link

Sun, 12 Mar 2006

Naomi Wolf and Big Ethel
Aaron Swartz has done a text search of The Beauty Myth and concluded that Wolf never intended Big Ethel to serve as an example of intelligence, contrary to what I asserted in my previous article. M. Swartz says:

Judging from a search on Amazon, the only time Ethel is mentioned is in the context of noting that an attractive woman is often paired with an unattractive one: "... Veronica and Ethel in Riverdale; ... and so forth. Male culture seems happiest to imagine two women together when they are defined as being one winner and one loser in the beauty myth." (59f)

I still question the aptness of the example, since, again, the principal case in which two women are imagined together in Archie comics is not Veronica and Ethel, but Veronica and Betty, both of whom are portrayed as "winners". Betty and Veronica are major characters; Ethel is not. But the error isn't nearly as serious as the one I said Wolf had made.

The most serious error here is mine: I should have considered and discussed the possibility that my friend was misquoting Wolf. That I didn't do this was unfair to Wolf and entirely my fault. Since I haven't read the book myself, I should have realized what shaky ground I was on, and taken pains to point this out. And yet other possibilities are:

  • That my friend didn't misquote Wolf at all, and I misunderstood her at the time, or
  • that my friend correctly quoted Wolf and I understood her at the time, but my memory of the episode (which occurred around 1993) is faulty.
I took Vallely to task for poor research and for failing to pick up a dictionary to confirm some of his assertions. Had I taken my own advice, I would have checked to see what Wolf said before commenting on it. My disclaimer in the original article that I had not read the book relieves me of only part of the responsibility for this failure.

[Other articles in category /lang/etym] permanent link

On saying too much, or, bad things come in threes
Long ago, I had a conversation with a woman who had recently read Naomi Wolf's book The Beauty Myth. She was extolling the book, which I had not read, and mentioned that Wolf had an extensive discussion of the popular dichotomy between beauty and intelligence. She told me that Wolf had cited Archie comics as containing an example of this dichotomy, in the characters of Veronica and Big Ethel.

I had been nodding and agreeing up to that point. But at the mention of Big Ethel I was quite startled, and said that that spoiled the argument for me, and made me doubt the conclusion. I now had doubts about what had seemed so plausible a moment before.

Veronica is indeed one half of a contrasting pair in Archie comics. But Veronica and Big Ethel? No. Veronica is not complementary to Big Ethel. The counterpart of Veronica is Betty. The contrast is not between beauty and brains but between rich and poor, and between their derived properties, spoiled and sweet. A good point could be made about Veronica and Betty, but it was not the point that Wolf wanted to make; her citation of Veronica and Big Ethel as exemplifying the opposition of beauty and intelligence was just bizarre. Big Ethel, to my knowledge, has never been portrayed as unusually intelligent. She is characterized by homeliness and by her embarrassing and unrequited attraction to Jughead, not by intelligence.

Why would this make me doubt the conclusion of Wolf's argument? Because I had been fully ready to believe the conclusion, that our culture manufactures a division between attractiveness and intelligence for women, and makes them choose one or the other. I had imagined that it would be easy to produce examples demonstrating the point. But the example Wolf chose was completely inept. And, as I said at the time, "Naomi Wolf is very smart, and has studied this closely and thought about it for a long time. If that is the best example that she can come up with, then perhaps I'm wrong, and there really aren't as many examples as I thought there would be." Without the example, I would have agreed with the conclusion. With the example, intended to support the conclusion, I wasn't so sure.

Now, I come to the real point of this note. Paul Vallely has written an article for The Independent on "How Islamic inventors changed the world". He lists twenty of the most influential contributions of the Muslim world, including the discovery of coffee, inoculation, and the fountain pen. I am not so clear on the history of the technology here. Some of it I know is correct; some is plausible; some is extremely dubious. (The crank, not invented before 1206? Please.) But the whole article is spoiled for me, except as a topic of derision, because of three errors.

Item #1 concerns the discovery of the coffee bean. One might expect this to have been discovered in prehistoric times by local Ethiopians, long before the founding of Islam. But I'm in no position to argue with it, and I was ready to give Vallely the benefit of the doubt.

Item #2 on Vallely's list was more worrying. It says "Ibn al-Haitham....set up the first Camera Obscura (from the Arab word qamara for a dark or private room)." It may or may not be true that "qamara" is an "Arab word" (by which I suppose Vallely means an "Arabic word") for "chamber", but it is certainly true that this word, if it exists, is not the source of the English word "camera". I don't know from "qamara", but "camera obscura" is Latin for "dark chamber". "Camera" means "chamber" in Latin and has for thousands of years. The two words, in fact, are etymologically the same, which is why they have almost the same spelling. It is for this reason that the part of a legal hearing held in the judge's private chambers is said to be "in camera".

There might be an Arabic word "qamara", for all I know. If there is, it might be derived from the Latin. (The Latin word is not derived from Arabic, either; it is from Greek καμαρα, which refers to anything with an arched cover.) Two things are sure: The English word "camera" is not derived from Arabic, and Vallely did not bother to pick up a dictionary before he said that it was.

Anyone can make a mistake. But I started to get excited when I read item 3, which is about the game of chess. Vallely says "The word rook comes from the Persian rukh, which means chariot." This is true, sort of, but it is off in a subtle way. The rooks or castles of modern chess did start out as chariots. (Moving castles around never did make much sense.) And "rook" is indeed from Persian rukh. But rukh doesn't exactly mean a chariot. It means a chariot in the game of chess. The Persian word for a chariot outside of chess was different. (I don't remember what it was.) Saying that rukh is the Persian word for chariot is like saying that "rook" is the English word for castle.

I was only on item 3 and had already encountered one serious error of etymology and one other item which although it wasn't exactly an error, was peculiar. I considered that I wouldn't really have enough material for a blog post, unless Vallely made at least one more serious mistake. But there were still 17 of 20 items left. So I read on. Would Vallely escape?

No, or I would not have written this article. Item 17 says "The modern cheque comes from the Arabic saqq, a written vow to pay for goods when they were delivered...". But no. The correct etymology is fascinating and bizarre. "Cheque" is derived from Norman French "exchequer", which was roughly the equivalent of the treasury and internal revenue department in England starting around 1300. Why was the internal revenue department called the exchequer? Because it was named after the chessboard, which was also called "exchequer".

What do chessboards have to do with internal revenue? Ah, I am glad you wondered. Hindu-Arabic numerals had not yet become popular in Europe; numbers were still recorded using Roman numerals. It is extremely difficult to calculate efficiently with Roman numerals. How, then did the internal revenue department calculate taxes owed and amounts payable?

They used an abacus. But it wasn't an abacus like modern Chinese or Japanese abacuses, with beads strung on wires. A medieval European abacus was a table with a raised edge and a grid of squares ruled on it. The columns of squares represented ones, tens, hundreds, and so on. You would put metal counters, called jettons, on the squares to represent numbers. Three jettons on a "hundred" square represented three hundred; four jettons on the square to its right represented forty. Each row of squares recorded a separate numeral. To add two numerals together, just take the jettons from one row, move them to the other row, and then resolve the carrying appropriately: Ten jettons on a square can be removed and replaced with a single jetton on the square to the left.

The internal revenue department, the "exchequer", got its name from these counting-boards covered with ruled squares like chessboards.

(The word "exchequer" meaning a chessboard was derived directly from the name of the game: Old French eschecs, Medieval Latin scacci, and so on, all from shah, which means "king" in Persian. The word "checkered" is also closely related.)

So, in summary: the game is "chess", or eschek in French; the board is therefore exchequer, and since the counting-tables of the treasury department look like chessboards, the treasury department itself becomes known as the exchequer. The treasury department, like all treasury departments, issues notes promising to pay certain sums at certain times, and these notes are called "exchequer notes" or just "exchequers", later shortened (by the English) to "cheques" or (by Americans) to "checks". Arabic saqq, if there is such a word, does not come into it. Once again, it is clear that Vallely's research was shoddy.

While I was writing up this article, yet another serious error came to light. Item 11 says "The windmill was invented in 634 for a Persian caliph...". Now, I am not very knowledgeable about history, and my historical education is very poor. But that was so peculiar that it startled even me. 634 seemed to me much too early for any clever inventions to be attributed to Muslims. Then I looked it up, and so it was. Muhammad himself had only died in 632.

As for the Persian caliph Vallely mentions, he did not exist. The caliphs are the successors of Muhammad, so of course there was one in 634---the first one, in fact. Abu Bakr reigned from the death of the Prophet in 632 until his own death in 634; he was succeeded by `Umar. Neither was Persian. They were both Arabs, as you would expect of Muslim leaders in 634. There were no Persian caliphs in 634.

My own ignorance of Islam and its history is vast and deep, but at least I had a vague idea that 634 was extremely early. Vallely could have looked up the date of the founding of the caliphate as easily as I did. Why didn't he? Well, perhaps it was just a typo, and should have said 834 or 934. In that case it's just poor editing and inattention. But perhaps it was a genuine factual error, in which case Vallely was not only not paying attention, but is apparently even less familiar with Islamic history than I am, difficult as that is to achieve. In which case we have this article about the twenty greatest contributions of Islam written by a guy who literally does not know the first thing about Islam.

And so this article, which I hoped to enjoy, was spoiled by a series of errors. I am very sympathetic to the idea that the brilliant history of Islamic science and engineering has been neglected by European scholarship. One of my very first blog posts was about the Islamic use of algebra to solve complex probate problems. Just last week I was reading about al-Biruni's invention, around 1000 years ago, of an improved method for measuring the size of the earth, a topic that Vallely treats as item 18. But after reading Vallely's article, I worried a bit that the case might have been overstated. Perhaps the contributions of Muslims are not as large as I had thought?

Fortunately, there was an alternative: the conclusion is correct, and the inept support from the author speaks only to the author's ineptness, not to the validity of the conclusion. I did not have that alternative with Naomi Wolf, who is not inept. (Also, see this addendum.)

With only cursory attention, I found three major errors of fact in this one short article. How many more did I miss, I wonder? Did Abbas ibn Firnas really invent a working parachute, as Vallely says? Maybe it was someone else. Maybe there was no parachute. Maybe there was, but it didn't work. Maybe the whole thing is a propaganda invention by someone who wants to promote Islam, and has suckered Vallely into repeating fiction. Maybe all of these. Someone knows the truth, but it isn't me, and I can't trust Vallely.

Were the Turks vaccinating people eighty years before the Europeans, or did Vallely swallow a tall tale? I don't know, and I can't trust Vallely.

People sometimes joke "I am stupider for having read this," but I really believe this was the case here. The article is worse than useless, because it has polluted my brain with a lot of unreliable non-information. I will have to be careful not to think that quilted fabrics were first brought to Europe by the crusaders, who got them from the Muslims. My real fear is that the "fact" will remain in my brain for years, long after I have forgotten how unreliable Vallely is, and that I will bring it out again as real information, which it is not. True or not, it is too unreliable to be information.

The best I can hope for now is that I will forget everything Vallely says, and meet the true parts again somewhere else in the future. In the meantime, I am worse off for having read it.

[ Addendum 20200204: Thirteen years later, it occurred to me to wonder: Why does Arabic chess have chariots anyway? ]

[Other articles in category /lang/etym] permanent link

Thu, 02 Feb 2006

Petard corrections
Eric Cholet has written in to mention that he is familiar with the fried choux pastry that I mentioned yesterday, but under the name pets de nonne, not pets de soeurs, as I said. (Nonne, of course, is "nun". The word soeur is literally "sister", but in this context means "nun". ) I had cited On Food and Cooking as mentioning pets de soeurs, but it agrees with Eric, not with me.

It appears, though, that many people do use the name pets de soeurs to refer to these fritters, and some people also use it to refer to a kind of soda-raised cinnamon roll. Citations to various cookbooks are available through the usual searches.

Eric also points out that petard is the current word for a firecracker, and also now refers to a doobie. I was already aware of this because pictures of those things appeared when I did Google image seach for petard. Thank you, Eric.

[Other articles in category /lang/etym] permanent link

Tue, 31 Jan 2006

A petard is a Renaissance-era bomb, basically a big firecracker: a box or small barrel of gunpowder with a fuse attached. Those hissing black exploding spheres that you see in Daffy Duck cartoons are petards. Outside of cartoons, you are most likely to encounter the petard in the phrase "hoist with his own petard", which is from Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are being sent to England with the warrant for Hamlet's death; Hamlet alters the warrant to contain R&G's names instead of his own. "Hoist", of course, means "raised", and Hamlet is saying that it is amusing to see someone screw up his own petard and blow himself sky-high with it.

This morning I read in On Food in Cooking that there's a kind of fried choux pastry called pets de soeurs ("nuns' farts") because they're so light and delicate. That brought to mind Le Pétomane, the world-famous theatrical fartmaster. Then there was a link on reddit titled "Xmas Petard (cool gif video!)" which got me thinking about petards, and it occurred to me that "petard" was probably akin to pets, because it makes a bang like a fart. And hey, I was right; how delightful.

Another fart-related word is "partridge", so named because its call sounds like a fart.

[Other articles in category /lang/etym] permanent link