|Saturday, May 5, 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.
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!