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Revolting / Revolve

Turn, turn, turn.

Dear Word Detective: I’m wondering about the word “revolting.” It means “disgusting,” right? But it seems to have similar roots to “revolution” and “revolve.” Could you tell us how those words relate? — Emily Colby.

Good question, and you’re correct in your suspicion that “revolting” is closely connected to “revolution” and “revolve.” Incidentally, I went wandering over to Wikipedia just now and learned (supposedly — one never knows) something. The classic catchphrase “What a revoltin’ development this is!” was popularized by the seminal 1950s US TV show “The Life of Riley,” starring the awesome William Bendix. However, although Bendix had starred in the long-running 1940s “Life of Riley” radio show (as well as a spin-off movie), the role of Riley in the first season on TV was played by Jackie Gleason. Weird. Gleason, of course, went on to play a similar character in The Honeymooners.

Meanwhile, back at your question, the whole story begins with the verb “revolve,” which appeared in English in the 15th century, derived, via French, from the Latin “revolvere” (“re,” back or again, plus “volvere,” to turn). In English, “revolve” has developed dozens of senses based on either a literal or figurative “turning around” or “turning back,” from the earth “revolving” around the Sun to now-rare senses meaning to “turn over,” or deeply consider, something in one’s mind (“Here [Martin] Luther touched upon a question that he had revolved in his mind with earnestness during the preceding months.” 1907).

The past participle form of that Latin “revolvere” was “revoltus,” which English acquired in the 14th century, through Old French, as “revolution.” The initial meaning of “revolution” in English was simply “the act of revolving,” especially in a repetitive fashion, e.g., the revolution of planets, the annual cycle of seasons, etc. More mundane uses, such as the measurement of the speed of an engine, are familiar today in the abbreviation “RPM,” meaning “revolutions per minute.”

But by the early 15th century, “revolution” had developed an additional and very different meaning, based on the use of “revolve” to mean “turn over.” “Revolution” came to mean a complete “overturn” of the established order, whether in science, literature, the economic system or breakfast cereals (“Numbers of young men … studied Karl Marx; and were so convinced … that the Revolution was fixed for 1889.” G.B. Shaw, 1889).

“Revolt” came from the same sources as “revolve” and “revolution,” but arrived in English in the mid-16th century by a slightly different route. Originally meaning to abandon a leader or  switch sides in a dispute, “revolt” soon broadened to mean to arise in rebellion, engage in revolution, and overthrow the established order. By the late 17th century, “revolt” had also developed the sense of “to react with repugnance or disgust to something,” often a custom, idea, social convention or injustice (“The heart instinctively revolts against the unnatural privations which are imposed upon it.” 1829). In the early 18th century, a transitive form appeared, and people spoke of being revolted by things they found disgusting or repellent (“Strangers were often revolted by his uncouth proportions.” 1935). So the things we find “revolting” are those that cause our feelings, morals, tastes, or even gastrointestinal tracts, to rebel, sometimes violently.


They went that-a-way, back toward Wall Street.

Dear Word Detective: Could you tell me the origin of the word “cop” or point me in the right direction? — Denny.

Right direction? Sure. Personally, I’m just glad you’re not writing to ask, as a dismaying number of people do, how to become a detective, “the real kind, like on TV.” I usually tell them that the best way is to just keep watching lots of TV. I should get an award for keeping those people on their couches. But the truly scary thing is when people send me long accounts of crimes they want me to solve. I forward those to Matlock.

I’m assuming that you’re asking about “cop” in the sense of “police officer,” rather than the 15th century word “cop” meaning “spider” (an alternate form of which, “cob,” gave us “cobweb”). Fun fact: when I was growing up, referring to a police-person as a “cop” was considered disrespectful, almost akin to swearing; the preferred term was “policeman” or, later, “police officer,” which always struck me as both ungainly and creepily deferential. Then again, I’ve yet to get used to the term “Homeland Security.” I keep imagining Dorothy in Oz saying, “There’s no place like Homeland” with the theme from The Sound of Music playing.

There are, as you might expect, a number of explanations frequently offered for “cop” as slang for a person of the police persuasion, a term which first appeared in print in the mid-19th century and can be assumed to have been in oral use long before that. Perhaps the most popular theory traces “cop” to the longer form “copper” (which appeared at roughly the same time) and suggests that “copper” and “cop” originally referred to copper buttons, supposedly a feature of early police uniforms. Alternatively, “copper” is said to come from the copper badges supposedly worn by police at that time, a theory often elaborated by positing copper badges for sergeants, brass for patrolmen, and silver for higher ranks. As you can tell from the frequency of the word “supposedly” above, neither of those theories has withstood investigation. Nor has the runner-up, the theory that “cop” was originally an acronym for “Constable on Patrol.” Acronyms were vanishingly rare before World War Two, let alone in the mid-19th century, and there’s absolutely no evidence for that one.

Fortunately, the fact that such dandy “copper” theories have come a cropper, as Sherlock Holmes might say, does not mean the trail of “cop” and “copper” has gone cold. “Cop” as slang for “police officer” almost certainly comes ultimately from the Latin verb “capere,” meaning “to snatch or seize” (which also gave us the verb “to capture”). “Cop” as a verb first appeared in the early 18th century with the meaning “to capture, lay ahold of, nab,” and is still used in this sense in such phrases as “cop a quick meal” or “cop a nap” (“The privileged driver, on dropping his fare … almost invariably ‘cops’ a job on his way back,” 1868). The verb “to cop” also was (and still is) used to mean “to steal,” and in such phrases as “to cop a plea” (take an advantageous deal in court) and “cop out” (to take an opportunity to abandon a job, one’s principles, etc.).

It’s likely that the use of “cop” by criminals to mean “to steal” led more than a few police officers in the 19th century to reject the term, perhaps regarding it as an implicit allegation of dishonesty. But the use of “cop” in the “police” sense comes from the underworld use of “cop” to mean “capture,” especially arrest by the police (“Prisoner said, ‘Yes, I am the man. I am glad you have copped me.'” 1888). A “cop” in this sense was simply someone who “cops” criminals, making “copper” a job description completely unrelated to the metal “copper.”


The tiger in my tank is very tired.

Dear Word Detective: Don’t know why, but the word “car” popped into my head the other day. I’ve lived with it all my life and always taken it for granted. But it’s an odd word, probably short for “carriage” from the original “horseless carriage” name given to the vehicle? Or perhaps from “cart” or “cartage”? Or is it related to “caravan”? How and when (and who) decided to give the vehicle the name “car’? And when did “automobile” (the name) come along? — Barney Johnson.

Good question. Speaking of cars, I grew up reading Tom Swift Jr. books, and I was recently reminded of Tom’s fabulous inventions (“Tom Swift and His Ultrasonic Cycloplane,” etc.) by the saga of Elon Musk’s newfangled Tesla electric car. I doubt that Victor Appleton (the “house pseudonym” of the Tom Swift writers) could ever have anticipated the high-octane ruckus that greeted a New York Times’ reporter’s test of the Tesla’s mileage. It was a story that would have necessitated a title like “Tom Swift Jr and the Electric Car that Pooped Out Halfway to Boston,” followed by “Tom Swift Jr and the Public Relations Slugfest.” Mr. Musk is now developing spaceships, which hopefully will come with really long extension cords.

“Car” is actually a very old word, first appearing in English around 1300. The root of “car” is the Latin “carrus,” meaning a two-wheeled wagon, but the Latin word itself has Celtic roots, and “car” arrived in English by a roundabout route through Old French and Anglo-Norman.  In English, “car” was first used to mean a horse-drawn cart or wagon. The origin of “cart” is, incidentally, a bit unclear. Old English had the word “craet,” meaning “cart,” but there’s some evidence that the Old Norse “kartr” might be the source. Any connection between “cart” and “car” is fairly remote.

Over the next few centuries, “car” was also used to mean the passenger compartment of a balloon, the gondola of a cableway (i.e., a “cable car”), an elevator “car,” and a railway carriage (“carriage” is from the same “carrus” source, as is our verb “to carry”). It wasn’t until 1896 that “car” was first used for what we now also call an “automobile” (“The latter drove with a daring which may have been dangerous to himself, but which never affected his car.”). This is now the usual sense of “car,” and almost every other use requires a clarifying modifier (“railway car,” etc.).

“Caravan” certainly looks and seems as though it should have some connection to “car,” given that a group of people driving together in a number of cars is commonly called a “caravan.” But the root of “caravan” is the Persian word “karwan,” which entered English in the 16th century in the form “carouan.” In English, the word was initially used in reference to the “caravans” of the Middle East, explained by the Oxford English Dictionary as “A company of merchants, pilgrims, or others, in the East or northern Africa, traveling together for the sake of security, especially through the desert.” Later usage applied “caravan” to a fleet of ships as well as, in the American West, what we would call a “wagon train.” By the late 17th century, “caravan” was applied to covered wagons themselves (especially the sort used by traveling carnivals and Gypsies in Europe), and eventually to the small trailers we call mobile homes. Today what we call “trailer parks” in the US are known in Britain as “caravan parks.”

Incidentally, the first generation of automobiles were indeed popularly called “horseless carriages,” but are referred to by collectors today as “brass era cars” from the brass commonly used in their trim and fixtures. “Automobiles” actually predate internal combustion cars. The term (from “auto,” self, plus “mobile,” moving) was first applied to steam-powered vehicles in the 1860s. Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, a French inventor, is credited with producing a small steam-powered cart in 1769 and thus arguably inventing the “automobile.” The term was used in the late 19th century for a variety of self-propelled vehicles driven by steam, compressed air, and electric motors.