The Creation of Create

This month’s video, part of the #CreateICG collaboration, is all about the word “Create”:

The spark of the idea of course came from those two base senses of the roots of the word create, “to grow” and “to cause to grow” or thus “to create”, both stemming from the Proto-Indo-European root *ker- “to grow”. This seemed to be an apt way of thinking about the creative process, as both an active act of intentional creation and an organic process of growing. As we briefly touched on in the video, this etymology also brought up the related word creature, obviously meaning in its base sense “created thing”, which got us wondering if it was as a consequence of the novel Frankenstein and the movies it spawned that creature could be used in the sense of “monster”, especially under the influence of the phrase creature feature. Most of the dictionaries I checked didn’t list this sense, though the phrase creature feature is sometimes mentioned, and there is the sense of “a being of anomalous or uncertain aspect or nature” referring to creatures of fantasy or creatures from outer space. We did a quick Twitter poll and found that in British English the word creature was certainly not strongly associated with the meaning “monster”, with many citing the phrase “all creatures great and small” as a particular influence (as well as the TV series Creature Comforts) , but the results, though still negative were somewhat more mixed in North American and world English. So it would seem we might need to do a little more digging here. If you have any thoughts we’d be grateful to read them in the comments below.

Another possible word in the *ker- family might be sincere, though this has an uncertain etymology. Latin sincerus has the sense “clean, pure, sound”, and one suggestion for its etymology is that the first element is from Proto-Indo-European *sem- meaning “one” (also giving us the word same) and the second element is from *ker- thus giving us literally “one growth”, which would seem to make sense. Another suggestion, though rejected by the OED, is that it comes from Latin sine “without” and cera “wax”. But it’s appropriate enough that we bring the word sincere up in a discussion of creation, especially in light of the expression “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. Indeed imitation and influence are essential parts of the creative process. As we say in the video, no one creates in a vacuum, ourselves included. So perhaps we should acknowledge here our own creative indebtedness to sources and influences, which are listed on the sources page. In particular, as is often the case, I took inspiration James Burke, famous for his Connections series and book, especially for the story of the development of artificial lighting technology (and its connection to the theatrical world) and for John Harvey Kellogg’s transformation of breakfast.

And speaking of connections, Mary Somerville’s great work On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences was an attempt to present a connected view of the sciences as they were known at the time, an ambitious and immediately highly celebrated work.  As it happens, John Herschel, son of William, had just recently called for such work in a letter to William Whewell, who went on to review Somerville’s bestseller. Herschel stressed the need for “digests of what is actually known in each particular branch of science ... to give a connected view of what has been done, and what remains to be accomplished”. Four years later, Somerville’s book was published, coincidentally enough under the publisher John Murray who was also publisher and friend of Lord Byron, the father of Somerville’s student Ada Lovelace. You can read an excellent outline of Somerville and On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences here if you want more information on the first “scientist”.

John Herschel

John Herschel

John Murray

John Murray

Somerville herself was well connected and knew many other great minds of the day, such as William Herschel, Michael Faraday, Charles Babbage, Charles Lyell, Georges Cuvier, Humphry Davy, and John Playfair. On the subject of connected people, there’s another chain of connections that ties Joseph Haydn, composer of the oratorio The Creation, in with John Harvey Kellogg and his cornflakes. You see the libretto of The Creation mentioned in the video, either written by or passed along by Thomas Linley to Haydn, was the first English text of the oratorio, and is now lost. A second (and by all accounts much improved) English text was written by poet Anne Home. Home’s husband was one John Hunter, a surgeon who was in part responsible for bringing the scientific method into medicine. Hunter was a teacher of the famous Edward Jenner, who pioneered vaccination by using the less deadly cowpox to inoculate against smallpox, one of the most important contributions to medical science. The idea of inoculation against smallpox was initially brought into England from Turkey by aristocrat, writer, and all around celebrity Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. She is perhaps most famous for her Embassy Letters, written while in Turkey as an ambassador’s wife. Lord Byron was deeply influenced by the Embassy Letters and seems to have been kind of obsessed with Lady Montagu herself, a woman who died well before he was born. Of course as the video demonstrates, Byron’s daughter was Ada Lovelace, mathematician and the world’s first computer programmer, who got harpist John Thomas into the Royal Academy of Music, who later taught Nansi Richards, who gave John Harvey Kellogg the idea for the cornflakes rooster mascot. So from creation to cereal, two words etymologically connected, in ten easy steps! Speaking of Kellogg, by the way, though Richards was punning on his name in Welsh, his actual name doesn’t mean rooster but is literally “kill hog”, an occupational name for a butcher. Odd name for a man who prescribed a bland vegetarian diet!

Anne Home

Anne Home

John Hunter

John Hunter

Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Lord Byron

Lord Byron

But getting back to Ada Lovelace’s tutor Somerville, and her admiring reviewer Whewell, in addition to inventing the term “scientist” Whewell was quite a coiner of scientific terminology, including a number of terms suggested to Michael Faraday for his work on electricity, such as ion, anode, and cathode. By the way, Faraday was another among the many admirers of Somerville and her work.  And Faraday brings us back to artificial lighting, so a small footnote or two on lighting technology—which does also tie into Somerville’s work too, as well to Haydn’s Creation. Of course Somerville included several sections on light and optics in On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences. Additionally that very same John Herschel, who called for a book like Somerville’s and whose father William (who was also a composer as well as a scientist) met Haydn, reported on the effectiveness of Thomas Drummond’s limelight. Drummond, by the way, after putting limelight to good use in surveying work, tried to get his invention into lighthouses, before it was taken up by the theatrical world. And one lighting technology I didn’t cover in the video deserves a brief mention here. Kerosene (a petroleum product) was invented by Canadian geologist Abraham Gesner, and became a useful lamp fuel still used today. The word kerosene, which Gesner registered as a trademark in 1854 before it ultimately became genericized, comes from Greek keros meaning “wax”, related to that Latin word cera in that possible though unlikely etymology of the word sincere. Kerosene, by the way, is also sometimes referred to as paraffin, a word originally coined by German chemist Karl von Reichenbach in 1838 to refer to the waxy substance he extracted from wood tar, the very same waterproofer for ships that Archibald Crane was trying to replace with his coal tar. The word paraffin comes from Latin parum “not very, too little” and affinis “associated with”, because the substance was not closely related to other chemicals.

Abraham Gesner

Abraham Gesner

Karl von Reichenbach

Karl von Reichenbach

And a small footnote or two on meal terminology. As briefly mentioned in the video, the word lunch is probably related to lump. The word lunch was initially expanded to the form luncheon, before being abbreviated back to lunch, though there may also be some influence from the Spanish word lonja meaning “a slice (of ham)”. Another meal word worth noting is supper, which is sometimes used to refer to the last meal of the day. It comes into English from the Old French verb soper “to eat the evening meal” but comes ultimately from a Germanic root, which also gives us the words sip, sop, soup, and sup, so I suppose etymologically speaking you should sup your supper by sipping your soup and sopping it up! As for breakfast, French shows the same shifting mealtimes, with the word dejeuner (coming from the same root that gives English the word dinner) originally referring to “breakfast” and then “lunch”, with the phrase petit dejeuner (literally “small dinner”) being used to refer to “breakfast”.

And one final point to round off this blog. I briefly mentioned the etymology of chaos in the video, but I give a fuller treatment of it in the video on “Linoleum” if you care to give it a look. Our modern sense of chaos meaning “disorder” doesn’t arise until the 17th century. The word chaos stretches back through ancient Greek to a Proto-Indo-European root *gheu- meaning “to gape, yawn” which also leads to the word Ginungagap, the primordial void in the Norse creation myth. And speaking of Norse mythology, it also has something to tell us about the nature of creativity, in the story of the Mead of Creation, which you can hear about in our accompanying podcast (being released soon), which along with this blog post and video makes up our creative contributions to the #CreateICG collaboration. Give it a listen!

The Evolution of Evolution

This month’s video looks at why and how the meanings of words evolve, and how this is connected to the word evolution and the history of the book:

If you’re interested in even more discussion of semantic shift have a look at The Ling Space’s video “Sense and Shiftability” and the episode “Polysemous Words” from the podcast Words for Granted. By the way, another term you might come across in reference to weakening is semantic bleaching — it’s a particularly evocative one, isn’t it. Another type of figurative change in meaning is synecdoche. That’s when a part stands in for the whole. So when a ship’s captain calls for “all hands on deck”, the word hands has taken on the new meaning of referring to the sailors themselves. Similar to this is when one uses the name of a capital city, such as Washington, to refer to the whole country or the whole government of that country. An interesting example of synecdoche in which the new meaning has taken over as the primary meaning is the word table, which in Old French meant “board”, but now refers, in both French and English, to the entire piece of furniture including board and legs.

As for the word evolution, in the video I summarized pretty briefly its semantic development, but a closer look at this will prove interesting. The first recorded sense of evolution in English is actually in reference to a military manoeuvre, in the early 17th century. Then we have some literal uses of the word to refer to various types of turning movements as in dancing, gymnastics, and even machine parts. From the 17th century we also see the word used in the more figurative sense of a progression of a series of events, like the unfolding or unrolling of history. From the late 17th century we also see the word used in a variety of mathematical senses, such as the opening out of a curve and the extraction of a root from a given power. Skipping forward, after the word has come to have its modern biological Darwinian sense, it comes also to be used in other scientific contexts from the mid 19th century, such as the development of the Earth or the Universe. But as I mentioned in the video, Darwin mostly avoided using the term himself, in part perhaps because of the notion of a simple unfolding or revelation of history, which might have invoked a more creationist notion of natural history, and also probably because it had previously been used in reference to other theories of biological development, such as preformationism in which organisms were thought to develop from miniature versions of themselves:

As I mentioned in a previous video on Charles’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin, the senior Darwin also used the word evolution in reference to his own proto-evolutionary theories. So Charles himself used other terms such as transmutation and descent with modification, only using the word once (specifically in its verb form) in the final sentence of Origin of Species: “From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” For more on the chain of events that leads up to Darwin's theory of evolution, you can have a look at our video "Fossil".

And finally the history of the book. I got the idea of book sizes and sheep from an excellent blog post from Got Medieval. It fitted in well not only with the development of parchment to paper, but also with the general theme of the evolution and also repurposing of technology, with the carry over of book sizes all the way to ereaders. By the way, though the distinction is often made between parchment coming from sheep and vellum from cows, it should be pointed out that this distinction doesn’t always hold, and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. As for the word folio, when we talk about foliation in medieval manuscripts, it’s customary not to number the pages as we do with modern books, but to number the leaves, referring to the front and back of each leaf as recto and verso respectively, literally meaning the “right” side and the “turned” side. The pages in medieval manuscripts were not originally numbered so this convention is a modern scholarly convenience, and this is an important point, as we’ll see in a minute.

And in the video, though I implied the importance of technological development in book technology, it’s worth taking the time here to discuss it more explicitly. The benefit of the scroll over the clay tablet is fairly obvious, as the thin rolled up papyrus can include far more text in the same amount of space, a higher information density you might say. What’s not so obvious perhaps is the leap ahead that the move to the codex affords. (By the way a quick sidenote: it’s frequently reported that Julius Caesar was responsible for the invention of the codex, though I haven’t been able to verify this story). With a scroll, the text is available in a purely linear order. You literally have to “scroll” through the text, making it difficult to go back to a previous passage in the text. But the codex allows for random access and it is perhaps not too much of an overstatement to suggest that this plays an important role in the explosion of information that has accelerated technical scientific progress. So it’s something of a feedback loop with technological progress accelerating the pace of the progress of technological progress. It’s funny that in a way we’ve taken a step backward to some extent with ereaders, which are somewhat more clumsy at flipping through the text, and we’re once again “scrolling” through a book. And with the switch to paper that’s much cheaper than parchment and the printing press, which caused in the 15th century it’s own information explosion (with more books being printed in the first 50 years than had been produced in the 1000 years before the printing press). By the way, uppercase and lowercase are also terms derived from movable type, like font, referring literally to cases in which the letters were kept in. But back to the codex, the other big advantage is that it allows for an index, since page divisions give us distinct reference points. Though, as I said, the pages weren’t originally numbered--that practise didn’t really take off until the early 16th century, and so indexes got their start toward the end of the 16th century. Also during the 16th century we find the invention of the bibliography, with Conrad Gesner’s Bibliotheca universalis, a bibliographic index of all the books Gesner could get his hands on.

The word index, by the way, as you might have guessed, is the same word as the index finger, and comes from the Latin verb indicare “to point out” — makes sense, right? And in Latin, the word index could refer not only to the finger but also to anything that points something out, like a sign or token, or a person who betrays a secret, in other words an informer, and appropriately to our discussion here it was also the word for the title of a book. In any case, all this 16th century pagination and indexing points out another problem with the modern ebook, that there’s no consistent pagination, as the screen and font sizes are potentially variable. You might for instance be reading on an ereader like a Kindle or a much smaller phone or a varying size of tablet (which by the way is related to the word table from earlier, literally a "little table" but in the earlier sense of a "board" without the table legs). On the other hand, the new technology gives us the compensatory function of a full search of all the text in the ebook. And indeed we can certainly make the case that, like the development of the codex, paper, the printing press, and the index, the move to electronic text has caused a similar explosion in information and innovation in our modern world.


A friend of mine and fellow medievalist has informed me that a couple of elements in the video are in fact myths about the history of the book (though seemingly quite widespread ones). First, parchment wasn’t in fact invented in Pergamon. For instance, the earliest known Egyptian use of parchment is from the 20th Dynasty (1195-1085 BCE). The widely reported story goes that parchment was developed in Pergamon when Ptolemy refused to export Egyptian papyrus to Pergamon. This belief seems to have developed from the fact that Pergamon was a major producer of parchment (but not in fact its originator). Most of the etymological sources I checked repeat the myth, though occasionally with hedging language like “was said to have originated” or “supposedly”. Surprisingly, Wikipedia seems to be the one place that gets it exactly right!

Secondly, there seems to be no evidence of the folding method to produce book sizes earlier than paper books, so it wouldn’t therefore be connected with parchment and sheep. As my friend points out, it doesn’t make a lot of sense with parchment anyway, since it would be very difficult to fold. The source for the idea that book sizes are connected to sheep sizes is a post on the blog Got Medieval, written by a medievalist who works with manuscript images, so seemingly a reliable source, but it’s been widely reported in places such as Wired and Neatorama. If anyone has any more information about this, I’d love to hear it.

Naughty and Nice

Happy holidays!  This year’s Christmas video is all about the tradition of the Christmas stocking and the treats you get in it:

The main theme here, using the sugar coating metaphor, is to uncover the true and often unsavoury stories behind some Christmas traditions. First of all there’s St Nicholas, a rather stern figure originally, at times associated as much with punishment as reward, like the switch left in the shoe (or stocking) for punishing bad children — he knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake! The punishment element of it all is further emphasized through the etymological connection between stocking and the stocks. There’s also the grisly story of the butchered and pickled young boys that Nicholas brought back to life. Not surprising perhaps that this one doesn’t make it into the modern Santa Claus mythos. And so much of the original Nicholas story is quite at home with the commercialization of Christmas that so many complain about today, as he’s the patron saint of merchants and pawnbrokers. And of course the merchant syndicate of Bari stealing the bones of St Nick to set up the first Santa’s grotto! One extra interesting detail about that story. Apparently as they tried to sail away with the spoils a storm blew up keeping them from departing, until it was found to have been caused by one unscrupulous, or should I say even more unscrupulous, member of the party who had secretly stashed some of the relics for himself. Once all of Nicholas’s bones had been gathered together, the ship was able to sail home. I guess it was another of Nicholas’s nautical miracles.

Of course another often overlooked element of the St Nicholas tradition is that he wasn’t a northern European, in spite of his connection to snow and reindeer. In fact he was from what is today Turkey. This is important to keep in mind in light of the recent furore over a black mall Santa, and the racist claims that Santa is white. Unfortunately there is a running racist subtext to much of this story, what with the Zwarte Piet tradition as well.  Speaking of which, there’s one other explanation given of the Sinterclaas / Zwarte Piet tradition, that it represents a holdover from old Germanic myths of the god Odin (one of the other sources of the Santa figure that I discussed in my “Yule” video a couple of years ago) with his two servants, the black ravens Hugin and Munin, but the connection seems a bit of historical stretch.

Lest all this grim analysis give you the holiday blues, let me make up for it by giving you a few more entertaining tidbits that didn’t make it into the final video. One extra story about Pintard: I said he celebrated St Nicholas Day with his family. Apparently one year he made a life-size model of the saint on wheels and brought him out in front of his children on a pulley system. As Mark Forsyth reports in his excellent book A Christmas Cornucopia, his son “immediately screamed out that it was his dear departed little brother.” Poor child! When Irving took up the St Nick story, he actually published his history of New York under the suitably Dutch-sounding pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker, and as I said, the book became a huge success. So much so that knickerbocker became a nickname for New Yorkers, and the nickname, if you’ll excuse the pun, for their basketball team, the New York Knicks. This is also the source of the word knickerbocker trousers (as in, the type Dutch people typically wore), and the British term knickers referring to ladies’ underwear. So this joke really had legs!

Along with Moore’s famous poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas”, we also have another 19th century New Yorker, German-born Thomas Nast, to thank for our modern vision of Santa Claus. I’ve mentioned this famous caricaturist before in the “Cocktail” and “Ambition” videos. It was Nast’s depiction of St Nick that really cemented the figure in the minds of his growing army of followers and enthusiasts.

Though they’re not technically stocking treats, one’s Christmas sweet tooth is often satisfied by such confections as fruitcake, pudding, and mince pies. These desserts are all made with dried fruit, the vogue for which in Europe, like gingerbread, seems to have been brought back by those medieval crusaders from the Middle East. Hence sultana raisins from the word sultana, the title of the sultan’s wife and the word currant, a toponym from Corinth.  Puddings and mince pies used to be more of a savoury dish than today and indeed mince pies contained minced meat, hence the name, and the puddings were traditionally boiled in a sheep’s stomach, hence the round cannonball shape, before the pudding basin became the preferred method of preparation. The etymology of the word pudding is an interesting one. It either comes from French boudin meaning “sausage”, from Latin botulus which also gives us the word, though hopefully not the disease, botulism. Or it comes from the Proto-Germanic root *pud- and Proto-Indo-European root *bheu- both meaning “to swell”, a root which also gives us the words pudgy (which you might want to remember before reaching for that second helping of pudding) and pout (which you’d better not do because Santa Claus is coming to town). And as yet another song goes, we sometimes refer to Christmas pudding as figgy pudding. The word fig goes back to some pre-Indo-European Mediterranean language, and the Greek form of the word fig has as cognates the tree sycamore (not so surprising), and (believe it or not) the word sycophant, which started out meaning “slanderer”. This comes about from a rude gesture, sticking the thumb between two fingers, which is meant to represent both the interior of a fig and the vagina, and so is called “showing the fig”, which apparently ancient Athenian politicians urged their followers to do to their opponents, while themselves pretending to be above such vulgarity. So feel free to share this factoid with your family over the figgy pudding!

The tradition of putting tokens like lucky coins, thimbles, or beans in the Christmas cake or pudding may go back as far as the Roman winter festival Saturnalia. One of the Roman traditions was the principle of misrule in which master and slave would change places. A survival of this may be the Bean King tradition, in which the lucky finder of the bean hidden in the Christmas cake got to be the Bean King for the day and direct all the festivities. Of course Christmas cakes also contain nuts, and it’s from this that we get the expression fruitcake for someone who is mentally deranged, as a shortening of the expression nutty as a fruitcake, with the word nuts already referring to someone who is “off his nut” so to speak.

To quaff all this down, we often at Christmas parties have hot punch or mulled cider. This tradition goes back to the wassail cup, a drink I mentioned previously in the “Yule” video. The word wassail comes from Old English wes hal meaning “be hale” or “be in good health”. A toast, if you will, which is appropriate because the wassail used to actually contain toast, kind of like putting croutons in soup, along with all kinds of other ingredients that you wouldn’t expect in a hot punch, such as egg, nuts, and cream. And in fact that’s where we get the expression to make or drink a toast, as well as “the toast of the town”. The story goes that a gentleman, back in the 18th century in the town of Bath, upon seeing a beautiful woman bathing in the public baths, as a gallant (if somewhat saucy) gesture, scooped up a drink from the bath water and drank to her health. His witty companion stated that he didn’t care much for the drink but would have the toast, that is, the woman in the water. And apparently from that we get the now well-known expression.

So here’s to your health over the holidays! I’ll leave you, as an extra present in your stocking, since you’ve been so nice, the Christmas videos from the last two years in case you have seen them.

Meta Etymology and a Slice of PIE

This month’s video is on the etymology of the word “Etymology”:

The idea to do a video on the word etymology actually came from my 10-year-old son, and since I was already planning on doing a video explaining Proto-Indo-European, proto languages, and sound changes, the two fit together really well. The core of the script comes from a putative book I’m putting together based on the videos, so I actually had a bunch of material written already.

So one extra wrinkle on the story of Grimm’s Law is that there are some exceptions. Let’s go back to the example of father. We would expect from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) form *pəter to get the Old English (OE) form *fæþer but instead we have OE fæder. In other words the voiceless stop t should become the fricative th-sound ([θ] for those who want an IPA transcription) but instead becomes a voiced stop d. (As a side note, the d in OE fæder eventually does become th, as in Modern English father, but that’s a later sound change that doesn’t happen until later in the Middle English period). The voiceless p at the beginning predictably becomes the fricative f, but the t doesn’t seem to follow the rule, so what gives? Well it turns out that this isn’t random and it took the Danish philologist Karl Verner to spot the regular pattern. Basically it had to do with the stress pattern in PIE. If the voiceless stop was at the start of the first syllable of the word or if it was immediately preceded by the stressed syllable of the word, it followed the usual Grimm’s Law pattern. But if the syllable before the voiceless stop was unstressed in PIE, the stop instead becomes voiced. We now refer to this addition to Grimm’s Law as Verner’s Law. By the way, if you’re interested in PIE and etymology, you might want to check out my review of Calvert Watkin’s Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, and pick up a copy to play around with. It’s inexpensive and a lot of fun.

Discussion of etymology inevitably brought up Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae, and as I pointed out, it’s much more than just a book of etymologies. One of the other important things to come out of that book is the so-called T and O maps of the world, which were the standard map arrangements of the middle ages. The T and O maps are based on Isidore’s description of the world in the Etymologiae.  Though I don’t explicitly discuss the map, I do visually refer to it, including in the background, which is a manuscript image of the Etymologiae. And as I said Isidore’s book is really an encyclopedic work.

And so, the other side branch of this video is about encyclopedias. I mentioned Diderot’s Encyclopédie as one of the first modern encyclopedias, and I had been wanting to work Denis Diderot into a video for some time. He got a brief visual reference in “Sublime” and a brief mention in the associated blog post, as an iconic example of Enlightenment thought, which he wove into his encyclopedia. There’s a nice TED-Ed video on Diderot if you want more info.

I also mention Wikipedia in the video, and because of its interconnected nature, it’s one of the ways I track down all the connections for the videos I make. One useful tool for doing this is an app called Wikiweb, a reader for Wikipedia which maps out the interconnected links between the Wikipedia entries. It gives you a kind of trace of the links you’ve followed jumping from one Wikipedia entry to another. Here’s an example of what it looks like:

Excitingly, there’s a new Wikipedia-based app on the way that’s based on the Connections-style approach of James Burke, whom I’ve mentioned as inspiration of mine several times before. It’s called the James Burke Connections App, and will exist as both a web-based version and a native mobile app, and you can support its creation through Kickstarter. There’s a prototype of the app already available to play around with. Here’s an example of what it looks like:

Most excitingly, apparently the full app will have the ability to trace out chains of connections on its own. From what I understand, you give it starting and end points and it finds the connection. If you want to hear more about the project, check out the excellent interview that David McRaney did with James Burke himself. It’s a very engaging interview and it gives full details about the app and how it works. (I’m also a big fan of McRaney and his You Are Not So Smart Podcast.)  Please consider supporting this worthwhile project at Kickstarter, and help support new and exciting avenues in education. I personally endorse this project and have backed it myself. I’d love to see this app become a reality, so please check it out.

James Burke’s other Connections-style project is his Knowledge Web or K-Web. You can play around with the prototype version of the K-Web implemented on TheBrain platform. As it turns out, one of the facts in my “Etymology” video comes from the K-Web, the connection between Warren Hastings and Denis Diderot (which you can read about here). It was through the K-Web that I found out about TheBrain software (which I also heartily recommend). I keep track of my own research through TheBrain, and have constructed my own database, a kind of etymological dictionary crossed with an encyclopedia, which when you think about it is kind of the ground this video covers, so very appropriate. So I’ll leave you with one last screenshot of The Endless Knot research that lies behind the video.

Fashionably Speaking

As it’s Halloween time, the latest video looks at the word “Costume”:

The main point behind this one is the interesting fact that costume and custom are essentially the same word, but came into English through different routes. Furthermore costume/custom show a similar semantic development to the two senses of the word habit. This kicked off the set of associations, but I also explore not only the interesting vocabulary of fashion, but fashion as a communicative language itself. The semiotics of fashion, that is the study of how fashion conveys meaning, is a large and very rich subject, of which I can only barely scratch the surface. Already this video was quite a long one, and there were a lot of interesting bits I had to leave out of the video.

First of all some side notes about the words custom and costume themselves. The plural form customs as in a duty that needs to be paid when importing goods comes from the sense a “customary tax”, and by further extension a customer is someone with whom we have customary business dealings. Costume was first used in English, in the periods of art history sense, by diarist John Evelyn, whom I’ve wanted to include in a video for some time as he’s one of those hyperconnected individuals, and is responsible for coining quite a few words and senses of words, and is just generally a very interesting person.

Now as for Halloween costumes and where we get the tradition of dressing up for this holiday, the ancient Celts in their harvest festival Samhain are said to have dressed up in scary disguises, either to blend in with or scare off other spirits who were believed to arise at that time of year. There’s also the English tradition of souling, going door-to-door in costume around All Souls Day carrying turnip lanterns representing the souls in Purgatory, and offering blessings or songs in return for soul-cakes. Similarly there’s the Scottish and Irish tradition of Guising, going door-to-door in costumes asking for handouts. And then there’s Mumming, an old  tradition of costumed dances and little plays performed at various seasons of the year. These various tradition seem to have served two purposes. For one, it relieves the tension from the fear of evil spirits or the souls of the dead. Another is the element of misrule and breaking of taboos which I mentioned in the video. Both of these elements highlight the use of jest and game to lessen the impact of very serious cultural realities. If you’re interested in more about these and other Halloween traditions, I covered many of them in last year’s Halloween video “Jack-o’-Lantern”.

Now getting back to clothing and fashion. One of the sources I looked at suggested that the wimple may have been influenced by or adopted from Muslim women, and thus brought to Europe from the middle east during the crusades. If anyone can provide more information on this I’d be grateful, but there certainly is a similarity between the wimple and the hijab. Sticking with head coverings, I mentioned the 18th century vogue for the wig. An interesting puzzle is the word wig itself. It’s actually short for periwig, which has the earlier forms perwike and peruke, and comes from French perruque and Italian perrucca. But before that the trail runs cold.

On the other hand, I can give some deeper etymologies of some other words mentioned in the video. As I said, jeans comes from Genoa. But where does the name for this Italian city come from? Well there are a couple of theories. First of all the Latin form of the name is Genua. Etymonline suggests it might come from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “curve, bend” and would thus be cognate with Geneva. This root is presumably *genu- meaning “knee, angle”, and also gives us the words knee, kneel, genuflect, and diagonal. Another theory is that it’s related to Latin janua meaning “gate”, and thus also the Roman god Janus, as well as the month name January. As for denim from the city Nîmes, the French placename come from Latin Nemausus and ultimately from the Gaulish word nemo meaning “sanctuary”. This also seems to be connected to a Celtic god which the Romans referred to as Deus Nemausus, the god of a healing-spring sanctuary in the ancient town there. So if you think you look divine in those jeans, what with Nemausus and Janus, you may be right!

And speaking of jeans, I refer to them as an icon of contemporary fashion, probably the 20th century’s most enduring one. But to complete the look I suppose we could include T-shirts and sneakers. So as for the T-shirt, obviously named for its shape, it was originally designed as an undershirt to go with US military uniforms, but many servicemen began wearing just their T-shirts with their uniform trousers as a casual outfit during their off-duty hours, and when film star Marlon Brando appeared in the movie A Streetcar Named Desire dressed in a T-shirt, a fashion style was born.  And next the sneaker, an early example of which is the Converse All-Stars, which was also one of the first instances of a celebrity endorsement when basketball star Chuck Taylor joined their sales force in 1921, suggesting improvements to their shoe design, and his signature was added to the ankle patch on the shoes we now often refer to as Chuck Taylors or simply Chucks. The term sneaker by the way dates from the end of 19th century and is originally American, though it’s predated slightly by the term sneak. There are of course many other names for different varieties of casual soft-soled shoe including running shoestrainers, sand shoes, deck shoes, tennis shoes, and plimsolls, an eponym from politician Samuel Plimsoll who devised the plimsoll line, the water line markings on the side of a ship which showed the maximum load a ship could safely carry — the shoes took their name from the similarity of their appearance to ships with these lines on the side. And as for celebrity endorsements, they have since become quite the big deal with sneakers, and T-shirts have become an important canvas on which to display a variety of messages the wearer wishes to convey to the world, so again fashion as language.

In addition to T-shirts with political or social slogans (which became particularly popular starting in the 1980s), fashion can often be used to make political or social statements. To give just two such examples of statements calling for change, at the 1968 Olympics  African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos held up black-gloved fists during their medal ceremonies as an anti-racism statement. And the name of  19th century feminist Amelia Bloomer, who advocated against the restrictive clothing women were forced to wear at the time, became associated with bloomers, a kind of loose fitting split-leg garment, sometimes worn as more comfortable underwear and sometimes as trousers. Once again, the language of fashion and fashion as language. Let me know of any other examples of this kind of use of fashion in the comments below.

But getting back to the 20th century US military influence on fashion, one perhaps surprising example is the bikini, which inventor Louis Réard named after the Bikini Atoll where the US military conducted its first peace-time nuclear weapons test. Réard hoped his invention would cause a similar "explosive commercial and cultural reaction", and indeed it did. The placename Bikini, by the way is Marshallese for “coconut place”.

In the video I mentioned Beau Brummell’s influence on the men’s formal suit. Brummell was fond of wearing dark colours as opposed to the more brightly coloured outfits of preceding generations.  But we have another historical figure, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who by the way gave us the cliche novel opening “It was a dark and stormy night” (you may remember him from our “Beef” video), to thank for the habit of wearing black as formal wear, as in the tailcoat and the tuxedo. As for the invention of tuxedo itself, one story goes that Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, wanting a more comfortable formal outfit than the black tailcoat, took to wearing a short military style jacket. His American guest at the time, James Potter, brought the style back with him, and after wearing it at the fashionable resort of Tuxedo Park in New York, a style and its name were born. The place name itself, by the way, seems to come from Algonquian p'tuck-sepo meaning “crooked river”. On the subject of the tuxedo, the term Canadian tuxedo refers to wearing denim on top and on bottom, so jeans and a jean jacket for instance. And the term Canadian passport, according to Urban Dictionary, is another term for the mullet cut. I don’t want to think what all this implies about Canadians!

But while we’re still on the subject of men’s formal wear, the top hat is said to have been invented by John Hetherington, who supposedly first wore this shiny silk hat designed to “frighten timid people” on January 15, 1797, causing a riot with women fainting, children screaming, and dogs yelping, leading to his being charged with a breach of the peace! Unfortunately this story may be apocryphal. Nevertheless, the hat did become a major fashion trend of the 19th century, and already by 1814 we have the first recorded instance of someone pulling a rabbit out of a top hat, the French magician Louis Comte.

Another probably apocryphal hat story is about the invention of the bowler. Finding the tall top hat inconvenient when horse riding as it got caught up in low-hanging tree branches, wealthy British landowner William Coke commissioned a hat with a low round crown. The hat was manufactured by one William Bowlers. Of course it might just be the bowl shape of the hat that led to its name. But I’ll make the hat trick by relaying a third hat story. The fedora takes its name from a play, the only such instance of an etymology I can think of. In the play Fedora by Victorien Sardou, famous actress Sarah Bernhardt wore a soft felt hat while playing the title role of Princess Fedora Romanoff, and the hat became a popular fashion choice.

Speaking of fashion trendsetters, I mentioned Empress Josephine’s role in popularizing the empire waist dress, a neoclassical reinvention of the ancient Greek peplos. Another important trendsetter in the development of this type of dress was Emma, Lady Hamilton (or Emma Hart as she was known at the time), who was the lover of Charles Greville (whom you may remember as a friend of Erasmus Darwin in our previous video on him). Greville, tiring of his mistress, shipped her off to Italy to become the mistress and eventually wife of Sir William Hamilton, who was the English ambassador in Naples. While there Emma invented a kind of performance art she called Attitudes, posing in various alluring poses recreating scenes from Greek mythology, and wearing that type of ancient dress. The artist George Romney painted many of these scenes, and her fashion sense took Europe by storm. Well, I guess high fashion is all about attitude.

Speaking of ancient Greece, professional barbers or hair cutters go back at least as far as ancient Greece, where the barbershop was already an important location for conversation and gossip. The Greeks introduced the profession to the Romans who called the barber a tonsor, related to our word tonsure. During the middle ages barbers also served as surgeons — after all they already had sharp razors — and that’s the source of the barber pole, the red stripes reflecting the blood involved. The word surgery by the way comes through Latin chirurgia ultimately from ancient Greek kheirurgia meaning literally “hand work”. So some extra tidbits next time you’re gossipping with your barber.

Also in the ancient world, I briefly mention the toga, which connects nicely with our last video “Ambition” and the toga candida, the “whitened toga”, worn by political candidates in Rome, and indeed that’s where the word candidate comes from. Also worthy of mention is the toga praetexta, which had a purple border, and was worn, curiously, by both by young boys who were not yet of age and by magistrates, purple being a colour that signified high status, but more on this when we come to purple in our ongoing series of colour podcasts. Interesting too that the one exception to the rule that only freeborn males were allowed to wear togas was that prostitutes were required to wear them, an example I suppose of boundary crossing. They couldn’t wear the traditional stola, the dress of the Roman matron, and I suppose had something of the male freedom in terms of their status—in the sense that they were not restricted by the modesty of a respectable woman. The toga, though, showed that they also lacked the legal protection of a citizen woman, and that their bodies were essentially common property. 

In the video I highlighted the importance of France as the home of fashion by tracing the series of leaders from Louis XIV and his wigs, to Louis XV and his mistress Madame de Pompadour, to Louis XVI and his wife and “queen of fashion” Marie Antoinette, leading up to the French Revolution, to finally the more reserved styles after the revolution with Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. I could perhaps add one other link to this chain, with Napoleon’s nephew and heir Napoleon III and his wife Eugénie de Montijo. She influence the work of designer Charles Worth, who is known as the father of haute-couture, and who founded the first great fashion house, the House of Worth.

And finally one last point about fashion as language. A friend once pointed out to me that someone mixing clashing styles of clothing was engaging in something like code-switching. Code-switching is a linguistics term that refers to when speakers of more than one language naturally switch back and forth between languages in the middle of conversation. It’s not a random phenomenon, but is indeed itself a communicative element of language — the choice of language at any one instant communicates something of importance in the discourse. Applying this to clothing is, I think, quite relevant, particularly in our modern, uncentred contemporary fashions. So feel free to add in the comments any other ways fashion is like language — I’d love to hear some other views.