Glossed in Translation

This week’s video is about the development of a country name that also became a common noun, “Japan”:

This video originates in the fact that the English name Japan appears to be an unrelated exonym to the native name Nippon, when actually they come from the same Chinese origin. By the way, the name is sometimes more fully given as Nippon-koku meaning “the State of Japan”, and this might be reflected in some of the early versions of the name in Europe such as Marco Polo’s Chipangu. There are conflicting stories as to who first started to use the phrase meaning “sun’s origin” to refer to the region. According the the American Heritage Dictionary, it was Japanese scholars who had studied Chinese who began to use the phrase around 670 CE (during the Tang Dynasty). Alternatively, Henry Dyer reports (see sources on the show notes page) that in 607 (during the Chinese Sui dynasty) the Emperor of Japan is supposed to have sent a letter to the Court of China with the greeting “A letter from the sovereign of the Sun-rise country to the sovereign of the Sun-set country”. However, another story claims that it was the Chinese Empress Wu Zetian of the later Tang dynasty who ordered the change of name. Of course the sun is an important cultural symbol in Japan, and one of the most important deities in Shinto religion and Japanese mythology is the sun goddess Amaterasu. The Emperors of Japan were held to be descended from her.

The European aruquebus first arrived in Japan in the hands of the Portuguese aboard a Chinese ship which came ashore on the island of Tanegashima in 1543. After a demonstration of duck shooting, the Lord of the island purchased the guns at great expense, and after a few initial technical hiccups, they started manufacturing and even improving on them. The European guns arrived in Japan during a time of civil wars called the Sengoku period from around 1467 to 1603, which ended with the Tokugawa shogunate and the ensuing Edo period, a time not only of isolationism but relative peace, and much has been made of the fact that the Japanese henceforth gave up firearms and returned to the sword, so that when in 1854 Commodore Matthew Perry led the US fleet to forcibly reopen Japan to relations and trade, they seemed to have little knowledge of firearms. You can read about this story in detail in Noel Perin’s Giving up the Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879, or have a look at Jabzy’s excellent on-the-scene videos about Europeans in Japan and Guns in Japan. Of the Japanese improvements to the Portuguese arquebus, Perrin writes: “They developed a serial firing technique to speed up the flow of the bullets. They increased the caliber of the guns to increase each bullet’s effectiveness, and they ordered waterproof lacquered cases to carry the matchlocks and gunpowder in … Japanese gunmakers were busy refining the comparatively crude Portuguese firing mechanism — developing, for example, a helical main spring and an adjustable trigger-pull. They also devised a gun accessory — unknown, so far as I am aware, in Europe — which enabled a matchlock to be fired in the rain.”

Now there were a number of etymologies I didn’t have time to include in the video, but the words for the various goods that led the Europeans to Asia are quite interesting and instructive. First the word "lacquer", one of the main focusses of the video, which comes not from Japanese or Chinese but ultimately from the Indian language Sanskrit word lākṣā referring to a red dye (not black, you note), which becomes Hindi lākh, then Persian lāk, which becomes lacre in Portuguese, Spanish, and French to refer to a kind of sealing wax, before moving into English as "lacquer". The source and meaning of the word is somewhat debated. It might be a variant of Sanskrit rahk and thus come from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “colour, dye”. Or it might come from Sanskrit laksha meaning “salmon” (and thus be related to English "lox") in reference to its colour. But I think my favourite explanation is that the Sanskrit word means literally “one hundred thousand” in reference to the large numbers of insects that are needed to produce the lac. Called lac insects, they infest a tree in large numbers and secrete a resinous pigment which is then harvested and processed to produce shellac — yes that’s where that word comes from, because the lac flakes are kind of shell-like in appearance.

Shellac also used to be used to make gramophone records and some kinds of hard candies (so beware, vegans, as they contain animal products). Shellac is a calque or loan translation of the French laque en écailles. And the slang term "to shellac" as in “to beat soundly” probably comes from the idea of “to finish (off)”. And on the subject of slang terms, "to be japanned" also has a slang sense, to be ordained into the church, in reference to the black coat of the clergy, reminiscent of the black finish on that japanned furniture.

Silk was another draw to Asia, along what is referred to as the silk road, an over-land trade route. Early on it carried silks from China to ancient Greece, and that’s a clue to the etymology of the word “silk”. Old English seolc comes from Latin sericus, from Greek σηρικός ‎(sērikós). Serikos is the adjective form of Seres, the Greek name for the people from whom the goods came from, presumably a group in China, and it has been suggested that the word might come from the Chinese word si meaning “silk”, in Manchurian sirghe and Mongolian sirkek, so from the trade good, to the name of a people, and back to the name of the trade good again, in an interesting parallel to the progress of Japan to japanning.

“Porcelain” has perhaps the most surprising etymology. It comes from Latin porcella “young sow”, the feminine diminutive form of porcus meaning “pig”, thus related to our modern English word "pork". The Italian porcellana was also used to refer to a kind of cowrie shell, probably because of its resemblance to a female pig’s genitalia. Yes, really. And the shiny finish of porcelain was reminiscent of the shiny shells, hence the name was transferred over. So think about that the next time you eat pork off of some fine porcelain!

And finally “spice”, which comes from Latin species meaning “kind, sort” and originally “appearance” as it comes from a Latin root specio “to see” from a Proto-Indo-European root *spek- “to observe” which gives us a large number of modern English derivatives, like "species", "spy", and "special". In the plural, Latin species went from meaning “kind, sort” to “goods, wares”, probably from the sense of a particular kind of merchandise, and eventually narrowed in meaning further still to the word “spice” as we know it today, perhaps an indication that it was the most particularly important trade good. Indeed the extreme value of spices from Asia would certainly support this. And contrary to popular myth, during the middle ages they never used spices to hide the taste of rotten meat. Spices were far too expensive to waste in that way and it probably wouldn’t work anyway. To coin a phrase, even a hundred thousand special trade goods can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s… well.

From the Sublime to the Romantic

This week’s video is on “sublime”, a word important to the romantic poets, but that also has deep roots in the ancient world and the middle ages:

It was the surprising etymology of sublime that kicked this one off, though the script is drawn in large part from my classroom teaching explaining the sublime and romanticism, as well as the importance of the medieval tradition to the 19th century. And working through this for the video, it seemed to me that there was a useful metaphorical connection to the idea of looking up, in both the sublime and in the gothic cathedrals of the high middle ages. Another important theme here is the drive to differentiate oneself from what went before. Most cultural movements do this sort of thing one way or another, and again there were various parallels there. Also, the ongoing language peeving today is useful to keep in mind in this context. Language is constantly changing, and current language trends are no different from the transformation from Latin into the romance languages. And finally, since this video was coming out close to Valentine’s Day, it seemed appropriate to look at the later development of the word “romantic” and examine what it also owes to the medieval courtly love tradition. This too involves a kind of “looking up”, with the male lover putting his beloved up on a pedestal and worshipping her in a quasi-religious/feudal way. This is of course profoundly misogynistic as it doesn’t leave her the capacity to be human, but forces a divine status on her which no human can live up to, but perhaps that’s another story. But in any case, this too also owes a debt to the classical world, as this model of love comes not only from the medieval troubadours from the South of France, but also from the Roman poet Ovid, whose works the Ars Amatoria and Amores (themselves, ironically, to a large extent parodying earlier cliches about love!) were very influential to the courtly love tradition. So in a sense, I guess, this counts as my Valentine’s Day video for the year! (You can see last year's Valentine's Day video "Cuckold" here.)

Perhaps the most common way people today hear this word is in the phrase “from the sublime to the ridiculous”. The full expression is “from the sublime to the ridiculous is but one step”. The expression seems to derive from The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine, the great 18th century English-American thinker and revolutionary (who certainly had an antagonistic relationship with Edmund Burke): “The sublime and the ridiculous are often so nearly related that it is difficult to class them separately. One step above the sublime makes the ridiculous, and one step above the ridiculous makes the sublime again.” Napoleon, one time great hero of the Romantics (until they became disillusioned with him), picked up on Paine and said “Du sublime au ridicule il n’y a qu’un pas” giving us our modern phrase. Again, it’s a question of high and low. 

And in addition to the psychological term subliminal, there are the scientific terms sublimate and sublimation, which are formed from the same Latin sources. Sublimate in chemistry means to change state from a solid directly to a gas, and comes from medieval and early modern alchemical terminology. Sublimation is used in (Freudian) psychological sense to refer to the process of converting an impulse into a more socially acceptable activity. Both of these have the metaphorical sense of raising something up.

In the video I indicated on screen (without going into it in detail) that the word lintel actually has two etymons, limen meaning “threshold, lintel, entrance” and limes meaning “boundary, path” (and also giving us the word “limit”). This is a case of the two similar sounding words coming together to produce the derived word. Interestingly both words seem to come ultimately from the same Latin source, limus “sidelong, askew, askance”, with the idea that limes refers to a cross path bounding two fields. But also interesting is that limen in Latin seems to refer indiscriminately to both the lintel at the top and the sill or threshold at the bottom of a window or door respectively. I already covered the etymology of the word “sill” in the video, but also from a Germanic source is threshold, related to the word thresh and from the Old English verb þrescan “to thresh, beat”, the idea being that a threshold is something you tread on. It comes ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root ‌‌*terə- “to rub, turn”, which has a great many English derivatives.

Jane Austen makes a only brief appearance in this video, but in a lot of ways she touches on a number of the different connections presented in the video. Her novel Northanger Abbey, in addition to satirizing the sentimental and gothic novels, also contains a discussion about aesthetics in which her heroine Catherine Morland learns about the categories of the beautiful, the sublime, and the picturesque from her love interest Henry Tilney. And the title of Sense and Sensibility makes a pun on the different meanings — sense as in having good sense, and sensibility as in having a strong emotional reaction. And in Pride and Prejudice, when Charlotte Lucas agrees to the obsequious Mr Collins, she explains to the surprised Elizabeth Bennet that “I am not romantic, you know; I never was”, though probably in the broader sense of romantic meaning fanciful, sentimental, or idealistic. And it’s important to remember that Jane Austen was writing at the same time as many of those Romantic poets.

As for the Romantics themselves, they weren’t exactly a unified group. Though Goethe and Herder kicked it all off with their Sturm und Drang poetry, they wouldn’t really have thought of themselves as part of the Romantic movement, and in fact later on pulled back from some of their proto-Romantic ideas to what’s referred to as the Weimar classical school, a kind of compromise between Neoclassicism and Romanticism. And as for the English Romantic poets, the second generation (Shelley, Byron, Keats, etc.) though initially being inspired by the earlier (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge), didn’t always look up to them (see what I did there?). Byron found Wordsworth’s use of everyday language and style to be facile and unsophisticated. That everyday language, by the way was part of Wordsworth’s definition of the ideal poet. He wanted to use the “plainer and more emphatic language” of the common man, but “purified indeed from what appear to be its real defects, from all lasting and rational causes of dislike or disgust” (Preface to the Lyrical Ballads). So though the ideal poet is “a man speaking to men”, he qualifies this as “a man, it is true, endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind”. Coleridge, who collaborated with Wordsworth on the Lyrical Ballads but had no hand in the Preface, which was added later, called Wordsworth out in his Biographia Literaria for these and other contradictions and inconsistencies, so they didn’t always see eye to eye either. And of course Romanticism doesn’t really end with the Romantic period. In British literature, we’re accustomed to think of the later part of the 19th century as the Victorian period, but many of the elements of Romanticism continue into the later period, such as drawing inspiration from the medieval (think Tennyson, William Morris, and the Pre-Raphaelites), and the distinction isn’t really made anyway in continental Europe.

Another of the elements of Romanticism that’s worth further discussion is their sense of history and time. In addition to the discovery and interest in ruins, as I mentioned in the video, there was an important literary component here. Macpherson began his Ossian forgery by collecting folktales from the Scottish Highlands, much as the Brothers Grimm would do in Germany some years later. And there was also a kind of cult of Shakespeare, a great reverence of the playwright, with such proponents as Johann Herder and August Schlegel (who translated Shakespeare into German), and the notion that one should go out into the English countryside to really read the Bard properly. Related to the Ossian poem, by the way, is the poetry of Thomas Chatterton — I used a painting of him in the video to  suggest the idea of emotion.

Though he wasn’t himself a Romantic — he was from the middle of the 18th century and committed suicide at the age of 17 — he was quite influential on the English Romantic poets. He is perhaps most remembered now for forging “medieval” romances under the pseudonym of Thomas Rowley, much like Macpherson did with the Ossian epic. No wonder then that Romantics liked him so much! Coleridge does something similar with “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (perhaps his most famous contribution to the Lyrical Ballads), though he never claimed it was a genuine medieval poem, he just wrote it in that style.

As for medieval architecture, I emphasized the elongated proportions and verticality of the gothic architecture, but the other effect of this is on the light in gothic cathedrals. The advent of the flying buttress, which transferred the outward force of a wall downward to the ground, allowed for the gothic arches to be made very large, which meant they could put in large elongated stained-glass windows, and the gothic cathedrals would be constructed so that the high altar would be the brightest part of the church, while the nave, where the church-goers would sit, would be relatively dark. The symbolic implication of this is fairly obvious. Perhaps the most striking example of this sort of thing (though not actually a cathedral) is Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

I mentioned gothic revival architecture, and used the example of the British Houses of Parliament, the Palace of Westminster, as an iconic example. Pugin by the way, was technically the assistant architect to chief architect Charles Barry, though there’s some controversy as to how much of the work was Barry’s and how much was Pugin’s — Pugin was known as a pioneer of gothic revival, whereas Barry was more known for neoclassical architecture, for what it’s worth. (Oh and for extra connection fans, Barry was assisted in the quarrying of the stone for the building by geologist William “Strata” Smith, who you may remember from my previous video “Fossil”). But it’s significant that gothic revival style was chosen for the rebuild after the earlier building was destroyed by fire in 1834,  as it could be seen as a reaffirmation of the monarchy, which traces its origins back to the middle ages. This was then a rejection of the neoclassical republicanism associated with, for instance, the United States of America, whose government buildings like the Capitol are built in the neoclassical style.

The US specifically modelled themselves in that respect on the Roman Republic, with their Latinate terms like Senate and Congress. Canada too built its parliament in the gothic revival style as an explicit alignment with medieval monarchy and their British rulers.

The original Canadian Parliament Buildings were built in the mid 18th century in a highly ornate gothic style. After the original Centre Block burned down in 1916 (one hundred years ago to the day as I write this), it was replaced with a slightly less ornate but still gothic revival style building.

And finally, as for the period preceding Romanticism, I was playing a bit fast and loose, consistently using the term Neoclassical for simplicity’s sake, but in fact the 18th century is co-occurrence of a number of interconnected trends. Other terms used to refer to the period include the Age of Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. I suppose at their heart what they all have in common was an appeal to reason and rationality over pure emotion, a rejection of medieval religiosity in favour of human centred concerns, and an alignment with ancient Greece and Rome which were thought to embody these notions. In the video I used the images of Denis Diderot and his Encyclopédie to represent the rationality of the Enlightenment, a good iconic example. Diderot himself argued, as many at the time did, that reason was necessary to keep emotion in check, but of course there are many other figures and works reflective of Enlightenment thinking. I could no more cover this complex topic than I could give anything more than the cursory thumbnail sketch of Romanticism that I did through the lens of etymology, but hopefully this gives a new perspective (looking up or otherwise), to these complex periods.

A Christmas Game: The Twelve Days of Christmas

It’s the holiday season and this year we’re having a look at the etymologies of all the gifts in the well-known carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas”:

You might see circulated on the internet the interpretation of this song as a Catholic catechism, with the gifts supposedly representing articles of faith cleverly encoded so that Catholics in England could keep their religion a secret in a Protestant England that was hostile toward Catholics at that time. This notion has been basically debunked (you can read about this on Snopes), but looking at the gifts from an etymological perspective can cast some light on Christmas and some other historical contexts, so that’s what I set out to do. As the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes reports, the song seems to have its origin as a forfeit game, as attested by 19th century folklorist Lady Gomme. Each participant would have to repeat the ever growing list of gifts without making a mistake or have to pay a penalty. And it’s this idea of the Christmas game that inspired the light-hearted and (hopefully) humorous video.

Ronald Hutton (see show notes page) writes of the medieval and early modern association of the twelve days of Christmas as a time of feasting and celebration, after the more austere period of advent until Christmas eve. The wealthy manorial lords were expected to entertain the community. The 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight actually describes a fifteen day Christmas celebration in King Arthur’s court, which included feasting, carols, and games. And it’s a game of exchange of blows that the Green Knight offers when he comes to Arthur’s court, as he describes it a “Crystemas gomen”, which is followed up a year later for Gawain at the castle Hautdesert with an exchange of winnings game. (I summarize the whole story in the video “A Detective Story” if you want to hear more.) The song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is now so well known that it’s not as challenging as it perhaps once was, and so based on the etymologies I discussed in the video, I wrote a new set of lyrics, which you can read (and print out for yourself), or listen to our attempt to sing in the video below. If you’re interested you can also try to sing it yourself to just the instrumental track in a video here, and see if you can do a better job than we managed, if you accept the challenge of my “Crystemas gomen”. As you can tell from our attempt, it’s quite difficult! And for comparison’s sake we’ve also put up a version with the original lyrics here — much easier to sing!

So as always, there are some additional etymologies and connections that I didn’t have time for in the video. First of all the number twelve, which is sometimes said to be evidence that a base twelve numbering system rather than a decimal one was used at an earlier period, since eleven and twelve don’t follow the expected pattern of “oneteen” and “twoteen”. This isn’t exactly true. Eleven and twelve, which are endleofan and twelf in Old English, seem to literally mean “one left over” (after a count of ten) and “two left over” (after a count of ten). The “-leofan” and “-lf” parts of the words are related to the word “left”. The “teen” of thirteen and so forth means “ten”, so three plus ten. So two different was of reckoning from ten. Now why there’s a shift in reckoning between 12 and 13 is unknown, but it is possible that it might be an indirect result of counting in twelves. However, the better evidence of counting in twelves is the fact that “hundred” used to refer to 120, but after the influence of Roman counting with centum (cognate with English 'hundred') meaning 100, it became distinguished as the long hundred or hundtwelftig in Old English.

I gave the etymology of partridge, but not pear, which comes from Latin pirum, and is believed to have been borrowed into Latin from some unknown source. The possible reinterpreting of the French perdrix as “pear tree”, as well as other mishearings such as “calling bird” for “colly bird” are know in linguistic circles as an eggcorn, the reinterpretation of an unfamiliar word as one that is technically incorrect but nonetheless logical. As for the word "feisty", originally applied to farting dogs, it transfers over to humans in the sense of quarrelsome or spirited. As Etymonline reports of the earlier sense, a 1811 slang dictionary has the definition “a small windy escape backwards, more obvious to the nose than ears; frequently by old ladies charged on their lap-dogs.” And it’s interesting to note that feisty is more often used in reference to women, and specifically of old women, it seems. I suppose the equivalent for a man might be “old fart”. But perhaps consider the etymology before using the word to describe someone!

Moving on to the turtledoves and the circumcision of Christ, one of the reasons it was held to be so important in the Christian calendar was that it was the first time Jesus’s blood was shed, and therefore prefigured the Crucifixion, which is the salvation of humanity by undoing the original sin of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden — a sort of second chance. This association is relevant to that medieval poem I mentioned earlier, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The story is set one week after Christmas, hence around New Year and the Festival of the Circumcision, and in the climax of the poem Gawain gets a small cut as a mark of his sin, after which he is figuratively resurrected (just as the Green Knight, one year earlier, had been actually resurrected after having his head cut off), and Gawain gets a second chance to try and do better. And we still have this idea at New Year of the New Year’s resolution, in which you promise to try to do better in the coming year. So when you’re making your New Year’s resolution, maybe spare a thought for Jesus’s foreskin?

As for the French hens, I should clarify that the feminine form derived from the masculine *hano probably sometime in Proto-Germanic period (since the word referring to the bird seems to exist only in Germanic languages, though the root goes back to Proto-European word meaning “to sing”). Old English had both the masculine and feminine forms but for some reason the masculine doesn’t make it into modern English, being replaced by “cock” or “rooster”. That "Frank" root which gives us "French" and came to mean “free” also gives us the word “franchise” which originally meant “freedom” and by extension its modern legal sense, and the term "franking privilege", referring to government officials getting free postage. And the term "French nut" to mean "foreign or rare nut", referring to the walnut, mirrors the word "walnut" itself, which is etymologically "Welsh nut". The words "Welsh" and "Wales" come from Old English wealh which mean “foreign”, so it’s what the Anglo-Saxons called the Welsh, who refer to their own country not as Wales but as Cymru. So "walnut" also mean “foreign nut”.

The word "ledger" (connected to the geese a’laying), whose financial sense may have been driven by the advent of double-entry bookkeeping, has an interesting link to one of my previous videos. Double-entry bookkeeping was first written about in a treatise by one Luca Pacioli, a Renaissance mathematician also known for developing probabilistic mathematics. Pacioli also wrote a book about games (arising from his interest in probabilities) which he dedicated to Isabella d’Este (whose portrait Pacioli’s pal Leonardo da Vinci refused to paint). It was Isabella’s brother brother Ippolito who brought back the coach from Hungary after his aunt, who married the king of Hungary, got him a church position there for a while, a story which you can learn more about in my video “Coach”.

Also in a previous video, “Loaf”, I covered the etymologies of the words "lord" and "lady" in more detail. The other word “loaf” meaning “to spend time idly” is also related to the word for the type of shoe, loafers, so I wonder if those loafing lords are leaping in loafers! The Germanic root *hlaupan meaning “leap” that gives us “to loaf” and "loafers", also gives us the first part of the name for the bird lapwing, which at least one Latin dictionary suggests, perhaps erroneously, might be the bird referred to by Latin perdix, (usually translated as "partridge"), perhaps because both birds are ground-nesters, so that's a possible link back to the partridge in a pear tree. The lapwing, by the way, has nothing to do with either laps or wings, etymologically speaking; the second element is actually related to "wink", so a "leap-wink bird".

As for the word "trump", related to the drummers drumming, I'm sure you’ll probably be unable to connect Donald Trump and farting in your mind, but let's all hope he doesn’t triumph, which is the etymology of the other word "trump", as in card games.

As a final Christmas present, I’m embedding below last year’s Christmas video “Yule” if you haven’t seen it, and you can also listen to the latest episode of our podcast, in which we discuss the Yule video. Happy holidays, and I’ll see you in the New Year!

Copyright and Copywrong: The Story of Freebooting

This week we’re looking at a new meaning for an old word with the term “freebooting”:

If you’re not familiar with the word, there’s been a recent buzz about copyright infringement of YouTube videos by downloading and re-uploading them to either online newspapers or social media, in particular Facebook, and since the word evokes the Golden Age of Piracy, which has also gained much traction in recent years with the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and International Talk Like a Pirate Day, the time seemed right to have a look at the history of the word, as well as the history of copyright law and the history of pirates in popular culture. This video is, in a way, a followup to my previous one on the word “Bug”, which discussed the other major form of intellectual property protection, patents. It also dovetails nicely with that earlier video, which also discussed the term computer bug, not only because freebooting has come to refer to a type of online copyright infringement, but also because it discusses the expression “to boot up a computer”.

It’s interesting to think that we have the Protestant Reformation, when many northern European countries broke away from the Roman church, to indirectly thank for copyright, literally the right to make copies, as a result of all that religious and political censorship. Queen Mary actually didn’t remain on the throne long after granting the publishing monopoly to the Stationers’ Company, but the censorship continued for nearly 150 years. John Milton, who was a strong supporter of the Puritan-led government of Oliver Cromwell in the interregnum, argued vociferously against pre-publication censorship in his tract Areopagitica, arguing among other things that censorship was really a Catholic thing to do — nothing gets Puritans more riled up than comparing them Catholics. But it wasn’t really until after the Glorious Revolution when William and Mary jointly took the throne, and the spectre of a Catholic monarch ever returning to the throne was banished, that censorship became a non-issue. Interesting to note though that Milton’s most famous work, Paradise Lost, was one of the big inspirations for the Byronic hero character type, as the Romantic poets admired Milton’s ambitious and rebellious Satan figure, and took him as the true hero of the story. I guess Satan is the ultimate bad boy.

I’ve got a few more details to fill in about the etymologies. In discussing the word element “free” I mention the perhaps surprising shift from the sense “to love” to our modern sense of free with this suggestion that it has to do with the members of a household, the beloved relatives versus the non-free slaves. The Latin word liber, which means “free”, shows a similar kind of development, as the plural of the word, liberi, means children. The sense of the Proto-Indo-European root *leudh-ero- which lies behind this word, by the way, probably meant something like “belonging to the people”. The Germanic goddess who gives her name to Friday, Frigg in Old Norse and Frige in Old English, is similar to, and sometimes confused with, another goddess named Freyja, goddess of love and beauty. Well, you can see why they might be identified with each other, and it has been suggested that they might originally have referred to the same goddess. Interestingly, the name Freyja comes from a Proto-Germanic root that means “lady”, a root that also leads to modern German Frau, but this Germanic root goes back to the Proto-Indo-European root *per (1) meaning “forward”, which gives us the word “privateer”, and probably lies behind those other Proto-Indo-European *per- roots, one of which *per- (3) “to try, risk” gives us the word “pirate”. So in a funny sort of way, the goddesses Frigg and Freyja are brought together in our discussion of freebooting and piracy. As for those other *per- roots, by the way, which probably descend from *per (1) meaning “forward”, they give us a number of other relevant words here, including both "print" and "press" reminding us of the importance of the printing press in this story. Oh, and the word “fear”, which surprisingly enough isn’t related to “afraid”, which as we’ve seen comes from that *pri- root related to “free”.

When thinking about the etymology of the word “freebooting”, though "booty" in its more common modern sense, probably derived from "bottom" or "body" (or maybe influenced by "butt"?), is unrelated to the word “booty” meaning treasure, given that “free” comes from a root meaning “to love”, it’s hard to resist making a reference to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s song “Baby Got Back” which famously starts with the line “I like big butts and I cannot lie”. Funnily enough, the song was at the centre of a famous copyright infringement controversy. When the TV show Glee used the song in 2013, they appear to have lifted uncredited the arrangement, original melody, and backing tracks of Jonathan Coulton’s 2005 cover version. The TV network’s lawyers claimed that no law was broken since Coulton’s version was a cover and thus not protected by copyright, and that in any case Coulton should be “happy for the exposure”, a frequent excuse used by freebooters of YouTube videos.

Getting back to the subject of etymologies, a number of other origins for the expressions "Davy Jones" and "Davy Jones’s Locker" have been suggested, but none with much evidence to support it. Some have tried to identify a historical David Jones, such as a pirate, and one intriguing suggestion of a pub owner who would lock up drugged or drunken sailors in the ale locker in his pub, and they would then be press ganged into service on ships. Another suggestion is that Davy comes from duppy, a Jamaican creole word, ultimately from an Africa origin, meaning “ghost, spirit”. The earliest citation for the term in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is Tobias Smollett’s The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751), which clearly identifies the figure as the spirit of the deep according to sailor mythology, but our friend Daniel Defoe earlier used the term more ambiguously as a threat in The Four Years Voyages of Captain George Roberts (1726). There have been a number of other suggestions for the term "Jolly Roger" too. One is that it comes from French joli rouge meaning “pretty red”, but as the OED says, the flag is generally black not red, and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence for the French phrase being used for this. Another unlikely suggestion is that the term came from eastern pirates with the expression Ali Raja. What is clear is that the 'jolly' nicely reflects the apparently grinning skull on the flag with a sort of grim humour.

As for our quintessential pirate actor Robert Newton, there’s another interesting connection for him. Early in his career Newton appeared in a production of Alicia Ramsey’s biographical play Byron, though not in the role of Lord Byron himself, but as John Murray, Byron’s publisher, who notoriously burned Byron’s memoirs for fear it was so scandalous it would ruin his reputation — another act of censorship, I suppose. As for Newton establishing the cliche pirate accent, there may be a precursor to the stereotypical “arrr!” Apparently actor Lionel Barrymore, who played the role of Billy Bones in the earlier 1934 film adaptation of Treasure Island, says “arrr!”, though I haven’t been able to verify this. For the most part Barrymore just sounds American, and certainly not West Country like Newton.

One influential author I left out of the discussion is Raphael Sabatini, who wrote a number of famous pirate novels (and other adventure stories) in the early 20th century, including The Sea Hawk (1915) and Captain Blood (1922). Sabatini’s treatment of the pirate figure is more of the swashbuckling patriotic type, often portrayed on screen by the likes of Errol Flynn, and this also plays a part in our modern pop culture image of the pirate.

I briefly alluded to The Pirates of Penzance and a copyright battle. At the time US copyright law didn’t protect the work of foreign authors (not cool 19th century America), so there were numerous unauthorized productions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s previous operetta H.M.S Pinafore, which earned no money for the writers. Therefore The Pirates of Penzance, which was probably a bit of a jibe at these pirated productions, was premiered in the US rather than England in order to beat the infringers to the profits.

The stories about Baron Munchausen (who by the way at one point rides a cannon ball, so I guess that’s a bit of a connection to pirate Bootstrap Bill Turner) also have something to tell us about copyright and authorship. The author Rudolf Erich Raspe, who was also know for his scientific writing, was a bit of a shady disreputable character himself, involved with a bit of mining fraud. As he based his most famous fictional character on the real life German aristocrat Hieronymus Karl Friedrich von Münchhausen who was indeed known for telling tall tales, Raspe kept his authorship a secret fearing some sort of libel suit (or worse), and initially the character’s name was printed only as M-h-s-n. When the name was revealed, the real-life Münchhausen was not at all pleased and tried to have the book suppressed (don’t forget, copyright started out as efforts at censorship). Raspe himself lost control over the copyright of the book, which was reprinted by other publishers with various embellishments and new material added. This all seems like a good object lesson for our modern loose attitudes to copyright and authorship. And in a final twist, in a 2012 German TV adaptation of the Baron Munchausen stories, actor Jan Josef Liefers’s performance seems to have been inspired by Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. But I guess we all kind of like pirates, don’t we. 

The Many Faces of the Jack-o'-Lantern

In honour of Halloween, this week's spooky etymology is Jack-o'-Lantern:

The underlying point of all this is a demonstration of how folk traditions develop. Many of the popular accounts of the history of Halloween that you may come across on the internet will claim that the "true" origin of Halloween lies in the Celtic Samhain or in Roman rituals, but looking for any one true origin misses the point of how folk traditions work. There is no one origin with a direct line to present day, but a confused mishmash of various traditions, including Celtic, Roman, and Christian. Indeed, any one such claim may be dubious, but looking at general patterns and possible influences is ultimately more interesting and revealing.

What lies at the heart of this story is the intersection of the jack-o'-lantern/will-o'-the-wisp bog light phenomenon and the carved vegetable lantern tradition, which may have separate origins but come together under the name Jack-o'-Lantern. The Stingy Jack story connected to the carved lantern may well be a later rationalization of an already existing tradition, but as is the case with folktales there are many variants and versions. William Wells Newell (see the show notes or online here) collates many of these variants. There are numerous different tricks that the hero of the story (who appears under different names) plays on the devil, such as trapping him in a magic chair or catching him in a bottle, but the core of the story is that the bog light is the soul of someone barred from both heaven and hell after tricking the devil (or sometimes death). The Dublin Penny Journal, in 1836 has another nice, and significantly different, retelling of the story. And as for the different but similar names for the bog lights, they include not only Jack-o'-lantern and Will-o'-the-wisp, but also Jenny-with-the-lantern, Kit with the candlestick, and Joan the wad (wad meaning bundle of straw or torch in Cornwall), along with many other names. And significantly another name is Hob-with-a-lantern or Hoberdy's Lantern, which brings us back to hobgoblin and Robin Goodfellow. I could go on, but we'd be here forever; but speaking of Robin Goodfellow, or Puck, I discuss the various similar terms such as Puck, Puca, boggart, and bugbear in my previous video "Bug", if you want to follow up on that some more.

But getting back to Jack, the word/name, of course, has many and varied uses, with some 34 separate senses in the Oxford English Dictionary. Of interest here perhaps is the expression "to play the jack" meaning "to play the knave, do a mean trick". I already mentioned the word jack-tar meaning sailor in the video "Raincheck". By the way, the various mechanical senses, like a car jack or lifting jack or jackhammer, come from the idea that the machine is replacing the job of a manual laborer. And there's one extra detail about the word lantern, while we're at it: the spelling "lanthorn" crops up in the 16th to 19th century as a folk etymology due to the fact that horn could be used as a translucent cover in lanterns. Another instance of how folk  traditions work.

It was Sir James Frazer, whose influential book The Golden Bough I mentioned in an earlier video "A Detective Story", who seems to have first made the claim that the Celtic Samhain was a festival of the dead, and not just a seasonal harvest festival. It's not an illogical idea per se, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of evidence to support it, and Ronald Hutton (whose book examining British seasonal festivals is listed in the show notes) sounds an important note of caution in this regard. The Christian Allhallowtide (and the Roman Lemuria which probably lies behind it, though specific links to Roman festivals or rituals, like the Pomona connection I make in the video, while plausible, also generally lack strong evidence) are festivals of the dead, and Samhain may have picked up those elements after contact with Christianity. Still, there must have been enough similarity and overlap for the merging to have occurred. There may also have been Germanic rituals at around that time of year that played into Halloween. Remember, though Pope Gregory III seems to have moved All Saint's Day to coincide with Samhain, this seems to have been put into practice in Germanic areas first. But then the Irish have a long history of disagreeing with Rome on the important dates of the Christian calendar, if you know anything about the Easter controversy and the Synod of Whitby, recounted in great detail by the Venerable Bede. And speaking of Bede, there is some slight evidence from him of the old Germanic associations of that time of year. He reports that the old Germanic names for the months that correspond to September, October, and November are Haligmonað "holy month" (for some pagan reason the details of which Bede was not aware), Winterfylleð "winter full moon" (presumably when the harvest comes in), and Blotmonað "blood or sacrifice month" (which Bede tells us is when excess livestock is slaughtered, an act that may have had ritual significance in Germanic paganism). And of course in Germanic paganism, the chief god Odin or Woden is among other things a god of death.

As a bit of a side note, though I mention only turnips and pumpkins in the video, there are other vegetables used for jack-o'-lanterns. For instance, the mangelworzel is particularly associated with the Somerset tradition of Punkie night. Here's a nice description with pictures of a contemporary Punkie night celebration.

One small clarification, Carl Linnaeus initially applied the name lemur to the otherwise unrelated slender loris, and only later to the Madagascar lemurs, but it's only with those that the name stuck. And speaking of Linnaeus, for those who are fans of tracking repeated references in a number of the videos, I've mentioned him a number of times, most recently in "Turkey" for the scientific naming of the turkey and the guinea fowl, and before that in "Fossil" for his development of the scientific binomial naming system itself, and Linnaeus also got a brief mention in the blog post for "Gimlet" for his naming of the cinchona plant, which produces quinine. And I've referred to the Puritan suppression of holidays a couple of times before, of Christmas in "Yule" and of Thanksgiving in "Turkey". So you can check those out if you want to know more.

There are interestingly a number of Canadian connections to this story, which I suppose isn't too surprising given that there was a great deal of immigration into Canada from Ireland and Scotland at just around the right period. (I should also note that one of my main scholarly sources for this video was written by a British-born scholar who moved to Canada, specifically Toronto -- Nicholas Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (see show notes page) -- so this may have led to more of the specifically Canadian history being uncovered.) In any case, the first mention of the pumpkin as a Halloween tradition in North America seems to be in a Kingston, Ontario newspaper in 1866, and the first description of the guising or trick-or-treating tradition in its most common modern form of costumed small children asking for candy seems to be in a Kingston newspaper, in 1911. And though the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary of the phrase “trick or treat” is in 1947 in an American source, Wikipedia lists a much earlier use of the term in 1927 once again in Canada, in an Alberta newspaper from 1927. If anyone has any more information on any of these possible Canadian connections, I'd love to hear it.

There's one last theme that I discuss only lightly in the video, that of boundaries. Samhain has been described as a liminal time, the boundary between summer and winter, and by extension it may have also been thought of as a time when the boundary between the living and the dead was open. As I mentioned in the video, one of the traditions of the will-o'-the-wisp is that they were the souls of those who moved boundary markers. The Roman Feralia rituals took place at the tombs located outside the city's sacred boundaries. And there may be a connection to another Roman festival Robigalia, which was meant to protect the grain crops by propitiating the god Robigus. In "Jack-o'-lanterns to Surveyors" (see the show notes), John R. Stilgoe discusses the Christian Rogationtide which develops from Robigalia, another example of the Christian repurposing of a pagan festival, which involved in part a procession around the boundary lines of properties. Though over time Rogationtide gradually turned from religious festival  to merrymaking and celebration, the tradition was exempt from the usual Puritan suppression of holidays because it served the practical purpose of keeping track of property boundaries., at least until the advent of more modern surveying techniques. Stilgoe places the belief that the will-o'-the-wisp or jack-o'-lantern were the souls of those who moved boundary markers in this context, as a holdover from the religious belief in sacred boundaries. But in a strange sort of way it's come full circle again to boundaries, or rather the breaking of boundaries, as the modern popularity of Halloween, which is increasingly also an adult event, is due in part to the freedom it gives people to break boundaries by wearing costumes, sometimes quite transgressive ones. It provides the opportunity to safely cross over boundaries we don't always feel free to violate.