Sunday, February 21, 2010

Etymology of Calendar

Etymology of Calendar

When reading a news story this morning about a dispute between Iran and the United Kingdom over an ancient artifact known as the Cyrus Cylinder (a stone document that appears to represent the first recorded human rights charter), I happened to notice how closely the words "calendar" and "cylinder" resembled one another. Given that the Cyrus Cylinder was engraved in an actual cylinder, I got to wondering whether this was just a coincidence or what. As it turns out, it depends on whose story you decide to take.

The history of the word in Origins, an etymological dictionary of English from Eric Partridge, seems to give credence to the notion that the two terms are very closely related. According to this particular etymology, "calendar" indeed shares its origins with the term "cylinder," both of which can be traced back the Greek kulinros/kulindein, "to roll," on back to the Sanskrit kundam, meaning a round container or a round whole, stemming from the IndoEuropean kel- "to curve or bend." However, there is no indication here as to just what was so cylindrical about calendars to explain what is going on here.

The more popular etymology of calendar pretty much shot my theory to bits. I don't have access to a proper Oxford dictionary today, but the general notes in my home dictionary and the basic etymology sites online all tell a very different story about the history of the term "calendar." In a nut shell, the consensus is that the word calendar derived from the protoindoeuropeansuarusrex kele- meaning to shout out. When debts were due at the beginning of every month, lender and accountants would call off the debts from their calendarium, or account book, which this history holds was named after the calling of debts to be reckoned. The first day of the month in the Roman calendar was called Kalendae, and it is generally assumed that the word "calendar" was eventually derived from the most important day that the calendar was used for: paying the bills.

However, I'm not entirely convinced that the etymology in Origins is wrong. For one thing, there is a very similar word "calender" that is used to name a machine that rolls smooth bounds of cloth or paper through the use of, you guessed it, cylinders. Next, all of the ancient calendars that I have been able to find information on where round in shape, from the Mayan calendar to the rocks on Stone Henge. This is pure conjecture, but it seems more likely that day Kalendae would refer to when the monthly cycle was renewed than the other way around. If this is the case, Kalendae would seem to fit right in with the etymology of cylinder discussed above. If this is true, I think that it would be safe to say that the generally accepted etymology about solemn announcement of monthly debts.

I'm tempted to keep belaboring this point because, well, I'm right, damn it. Instead, though, I'll just say that this is an excellent example of how open ended etymology really. Many of the word origins indicated in general reference texts are based as much on folk wisdom than scholarly research. The words we used today may have been passed down to us through the centuries, but their histories have almost been obscured along the way. As a result, nearly every word in our language carries a hidden and half forgotten story of who we were and where we've come from

and scene.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Etymology of Punk and Spunk

The term "spunk" originated in the early 1600's in the British Isles meaning "a spark," having been adopted from the Gaelic spong for "tinder," which in turn comes from the Latin spongia. The Latin appears to be derived from how closely the popular kindling touchwood resembles natural sponges. "Spunk" became a colloquial term for courage and pluck in the late 18th century, assumably with the sense that the person showed some spark of life. The vulgar use of the term appeared about a century ago and is rarely used in this sense outside of the United Kingdom.

As it turns out, it appears likely that "spunk" shares a similar etymology with "punk," although the former had a decidedly less positive sense until recently. The term "punk" fist appears in the United States just before the turn of the 19th century to mean "inferior, bad or worthless," having been used formerly to denote low quality wood that was not good for anything other than kindling. Shortly into the 20th century, young adults and children were described as "punk kids" who became hoodlums and were of essentially worthless in the eyes of productive society.

It's also interesting to note that both the terms "punk" and "fagot" were originally used to describe low quality would meant for kindling...

Notes: There's actually a couple other etymologies out there for "punk" out there, but this is the only one I could find shows a clear evolution of the terms over recent history. Also, I seem to recall that they used to pack fireworks with a slow burning stick called a "punk" that was used to light fuses, but I haven't taken the time to double check on that one.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Etymology of Hag

From witches to old maids, the modern hag is The term "hag" shares its etymology with the adjective "haggard," meaning an appearance that is both wild and distraught as well as worn and exhausted, or gaunt. These terms are rooted in the Old French faulcon hagard, meaning wild falcon. If you can imagine the wild look in the eyes of newly captured falcon, you can get a good sense of the original meaning of the term. Some time later, it appears that this sense of the word was influenced for the Lower Germanic term "hager," meaning gaunt. The world weary sense of the modern haggard hag did not appear until around 1690's, and both terms have sense been influenced by contemporary culture to denote a peculiar type of haunted expression that comes only with a lifetime of loneliness.

It appears that the origin of hag is very closely associated with hedge, haw and hay and is related to the borders of the wilderness, where wild falcons and other birds would feed on the hagberries and hawthorns. In Old English there are a variety of terms like haegtesse, hegge and hagge that are used to describe female demons, with clear senses of described a wild woman of the woods. It is unclear exactly why the term lost its sense of wildness when used to denote an unmarried woman, but this appears to have occurred around the 17th century and would be an interesting topic to do a little cultural analysis on.