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Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; Conspiring with him how to load and bless With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run; T...

Monday, August 3, 2015


I happened to see a post at one of the wine blogs I follow regarding the derivation of the word sommelier. But while the post is accurate, mostly, as far as it goes, it doesn't to my mind go nearly far enough. First, a bare bones definition of sommelier:
A restaurant employee who orders and maintains the wines sold in the restaurant and usually has extensive knowledge about wine and food pairings (AHD).
You'll sometimes see a sommelier defined as a wine steward, though technically there's a fair bit of expertise that's well beyond that of a steward.

Now, for the etymology. Sommelier is a word English borrowed from French; it's derived from Old French, from *sommerier, meaning "beast of burden," that is, a pack animal. Old French *sommerier was, it appears, borrowed into French via Provencal, and before that, from Vulgar Latin *saumrius.

The basic concept is that the sommlier, an expert on the storing and selection of wines, was a position that was once associated with cargo shipments via pack animals. The same Latin root that gave us sommlier also gave us the word summer, not the word for the season, but the summer that means
1. A heavy horizontal timber that serves as a supporting beam, especially for the floor above.
2. A lintel.
3. A large, heavy stone usually set on the top of a column or pilaster to support an arch or lintel.
Summer, meaning a supporting surface, came to English via Anglo-Norman sumer, from Vulgar Latin *saumrius, from Late Latin sagmrius, a word which referred to a packsaddle, packhorse, and which was derived from Latin from sagma, packsaddle.

You may, if you're a military history fan, be familiar with the idea of a sumpter mule or even a sumpter horse used as a pack animal. Sumpter, a fairly common word in Middle English, is also descended from the Old French sometier, and from Vulgar Latin *saumatrius, from Late Latin sagma, sagmat-, or packsaddle, itself from Greek, from sattein, to pack.

In other words, sommelier, summer and sumpter are all cognate, and ultimately all go back to some version of Latin sagma, and further back, to Greek sattein "to pack." Sommelier, summer and sumpter all have something to do with the business of packing or transporting, whether it's wine, or weight bearing loads, or supplies and goods.

[I wrote an earlier version of this post for another site that appears to be no longer online]

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Olive Oil: A Story of Human Civilization and Migration

Olive Tree, Portugal from Wikimedia Commons
Olives, deliberately planted and tended for thousands of years, are intimately tied to the early diets of ancient humans, who carefully cultivated them wherever we roamed, so much so that a plant with Afro-Asiatic ancestry is now grown even in Washington state. It's no small thing, that, and it marks the importance of the olive tree in human history, given that the plant is used not only for the fruit (the olive), but for the oil, pressed from the fruit, and the leaves, and even the wood.
English, etymologically speaking, obtained the word olive via Old French, olive, from Latin oliva, "olive, olive tree," from Greek elaia "olive tree, olive." Elaia is most likely derived from one of the Aegean languages, possibly Cretan, or Minoan, since we also see ewi "oil" in Armenian. From roughly the 14th century on in Middle English, we routinely see olive used for the tree, and the fruit of the tree. Trees are closely tied to human migrations across the continent of Europe because humans took the plants that were most important for their survival, based on their uses for wood, oil, food and religion, with them, as they moved from the fertile crescent around the Tigris and Euphrates, across Asia and Europe, and, centuries later, to the New World. The prevalence of the olive helps us trace our ancestors migrations.

Olives are so closely tied to the early diets of Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, that the word oil, meaning "Any of numerous mineral, vegetable, and synthetic substances and animal and vegetable fats that are generally slippery, combustible, viscous, liquid or liquefiable at room temperatures, soluble in various organic solvents such as ether but not in water, and used in a great variety of products, especially lubricants and fuels" (AHD) that the word for "oil" in a large number of Indo-European and Semitic languages derives from the word for olive. In English, for instance, we see already by 1175 olie, oile "olive oil" from Anglo-Norman and Norman French olie, and huile in 12th century French, from Latin oelum "oil, olive oil," Greek elaion "Olive tree," from elaia "olive." In Middle English, olie always meant "olive oil" until ca. 1300, when olie began to be used for any fatty, greasy substance, even those associated with fossil fuels, or petroleum. Or food, in the creation of oleo in the nineteenth century, and the subsequent increase in use during World War II as margarine began to used at home instead of butter.

Oleo, short for oleomargarine, derives from "oil" via Latin oelum. Petroleum entered English via Middle Latin as a compound ca. 1520–30. Petroleum derives form Latin petr (derived from Greek pétra), "rock" + Latin oleum.

And it all goes back to a simple olive tree, potentially living for thousands of years.

[I posted an earlier version of this post on another site]

Sunday, September 15, 2013



A few days ago I noticed that the local markets are already selling pumpkins for carving, and for eating (there are some pumpkin varieties that are known especially for sweet flesh, appropriate for pies and puddings and sweet breads). And I've seen the appearance of pumpkin lattes and pumpkin-inspired beers. In other words, yes we're in the season known as autumn, and fast approaching harvest.

A woman at the grocery store noticed me admiring the pumpkin display, and told me that they're native to America, and that the word pumpkin is itself a native American word. I nodded politely, and didn't correct her, but no, pumpkin is not a native American word, it's a good English word, in the sense that we swiped it from the French, who got it from Greek via Latin.

Modern English pumpkin derives from the now obsolete pumpion, itself from the obsolete Medieval French pompon, popon, from Old French pepon, from Late Latin pepōn, from Latin, meaning "watermelon or gourd," derived from Greek, "ripe, large melon."

The proto Indo-European root *pekw- means "To Cook or ripen" with derived words having to do with cooking, ripening, and digesting, like Latin coquere, "to cook," and vocabulary like cook, cuisine (culinary), kiln, kitchen, apricot, biscuit, concoct, and ricotta. The same root also gives us Greek pepon, pepo "ripe," Greek peptein, "to cook, ripen, digest" and hence pumpkin (as well as dyspepsia).

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


There’s been an unfortunate increase in the last four of five years of people who want to offer critical, opinionated reviews of books they haven't read. This is usually done in an effort to prevent anyone else reading the book. A review of a book the author hasn’t read is, on the face of it, such an odd idea that many people are surprised it happens.

It not only happens, it’s become downright common.

The habit of critiquing a book the critiquer or reviewer has not read is in part related to people who want to ban books that they take issue with; like the parents of Litchfield, N.H. who want to ban books they haven't read, but are absolutely positive are offensive, or any number of people who have objected to any number of literary works that are generally considered classics, but that they not only haven't read, they don't want anyone else to read them, either. These are people who have a socio-political agenda. They're not really interested in books, or new ideas, or having old ideas challenged. They like living in a safe cave, isolated from those who are not like them.

In the last year or so there's been a marked increase in people who haven't read the book in question purporting to offer in depth critiques because they don’t like the author. Often these faux reviews are from other authors, and they are less about the books they haven’t read, as much as they are about jealousy because the writer is doing better professionally than the people offering fake critiques or reviews. It occurred to me, after a recent online burst of people fulminating about a book they hadn’t read, and in the process making it abundantly clear that they hadn’t read the book in question because they got basic plot items woefully wrong, that we need and completely lack a proper term for this particular rhetorical trope.

In crude terms, I suppose I'm looking for a Greek-inspired term that equates with “makes stuff up”; I'd considered cacosyntheton, but cacosyntheton has apparently replaced the earlier cacosyndeton for “improper, or ugly word-order.” Rhetorician Richard Lanham invented the Greek-inspired skotison, which means, literally, “darken it,” to refer to the practice of deliberately indulging in overly complex prose meant to be difficult, if not impossible, to understand. Lanham's coinage suggested the invention of scatosyntheton, for, well, "making crap up," and yes, it's cognate with scatological. Go on, try it out: next time someone you know starts going on and on about a book they haven't read—tell them they're indulging in the vice of scatosyntheton.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas and Xmas

I noticed an online acquaintance the other day becoming extremely agitated that someone had referred to Christmas using the colloquialism Xmas. She felt that this was insulting, and offensive in the extreme. What she didn't realize was that Xmas as a shortened form for Christmas has a venerable, and solidly Christian, history.

The word Christmas is a compound of Christ + mass; we see it first in Old English in the form Cristes mæsse in 1038, according to the OED. The Old English form eventually evolved to the Middle English Christemasse. The word Christ is derived from the Greek word Christos, meaning "anointed," a literal translation of the Hebrew cognate of messiah.

The X of Xmas is a shorthand way to refer to the name of Christ. In Greek, the language of the New Testament, the Greek letter Chi, written as X (the ancestor of the English letter X) is the first letter of Christ's name. X has been used as an abbreviation for Christ since at least the early 1500s. Earlier, and closely related abbreviations include Xp and Xr, from the Chi, the Rho and the Iota (our letter I/i), the Greek letters that spell the Chr, the first three letters of Christ. 

In medieval manuscripts the Chi Rho page is typically a very highly ornamental page in from the beginning of the book of Matthew. The name is because the text is about the birth of Christ  from the verse from Matthew 1:18 that in English in the 1611 version begins “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.” The Latin text, the one used most often in medieval manuscripts, begins “XPI autem generatio . . .” The most famous page in the Book of Kells is the Chi Rho page

An entry in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle uses the shorthand of Xres masesse for Christmass; an abbreviation like Xmas is not so heretical, after all, and in truth, is quite traditional. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Ye Olde Shoppe

When I was nine, we moved to Keene, New Hampshire. Right smack dab in the middle of Main Street in Keene in the 1970s was Ye Goodie Shoppe, purveyors of fine hand-made candies. They are, to this day, the only place I've ever known to make Dark Chocolate Cashew Turtles. (They also make really good Milk Chocolate Turtles). Ye Goodie Shop opened in 1931, and is still going strong (though no longer on Main St.).

The use of "ye" and "shoppe" in the name Ye Goodie Shoppe are deliberate attempts to present a brand that is old fashioned, and even quaint. Finding a store that used ye, olde and shoppe is a trifecta of sorts. However charming it is, the usage is not at all historically accurate. And if you really think about it, ye in particular doesn't actually make sense. Ye as written in the customary shop title is actually the older form of "you," not "the." So, technically, "Ye Goodie Shoppe" reads as "You Goody Shop," though we naturally actually parse the ye as "the" and not "you."

Ye in this context is actually a linguistic fossil. In the middle ages, or roughly between 1200 and the first half of the seventeenth century, the word the was often written using a character called a thorn. The thorn is derived from Old English/Anglo-Saxon runes. The thorn character (þ) represents a voiced th- sound, as in the in Old and Middle English, and was written thus: þe.

Cover of Type: The Secret of History of LettersPrinting in England arrived by way of the Continent, which meant that the type was designed by and for people speaking languages that were not English; that meant that the type didn't include a þ character. So the printers substituted an upper-case Y for the þ character. This wasn't a big deal as the upper-case Y looked rather like one ms. variant of a þ. The Y was pronounced as if it were a th-sound, thus, we have, hundreds of years later, Ye being read as the, and even, Yt as that. You can read all about this, and much more, in Simon Loxley's Type: The Secret History Of Print. But remember that Ye, the second-person plural pronoun (from Old English ge is altogether different.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


The business with Ajay Naylor had been concluded to mutual satisfaction; she was not adverse to providing him rugs on commission, though she was less sanguine, even, than Audrey regarding the possibility of shipping off-planet.
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. I Dare.
when, as sometimes happened, filial respect wore a little thin, at least these regrettable lapses did not last for long, and were not difficult for a man of his sanguine temperament to forget.
Georgette Heyer. The Grand Sophy .

Sanguine is a fairly common word, but it's a bit disconcerting to look at the way sanguine is usually used compared to the dictionary definition of sanguine and its etymology. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, sanguine means:

  1. Of the color of blood; red.
    1. Of a healthy reddish color; ruddy: a sanguine complexion.
  2. Archaic Having blood as the dominant humor in terms of medieval physiology.
    1. Having the temperament and ruddy complexion formerly thought to be characteristic of a person dominated by this humor; passionate.
  3. Cheerfully confident; optimistic (AHD).

Most of the time when we see or hear sanguine used today, it's used in terms of the third definition; "Cheerfully confident; optimistic," as in the quotation from Lee and Miller's I Dare. But sometimes, we also see and hear sanguine and related words used to mean either "bloody, " or the color of blood, as in the wine and fruit beverage sangria, a word that is cognate with sanguine.

Sanguine, and a cohort of cognates (like sangria), entered English by way of Old French, sanguin, derived from Latin sanguis, sanguin-, both of which mean "blood." As I observed earlier, Modern English uses sanguine most often in its third meaning of "cheerfully confident; optimistic," but the same root also gives us "sanguinary," or "bloodthirsty." The reason for this seeming contradiction derives from medieval medical terminology.

Physicians, beginning in the Classical era and flourishing In the middle ages (and continuing right through the early nineteen hundreds in a modified form), believed that perfect health consisted in a balance between the four humors. The humors were four bodily fluids (blood, bile, black bile, and phlegm) each of which each governed not only physical characteristics, but emotional states and qualities. If someone had an excess of blood it was the dominant humor and determined their basic psychological state or temperament. People of a sanguine humor or temperament were believed to have a cheerful disposition, one rich with good will, and hope. They were believed to readily fall in love. Such people were said to have a sanguine disposition.