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Dear Word Detective:   I could have sworn you’d answered this question already but it isn’t in the archives.  How did the main prelate of England, the “primate,” come to share a name with a monkey?  The Oxford English Dictionary says the zoological usage came later, but every time I read a book set in the middle ages and they refer to “the primate,” I can’t help picturing a monkey in a black robe and red sash.  Please help. — Jackie.

Um, no, I’m pretty sure I’d remember writing a column connecting the Archbishop of Canterbury to a monkey.  Then again, perhaps I wrote it just before I was struck by lightning a couple of years ago.  That’s not a joke, by the way.  It was actually a very close encounter with ball lightning, close enough to numb one side of my body for a few days.  But I’m fine now, unless you count the twitching.

In any case, that’s a darn good question.  A “primate” is indeed a member of the zoological order “Primates,” which includes humans, apes, monkeys, and “prosimians” (which are not, sadly, professional simians, but critters like lemurs).

But “Primate” is also a title, in the Christian church, conferred on the chief bishop or archbishop of a given country, province or other subdivision. So the above-mentioned Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, is considered “Primate of All England” (but King Kong is not, in the ecclesiastical sense, Primate of New York).

While there were definitely monkeys before there were bishops, the church use of “primate” for its officials preceded the zoological use by about five centuries, and has a slightly different source than the monkey “primate.”  The Latin “primus” was an adjective meaning “first” (also the source of “prime” and “primary”), from which developed the Latin adjective “primas,” meaning “chief or principal.”  This “chief” sense gave us “primate” meaning “head bishop” in the 13th century.

The monkey family name “primates” came into use in the 18th century and is derived from the plural of “primas,” which was “primates.”  The order Primates made its debut in 1735 in the “Systema Naturae” (System of Nature) of Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy.  In his hierarchical system, apes and their relatives were classed with humans in Primates, the “highest” order, which caused quite a stir in certain quarters.  (Oddly enough, Linnaeus also classified bats as primates and whales as fish in early editions of his work.)  The use of “Primates” as the name of this order is Scientific Latin, unconnected to “primate” in the church sense, and, strictly speaking, the use of the singular “primate” to mean just one monkey is not really scientifically kosher.



Dear Word Detective: First of all, is it “lambast” or “lambaste”? The question is prompted by the local sports page which used the word to describe how the local college team defeated a visiting team. I tried to find its origin by going to online dictionaries but without success: they just define it. Also, what is it with sportswriters? They either use cliches or try to use relatively little-used words: some of these they understand and others they use seemingly because they sound good. One, for example, used “penultimate” apparently to mean “the ultimate” because, I guess, that’s what it sounded like to him. I imagine he never took Latin. — MMU.

Well, to tackle (yuk yuk) your second question first, I actually find myself feeling a lot of sympathy for sportswriters. A general assignment reporter or columnist encounters and reports on a wide variety of events, furnishing them wide leeway in their quest for the perfect word. Columnists even get away with metaphors. But a sportswriter is essentially watching the same events day after day, year after year, and writing about them with a necessarily limited vocabulary drawn largely from the lingo of bar fights (“thrashed,” “vanquished,” “rolled over,” “overcame,” etc.). There’s not a lot of room for literary or classical allusions (except the chestnut about “a phoenix rising from the ashes”), so it’s hard to blame them when they venture into their personal unknown with a word like “penultimate.” I don’t know why that fellow assumed that the “pen” means “absolutely” or whatever, but it comes from the Latin “paene,” meaning “almost” (making “penultimate” equivalent to “next to last”).

“Lambaste” is a fine old word, meaning literally “to assault violently, to beat severely,” and figuratively “to criticize or scold sharply.” It’s also spelled “lambast,” and although the preferred pronunciation at the moment seems to be “lam-BASTE” (as if you were basting a lamb roast), “lam-BAST” is OK too. “Lambaste” first appeared in English in the mid-17th century in the literal “beat up” sense; the “scold” sense didn’t develop until the late 19th century.

The “baste” in “lambaste” is a bit of a mystery. It is definitely the same as the obsolete English verb “to baste,” meaning “to beat,” which appeared around 1533 and may be related to various Scandinavian root words meaning “to whip or flog.” Opinions vary as to whether this “baste” is related in any way to our common “baste” meaning “to moisten roasting food to prevent burning.”

The “lam” in “lambaste” is actually a bit redundant, in that it is also an old English word meaning “to beat,” from an Old Norse root meaning “to make lame.” Interestingly, this is the same “lam” we use in “on the lam,” meaning to be “on the run” from authorities. In that usage, the original sense was apparently that the escapee’s feet were literally beating the road in haste, making “to lam” equivalent to “to beat it.”


Cranked up.

Dear Word Detective: I’m reading the papers here on Tsunami Tuesday and I keep seeing this great word, “stemwinder,” referring to a particularly stirring speech. I looked up its origin (Merriam-Webster lists it as “stem-winder”) and saw that it refers to watches, of all things, but wasn’t able to find how this term came to be associated mainly with political speeches. Can you ascertain how that connection came about? — Rick Freyer.

“Stemwinder” is one of those grand old words that have traveled so far from their origins that nearly all traces of their beginnings have faded from popular culture. The culprit in this case is not merely the passage of time (which, after all, has been passing since about day one), but the accelerating pace of technological progress. In many such cases, the advent of the new and shiny has led to the coining of “retronyms” as a way of distinguishing the old and moldy from their more modern equivalents. Thus we find ourselves specifying “broadcast TV,” “film camera,” “brick-and-mortar store,” and the like. But in the case of “stemwinder,” if there were a modern equivalent to its source, it would be as irrelevant as a digital butter churn.

It all goes back to the humble watch. Before there were electronic battery-powered wrist watches, before there were manually wound (or self-winding) mechanical watches, before there were even watches worn on one’s wrist, there were pocket watches. And if you go way back, those pocket watches were wound with a separate tiny key. This may sound cute, but it was a major drag, because the process was awkward and the key was easily lost. So in 1842, when the French watchmaker Adrien Philippe (co-founder of Patek-Philippe) invented a “keyless” watch that was wound by turning its “stem” (a knurled knob on the side of its case, today called the “crown”), it was such an improvement that it won Philippe a Gold Medal at the French Industrial World’s Fair.

It’s hard to imagine today, but the new “stemwinder” watch became an instant public sensation of almost delirious intensity, the iPod of its day. It was so popular, in fact, that within a few years the term “stemwinder” entered the lexicon as a synonym for anything excellent and exciting. By the end of the 19th century, “stemwinder” was being used to mean, first, an energetic person, then a rousing public speaker, and finally an especially inspiring speech itself.

Interestingly, as the public memory faded of how revolutionary the “stemwinder” invention had been, the word took on the slightly more focused sense of a speech which not only impresses but galvanizes a crowd to action, perhaps by analogy to a watch spring being wound up (“After all the calls to unity, ..a stemwinder in the old tradition from Hubert Humphrey,… Sargent Shriver was formally nominated for Vice-President,” T.H. White, 1974). This is the sense in which we use “stemwinder” today.