Saturday, January 19, 2002

History and meaning

ETYMOLOGY comes from the Greek words etymon (true) and logos (word). The underlying meaning of etymology, according to the Greeks, was finding the underlying or true meaning of words. The derivation of a word was its etymologia. Modern etymology, the study of etymons, deals with the history more than the meaning. The word dollar has an intriguing history; words like this one encourage etymologists to pay more attention to history rather than meaning. In the mountains of northwestern Bohemia, just a few kilometers south of the East German-Czechoslovakian border, is the small town of Jachymov. In the sixteenth century, a silver mine was opened nearby and coins were minted to which the name joachimstaler was applied, literally meaning ‘of Joachim’s valley’, as the silver was mined near old Joachimstal, modern Jachymov. In German, this was shortened to taler. Shortly afterwards the Dutch form daler was borrowed into English to refer to the taler and other coins that were patterned after it. From this the American Constitution adopted the word dollar in 1785 as the main currency unit of the United States of America, to be taken up later by over 30 countries around the world.

Psychiatry and Greek
January 5, 2002
Classic loans
December 22, 2001
Elected words
December 8, 2001
The Italian connection
November 24, 2001
Words in writing
November 10, 2001
October 27, 2001
The pickings of war
October 13, 2001
American English
September 29, 2001
September 15, 2001
Foreigners, come to stay
September 1, 2001

Word clusters
August 18, 2001

In the same vein
August 4, 2001
The cyber family
July 21, 2001

When the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama landed his fleet at Calicut, India, in 1498, the Portuguese became aware of, among other things, a venomous snake with the remarkable ability to expand the skin of its neck to form a hood. The Hindi word the Indians used for the snake was naag, but the Portuguese decided to rename it in their own language, cobra de capello, "hooded snake". The Portuguese name was borrowed into English in the seventeenth century. By the nineteenth century its name in English had become shortened to cobra.

The earliest books were actually rolls of papyrus, a writing material that was made from the pith of the papyrus plant and used by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. The Greek word for papyrus was biblos or byblos, which they derived from the name of the Phoenician city Bublos [now Jubayl, Lebanon], an ancient port from which papyrus was exported to Greece. Scrolls, papyri and, later, books were all called bublos, leading onto biblia, little book, from which is derived the word bible. The same source gives us bibliophile.

In the English society of the late Middle Ages, a standard article of feminine dress was the wimple; a cloth headdress that surrounded the neck and head, leaving only the face uncovered which was called a gorgias. An elegant and elaborate gorgias was so much the mark of a well-to-do and fashionable lady that gorgias became an adjective meaning ‘elegant’ or ‘fond of dress’. The adjective passed into Middle English in the form gorgayse, from which comes the word gorgeous.


In a language of multiple origins like Hindi, there are many sets of words where etymology would give the same meaning to all the words in a set but custom and usage say something different. Each word has a special function and the words in a set can’t substitute for one another. Nafa and laabh both mean gain but nafa is profit in a bargain while laabh is gain. Kothi and kothri both mean apartment but kothi is a big, modern house while kothri is a very small room.