Sunday, January 15, 2012


I love nomenclature and etymology. I didn’t even know the word nomenclature until a few years ago when I read that Tolkien, who I’ve argued here is the most important English speaking author of the 20th century  - okay, possibly a tie with Hemingway, but maybe I’m just trying to sound reasonable, because other than the short novel The Old Man and the Sea, the short story The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, and one of my all time favorite novels, For Whom the Bell Tolls, I couldn’t finish anything else he wrote - loved nomenclature. I can’t find Tolkien’s letter to his son I want to quote, but after his son had described some historical fact to him, the master replied that he just couldn’t get interested in history unless there was some nomenclature involved – that is, either lists of names or something about how names got their meaning. I thought – Me too, but not so much as him, as I do love history for its own sake too.  But, a name meaning makes it special.

This post is dedicated to nomenclature – Of course, people have written books on this, and I’m not going to, but just select some nomenclature, mostly that has always interested me.

1) Nomenclature – I’ll start with the name for the thing itself.  There are actually all kinds of nomenclature, including what must be the most well known – etymology (a word, which, of course, has its own etymology), which is generally speaking, about the origin of names. Take the word – “nomenclature,” for example, the roots for which can be dated back at least to Homer (I am not the least familiar with earlier Greek languages, so, maybe earlier).

In Ancient Greek, the word for “name” is – transliterated – onoma. The –a is an ending, so take it off and you are pretty close to our word. The word for “to call” is kalein. The “ein” at the end just means it is an infinitive, so dropping it, you realize how much it is also like the modern word. Putting the two words together with a few changes, you get something close to - onomakledev (caller of names). The Romans dropped the initial o, played around with it a bit according to their own rules and came up with nomenclatura. From Latin it went into the romance languages, such as French – nomenclature, from which we got our own identical word, although I suppose they pronounced “ture” as a nasal “toor” (rhyming with poor) instead of our “chure.” See. Simple.

If you don’t find that fascinating, you just aren’t someone who loves etymology or nomenclature. I find most people are interested though, if it is a word they use themselves and there is a cool origin for it. So, I’ll give you one.

2) Wednesday. When I taught a class in Constitutional law I started one session by asking why Wednesday was spelled so strange. There were roughly 75 students there and not one knew, although they used the word all the time, so don’t feel bad if you don’t. Obviously, I’m not talking about the “day” part, which has its own etymology, but the “Wednes-” part, which is a strange spelling for an English word. The answer is, it comes from the Old Norse or Scandinavian father of the gods – Woden (really the “d” was the Old Norse and English Þ, þ, which was pronounced like our “th.” Over time, we changed “th” sounds to “d,” according to Grimm’s law (the same amazing Jacob Grimm who was the older of the Brothers Grimm).  It’s not the only day of the week we get from the Norse gods. We much more often derive words from Greek and Roman for (planets, months, etc.) things like this, but for some reason the god we now usually called Odin and his kin got to stand in.  Like –

Tuesday – Tiu’s day (Tiu was a Norse god of war), and

Thursday – Thor’s day (Thor was the god of thunder, made more famous today by Marvel Comics), and

Friday – Frigg’s or Frigga’s day (Frigg was the goddess of marital love), and, of course, as described, Wednesday.

3) Dwarves. While we are talking about the Norse and Tolkien, I’ll give an example using the other meaning of nomenclature – a list of names. The “Bible” of the Norse gods is called The Elder or Poetic Edda (a word which, of course, has its own interesting etymology), compiled in the 13th century, has a list in it, which, if you love The Hobbit, you will instantly recognize some of these names (which I highlighted in case you don’t):

“There was Motsognir | the mightiest made
Of all the dwarfs, | and Durin next;
Many a likeness | of men they made,
The dwarfs in the earth, | as Durin said.

Nyi and Nithi, | Northri and Suthri,
Austri and Vestri, | Althjof, Dvalin,
Nar and Nain, | Niping, Dain,
Bifur, Bofur, | Bombur, Nori,
An and Onar, | Ai, Mjothvitnir.

Vigg and Gandalf) | Vindalf, Thrain,
Thekk and Thorin, | Thror, Vit and Lit,
Nyr and Nyrath,-- | now have I told--
Regin and Rathsvith-- | the list aright.

Fili, Kili, | Fundin, Nali,
Heptifili, | Hannar, Sviur,
Frar, Hornbori, | Fræg and Loni,
Aurvang, Jari, | Eikinskjaldi.”

If the last one threw you – it means “oaken shield,” (just look closely) as in, Thorin Oakenshield, leader of The Hobbit’s dwarves. Of course, you also recognized Gandalf in there, which means magic elf or maybe wand elf. Regin is also an important character in Norse mythology and if you look again, you will also see the Old Norse words for North, South, East and West.

4) Bosporos (or Bosphoros) Straights. This is the world’s narrowest internationally navigated straight, which cuts Turkey into two parts and is also a dividing line between Europe and Asia. I was there once in 1990. Foreign travel is always wonderful for me, but this was all more exciting because I knew that both Darius and Xerxes, Persian emperors who tried and failed to conquer Greece, also crossed there. Its name comes from the Greek - Bos-poros, means cow-crossing (or ferry or ford). The Roman poet Ovid, whose Metamorphises I read sometime in the 1970s tells us why, and I’ve like the story ever since. But, Aeschylus, the first of the great Greek playwrights, told it centuries earlier in Prometheus Bound and it seems obvious it was already known in the time of  Homer, who (if he existed) may be from the 7th or 8th century, B.C., as he referred to the god Hermes (Mercury to the Romans) as Argus-Slayer, which will make more sense in the next paragraph. Anyway, that’s the thing with words. I can’t even explain to you why having the story surrounding a word being at least 1700 years old is exciting, but if it is for you, then you are a lexophile too, and I mean that in a good way.

Generally, the story goes like this. Zeus, who just could not keep it in his pants, seduced the nymph Io. Hera, Zeus’ wife, seeks her out and Zeus changes her into a cow, which Hera asks for, and Zeus, a jerk if there ever was one, gives up. She chains her up and has the 100 eyed Argus watch her. Zeus sent Hermes (remember – called Argus-Slayer) to kill Argus, which he does after lulling him to sleep with a boring story. Hera, unforgiving, has Io pursued by gadflies and eventually she, a cow, crossed a body of water which we still call – cow crossing, or, in Greek, Bosporos. By the way, gadfly in Greek was “estrus,” now used for estrus cycle. If I have to explain that, you need to take high school health again (actually, I failed that course, but that is a tale best told on another day).

5) Gamecock. Right after New Year’s Day I noticed that the South Carolina Gamecocks were playing in some bowl game or another. I could care about the game (although I went to a Virginia Tech football game this year and it was a lot more fun than I thought it would be) but it made me think of their nickname Gamecock, which was originally the nickname of a Revolutionary War hero most people strangely associate with the Civil War instead, for reasons I will explain. Actually, our hero, Thomas Sumpter, was originally not from South Carolina, but Virginia. He moved further south though and became a colonel in the South Carolinan militia, resigning his commission early in the war. But, when the boisterous British calvary led by “Bloody” Banastre Tarleton burned his home to the ground, he reconstituted the militia and was made their general. On a recruiting trip, he stopped at the home of the Gillispie brothers who were well known for their fighting cocks, including one known as Old Tuck. They were impressed with General Sumpter and pronounced him a second Old Tuck, who was, of course, a “game cock.”

At least, that is one etymology, and they are often confused and conflicting. Other versions have him being so tagged by one British general or another, including Cornwallis. But, whichever version is true, it became his nickname. Oddly, Sumpter, later a congressman, is hardly a household name from the revolution, although Cornwallis deemed him his greatest “plague.” But, his name is preserved for us in other ways such as most famously, Fort Sumpter, the fort whose defense set off the Civil War. And, he was at least one model for the fictional hero of the movie, The Patriot, and, of course, the inspiration for the University of South Carolina’s teams.

6) California. No, not an Indian name. It most likely comes from a Spanish novel, Las sergas de Esplandian (1510), itself a sequel to a series of books about a fictional knight, Amadis de Gaul, which novels were also the inspiration for the more famous Don Quixote. Good luck finding a translation in English of Amadis de Gaul. I found one printed in the 19th century – one of my few treasures, though I expect it is not worth very much. In Las sergas, California was the name of a mythical island where Amazon like women resided. This land was somewhat legendary in Mexico and its environs. Both Colombus and Cortez had written about these women and island. Cortez actually sent out explorers in search of them. Either those guys or another Spanish explorer (not really clear) soon after referred to the Baja Peninsula, which they thought was an island, gave it the name of California from the still recent novel. There are some other stabs at the origination of the name, one of which sounds at least plausible (an Indian word for high mountains), but this one seems pretty evident to me from the historical record.

7)  Consider the following words:

Terrific, pandemonium padlock, sensuous, earthshaking, moon-struck, lovelorn, jubilant, impassive, didactic, unprincipled, stunning, liturgical, unaccountable, self-delusion, dismissive, irresponsible, arch-fiend, debauchery, fragrance, gloom, embellishing, literalism, chastening, civilising, satanic, divorceable, ecstatic, endearing, depravity, extravagance,  flutter, cooking, hurried, well-balanced, well-stocked, economise, half-starved, unhealthily, untack, unfurl, acclaim, ungenerous, criticise, disregard, awe-struck, jubilant, enjoyable, exhilarating, complacency, attacks, airborne, exploding, far-sighted, vested, undesirable, persuasively, unconvincing, hamstring,  chastening, unintended,  unenviable, defensively, beleaguered, embittered, enlightening, civilizing,  hot-headed, cherubic, loquacious, impassive, adjustments, idol-worship,  frameworks, helpfulness,  pettifoggery, full-grown, incompleteness, belatedness, circumscribing, expanses, reforming, slow-moving, surrounding, unoriginal, echoing, awaited and discontinuous.

They all have sought of a common etymology, or really, creator. And it’s not Shakespeare, who also invented hundreds if not thousands of words. No, they are the creation of another poet, John Milton who lived later in the 17th century. Many of them are derived from other words or the Lation or Greek of other words, but according to the Oxford Dictionary, he was the first. I just want to look closer at one of them (the only one I knew was his when I started researching this) – pandemonium, which might have my favorite etymology.

We usually use pandemonium to the noise occuring when people are going crazy with some wild emotion (I’ve read the definition – a very noisy place, but we really mean more). It could be used to describe fans when there team scores a touchdown or in China when the Apple store doesn’t sell iphone 4s on the day they promised. Pan is another ancient Greek, not just the word for the half goat, half man god who played the pipes, but the word always meant “all” or some synonym of that. Demon come from daimonos, which in Homeric times meant a friend or a divinity, but at least by the time of Christ, and maybe earlier, demon. So, adding the -ium ending, Milton used it to mean, all-demon home or land. If you think about what a land filled with demons would sound like, our modern usage makes perfect sense.

8)  Boondocks. As in – I live in the boondocks. Who hasn’t used that expression without knowing where it comes from? I sure did. We mean a really wild place away from civilization (by which I mean a population center containing at least one McDonald’s restaurant or two iphones). It sounds vaguely British, like maybe a place in London near the main port, but actually the word is Tagalog, a language spoken in the Phillipines. It is hard to believe it is only since 1946 that America gave the Phillipines its independence (after all, we did make the Brits give up theirs), having won her almost a half century earlier in our battles with Spain (which included our taking Cuba and Puerto Rico too). The Phillipine-American War is probably the least well known war in our history and I don’t pretend to know much about it either, never having bothered to study it. It started in 1899, officially ended in 1902, but went on in some respects until 1913, that is, almost up to the start of World War I. Many Americans were against our occupation, most famously, Mark Twain, who started an Anti-Imperialist League. Ironically, today, it is one of the places in the world where the United States is most popular (not counting, of course, the Islamic rebels).

Where was I? Oh, right, boondocks. Boondocks was a word brought back to America by soldiers. It meant “mountain” there, and mountains are usually wild places, which gave it its English meaning.

9) Spain. This is a weird one and maybe not true, although no one really knows. Still, I like it, so I’m going with it anyway. Spain means (supposedly) land of hyraxes. Don’t feel bad if you don’t know what a hyrax is, as almost no one does. I actually learned about them in the very first book I read, Born Free, about a lion returned to the wilderness. The author, Joy Adamson, also had a pet hyrax, which is best described as a rodent-like creature that lives among the rocks or in the trees in Africa. There were giant hyraxes once upon a time and for various reasons, they appear not only to be the ancestors of the little tiny hyraxes, but also elephants and water mammals like manatees. Even now the tiny hyrax shares with the elephant a number of traits including small tusks and rather advanced intelligence for its size (you can train a hyrax to use a toilet, making it a great pet in my book).

So, how do we get from hyrax to Spain, which has none? Apparently, Phoenician sailors, who colonized Spain, thought that’s what the rabbits were, and used their name for it. Apparently, the problem worked both ways, as English Bible tranlators used rabbit for Hyrax, as they had no idea what they were either. But, the Phoenician word for hyrax went through Latin and then Norman French (espagna) and then English before we got to the word Spain. There are a number of theories about the name Spain, actually (I studied this before I traveled there in I think, 1996) but none of them grabs me as an – aha, that has to be it – so I’m sticking with hyraxes until someone makes a strong argument for something else.

10. Cincinnati. That’s a weird name for an American city, sounding more like it should be in Italy. And, there’s a good reason why. We actually know this derivation for sure. The city was named for the Society of the Cincinnati, which is still in existence and begun in 1783 at the end of the Revolutionary War. It was comprised of soldiers who wanted to preserve their comraderie and became a hereditary society of their descendents, with branches here and in France. Washington, the first president of the Society, as well as the United States, was known as the Cincinnati of America or Cincinnati of the West. He, and the Society after him, were both named for a fifth/sixth century Roman hero, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, who was twice given temporary dictatorship over the Romans for military purposes and twice gave it up as soon as he was done with his work to go back to his farm. Apparently, the Romans were just as struck by this noble behavior as Americans were with Washington when he too went back to his farm. Actually, cincinnus itself has a meaning – curly or curly hair.

Not everybody was thrilled with the society. Jefferson was appalled by its hereditary nature and Franklin, at first, was suspicious (later becoming an honorary member) both fearing a hereditary military organization in the infant country. Apparently, it was no big deal though.

What we now call Cincinnati, Ohio was founded a few years after the society and called by the even stranger name Losantiville, which was an amalgamation of four words from different languages meaning city opposite the mouth of the Licking River. But, a few years later the governor of the territory, who was a member of the society, changed it to Cincinnati.

Last two - David is Hebrew for Beloved and Eisenberg German for Iron Mountain.


  1. Lest we forget the Fucari Indian derivation of "David Eisenberg": rare Jew who has no money.Oh, and the 19th century Haitian derivation: most boring white muthaf--ka of all time.

  2. I should have gotten oakenshield but didn't. May I be struck by Orcrist.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .