Vocabulary Rocks! A is for…

Vocabulary Rocks! A is for…

 

alaskaAlaska

The name of the 49th US state comes to us, via Russian, from the Aleut alakshak or alaeksu or any one of a number of spelling variants. The Aleut word is reported as meaning either mainland or peninsula.

The form Alaska was in common use by the time of the US purchase of the territory from Russia in 1867. The official name was suggested by Senator Charles Sumner under the misapprehension that the word meant “great land.”

 

All Agog

Possibly from the French ‘en gogues’, meaning ‘in mirth’. If that is the source, it crossed the English Channel very early. The first reference to ‘agog’ in English is Nicolas Udall’s Apophthegmes, that is to saie, prompte saiynges (First gathered by Erasmus 1542):

“Beeying set agog to thinke all the worlde otemele.” [oatmeal]

The first sighting of ‘all agog’ is in William Cowper’s The Diverting History of John Gilpin, 1782:

So three doors off [away] the chaise was stayed,
Where they did all get in;
Six precious souls, and all agog
To dash through thick and thin.

 

Abracadabra

abracadabraThese days it’s just a joking conjuror’s incantation with no force behind it, but the word is extremely ancient and originally was thought to be a powerful invocation with mystical powers.

It was first recorded in a Latin medical poem, De medicina praecepta, by the Roman physician Quintus Serenus Sammonicus in the second century AD. It’s believed to have come into English via French and Latin from a Greek word abrasadabra (the change from s to c seems to have been through a confused transliteration of the Greek). Serenus Sammonicus said that to get well a sick person should wear an amulet around the neck, a piece of parchment inscribed with a triangular formula derived from the word, which acts like a funnel to drive the sickness out of the body. (see image)

 

Angel

Angel comes from the Greek angelos, meaning messenger. The Greek word was used in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of Hebrew scriptures written sometime between the third and first centuries B.C.E., to translate the Hebrew mal’ak-yehowah — a messenger of Jehovah.

From Greek, the word was borrowed into Latin, becoming angelus, and from Latin into the Germanic languages. Exactly when English picked up the word is uncertain, but it clearly pre-dates the Norman Conquest. The earliest known appearance in English writing is from c.950 in the Lindisfarne Gospels, in Matthew 22:30:

sint suelce englas godes in heofnum
(are like god’s angels in heaven)

There is a famous story that appears in Bede’s The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written c.731 in Latin, about Gregory (c.540-604), who would later become Pope Gregory the Great (590-604). Gregory encountered some English slaves in a market place:

“What is the name of this race?” [said Gregory] “They are called Angles,” he was told. “That is appropriate,” he said, “for they have angelic faces, and it is right that they should become joint-heirs with the angels in heaven.

The story doesn’t tell us anything about the origin of the word angel, but it is an interesting example of medieval wordplay.

 

À la carte

This is a French term, literally translated as ‘according to the card’ (the ‘card’ is the menu card). This applies to meals which are ordered in a restaurant as separate items, each with a specified price, as distinct from a ‘table d’hôte’ meal, which has a fixed inclusive price.

The date of the earliest French usage isn’t known. In English the first citation is Joseph Sherer’s, Notes and Reflections During a Ramble in Germany, 1826:

“He will find comfortable apartments, civil attendance, excellent fare, à la carte, at any hour.”

 

arsenicArsenic

Arsenic, element 33 with chemical symbol As, has been known since antiquity. The English word comes from Old French in the 14th century and that from the Latin arsenicum. The Latin word, in turn, is from the Greek (arsenikon, a yellow arsenical mineral also known as orpiment). The Greek word is from the Syriac zarnk, which is ultimately from Persian.

One of arsenic’s first appearances in English is from Chaucer’s The Canon Yeoman’s Tale, c.1396:

Arsenyk, sal armonyak, and brymstoon;
And herbes koude I telle eek many oon.

[Arsenic, sal ammoniac (ammonium chloride), and brimstone (sulfur);
And herbs could I list many a one.]

 

Autopsy

Autopsy first appeared in English in the mid-17th century, drawn from the Greek word autopsia. Autopsia was a combination of “auto” (meaning “self”) and “opsis” (meaning “something seen”),  giving the resulting meaning of “personal observation” or “something seen for oneself.”

The initial meaning in English was, as its roots suggest, “the act of seeing with one’s own eyes; personal inspection,” and it was applied to nearly any sort of inspection

“Or by autopsie, when by our observation, we get a certaine knowledge of things,” 1651.

By 1678, however, “autopsy” was being used in its very specific modern sense of “postmortem examination of a cadaver by dissection, usually to determine the cause of death or other pathology.”

Once the “inspect a corpse” sense of autopsy took over, the generic “take a good look at something” sense faded away, probably because it became impossible to use without invoking unpleasant associations.

 

Assassin

The root of “assassin” is the Arabic word hashishiyyin (or hashshashin) meaning “hashish eaters.” It is also the name of an Ismaili Muslim sect active at the time of the Crusades. Members of this sect were said to use hashish or other hemp products to steel their nerves before attacking the enemy, especially on missions to kill leaders who opposed the sect. There has long been considerable debate in the scholarly community as to how much of this is true, and how much is a Western invention. The name “Hashsashin” itself may only be a reference to Hassan ibn al-Sabbah, leader of the sect.

Whatever the truth, the word “assassin” traveled through Europe, arriving in English in the 16th century with the meaning of “one who murders a public official or other politically important person, usually for political motives.” The verb “to assassinate” appeared in English shortly after the noun, with the meaning “to kill with treacherous violence” and with the same requirement that the target had to be a political or otherwise powerful figure.

 

apple eyeApple of One’s Eye

The first recorded examples of this phrase can be found in the works of King Aelfred at the end of the ninth century. At this time, the pupil of the eye was thought to be a solid object and was actually called the apple, presumably because an apple was the most common globular object around. So the apple of one’s eye was at first a literal phrase describing the pupil. Because sight was so precious, someone who was called this as an endearment was similarly precious, and the phrase took on the figurative sense we retain. King Aelfred actually uses it in this way, and presumably it wasn’t new then.

 

 

 

 

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