04 July 2010

Short Takes: Word Origins & Other Derivations


Most people know that bloomers were long, baggy pants which narrowed to a tight cuff at the ankles. They were worn beneath a skirt to preserve a woman’s Victorian decency. Some people may even know that the name comes from Amelia Bloomer (1818-94).

Amelia Jenk Bloomer didn’t actually invent the garment, which dates back to the early 1850s. Originally, they weren’t very popular except among early feminist reformers. Newspapers used the term ‘bloomers’ as an insult, in fact. Amelia Bloomer, a women’s rights advocate and temperance campaigner, promoted the wearing of the garment that came to bear her name. In the 1850s, Bloomer began publishing her views in a newspaper she started, The Lily, to which Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the renowned suffragist, later contributed as well. In Lily, Bloomer advocated a change in women’s dress to less restrictive standards. When activist Elizabeth Smith (“Libby”) Miller invented the loose trousers bound at the ankles, intended to permit women be more active, it was publicly adopted by Fanny Kemble, the great actress (much, I imagine, as Kate Hepburn made pants for women acceptable and chic). Elizabeth Cady Stanton was Miller’s cousin, and when the costume’s inventor wore the trousers on a visit to Stanton, the suffragist adopted them as well. Stanton in turn visited Bloomer in the costume, and Bloomer began promoting the new garment in her newspaper.

Bloomers, as they began to be called, didn’t meet with great success either in the press or on the street. Women wearing them were ridiculed and teased mercilessly and Amelia Bloomer abandoned the costume in 1858 for the newly introduced crinoline, which she felt performed the same service for women as bloomers. Amelia Bloomer went on to campaign for women’s suffrage and dress reform; though less well-known than Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (who also wrote for The Lily), she’s counted among women’s rights’ leading voices. The original bloomers didn’t last long in popularity, but they were revived in a shorter version, fastened just above or below the knee, which became popular in the 1910s and ‘20s.


The term Bluetooth for the technology for exchanging data among different devices has an odd derivation. It’s an anglicized version of the Danish Blåtand, the nickname of the 10th-century King Harald I of Denmark (c. 936-85/86) who united contentious Danish tribes into one kingdom. The implication of the current usage is that Bluetooth technology does the same with communications devices, joining them to one common standard.


When I was a high school student in Geneva, we used pens, pencils, and artists’ supplies from a company called Caran d’Ache. Founded in 1924, the company took its name from the nom de plume of the French satirist and political cartoonist Emmanuel Poiré (1858-1909). Poiré, born in Moscow (his grandfather had been an officer in Napoleon’s army who, having been wounded in the Battle of Borodino, remained in Russia), adopted the pseudonym because, appropriately for the writing-instrument company, it’s a phony-French transliteration (it has no meaning in French at all) of the Russian word karandash—which means ‘pencil’!


It is a frequently told account that the modern flush toilet, one of the most useful conveniences of technical advancement, was invented by a man felicitously named Thomas Crapper. Contrary to popular belief, the device was not invented by Thomas P. Crapper (1836-1910). In fact, the flush toilet has origins back as far as pre-history. Even the modern device has been around since as early as the 18th century. What Crapper did do, though, was invent many improvements for the toilet he produced at his company, Thomas Crapper & Co. Ltd., of London. Crapper was a plumber, appropriately enough, and started his business in 1866. In the 1880s, Crapper & Co. began manufacturing a valveless toilet based on a 1819 design of Alfred Giblin. The company received a royal warrant and the name Crapper became synonymous with toilets. Isn’t that a wonderful legacy? (Believe it or not, the similarity to a vulgar colloquialism is a coincidence. The vulgarism crap dates back to Middle English and is related to the Dutch word krappe. Word!)


To most people today, Foo Fighters is the name of a ‘90s rock group. How may of us know the original use of the phrase, which dates back to World War II—and a mysterious phenomenon?

The band took its name from the term ‘foo fighter’ that was used by Allied pilots in WWII to describe various UFO’s or mysterious mid-air occurrences seen in the skies over both the European and Pacific Theaters of Operations. In 1945, Time magazine carried a story called "Foo-Fighter" in which it reported that "balls of fire" had been following Army Air Force night fighters. The pilots had named them "foo-fighters," using a corruption of the French feu (‘fire’) for the name. (There had apparently been earlier reports from French pilots in Indo-China.)

According to Time, the pilots reported that the mysterious lights followed their planes closely at high speed. In other reports, from the Pacific, the "ball of fire" resembled a large burning sphere which "just hung in the sky," though it, too, sometimes followed the airplanes. In all the reported cases, however, no aircraft was alleged to have been attacked by a "ball of fire."

Various explanations were offered for the sightings, but the point here is that the term reaches back to a history unrelated to the rock band or its music.


The Fresnel lens was originally developed by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel (1788-1828) for lighthouses. It was first used in 1823, but has since survived as a common lighting instrument in theaters. The lens has a unique appearance because the curved face has been cut back to form a stepped appearance. This was inspired to prevent the cracking to which thicker, curved lenses were prone due to the high heat generated for the bright light of a spotlight (for both stage and lighthouse application). The effect of the step lens is twofold, however. In addition to the resistance to cracking during use, the Fresnel spotlight has the desirable attribute of not having a hotspot in the center, a characteristic of other types of spotlights (such as the ellipsoidal spotlight, often called a leko).

The unusual aspect of the story of the Fresnel spot is not its original invention or its use in theaters, but how it came to be adapted for another purpose in between those two uses. During World War II, when aircraft carriers were becoming an important element in naval warfare, especially in the Pacific, naval strategists began noticing a threatening phenomenon. During night landings, too many pilots were being blinded by the lights illuminating the flight deck and crashing, costing lost lives and vital aircraft. They set naval engineers, among them a close family friend who when I was growing up was like a second father to me and my brother, began searching for a solution to this serious and fatal problem. They came up with an adaptation of the Fresnel spotlight (which had not yet become common in theaters). Lighting the flight deck with this lens allowed the bright illumination that the pilots needed to see the ends of the carrier decks but eliminated the hot spot that blinded them as they came in to land. Once the carriers were fitted with the new lights, crashes from light-blinded pilots virtually ceased and the important weapon of the Pacific war went on to help defeat the forces of the Empire of Japan. (It was in part the success of the naval application of the Fresnel, its lack of a hotspot, that brought the instrument to the attention of stage lighting designers and technicians and it was once again adapted for a new, more peaceful use.)


A frisbee, as almost everyone knows, is a plastic disk-shaped toy that players throw and catch. This trademark (for Wham-O, now generic) sometimes occurs in print meaning “a throw-and-catch game played with this toy.” The disk itself predates the patent by several decades, but when the toy was sold to Wham-O in 1957, the name Frisbee was attached to it, and the toy became a phenomenal success. Many games have been devised for the frisbee, including frisbee football. It was named after the Frisbie Pie Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut, originally owned by William Russell Frisbie, because the first frisbees were created by fastening two pie plates together, bottom side out, to make the aerodynamic flying-saucer shape.


The verb ‘to gerrymander’ means to divide (a geographic area) into voting districts so as to give unfair advantage to one party in elections. The noun means an act, process, or an instance of gerrymandering, or a district or configuration of districts differing widely in size or population because of gerrymandering. The word was formed from the name of Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814) plus [sala]mander (from the shape of an election district created while Gerry was governor of Massachusetts). The term, coined by a reporter, first appeared in the Boston Centinel in 1812.

Curiously, though the word gerrymander is pronounced with a soft g as in gin (jerri-), the Massachusetts governor’s name was pronounced with a hard g as in go (gherri).


The green room is the space near the stage of a theater (or, nowadays, sometimes a TV studio) where actors can wait for their entrances or relax after their exits. The designation occurs as far back as the mid-17th century, though it only exists in English; no other language uses the color green in its name for the actors’ waiting area. (It is also the term for the director’s critique session after a performance or rehearsal because those sessions are often conducted in the green room. (Even theaters without an actual green room use the term, though the waiting area might be just a corner of the wing or backstage area and the director’s green-room session might be held on stage or in the auditorium.) The most common explanation for the name is that the space was originally painted or carpeted in green. There are, however, other derivations for the name, some of them clearly apocryphal. One that I heard back when I was in college asserts that the name was given to the space because the first theater person to use it for the now-common purpose was named “Mr. Green.” I’ve never found any source for this etymology, even as a rumor.


Because I recently did some reading about Washington Irving, I got curious about the name Knickerbocker. I wondered if the name used as a nickname for New Yorkers, especially those of Dutch origins, came from the name for the pants or if there was a family name from which it derived, or if it meant something in Dutch. It turns out that it's entirely made up. Irving popularized it as a nickname for people and things New York, but he took it from a friend named Herman Knickerbocker. Herman Knickerbocker, in turn, was descended from an early Dutch settler in New Amsterdam, but that man made the name up when he arrived here. As far as I can tell, it was never a real name until then and it may not even have an etymological meaning in Dutch. (I didn't find one.)

The pants were named after the Irving character so that use doesn't date any further back than the mid-19th cent. (The German for the knee-pants we call knickerbockers or knickers is Kniebundhosen, literally 'knee-bound trousers.' I don't know what the Dutch word for them is.)

Virtually everything in New York that used or uses the name Knickerbocker, including the basketball team, owes the use to Irving; he invented the entire "tradition" out of whole cloth: it has no actual historical provenance! (In fact, Irving popularized the name through a kind of hoax: he created an imaginary missing person named "Diedrich Knickerbocker," which eventually became one of his frequent pseudonyms, in one of his newspaper columns and kept the story going until it went viral—as we'd say today.)


A Luddite (or luddite) is a member of a group of British workers who between 1811 and 1816 rioted and destroyed labor-saving textile machinery in the belief that such machinery would diminish employment. It now means anyone who opposes technical or technological change. The word was formed from the name of Ned Ludd, a possibly fictional English laborer who was supposed to have destroyed weaving machinery around 1779.


A maverick is an unbranded range animal, especially a calf that has become separated from its mother, traditionally considered the property of the first person who brands it. It has come to mean someone who refuses to abide by the dictates of or resists adherence to a group; a dissenter (as famously made a campaign attribute of Sen. John McCain and his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, in the 2008 election). The word was most likely coined from the name of Samuel Augustus Maverick (1803-70), a Texas cattleman, lawyer, and politician. Various accounts of the origins of the term held that Maverick came to be considered independently minded by his fellow ranchers because he refused to brand his cattle (though his reasons for not doing so may have been unconnected to any independent-mindedness).

Born in South Carolina, Maverick moved to Texas and settled in San Antonio in 1835, the year Texas declared independence from Mexico. Maverick was a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, was elected mayor of San Antonio, served in the House of Representatives of the Republic of Texas and the Texas State Legislature after statehood.

(Descendants of the Maverick family objected to the use of the label by the Republican ticket in 2008 on the grounds that Sen. McCain wasn’t a true maverick.)


A mondegreen is a misheard song lyric (or other phrase) where the words are misinterpreted to have an entirely different meaning than originally intended. Some examples are:

“Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear” (“Gladly the Cross I’d Bear,” from the hymn of that title).

“A girl with colitis goes by” (“A girl with kaleidoscope eyes,” from Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds by the Beatles).

“Excuse me while I kiss this guy” (“Excuse me while I kiss the sky,” from Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix).

“Who knows what evil lurks in the hot cement” (“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men,” the catchphrase for the radio show The Shadow).

The term was coined in Harper’s magazine in November 1954 by writer Sylvia Wright who took the name ‘mondegreen’ from her childhood misconstruction of a phrase in the ballad "The Bonnie Earl O’Moray": Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands, Oh, where hae ye been? They hae slain the Earl Amurray, And Lady Mondegreen.

The correct line reads: They have slain the Earl of Moray / And laid him on the green.


Murphy’s Law is the humorous axiom which states that anything that can possibly go wrong, will go wrong. Though the “law” goes back many decades before World War II, it was later named after Captain Ed Murphy (1918-90), an aircraft engineer and Air Force officer, who in 1949 said of a technician, "If there is any way to do it wrong, he will."


The Oscar is, of course, the golden statuette awarded annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for achievement in movies. The statuette was named after Oscar Pierce, a Texas rancher. The Academy was founded in Hollywood in 1927, the same year it began giving the awards for “outstanding performance in the various fields of the motion picture industry.” For the first four years it was given out, the statuette had no name. But in 1931, when Margaret Herrick, later the secretary of the Academy, first saw the golden figure, she remarked that it “reminds me of my Uncle Oscar,” who apparently had no connection with, or interest in, the cinema. A newspaper columnist overheard Herrick’s remark and wrote in his next column, “Employees have affectionately dubbed their famous statuette ‘Oscar.’”

(Pretty much everyone knows that the Tony Award is named after Antoinette Perry, 1888-1946, an actress, director, producer, and theater activist. The Obie is simply short for ‘Off-Broadway”; the name of the Emmy Award is a feminization of "immy," the slang name of the image orthicon tube, a component of early TV cameras. The names of the other well-known awards are pretty obvious, I think.)


A paparazzo (it’s usually plural, however) is a freelance photographer who doggedly pursues celebrities to take candid pictures for sale to magazines and newspapers. The word is derived from the name of the character Signor Paparazzo, a press photographer who would go to great lengths to take pictures of American movie stars in La Dolce Vita (1960), a movie by Federico Fellini (1920-1994). (Why Fellini chose the name Paparazzo for his character is in dispute, but it’s interesting to note that it is a real surname in Italy.)


This one’s probably apocryphal. It’s certainly “folk derivation,” but it’s fun to contemplate. During one of the 19th-century incursions of Napoleon’s forces into Germany, the general was served a dark, coarse bread that was native to the region where he was stopping. “What’s this?” inquired the Frenchman, turning his nose up at the peasant food he was being offered.

“C’est pas bon pour moi,” he declared. “C’est bon pour Nicole!” Nicole was the name of the general’s horse.

The local Germans, ever ready to please their conqueror, named the bread pumpernickel in his honor.

[Dictionaries and encyclopedias provide a much more prosaic etymology for the bread’s name. Readers can look it up for themselves and make their own choices.]


Sideburns are growths of hair down the sides of a man’s face in front of the ears, especially when worn with the rest of the beard shaved off. (Very long sideburns which extend all the way to the corners of the mouth are called muttonchops for their resemblance to that cut of meat.) The facial-hair style was named for Ambrose Everett Burnside (1824-81), an American general and politician known more for his side-whiskers than for his career in the Union Army, which included defeats at Fredericksburg (1862) and Petersburg (1864).

(In the 1860s, beards were so much the fashion for men that there had at one time been a standing order for military officers to wear them. Back in the 1960s, when the 100th anniversary of the Civil War was a frequent topic of articles and books, I remember a speculation someone published that the success of a Civil War general was directly proportionate to the amount of facial hair he wore. The bigger and more elaborate the general’s beard, the more successful he was in the field. Burnside, with only a mustache and side-whiskers, was a spectacularly ineffective field commander! For the record, Ulysses S. Grant had a bigger beard than Robert E. Lee.)


‘Scuttlebutt’ is the nautical slang word for gossip or rumor. It’s seeped into more general use so that we can occasionally hear landlubbers with no connection to the sea use it. But how many of us know where the term comes from? Here’s the explanation:

The slang use is related to the more common civilian expression ‘the water cooler’ because the scuttlebutt was the barrel on the deck of an 18th- or 19th-century sailing ship from which the sailors drank water. The ‘butt’ is the barrel or cask. (Remember that in Shakespeare’s play, Richard III, when he was still Duke of Gloucester, had his brother George, Duke of Clarence, drowned in a malmsey butt—a cask of wine.) A scuttle is a small hatch or opening; in this case, it's the hole used to ladle out the water. (When sailors want to scuttle a ship—sink it deliberately—they open all the hatches and drill additional holes to let the water in.) The sailors gathered around the water barrel for a break in their work and exchanged the day’s gossip—just as office workers today gather around the water cooler to the same effect.


Anyone who’s studied costume—or has a thing for turn-of-the-20th-century clothing styles—probably knows what spats are. They were a fabric shoe accessory covering the instep and ankle of men’s footwear at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. (Movie buffs will remember that the character played by George Raft in 1959’s Some Like It Hot was called “Spats” Colombo because he sported the shoe covering.) Some marching bands still use spats as part of their uniforms.

But does anyone know where the name comes from? It’s short for ‘spatter-dashers’—because their original intent was to protect expensive and hard-to-clean leather shoes from getting splashed with mud and manure from the horse and carriage traffic in the unpaved streets of the cities.


Un vasistas is the French word for a transom window. The way I heard it, it’s a common element in Alsatian houses but wasn’t known in Germany at the time of one of the periodic transfers of that territory from French control to German. A German occupier, pointing up at the unfamiliar window on an Alsatian home, inquired, “Was ist das?” (What’s that?). The Frenchman whom he’d asked, not understanding the question, thought the German was telling him the word for the window in German. So the French adopted the “German name” for the architectural element, calling it le vasistas.


Theater students are familiar with Verfremdungseffekt as the German term coined by Bertolt Brecht to describe his various techniques for making the familiar seem new and strange to his audiences. Though the word, which Brecht made up, is frequently translated as ‘alienation effect,’ that’s really a misleading expression. Brecht never wanted to alienate the audience in the sense of making them unfriendly or hostile. What he wanted was to let the spectators see old ideas and images as if they were new and unfamiliar, to de-familiarize what they were seeing so they would actively contemplate it anew, with a fresh perspective.

In German, the verb that means ‘to estrange’ is entfremden. (The adjective fremd means ‘strange’ or ‘foreign.’) The verb for ‘to alienate’ is befremden. Verfremden is a word that doesn’t really exist, except in Brecht’s specific usage. Ver- is a prefix that sometimes means ‘to become . . . ,’ especially when affixed to an adjective. (Alt means ‘old'; veralten means ‘to become obsolete’—literally ‘to become old.’ Ander means ‘other’ or ‘different’; verändern means ‘to become different’—or ‘to change.’) So, verfremden (-ung is the German gerund suffix) would mean ‘to become strange’ or ‘to become unfamiliar.’

But all that’s less interesting than where Brecht got the term in the first place. He didn’t actually invent either the word (he coined the German translation) or the concept. Russian playwright Sergei Tretyakov (1892-1939) introduced Brecht to the concept of priëm ostranneniya, literally, ‘device’ or ‘method for making strange,’ a phrase coined in 1914 by Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky (1893-1984) which Brecht rendered into German.


Some of you may know that the Russian word for a railroad station is vokzal. (Two Russian flicks: Belorusskiy vokzal, 1979: “Byelorussian railway station”; Vokzal dlya dvoikh, 1982: A Railway Station for Two.) The derivation of the word, as explained to me by my Russian teachers in the army, was that when the emissary of Tsar Nicholas I was traveling in Europe to gather ideas for the country’s new rail system, he visited Britain. The imperial representative’s train stopped at Vauxhall and the man saw the large sign along the platform with the word ‘Vauxhall.’ He assumed that this was the English word for ‘railroad station’ and adopted it for the Russian system. (The Russian language has always liberally borrowed words from other languages, especially German, French, and English.) If you pronounce ‘Vauxhall’ in Russian, you get vokzal, but I’ve always wondered if there isn’t another, equally plausible (or maybe more so) explanation. The German word for the waiting room of a railway terminal is Volksaal (‘people’s hall’) which, like Vauxhall, comes out vokzal in Russian.

(Normally I’d go with the explanation of the experts—my Russian teachers were all native speakers born in Russia—but in this case, I have to wonder if my etymology isn’t as valid as theirs. You be the judge.)

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