Sunday, 25 August 2013

Short and Sweet – The Etymology of ‘Daisy’

As it’s the summer bank holiday, I thought I’d talk about something cheerful, sweet and quite poetical, and that is how daisies got their name.

Simply, the name comes from the Anglo-Saxons, who called the flower a ‘day’s eye’ (dæges eage), because as with many flowers, the petals open during daylight and close when it gets dark. The Anglo-Saxons noticed this, so when the petals opened to reveal the sun-like disk growing in the centre of the flower, the called it an eye – in effect, the eye of the day. As so commonly is the case with English, over time, the word has shortened and has become easier to pronounce.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Car Company Names...some Interesting Origins

Most of us own a car or another form of vehicle, but do we ever think of where the names of car manufacturers come from?
Car manufacturers commonly get their names in three ways – the name of the company’s founder or someone notable in the company, acronyms, or more interesting miscellaneous methods.  I will briefly go into each in this post.
Firstly, companies may get their trading name from using the name of founders or notable people within the company: for example, Henry Ford, Michio Suzuki and André Citroën to name three.
Secondly, companies may get their names using acronyms. Fiat, for example, stands for ‘Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino’, loosely meaning ‘Italian automobile factory of Turin’, the province where the company was founded. Tangentially, this is not to be confused with the word ‘Fiat’ that comes from Latin meaning ‘let it be done’ which appears in the Latin translation of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, when God proclaimed ‘let there be light’ (fiat lux), and in John Donne’s poetry from the 1630s, or in fact, the phrase ‘fiat in bankruptcy’ from the 1800s referring to less-than-Godly legal matters.  
But as I said in the opening paragraph, car companies may acquire their names by perhaps more unconventional means.
Toyota gets its name from ‘Toyoda’, which was the founder’s name. Yet interestingly, the Japanese changed the name – incorporating a second ‘T’ because ‘Toyota’ uses eight strokes when written, whereas ‘Toyoda’ used a lesser number of strokes. In Japan, eight is a lucky number, and by making the name Toyota require eight strokes, they believed the company would have good fortunes.
The now obsolete Rover has perhaps a simpler story as to how it got its trading name. Before Rover made cars, the company made bikes, and the idea was on a bike you can ‘rove’ around the countryside. So the act of roving gave birth to Rover’s company name as it expanded to make motor vehicles.

As a footnote, another motor vehicle word worth adding to the plenary of this post is ‘dashboard’, which was once a wooden or leather screen in a horse-drawn carriage. It acted as to protect the driver and his passengers from any mud that would splash up from outside.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

‘Bedlam’, 'Tom foolery’ and a Picture of Mental Illness in British History

In effect, what the public were paying to see in the hospital
One of my favourite word origins that I’ve come across is the link between ‘bedlam’ and ‘Tom foolery’. They both originate from a dark tale in British history.

The story of ‘bedlam’ and ‘Tom foolery’ both come from the St Mary of Bethlehem hospital located in Bishop’s Gate, London in the sixteenth century. The hospital is believed to be the first to deal with mental illness in Europe, and I use the term ‘deal’ loosely. In those days, as one may expect, hygiene and living conditions were terrible. Patients slept on straw and the quality of care was substantially lacking. Scandalously, the public were allowed to see the patients in the hospital if they paid a shilling. In effect, what the public were doing by paying money was to see the madness.

Back then, ‘Bethlehem’ was pronounced ‘bedlam’. Today, ‘bedlam’ means chaos, confusion and disorder, which is exactly what the public were seeing when they watched the behaviour of the patients housed inside the hospital.
‘Tom foolery’ originates from the nickname given to a patient housed at the hospital: an inmate was labelled ‘Tom O’Bedlam’ which passed into English meaning anyone who is mentally deficient.

As so often is the case in English, ‘Tom foolery’ today has lost its stinging connotations relating to the hospital conditions at St Mary’s and the inmates themselves. It is now used far more affectionately.
So two pieces of English that go right back to the terrible conditions at St Mary’s hospital in London. It’s a sad story but one that’s very insightful to a lexicon.

The Decade with No Name (Yet)

The other day I was flicking through music channels and noticed that a lot of them categorise the music they play by the decade to which the music was released. For example, 'Number ones of the nineties'. But then I thought, how will the music be categorised if it was released between 2010 and 2019? What is the name of the decade we are currently living in?

The last decade (2000-2009) is most commonly known as the ‘noughties’, although this name only really came about in 2008. So it seems the last decade got its name retrospectively.

As 2009 ended, social commentators, linguists and lexicographers realised a name for the next decade wouldn’t emerge straightaway either. And it still hasn’t in 2013. As 2010 began however, there wasn't a shortage of possibilities. Surveys asked the public about what they would call the period 2010 – 2019, and a number of names materialised. These included ‘the deckers’, ‘the twenty-tens’, ‘the tens’, ‘the tweens’, ‘the teenies’, ‘the teens’ and ‘the tenties’. Some may seem gimmicky – ‘teenies’ or ‘tweens’ may sound too childish to become mainstream (whereas the last decade may have created naughty or cheeky connotations despite the fact nothing naughty actually happened. Rather, it was just more linguistically convenient to call the decade ‘the noughties’). In Australia, a competition-winning name was ‘the woneder years’ (although this never caught on either).

A century ago, we also failed to label the period 1910 – 1919. Instead, events which happened in that decade is how that period is remembered today. This is why many refer to this period a century ago as ‘The War’ or ‘The War Years’.

It may be the case that this decade won’t be called anything, and even if it will be named, perhaps we won’t know what it will be called until the end of the decade, and the start of the twenties, or twenty-twenties.

So going back to what started this whole post, who knows how music channels will categorise music 2010 - 2019, or indeed how anything will be grouped conveniently in terms of the years to which they came about. Time will indeed tell.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Changing Words – ‘Strong’, ‘Vigorous’, ‘Promiscuous’, ‘Punk’, ‘Mugger / mug shot’, ‘Bully', ‘Idiot’ and ‘Idiom’

'Mug shot' (picture of the face)
Back in July I looked at how the words ‘okay’ and ‘nice’ have changed in meaning. Today I am looking at other words where meanings have changed as time has progressed.

‘Strong’ and ‘vigorous’ used to mean full of nerves.
‘Bully’ in the sixteenth century meant a fellow or a darling in Shakespeare’s sense. Eventually it began to refer to someone who showed off and became a bragger, and thus began to merge to mean someone who used intimidation to brag.

‘Promiscuous’ once meant confused.
The first ‘punks’ in the sixteenth century were prostitutes.

The earliest ‘muggers’ were sellers of mugs. Today, we talk of the ‘mug’ referring to the face - ‘mug shot’ for example. This comes from the rather grotesque drinking mugs that resembled human faces which were common in the 1700s.
And finally ‘idiot’ once meant a private, peculiar individual and someone who preferred to be on their own. This idea of being by oneself and alone links to the word ‘idiom’. Whereas ‘idiot’ once meant private, peculiar, and unique, the root of ‘idiom’ is the same, relating specifically to a person’s use of language and speech rather than their behaviour i.e. an individual’s ‘private/peculiar/unique/individual language’. So ‘idiot’ and ‘idiom’ are linked by their ancient Greek root ‘idio-‘.