Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Five Words With Surprising Etymologies

Happy Tuesday. Yes, you have time for this.

lieutenant: Discovered only because I heard someone pronounce it on Downton Abbey as “leff-tenant” and wanted to find out what the hell was going on. On the etymological level, the word means exactly what it sounds like: “someone who occupies the space of someone else, or stands ‘in lieu of’ someone else.” It was a fancy term for “placeholder” at one point, but even with its current meaning retains the connotation of someone who can substitute for a higher authority. By the way, the whole “leff-tenant”/“loo-tenant” business goes back centuries, but people who generally know these things are unsure exactly why the disparity exists.

swan song: Meaning either the final melodious call of a dying swan or, more often, a person or thing’s farewell act or pronouncement, the term is a direct translation of the German Schwanengesang. But why should any language, German or English, have the metaphorical meaning of swan song? Allegedly because the Ancient Greeks believed that the Mute Swan remained silent its entire life until the moment before its death, at which point it sang a beautiful song. It’s not true, of course, but it makes for a nice story.

"the singing swan," by renier van persijn, via

cinema: This one only occurred to me after watching The Artist, when I thought about how quaint the term talkie seems now even though I find nothing strange about the very similar (and inherently older) term movie. But even the formal name for the art of moving pictures is essentially the same: As coined by the Lumiere brothers, cinema is just a shorted version of cinematography, which literally means “moving writing.” Cinema comes from the same Greek root as kinetic, so they really are still “movies,” etymologically speaking.

paraphernalia: It originally meant “a woman’s property beside her dowry,” with para- being the Greek root meaning “beside,” pherne being “dowry.” It’s noteworthy that it degraded to become a polite word for “stuff” and a legal term for the items you use in order to make, consume and sell drugs.

And because Downton started this list, dowager: It comes from the Middle French douagere, “a widow with a dowry.” So it might as well be dowry-er.

Etymology, previously:

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