Continuing my quest for strange words and phrases to uncover the etymology or origin stories. Gotta love language! Well, at least I do! For previous entries on this topic, a blog category search for “vocabulary” will bring up the archived posts. Enjoy!
Gargoyle is a stone figure that forms part of the gutter system of medieval cathedrals. It is a spout, in the shape of some grotesque creature, that carries rainwater away from the walls of the building. The word is from the Old French gargouille, or throat, and is a reference to the water passing through the throat of the stone figure. The same root gives us the modern noun and verb gargle.
From the c.1386 century poem, Saint Erkenwald —
Hit was a throghe of thykke stone…
With gargeles garnysht aboute, all of gray marbre.
(it was a tomb of thick stone…
with gargoyles garnished about, all of gray marble.)
According to myth, in the 7th century a dragon, named Gargouille rose from the waters of the Seine River in France. Unlike the typical dragons of mythology, this one did not breathe fire, but rather was a water dragon. The monster proceeded to lay waste to the countryside around Paris by drowning it. St. Romain, the Archbishop of Rouen, accompanied only by a condemned prisoner, set out to stop the beast. Upon confronting the monster, the saint formed a cross with his two index fingers, taming Gargouille. The dragon was led back to Paris, where it was slain and burned. The head, however, was saved and mounted on a building. This legend supposedly gave rise to the architectural practice of designing waterspouts to look like monsters.
Anything that is described as huge, gigantic, vast, or of enormous proportions. The term gargantuan is from Gargantua, a novel by French author Francois Rabelais (1494-1553), about a king described as having a voracious appetite. Etymologically it is derived from garganta, Spanish for “gullet” and French gargouille, “throat”.
Some claim that the name of this game is an acronym for Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden, but that is just silly. In truth, the origin of the name is unknown. The place of origin for the game, however, is known and it comes from Scotland.
The earliest known reference to golf is from 1457 in the Acts of James II of Scotland, where it is banned. Apparently golf was taking too much time away from military training:
And at the fut bal ande the golf be vtterly cryt downe and nocht vsyt.
(And [playing] at the football and the golf is to be utterly condemned [lit. “cried down”] and not engaged in [lit. “used”].)
This nickname for New York City comes from the name of a village in Nottinghamshire, England. Gotham is from the Old English gat (goat) + ham (homestead) or hamm (enclosure, pen). Since the mid-15th century, Gotham was a term for a place with foolish inhabitants. The “wise men of Gotham” is a common sarcastic allusion. Whether this usage actually stemmed from the real village in Nottinghamshire, or was just a name randomly adopted for the purpose is not known.
From The Towneley Mysteries (c.1460):
Now god gyf you care, foles all sam, Sagh I neuer none so fare bot the foles of gotham.
(Now God give you care, fools all together, I never saw none so fair as the fools of Gotham.)
Washington Irving was the first to apply the term to New York in his 1807 satirical work Salmagundi: “Chap. cix. of the chronicles of the renowned and antient [sic] city of Gotham.” Irving was relying on readers to recognize the tradition that Gotham was home to simpletons.
Around the fifth or sixth century B.C., a Carthaginian navigator named Hanno sailed along the coast of West Africa, later writing about his travels. The passage below is translated from the original Greek, “The Periplus” of Hanno —
In the recess of this bay there was an island, like the former one, having a lake, in which there was another island, full of savage men. There were women, too, in even greater number. They had hairy bodies, and the interpreters called them Gorillie. When we pursued them we were unable to take any of the men ; for they all escaped, by climbing the steep places and defending themselves with stones; but we took three of the women, who bit and scratched their leaders, and would not follow us. So we killed them and flayed them, and brought their skins to Carthage. For we did not voyage further, provisions failing us.
Historians speculate that what Hanno encountered weren’t human “men” and “women”, and might have been chimpanzees rather than gorillas. Whatever the case, more than 2000 years later an American missionary and naturalist named Dr. T.S. Savage came upon these great apes in the wild. When he reported this discovery in a natural history journal in 1847, Savage remembered Hanno and his “hairy women”, and called these creatures gorillas.