Friday, 14 May 2021

The Etymological Week


The week is a curious thing: the division of our lives into a revolving, unfinishing cycles of seven days. Especially as seven days bears no relation to anything at all. 

Some people, rather foolishly, think that seven days is a quarter of the lunar cycle: seven days from new moon to half full, another week to full, another week waning to half, and another week until it disappears. But there's a problem. This system is two days out. Four weeks is 28 days, and a lunar cycle lasts 30 days.

This means that the two systems go out of sync very quickly, and after only seven months they are as far as could possibly be. Time is a useful thing, because we use it. If I lend you some money and want it back after seven moons, we need to both agree on what that means. If one of us is counting 28 weeks and the other is watching the sky, there is liable to be a fight. 

Anyhow, I've been reading The Week: An essay on the origin and development of the seven-day cycle by F.H. Colson. It has been something of a revelation.

The week began with the Jews. Efforts to backdate it to Babylon are implausible, largely for the reasons given above. Whatever you may think of the first chapter of the book of Genesis (and opinions, I'm told, vary), the Jews had been resting every seventh day since at least the first half of the first millennium BC. And the Romans thought this was amazing, and weird and crazy.

The Romans looked at the Jews rather in the way that some modern Westerners look at Tibet or India. The Jews were eastern and mysterious and they had this mysterious ancient religion, which was really ancient, and probably contained some really profound kind of ancient wisdom that was really ancient.

So just as rich bored Londoners can suddenly get really keen on some ancient Tibetan practice as a bit of a fad, so the rich bored Roman could bore everybody at the dinner party about how he had taken up resting on the seventh day, and it had really grounded him, and you should try it yourself, because those Jews are just so, so ancient. And did you know they don't have statues of their god because it's a really spiritual religion?

Juvenal made fun of such people in his 14th Satire, although his main target was idle people who do things just because they're fashionable, and then get Much Too Into It. You start with the faddish Sabbath and the new-fangled seven-day week, and the you get carried away, and so do your children.

Some who have had a father who reveres the Sabbath, worship nothing but the clouds, and the divinity of the heavens, and see no difference between eating swine's flesh, from which their father abstained, and that of man; and in time they take to circumcision. Having been wont to flout the laws of Rome, they learn and practise and revere the Jewish law, and all that Moses committed to his secret tome, forbidding to point out the way to any not worshipping the same rites, and conducting none but the circumcised to the desired fountain. For all which the father was to blame, who gave up every seventh day to idleness, keeping it apart from all the concerns of life.

Resting every seven days is a gateway drug.

The important thing here is that the seven-day week spread through the Roman Empire before Christianity did. The Christians existed at the time, but they were still a tiny little sect. The Romans were still basically interested in pagan gods and astrology.

The Romans loved astrology and did everything according to the Seven Planets, which wandered across the sky. So far as the Roman were concerned there were the Fixed Stars (all those ones in the background that never move in relation to each other), and then there were seven things visible with the naked eye that wandered around. They were the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. These were wandering stars and in Latin each one was a stella errans, but the Greeks were still around and still speaking Greek and the Greek for wanderers is planetes. Hence planet, which just means wanderer.

Pluto may not be a planet, but the sun is. 

So you've got the seven day week and seven planets so of course you put them together. Saturnday, Sunday, Moonday etc. That way you could have an Astrological Week, and if you were planning to start a war or fall in love you could find the Right Day To Do It. The full Latin week went like this:

Sunday = dies Solis = Sun/solar = Apollo

Monday = dies Lunae = Moon/lunar = changeable 

Tuesday = dies Martis = Mars/Martian = God of War = martial as in court martial

Wednesday = dies Mercurii = Mercury = mercurial, ephemeral

Thursday = dies Iovis = Jove/Jupiter = jovial

Friday = dies Veneris = Venus goddess of love = to venerate of love something/venereal disease

Saturday = dies Saturni = Saturn = unlucky/miserable/saturnine

The Romans loved their astrological week and even tried to apply it retrospectively to the Jews, who obviously didn't do anything on Saturday because Saturn was unlucky. You can still see the Tuesday to Friday gods in French and Spanish

Mardi Martes Mars

Mercredi Miercoles Mercury

Jeudi Jueves Jove

Vendredi Viernes Venus

And, weirdly enough, all the Roman names survive in Welsh: Dydd-sull, -llun, -marwth, -mercher, -iou, -gwener, -sadwrn.

When the Christians came along they obviously tried to Christianise things. Saturday was the sabbath and Sunday was the Lord's Day, thus the Spanish Sabado and Domingo. But the week spread much faster than Christianity did. It arrived in Northern Europe while they were still pagan. That's why in English (and German) the days were passed over to equivalent pagan gods. 

Mars was identified with the Germanic god Tyw (who's actually etymologically related to Zeus and Jove), hence Tuesday.

Mercury was identified with Wodin (whom you've heard of from the Vikings) hence Wednesday.

Thor and Jupiter were both Thunder-Gods, so Jove's Day became Thor's Day/Thursday in English. But in German they're more direct and just call it Donnerstag, which literally means Thunder Day

(That's the same Donner that you get in the reindeer names Donner and Blitzen, which mean thunder and lightning, which is why the German army's tactic of lightning warfare, was called the blitzkrieg, or just the blitz, which I like to think of as London being attacked by flying reindeer.)

Venus was identified with the female goddess Frigg, hence Friday.

The Northern Europeans didn't use the planets because they weren't into astrology, because it's much too cloudy round these parts. In England you can detect the sun occasionally, in Wales never. The other planets might as well not exist.

But the week was just popular. It spread northward even without planets to pull it there. It is strange to think that there is no seven-day week in Homer, nor in any of the Greek dramatists; and strange to think that this arbitrary seven day cycle has been running without pause for at least two and half thousand years, probably much longer. 

It is also strange to think that two thousand years ago people thought that there was a correct day of the week to be in love, as though from Saturday to Thursday you might be quite icy and indifferent and then suddenly perk up on the day of Venus. We moderns would never, ever have such a silly idea. 

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Shires, Counties, Counts and Sheriffs


The nomenclature of England is a foggy thing, cunningly designed to confuse foreigners, who will wonder, in their simple foreign way, why they're consuming a Devonshire cream tea in Devon, why an earl's wife is a countess, why Nottingham had a sheriff, and why the Welsh Marches rather than march.

Thank God that I'm an Englishman, and was therefore born confused, rather than having to become so, like a mere Frenchman.

The explanation though is reasonably simple. 

Once upon an Old English time there were shires: Hampshire, Wiltshire, Nottinghamshire etc. The Anglo-Saxons lived in these and kept the Hobbit population under control. 

Each shire was ruled for the king by a shire-official, or shire-reeve, or scir-gerefa, or sheriff. That's why there was a Sheriff of Nottingham. He would, in fact, have been sheriff of Nottinghamshire. 

The Sheriff was therefore an Important Chap, and the Old English word for an Important Chap was an Eorl, or Earl

Then, in 1066, the Normans invaded and Frenchified everything. The Normans like their faluting to be high and their pants to be fancy, so they decided to call Shires by the Latinate word county. 

The head of a county should of course have been called a Count, but he was already being called an Earl and it was hard to change. 

Therefore a Norman might consider himself to be the Count of the County around Oxford, but the peasants all called him the Earl of Oxfordshire. The peasants won in the end, because they were speaking English, which is a much better language than all the others.

So that's why England has counties but not counts; the counts became earls, because that's what the peasants called them. But the wives of the counts never went near the peasants at all, and that's why they're still called countesses.

The wonderful English language had, of course, to be protected from its natural enemies like the Scots who wanted to pronounce every vowel as "ae", and the Welsh, who had a language based entirely on cheating at Scrabble. To do this there were particularly militant border counties called Marches. 

An earl in one of these shires could have called himself the count of the county, but he preferred to sound all military and tough and point out that he ran a march. So he called himself a Marquis and he called his wife a marchioness. 

A March, by the way, has nothing to do with marching, but it is vaguely related to a bookmark as they both mark your place. Moreover, counts don't count. 

Earl Dracula

N.B. I have slightly simplified history so that it conforms more perfectly to etymology. Truth is far preferable to fact. The facts are rarely elegant, and should therefore be ignored.

Monday, 5 April 2021

Apple M[a]cIntosh


The original logo

There's a website where you can buy an Apple Macintosh for 40p. Well, in fact, you can buy three for £1.20. That amounts to the same thing. Also, it's not really an Apple Macintosh, it's a McIntosh Apple; but the one is named after the other.

Back in 1811 a Canadian fellow called John McIntosh started selling a new cultivar of apple, which became known as the McIntosh apple. It is, apparently, a tasty apple. I'm not sure I've ever eaten one but it's one of the top fifteen apple varieties in the United States, so it's got to be all right.

Many years later, there was a man called Steve Jobs who ate a lot of fruit. One day, whilst on a fruitarian diet, he visited an apple farm (presumably he was hungry), and decided that "apple" would be a good name for the new electonic gizmo and fizzbang company that he was starting. 

(N.B. There's a myth that it's named after that apple that was found at the scene of the [alleged] suicide of Alan Turing, but that's not true.)

Anyway, there was now a company called Apple, named after apples, and it had employees, including a chap called Jef Raskin. Jef Rasking liked apples as well as working for Apple, and his absolute favourite kind of apple was the McIntosh Apple, so he picked it as the name for the new computer they were working on.

Unfortunately for Jef there was already a tech company called McIntosh Laboratory Inc, and so they had to alter the spelling, and that is how Mr McIntosh's apple became the Apple Macintosh.

Grows on trees.

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

The Meaning of Pasta


The Italian for a butterfly is a farfalla, and so the pasta that looks like a butterfly is called farfalle. One can think of this as beautiful, or one can think of a plate heaped high with dead butterflies. The choice is yours.

It's a lot better than thinking of linguine as a plateful of little tongues, which is rather horrid. Linguine is a diminutive, as is spaghetti. The Italian for string is spago; the diminutive form, the little string, is a spaghetto; and the plural is spaghetti

Vermicelli are little worms. Orrecchiette are severed ears (well, I assume they're severed, as otherwise there'd be a head on the plate). Fettuccine are pleasanter, they're little ribbons

Pasta, of course, is just a paste, a dough. It's the same paste that your find in pastels and pasties and impasto paintings. If you mash up a genre into a paste, you get a pastiche.

It can be rather fun to think of linguine al'arrabiata as little tongues in angry sauce, or it can put you right off your meal. As an Englishman, I feel that these Italian secrets should be kept in Italy; they might give me nightmares; so I shall stick to eating good British toad-in-the-hole. 

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears because I'm hungry.

Monday, 15 March 2021

Omega and Big Charlie



Sometimes an etymology is so obvious that I can't believe that I've never noticed it, and I marvel at my own duncedom.

The Greek letter omega, as in alpha and omega, was just the big O, the mega-O, O-mega. The shorter O in the Greek alphabet is called called omicron, or small O. 

I am/was able to recite the whole Greek alphabet, and I had never noticed.

Another hidden big is Charlemagne, who wasn't really called Charlemagne. He was just a big Charlie. Well, to be precise he was Carl the Great, that was written in Latin as Carolus Magnus and that ended up as Charlemagne

Big Charlie was the son of Pepin the Short, who is still just known as Pepin the Short. Oddly enough Pepin the Short wasn't actually short; he just had short hair. But that will never change the way I think of him, just as I shall always think of John of Gaunt as a pale, bony man. 

Pepin the Short's dad was Charles Martel, except he wasn't really. He was called Charles, and he was nicknamed The Hammer, which, in French, is martel. His influence lives on in the work of the modern poet Stanley Kirk Burrell, who is almost universally known as MC Hammer. 

MC is short for Master of Ceremonies. As as shortening it's first recorded in 1790:

It was Tyson's Benefit, and as he is my acquaintance, independent of being M:C:, it was but decent that at least one of us should appear there.

Master is a much older word. It goes back to the Old English maegester, which goes back to the Latin magister (literally meaning bigger one), which is cognate with the Greek mega, which is why omega just means Big O.

Defeated the Umayyad invasion of Aquitaine

N.B. Some people say that MC stands for Mic Controller. They are silly people.

Monday, 8 March 2021

Violins and Fiddlesticks


I have, in my solitude, taken up playing the violin. Fiddling while Rome does not burn. I have long suspected that the only thing I truly grasp is nonsense, now it is fiddlesticks.

Violin is the diminutive of viola, and viola come from the Latin vitula which meant stringed instrument, and vitula was named after Vitula, the Goddess of Joy. This is presumably on the basis that playing music makes you joyful, a hypothesis I have disproved by experiment. 

The Romans, it seems, exported their vitulas to the Old High Germans. The Old High Germans pronounced the V as an F (quite forgivable as they are similar sounds) and also pronounced the T as a D (likewise forgivable), and the result was that they called it a fidula, and the English ended up calling it a fiddle

Anyway, the English started fiddling, moving their hands and fingers around whilst trying to summon back the last screams of the dying cat. The result was the more common verb fiddle meaning to move your hands about pointlessly. 

So pointless was it all, so very unpointed, that the bows of violins, the fiddlesticks, became by the C17th an exclamation meaning stuff and nonsense, nonsense and stuff. 

And thus, what was once joy is now fiddlesticks.

The Inky Fool throws a party

Friday, 5 March 2021

Vaccines and Buckaroo


For some reason unknown to me vaccines have been much in the news of late. It's all the fault of a fellow called Edward Jenner (1749-1823) who had the eccentric idea of preventing smallpox in humans by injecting them with cows, or possibly cowpox. 

Cowpox is a demure disease, but, once you had got used to it, you could fight off smallpox, which was a dastardly disease.

The Latin for cow was vacca, and the Latin name of cowpox is variolae vaccinae. So Dr Jenner called his new invention vaccination, which therefore means something like cowification.

The Spanish had a much better idea. Instead of injecting diseased cows into people, they raised cattle, slaughtered them, and then ate them. This is less medically interesting, but much more delicious. 

The Spanish were so keen on cow-herding that they discovered a new continent called America and filled it with cows. Because Spanish is derived from Latin, the Spanish word for cow was vaca, and the Spanish word for the men who herded cows was vaquero.

However, the Spanish can't tell the difference between the letter V and the letter B. So when the North Americans imported the word for their own English-speaking cowboys, they called them buckayros, and later buckaroos

A buckaroo is just a Latinate cowboy. He has nothing to do with a bucking bronco, and everything to do with a vacca.

In 1989 Hasbro produced a children's game called Buckaroo! This involves putting things on a plastic mule, but, etymologically, it should really be a cow. 

This is a film about distressed Wykehamists.

P.S. The Spanish word vaqueros also means jeans, as that is what they wore.