Saturday, February 17, 2001

Words around
the house

THE history of the word threshold justifies the study of etymology. Thresh, the first element in the word, goes as far back as the Old English period. Related to tresku, meaning crash, thresh went on to mean the noisy stamping of feet. The notion of stamping of feet was retained in thresh as well beaten by feet. The origin of hold is not as clear but it probably came from the Old English wold which meant wood. Threshold thus becomes a well-trodden piece of wood, which is precisely what the threshold of a house is.

Anything served on a silver salver gains an aura of ceremony and formality, whether itís a visiting card or some fresh fruit. The word has a sinister history going back to the times of nobles and lords. A horrid fear haunting every powerful man was the fear of being poisoned. So, a crew of food-tasters became a part of the staff. And this process of tasting before each meal was salva in Spanish, a word derived from the Latin salvo, meaning save or protect.

Words around the house
February 3, 2001
Medical terms
January 20, 2001
Painting the town red
January 6, 2001
Expressions from seas
December 23, 2000
Time capsule of words
December 16, 2000
New words
December 2, 2000
Words from myths
November 11, 2000
The Olympics
October 14, 2000
More metaphors
September 30, 2000
Metaphorical colour
September 16, 2000
Broader vistas
September 2, 2000
August 19, 2000
August 5, 2000
Partial twins
July 22, 2000
Language growth
July 8, 2000
June 24, 2000

By the time salva entered English, it had been refashioned as salver and it became the name of the tray on which the taster placed the tested food and then served it to the king or lord. Long after the days of poison and food-tasters, the word lives on as a formal word for the more humble tray.

Table knives are rounded at the ends, ever wondered why? Truly speaking, it has nothing to do with etymology but the story is amusing, so it can be enjoyed here. Once, at a party hosted by the Duc de Richelieu cardinal and statesman of France, he saw one of his guests pick his teeth with a table knifeís pointed tip. This so offended his sensibilities that the very next day he ordered his steward to file off all the points of the knives in his house. Since he was a trend-setter, everybody imitated him.

Food canít be too far when a party is mentioned. The current emphasis on vegetable and fruit becomes understandable when one looks at the roots of both. Fruit is derived from the Latin fructus which means enjoyment of that which is produced. Once the word fruit reached English via Old French, it came to mean the product itself, the rewards of an enterprise, the return on an investment or the produce obtained from the soil.

The Latin vegere, meaning be active, comes from the same base as vigil, vigour and wake. From vegere were derived vegetus (active), vegetare (enliven) and vegetabilis (enlivening). Vegetabilis came to be applied specifically to plant growth and in this sense entered the English language. The semantic descent from its original links with life and liveliness was completed when a vegetable also referred to an inactive person. But calling a person a couch potato seems to be a slur on the roots of the lively vegetable!


Words faithfully mirror the progress of a society in the material conditions of existence. New meanings are acquired by words with economic changes in society. Patra, for example, originally meant a leaf. It came to be applied to a letter for which a leaf, usually a palm-leaf, was used. When the manufacture of paper came about, the palm-leaf was no longer used but the word patra continued. The same patra became a sheet of paper or the leaf of a book. With the evolution of the newspaper, patra took on new significance as samacharpatra.

ó Deepti