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!


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.

Disco, in turn, is the decendant of Latin discus (yes, the round flat thing that’s thrown), which was borrowed from Greek discos. Discos comes from the Proto Indo European root deik, meaning “to throw”, which is also the ancestor of teach, token, dictate, verdict, abdicate, index, judge, paradigm, and revenge, among many others.

As you might expect, the phonosemantics of disco reflect this throwing motion. From “d”, the doorway or decision — perhaps referring to the hand’s release — disco moves up, light and tense (short “i”) with strong energy towards a target (”s”); the “k” may indicate the constrained, spinning motion. The final long “o” gives disco it a grounded, earthy quality (a strong bass-line?).

Thanks to Nio for suggesting this word of the day.


sellingsalvationThe Greek elephas, “elephant”, probably came from the Phoenician term for the animal, elu (a word found in many languages in north Africa), although it might possibly have been from Sanskrit ibhah. Elephas was the nominative form in Greek, while the genitive was elephantos, “elephant’s”, which could refer to both the animal and its ivory tusks. Latin borrowed the word as elephantus, and this became oliphant in Old French (this was the source of Tolkien’s oliphaunts). This was borrowed into English as olyfaunt in the 1300’s, but the spelling was changed to elephant after 1550 to reflect the Latin source more closely.

Both the strength and gregariousness of the elephant is reflected in the short “e”’s surrounding the “l”, which in turn signifies the elephant’s size and expansiveness. The final syllable, “fant”, suggests a balanced energy arising from freedom, which is directed and narrowed toward a target. This may be a reference to the famously unattached lives of the bull elephants, as well as their intelligence.

Faerie, Fairy, Fate

meditationfailsIn its very oldest sense, a fairy is one who speaks, and Faerie is the realm of the speakers; and fate is what they speak.

Both words are from Proto Indo European bha, “to speak”, which has many other distinguished descendants, such as fable, fandango, infant, prophet, ban, bee, fame, phone, symphony, blasphemy, boon, and fate. Bha became fari “to speak” in Latin, and derived from that was a fatum, a thing spoken by the gods — a destiny, a doom. The plural form was fata, the Fates, and this is the word that entered English as fate.

Fata descended into Old French as fae, and derived from that was Old French faerie, which had the same meaning it has today — “land of the fairies, fairy meeting, enchantment, magic”. It entered English around 1300, and by 1400 it was also used to refer to fairies as well as their world and their magic. The modern English distinction between fairy, a supernatural being, and Faerie, referring to their realm and things of it, is a distinction that appeared in the late 19th century.

The combination of the freedom of “f” and flexible, broad energy of long “a” is a powerful one, made even more potent by “r” and extended indefinitely by the long “e” at the end. The overall force is of a power that is strong, free, expansive, immortal. The similarity in sound between fairy/Fairie and free is not accidental; and the use of the word as slang for “homosexual” (recorded first in 1895) is particularly interesting.

In fate, however, the result is different: the strong, free, expansive force is trapped and channeled onto a single path (”t”). Whether the path is good or bad is not indicated.


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