Saturday, May 26, 2001

Passage of words

THE ball where Cinderella met her Prince, a dancing party, had nothing to do with dancing to begin with. At Easter, during the Feast of Fools, at the Church of Naples, Italy, it was the custom for choir boys to sing and dance around the Dean in the church. The Dean would throw a ball to them, one by one, and as they caught it and threw it back to him, they had to sing and dance. Later on, when private dance parties were organised by people in their homes, a ball was thrown around to keep the dancers on their toes. With the passage of time, a dance party came to be called a ball. Incidentally, the word ball comes from the Latin bellare, to dance. What a harmony between custom and etymology!

At times, etymology may go one way and custom another, and the word used may be at complete variance with the etymology, but once the user fixes the word, it remains fixed. Balmy is one such word. Derived from the Latin balsamum, it means aromatic, fragrant. But, a mentally imbalanced person is also called balmy, whereas in meaning there is no connection between insanity and fragrance. To trace the word, a journey into the past becomes essential. In 1832, there was a lunatic asylum by the name Barming Asylum in Kent, Britain. Balmy is, thus, a corruption of barmy, that is, ready for the asylum.

Traces of the past
May 12, 2001
April 28, 2001
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

A tough fight between evenly matched opponents is often called a battle royal. The word comes from the ancient pastime of cock-fighting. A number of cocks were pitted together in twos. The ultimate victor was the winner of the battle royal, a fight to the finish.

The best man at a church wedding is a relic of the time when the bride was guarded by the groom’s men against kidnapping by rivals. Weddings, for this reason, were most frequently held at night. In Sweden, long lances were fitted with sockets for torches, to serve as weapons when the need arose. The groomsmen in those days were the pick of the bridegroom’s bravest and best friends, who would volunteer for the task.

Arriving somewhere in the nick of time, one doesn’t connect this nick with the actual, physical cut or notch. The phrase dates back to the days of tallies — sticks of wood—which were an acknowledgement of money owed and also a way of registering a person’s attendance. Nicks were made in the wooden stick as a record of the amount of money and also, as a record of a person’s attendance. To be in the nick of time meant to arrive at a place just in time to have the attendance nicked or recorded on the tally.


Sometimes, when people hear a new word from another language, the meaning is clear to them but because the sounds are different, they speak the word as they can, within the sound-range of their own language. The self-explanatory term for such word origins is folk etymology. One such expression is hukum sadar. It was often used in plays and films dealing with the British period, it was shouted out by the policeman on duty. The Indian policemen, who were trained by the British, were ordered to shout out "who comes there?" on spotting anyone approaching at night. Not able to understand the meaning of "who comes there?", they shouted hukum sadar, that is, ‘by the sadar’s orders, don’t come here’.