118 years of Trust Roots THE TRIBUNE
saturday plus
Chandigarh, Saturday, August 8, 1998




Word tales

TRACING the origin of some words is an interesting and entertaining exercise. Especially when one considers the fact that every moment, human interaction throws up opportunities for word coinage, but every situation does not yield a new word.

The word bunk or bunkum is a highly expressive word meaning foolish nonsense or twaddle. It derives from a county in North Carolina, USA. The name of the county is Buncombe. The new context of the word come into being as a result of a speech made in 1820 by Buncombe’s congressional representative Felix Walker. The speech was exceedingly long and completely irrelevant to the debate it interrupted. When asked to explain the purpose of his oration, Walker replied that the people of Buncombe expected him to make a speech in Congress and so he made one. His defence for the irrelevant speech was that ‘it was for Buncombe as he was only talking for Buncombe.’ Following this, the word Buncombe became bunkum, later shortened to bunk, entering the language in the narrow sense of political chaptrap. As Walker faded from public memory, the meaning of the word widened.

A remark or clue whose meaning or reference is obscure is called cryptic. Cryptic derives ultimately from the Greek verb Kryptein meaning to hide. The same source provides crypt, meaning a vault or chamber beneath a church, often used in the past as a hiding place and cryptography, the science and study of writing and deciphering codes.

Cinema has made certain that there are clear black and white characters called hero and villain. The poor villain though, was not always a hated character always at the receiving end. The Latin villanus, from which villain derives, simply meant a worker in a country estate. In feudal England, a villain was simply a serf. There are quite a few much-maligned words like this one. A crafty person was a person skilled as a craftsman. As orgy was formerly a religious ceremony; to mention just a couple.

Now, vandal has always been a hated word. A person who wilfully causes damage to public or private property is known as a vandal. The word comes from the Latin vandalii. Vandals was the name given to the Germanic tribe which during the first five centuries migrated south from Scandinavia and the southern shores of the Baltic, reaching as far as North Africa. The Vandals left behind them a trail of devastation, which culminated with the sacking of Rome in 455 AD.

Tantalise, meaning to torment or tease by exposing something desirable and then withholding it, comes from Greek mythology. Tantalus, the kind of Phrygia, was a son of Zeus. As a punishment for divulging to the mortals the secrets of the gods, he was condemned to stand in water up to the chin in a river in Hades. Whenever he stooped to drink, the water would recede. As if this were not punishment enough, fruit-laden branches were hung overhead, but whenever he reached out, the fruit would elude his grasp.

— Deepti

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