Sunday, 27 July 2014

Where does 'cul-de-sac' originate?

Many of us live in cul-de-sacs, and those of us who do have a closer link to the intestines than we may have previously thought. 

The precise meaning of 'cul-de-sac'  is 'bottom of the bag' which began as medical term in anatomy for the cecum or caecum which is a pouch at the opening of the large intestine. 'Cul-de-sac' was also used by anatomists to refer to any vessel that was only open at one end. The cecum/caecum is also known as the 'blind gut' because there is only one opening to it. By the 1800s, the term 'cul-de-sac' applied to both literal and figurative dead ends.

Modern words - or are they?

We like to think that language is of the Zeitgeist, that it to say, language is of the time. However, many acronyms and words we use today actually go back hundreds of years.

'LOL' - in today's social media world, 'LOL' is everywhere and is used so frequently it has begun to detach itself from what it is suggesting (how many of us actually laugh out loud when we have used LOL?) 'LOL', according to one online acronym dictionary, stands for 90 different things, with another dictionary giving 70 definitions including its other unofficial meaning, lots of love. More commonly, 'LOL' meaning to laugh loudly has been around since 1989. However, its life began in the 1960s and referred to a 'little old lady'.

'Texting' - a verb which is associated with communication technology. But 'to text' dates back to 1504 meaning to cite from a book. 

'Cool' - goes back to the 1940s and Charlie Parker and jazz musicians. 'Cool' became popular again in the 1990s after going out of fashion in the middle part of the twentieth century.

'Unfriend' - many of us may like to think it was Facebook that coined this verb. Actually, it dates back to 1659 when it was a noun instead of a verb. An unfriend was an enemy.

'Hiphop' - was first used in 1981 meaning a popular music type. However, it was first used in the 1600s when the second Duke of Buckingham used it in a play called 'The Rehearsal' where he simply meant it to mean 'to hop'.

What does the 'T' stand for in the phrase 'to a tee'?

The phrase 'to a tee' is used relatively frequently in modern English, meaning something is perfect or exact in relation to something else. For example, you may be able to mimic someone's accent to a tee. But what exactly is the 'tee' referring to?

Strangely, the phrase has roots that stretch right back into the 1600s - it was first recorded in 1693. Yet its history goes either further back to the Romans and the Greeks. The ancient Greeks and Romans started to use the the letter 'I' figuratively to mean 'the least part of anything'. This was because the letter 'I' was called 'Iota' - the smallest letter of the alphabet. This is where we get today's expressions which contain the word 'iota' - for example, 'you have not got an iota of proof he committed the crime', meaning you haven't got the smallest proof required. 

However, there was another phrase the Greeks and Romans used: 'not to give a jot or a tittle'. As I tweeted recently, a 'tittle' is the name for the dot above a lower case 'i' or 'j'. As so often is the case with English, over time the phrase 'to a tittle' has been shortened to what we know today as 'to a tee'. The idea is that something is so alike to something else it requires little thought and mimics something perfectly. 

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Why is America called 'America'?

Americans celebrated Independence Day this month. Yet, how many of us wondered where the name 'America' comes from? Why is America called 'America' if Christopher Columbus first discovered the continent? It’s all down to two men called Amerigo Vespucci and Martin Waldseemüller.

'America' derives from the navigator and explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Like Columbus, Vespucci travelled to the New World in 1499 and 1502. But unlike Columbus, Vespucci wrote about it and his accounts published in 1502 and 1504 were widely read in Europe. Columhbus was hindered because he believed he had found another way to Asia and failed to realise that North America was a totally new continent. Vespucci did realise this.

The discovery of the New World meant maps had to be drawn and redrawn as the size and vastness of America was realised. In 1507, German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing the Universalis Cosmographia (Universal Cosmography which is still displayed in the library of the Congress Building in Washington DC). Waldseemüller used Vespucci’s published travelogues to depict what he thought the new world looked like.

All countries were seen as feminine so Waldseemüller used a feminised Latin form of Amerigo: America.  As cartographers tended to copy each other, Columbus was left off the map even though he made Europe aware of the land across the Atlantic.