Saturday, February 9, 2002

Random tales

THE word alphabet comes from the ancient Greek letters alpha and beta, which in turn are derived from aleph and beth, the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Initially, each letter of the alphabet started life as a picture or drawing. Now, why is A the first letter of the alphabet? For understanding this, a peep into the past becomes necessary. The English alphabet began life in ancient Phoenicia about three thousand years ago. The letter A was called aleph and meant ox. It was represented like a V, with a slanted bar across it, seemingly for the horns of the ox; the Greeks later turned it upside down, which is how we know it today. The ox served the ancient Phoenicians for food and work, shoes and clothing. A herd of cattle meant wealth for them. This could have been the reason that the ox (aleph), A, stands as the first letter.

The alphabet B originally looked like the primitive, two-chambered house with one room for men and another for women. Beth meant a tent or house, addressing man’s next pressing need: shelter. Beth is preserved in Bethlehem, which means the house of food.

History and meaning
January 19, 2002
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

Allergy was coined from the ancient Greek adjective allos, meaning other or opposite, and the Greek word ergon, meaning work or action. Originally, the term described a state in which the body’s cells ‘worked’ in a manner quite ‘opposite’ to their normal working. Later on, the agent causing this altered state was called an allergen. As time went by, allergy came to denote the idea of a reaction to a foreign substance Incidentally, energy and surgery also come from the Greek ergon. Energy comes from ergon, work, and en, in; anything, which has the capacity to perform work or has work ‘in’ it, has energy. Surgery is derived from the Greek cheirourgia, working with the hand. Cheirourgia comes from cheir, hand, and ergon, work.

From Old French, Middle English borrowed ancestre, which in turn is derived from the Late Latin antecessor ( from antee, before, and cedo, go literally, ‘one who goes before or in front’). Thus our ancestors are those who went before us, while a predecessor is one who goes away before you come along. It comes from prae, before, and decedo, go away.

Today’s chauffer had very little to do with driving, if we look at the origin of the word. Chauffer goes back to the Latin calificare, to make hot. Around the year 1900, in the first days of the steam-driven automobile, the French gave the bantering name of chauffer or stoker to the professional who made it go. The old French form chaufer went into English as chaufen, to warm. This gave two new words, chafe, to make warm by rubbing, and chafing-dish, a dish to keep food warm, which can be seen at most gatherings.

The next time you check your budget, think of a French merchant of the Middle Ages dipping into his leather pouch and counting his cash! These people carried their money around in a bougette, little bag, a word that came from the Latin bulga, a leather bag. When a storekeeper made his budget, he opened his bag to count his cash; the whole process came to be called bougette.



Often words, which are derivatives, deviate from their original base in respect of meaning. For instance, the Hindi dhan means wealth but dhanya means blessed. Similarly, mukh is face, and mukhiya, chief.

This feature was published on February 2, 2002