Saturday, March 29, 2008


Italics comes from "Italy". Why is that? Apparently an Italian guy wrote that way:

"from L. italicus "Italian;" so called because it was introduced in 1501 by Aldus Manutius, printer of Venice (who also gave his name to Aldine), and first used in an edition of Virgil dedicated to Italy. Earlier (1571) the word was used for the plain, sloping style of handwriting, as opposed to Gothic. Italicize "to print in italics" (for emphasis, etc.) is from 1795." (Online Etymology Dictionary)

Friday, March 14, 2008


Halcyon is a pretty word. It sounds Greek. In common use it has several distinct but similar senses according to
1. calm; peaceful; tranquil: halcyon weather.
2. rich; wealthy; prosperous: halcyon times of peace.
3. happy; joyful; carefree: halcyon days of youth.
The word derives from the Greek alkyon, meaning kingfisher. What? Kingfishers seems irrelevant. But Greek mythology strikes again; the American Heritage Dictionary explains that the halcyon was
A fabled bird, identified with the kingfisher, that was supposed to have had the power to calm the wind and the waves while it nested on the sea during the winter solstice.
In Greek mythology Alcyone (or Halcyon) was the daughter of Aeolus, ruler of the winds. She and her husband got turned into kingfishers after some bad run-ins with various gods. Halcyon is used today to refer to a family of kingfishers.

Monday, March 10, 2008


A surprising number of modern English words derive from, or share roots with, ancient gods and monsters.

Chimera -- a mythical monster with parts from various different animals: today, an organism with tissues of differing genetic composition.

Gigantes -- a race of giants who fought the Greek Olympaians: gigantic, obviously.

Hippocampus -- a Greek mythological creature with the front of a horse and the tail of a fish: today, the hippocampus is a region in the brain, so named because it is shaped like a hippocampus.

Hydra -- A Greek mythological water serpent with many heads which Hercules killed: clearly it comes from the root hydro-, water, as in hydrroelectric.

Python -- In Greek mythology, a dragon or serpent who guarded the oracle of Delphi until he was killed by Apollo: today, a kind of snake.

Ceres -- Roman goddess of agriculture: cereal.

Helios -- Greek sun god: heliocentric.

Eros -- Greek god of love: erotic.

Hypnos -- Greek god of sleep: hypnotize

Typhoon is a word with an interesting history, influenced to an extent by a creature of Greek mythology. The Online Etymology Dictionary has this to say:

the modern word represents a coincidence and convergence of at least two unrelated words of similar sound and sense. Tiphon "violent storm, whirlwind, tornado" is recorded from 1555, from Gk. typhon "whirlwind," personified as a giant, father of the winds, perhaps from typhein "to smoke." The meaning "cyclone, violent hurricane of India or the China Seas" (1588) is first recorded in T. Hickock's translation of an account in Italian of a voyage to the East Indies by Cæsar Frederick, a merchant of Venice, probably borrowed from, or infl. by, Chinese (Cantonese) tai fung "a great wind," from tu "big" + feng "wind;" name given to violent cyclonic storms in the China seas. A third possibility is tufan, a word in Arabic, Persian and Hindi meaning "big cyclonic storm" (and the source of Port. tufao), which may be from Gk. typhon but commonly is said to be a noun of action from Arabic tafa "to turn round."

Wednesday, March 5, 2008


Abyss is a word that I think is very well suited to its meaning. Even better is abyssal, which when read in the right mood conveys a chilling sense of bottomlessness. "The lightless abyssal depths..."--brrr!

Anyway, it sounds Greek. Indeed, it comes from the Greek abussos (bottomless) as a- (without) + bussos (bottom). It seems that bussos perhaps is used with special reference to the bottom of the sea, which would make sense--in modern English the abyssal plain is the vast, flat bottom of the sea to which no light can penetrate. A simple, reasonable derivation.

Ethiopia used to be called Abyssinia--any relation to the above definition of abyss? No--it comes from Arabic, according to Wikipedia.

I didn't know that Abyssinia was Ethiopia; the only time I had seen it before was in Samuel Coleridge's memorable poem Kubla Khan, the end of which is reproduced below:
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me,
That with music lound and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Saturday, March 1, 2008


Archaic is another fun word and one that I like saying. It clearly has a root meaning "old"; for example, the prefix in archaeabacteria. Indeed, it comes from the Greek arkhaikos, meaning "old-fashioned", which ultimately comes from the word arkhein, "to begin".

Here there arise a whole host of connections to other Greek words and it is not clear what came first, but all of these English words are related:
  • archaic
  • monarch
  • architect
  • archbishop
I never suspected any connection between these words above. How did it come about? describes the prefix archi- as
"a combining form with the general sense “first, principal,” that is prefixed to nouns denoting things that are earliest, most basic, or bottommost (archiblast; archiphoneme; architrave); or denoting individuals who direct or have authority over others of their class, usually named by the base noun (archimandrite; architect)."
and the prefix arch- as
"a combining form that represents the outcome of ARCHI- in words borrowed through Latin from Greek in the Old English period; it subsequently became a productive form added to nouns of any origin, which thus denote individuals or institutions directing or having authority over others of their class (archbishop; archdiocese; archpriest). More recently, arch-1 has developed the senses “principal” (archenemy; archrival) or “prototypical” and thus exemplary or extreme (archconservative); nouns so formed are almost always pejorative."
Makes sense! But how does architect fit into all this? It comes from the Greek architéktōn, which can be split into archi-, with the meaning described above, and téktōn, meaning "builder" or "craftsman". Therefore the architect is the "principal builder".


Island is a fun word. Even more fun is isle. How often do you have a silent 's'? How did it come about?

Island appears to come from the Middle English iland, from the Old English igland. says that the 's' comes from "association with isle", and that isle comes from the Latin insula (meaning island) through Old French. confirms that isle comes from "Anglo-French" and ultimately from Latin. The modern day word insulate clearly comes from insula, so that we can say that insulate literally means "to make an isle of (something)".

So island comes from Old English, whereas isle comes from Latin. We would be wrong, perhaps, to say that insulate means "to make an island of (something)" because island doesn't come from insula. Huh. I had assumed that island and isle had the same derivation and that isle was simply a shortened form or something. Instead it appears that they have very different origins but that once they both made it into English their spellings converged.

A note: I had assumed that island and isle had identical meanings, but the two dictionary sites mentioned above both suggest that isle often connotes a small island. Thinking about it, perhaps this is right. Also, both sites claim that each word can be used as a verb (meaning, as you might expect, "to make into or place onto an isle/island").