Saturday, April 28, 2001


A glimpse at the etymology of much-used expressions often becomes a lesson in history and culture. The way people lived, their customs and rituals can be traced in a more colourful manner through etymology rather than through a dry history lesson. Take the expression Ďto draw a red herring across the pathí that bears reference to the times when hunting was a major activity. A red herring is a tangy, cured fish which becomes reddish in colour due to the smoking process used for preserving it. In seventeenth century England, fox hunters and dog trainers used red herrings to test and improve a houndís sense of smell. The sharp smell of the herring was a powerful distraction for a hound following the scent of a fox, but a good hound would identify and filter out such interruptions and retain the distinct scent of the fox being trailed. The metaphorical sense of a red herring as a false clue or trail, came about later.

The largest or the best part of a whole is called the lionís share. As per the origin of the phrase, it means the whole itself. In one of the tales in Aesopís Fables, the lion went out hunting with some other animals. On their return, it was time to divide the spoils. The lion was very clear about his claim: one quarter for himself as one of the hunters, another quarter for his courage and a third quarter for his lioness and her cubs. As for the fourth and last quarter, the other animals were welcome to fight him for it. Being sensible, placing their lives above their appetites, they all declined his challenge and the lion was left with well, the lionís share, all of it.

Lost origins
April 14, 2001
Words and society
March 31, 2001
Origin of expressions
March 17, 2001
Varied origins
March 3, 2001
Words around the house
February 17, 2001
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

In jest, today we may say that we would pass through fire and water for someone, but watch out, the phrase has quite a history. Ordeal of fire and ordeal of water were methods of legal trial in the English society of the Middle Ages. Ordeal is from ordel, an old English word meaning judgement. The idea behind the legal ordeal was that God, rather than man, should sit in judgement. In criminal cases, in the ordeal of fire, the accused would either have to grasp a red-hot iron bar in the hand or walk barefoot and blindfolded between red-hot iron ploughshares. If, after three days, he was relatively uninjured, he was not guilty and God had protected the innocent. In the ordeal of water, the accused had to plunge his hand into a tub full of boiling water and emerge unscathed to be proved not guilty. In a common test for suspected witches, the accused was tied up and pushed into a pond. If she floated, it meant the water had refused her. She was considered a witch and was put to death. If she sank, it was proof that she was innocent; she had to be very lucky to escape drowning in the process. Tells us a lot about the society of those times, doesnít it?


Words reveal to us our ancestorsí beliefs, superstitions and the limits of their knowledge. In Hindi, synonyms or prayavaachi illustrate well this aspect of language. One of the prayavaachis of prithvi is achlaa or one who is immobile, thus dating this word as belonging to the age when we believed that the earth didnít move. Another prayavaachi is go or one who is mobile, dating this as a later birth when we realised that the earth moved!

ó Deepti