Sludge, slosh, and slush certainly have the right “look and feel” to be family relatives, but the experts are dubious.
Slim and slender also are not related; they seem to be from a root that means “crooked”, by way of “sneaky” and “hard to catch”. Foxes and pickpockets were traditionally described as slim.
In general, if one encounters an unknown word starting with sl-, it probably has something to do with slippery slime, whereas a large family of Germanic words having to do with the nose start with sn- — snout, sneeze, snooze, sniff, snuff, snuffle, snot, snore, snoop, snoot, snub, sneer, snort, snorkel, schnauzer (German for “snout”), and about fifty more. Snitch, an informer, is a “nose” word (cf. “nark”), but snitch, to steal, is unrelated. That one is a variant of snatch, as is snack. It’s too bad that those sneaky snakes don’t have long noses.
Sneeze actually did not start out as a “nose” word. It is Old English fnese, but somebody must have taken that initial letter as an /S/ instead. Until recent times, a lower-case /S/ was printed /s/ only at the end of a word and /ʃ/ (long-/S/) at the beginning or in the middle, looking very like a lower-case italic /f/. Check here for a good example, and cf. Greek, where sigma is written /ς/ at the end of a word and /σ/ elsewhere. Also note the German double-/s/ character /ß/ in words like straße, which is a ligature of a long /s/ and a regular /s/. Anyway, the allure of the /SN-) words turned fnese into ʃnese. Another word where /f/ and /ʃ/ might have been confused is daffodil. It is Greek asphodel, spelled aʃfodel in English before it changed to affodil. The source of the initial /D/ is unknown, unless it is from Dutch de affodil. 08Nov17 By the way, the daffodil (a variety of narcissus) originally could be white or orange in addition to the well-known yellow variety.
Before leaving the archaic long-/S/, the mathematically-inclined now know why the integral symbol is what it is: an expression like uses long-/S/ as an abbreviation of “sum”, or rather Latin summa. Cf. the use of a Greek capital Sigma for the operation of summing a series:
Another example of the effect of bad handwriting is the non-word syllabus, which is Greek sittabos. Now you know why your teachers always told you to cross your T’s. To add insult to injury, once the /T/ to /L/ misreading had occurred, scholars decided the word was Latin, not Greek, and created the “plural” syllabi. A similar non-Latin mistake is octopus. We are familiar with Latin masculine nouns ending in /-us/ which form their plural in /-i/, so therefore the plural of “octopus” must be octopi. Nope; octopus is Greek and the correct plural is octopodes.
Another Germanic set of lookalikes are words beginning with kr- dealing with the concept of being crooked — crank, crinkle, cripple, crotch, creep, creek, cramp, crimp, crook, (both the shepherd’s implement and the malefactor), crutch, crochet, (a small hook), crumple, the musical krummhorn, and many others. To cringe is to curl up in fear. Velcro® is from French velours crochet, hooked velvet. The game of lacrosse is French “the crook”, from the weapon used by the players, while to encroach is to “hook in” and originally meant to illegally seize. See gooseberry and grape for more unlikely relatives. The etymologists insist these are not related to the Indo-European ker- “bend” root (curve, circle, etc. etc.), which would produce hr- words in Germanic like hring, now “ring”. See the section on ker- elsewhere. They are also not connected to the cross family, despite the resemblance. A bishop’s crozier is a shepherd’s crook, not a cross.
Similarly, “Indian” words like cobra, caste, etc. are from Portuguese and not from any language of the subcontinent.
As a result of the endemic mangling of their language by people who pronounced WG as written (particularly because Western books and newspapers always dropped the “unimportant” accent marks), in 1979 the Chinese government adopted a phonetic set of rules called Hanyu Pinyin (“Chinese Spell-sound”) and strongly recommended that the rest of the world follow suit. Western governments, libraries, and news organizations quickly converted to Pinyin, not least because using the WG mis-pronunciation of a word might start WW III if it turned out to be something unforgiveably insulting in Chinese. Thus we now have Pinyin Beijing instead of “Peking”, Mao Zedong instead of “Mao Tse-tung”, the Yangzi river, Sichuan for “Szechuan”, Jiang Jieshi for “Chiang Kai-shek”, etc., which correspond reasonably closely to the standard Mandarin pronunciations. (Kai-shek was the WG form of the man’s name in Cantonese; it has always been pronounced “Jyeshir” in Mandarin. I’m told that the terminal /i/ in Pinyin isn’t always pronounced /ee/. With “chi”, “shi” and “zhi” there is an /R/ sound on the end and the vowel is short, while with “zi”, “si”, and “ci”. the vowel is similar to the u of English “put”.) Note that Wade-Giles also hyphenated names, where Pinyin doesn’t.
Wade-Giles romanization is now a historical footnote except on Taiwan, where they refuse to adopt Pinyin because it was a mainland idea. If you want to chase this any further, here is the Library of Congress official conversion chart between Wade-Giles and Pinyin.
Oh, yes, almost forgot. The Pinyin for “gung-ho” is gonghe.
I mention elsewhere that mandarin is not a Chinese word. In China, the official is called a guan, while the standard national language is called Putonghua (“common speech”) on the mainland and Guoyu (“national language”) in Taiwan. It has the pronunciation of the Beijing dialect of Mandarin but with vocabulary from all Mandarin dialects. The Chinese for bureaucratic language is guan hua, officialese.
I hate to get into the mess caused by different East Asian countries or languages using different representations of the same word. Countries like Japan, Vietnam, and Korea use many Chinese (Han) words, but over time they have come to write the character differently. As a result, Unicode recognizes five different ways to display the same word:
Japanese and Korean characters are more likely to be identical to Traditional Chinese, while Vietnamese tends to follow Japanese, but there are thousands of exceptions. This makes computerized typesetting a nightmare in East Asian languages. Fortunately for the Internet, most readers can recognize the other variants, even if they are irritated by, for example, a Simplified Chinese character in the middle of a Korean sentence — sort of like something 𝔦𝔫 𝔉𝔯𝔞𝔨𝔱𝔲𝔯 𝔱𝔶𝔭𝔢 in the middle of an English or French document for no good reason.
Pinyin is not merely a system to help foreigners pronounce Chinese. It is intensively taught to all Chinese students, because it is the basis for entering Chinese into computers. The user spells the desired word in Pinyin on an ordinary Western keyboard (or texts it into a smartphone), and the software changes each word into the correct logograph. Since Chinese has so many homonyms, normally more than one word matches the spelling, in which case the software pops up a window showing all the possibilities and lets the user click on the one intended. Smart software can winnow the list down according to context. Recently there was a news article that Chinese young people are increasingly unable to draw the words of their own language any more. One was quoted as saying “When I can’t remember, I will take out my cellphone and find it [presumably by keying in the Pinyin] and then copy it down.” 07Mar18 The younger generation of Japanese are doing the same thing with regard to Kanji, looking up the kana or Latin-character version. Cf. the fact that American schools have given up the fight and no longer teach cursive handwriting, except to (maybe) teach students to sign their names.
Of course, most Chinese words that have “escaped” into English aren’t about to be re-spelled (won-ton soup is huntun in Pinyin, for example, and Kung Pao chicken is Gong Bao), any more than all the people in the phone book named Chang will petition to change their name to Zhang. This might change over time, though. My favorite restaurant now serves Beijing Duck and Sichuan Beef, and I have seen kung-fu in its Pinyin form as gongfu.
Everyone has changed Peking to the Pinyin Beijing, but the same hasn’t happened to other Chinese cities. For example, most English speakers would not recognize Canton, Hong Kong, and Chungking in their correct forms: Guangzhou, Xianggang, and Chongqing, respectively. Other than Beijing, about the only other Asian places where a new name has been accepted in English in modern times are Mumbai (formerly Bombay), Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Jakarta (Batavia), and the countries of Myanmar (Burma) and Sri Lanka (Ceylon).
I suppose we can’t expect English to change, considering that we don’t make any attempt to follow the native names of many European cities and even countries -- we obstinately ignore the proper Roma, Wein, Milano, Venezia, Genova, Athínai, København, Köln, München, Lisboa, Moskva, Sankt-Peterburg (no /S/ in the middle), and so on, not to mention Italia, Österreich, Svenge, Norge, Deutschland, Polska, Ellada, Suomi, Shqiperi, Helvetica, Cymru, and more. People are amazingly conservative; the emperor Constantine may have forced everyone to accept Constantinople instead of Byzantium as the name of his capitol, but that didn’t keep his empire itself from obstinately being known as the Byzantine Empire for the next thousand years.
Kung-fu has nothing to do with Chinese martial arts per se — it means “skill through training and dedication” and can be applied to experts in other fields — one could conceive of a kung-fu cook or a kung-fu basketball player. I have a book of Linux tips and tricks called Ubuntu Kung-Fu, which uses the term quite correctly, even if it’s an unlikely mixture of Chinese and Bantu. In slang, -fu is attached to things as if it meant “great skill”, but that is a misunderstanding of the Chinese phrase, because “gong” means achievement and “fu” means “human”. Note that gung-ho (gonghe) and kung-fu (gongfu) share that “achievement” first element. Also note that Ubuntu and Bantu share the same /BNTU/ root meaning “people” — Ubuntu is an abstract noun meaning “humanity”.
Chinese is a tonal language, which is why it sounds sing-song to Western ears, of course. Different dialects have a different number of tones. Standard Mandarin (Putonghua) has four. Both Wade-Giles and Pinyin therefore require some way of indicating these four possible vowel tones — steady, rising (like an English question), falling (like English disappointment), or down-up. Typographically, this can be either a superscript numeral 1–4 on each syllable or more likely these days, an accent mark on the vowel which has the shape of the tonal movement. Even though different tones create different words, these markings are totally ignored in ordinary English. For example:
The true name of the modern spelling style is therefore Han4yu3 Pin1yin1 or Hànyŭ Pīnyīn.
The Chinese sometimes intentionally ignore tones in the interest of creating puns. See the discussion of the Grass-Mud Horse for an example of a pun on mā (mother) and mă (horse). Note that the Chinese pun even in the written characters — both the “mother” and “to scold” logographs have the “horse” strokes embedded in them. I mentioned the choir of children singing an allegedly obscene song about the Grass-Mud Horse; in song the melody overrides the vowel tones, so even the Chinese can’t tell whether the song is full of double-ententes or not.
Another example of ignoring tones is the extremely common tetraphobia in East Asia — avoidance of the number “four”. In Mandarin and Cantonese, the pronunciation of 4 (四, sì) and death (死, sĭ) differ only by the vowel tone, while in non-tonal Korean and Japanese the two words are completely identical. For example East Asian buildings usually don’t have a fourth or fourteenth floor, schools and office buildings don’t have rooms with a 4 in their number, and so on. (If a building is tall enough, 4, 14, 24, and 34 are missing, and then the floor numbering goes directly from 39 to 50.) Thus, you can live on the 60th floor of a 45-story building. In this Shanghai elevator, they decided to cover all bases by eliminating the 13th floor in addition to the 4th and 14th!
Out of the innumerable examples I could give of Chinese homophones, consider the eastern Chinese city of Shànshàn. This is not reduplication as seen in Walla Walla or Sing Sing — as can be seen in the Chinese form 鄯善, the two syllables are different words.
One last comment about Chinese. The basic spoken variety is actually fairly easy for English-speakers to learn (about 2,000 characters to memorize) because the two languages share several features. For instance, both are analytic, using auxiliary words instead of declensions and cases. In both, the canonical word order of a sentence is subject-verb-direct object, something that is not true of many other languages. Both readily create compound words from shorter segments, like English “baseball” or German “hauptbahnhof” — mainrailroadstation. A typical Chinese example is gongfu (kung-fu), “achievement+personal”, as mentioned above. A more complicated example is the four-segment Chinese word 共产主义. Read literally, the whole thing is “share+production+main+meaning”. In addition, each pair is a Chinese word. The first half 共产 (share+production) is the word “communist”. The second half 主义 (main+meaning) is an idiom; the actual translation would be “ideology” or “philosophy”. Therefore the whole thing is “communist philosophy”, i.e. communism.
This sort of thing is why Chinese is usually listed as one of the languages where it takes the most study to become fluent — there are thousands of idioms used in ordinary conversation or newspapers that don’t make sense when taken literally. Japanese is also on the “it takes years”" list, not least because in addition to the four writing systems (and the fact that a given Kanji character can have several meanings depending on context), there are three different vocabularies depending on the relative social level of the two speakers. The American Foreign Service Institute, which teaches diplomats, etc., ranks languages by the number of hours it typically takes for an English speaker to learn it; easy ones (Dutch, French, Spanish, etc.) typically take about 600 hours or six months of intensive study, while at the other extreme, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean typically require 2,200 hours, or almost two years. See here for their complete list.
Surprisingly, bondsman isn’t related to the bonds of slavery. It means house servant, from Old English bonde, “household”, also seen as the second syllable of husband. These are derivatives of the Indo-European bheue- root, to exist or dwell, which produced quite a few English words, ranging from be to the -by on the end of English town names in the Danelaw (Derby, Grimsby, etc.) from the Norse word for village. (A bylaw is a “village law”.) Cf. bower, build, byre, neighbor, boor and boer, etc. The physics, physician, and physical family also are from this root, via Greek physike, nature or existence. Latin superb is “super-be”, be above.
That Indo-European man- root gave birth to a lot of English words related to hands, including manual, manacle, manage, mandate (give a hand), manipulate, manner, command, demand, and the compounds manuscript (written by hand), manicure (hand care), manifest (gripped in the hand; i.e., obvious), and manufacture (made by hand). (The original meaning of “manage” was to control a horse — cf. French manège.) As unlikely as it seems, mastiff means “tame”; it is ultimately Latin mansuetinus, where the second element means “accustomed”. Masturbate is probably from Latin manu stuprare, to defile with the hand. It is possible that man in the generic sense (human being) is “the creature with hands”, although the majority view holds that “man” is really “the creature that thinks”, from the same root as “mind”. Either way, it definitely isn’t related to human, q.v.
Emancipation didn’t mean “free a slave” until the late 18th century; the oed’s first two citations in this sense are from Adam Smith in 1776 and Jefferson in 1785. The earlier Latin term was manumission, “sent from the hand”.
“Emancipation” is still a legal term used in its original family sense. The emancipation of a minor is a judicial proceeding to declare a child a legal adult and release him or her from parental control. One occasionally sees the term in newspaper accounts of a child taking a parent to court for alleged misappropriation of the child’s earnings. Hollywood movie and TV producers love emancipated teenage actors because they aren’t subject to California’s draconian child labor law. (If you’re interested, draconian refers to Drako, a magistrate who wrote ancient Athens’ first legal code. In the Draconian Code, punishment was simple. If you broke the law — any law — you were executed. Murder, theft, adultery, jaywalking…. Drako supposedly said, “Death is the appropriate punishment for small crimes; I only specify it for greater ones because I do not know of anything more severe.”)
Confusingly, there is an Indo-European leu- root which meant “praise”. It is responsible for Latin laud, German Leid (song), and possibly lay (short song or poem) via Keltic.
Lothario was a perfectly unobjectionable name until it was used as the name of a seducer in the play The Fair Penitent in 1703; it’s an Italianized version of Luther. Circumstances have made other names unpopular, too. Judas is simply the Greek spelling of Judah, but nobody in Christian countries uses it. At least those afflicted with Jezebel could escape by spelling their name Isabel, but consider all the innocent girls named Lolita who were stigmatized by Nabokov’s novel of that name. (An excellent trivia question is “What is Lolita’s actual name?” Lola and Lolita (little Lola) are diminutives of Dolores, and the girl in the novel is Dolores Haze.) A “lolita” is by now a lower-case generic noun, but Nabokov’s book is also responsible for a second term for a sexually precocious young girl — he coined nymphet to describe his title character. Both seem to have filled a need in English. In usage, “nymphet” simply implies a [possibly innocent] sexy little girl, but “lolita” implies the young lady is sexually experienced and aggressively seductive — in the book Humbert Humbert was not the twelve-year-old’s first lover, and she seduced him. (Actually, nymphet had been used earlier in English poetry to refer to a literal young nymph, but Nabokov was the first to apply it to a real girl, and to give it a sexual connotation.) Tween was recently coined to refer to the same 10–12 year old girls, but without any sexual implication. Earlier, tweenie had meant a between-maid, a junior servant who assisted both the cook and the housemaid, and who was probably in the same age range.
I would imagine that very few little boys are named Hannibal these days, courtesy of Silence of the Lambs. I would also be willing to bet that quite a few parents who named their baby girls Britney (spelled that way) fifteen years ago now wish they hadn’t. On the other hand, some of those innocent Lolitas probably were so-named because their parents or grandparents were movie fans — in The Mark of Zorro (both the Douglas Fairbanks original and Tyrone Power remake) it is the name of the hero’s love interest. Mortimer was a very aristocratic English name until it was permanently defiled by Mortimer Snerd, and the popularity of Adolph certainly wasn’t helped along by Hitler. I don’t know if any Mongolians are still named Genghis, but I am pretty sure there are no more Americans named Dagwood, another perfectly respectable Old English Name. (The first syllable is a northern form of “day”, although in this context “bright” is probably a better rendering. Cf. the Scandinavian Dagny and Dagmar, “new day” and “day maiden” respectively.) Bambi was unobjectionable until it became associated with the 1923 novel and the Disney film. As mentioned elsewhere it means “child” in Italian; cf. the diminutive bambino. Now it seems to be used only for topless dancers and such even though the fictional Bambi, as shown by the masculine ending of the name, was a stag. (See bimbo, which is the same word, and also masculine.) Nobody can now hear the once-respectable name Bertha without mentally putting “Big” in front of it.
Dolores, incidentally, is from the epithet Maria Dolorosa, Mary of the Sorrows — a very common name in Spanish and presumably the baptismal name of Zorro’s Lolita. Latin dolore meant to suffer pain. Other English relatives are dolor, doleful, and indolent, which changed from “feeling no pain” to “insensitive” to “inactive”.
By the way, the last syllable of knowledge was originally -lock, action, which now only appears in wedlock. Acknowledge is from Old English onknow; the prefix ordinarily changed in Middle English from on- to a-, seen in words like abide from onbide, arise from onrise, etc. This should have produced “aknow” but the theory is that the added /C/ helped preserve the /K/ sound that otherwise would have disappeared as it has from other /KN-/ words like know, knot, and knife.
From the Latin and Greek versions of gno- come such words as agnostic, ignorant, ignore, and ignoramus (all = not knowing), the medical diagnosis (thorough knowledge) and prognosis and prognosticate (forward knowledge), recognize (know again), incognito (not known), and the religious Gnostics, a sect which claimed a special knowledge of God. Yet more relatives are note, notion, and the norm, normal and enormous set. (Latin norma meant “known by” or “standard” and the first meaning was a carpenter’s square — normal is still a geometrical term for a right angle, and see below. Enormous is ex-norma, out of the norm.) Oddly, quaint once meant “well known”, as shown in acquainted. It’s Latin cognitum (know with) after the French got through with it.
The large antelope called a Gnu isn’t any smarter than other animals; that first letter (which is pronounced) is an attempt at the native (Khosa) name, which begins with a “click”.
The southern constellation called Norma is not named for an astronomer’s girlfriend but is in the middle of a group of obscure constellations with Latin names of tools. In addition to The Square (originally French l’Equerre et la Regle, Square and Ruler, before being Latinized) some others are Telescopium, Microscopium, Triangulum, Sextans, Octans, Circinus (the geometer’s compass), Pyxis (the navigator’s compass), Fornax (furnace), Caelum (chisel), Horologium (clock), Antlia (antlia pneumatica, air pump), Pictor (easel), and Reticulum (reticle). Mensa, table, surely looks like part of this group, but it’s actually shortened down from Mons Mensa, Table Mountain. Areas of the sky which were not visible from Europe and the Middle East didn’t receive mythological names, and so the first astronomers to venture below the equator got to make them up. In addition to the tools, there is a Sculptor’s Workshop (near the Chisel, obviously), an Altar, a Cross, a Chalice, and the animals Toucan, Fox, Swallow, Crane, Dove, Peacock, Bird of Paradise, Lizard, Lynx, Giraffe, Mahi-mahi, Water Snake, Chameleon, Flying Fish, and Fly (most disguised by being in Latin), not to mention an American Indian and assorted mythical creatures like a Unicorn, a Phoenix, and a Virgin.
One ancient constellation got cut up because it was unwieldy — Argo Navis (Jason’s ship) was sent to the breakers and carved into Puppis (poop or stern), Carina (keel), and Vela (sails). Somewhat later, Pyxis, the mariner’s compass (originally called Malus, the mast) was added on. The water snake and [Noah’s] dove are nearby.
Actually, there was at least one tool added to the northern hemisphere, too. Quadrans Muralis (a wall quadrant) was wedged between two other northern constellations by a French astronomer in the late 18th century. It quickly died and is only remembered in the name of the annual Quadrantid meteor shower every January.
A linguistic oddity: That Mahi-mahi is officially the constellation Dorado. That is a Spanish fish name, but astronomers pretend it is Latin. Latin words borrowed from Greek feminines ending in /-O/ form their genitives in /-US/ (cf. Argo/Argus), and so we have names like the supergiant star S Doradus, one of the brightest stars in the Universe. Dorado is mainly noted for containing the Large Magellanic Cloud, the biggest satellite galaxy of the Milky Way. In addition to S Doradus, the LMC contains the largest star-forming nebula in the local group of galaxies, the Tarantula Nebula. (The Small Magellanic Cloud is in Tucana the toucan.)
Almost certainly related to “normal” and “gno-” are all the nom- words with the meaning of name, that by which something is known. From this are such things as the Greek anonymous (no name), synonym, antonym, homonym, pseudonym, and the Latin noun, misnomer, nominate, binomial, nomenclature, denominator, renown etc. etc. The tribe may even be larger than the examples above, because some authorities graft all the gen- words (family, birth) onto the same root.
Thy beauty shall no more be found Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound My echoing song: then worms shall try That long preserv’d virginity: And your quaint honour turn to dust; And into ashes all my lust. The grave’s a fine and private place, But none I think do there embrace.
Enjoyment of the poet’s wit is significantly enhanced if the reader knows that, at the time Marvell was prodding his lady fair to quit stalling, “quaint” was pronounced “cunt”. In one of Chaucer’s more bawdy tales, a suitor had a somewhat more direct approach to his lady fair: “And prively he caughte hire by the queinte”. Coney, a rabbit, had a short-/U/ vowel (rhyming with “honey”) until the 20th century, so between coney and quaint, there were opportunities for lots of off-color puns — coney-catcher, for instance — in Shakespeare and elsewhere. There was a running joke that dealers in rabbits and poultry had the same business motto as prostitutes: “No money, no coney.” In A Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1811, “coney warren“ was defined as slang for a girl’s boarding school. The same book mentioned that the word constable was avoided by the delicate, since it was usually pronounced “cunt-stable”. The animal’s switch to a long-/O/ pronunciation was helped along by preachers; it is mentioned in the Bible, and the old pronunciation sometimes caused congregations to get the giggles. (The Chamber of Commerce of Coney Island, New York, probably was ecstatic at the change.)
There were at least three more Middle English words producing the same sort of puns: Countess was spelled and pronounced cuntesse for a couple hundred years, leading to jokes that presumably were not used in the hearing of the local earl. Around 1300–1400 cunter meant a tax collector. (That last is “counter”, i.e., accountant.) In the Middle Ages country was often spelled cuntry the way it is still pronounced. Since the /-ry/ suffix normally means “land of” or “characteristic of”, as mentioned in the discussion of Jewry, chemistry, and many more — revelry, rocketry, Freemasonry, …, one might therefore have expected that a cuntry was the location of many female organs, and in fact Shakespeare and others had quite a few puns on things like “country pleasures”. One of the more explicit is this line from Hamlet — “Do you think I meant country matters?.. That‘s a fair thought to lie between maids legs.”
Our ancestors were evidently not easily shocked — in the 13th century, London, Oxford, and York all had streets called Gropecunte Lane. (Grope, grip, and gripe are all the same word. A gripe was originally a sharp pain in the abdomen, but over time it softened to “distress” and then “complaint”. See grab for the rest of the family.)
The etymology of the “little-c” word is probably from an ie [s]keu- root that means concealed or covered. Certainly Latin cunnus meant vulva, as in the compound cunnilingus. (Note that cunnus is masculine in Latin, an excellent example of the fact that grammatical and biological gender don’t need to agree.) This etymology makes “cunt” a relative of obscure, custody, Latin cuti- (skin) words like cuticle and subcutaneous, Germanic hide (both noun and verb), house, hose, hoard, and hut, as well as Greek-derived scientific words in -cyte or cyto-, where the meaning is “cell”, from kyto-, a hollow. Anatomical terms in cyst- look like they might be related, but they are from a different Greek word that meant bladder. (Cystitis is inflammation of the bladder, etc.) Some authorities think that Germanic shoe is another skeu- word, a foot cover. Much more definite are Germanic scum (a water covering) and sky, the Norse word for “cloud”.
Note that “cunt” is euphemistically referred to as the little-c word so that big-C can be restricted to another unmentionable subject — Cancer. Cf. the N-word, the F-word, and pee as an initialism to avoid saying piss.
Getting back to those long-eared beasties, in English the adults were originally called coneys while the young were called rabbits. Although now regarded as ubiquitous, the rabbit is not native to northern Europe, and neither Keltic nor Germanic has a word for the animal. Evidently there were no rabbits in England before the Norman Conquest; early chronicles remarked on the imported fur before they had ever seen the animal itself.
On the analogy of “semester”, some US universities now divide the year into three trimesters, each four months long. This, of course, shows no knowledge of either language or arithmetic. Obstetricians, perhaps with a better Latin and Greek education than modern college presidents, at least get it right, dividing a nine-month pregnancy into first, second, and third trimesters. (PS — at least one US university divides the year into three-month quarters, which it obligingly calls quadmesters!)
Diameter’s adjective is diametrical — for any point on a circle, the “diametrical point“ was the opposite end of the diameter through the circle, easily generalized to “as far away as possible”.
The origin of the meter (metre) as a unit of length is interesting. The scientists who developed the metric system tried to keep the number of arbitrary units to a minimum, defining as many as possible using other more fundamental measures, and the original definition of a meter was the length of a pendulum with a one-second “tick”. (By the way, that definition means that the acceleration due to gravity on the surface of the Earth in metric units (g = 9.81 m/sec2) equals π2. Proof of this is left as an exercise for the reader.) It was soon realized the pendulum method was not sufficiently precise, because the force of gravity varies from one place to another on the Earth’s surface, not to mention where the Sun and Moon are located in the sky at the moment, so they tried using a certain fraction of the Earth’s circumference instead. Unfortunately, that was also too imprecise, so they gave up and said a metre was the arbitrary distance between two scratches on a particular metal bar in a Paris vault. The second was originally defined as 1/86,400 (60×60×24) of a day, but the Earth’s rotation proved equally imprecise, as discussed elsewhere. These days, the definition of the meter is exactly the distance light travels in 1/299,792,458 of a second in vacuum. (If you prefer decimals, that’s 0.00000000333564095198 seconds.) A second, in turn, is defined as exactly the time required for 9,192,631,770 cycles of the light emitted by a Cesium atom making a certain quantum transition. In this way both time and distance are tied to the Speed of Light (c) and Planck’s Constant (ℎ), two of the very few things in the universe that physicists think are really fundamental and invariant.
Yes, your weight really does change according to the position of the Sun and Moon. If they are both directly overhead (e.g., a solar eclipse at noon) then both Sun and Moon’s gravity are pulling you up while the Earth is pulling you down, reducing your weight by a tiny fraction of an ounce. If that solar eclipse is on the other side of the Earth (midnight local time) then Sun, Moon, and Earth are all pulling you down, increasing your weight slightly.
At the moment, the third basic quantity — mass — is still defined by an artifact: the International Prototype Kilogram is a particular block of platinum-iridium alloy stored in that same Paris vault. Unfortunately, every time it is touched a few atoms wear away, and even if it isn’t touched, minute amounts of gunk adhere or even worse, get absorbed, and impurities in the metal might get outgassed. Modern measurement techniques are accurate enough to easily note the difference. The best guess is that the standard is currently about 100 micrograms lighter than it used to be. Since it is the standard, another way of putting things is that the universe has gotten about 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (1049) metric tons more massive in the past century.
Several proposals have been made to create a better definition. The most obvious would keep it physically defined by using Avogadro’s Number to define the kilogram as exactly the mass of 50,184,508,190,229,061,679,538 atoms of carbon-12, so a gram would be a 5-carat cube of pure diamond 84,446,886 atoms on a side. As a practical matter, that new proposed definition of the gram wouldn’t be a cube of carbon, which would be very difficult to make to the required accuracy; it would be an appropriately-sized single-crystal sphere of pure silicon-28. The semiconductor industry is very good at growing pure silicon crystals (i.e., at least 99.99999999% pure) of arbitrary size, and lasers can measure the diameter to a precision much less than the width of an atom.
There are a couple of possibilities for a “pure” definition of mass: It could be defined using time, distance, and G, the universal gravitational constant, but as mentioned elsewhere, gravity is such a weak force that the value of G is not known to anywhere near the required precision. (Some physicists even hypothesize that G might not be constant everywhere in the universe as an explanation of Dark Energy.) An easier possibility would be to define mass in terms of the energy of a photon via the Einstein equation E = mc2 and Planck’s Law E = ℎc/λ, where ℎ is Planck’s constant and lambda is the wavelength of the photon. Combining the two equations, we get m = ℎ/cλ, and this definition of mass also uses nothing but the speed of light and Planck’s Constant. Unfortunately, measuring the mass-energy of individual photons to the required precision is not yet possible, either.
02Nov17 The most practical current method (no pun intended) seems to be using the Kibble Balance, which uses the voltage and current in a coil of wire to balance a weight. Both these quantities can be measured very accurately, and the Ampere and Volt are both already defined by Planck’s Constant. The Kibble balance is now accurate to about ten parts per billion, meaning it should be able define the standard Kilogram to an accuracy of ± ten nanograms. (Compare to the current discrepancy of 100 micrograms mentioned above.) Note that this will fix the definition of Planck’s constant in the same way as the new definition of the second. The International Weights and Measurements committee plans on retiring the Paris standard kilogram in 2019 —after weighing it carefully with a Kibble balance, of course.) (Bryan Kibble, the British physicist who invented the balance bearing his name, is no relation to Tom Kibble, the British physicist mentioned in the discussion of the Higgs Boson, qv.)
Actually, there are a few other less-fundamental units which still are defined by a physical object. One of the most obvious is temperature — the Fahrenheit, Celsius, and Kelvin scales ultimately still depend on the freezing point of pure water. The experts plan on switching to a definition based on molecular speed, which would of course put temperature into the time and distance camp.
For a long time, another fundamental zero point defined by a physical mark was the Prime Meridian mark at the Greenwich Observatory in England. In the 19th century this was internationally agreed to be exactly longitude zero. Unfortunately, England moves on the surface of the Earth due to continental drift, which would make the longitude of every spot on Earth continually change, so the official International Reference Meridian, or IRM is now calculated using satellite orbits independent of the surface. The IRM is used by the GPS system, for example. The historical Greenwich meridian line is currently about 100 meters west of the The IRM. (For over 1,500 years until Greenwich, the most common prime meridian used on European maps was the island of El Heirro (Ferro), the westernmost point of the Canary Islands and the “end of the known world”. This had the advantage that “longitude” could simply be defined as an unsigned number —what we now call east longitude— and didn’t have to be qualified on maps. Obviously the British didn’t think of plus and minus or the GPS system when they decided that London would be partly in the eastern and partly in the western hemisphere!)
By the way, Wikipedia lists thirty-six different sites, ranging from Oslo to Kyoto, that have been used as prime meridians by one country or another.
If this sort of thing interests you, look up the book Just Six Numbers, by Martin J. Rees. By the way, now you know why the “grandfather clock” (properly a case clock) is so tall — it has a one-second (aka one-meter, almost 40-inch) pendulum.
Before leaving weights and measures, the gram is ultimately Greek gramma. One might think it would be related to “grain”, but in fact it is instead related to grammar! Greek gramma meant both a small weight and a single letter, modified from the gra- (write, scratch) root also seen in the graph- words. (Cf. iota, also used for both “small amount” and a particular letter.)
The unit of mass has no connection to Gram-negative and Gram-positive bacteria. Those are named for how they respond to a simple test invented by Hans Christian Gram over a hundred and twenty years ago that stains bacteria either purple or pink. It turned out that Gram-positive bacteria have a more permeable cell wall and are much more susceptible to many antibiotics, and Gram staining is still used as a quick-and-dirty test for deciding on treatment when there may not be time to culture and microscopically identify the pathological agent. (Gram-positive organisms include the common Streptococcus and Staphylococcus, while Gram-negative examples include nasties like Pseudomonas, Legionella, Salmonella, and the ubiquitous E. coli.) Here’s an example of a mixture of Staph and E. coli.
One other nasty which actually is Gram-positive is the gut bacterium Clostridium difficile, which causes diarrhea, particularly after treatment with antibiotics. It’s quite common, but it doesn’t compete well against the normal bacterial complement of the intestine. If the competition has been wiped out by intensive antibiotic treatment, C. diff. multiplies unhindered and can even be fatal. One promising treatment is fecal bacteriotherapy, aka a stool transplant, where feces from a healthy donor are implanted into the infected patient’s colon. This re-establishes the normal bacteria and usually kills off the weaker C. diff. The major problem with C. difficile is implied in its Latin name — stubborn. It is spore-forming, and the spores are incredibly hardy. (C.f. the comment about anthrax, which also has impossible-to-kill spores that can survive for years.) Normal disinfectants such as alcohol, soap, acids, and boiling water don’t kill C. diff., most antibiotics can’t penetrate, and so they survive on allegedly sterilized medical equipment, cooking utensils, etc. C. difficile is the cause of many epidemics of “stomach flu“ in closed environments like hospitals, prisons, cruise ships, etc., and the only way to get rid of the bug is to wipe everything with bleach.
By the way, most people with diarrhea symptoms immediately start taking loperimide (sold as Imodium®), but unfortunately, that makes a C. difficile infection worse. (Loperimide is a cousin of morphine, and like the rest of the opiates it semi-paralyzes the large intestine. Until the 1980’s, paregoric, which is powdered opium dissolved in alcohol, was commonly used as an anti-diarrheal treatment. Recently, there have been articles about addicts using loperimide. It doesn’t produce a “high”, but it can alleviate opiate withdrawal symptoms, unfortunately at a dosage level which can be fatal. Some regulators are making noises that it should not be sold over the counter but only through pharmacies in small quantities, much like the rules for the easily-abused nasal decongestant pseudoephedrine, aka Sudafed, q.v.)
Pseudomonas aerugenosa is both ubiquitous and dangerous. It is a common component of skin flora, so everybody has billions of resident pseudomonas bacteria. It is the poster child of so-called “opportunistic” infections — normally it is harmless, but if it gets a running start (a wound, burn, the immuno-suppressed) it can cause severe or fatal infections, particularly because the bacterium has mutated to be extremely resistant to most antibiotics. Because it is (a) on everyone’s skin, and (b) quite hardy, it is the scourge of hospital intensive-care wards, particularly burn units.
Streptococcus is also a significant part of the skin flora and opportunistic, but fortunately it is still susceptible to the penicillin family, so most strep infections (strep throat, pneumonia, scarlet fever, ordinary pus-forming skin infections) can be readily treated. The exceptions are when the infection gets anchored in places it doesn’t normally occur, which can lead to Bad Things like toxic shock syndrome and the “flesh-eating” necrotizing fasciitis. Streptococcus can actually be useful — it produces the holes in Swiss cheese and is one of the bacteria used to culture yogurt. (Some years ago the Swiss got worried because of a trend for their cheese to have ever-smaller holes. They finally realized that it was because their dairies were now extremely sterile and the milk wasn’t getting enough strep.)
16Oct17 Although “standard” staph is usually easily treated, a mutated version called MRSA, or Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus is another story. Originally found only in environments such as hospitals, prisons, athletic locker rooms, and nursing homes, it is now found “in the open”, and as the name implies, most antibiotics have no effect on it. There are a few antibiotics which sometimes work, and they are usually regarded as a last resort, particularly because the more often an antibiotic drug is used, the quicker the bacterium evolves resistance. (The original penicillin was 100% effective against staph, but by now it is virtually useless, since the vast majority of strains have evolved resistance.) Doom-sayers worry that sooner or later MRSA will evolve resistance to everything, and the world will be back to millions of people dying from minor scrapes, pinpricks, “blood poisoning” etc.
The radioactive element Copernicium is indirectly named for two other elements — The astronomer’s name was latinized from the Polish form of “Copper-Nickel”. Around 1800 there was a fad for naming new elements for recently-discovered solar system bodies — thus uranium, titanium, palladium, and cerium. (The artificial elements neptunium and plutonium were named in the 1940’s because they follow uranium in the periodic table, and I suppose we will get eridium sooner or later in honor of the newly-discovered Eris.) See the section on tabby cats for even more unusual names of elements.
Typhoon is a three-way coincidence! In Chinese, tai-fun is literally a “big wind”, with no apparent connection to tufan which means “cyclone” in Arabic and Hindi (Arabic tafa means to turn around), nor to the Greek Typhon, god of winds and storms. Tufan had been used in English from 1588 to describe the violent storms of the Indian Ocean, while the Chinese storm from the Pacific (called a tay-fung in English) isn’t recorded until 1771. The two words have since merged in both form and meaning, and adopted the spelling of Typhon!. (Other Chinese “big” words include tycoon (great prince), and the Taiping (great peace) rebellion of the 1850’s. Taiwan, however, is Austronesian, not Chinese. Its capitol Taipei, however, does contain the Chinese word for “north“ and another major city on the island is Tainan, where the second syllable is “south”. Cf. Beijing and Nanjing, the northern and southern capitols of China.)
Both Greek patos and Sanskrit pathan mean “trodden or beaten way” — they are members of the ped- “foot” family — but most word mavens (and Grimm’s Law) say there can be no relation to Germanic path. (The coincidence is so striking that one dictionary I’ve consulted claims that the Germans must have recently borrowed “path” from an Iranian language or from Armenian, thus maintaining the /P/! It doesn’t explain how this occurred, given that the two groups were never within a thousand miles of each other. Another expert postulates that somehow the Scythians were the intermediate between Iran and Germany. See heathen for another slightly less fanciful argument about alleged contacts between Germans and Armenians.)
I’ve also mentioned that the Niger River and country of Nigeria, prominent on the map of Black Africa, don’t seem to be related to the Latin nigr- words meaning “black”, and Mauritania, Morocco, Marrakesh, and the Moors may or may not be connected to Greek mauros, dark. Etymologists may get migraines from the fact that Nigeria and Mauritania don’t mean “dark” or “black” after all, but there is one African country which does: Sudan is short for Arabic Bilad-al-sudan, the Country of the Blacks. Sudan once referred to all Africa south of the Sahara. See the discussion of Ethiopia for another African country which may be a color word.
The current conflict in southern Sudan seems to be an effort by the Arabic Sudanese to push out the Black African component. (The South Sudanese just won a plebescite on independence, so maybe the next dispute will be on whether the Arabs or the Blacks get to keep the name “Sudan”.
Here’s another pairing that must be a coincidence: Passover is an English translation of Hebrew Pesah, which also produced “Easter” words like Paschal.
Meanwhile, “paradise” is Persian. Both elements are
Indo-European; the first is the same as Greek peri- (around)
in words like perimeter and periscope, and the second meant a (molded)
brick. A paradise was therefore a walled compound, i.e., the grounds
of a palace or estate. The word was first applied in the West to the
biblical Garden of Eden, and the courtyards or plazas in front of
cathedrals were once called paradises.