Bringing y’all some more strange words with their etymology or origin stories. I love language! Today is the time for H. For previous entries on this topic, a blog category search for “vocabulary” will bring up the archived posts. Enjoy!
Hackney and Hack
Hackney comes from the Old French haquenée, meaning a gentle, riding horse, an ambling horse. It was adopted into English in the 14th century meaning a horse of middle size or fair quality. Very early on, by 1393 at the latest, the word had also acquired the meaning of a horse for hire. From William Langland’s Piers Plowman of that year:
Ac hakeneyes hadde thei none. bote hakeneyes to hyre.
(But hackneys had they none, hackneys for hire to boot.)
Anything that is rented is bound to be worn out before its time, and by 1596 hackney was being used as an adjective meaning tired or worn out. On April 18, 1664 Samuel Pepys uses the word in his Diary to refer to a hired carriage, and the sense of hackney as taxi was born:
Myself being in a hackney and full of people, was ashamed to be seen by the world, many of them knowing me.
Use of hack, meaning the driver of a hackney carriage, makes its appearance in England in the late 17th century. It appears to have died out after a century or so of use, only to be recoined in the United States in the 20th century to refer to modern taxis. From The Hind and the Panther Transvers’d, written by Charles Montagu, 1st Earl of Halifax, and Matthew Prior in 1687:
[They] slipping through the Palsgrave, bilkt poor Hack.
The root hyster- comes from the Greek word for womb. So, the psychological disturbance termed hysteria was originally believed to be a disease of women and resulted from some disturbance in the uterus. The adjective hysteric appears in the mid-17th century. From Richard Tomlinson’s 1657 translation of Renodæus’ Medicinal Dispensatory:
The Plague is a poyson… which retained in Histerick women.
Hysteria first appears in 1801 in the pages of The Medical and Physical Journal:
Account of Diseases in an Eastern District of London…Chronic Diseases…Hysteria.
The original meaning of husband is the head of a household. The word, which dates to Old English, is a compound of hús, meaning house, and bónda, meaning peasant or yeoman. The root of the second element, búa or bóa, means to dwell. So a husband is literally one who lives in a house. A second, related, meaning arose in the early 13th century meaning someone who cultivated a plot of land. From a Bestiary written c.1220:
Fox is hire to name…husebondes hire haten, for hire harm dedes.
(Fox is her name…husbands hate her, for her harmful deeds.)
The sense of a man married to a woman is also a 13th century one and comes from the head of household sense. From the Early South English Legendary, written c.1290:
Is wif gret Ioie made with hire housebonde.
(The wife makes great joy with her husband.)
The verb to husband appears in the 15th century, meaning to cultivate, to till the soil. This sense also gives rise to the word husbandry. The sense meaning to wisely manage, to economize is also a 15th century one. It is glossed in the c.1440 lexicon Promptorium Parvulorum Sive Clericorum:
Husbondyn, or wysely dyspendyn worldely goodys.
(Husbanding, or wisely spending worldly goods.)
Honeymoon was originally a reference to the first month of a marriage. The honey represents the sweetness of new love and the moon signifies the changing relationship and that this love will quickly wane. The word first appears in John Heywood’s 1546 A Dialogue Conteinyng The Nomber In Effect Of All The Prouerbes In The Englishe Tongue:
It was yet but hony moone.
Richard Huloet’s 1552 Abcedarium Anglico Latinum described it as:
Hony mone, a terme prouerbially applied to such as be newe maried, whiche wyll not fall out at the fyrste, but thone loueth the other at the beginnynge excedyngly, the likelyhode of theyr exceadynge loue appearing to aswage, ye which time the vulgar people cal the hony mone, Aphrodisia, feriæ, hymenæ.
The verb, meaning to take a honeymoon trip, is more recent, dating to the early 19th century. From an 1821 letter by Mary R. Mitford appearing in Alfred G. L’Estrange’s The Life of M.R. Mitford:
How did I know but you were tourifying or honeymooning?
There is a story floating around the internet that honeymoon derives from the Babylonian practice of a new father-in-law giving mead, or honey beer, to his new son-in-law for the first month of their marriage. This is utter bunk.
Halcyon as a noun refers to the kingfisher bird. As an adjective the meaning is: calm, peaceful, serene.
The ancient Greek story, written by Roman poet Ovid, tells of the goddess Alcyone, daughter of Aeolus who was god of the wind. She married a mortal, Ceyx, but when her husband was killed at sea she was inconsolable, throwing herself into the depths and drowning. The gods took pity upon the lovers and magically transformed them into kingfishers so that they might continue to live together. The gods also declared that for the week before and after the winter solstice, the seas would remain perfectly calm so that the pair could mate, nest upon the waters, and hatch their eggs.
In Greek the kingfisher is alkuon, and in Latin halcyon, both versions derived from the goddess Alcyone. The fabled halcyon days of calm weather are traditionally the seven days each side of the winter solstice on December 21, although today halcyon days refers to any period of happy tranquility.
The original sense of hoodwink was to prevent somebody seeing by covering their head with a hood or blindfolding them. The figurative meaning used today – to deceive or trick; “pull the wool over someone’s eyes” – derived from the literal act in the early 17th century.
As for the wink portion of the original hookwink, it didn’t mean to close and open one eye quickly as a signal of some sort. In Old English wincian meant to close both eyes for some reason, to blink, or when closing the eyes in sleep (hence forty winks). A hoodwink forcibly lost somebody the power of sight as though they had closed their eyes, and hoodwink was long ago an alternative name for blind man’s buff. In one sense the term was redundant as both as both a hood and a wink meant to blind someone.
The verb, in a literal sense of to cover the eyes, to blindfold, dates to 1562. From An Apology of Private Mass from that year:
Will you enforce women to hoodwink themselves in the church?
The sense of to fool or deceive dates to 1610 and John Healey’s translation of Augustine’s City of God:
Let not the faithlesse therefore hood-winck them-selves in the knowledge of nature.
This term came from the Arabic al zahr meaning “the dice” and was used by Western Europeans to call each of the various games played with dice that they learned while in the Holy Land during the Crusades. The term eventually took on the connotation of danger because, from very early on, dice games were associated with gambling and with con artists using corrupted dice.