Issue of December 4, 2007

Page Three


Or maybe "Tailgaters flunked physics."

Dear Word Detective: I just spent some time on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and want to know if you can tell me the origins of two words. The first is "causeway." I know it's a bridge but where did this word come from? Also, we used the causeway to cross the Albemarle Sound. Where did the word "Sound" used in this context come from? -- E. P.

Cool. I've never been to the Outer Banks, partly because I've always been afraid that they (you know, Them) would slap one of those lame "OBX" stickers on our car when I wasn't looking. I'd much rather sport something truly interesting on our car, something along the lines of "We Went to West Florida Reptile World and Saw the Giant Flying Purple Iguana." Something like that would inspire unquenchable envy in the cars that pass us. To me, "OBX" just makes your car look like a piece of luggage.

A "causeway" is, of course, a raised road, usually built on an embankment, often running across water or swampy land. It's not really a bridge, since it is usually solidly resting on the earth for its length. Causeways can, in fact, connect small islands and the like to the mainland over distances that would be impractical for bridges.

There seems to be a difference of opinion between various etymological authorities over the exact roots of "causeway." Everyone agrees that our modern "causeway" evolved from the older term "causey way," meaning essentially the same thing as "causeway." The dispute is over the origins of "causey," meaning a raised mound or footpath. One theory has "causey" coming from the Vulgar Latin "calciata via," meaning "limestone road" ("calx" being Latin for limestone), and posits that causeways used to be made with crushed limestone. The other theory traces "causey" to the Latin "calciare," meaning "to stamp with the feet," and holds that the name refers to the fact that causeways were constructed by stamping down earth and rock to make the mound firm. Whatever the truth, "causey" first appeared in English around the 12 century but has now been almost entirely replaced by "causeway," which showed up in the 14th century.

"Sound," meaning a body of water between an island and the mainland or an inlet of the sea (such as Long Island Sound, where I spent my childhood summers dodging jellyfish), has nothing to do with the kind of "sound" we hear (which comes from the Latin "sonus"). This watery "sound" comes from the Old Norse "sund," which meant both "channel or strait" as well as "swimming." (In fact, the Germanic root of "sund" was "swem," which also gave us "swim") "Sound" in Old English actually meant "the act of swimming" as well as "sea" or "water," and in modern English "sound" was long used to mean the "swimming bladder" of fish, an internal organ that helps the fish regulate its buoyancy. Our modern use of "sound" to mean "body of water" didn't arise until the 16th century.

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Unscrewing the inscrutable.

Dear Word Detective: I've got quite the "conundrum" for you. What is the origin of this very obscure word? It has at least three synonyms that I know of (riddle, puzzle, enigma), so I don't imagine it's the first of these four to mean what it means. The online dictionary explained its meaning quite well, but nothing about its origin, and a search simply yielded countless "conundrums" that other people had. Please help. -- Neil, Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Hey, you're right. Googling "conundrum" produces 5,510,000 hits, and not a single one of them explains the origin of the word. I had to check each link, of course, because I wouldn't be able to sleep if I didn't follow every clue. Anybody know a good ophthalmologist? By the way, speaking of puzzles, I'm not sure I understand the second sentence of your question, so we'll just skip that part.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines "conundrum" as "a paradoxical, insoluble, or difficult problem; a dilemma," which covers a lot of ground. In any case, "conundrums" are generally not good things. A choice between your two favorite flavors of ice cream is not a conundrum; a choice between paying your rent or buying food is a conundrum. But it's difficult to imagine remembering to use the word "conundrum" in such a dire situation, because "conundrum" is the sort of fancy locution, like the word "eschew," that I seriously doubt anyone uses without careful forethought. Real people generally don't say "conundrum." They say "jam" or "pickle."

Ask the folks at Oxford English Dictionary for the etymology of "conundrum," and the answer is a terse "Origin lost," as if it had been misplaced in a word warehouse on the outskirts of the city. The truth is more likely "origin never exactly known." The most reasonable theory is that "conundrum" originated as a joke among university students in 16th century England, probably concocted as a pseudo-Latin nonsense word and initially used as a derogatory term for a fussy, pedantic and silly person (what the Oxford dictionary calls a "crotchet-monger"). Over the next two hundred years, "conundrum" was used to mean "a whim or silly idea" and "a pun" before it took on the sense of "a riddle the answer to which is a pun" in the late 18th century, and, soon thereafter, acquired its modern sense of "an insoluble or very difficult problem." So the answer, unsatisfying as it may be, is that the birthplace of "conundrum" was probably just the warped imagination of a 16th century college student.

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Spare me.

Dear Word Detective: I am writing to you from the research department of a large magazine. We have a story that I am fact-checking in which the author states: "... a friend of mine told me that the origin of the word 'forgive' means to untie...." This kind of statement causes fact-checkers a lot of stress. Of course I am unable to verify this "fact" and am forced to go hunting on my own. Do you have any insight into the origin of the word "forgive?" -- N. R.

Hmm. Odd. But this brings up a question of my own. I have always wondered how many layers, so to speak, fact-checkers are expected to plow through in search of "the truth." In this case, for instance, you have an author who reports that a friend said that "forgive" originally meant "untie." Let us presume that you verify that the author's friend actually said that. So the statement by the author is true. You then have to worry whether the friend is right? Perhaps the friend read it in a book written by a fellow in Helsinki. Where do you stop? After all, if that open-ended approach were applied to the statements of politicians, newspapers would contain nothing but ads for lost pets.

In this case, being the helpful sort that I am, I can report that the author's friend's cousin's landlord's parrot, or whoever we're talking about, is seriously misinformed. "Forgive" never meant "untie." The root of "forgive" is the Latin word "perdonare," meaning "to give completely, without reservation." (That "perdonare" is also the source of our English "pardon.")

When the Latin "perdonare" was adopted into the Germanic ancestor of English, it was translated piece-by-piece, making the result what linguists call a "calque" (from the French "calquer," to trace or copy) a literal transliteration. "Per" was replaced by "for," a prefix that in this case means "thoroughly," and "donare" with "giefan" ("to give"). The result, "forgiefan," appeared in Old English meaning "to give up, allow" as well as "to give in marriage." In modern English, "forgive" has also taken on the meanings of "to pardon for an offense," "renounce anger at" ("I forgive you for feeding bean tacos to my dog ") and "to abandon a claim on" (as in "forgive a debt").

As to where your author's friend's "untie" theory might have come from, I catch a whiff of New Age psychobabble in that story. It's easy to imagine some pop-happiness guru explaining that our anger and resentment are the "ties" that bind us, and that only by "forgiving" others can we be freed to chase butterflies through fields of daisies or whatever. Personally, I'll believe it when I see it practiced by the IRS.

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Pledge break!

Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said, somewhat alarmed at his own temerity, "Please, sir, I want some more, and for you to subscribe!"


Well, there was a tree in the Wendy's lot, but it died.

Dear Word Detective: This morning I read an article in the New York Times about the discovery of an ancient Roman road in the Netherlands. In describing the original road, the writer noted that it was "known in Latin as the 'limes,'"--which made me wonder if this explains why the British call the trees that line long driveways "lime trees." Since this wasn't in your archive, I Googled "lime tree" and found this Wikipedia explanation: "The trees are generally called 'linden' in North America, and 'lime' in Britain. Both names are derived from the Germanic root 'lind.' The modern forms in English derive from 'linde' or 'linne' in Anglo Saxon and old Norse, and in Britain the word transformed more recently to the modern British form 'lime.'" But I'm still wondering if there's any association with the Roman road. -- Laura Stempel.

Golly, that's an interesting question, good for hours of research fun. I'm tempted to save it for a rainy day, but since it's been raining here pretty much non-stop for more than a week, I guess I'd better just get to it. It's easier than figuring out why it's 65 degrees Fahrenheit in January.

[Editor's note: I feel obligated to point out that if you were a subscriber, you would have read this column last January, and that sentence would have made a bit more sense.]

There are three "limes" in English, each a distinct word with no relation to the others. The first is the substance "lime," composed of carbonates, oxides and other tangy flavors of calcium. This is the stuff found in "limestone," used in concrete, and to be avoided if at all possible in the highly caustic form "quicklime."

The second "lime" is the citrus fruit, which takes its name from the Arabic "limun," also the source of the English word "lemon."

The third "lime" is the tree sort, specifically of the Tilia genus, which are popular ornamental trees in Europe as well as America, where they are more commonly called "linden" trees. As you discovered, both "lime" and "linden" hark back to the Germanic root "lind." Roads lined with stately lime trees are a common sight in Europe and occasionally found here in the US, although we seem to prefer our scenic strip malls and gas stations.

As beautiful as a road lined with lime trees is, however, there is no connection between lime trees and the Roman road described in the article you read. The Latin word "limes" originally meant "a path," especially one between fields, as well as any sort of boundary or property line. The Latin "limes," in fact, gave us our modern word "limit."

The "limes" uncovered in the Netherlands was apparently part of the "Limes Germanicus," the northern boundary of the Roman Empire. More than just a road, it was designed as a barrier to block the Germanic tribes that threatened Roman control of northern Europe. The Roman Empire protected itself with such "limes" in several locations, including Hadrian's Wall in Britain and the "Limes Arabicus" in the Roman province of Arabia. So parts of the "limes" mentioned in the article may have been lined with "lime" trees, but that's not why the road was called "the limes."

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Katie call the cops.

Dear Word Detective: I have been reading with great pleasure the ghost stories of Montague James, arguably the best British writer of such stories, ever. In one of them, "The Mezzotint," he uses the word "sport" as a transitive verb, to mean "to lock," as in "to lock the door." I cannot find this definition of the word anywhere. Can you? -- Lowrie Beacham.

Thanks for an interesting question. I'm a big fan of M.R. James and the classic British ghost story, and I remember first reading "The Mezzotint" when I was 14 or so and being simultaneously fascinated and thoroughly spooked by the story. "The Upper Berth" by F. Marion Crawford, also available at the website you mentioned, is another classic of the genre and a very satisfyingly creepy read. I'd take stories like these over the latest Stephen King chopfest any day, but the closest thing I've seen in recent years was the excellent film "The Others." Just thinking about that movie gives me the wimwams.

The plot of "The Mezzotint" concerns a rather unusual (to put it mildly) picture, and at one point in the story the protagonist decides to play it safe and lock the thing in another room: "He took the picture by one corner and carried it across the passage to a second set of rooms which he possessed. There he locked it up in a drawer, sported the doors of both sets of rooms, and retired to bed...." This is indeed an unusual use of the past tense of the verb "to sport," and one with its own interesting history.

Derived from the Old French "desporter," meaning "to amuse, please, or play," our modern English "sport" first appeared as a verb in the 15th century meaning "to amuse or entertain oneself," with the "athletic competition" sense of both the noun and verb forms coming later. Over the next three centuries, "to sport" developed a variety of meanings, generally involving the sense of casual play or carefree activity, as in "sporting" or freely spending one's money.

One of the senses "sport" developed was "to display, especially in an ostentatious fashion," as we might today say "Robert showed up at work sporting a new Rolex on his wrist." From this "display" meaning, students at English universities in the 18th century developed the slang term "to sport timber" or "to sport oak" meaning to close one's door (made of wood, of course) as a visual signal that the occupant did not wish to be disturbed. Apparently this slang use of "to sport" had percolated into general usage by the 19th century with the simplified meaning of "to lock" a door.

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I'm not stranded. I'm just very securely moored.

Dear Word Detective: I have always been an avid fan of word history but there is one word that I have never been able to find a definitive background on: "beach." The original Germanic/English for "beach" is "strand." Today we only use "strand" and "stranded" when a whale is caught on shore or a person is lost on an island (or away from means of communication). Latin-based languages have some form of "playa." Where does "beach" come from and how did it so completely overtake "strand"? -- Matthew Waldman.

That's an interesting question. "Playa," incidentally, is rooted in the post-classical Latin "plagia," meaning "shore."

As you note, "strand" seems to have shuffled off the stage of everyday usage but was once the standard term for what we now call a "beach." Dating back to Old English, "strand" is a bit of a mystery, but it seems to hark back to the Old Norse "strond," meaning shore, and some authorities trace it back to the Indo-European root "ster," meaning "to stretch out." The original meaning of "strand" was "the area of the shore between high and low tide marks," but by the 13th century it was being used for any shoreline and even docks and quays on a river. The street called "the Strand" in London once lay alongside the Thames River.

Of course, how much fun a beach can be depends to a certain extent on where you sit. For the captain of a sailing ship, running aground on a "strand" was bad news indeed, so by the early 17th century "strand" had become a verb meaning "to drive or force aground on a shore," and by the 19th century a figurative use of the verb meaning "to leave helpless" had arisen, setting the stage for millions of travelers to be "stranded" by bad weather every winter.

If the story of "strand" is a little murky, the history of "beach" is a major puzzle. It's a more recent word than "strand," first popping up in English in the early 16th century, and the initial meaning of "beach" was not the expanse of sand we normally think of, but simply the smooth pebbles and rocks found on the seashore. The expansion of "beach" to cover the whole shore in the late 16th century was probably due to a popular misunderstanding of the "pebbles" connotation of "beach" in phrases such as "walk on the beach."

As for the origin of "beach," theories range from the Old Norse "bakki" ("bank," as of a stream) to the Old English "baece" (stream) to "beach" being a mutation of "bleach" (as stones are bleached by the sun and water).

So why do we now say "beach" and not "strand"? Shakespeare did his part to popularize "beach" in his works, for one thing. But it may be primarily because, by the 16th century, "strand" was being used to mean docks and the like, leaving "beach" to take on the specific meaning of "sandy shore of the ocean." Besides, "the Strand Boys" would have had real problems getting a record deal.

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