Tweed certainly looks like it ought to be named for the River Tweed in Scotland, particularly since Scotland was and is well-known for woolen goods, but in reality it is a mistake for “tweel”, the Scottish pronunciation of “twill.” The latter is related to “two” because it is woven with a double thread, just as the fabric called drill is made with a triple thread.
Gingham has the appearance of an English town name, but it is really Malay ginggang, striped.
Gauze is allegedly from Gaza in Palestine, but since the term means “flimsy fabric” in Persian and Hindi, this is more likely to be an Eastern word instead. Similarly, although Buckram is supposedly from Bukhara, in central Asia, this is probably a wild guess — most dictionaries say “unknown origin”.
As long as we’re on fabric names, it should be pointed out that Chintz is related to cheetah — they’re both from a Hindi word that means “spotted” — while Batik is Malay for “painted”, Khaki is Urdu or Persian for “dusty”, Dungaree is Hindi dungri, a coarse cotton, Malay sarong is ultimately Sanskrit for “variegated”, and Bandanna is a Hindi word that means “tie-dyed”. (See the discussion of band/bend/bind/bond, below.)
Sleazy, fustian, and bombast are all derogatory terms, and all are from the cloth trade. The current sense of sleazy —sordid, depraved, or disreputable— only dates from 1941. The corresponding noun, sleaze, didn’t appear until 1967 when someone described Soho as having “brazen sleaze”. For the previous 300 years sleazy had been used to describe a thin or weak fabric, quickly generalized to anything insubstantial or useless. The oed has a quotation from 1648 about someone’s “vain [= worthless] and sleasy opinions about Religion”. Fustian was a heavy fabric (possibly named for Fostat, a suburb of Cairo) which came to mean “padding”. The literal sense was in use by 1200, but the rhetorical sense of inflated language not until almost 1600. The exact same thing happened to another substance used for padding. Bombast or bombace was actually a French corruption of bombyx, a Latin word for silk, used as the name of raw cotton fluff or cotton wool. It was introduced into English in the late 16th century and immediately acquired its current sense. Bombastic speakers are “padding” their speech with high-falutin’ empty language to stir up their listeners just as padded clothing was meant to impress the viewer with the alleged qualities of the wearer.
Other items with geographical names (correct or not) include the turkey and turquoise (French pierre turquoise, Turkish stone, although the actual mines were in Persia), china as a synonym for porcelain, the spruce tree (from Prussia), and many, many more, not even counting foodstuffs (everything from wieners to mayonnaise) and animal breeds (dalmatian, spaniel, i.e., espagnol, St. Bernard, etc.)
Turning away from the domestic, the rare elements erbium, terbium, yttrium, and ytterbium are all named for Ytterby, an obscure village in Sweden which happened to be the home town of the chemist Carl Mosander, who discovered all four. Cf. holmium (Stockholm) and scandium, also discovered by Swedes. hafnium is from the Latin name of Copenhagen, and strontium is named for the Scottish village of Strontian, where it was first found. The elements magnesium and manganese are from Magnesia, in Asia Minor, So is the magnet; the natural magnet or lodestone was called the Magnetes lithos in Greek, although even in ancient times two different cities called Magnesia claimed the honor. Several other elements are named for towns or countries — europium, francium, germanium, jutetium (the Latin name of Paris), polonium, rhenium (the Rhine), and ruthenium (Russia, via Latin), not to mention the radioactive livermorium, named for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California. (Ernest Lawrence invented the cyclotron, and he not only got his lab named for him, but obligingly received the honor of the element Lawrencium, too. In theory, you could have sent a letter to “Lawrence, Lawrence Labs, Lawrence CA.)
The element Gallium is apparently named for Gaul or France, but it really contains a pun. Gallus means “rooster” in Latin, and the discoverer was a French chemist named LeCoq.
An artesian well is named for the former French province of Artois. In wells drilled there the water rose to the surface by itself, without being pumped.
Speaking of Albania the Balkan country, that name is Latin (from Greek Albanon), not Albanian. They call their country Shqiperi or Shqipnia, depending on the dialect. The linguists debate whether that means “Land of Eagles” (Albanian shqipe) or Land Where People Speak Correctly (shqipoj). (“Albania” was not well-chosen, since there had been an unrelated Roman province of Albania in the Caucasus, now called Azerbaijan.
The Latin name of Ireland was Hibernia, which is a good example of folk etymology in Latin. The Keltic name of the place is still seen in Ireland, Eire, and Erin, and it should have led to Ibernia in Latin. However, the Latin word for winter was hiems. Hibernate was originally a military term, “stay in winter quarters”, and the Sanskrit Himalaya means “snowy mountains”. Ibernia the island therefore got folk-changed to “Hibernia” as if it meant “winter country” instead. Presumably the people who created “Hibernia” looked at a map but did not know about the Gulf Stream, since snow is quite rare in Ireland except in the mountains. This error was helped along by the fact that clear back in Vulgar Latin, /H/ was no longer pronounced. The modern Romance languages often still spell words with the original Latin /H/ even though it has been silent for almost two thousand years — Spanish hombre, French hotel, etc., not to mention the normal English pronunciation of herb. The British still tend to say “an historical event” instead of “a”, mimicking Latin and French.
(Digressing slightly, the planet possesses at least nine “snowy mountain” chains — six different Sierra Nevada ranges (in the United States, Spain, Mexico, Chile/Argentina, Venezuela, and Columbia), Lebanon, Himalaya, and the English-language Snowy Mountains in Australia, pretty evenly spaced around the planet! There might be a tenth one, too: it’s been suggested that Caucasus is from the krau- root that means “frozen”, in which case Caucasians would be related to crystals, crusts, and croutons. Dropping an /R/ sound like that is pretty rare, though, so I wouldn’t bet the family farm on this one.)
The experts are unanimous in stating that the Keltic Eire actually comes from an ie peie- root that meant “fat”, so Ireland was the “fat [fertile] land”. (Remember that Irish Gaelic does not have a /P/ sound.) In Latin the root also came to mean “gum” or “mucus”. Ireland is thus a distant relative of the pine, which is the “gum tree”. People still sometimes refer to pine kindling as fatwood from its high resin content. The pituitary gland is so-named because early anatomists thought its purpose was to secrete mucus. In Germanic, Grimm’s Law changed the /P/ to /F/, and so fat itself is a derivative.
In the Greek-derived words ending in -nomy, the suffix can be translated as “law” or “rule”— astronomy is the laws of the stars, economy is the rules of running a household, and Deuteronomy is the “Second Law” of the Bible. (Surprisingly, this is not, from duo-, two, but from a Greek deu- root that meant “next”.) The root sense is divide up or sort, i.e., establish a particular branch of knowledge or law, (Cf. science, which as mentioned elsewhere, is another “divide” word.)
The three tiny bones in the middle ear have the Latin names of malleus, incus, and stapes from their shapes — the hammer, anvil, and stirrup. By the way, evolutionary biologists know that the malleus and incus were originally part of the jaw; mammals developed an entirely new jawbone hinge, and they were left over. Those extra bones in non-mammalian jaws are the reason why snakes, fish, etc. can open their mouths so wide.
Miller is an extremely common US family name, but it usually isn’t the obvious English surname, which is much less common in that country. American Millers are often from German Müller (Mueller) instead. The reason is that in England, “miller” became almost a synonym of “cheater”, and few people wanted to use it as a family name. Imagine somebody with the name of John Usedcarsalesman or James Conman. (Actually, it was even worse, because villagers had no choice but to put up with the local miller, no matter how dishonest.) In Germany, meanwhile, either they were more honest or more skillful in bilking their customers, so Müller remained an honorable name and profession.
A most unlikely relative is immolate. Given what has gone before, you might suspect it means to pound with a hammer, but not so. Latin immolare meant to sacrifice on an altar, and sprinkling the victim with meal was an important element of the sacrificial ritual.
Historical footnote: One of the most infamous (by modern standards) books ever written was the Malleus Maleficarum, the Hammer of Witches. It was first published in 1487 and remained as the official manual for the detection, trial, and immolation of witches for three hundred years. (The last official execution of a witch in Europe was in 1782, in Switzerland, although “lynchings” continued without benefit of trial well into the 20th century.) If you feel a need to consult the book, here it is conveniently translated online for your convenience.
Chore is not related to “share”. It and charwoman are from an Old English word which meant “turn” [of work]. From the literal sense we get ajar. This was once “on char”, on the turn, used of a partly opened door.
Buddha is a Sanskrit title given to Prince Gautama; it means “made aware” or “enlightened”. Related Buddhist terms include bodhisattva (“perfect knowledge”) and the bo tree beneath which the Buddha meditated to receive his enlightenment, which is why the best-known representations of the Buddha show him in a meditating position. The first part of a Scandinavian ombudsman, a mediator, is Indo-European ambi-Buddha, aware of both sides.
Digressing slightly, another well-known Sanskrit religious term with English relatives is nirvana, the ultimate goal of reincarnation, when human desires are extinguished and the individual soul absorbed into the universal consciousness instead. It is a member of the same family as Germanic wind, window, wing, and weather as well as Latin vent and ventilate. The root is we- and it means to blow. To achieve nirvana is ne-vanas, literally to be “blown out” like a candle. This means that despite the shared meaning of “extinction”, the word is not related to vanish. See vain for that family. Despite the shared meaning of “wind”, it also isn’t related to vane, which is from a Germanic word for flag or banner. (Those persons who have “gone about as fur as they can go” and who clearly will achieve nirvana when they die are called arhats, from the Sanskrit for “worthy”. In English, such persons would be called saints. A bodhisattva is one who, rather than passing on to nirvana, consents to be re-born to serve suffering mankind. The Tibetan branch of Buddhism regards each Dalai Lama as a bodhisattva.)
The Indo-Europeans liked to confuse us, because there are at least five independent mel- roots:
What is known about blame is that it’s a French condensation of blaspheme, literally to “speak evil [of]”. Thus it is the opposite of a euphemism, to “speak well [of]”.
Vim and vigor bring to mind the word pep, which is simply a clipping of pepper in the sense of “strong stimulant”. The plant name doesn’t seem to be Indo-European — another piece of evidence for the steppe origin of the language family. Sanskrit seems to have picked it up from an unknown South Asian language when the Aryans moved into India, and it has been borrowed via the spice trade by almost all European languages from Greek and Latin (piper, the species name) onward.
Yet another Germanic word for “on the left” is seen in the phrase “in the lurch”, originally a term in Backgammon for a hopeless position. This is not related to the verb to lurch, however, or to the dog breed called a Lurcher. The latter was originally a Gypsy cross between a greyhound and a collie, trying for the speed of one plus the intelligence of the other, and Romany lur means “thief” — Lurchers were regarded as wonderful dogs for poaching. There is some debate over this etymology, though; some derive the dog’s name from lurk. Lurch, to lean sharply, is of unknown origin; it seems to be a nautical word originally.
As mentioned above in the discussion of “orientation”, clear back in Indo-European the word for “right” also meant the warm, sunny, hospitable South, while “left” meant the frigid, dark, lethal North. We are still uncertain about the exact original home of the Indo-Europeans, but we certainly know it was in the northern hemisphere! (If civilization had originated in the southern hemisphere instead, the connotations of north/south and left/right would have been reversed.)
The Bantus of South Africa — far south of the equator — have the same left-right prejudice as Indo-Europeans, which would seem to invalidate this hypothesis, but indeed the Bantu originated in what is now Nigeria, in the northern hemisphere, before migrating all the way down to the southern tip of Africa fairly recently. In fact, they were moving into South Africa from above at the same time Europeans were moving upwards from the Cape. (Another hint that the Bantu are relative newcomers to southern Africa is their complexion. They are “too black” for residents of a temperate climate — much darker than the indigenous Xhosa peoples. For example, compare the complexions in this picture of two South African winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, Bishop Desmond Tutu, a Bantu, and President Nelson Mandela, a Xhosa.) Cf. the Arabs, who are “too light“ for their present climate and must stay covered head-to-toe to avoid the Sun. Other examples of people moving to where they are not well-adapted to the climate are the Aryan residents of India compared to the darker indigenous Dravidian stock, and the primarily European inhabitants of Australia are much paler than the natives. Black African residents of Europe, Canada, and the northern USA often need to take Vitamin D supplements, because their dark skin filters out too much of the weaker sunlight; Pale-skinned inhabitants of the tropics are conversely at great risk of skin cancer.)
In many cultures, touching something with the left hand is taboo, insulting, polluting, or all three. Many languages have euphemisms so they don’t even have to say the word for “left” — Greeks normally said aristeros (more fitting) or euonumos (better). Latin sinister, which in its turn has acquired bad connotations, originally meant “more profitable”; it’s from a sene- (to achieve) root also seen in Greek authentic. The Old Irish term for left meant “safe”, and the Scandinavian words meant “friendlier”. Left itself, however, is an Old English term that meant “weak” or “worthless”, from a different ie root that although it also meant “slow”, is not related to the past tense of “leave”.
The Left Bank as the intellectual hub of a city is purely geographic, even though intellectuals allegedly tend to have liberal political leanings. In Paris, the left bank of the Seine (when looking downstream) is the location of the University. The swarms of students and faculty caused it to be also known as the Latin Quarter, and as these have always tended to congregate in cafes and taverns, both terms came to be used for a city’s entertainment district.
Parenthetically, swarm goes back to Indo-European in its original sense, to hum or buzz. The reference is to bees, of course.
A left-handed friend pointed out that the classic example of design-by-righties is the coin telephone. The now-obsolete telephone booth could not be operated unless you inserted the coins and dialed with the right hand, while holding the receiver in the left. (The cord wasn’t long enough to do it the other way, which would allow lefties to use their better-coordinated hand for the tricky stuff.)
To be fair, there are several sports where being left-handed is an advantage. Sometimes it’s just because most players are right-handed, for instance basketball, where defenders aren’t quite as used to left-handed players, and bowling, where the left side of a typical alley is less used, and therefore smoother and more predictable. In baseball, being a left-handed batter is such an advantage that many natural righties teach themself to hit that way. Left-handed batters have a significantly higher batting average for two reasons. One is because the more common right-handed pitchers throw balls that curve into the batter, rather than away, but an even larger advantage is geometrical — they start out two steps closer to first base and beat out more infield hits. Presumably the majority right-handed batters should have been smart enough to vote for the game to be played clockwise. Yet another geometrical advantage of left-handers is the fact that a runner on first base cannot get as good a start against a left-handed pitcher, because his or her natural motion makes it easier to throw to the base and pick the runner off. Right-handed pitchers have their back to the runner.
I’m going to get myself into trouble with this one, but scientific evidence is accumulating that being naturally left-handed is a birth defect. Left-handers (8% of the population) have a shorter life expectancy, have a higher accident rate, are more prone to some forms of cancer, etc. A just-published study showed that left-handed young women have double the risk of early breast cancer compared to righties. Another recent study of elderly Dutch women showed that lefties had a 40 percent higher risk of dying from any cause, a 70 percent higher risk of dying from cancer, and a 30 percent higher risk of dying from diseases of the circulatory system. The Dutch left-handed women had double the risk of dying from breast cancer, close to a five-fold increased risk of dying from colorectal cancer, and more than three times higher risk of fatal strokes. Redeeming myself slightly, I must report that another just-published study showed that among American college graduates, left-handed men earned 26% more than their right-handed colleagues. Interestingly, there was no pay differential for left- vs. right-handed women. Many experts think there are almost no naturally ambidextrous people — they’re probably natural lefties who were forced by teachers and parents to use their right hand as children.
The first evidence for lower life expectancy among lefthanders came from baseball statisticians, who have always been obsessive about numbers and have very accurate records on everyone who has ever played the game. Statistically valid information can come from quite unexpected places — there is a 2,500-year set of numbers relating to the weather in eastern Asia, namely the dates that the cherry trees bloomed in Kyoto. Similarly, there is a 1,500-year run of numbers on the average age of puberty in European males, derived from cathedral choir records of when their boy sopranos’ voices broke. Corresponding figures for females came from rural parish marriage and birth records, since it was customary for village girls to marry as soon as they had their first menstrual period. (Boys and girls of wealthy families were often married when they were much younger to cement family or political alliances, even though consummation was delayed until puberty.)