Oxford £9.99 (502pp) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, Edited by Julia Cresswell
Friday 15 October 2010
The words we use everyday are so familiar that they almost seem natural phenomena like grass and rocks. Of course, they were man-made. Packed with pithy explanations of their often distant and unlikely origins, this book is as engrossing (from the Latin grossus meaning large, which also gave us grocer, originally someone who sold things in large quantities) as it is enlightening. Take sabotage. It sounds vaguely French, especially in the personalised form of saboteur, but did you know that it derives from sabot, French for clog? It comes from the destruction of machinery by clog-wearing workers in the 19th century.
Often, the history of a word can take a curious path. Once you think about it, the derivation of chronic, customarily applied to recurring illness, from the Greek khronos meaning time, is obvious, but its association with crony is less expected. This was 17th century Cambridge slang for long-standing friend. The equivalent invention from Oxford was chum, probably a shortened form of chamber-fellow (now we would say room-mate).
The family trees of certain words are extraordinarily fertile. Originally meaning seasickness, nausea derives from the Greek naus for ship. Nausea came also to mean upset and disturbance, which inspired the medieval homophone noise. Navis, the Latin for ship, gave us navy, navigator (hence navvy) and, because of its shape, the nave of a church. Spirit comes from the Latin spirare meaning to breathe. It also produced aspire (breathe upon), conspire (breathe together), expire (breathe out), inspire (breathe into), perspire (breathe through) and transpire (breathe across). Spire is, however, nothing to do with inspired but comes from the German Spier meaning tip of a blade of grass.
Oddly, the dictionary omits the disease porphyria, which gained its name from the purple excreta of sufferers. We're informed that the name for thin-sliced raw beef derives from the painter Carpaccio, who was fond of red pigments, but not that the coinage arrived as recently as 1950 when the dish was invented by Giuseppe Cipriani of Harry's Bar in Venice.
The second edition of this erudite and delightful work might consider including Google (a misspelling of the number known as googol: one followed by 100 zeros). There appears to be no bar on trade names. One celebrated nocturnal sedative is here: "Horlicks see Bollocks."
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