Heads I win, tails you ask Jesse Sheidlower.
Dear Word Detective: Do you know where the word “umpire” originated, and how? I think I know this one, but I’d like to find out if I’m right. — Karen De La Vergne, Anderson, Indiana.
You know, there’s something about the way you’ve phrased your question that makes me feel a bit like a cross between the Wizard of Oz and Monty Hall. Your faith in my ability to divine the right answer to your query is touching, yet I fear that you may be expecting a prize of some sort once we’re done. If so, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. I used to give away a cat for every question I answered, but now we’re down to just two (cats, not questions, God knows, I’ve got a pile of those you wouldn’t believe, except that since you all sent them to me, perhaps you would), both of whom (the cats) seem to be firmly bolted to the sofa.
Onward. The original form of “umpire” in English was the 14th century English word “noumpere,” from the French words for “not a peer,” and that takes some explaining. “Peer” in this sense means “equal,” or someone who has a stake in the matter at hand. Today we may think of umpires primarily as the beleaguered mediators of baseball games, but the original role of an “umpire” was to serve as an impartial arbitrator of legal disputes. This legal function still exists, although the umpires are usually called “arbitrators.” Naturally, the arbitrator, like the umpire in a baseball game, must be rigorously impartial and not a “peer,” or member of either team, for the process to work.
Now the curious thing about “noumpere” is that it only looks a little like “umpire.” It begins with an “n,” for example — where did that go? Well, it drifted, through a linguistic process called “metanalysis,” in which letters from one word migrate over time to a neighboring word. So “a noumpere” in the 14th century became “an umpere”in the 15th century and finally, by the early 17th century, “an umpire.” A similar metanalytic process transformed “a napron” (related to “napkin”) to our modern “an apron” and “a nadder” became that slithery menace, “an adder.”
On top of which it annoys those of us who really do know everything.
Dear Word Detective: After an exhausting weekend with a friend who knows EVERYTHING, I would be very grateful if you could give me the meaning of the phrase “Hoist one’s own petard.” Does it come from one of Shakespeare’s plays, and what is the meaning of “petard” — is it a sword, or is it a weapon from the Middle Ages? My honor is in your hands. — Mangisafi.
Exhausting is right. Have you ever noticed that those know-it-alls usually begin their sentences with the word “actually” to let you know that whatever you just said is complete nonsense, probably something you read on a cereal box or overheard in line at the 7-11? “Actually,” they sneer, “comet Hale-Bopp is made of ice and dust, not lint, and, being millions of miles away, cannot possibly be clogging the fuel pump on your car.” Sure, right. Like they know all about what certain comets can do.
In any case, I hope I’m coming down on your side of the argument when I tell you that a “petard” was a medieval weapon, specifically a small bomb used to blow open the gates of a castle under siege. The word “petard” (you can reveal this oh-so-casually to your friend) comes from the French word for “to break wind.” Petards, handy tools for those in the looting and pillaging business, did have a down side, however. They sometimes malfunctioned, “hoisting” (blowing skyward) the “engineers” delegated to plant the devices.
The phrase you’re thinking of, by the way, is “to be hoist by one’s own petard,” and does indeed come from Shakespeare, Act III of “Hamlet” to be precise. Hamlet, having sidestepped an assassination plot by having the unwitting bearers of the assassination order themselves “whacked,” muses on the justice of the moment: “‘Tis the sport to have the engineer hoist with his own petard.” This metaphorical use of the phrase to mean “someone being ruined or destroyed by the very plans or weapons they intended to use on someone else” has been popular since Shakespeare’s time. Oddly enough, the only modern example of the “hoist by one’s own petard” phenomenon that I can think of at the moment would be those cartoons about the roadrunner and the homicidal coyote. Not exactly Hamlet, I’ll admit, but there you have it.
My life as a disaster movie.
Dear Word Detective: The word “paraphernalia” means equipment or apparatus(es), but according my computerized dictionary it derives from a Latin root meaning “the bride’s possessions.” How did the bride’s possessions devolve into a hodgepodge of (perhaps extraneous) accessories? — Barney Johnson.
Before we begin, aren’t computerized dictionaries handy? About six months ago I acquired the Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM, and it has literally saved my life. Not only can I search 20 volumes of text in seconds, but also, so far, it hasn’t tried to kill me, which is more than I can say for its “hard copy” predecessors. Last summer I was trying to reach a book some twit (namely me) had shelved near the ceiling of my study when a teetering pile of dusty dictionaries toppled, in a deadly lexicographical avalanche, onto my head and shoulders. It still hurts when I try to sign checks.
It is true, as you note, that “paraphernalia” comes from a Latin root meaning “the bride’s possessions,” but there’s more to the story than that brief definition indicates. The root is actually “parapherna,” from the Greek words meaning “beside the dowry.” The “paraphernalia,” in Roman and, later, English marriage law, were the possessions a bride brought to the marriage and kept as her own personal property. The key distinction was that the paraphernalia were considered the bride’s personal property, not part of the dowry (the money and property the bride’s family gave to the groom). If the husband later died, the wife kept her paraphernalia, while the dowry and all other property went to the husband’s male heirs.
As marriage law in England became a bit more equitable, the more general use of “paraphernalia” to simply mean “personal belongings” arose in the 18th century. This usage paved the way for the term to be applied to, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “the articles that compose an apparatus, outfit, or equipment; the mechanical accessories of any function or complex scheme; appointments or appurtenances in general.”