I hope we’re all taking notes, because these are the old days of the future.
Dear Word Detective: Is it true that in the “old days” the “threshold” was to help hold in the stuff on the floor of a dwelling? — Decee Ray.
Ah yes, the old days, land of mystery and strange customs. Has anyone noticed that, as the far corners of the world have become more familiar through tourism and technology, we’ve started attributing to our own ancestors the sort of weird customs that previously would have been credited to inhabitants of, say, the remoter precincts of Borneo?
What brings that to mind is the fact that your question repeats a small fragment of a much longer essay, entitled “Life in the 1500s,” which has been circulating on the internet since about 1999. Apparently prompted by the release of the film “Shakespeare in Love” in 1998, this anonymous “believe it or not” description of the “quirky aspects” of life in 16th century England asserts dozens of absurd “facts,” such as cats and dogs routinely living in the roofs of thatched-roof dwellings.
Worse, the focus of the essay is to use these fabrications to explain the origins of common English words and phrases, such as “raining cats and dogs,” which, the essay confidently explains, comes from those roof-dwelling household pets losing their footing during a downpour. It doesn’t, and, as I said when I first read this pile of nonsense ten years ago, even the parts that are not overtly insane are still breathtakingly wrong. I don’t have room here to dissect the whole essay, but the folks at www.snopes.com have done a good job. Just search there for “1500s.”
Onward. Midway through this cavalcade of bunk, the authors announce that it was common to spread “thresh” (presumably reeds or rushes) on the floor of one’s house to prevent slipping, necessitating the addition of a piece of wood in the bottom of the doorway, called a “threshold,” to keep the “thresh” from “slipping outside.” Voila, our modern word “threshold” for the bar of stone or wood at the base of a doorway.
It is true that floors of the period were sometimes covered with a layer of rushes or reeds (known as “thresh” in the 17th century — Snopes is wrong on this one point). But “threshold” has nothing to do with “threshes” on the floor. The word “threshold” first appeared in Old English as “therscold” or “threscold.” The first part of the word carried the meaning of “to stamp with the feet, to stomp noisily,” which is, of course, what one does when entering a room with mud or snow on one’s shoes. The second part of the word is a mystery, but it is fairly certain that it was something other than our modern word “hold,” and it was transformed into the more familiar “hold” over time.
Interestingly, “thresh,” which we use today to mean “to separate grain from husks and chaff,” originally meant “to beat or stomp,” because the earliest method of separating wheat from the chaff, etc., was simply to stomp on it, like crushing grapes for wine.
Look on the bright side. Most groundhogs never get to read the New Yorker.
Dear Word Detective: In rural Missouri, teens often ride around and knock over the mailboxes setting on posts along the road. While mending the post one day, it made me think if the “post,” the piece of wood that is now in splinters, and the “post,” as in the letters and bills scattered on the ground, were related to more than just the scene of the crime. Also, the prefix “post-” (as in “postmortem”), is it also part and parcel of this root?.– Margherita.
They still do that where you are? The first few years we lived in rural Ohio, we lost three or four boxes to marauding adolescents, but lately they seem to be too busy text-messaging each other at 65 mph to take time to bash our mailbox. Thank heavens we can still count on the myopic nitwit from the township road crew to smash our post to smithereens with his tractor at least once every summer when he mows the berm.
There is no direct connection between the wooden “post” on which your mailbox sits (or sat) and “post” in the sense of “mail” (including such terms as “post office” and “postal workers”). The prefix “post,” meaning “after” (as in “postwar,” “postgraduate,” etc.), is unrelated to either of them.
“Post” meaning “upright column or pillar” (usually of wood) is the oldest of the three, derived from the Latin “postis,” meaning “doorpost,” which was probably formed from the combination of “por,” meaning “forward,” and a form of “stare,” meaning “to stand.” Interestingly, this “post” is also the source of the verb “to post,” originally meaning to fasten a notice to a post (or, today, a bulletin board or the like), as well as “poster” in the sense of a large notice or graphic placard.
The “post” in “post office” and similar terms, however, comes from the organization of early mail systems in Medieval Europe. To carry mail long distances, riders were placed at set intervals along major roads (later known, logically, as “post roads”), and the mail was passed from one rider to the next in a relay system similar to the Pony Express in the Old West. These early mail riders were “posted” at their stations, “post” in this sense coming from the Latin verb “ponere,” meaning “to place.” (The same verb “ponere” also gave us our modern English word “position.”) Although there may have been wooden “posts” (poles) at these “posts” (positions) for riders to hitch their horses, the two kinds of “posts” are not related.
I hate to add to this “post-post” tango, but there is another verb “to post,” based on this “position” kind of “post,” meaning “to send by mail.” This “to post” is more common in the UK than in the US, where we generally use the verb “to mail.”
The prefix “post” meaning “after” is from yet another source, the Latin adverb (and preposition) “post” meaning “behind” or “after.” There’s no connection between this “post” and either the “mail” or “wooden column” kinds of post. But it’s interesting that the verb “to postpone” brings together “post” in this “after” sense with our pal “ponere” meaning “to place” (which gave us the “post” in “post office”). “Postpone,” of course, means to delay something (an appointment, a deadline, etc.) after its original date.
Pete and Re-Pete go sailing.*
Dear Word Detective: “Quaint,” to me, means “somewhat outmoded, a little peculiar, and yet oddly appealing” — kind of like the word itself. But in thinking about it, I wondered if it is related to “acquaint.” If so, it would seem that “quaint” originally meant something like “familiar” or “well-known.” Am I even close? — Charles Anderson.
That’s a great question. English is full of words that sound as if they might be related in some way, and it’s a toss-up whether the pairs that actually are are more or less interesting than the pairs that aren’t. I tend to think that the best cases are actually words that are related, but mean such different things today that the connection between them leads the explorer down a twisted and nearly impenetrable path.
“Hearse” and “rehearse,” for instance, come from the same Latin root “hirpex,” meaning “rake.” In Old French, the derivative “herse” came to mean the “rake-like” metal frame that held candles in a church, especially over a coffin during a funeral, and eventually “hearse” in English came to mean the carriage that carries the deceased to the funeral. Meanwhile, that literal “rake” sense of “herse” gave us “rehercer” in French, “rehearse” in 14th century English, meaning “to rake again,” i.e., “to say over and over again” in preparation for a performance.
“Quaint” and “acquaint” also share a Latin root, but although their paths diverged early on, these two words never wandered as far apart in meaning as “hearse” and “rehearse” did. The ultimate source of both is the Latin verb “cognoscere,” meaning “to know,” also the root of “cognition,” “cognizance” and related words.
In the case of “acquaint,” the verb “cognoscere” further developed into “accognoscere,” meaning “to know well,” which passed through Old French as “acointer” and eventually produced, in the late 13th century, our English word “acquaint.” The initial sense of “acquaint” in English was simply “to make oneself known, to introduce yourself,” but it soon took on the sense of “to become familiar with, get to know” as one might “acquaint” oneself with one’s new neighbors. This use is now largely obsolete, replaced by the more cumbersome “to become acquainted with.” Another sense that developed, still very much in use today, was “acquaint” meaning “to gain personal knowledge of,” as in “At lunch I decided to acquaint myself with the restaurants in the neighborhood.”
“Quaint” veered off the path followed by “acquaint” back in Old French, where the Latin “cognoscere” had also produced “coint,” an adjective meaning “clever or knowing.” When “quaint” appeared in English in the early 13th century, it meant, of a person, “cunning” or “ingenious,” and, of a thing, “elaborate” or “finely made” (i.e., produced by a skilled artist). These senses are all obsolete now. But by the 14th century, “quaint” had also come to mean “remarkable or unusual” and “mysterious,” which eventually gave us our modern meaning of “attractively unusual in appearance or character” and (the most common meaning today) “pleasingly old-fashioned.”
So “quaint” and “acquaint” were indeed closely related at the starting line, but have been running on different routes for hundreds of years.
* Smatteryou? You were never 10 years old? Pete and Re-Pete went out in a boat. Pete fell out and who was left?