Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. Confused? This actually is a grammatically correct sentence. There are three meanings of the word Buffalo…
- The proper noun referring to the city Buffalo, New York
- The verb to buffalo, which means “to bully, harass, or intimidate”
- The noun referring to the animal – buffalo (biologically a Bison).
This sentence translated would read: “Buffalo (the place) bison (the animal), whom other Buffalo bison bully, themselves bully Buffalo bison.” Take a deep breath and don’t give up on this post quite yet. This oddity of the English language is a great example of etymology – the study of word origins and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history. The average person usually doesn’t think before they speak; it is even rarer to find someone who questions the very foundations of speech itself. Mark Forsyth is one of those people – the author of the #1 International Bestseller – The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language. The title “Etymologicon” is a real word that means a book written about etymology. Forsyth is a word master, and his work became a #1 International Bestseller. All words have a history, and those histories are fascinating. Below I am going to highlight the origin of ten words that were detailed by Forsyth in his book. These are just a few examples of what is in the book, and if your curiosity is piqued, I highly recommend you reading it for yourself.
- A long time ago there was a tribe named the “Franks.” The Franks invaded the Gauls whose occupied area became known as “France” – the K replaced with a C. The Franks “disenfranchised” the Gauls and hence were themselves “enfranchised.” This oppression by the Franks allowed them to speak freely or “frankly.”
- A long time ago, there was a significant swath of persecuted people in Eastern Europe known as the Slavs. The Slavs were slain and subjugated by the Byzantine Empire to the south and the Holy Roman Empire to the north. Eventually, the word Slav became synonymous with forced labor – or Slave.
- A long time ago, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, there were lords and peasants. The peasant was required to work the lords’ land and a small portion of his own which was granted to him. This mindless labor system was called Robot.
- A long time ago, Englishmen had trouble with persistent coughs. They could take morphine – a standard treatment at the time – but they didn’t want to become addicted. Scientists came to the rescue and invented a morphine substitute. This new medicine needed a brand name so the marketers asked the test participants how it made them feel. They all unanimously said it made them feel great and like “heroes.” Heroe was turned into the brand name Heroin.
- A long time ago, Hitler formed the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei); the official identification of all Hitler followers in Germany. This Party name was unfortunate because in Germany there were many jokes about Bavarian peasants who were seen as stupid and lazy. The identifier of this class of peasant was the typical male name Ignatius – or its shortened version – Nazi. Hitler’s opponents jumped at the insult and abbreviated Hitler’s party name.
- A long time ago, medieval doctors believed the vein on the fourth finger ran directly to the heart. This anatomical connection eventually proved false, but the tradition of encircling the heart through the vein continued on – with the ring finger and the wedding band.
- A long time ago, monks were a common sight in Catholic Europe – hooded men who were far from models of chastity and virtue. Many saw them as filthy sinners who were no better than animals. When explorers decided to name hairy-man-like animals, they used a similar name – Monkeys.
- A long time ago, America decided to test a new hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean. This weapon was more potent than previous – incidentally exposing Japanese fisherman to radiation. This event inspired the movie Godzilla and a French clothes designer who needed a name for his scandalous swimwear – which would cause an explosion of lust in all Frenchmen. This explosion would be named after the bomb test site – Bikini Atoll.
- A long time ago, Greek men enjoyed exercising outside in the nude. This arena of flesh was frequented by old and young alike – the older participants came primarily for sightseeing. The Greek word for naked is “gymnós” which eventually gave us Gyms and Gymnasiums.
- A long time ago, people wanted to buy a house and hence needed a loan. There were two ways this loan could be fulfilled or said in another way – be put to “death”: it was paid off over a lifetime, or it was canceled after a missed payment. In many cases, it was doubtful that the person would make all these lifetime payments and so the loan would be dead to him. In either outcome, there was the likelihood of death, and hence the loan was called a death pledge – Mortgage.
So does this make you more curious about the words you use every day? I for sure look at diction differently now. Just remember that word meanings change over time and that new words are continually being invented. Don’t get too stringent with etymology and hop on the treadmill in the buff.
The saga continues. If you are not up to date on Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond then read last week’s post here. We now know that civilizations arose not from individual genetic differences but rather environmental conditions that encouraged agriculture: domesticable wild plants, domesticable mammals, and the orientation of a continent’s axis. Agriculture allowed groups of people to expand their social organization from nomadic bands all the way to advance states (common all over the world today). Larger populations required better communication between people-motivating the creation of the first alphabets. Two independently-derived alphabets were invented in areas of the world where agriculture had it’s longest history: the Sumerian cuneiform (Mesopotamia, 3000 B.C) and Chinese (1300 B.C)-most all other writing systems were derived from either of these. Along with the alphabet, large groups of specialized jobs, supported by a surplus of food (agriculture) allowed for a myriad of technological innovations. Technology was pushed through competition and the spread of knowledge between different societies; this spread of knowledge was faster among Eurasian societies compared to North American societies partly due to the axis orientation differences. Civilization not only promoted technology but also religion. Religion served a role in connecting large groups of people in one common higher purpose and rationalized living one’s life for the higher “state.” This is best seen in the Christian Crusades against Islam. It is important to note however that groups of people have been spiritual throughout all of history, organized religion is a whole different beast (Jesus denouncing the religious figures of His time).
As civilizations advanced, they many times spread to new areas and conquered other groups of people. Most everyone knows about the expansion of Europeans starting with Columbus’ exploratory trip in 1492. However, a much larger expansion took place several millennium before in South China. This is known as the Austronesian expansion and it was comprised of the more advanced agriculturists of South China spreading from Taiwan all the way through Polynesia and reaching as far as Madagascar off the coast of Africa. Humans first inhabited Southeast Asia and Polynesia by 33,000 B.C. Between 33,000 B.C. and 3,500 B.C. the people who inhabited these areas were mainly hunter gatherers with limited technological sophistication. However, beginning in 7500 B.C., China was growing their civilization and by the year 3,500 B.C. began migrating south. With agriculture, the Austronesians were able to spread from the Philippines to New Zealand and everywhere in between (except New Guinea and Australia); they eventually were the first people to reach the Hawaiian Islands. This mass human expansion was one of the first examples of how advanced civilizations with the aid of agriculture could take over less-advanced groups through germs and superior weaponry.
The book goes on to talk about the differences between Europeans and Chinese in respects to expansion in the last 500 years. Why didn’t China expand to the west coast of North America and colonize in similar fashion to Europeans? How did Europe pass China and the Middle East in technological advancement? These are complex questions with several possible answers but one hypothesis is that China’s united geography compared to Europe’s segmented geography created differences in competition. China had one united ruling government while Europe had several feuding states; the competition in Europe facilitated greater technological advancement and was less prone to idiosyncratic individuals. China did have times of imperialism but in 1492 the dynasty in place was not interested in expansion. On the other hand, Christoper Columbus had to ask several different European states for funding before finally catching a lucky break with Spain. As soon as Spain was raking in the cash in the New World, other autonomous European countries jumped on the bandwagon-unified China followed their emperor’s decision to stay put. This is only one part of the answer of how our modern world was shaped but it highlights geography’s role in shaping history. Understanding our past helps us understand our present. Today there are rich countries and poor countries, successful businesses and unsuccessful businesses, peaceful zealots and violent zealots. How different variables interact to mold groups of people is not only fascinating but can possibly tilt the scales for the “haves and have nots” of the future.
Michiganders are some of the worst people when it comes to complaining about the weather. Every winter in Michigan is like being trapped in a dark refrigerator for 6 months. Winter sucks and I definitely contribute my fair share of whining: “I haven’t seen the sun for a week, I’m moving to Hawaii!,” “If I have to scrape ice off my car one more time I’m going to just drive with my head out the window!,” “I’m sick of soup but its the only thing that keeps me from hypothermia!,” etc. Even sex sucks because it takes a half hour to remove all the layers of clothing; nothing gets me turned on more than seeing my wife strip off her seasonal-big-fluffy-bright-pink socks. Most people would agree that Michigan winters are worthy of complaints but Michiganders take weather misgivings to whole other level. Once the snow begins to thaw, the pink-socks get retired, and the sun begins to shine, Michigan becomes the most beautiful place in the summer. Here’s the thing though, Michigan fricks still complain about the heat, humidity, stickiness, brightness, and bugs. I mention all of this complaining because I just read a book that makes Michigan seem like a paradise no matter what season it is. Hungry for Home: A Journey from the Edge of Ireland by Cole Moreton tells the story of the people who once lived on the inhospitable Blasket Islands off the coast of Ireland.
The Blasket Islands are a collection of six islands that are situated off the west coast of Ireland (click here for map). The original settlers of these islands were monks seeking solitude in the medieval ages; eventually more inhabitants would make their way in pursuit of safety from threatening land owners on the mainland. The population of the Blaskets at its peak was 160 people. The islands were very hard to live on because there was little natural shelter, few trees, insignificant arable land, and extremely harsh weather. During the winter, the Blasket Islands were pounded by unrelenting rain storms which made it impossible to cross the channel to the main land. Because the island was such a harsh environment, the community was isolated from the changing politics of Ireland and hence preserved their original Gaelic customs. Irish was the spoken language on the island and it was one of the last places on earth where Gaelic was used in its ancient form. For this reason, in the early 20th century many language scholars visited the island to document the islanders dialect and customs to preserve the culture. Beginning in the mid 1800’s, as a result of the potato famine, a large portion of Irishmen began to immigrate to the United States. The inhabitants of the Blasket Islands followed suit and by the 1940’s the island only had half of its peak population.
The dwindled population was primarily made up of older men and women who were too poor or too stubborn to leave their inhospitable lifestyle. Few youth remained and without their strength it was almost impossible to do the daily work required to survive on the harsh landscape. In the 40’s, extremely-severe winters forced the inhabitants to send out emergency messages for food and many died because of malnutrition. The last remaining islanders were removed by the government in 1953 to a nearby settlement on the mainland; close enough to still see the Blasket Islands but safe from future threats of starvation. There were only 22 inhabitants left in 1953 during the evacuation and almost all of them were extremely relieved to be getting off the cursed island. Today, the Blasket Islands are a popular tourist destination during the short summer season. I thought this story was amazing because it made me appreciate where I live. Compared to the Blaskets, Michigan is a paradise. I have food, shelter, health-care, security, and a great community. As the winter approaches we should realize that there are places much colder, darker, and inhospitable. Think of these places and find contentment-I guess those fluffy-pink socks aren’t all that bad 🙂