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Count / Counter

 Formica’s fine, thanks. I’m only visiting.

Dear Word Detective:  The other day, while listening to the radio on the way home from work, I heard an advertisement for a company called “Counter Intelligence.” They install countertops but have that nifty double entendre which is perfect for the DC area. It got me thinking about the word “counter,” which can mean: “something (or someone) that counts,” “a flat surface on which you can place a glass of beer,” or “opposite to” as in “counter-clockwise.” And also about the word “count,” which can mean “to say numbers in order or measure things in this way,” “a member of the nobility,” or however you would describe “count” in the phrase “make things count.” Are all or some of these senses of “count/counter” related somehow? — Fernando.

“Counter Intelligence” is cute. Do they “terminate” your ugly old kitchen “with extreme prejudice”? But cute business names make me queasy. We hired a roofing company with a cute name several years ago to do some repair work. They sent us three guys who spent their time drinking beer, screaming obscenities and threatening to kill each other on our front lawn. After they finally left, we discovered that the new part of our roof was done, for no apparent reason, with bright green shingles. It looked like the house had been struck by a giant avocado from space.

I actually answered a query about “counter” a few years ago, though it came from a slightly different, and weirder, direction. Two guys were having an argument over whether “countertop” was a legitimate word because every counter has a top, or it wouldn’t be a counter. Yeah, really. Far as I know, they’re still duking it out in the aisle at Lowes.

There are actually two distinct kinds of “counter” mentioned in your question, plus “count” in the Sesame Street “Count von Count” sense.

The “countertop” sort of “count” comes from the verb “to count,” which, in its most basic sense, means ” to assign to objects, actions, etc., the numerals one, two, three, etc. so as to ascertain their number; to determine the total of a group.” The root of “count” is the Latin verb “computare,” to calculate (“com,” together, plus “putare,” to think). “Count” doesn’t bear much resemblance to its Latin root (or to its relative “computer”) because it was filtered through Old French. To “make something count” and similar uses mean to include it in a metaphorical “total” or summation. “Counter” as a piece of furniture comes from the desk in banks, shops, etc., where money is taken in and counted. The noun and verb “account” and its relatives (e.g., “recount”) mean both “to arithmetically total” and “to tell a story” (e.g., “The victim’s account of the crime”).

The “counter” meaning “opposite” (as in “counter-clockwise”) and “in response to” (as in “counter-intelligence”) comes from the Latin “contra,” meaning “against.” It’s also a verb meaning “to oppose or respond in kind” as in “The boss countered the union’s demands with an offer of permanent vacations.”

Lastly, “count” as a title of nobility comes from the Anglo-Norman “counte,” in turn derived from the Latin “comitem,” literally “companion,” used as the term for a provincial governor or other official close to the Emperor in the Roman Empire. In European use since the 11th century, a “count” was roughly equivalent to an British “earl.”

Casual / Casualty

 Laid back, to a greater or lesser degree.

Dear Word Detective:  It has often popped into my head that there must be a connection between “casual” and “casualty.” I’ve tried to come up with a logical sequence that leads from one to the other, with no luck. I’ve looked things up in online dictionaries, with ditto. Can you tell me if these two words are etymologically related; and if so, how? — Rosemarie Ekses.

That’s a good question. In fact, I know that’s a good question because I actually answered it way back in the aughts, as we apparently now call them. But for some reason that column never made it into my archives at, which means, in our shiny new cloud-based universe, that it doesn’t really exist. I’m not sure how this sort of thing happens, but it’s a big reason why I still own several thousand real books. Anybody wanna buy a Ned Ludd t-shirt?

That question way back when was prompted (Warning: Teen Flashback Alert) by Buffy the Vampire Slayer noting in one episode that she didn’t like the term “casualty” because she felt it made death sound “casual.” I suppose that’s understandable, although I’d be more worried about how the similarity of the two words might cast a pall over Casual Friday at the office. In any case, “casual” and “casualty” are closely related in origin, but there’s no hidden logic behind their wildly different meanings; it’s all just a case of linguistic drift over several centuries.

The adjective “casual” and the noun “casualty” are both derived from the Latin “casus,” which simply means “event.” Another “casus” derivative, “case,” appeared in the 13th century and originally also meant “event,” but evolved over time to mean “an instance of something happening” or “the state of matters regarding a thing or person” (e.g., “a case of mistaken identity”).

“Casual” appeared in English in the 14th century, initially meaning “by chance, accidental,” a sense we still use in phrases like “casual encounter.” Later meanings included “unreliable,” “haphazard” and “free-spirited,” which in the 20th century settled into the modern “casual” meaning “informal, not fixed or rigid,” “unimportant” and “unconcerned.”

The noun “casualty” first appeared in the 15th century (originally in the form “casuality”) and, by analogy to “casual,” originally meant simply “an accident or chance occurrence.” But by the 16th century, “casualty” had narrowed to mean specifically “an unfortunate event” (thus the widespread use of “casualty” in the names of insurance companies). In military usage, this sense of “casualty” took on the technical meaning of “losses sustained by a body of men in the field or on service, by death, desertion, etc.” (Oxford English Dictionary) and, in reference to individuals, “soldiers killed, wounded or injured.” In modern use, “casualty” can apply to soldiers (or civilians) either injured or killed, but often is used to mean only fatalities.

On a slightly cheerier note, “casualty” is also often used today to mean “a person or thing lost, destroyed or superseded” in a metaphorical sense, as in “The iconic Detroit ‘muscle cars’ of the sixties became casualties of rising oil prices in the 1970s.”

Piece (gun)

Shootout at the Golden Corral.

Dear Word Detective: Recently, a member of my circle of friends referred to someone carrying a “peace” around in public. Puzzled, since I had always read the slang for a gun as “piece,” I inquired as to the usage. The story goes, apparently, that “piece” is a corruption of “peace,” originally a shortened name of the Colt Peacemaker. Is there any truth to this? I might think it just as likely that “piece” comes from “piece of hardware” or the like. — Reuben Gann.

I just looked up “Colt Peacemaker” online, and I think your question may have solved a small mystery for me. We live in a very small town, and last summer I was sitting outside our tiny Post Office when an elderly man drove up. He parked, unloaded a rather elaborate walker, and then reached into his car, produced a large revolver that had a very long barrel and looked like something out of a Western, stuck it in an ornate holster mounted on the walker, and toddled off, either making a point or asking for trouble.

In any case, judging from what I saw online, his gun was the very popular modern version of the Colt M1873 Single Action Army Revolver, commonly called the Peacemaker. First introduced in 1873, it was the standard military sidearm in the late 19th century and figured in many colorful episodes in the Old West. But while the Peacemaker played a large role in the history of guns in the US, it is unrelated to that particular slang term for “gun,” which is definitely “piece.”

While “peace” and “piece” are homophones (words that share the same sound), they are completely unrelated in origin. “Peace” first appeared in English in the 12th century, drawn from the Old French “pais,” which in turn came from the Latin “pax” meaning “absence of war or conflict.”

“Piece” appeared in English a bit later, around 1230, also from Old French, and probably ultimately from the post-Classical Latin “pettia,” meaning “fragment” or “parcel of land.” In its most basic sense, “piece” has always meant “a part of a whole” (as in a piece of pie, land, etc.), a thing considered as part of a class or kind (piece of furniture, piece of iron), or a specific example or instance of something (piece of nonsense, piece of writing). “Piece” can also mean “a certain, usually short, distance or period of time” (“a fair piece down the road,” “stay a piece”), one’s opinion expressed to others (“speak your piece”), a coin, or some object used in a board game or gambling.

“Piece” used as a term for a firearm is actually about 300 years older than the Colt Peacemaker, having first appeared around 1575. Initially, “piece” in this sense meant any sort of portable firearm (“He knelt on one knee, and levelled his piece direct at William’s head.” 1870), but current usage restricts the term to handguns (“In this neighborhood, you don’t carry a knife or a piece, you’re dead.” 1956). Interestingly, “piece,” although it’s now slang usually encountered in the context of crime or the underworld, was originally considered standard English (“Captane John Gordoun wes [deadly] wounded with a peece, by one of the Earle of Murray his servants, at his verie first approach.” circa 1656).

“Piece” in the gun sense seems to be a use of the word in its “example of a kind of thing” sense. It may have been adopted because, in an age where arrows, pikes and axes were still common weapons, it served as a general term designating a firearm, of which there were many different kinds at various points. Today “piece” in this sense is euphemistic slang that doesn’t fool anyone who owns a television.