Saturday, August 25, 2012

Of Kebab and Helicopters

The setup: There’s now a doner kebab place up the street from me, and until I looked it up, I didn’t know what doner kebab was aside from a vaguely meat-related thing. Spoiler: It’s not free, donated meat. Probably for the best.

The background: I like it when words get broken up in a way that’s different than how they originally came together. Like helicopter. If you asked most people to guess what two word parts formed helicopter, they’d probably say “Why are you talking to me about word parts? You’re ruining my cocktail party.” But if you pinballed off everyone else at the gathering, you might eventually end up talking to the second-most boring person there, and, lacking other options, he or she’d probably guess that helicopter was formed by the word parts heli, which we use today in words like helipad, and copter, which is actually a word on its own today. But that’s not actually how the word formed: it’s helico — from the Greek word for “spiral,” helix — plus pter — from the Greek word for “wing,” pteron, as in pterodactyl. And while that makes sense, it’s just not what most people would guess.

The tasty nugget of knowledge: The word kebab works in a similar way, I learned today. If you were, say, roasting vegetables on a barbecue, you might not hesitate to call them kebabs. In fact, in preparing to cook them, you might explain that you were going to stick some vegetables on a kebab and throw them on the barbecue. That’s not what kebab meant in the past, however: According to Etymonline, shish kebab goes back to a Turkish word siskebabp, with the sis meaning “skewer” and kebap meaning “roast meat.” Somewhere along the line, Americans switched it and decided that the kebab was the pointy thing and the sish was the delicious thing, and that thinking exists even though we have doner kebab — the Turkish version of what might be called gyros in a Greek place — being all delicious and meaty but lacking a pointy component in spite of that kebab being there.

One more thing: Doner means “turning,” which makes sense if you’ve ever seen the meat being sliced off an endlessly rotating spit. But I feel like a lot of people don’t put it together that gyro means the same thing, and gyro comes from the same Greek word that gives us gyrate and gyre. Doy. Why didn’t I ever realize that?

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