“Literal Meanings”

The other day, Slate magazine posted a map titled “Literal Meanings of Places in the US.”  It’s a fun graphic, I recommend it, but I will also mention a couple of caveats.  These caveats may be obvious in themselves, but perhaps I can express them in a way that will suggest interesting thoughts.

First, what is the “literal meaning” of a name?  When I think of that phrase, I ask two questions.  First, is the name likely to bring that meaning to the minds of most of the people who are likely to hear it?  And second, can the name be used independently to signify that meaning?  For example, the name “Newfoundland” likely brings to the minds of most English speakers, not only the place Newfoundland and the breed of dogs named after it, but also the idea that a land has been newly found.  With just a little typographical liberty, we can refer to places other than Newfoundland as new-found lands.  So I don’t object to saying that new-found land is the “literal meaning” of Newfoundland.

What we see on this map are not, in that sense, the “literal meanings” of North American place names.  They are etymological meanings, that is to say, meanings that have, at one time or another, been associated with words that have influenced the development of those names.  For example, “New York” is supposed to “literally mean” “New Yew-Tree Village.”  When the Latinism Eboracum was coined sometime before the year 95 of our era it probably represented an attempt to spell in Roman letters a Celtic word that meant “Place of the Yew Trees.”   And Eboracum, evolving in tandem with that Celtic word, changed its pronunciation over the centuries to become “York.”  But of course only scholars hear the word “York” and think “Place of the Yew Trees.” And by the time the word came to be pronounced “York” it was centuries past any connection with yew trees.  I suspect that no one has ever looked at a place of yew trees and called it a “York.”

I think it would be reasonable to imagine the history of a word as something like an archaeological site, in which collections of material from different periods of history can be found concentrated on on top of another.  So, two thousand years ago, Eboracum and its Celtic root may have meant “Place of the Yew Trees” to most of the people concerned with settlements in the far northeast of Roman Britannia.

At a a higher stratum, that is to say, a later period, very different meanings are associated with the word.  The acts of the British crown which created the Province of New York in 1664, 1665, and 1674 and thus introduced the name “New York” into the English language were executed by a king who was not only ignorant of the Celtic etymology of the name “York,” but who was not likely giving much thought to the city of that name.  The province was created under the patronage of the king’s brother, the Duke of York, and was named for him.  That nobleman later became King James II of England and VII of Scotland, the last of the Stuart dynasty.  James was York by title, but doesn’t seem to have been greatly involved with the city or its affairs, and he never visited the North American territory claimed in his name.  It is as if we found that someplace named New Newfoundland was named, not for Newfoundland, but for a particular dog of the Newfoundland breed.  At that point, the etymology of the name might have been glossed as something like “James’ new province,” or, considering James’ awkward position within the royal house in 1664, “We still care about you, James.”

If we dig further down to an earlier period, the root word might have meant something quite different.  Various Celtic languages include words similar to Eboracum that refer to various trees; perhaps the root of those words meant something other than “yew tree.”  It is possible that Phoenician merchants, whom we know to have been active in Cornwall and southern Ireland in Roman times, brought with them a word cognate with the Coptic ebu, “ivory,” and its Latin derivative ebor, eboris, and that this word was the base of those Celtic words.  This may not be a particularly likely etymology, but I have never been one to miss an opportunity to bring up the Phoenicians.

A second point enters in with glosses like “of the monks” for Des Moines, Iowa.  This appears to be a folk etymology that white settlers applied to mooyiinkweena, a name that the Peoria people used for certain neighbors of theirs.  The opinion the Peoria had of those neighbors can be surmised from the fact that the parts of the word mooyiinkweena appear to be mooy, meaning “dung,” and iinkwee, meaning “face.”  So, when they pointed at the site where Des Moines now stands and said mooyiinkweena, they were telling the whites that the people who lived there were shit-faces.  I should add that the erudite sources I link to above are not where I first learned the etymology of “Des Moines”; I first saw it last week on Cracked.

Originally, the folk etymology of Des Moines might have been a mistake.  But words mean what people use them to mean, not what they are supposed to mean.  If Des Moines residents and others who are concerned with the city have thought that the meaning “of the monks” is part of the name’s history, then it is part of that history.   And the fact that the name is now “Des Moines” rather than “Mooyiinkweena” is an example of the role that the folk etymology plays in that history.  Therefore, a map listing etymological meanings of North American place names would have to include both “of the monks” and “shit-faces” for Des Moines.   To return to the image of an etymology as an archaeological site stratified into layers, we might think of a three-dimensional map, on which both the geographic location of the places and the temporal development of the names’ meanings could be represented.

Even the two-dimensional map on Slate must be the result of a great deal of work; a three-dimensional map would require a great deal of drudgery, and even then it would be a severe oversimplification.  So I mention it only to illustrate the point, not to find fault with the map or to take back my recommendation that everyone look at it.

A possible etymology of the name “Acilius”

I’ve long used “Acilius” as my screen-name, in tribute to Gaius Acilius, a Roman historian who was alive and doing interesting things in 155 BC.  It never occurred to me that anyone would know the etymology of the name “Acilius”; it was quite an old name among the Romans, and they did not really keep track of that sort of thing in those days.

A couple of months ago, I happened onto a post on the blog “Paleoglot” which led me to wonder if there might not be a way to explore the question of where the gens Acilia found its name.  Blogger Glen Gordon analyzes various occurrences of a stem acil- in Etruscan.  In his conclusion, Mr Gordon offers these definitions to cover the occurrences he has discussed:

I think we could define the English translations of the whole word family much better as part of a grander morphological design:

*aχ (v.) = ‘to do, to make, to cause’
> acas (v.) = ‘to craft, to make’
> acil (n.) = ‘thing, act; rite, holy service’ (> acil (v.) = ‘to do rites, to worship’)

The implied underlying verb here, *aχ, reminds me very much of the Indo-European *h₂eǵ-, as if borrowed from Latin agere ‘to drive, lead, conduct, impel’.

This intrigues me very much.  If the Etruscans borrowed such a word from Latin, that would suggest that the usual story about the relationship between Etruscan religion and Roman religion is misleading.  Rather than a situation in which the Etruscans molded the religious practices and ideas of their subjects, the early Romans, the presence of a Latinate word in Etruscan religious vocabulary would suggest a reciprocal relationship between the hegemonic Etruscans and their vassals.

On the other hand, if the similarity between acil- and agere is a mere coincidence, another possibility presents itself.  This is where the Acilii come to mind.  Perhaps the name “Acilius” is a combination of the Etruscan root acil-, with its sense of performing holy service, and the Latinate suffix -ius.  A fairly exact equivalent could be suggested, as chance would have it, in the English name “Priestley,” where the borrowed word priest is combined with the indigenous suffix -ley.  So perhaps all these years I’ve been unwittingly associating myself with such distinguished polymaths as Joseph Priestley and J. B. Priestley.

Cartoon etymology

Thanks to Stan Carey, who introduced those of us who read his site to “Mysteries of Vernacular.”  “Mysteries of Vernacular” is a series of animated shorts exploring the etymology of a few English words.  Here’s the one for hearse.  I like the interactive graphic that they give you to browse the videos:


The other day, Zach Weiner’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal featured an explanation of the origin of the phrase “vanilla sex.”  The explanation:

The VAN- part comes from the Spanish “Vaina” from the Latin “Vagina.”  The -ILLA part is diminutive.  So, etymologically, “Vanilla Sex” refers to a little vaginal sex.

Each of the etymological claims in the explanation is basically true,* but the conclusion they allegedly support is ludicrous.  Which I’m sure is the point, the etymological information represents a pun of an unusual and elaborate form.

*Basically.  So Spanish vaina does come from the Latin vagina, but so does Spanish vagina.  In Latin, vagina meant either “vagina” or “sheath”; in Spanish, vagina means “vagina” and vaina means “sheath.”  So, etymologically, “vanilla” means “little sheath,” not “little vagina.”  If the people who coined the phrase “vanilla sex” were thinking about the etymology behind the word “vanilla,” the etymological meaning of the phrase would be “little sheath sex.” In that case, we would expect the first appearances of the phrase to have some association with condoms.  Perhaps with little condoms.  Though perhaps not; sometimes the Romans used diminutive endings the way we use them in English, as terms of endearment or as ways of sounding cutesy (like the -sy on the end of “cutesy,” or the -y on the end of “thingy.”)  So maybe “condom-y sex,” or “condomish sex” might be a more accurate rendering than “little condom sex” if the original formation of “vanilla” were in fact part of the history of the expression.

Some links

A few interesting things from the old year:

A look back at the “Sokal hoax,” an event of  the mid-90s that made it possible for me to stop studying Deconstructionism. (Michael Bérubé)*

“Etymology is perhaps the most intellectually frustrating field of study because, as a general rule, all clever theories about the origin of any word are wrong. The real explanation is always something boring and senseless, like “from a West Frisian word for turnip greens.”” (Sailer)**

In an interview about herself, Alison Bechdel says that when she was a child, pop culture images of women always emphasized their femininity, so that they were “not generic, they were always female people.”  (Alison Bechdel)***


An extreme case of the etymological fallacy

learn pashtoYesterday on Language Log, Mark Liberman posted about the a curious claim that in the language of the Pashtun people of Afghanistan, “the word for ‘cousin’ is the same as the word for ‘enemy.’”  Professor Liberman cannot find evidence to bear this claim out, and strongly suspects that it is bogus.   What sticks in my mind is this quote Liberman gives from an essay by Louis Dupree collected in Islam and Tribal Societies, edited by Akbar Ahmed and David Hart (Routledge, 1984):

Language sometimes reveals unarticulated (or downplayed) conflicts in a society. The term for cousin in Pashto is turbur [and] the word for the worst kind of hatred is turburghanay which could be literally translated ‘cousin-hatred’. But the non-literate, rural Pushtun deny this interpretation. They say: ‘Turbur is turbur and turburghanay is turburghanay. They are separate words. How can they relate? How could I hate my cousin? I would fight to the death with him. I would never leave his body behind in a fight. I would give him my last crust of bread.’

The overwhelming majority of Afghans and Pakistanis cannot read and write, so showing them that the written turbur is a prefix and -ghanay a suffix, which, when combined create a compound word, fails to impress.

It’s hardly surprising that this fails to impress!  Even assuming that Dupree’s etymology is correct, and that the turbur he hears in turburghanay is the word for cousin, we would hardly be warranted to assume that the currency of the word turburghanay implies that Pashtuns secretly hate their cousins.  As Josh Fruhlinger puts it in a comment on Liberman’s post,    

Particularly instructive and hilarious is the quote from the Ahmed and Hart piece, in which the learned outsiders pity the illiterate Pashtuns for not understanding the underlying etymological-psychological implications of the language that they (the Pashtuns) speak. People are determined to believe that language shapes thought even when the acutal speakers of said language don’t recognize the things embedded in the language that are supposed to be shaping their thoughts.



Thanks to ukulelehunt for this video of “Hot for Words” on the origin of the word “ukulele.”

Etymology of First Names


Multicultural and quite lengthy. Search for names, and search for “words in meaning” as well as “words in description” of the names.


A Trip to Dictionary Land

Alison Bechdel describes her recent visit to the office where they put The American Heritage College Dictionary together.

Etymology Teaching Illustrated

In 1982, Hollywood gave us a glimpse of what etymology teaching could be.

The web’s most popular etymologist

Some will ask, “Why is this funny?”  Some will drool with lust.  Some will think, hey, I should show this to my class.