Brian answers: Poltroons, pantaloons, and poetry

My friend Brianna writes:

In the ‘etymology’ category: what are your top 5 (or some generic enumerated list of your defined length) favorite words & why? There’s some cool etymology out there, and after taking Latin I realized why some weird words exist in English.

Also, what’s something that you enjoy talking about that people don’t ask you about enough? (Or, worded differently: a topic for which it’s hard to find a conversation partner?)

What do I think about this question?

Y’know — in a good way.

An etymology, for those who don’t know, is the origin of a word. For instance, coffee is from Italian caffe, from Turkish kahveh, from Arabic qahwah, according to the fabulous and endlessly fascinating Etymonline.com (which I used as a resource for much of this post). Most etymologies are like that — a gradual evolution from one language to the next, culminating in the English word we know today.

But some etymologies are different. For instance, the etymology for chortle is Lewis Carroll made it up in 1872 so now it’s a word, b****es. (I’m paraphrasing slightly.) But yeah, in Carroll’s novel Through the Looking-glass, the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, there’s a poem called Jabberwocky. It’s full of nonsense words like chortled, cleverly crafted so they sound like they mean something, but it’s hard to say exactly what. Most likely, chortle was formed by chuckle + snort.

By the way, if you’ve ever heard about someone galumphing along, that’s also from “Jabberwocky,” evidently gallop + triumph.

Think about that for a minute. One poem, 24 lines, at least two new words added to the dictionary. That’s an average of one new word every 12 lines. I mean, c’mon.

Okay. Enough about Carroll.

Another of my favorites is atonement. I read somewhere that it was formed by at + one + ment, as in, becoming at one with something or someone. I’m suspicious of such neat and convenient origins — false etymologies are a dime a baker’s dozen — but that one turns out to be true. Which is pretty cool, I say.

Some etymologies are fun just for the winding route they take. For instance, panties is a derivative of pants, which is a shortening of pantaloons, which comes from — and this is where it gets cool — Pantaloun, a silly old man character in 16th-century Italian comedy who wore tight trousers. He, in turn, derives ultimately from a person who may have actually existed, one Saint Pantaleon, whose name means all-compassionate.

That pan prefix, meaning all, pops up in lots of places. For example: Pangaea, a prehistoric supercontinent that combined all landmasses into one — hence pan (all) + gaia (earth). So Pangaea and panties use the same pan, albeit by an awfully circuitious route.

On a more serious note — one etymology I’ve never been able to get out of my head is the origin of excruciating. It has the same root as crucify — the Latin crux — and it suggests the pain of dying on a cross. Knowing that, I tend to use the word sparingly, as few pains are really awful enough to warrant that description.

What else? Well, al is Arabic for the, so a number of English words starting in al are ultimately from Arabic: algebra, algorithm, alchemy, alfalfa. If you’ve got one of those uncles (and everyone does) who don’t trust furrign-soundin’ names like Al Jazeera, remind him not to have any alcohol either. (You, on the other hand, should feel free to imbibe.)

Speaking of Arabic — it’s remarkable that so many Americans see Allah as a name completely different than God. Like, if you asked someone the name of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic God respectively, the answers would be: God, God, Allah. Same, same, different. Right?

Well, it’s not wrong, but it’s awfully misleading. God in the Old Testament is (usually) a simple translation of the Hebrew Elohim. So a fair comparison between Judaism and Islam would be Elohim and Allah, or else God and God. And if you’re thinking that Elohim and Allah sound kinda similar, congrats — sure enough, the Arabic derives directly from the Hebrew. It’s the very same word.

(Brianna — if you have any cool etymologies to share, Latin or otherwise, feel free to leave ’em in the comments!)

Completely apart from etymology, there are some other words I enjoy just because:

  • sockdolager — a decisive, knockout blow
  • poltroon — a coward
  • defenestrate — to throw (something or someone) out a window
  • mumpsimus — someone who insists on “correcting” others into an error (e.g., when you say “He went with Tara and me” and they insist it should be “He went with Tara and I”)
  • apotheosis — the process of becoming a god
  • dithyrambic — in the manner of a wild, ecstatic song
  • balderdash — nonsense
  • codswallop — nonsense (British)
  • Brobdingnagian — huge
  • paean — a song of praise
  • sesquipedalian — an adjective describing very long words
  • antediluvian — before the Flood
  • skiey — related to the sky (yes, really)
  • ruth — what you lack if you’re ruthless (yes, really)

The words listed above are odd or obscure. But I also like a lot of words that are reasonably common, because they’re strong, evocative, or beautiful. Words like:

  • brandish
  • livid
  • murmur
  • sanctum
  • hallowed
  • immaculate
  • sovereign
  • sordid
  • somber (I guess I like so- words?)
  • lull

As for your second question — What’s something that you enjoy talking about that people don’t ask you about enough? Man, that could be a whole blog post in itself. In no particular order:

  • Etymology
  • The Byzantine Empire
  • Alchemy
  • Palindromes, anagrams, and other word games
  • The poetry of W. B. Yeats
  • Whatever Elon Musk happens to be doing right now
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender
  • … and about a hundred other shows, books, movies, etc.
  • Cognitive biases and logical fallacies
  • Comparative mythology
  • Copyediting
  • The Zelda games Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, and Link’s Awakening
  • The Bible
  • Crazy math stuff like Graham’s number
  • Batman
  • Cosmology (the large-scale structure of the universe) — stuff like galactic filaments
  • The legends of King Arthur
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Cool geography, like Lake Baikal and the Eye of Quebec
  • … and, of course, Crane Girl 🙂

As you’ve possibly guessed by now, I could keep on going till my keyboard breaks from attrition. I’ll stop there. But thanks for giving me the chance to ramble.

What about you, hypothetical reader? What’s something that you enjoy talking about that people don’t ask you about enough? Seems like a great question to open up the hidden corners of someone’s brain.

Anyway, that’s the end of the questions. Thanks, everyone, for another successful round of Ask Brian Anything. Have a weekend of Brobdingnagian proportions!

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7 responses to “Brian answers: Poltroons, pantaloons, and poetry

  1. Fun entomological fact: many words used to be spelt properly before the US convinced the world they spoke English. ; )

  2. That’s great about “chortle” — if I ever knew that I forgot it long ago.

    I used to sit next to a guy at work who was really into etymology. He knew the history of all kinds of words, but I used to stump him with ones like “paparazzi” (it’s from the movie La Dolce Vita 🙂 ).

    One of my favorites is “credenza,” where “cred-” comes from the same place as “credentials” and “credibility,” since it was originally a low table where the king’s food was placed until the taster could check it and make sure it wasn’t poisoned.

  3. Man, I’m terrible — I ask you to do the post, then forget to respond to you! >___<;;

    This was awesome! I didn't know a few of them (like the meaning of "al"), though I knew that those words were from Arabic. It makes me ridiculously happy that I knew a few of the words that you listed as odd or obscure.

    Obscure is one which fits well, I think: it comes from "obscuro, -are" which means to conceal in Latin.

    I really like crazy words like "ululate" which means to cry or scream out; also from latin's "ululo, -are" which means to howl, and is an onomatopoeiaic word for the bellows that cows do. Pretty cool, yo.

    Another one that I really like is "champ" in the "to bite over and over" or "chew noisily" sense. This supports the actual phrase of "champing at the bit," not the more common "chomp" (which I think is more slangy).

    I'm a fan of any words from mythology which sneak into language without people realizing it (common ones like this would be Thursday [Thor] and Friday [Freya]).

    As far as general words go, I really like "bulwark" for reasons I'm not sure about.

    Anyway, those are ones that I can think of off the top of my head. 😀

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