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
Milquetoast describes a “meek, mild-mannered, submissive person” and while not technically only correct to use for a male, that is the standard application. In large part this derives from the word’s origins.
Here again we have an EPONYM, that being a noun which originated as the name of a person or place. In the comic by American illustrator Harold T. Webster titled “The Timid Soul” —which debuted in the pages of the New York World in May 1923— the main character was named Caspar Milquetoast. As Webster said of his created character: “the man who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.”
The joke, of course, was IN the name. The twist to the spelling was instantly recognizable to readers of the day who were quite familiar with an easily digestible, bland food called “milk toast” because that was literally what it was (toast soaked in milk) given to nervous or invalid people with touchy stomachs. An older term for “milk toast” was “milksop”, the latter having already by the 13th century come to refer dismissively to an “effeminate, spiritless man or youth who lacks courage or manliness.”
Webster’s comic was eventually syndicated and ran nationwide until 1953. By 1930, milquetoast (with or without the capital) was used outside of the comic character to describe a man who is weak, unmotivated, apathetic, spineless, unassertive, and so on.
SOS is the older universal distress call, dating to 1906 and chosen strictly due to how easy it is to transmit via Morse Code. In other words, it is not an acronym or has any letter interpretation, so the rumors of “save our souls” and so on are false.
Mayday is similar in having no deeper meaning or grand connection. In the early era of radio telephones for aviators there arose a need for a universal distress call — as in a voice transmission rather than an electronic signal transmission. Speaking “SOS” proved problematic to distinguish due to the sibilant S, and screaming “help me!” was deemed rather pathetic. Mayday was the phonetic representation of the French m’aidez —which translates as “help me” in English. Viola!
Mayday was adopted for use in cross-Channel flights from Britain to France, the first mentions appearing in several British newspapers in February 1923 after its successful use—
During a recent test a R.A.F. flyingboat, descending in the Channel, gave the international distress signal three times by wireless telephony and reported that her engines had failed. The message was picked up at Croydon and Lympne. The Civil Aviation Traffic Officer at Lympne telephoned to the Dock Master at Dover, and within twenty minutes of the distress call a tug from Dover was alongside to give assistance, having steamed about three miles. No special warning had been given to Dover to be ready.
There are claims that mayday was coined by a radio operator named Mockford at Croydon Airport in England. While true he existed, worked at the airport where the term was first used, and presumably someone had to say it first, there is no documentation to back up that it was Mockford or anyone else for that matter. Much like SOS having a romanticized interpretation despite all proof to the contrary, stories get repeated so many times that they become “fact” regardless the evidence otherwise (or lack thereof)!
The mayday distress call was adopted as the international standard by the 1927 International Radio Telegraph Convention held in Washington, D.C.
Today the word marathon has two meanings. In less common usage, “marathon” can be applied to any extreme test of endurance or long-lasting, difficult task. Typically when one hears marathon, it is referring to a long-distance running or run/walking race. There is a reason for this primary definition, of course, and it goes far back into the age of mythology.
According to legends, including by the Greek historian Herodotus, in 490 BC during the war between the Athenians and the Persians, a man named Pheidippides accomplished an extraordinary feat. Pheidippides was a hemerodromas, that is one of a Greek military day-runner elite athlete of mysterious origins who trained to run as a sacred messenger duty. The story of Pheidippides that is most well-known (and primarily from whence marathon derives) recounts how he ran from the port city of Marathon all the way to Athens —a distance of some 25 miles (40 km)— carrying a message of the decisive victory over the Persians at Marathon. He did this on foot, over rugged terrain, and in two days.
While astounding itself, what is tragically often left out of the tale is that before that victory dash to Athens, Pheidippides ran from the Marathon battlefield all the way to Sparta to call for troops to help in the battle against the Persians… returning to Marathon ahead of the swiftly approaching troops. This journey alone would have been over 150 miles, EACH WAY! It is unclear exactly how long this portion of the journey took, although speed was of the essence and since the Spartan army arrived within a handful of days to help win the battle, we are talking some seriously fast running in maybe four or five days tops! It is no surprise that poor Pheidippides was so spent that after bursting into the Assembly at Athens, he barely shouted the message of victory before collapsing and dying.
As an etymological aside, the Greek word marathon means “fennel”, which was grown on the plains surrounding the city, and hence where the name derived.
The story of Pheidippides was revered in the Greek culture, so when the modern Olympic Games were revived in Athens, Greece in 1896, naming a long-distance racing athletic event after the legendary marathon runner was apropos. The distances varied until established as precisely 26 miles, 385 yards (42.195 km) in 1921.
This one has a fun etymology! Of course we know that a mall describes “an enclosed shopping center” and at first glance may seem like an American institution so it must have an American origin. While true that malls are a standard in every American city, even if in decline over the past two decades, the concept of the mall began in Europe.
Traveling back in time to the 17th century, we must first visit the wide-open lawns of France where elites played a leisurely game called paille-maille or pell-mell. Related to the Italian trucco and a pre-cursor to croquet, the game of lawn-billiards consisted of balls struck by mallets through iron hoops. In fact, the name paille-maille literally translates “ball mallet.” The popular game crossed into Britain, initially gaining notoriety with Mary, Queen of Scots and her court. From there the game spread throughout England — King James VI was a major enthusiast — and around 1630 a court for pall-mall (the English name) was constructed on a field on the south side of St. James’s Square in London.
The alley leading to the court became known as Pall Mall Alley, and in time the site was surrounded by shops and other recreational sports until finally, in 1661, a whole new road was built. Named Pall Mall Street, over the next century the area was further developed into a grand center for shopping, entertainment, gentlemen’s clubs, and opulent townhouses. By 1737, the main section of Pall Mall Street that was once the narrow alley had been redesigned into a broad, tree-lined, shaded promenade that was part of St. James’s Park. It was as perfect for shopping as it was for walking and socializing, and in local parlance it was simply The Mall.
Soon thereafter, the shortened “mall” was applied to other well-paved, upper-crust, opulent streets or areas with clusters of shops and scenic, shady trees. It is easy to glean why the name mall was casually or officially applied to tree-lined streets of importance, as we still see today with The Mall to Buckingham Palace and The National Mall in Washington D.C. In truth, mall is properly defined as a “shaded walk serving as a pedestrian promenade.”
That said, because Pall Mall Street happened to be bordered by shops, it is also easy to comprehend how mall evolved into a generic term for enclosed buildings offering protection and ease for walkers that housed multiple sellers. The concept of all-in-one shopping certainly wasn’t new, what with ancient bazaars and town marketplaces, and London already had the Burlington Arcade, Exeter Exchange, and Harding, Howell, & Co. department centers. Enclosed malls gradually proliferated, especially during the latter decades of the 19th-century and then in the 20th-century. However, the UK versions tended to use a variety of terms besides mall (such as “shopping centre”), whereas in the USA, the word mall was liberally applied to any enclosed shopping building. Americans appeared to be so in love with the word mall that we attached it to just about everything, such as “strip malls” even if those places didn’t fit any of the criteria for a true mall.
With the rise of big box stores and online shopping, the mall culture has waned significantly. Malls are far from dead, of course. The Mall of America located in Bloomington, Minnesota opened in 1992, boasts more than 520 retail stores, 50 restaurants, the country’s largest indoor theme park, and an aquarium! It remains one of the most visited attractions in the world with 40 million visitors per year. Impressive to be sure, yet it pales in comparison to the Dubai Mall. With over 12 million square feet, the Dubai Mall is the largest shopping mall in the world.
This noun refers to two distinct, and very different, things. The first moccasin is a type of foot-covering worn originally by native North American peoples. The other moccasin is a species of venomous snake indigenous to southern US. As two uniquely American objects, it would seem logical to assume the names are related. Well, not so fast!
The foot-coverings worn by native tribes varied in designs and construction, although all were made of leather hides (deer, moose, elk, buffalo). To a large degree, American Indian footwear wasn’t all that different from basic leather shoes worn by cultures and regions across the globe dating to prehistoric times. For nomadic peoples, shoes needed to be sturdy, long-lasting, supportive, flexible, and protective. Sewing techniques differed, as did the presence or absence of adornments, nevertheless the footwear worn by the numerous tribes across North America came to be universally known as “moccasins” due to a generally similar aesthetic… at least to those viewing them for the first time.
As white European explorers and settlers increasingly interacted with the natives, primarily the Algonquians along the Central Atlantic Coast, they took note of their unique shoes. In Powhatan, the language of the Algonquians, the word for “shoe” is mockasin or makasin, this being what early settlers heard initially and most commonly. However, amongst the tribal dialects, the word for “shoe” is similar, running the gamut of mahkusin, makizin, makkusin, mohkisson, mokussin, and so on.
French author and traveler Marc Lescarbot, who sojourned in Acadia in 1606-1607, said about the Algonquians:
“…ours wear shoes, which they call Mekezin, which they make very ingeniously, but cannot last long, especially when worn in damp places since the leather is not dressed, nor hardened, elk leather worked as would be a buffalo hide.”
European trappers and backwoodsmen swiftly adopted the Indian-style shoes so perfectly suited to the terrain and rugged lifestyle. The English spelling and pronunciation of the native American names underwent dozens of mutations before settling on the universal moccasin in the 20th-century.
Turning to the venomous snake, there are two species of pit viper bearing the name. The water moccasin is also known as a cottonmouth or black moccasin, and as the name implies, is a semi-aquatic viper native to the southeastern US. The Mexican moccasin, or cantil, is found below the Rio Grande. Since this post is about the name, I shall spare y’all a photo or more details about these special snakes.
The name first appeared in print in 1795, well over 150 years since moccasin for an Indian shoe was commonly accepted. Unfortunately, how or why the word came to be applied to a snake is a complete mystery. Folks have theories, naturally, although these are sheer speculation. Some say the water moccasin’s incredible ability to glide silently over the water surface and earth brought to mind how Indians were adept at silently walking through the forest, aided in part by their soft-soled shoes. There is some logic to this theory because US prison guards had taken to wearing shoes made of woolen yarn to muffle their footsteps, calling them moccasins for the same reason. The stealthiness of American Indians had already become the stuff of folk legends, the power given in part to the slipper-like moccasins, so naming a noiseless snake slipping through a cluttered forest floor and rocky riverbank does make sense.