Words of the Day: Norn, Oak, Objective, Subjective

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

Norn

manondeltaA Norn is a kind of female spirit found in Norse theology, who can cause great toil and trouble, or bring blessings and happiness. There are a great many of them, but according to Snorri Sturluson, author of the Prose Edda, the three most important Norns are giantess sisters who draw water from the Well of Fate and with it water the roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree. The names of these three Norns were Urðr (wyrd, “fate” or simply “future”), Verðandi (derived from the Old Norse verb verða, “to become”) and Skuld (related to shall); thus they were all concerned with the future, in one way or another.

The origin of the name Norn is unknown. One possibility is that it is related to the Swedish word norna, “to warn, to speak secretly”, which may be imitative (like mutter, growl, and howl, the sound of the word imitates the sound itself). It may also be related to a word meaning “to twist, to twine”, and may refer to the twisting of fate, although the idea that the Norns wove the fate of the world appears to have been borrowed from Greek theology.

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Words of the Day: Muslim, Music, Mystic

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

Muslim

howimvotingMuslim, and the related words salaam, Islam, and Salem, ultimately comes from Arabic salam, “peace”. In Arabic and other Semitic languages, a trio of consonants represents a sort of “core concept” which can be modified or expanded upon by various vowel combinations. In this case, s-l-m indicates “peace” or “safety”.

Salaam, which also means “peace”, is from the traditional Muslim greeting (as)salam ‘alaikum, “peace be upon you”.

Salem, a common name for towns in the Arabic, Hebrew, and European traditions, is from Hebrew, and also means “peace” (from Hebrew shalom, a cousin of Arabic salam). Jerusalem means “the foundation of peace”.

Islam means “submission” (to the will of Allah), in particular “retreat into safety”.

Muslim means “one who submits (i.e. retreats into safety)” (to the will of Allah). Note the prefix mu-, which indicates “one who…”, just as it does in Muhammad.

The s-l-m root begins with powerful, directed energy that expands like light to fill space, and results in manifestation. Given this, it would be a mistake to think of the s-l-m root as meaning “peace” in the sense of “quiet”. Instead, it’s closer to the phonosemantics of balm or calm – some action which manifests peace.

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Words of the Day: Medium, Mother, Muhammad

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

Medium

meditationfailsMedium began life as me, a preposition meaning “between” in Proto-Indo European. A suffix dhyo was sometimes added to make this preposition into medhyo, an adjective meaning something analogous to “betweenish” or “middle”, e.g. “the middle house” (the one between the other two).

In Latin, medhyo became medius. That is, medius was used with masculine singular nominative nouns — but it could also be medii (masculine singular genitive), mediae (feminine singular genitive), and medium (neuter singular nominative), among others. It was this last form, of course, that was picked up by English in the 1500’s (when everybody who was anybody knew Latin) and used either as an adjective (as in Latin and PIE) or as a noun meaning “middle ground” — that which appears between other things.

Once in English, it began to acquire other, related meanings. In the 1600’s it began to be used to mean a channel of communication, and in 1853 it first appeared meaning a “person who conveys psychic messages”, from the idea that the psychic is acting as a channel of communication with the Spirit world.

Phonosemantically, the word starts with a manifestation / creation (”m”) which is carried forward over some distance (long “e”) to a decision or doorway “d”. Afterwards it may be carried further (long “e”) and released into thought (short “u”) before passing to a second manifestation (”m”). It’s striking, I think, how these sequence of sounds conveys the idea of a message generated at the beginning of the word, carried over distance and crossing a boundary, and released into thought — only to generate another message in return.

It’s fascinating to compare this to the word media: the plural form of the original Latin medius, used today as the plural of medium (but, interestingly, not for psychic mediums). Phonosemantically, it is identical to medium, except no return message is indicated. This fits beautifully with modern usage: television and movies and radio, one-way transmissions, are the media; but the internet isn’t — it’s called a medium.

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Words of the Day: Luck, May, Me, My, Mine

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

Luck

lugh2007There are precious few words of completely unknown origin. This fact is a tribute to the last two hundred years of scholarship by historical linguists and philologists, professional and amateur.

But of course there are some tough words out there. Luck is one of those nuts that just won’t get cracked.

It first appeared around 1500 as lucke, borrowed from Dutch luc, meaning “happiness, good fortune”. This in turn was a clipping of gheluc, frequently used in gambling. It appears to be related to German Glück, “fortune, happiness”. But where did gheluc come from? No one has any idea at all!

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Words of the Day: Hobbit, Honest, I

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

Hobbit

howimvotingiiThe word hobbit sprang without warning into Tolkien’s mind while he was grading exams. He simply found himself writing on the back of an exam page, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”. He didn’t know what a hobbit was, or what kind of hole it lived in… But he found the answers as he was weaving bedtime stories for his children — the stories that would, of course, be written down as The Hobbit.

Why did it come into Tolkien’s head? One possible source is the word rabbit. Tolkien vehemently denied that hobbits had anything to do with rabbits, although Bilbo Baggins is called a “rabbit” multiple times in the book. Many years after The Hobbit was written, Tolkien developed a fictional etymology for it: hobbit was a worn-down form of Old English hol-bytla, “hole-builder”. Perhaps Tolkien, a scholar of Old English, subconsciously had this in mind from the beginning. Another possible source is a mention of hobbits in long list of earth-spirits compiled by a 19th-century writer, a list which Tolkien may possibly have read and then forgotten about. In any case, other possibilities are (1) a word hobbe in Middle English which meant something like “small sprite” or “changeling”, and which Tolkien was probably aware of on some level, and (2) Hob, a nickname for Robin Goodfellow, a forest spirit.

It seems almost as if the syllable hob has always been there, floating around in the collective unconscious of English speakers, and has emerged at various times and places under the pen of various authors who happened to “hear” it.

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Words of the Day: Grammar, Hand, Hiawatha

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

Grammar

purposethroughcompassionUltimately from Proto Indo European gerbh, “to scratch”; also the ancestor of carve, crab, crayfish, crawl, and graph. Interestingly, Proto Indo European had another root, ghrebh, which also meant “to scratch”, and is the ancestor of grub, groove, and grave. It’s hard to believe that ghrebh and gerbh are unrelated, but 8000 years later, there appears to be no evidence either way.

Gerbh became graphein, “to write” in ancient Greek, and from this was derived gramma, “letter”. The Greek phrase grammatike tekhne, the “art of letters”, referred to philology and literature. Latin borrowed this as grammatica, which became grammaire “learning” in Old French, and was grafted into English in the late 1100’s as gramarye.

In Middle English, gramarye referred to “learning in general”, including astrology and magic. In Scots English, the word came to mean especially occult knowledge, and evolved into glamour before being borrowed back into the main trunk of English through the writings of Sir Walter Scott. From this came glamorous in the 1880’s. Think of that when you hear a celebrity described as glamorous, or see a picture of a glam rocker…

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Words of the Day: Genius, Glorious, Gods and Guides

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

Genius

hangedgodGenius comes from Proto Indo European gen, meaning something like “produce” or “generate”, the progenitor of generations of words of all kinds — including progenitor, generate, kind, kin, king, kindergarten, gentle, gender, general, generic, generous, indigenous, genesis, genital, nascent, natal, native, nation, renaissance, and a dozen others.

In Latin gen became the root of the verb gignere, “beget, produce”. This verb in turn was the root of the word genius, which in Roman times referred not to a person’s innate talent, but to a guardian spirit — a spirit guide. Originally, the genius was a guardian spirit who looked after a family; thus it was most likely associated with one’s ancestors (and thus the association with PIE gen is obvious). Later, genius came to mean one’s own personal spirit guides. Saying that someone “had a genius for cooking”, for example, meant that they had a spirit guide who helped them with cooking.

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Words of the Day: Faith, Fire, Free

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

Faith

trustyourfeelingsFaith ultimately comes from Proto Indo European bhidh, meaning something like “persuade” or “compel”. When bhidh came into Latin, it became fidere, “to trust”, presumably because something sufficiently compelling would be trustworthy…

The nominal form was fides, which became feid in Old French and faith in English in 1250. It wasn’t used in a Christian sense until 1382, although apparently religions have been called “faiths” since about 1300.

Faith and many words that sound similar make up an interesting family. It begins with unfettered freedom (”f”) that is flexible and spreads out wide (long “a”), but is then drawn up along a “perilous path” (”th”). The idea appears to be that faith is the state of having one’s beliefs, which a priori are completely free and flexible, constrained onto a particular path. Faith, in other words, means limiting your beliefs.

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Words of the Day: Disco, Elephant, Faerie, Fairy, Fate

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

Disco

childishpaganismDisco is the shortened form of discotheque, a French word meaning something like “nightclub with recorded dance music”. Discotheque was borrowed into most European languages (e.g. German Diskothek), as well as English, but it lasted just a short time in our language before being drastically shortened to disco. Originally it meant just the place where the music was played, but it soon was applied to the music as well.

The French word discotheque was itself borrowed from Italian discoteca, which meant “music library” (from disco, phonograph record, and –teca, by analogy with biblioteca, a book (biblio)-library). Thus the English clipping, disco, is identical with the original Italian word for phonograph record. This word refers to the disk-shape of the record, as you might expect.

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Words of the Day: Call, Choir, Confucius

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

Call

colignycalendarFrom Proto Indo European gal, “to shout, shriek, call out”; it’s the ancestor of clatter as well, and, oddly enough, glasnost (which is derived from an obsolete Russian word for “voice”). In Old Norse gal became kalla, “to cry loudly”, which became ceallian in Old English.

Once in English it began a strange adventure in meaning shifts. From 1250, it came to also mean “to name”, and the meaning “to visit” shortly afterwards. The sense of calling as a vocation is derived from the King James bible, I Corinthians ch. 7 v. 20: Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called.

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Words of the Day: Boycott, Brillig, Buddha

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

Boycott

abyssBoycott is an eponym, a word derived from the name of a person. In this case the unlucky individual was Captain Charles Boycott, who was an English landholder in Ireland in 1880. He owned many, many square miles of Ireland, but didn’t live anywhere near his holdings, and charged exorbitant rent to the Irish families that had been living on that land for thousands of years. In September of 1880, shortly before the harvest was due to be gathered, many of his tenants demanded that he lower their rents; but instead of doing so, he expelled them. In return, the Irish Land League, a union of farmers and other concerned citizens, organized a boycott of Boycott: no one was to do any business of any kind with him. He was completely ignored by his workers, his personal servants, local businessmen, and the post office. He could not buy anything from shops, and people would not even sit near him in church.

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Words of the Day: Blue, Book, Bound

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

Blue

abyssFrom Proto Indo European bhlewas, meaning “light colored”, applicable to anything from yellow to light gray to pale blue. In Proto Germanic this became bluwaz, and descended into Frankish as blao and Old French as bleu; this was borrowed as bleu or blwe in Middle English (when spelling was a creative art). Old English already had a perfectly good word for blue — blaw – but the French term was preferred. It’s uncertain exactly when the word changed from meaning “light colored” to “blue”, but color words tend to be slippery in that way — in Scandinavian languages, for example, it came to mean a deep black, while in Middle High German it meant “yellow”.

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Words of the Day: Bewilder, Bizarre, Blog

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

Bewilder

beltane2008Bewilder is a compound word, first attested from around 1680, composed of two archaic elements:

Be- is an old prefix; it also appears in bewitch, bespatter, behead, etc. The prefix originally meant “about” (it is related to by), but became (there it is again!) a general purpose prefix that slightly alters the meaning of the word that it’s attached to.

Wilder is also an old word. It’s probably a backformation from wilderness: the element wilder, which originally was an adjective meaning “wild, savage”, was reinterpreted to be a verb meaning “to make wild; lead astray”.

In bewilder, be- is acting as an intesifier: you’re not just being wildered, you’re being bewildered.

In bewilderment, the Latinate suffix –ment changes the verb into a noun indicating the end state.

Wilder starts out with the force of will (”w”), the energy of which is wound up tightly and tensely (short “i”), and fills the space (”l”) of a doorway or decision (”d”), and pumped with power (”r”). The overall impression is that of a will that is energized, but also paralyzed by indecision. The be- prefix indicates a sudden onset with high energy.

Thanks to Ali for suggesting this word of the day!

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Words of the Day: Arda, Assassin, Beauty

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

Arda

futureneopaganismiiIn Tolkien’s cosmology, Arda means the Earth, as well as the sun and the moon and the stars. It is not , all which is, because it does not include the realms of the Ainur (angelic/godlike beings) and Eru, the One. In the beginning times, Arda was flat, and there were no heavenly bodies. All was dark, until Aulë the Smith created the Two Lamps to provide light. At that time, Arda became green with growing things. After the Two Lamps were cast down by the treachery of Melkor, Arda was plunged into darkness; but after many ages, first the stars, and then the sun and moon were placed in the sky. During the great war in which Melkor was captured and chained, Arda was broken and curved into a sphere, as it is today.

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Words of the Day: America, Angel, Apollo

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

America

dreammasterIn the English-speaking world, America almost always refers only to the United States, even though technically it could refer to North and South America together. The usual etymological story is that America comes from Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian navigator who voyaged to the Americas shortly after Columbus and claimed to have discovered them. His name appeared Latinized as America in a geographical treatise published around that time, and the name stuck. To be fair, Vespucci was the first to claim that the Americas were separate continents, and he was the first to refer to them as Mundus Novus, the New World. Why the cartographer rejected the name Vespucia is unknown, but personally I think we can all be grateful to him for choosing America.

The name Amerigo, by the way, is Italian, but ultimately derived from Gothic Almarich, “work-ruler” (compare German reich, “kingdom”), and is cognate with the English names Emmerich and Emery. Thus America is not originally Latin or Italian, but Germanic.

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