Continuing the quest to cover the alphabet! That may prove impossible due to the vast number of words in the English language, but I can try to find a few fascinating examples. For a list of all my archived posts covering the topic: VOCABULARY
No big surprises here, but how could I not include the word library?
The term library is based on the Latin liber for “book or document” which previously referred to the inner bark of a tree. Early manuscripts were written on thin strips of bark, the genitive libri meaning “book, paper, parchment.”
As a place for books, library dates to the late 14th century from the Anglo-French librarie, from Old French librairie meaning a “collection of books; bookseller’s shop.” Library also derives from Latin librarium for “book-case, chest for books” and librarius meaning “concerning books.” Therefore, library can refer to a building housing a collection of books, a smaller chest or shelf or case with books, or even the collection of books themselves.
Either spelling is proper for this word meaning “to assault violently or beat severely.” Dating from the 1630s, apparently from baste “to thrash” + the obscure verb lam “to beat, to lame” or the related Elizabethan noun lam “a heavy blow” (implied by 1540s in puns on lambskin). The word is rather redundant with both parts meaning the same thing.
Interestingly, the word lam is the same root for the phrase “on the lam” meaning on the run from authorities, a phrase that once literally meant the escapee’s feet were beating the road in haste to get away.
An earlier form of lambaste is lamback dating to the 1580s and used in old plays. Also, a dictionary from c.1600 defines the Latin defustare as “to lamme or bumbast with strokes.”
The word lynch certainly has specific imagery to us today. However, while never a word used in a remotely positive way, originally to lynch had nothing to do with hanging.
Dating from 1835, the verb meant to “inflict severe (but not deliberately fatal) bodily punishment (on someone) without legal sanction,” and derived from the term “lynch law”. This was not an actual law, obviously, since the point was to punish a supposed criminal without bothering with the niceties of a legal trial. The term was widely used and understood in the United States by 1810, its origins probably dating to the American Revolution.
There are two possible people named Lynch from where the term originated. The first is Captain William Lynch (1742-1820) of Pittsylvania, Virginia, who c.1780 led a vigilance committee to keep order during the Revolution. Questions arise due to this compact not being well known until much later.
Other sources trace the name to Colonel Charles Lynch (1736-1796) a Virginia magistrate who fined and imprisoned Tories in his district of Bedford County. In a letter to William Hay dated May 11, 1782, the Colonel referred to his trying offenders as Lynch’s Law.
Originally, to lynch meant any sort of summary justice, done without authority of law, for a crime or public offense. It is unclear exactly the extent of the inflicted punishment, although it typically referred to flogging or tarring-and-feathering. Early writers denied anyone being killed, pointing to the recorded evidence of imprisonment and fines. At first the act was associated with frontier regions though from c.1835 to the U.S. Civil War lynching was often directed against abolitionists.
Lynch mob is attested from 1838.
It implies lawless concert or action among a number of members of the community, to supply the want of criminal justice or to anticipate its delays, or to inflict a penalty demanded by public opinion, though in defiance of the laws. [Century Dictionary, 1895]
The narrowing of the meaning to “extra-legal execution by hanging” is evident by the 1880s, and after c.1893 lynching mostly meant killings of blacks by white mobs (especially in retaliation for alleged sexual assaults of white women). This shift in use seems due in part to the work of African-American journalist and activist Ida B. Wells.
There is an interesting comparison to the far earlier Lydford law, from a place in Dartmoor, England, “where was held a Stannaries Court of summary jurisdiction” [Weekley], hence:
Lydford law: is to hang men first, and indite them afterwards. [Thomas Blount, “Glossographia,” 1656]
Also in a similar sense was Jedburgh justice (1706) and, as a verb, to Dewitt (1680s), a reference to two Dutch statesmen of that name, opponents of William of Orange, murdered by a mob in 1672. In other words, while the word lynch is clearly of American origins, the concept was not unique.
SIDE NOTE: The city of Lynchburg in Virginia dates to the 1750s when John Lynch, brother to the aforementioned Charles but a peaceable Quaker, had a ferry landing on the James River there.
Today we use loophole to define “a means of escape, especially an ambiguity, omission or hidden provision in a contract, law, etc., that permits evasion of its intent.” The original loophole had a very different meaning and was invented in the age of knights and castles.
As far back as the 14th century, loophole was a combination of the noun hole with the Middle English loupe meaning a “narrow window, slit-opening in a wall.” A loophole was a literal opening in a castle wall through which to peer and launch a projectile. It provided protection of archers while shooting, and light and ventilation. Derived c.1300 from Medieval Latin loupa and lobia, probably a specialized word from a continental Germanic source, such as Middle Dutch lupen “to watch, peer.”
Figurative sense of “outlet, means of escape” is from 1660s, probably due to some loopholes being just large enough for a surreptitious escape should the need arise, as it often did during battles and sieges. From here we can see where the modern connotation of evading a legality in a morally slippery manner begins to evolve. In fact, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a citation dating 1663 confirms this:
“It would be much below You and Me, … to have such loop-holes in Our souls, and to … squeeze Our selves through our own words,” ~Andrew Marvell
In case you were curious, the etymology of the word loop (a folding or doubling of cloth, rope, cord, etc.) is entirely unrelated to the root loupe in loophole. Aren’t words fascinating?
Lazy Susan is a relatively modern term, dating to 1906, for a rotating serving tray with one or more tiers. We all know this, but what about the invention itself? And who the blazes is Susan, and is she lazy?
Rotating trays are not new, actually going back to the early 18th century. Then, as today, they could have several tiers but they were called dumb waiters. The mechanical service elevators, which showed up in the early 19th century, were also called dumb waiters, maybe or maybe not due to the rotating trays. No one knows for sure, however since the point of both devices was to serve the role of a waiter bringing food in a silent but efficient manner, the likelihood of the same name being on purpose is logical.
In any case, someone along the line apparently decided to rename the tabletop rotating serving tray. The first known use of Lazy Susan (always capitalized) was in the 1906 Good Housekeeping, volume 43, page 249. The screenshot to the right is from the magazine, digitalized by Cornell University. The example below is a gorgeous mahogany Lazy Susan dated c.1780, 16 inches in diameter, sold at Christie’s in 2010 for $3900.
The “lazy” portion of the name seems fairly obvious since an inanimate device takes the place of a servant to serve food in a passive, or “lazy” way. But again, this is not documented so is merely a guess.
Alas for the “Susan,” it remains a mystery. A common theory holds that “Susan” was chosen simply as a generic woman’s name. However, there is no evidence of this, nor was the name Susan particularly more popular or common than many other female names during this period. Another popular theory, again with zero evidence, is from the flower known as a Black-eyed Susan. A type of daisy, it was indeed a beloved flower, so much so that it inspired English poet John Gay (1685-1732) to liken his love Susan to the yellow flower, calling her “black-eyed Susan” from whence the common name originated. From there, so the theory goes, the resemblance of a circular serving tray to the circular bloom of the flower led to choosing “Susan”. Frankly, as delightfully romantic as this story is, it seems a huge stretch!