Thursday, 19 August 2010


Once upon a time there was cokes meaning "A silly fellow, fool, ninny; a simpleton, one easily ‘taken in’", possibly related to cockney. The phrase make a cokes of appeared to be shorted to cokes, later spelled coax. The OED:

f. COKES n. According to Johnson 1755-73, ‘a low word’, and probably in vulgar use long before it became usual in literature, which may account for want of literary evidence for the early history of the senses. The original meaning seems to have been ‘make a cokes of’: cf. to fool, to pet, to gull; and the transition from ‘make a fool of’ to ‘make a pet of’, is paralleled by the passage of fond from ‘befooled’ to its present sense.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

holocaust and ink

Proto-Indo-European *keh₂u- "to burn" became Greek καίω kaiō "to burn" and καυστός kaustos "burnt, burnable". ὁλόκαυστος holokaustos meant "burnt whole", from ὅλος holos "whole". Borrowed into Latin as holocaustum, it originally meant "a whole burnt offering".

The related word ἐγκαίω egkaiō meant "to brand, paint with encaustic" - encaustic being a process of painting with wax and fixing the colours with fire. ἕγκαυστον egkauston was the ink used in the signature of Greek and Roman emperors - this was borrowed into Latin as encaustum, which developed into Old French enque, borrowed into English as ink.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

catholic and insouciant

The OED on catholic:

[a. F. catholique (13th c. in Littré) ad. late L. catholic-us, a. Gr. καθολικός general, universal, f. καθόλου (i.e. καθ' ὅλου ) on the whole, in general, as a whole, generally, universally, f. κατά concerning, in respect of, according to + ὅλος whole. (If immed. derived from L. or Gr., the Eng. word would, according to the regular analogy of words in -IC, have been accented caˈtholic).]

In other words, a word used to mean "broad in sympathies, tastes or interests" is derived from a phrase meaning "in general, on the whole".

Greek ὅλος "whole" is from Proto-Indo-European *solh₂- "whole". This became Latin sollus "entire", which perhaps combined with citus "set in motion" (from *kei-) to form sollicitus "thoroughly moved, agitated, disturbed" and sollicitāre "to vex". sollicitāre became French soucier "to care" and insouciant "careless".

while and coy

Both while and whilst are from Old English hwīl. The Proto-Indo-European root is *kʷiH- (in Fortson, the AHD has *kʷeih₁- "to rest, be quiet"), and hwīl is from the suffixed zero-grade form *kʷiH-lo-.

coy is from Old French coi "quiet, reserved, shy," from Latin quiētus, the past participle of quiēscere "to rest", from *kʷiH- plus the suffix *-sḱe-.

while is a shortening of Middle English þe while þat "during the time that". whilst is from Middle English whilest, from whiles, the being added perhaps by association with the superlative est (as in fastest). We also find it in amongst and amidst. whiles was while plus the adverbial suffix -s, as in "He works nights."

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

snails, snakes, and snarks

Browsing other etymology books, I had a look at Anatoly Liberman's Word Origins and how we know them - and was struck by one of the covers, which shows the word snark formed from a snake and a shark. Liberman writes:

Snark is certainly, not probably, a blend of snake and shark, because Lewis Carroll explained his coinage.

I've written about snark in the past, and I found this curious. The Century Dictionary gives the snake/shark derivation. It's repeated in other places too. But as far as I know, the only real evidence we have is the fact that Beatrice Hatch wrote that Carroll told her that it was a portmanteau of snail and shark. Where and when did Carroll explain that he coined the word from snake and shark?