Words rule!


I think that there is much romance in the origin of our language. Simply saying that words were ‘borrowed’ from Latin or Greek hardly does justice to the intensely acquisitive nature of English. Extracting the meanings behind modern words is a type of linguistic archaeology which can provide a great deal of information and intellectual entertainment; far more of both commodities, in my view, than coining neologisms like vape, selfie, omnishambles or indeed blog. Despite many changes in grammar and vocabulary in the year 2015 we find four hundred year old Shakespearean English, or the language of the King James Bible (1611), mostly comprehensible. A very familiar piece of writing, like the Lord’s Prayer, is just about intelligible in Middle English (1400) but we really need a modern translation to get the best from Chaucer. The modern reader would be lucky to recognise more than the odd word in the written Old English of 1000 AD. For instance why do Streatham, Hampstead and Bradford have the names that they do?

But etymology is full of pits to trap the unwary. Almost certainly I shall reproduce some errors and naturally I will be delighted if observant readers point these out. Dr Johnson it was who provided a defence for writers of pieces like this when they make mistakes. When reproached for defining, in his Engish dictionary, the word pastern as the knee of a horse he replied ‘ignorance, madam, pure ignorance’.

The classical Latin for the head was caput; from this word probably derives the English cap, cape and capitation. By the early medieval period testa, which properly means a shell or pot, was being used to mean skull or head. From testa originates the French tête and the English test, meaning the hard portion of a sea-urchin. But not testament or testify which derive from testis (L. a witness). Having a head full of serpents has ensured that the name of the Gorgon Medusa has remained memorable. But can anyone tell me the names of her two sisters? No, Zola is not correct, they were Stheno and Euryale. But Gorgonzola was a suburb of Milan where the famous blue cheese was first made. How that got its name I have no idea.

In Latin folium is a leaf, and consequently foliaceous means leaf-like. The important vitamin folic acid was so called because the chemical was found in green leaf vegetables, and folio is a sheet of paper folded in half to make two leaves in a book. Medicine is a happy hunting ground for interesting words. The ending -algia originates from algos (Gk. pain). Athralgia is pain in the joints and myalgia is pain in the muscles. Oddly enough nostalgia is not pain in the nost, but rather home sickness. Of course nostalgia isn’t what it used to be when I was a boy.

Candidus is Latin for white; from this derives candid, and even candidates in general elections. Candidates for public office in ancient Rome wore a white toga, presumably to show that their reputations were unspotted or immaculate (L. macula, a spot). Albus has the same meaning of white, and England may have once been called Albion because of its white cliffs visible from continental Europe; remember la perfide Albion? The white allowed for the creating of chalk figures, as illustrated. It is not a total surprise to learn that colonies of the yeast Candida albicans, the cause of thrush, are in fact white. From white to black. Anthrax is a highly infectious bacterial infection of sheep. It seems ultimately to have derived its name from a Greek word meaning coal. Anthracite, once a most valuable product of the Welsh valleys, takes its name in the same way. The black scabs occurring on the skin in anthrax may have reminded a fanciful doctor of coal.

I introduced some of my U3A archaeology and geology group to the periodic table recently. This got me thinking about the halogens. The word halogen itself literally means ‘salt produced’ from the Greek hals, sea salt. This is nothing to do with halitosis which derives from the Latin halitus, breath. In decreasing order of reactivity the halogens are: fluorine, chlorine, bromine, and iodine. Fluorine’s major compound is fluorspar from the Latin fluere meaning ‘to flow’. This seems to refer to the ability of fluorspar to act as a flux in metallurgy. Chlorine is a yellow gas (Gk. chloros – greenish-yellow). Chlorosis or green-sickness were names given to a rather mysterious 19th century disorder of adolescence which may have been the result of iron deficiency anaemia. We don’t seem to have it now. Bromine derives from bromos (Gk. stench). Medically bromides were used as a sedative and had a reputation, probably undeserved, for placing a restraint on male libido. By extension the word has been applied to a trite saying or platitude.

Crinis is a Latin word meaning hair. Combined with linum (flax) it gave rise to crinoline, a horse hair stuffed material used in Victorian dress making. The similar sounding Greek word krinon means lily. Crinoids, or feather stars, are fossil animals frequently found in Yorkshire limestone. Xenophon’s Greek soldiers famously cried ‘thalassa’ when, after a long march, they finally saw the sea. It seemed logical to describe a blood disease found around the Mediterranean Sea as thalassaemia. Sea-bathing on Brighton beech was once known as thalassotherapy, with a name like that it must have done you good.


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