More Etymology and Less Baseball

January 14, 2017

Let’s start off with a baseball-related point, because there’s going to be precious little baseball here (though now that I say that, I’m gonna try to work some baseball into this, as a kind of challenge to myself): I was bothered by Pete Rose’s autobiography or confessional or revision of his previous autobiography or confessional or whatever (this one was co-authored by Roger Kahn, which was why I even tried to read it), in which he boasted about never having read a book in his life. It’s a strange thing to brag about. He allowed that he had read chapters of books when they were assigned to him in school, but never cover-to-cover a complete book. But Rose often took pride in doing things that any normal human would be deeply ashamed of. The interesting part, to me, was that I thought "You know what? Neither have I."

In a very limited sense: I’ve never "read a book" in the sense that I read (not skimmed) every single word and understood what I was reading all the time. As you have, I’ve read passages that puzzled me but instead of stopping to think about what I found puzzling, I just plunged on, hoping that clarity would emerge later on, knowing that it only sometimes did. On a more micro- level, I encounter words all the time whose meaning I have no idea of, but which I try to parse out by context or by guessing or by just plain not-caring. My Oxford English Dictionary is always within easy reach, but of course I almost never avail myself of it, I just continue reading past the troublesome word, or when I read a sentence I don’t understand, I typically just keep going on to the next one, as I do with whole paragraphs and even chapters from time to time. In that sense, I‘ve never read a book.

When I write a book, or an article, I like to think that I at least understand every word I write, except that I don’t. In my previous article, I wrote about having realized that I had written the article previous to that one using words whose meaning I was ignorant of, or at best guessing at. I called that previous-previous article a "polemic" but I only vaguely knew what a polemic was, or where the word came from, or which root languages it sprang from, or what the roots originally meant. So:

A "polemic" according to the online etymological dictionary , meaning a "controversial argument or  a discussion," comes from the Greek word "polemikos," meaning "of war, warlike, belligerent; skilled in war, fit for service; like an enemy, stirring up hostility," and that word comes from "polemos," meaning "war," which is as far back as etymology cares to trace it. So in publishing "a polemic against loyalty," I’m challenging your positive connotations of loyalty, and I’m willing to go to war with you to make my point, which is about right.  Bill has issues with the stat and the abbreviation WAR, but just imagine the issues he’d have if that stat were abbreviated "POLEMOS."

I knew that the word "credo," which was the first of these dozen words that I used in my polemic against loyalty, was the Latin conjugated form of "I believe," the first word of the Nicene Creed, and that it has the same root as "creed" and "credible"  (and possibly Joe Crede), but what I found out was that the word originates in the Proto-Indo European compound "kerd-dhe," meaning literally "to put one's heart." The modern sense of "credo" (to mean "a formula or a statement of belief") is fairly recent, given its Latin roots, from the 1580s, which is when Shakespeare might have begun writing his first plays. (Believe or no, Shakespeare is categorized by scholars as an "Early Modern" writer—most of my students think Shakespeare wrote in Old English, which is two full removes from early modern English.)  I’ll abbreviate Proto-Indo European as "PIE" which has nothing to do with baked desserts, and less to do with Pie Traynor.

"Pragmatic" which derives from  the Latin "pragmaticus," meaning "skilled in business or law," and before that from the Greek "pragmatikos," meaning "fit for business, active, business-like; systematic," ultimately comes from the Greek word "pragma," which means "a deed or an act; that which has been done," from a verb-stem of  "prassein/prattein," meaning "to do, to act, to perform," which is the same word that "practical" ultimately comes from.  Speaking of "prattein," just down the "P" page is the word "prat," a bit of British slang for "buttock," reminding me of the backup catcher on the Bobby Valentine Mets named Todd Pratt—it struck me as funny that he was a typically heavy-legged catcher, not a swift runner in the least, and his name means "Dead Ass." ("Todt" is German for "dead.")

In that "drunk or sober" piece, I described my switch from being a Mets-fanatic to an ex-Mets-heretic, a word taken from "heresy."  The 18th century dictionary-maker and wit Samuel Johnson defines a heresy as  "an opinion of private men different from that of the catholick and orthodox church" but the Greek root-word "hairesis," I learned, means "a taking or choosing for oneself, a choice, a means of taking; a deliberate plan, purpose; philosophical sect, school," and comes from haireisthai "to take or to seize,"  which may (or may not) come from the PIE word for  "to seize."  So a heresy is essentially, as I now understand the word, an act of selfishness or egotism, in seizing one’s own beliefs from those that the world around you demands that you hold.  I can live with that label.  Speaking of Dr. Johnson, I once challenged a professor of mine, who was a Samuel Johnson specialist and a baseball fan, to supply the names of the starting second-basemen on the 1969 World Series teams, who as you all know were "Johnson and Boswell." I think I earned my first bit of genuine respect in grad school for having stumped this Johnson expert on a question with that answer.

We seem to have two words "fervid" (which I used in my piece on fanship) and "fervent" that mean the same thing and come from the same roots, from the Latin "ferventem" meaning "boiling, hot, glowing," and from the Latin "fervidus" which means "glowing, burning." The redundancy in Latin, in other words, has been neatly replicated in English.  The odd thing is that the figurative sense of each word, meaning "impassioned" rather than literally hot, seem to have entered English a few hundred years apart, "fervent" first found in that sense around 1400, but "fervid" taking until the mid-1600s to connote "impassioned."  (This is all according to the annotator of, who claims he is just collecting the research of others, not attesting necessarily to its accuracy, so neither can I attest to it.)  The PIE roots are from a verb that means "to boil or to bubble," which sounds to me like the opening lines of Macbeth, but then again what doesn’t?

"Lapse" comes from the Latin "lapsus," meaning "a slipping and falling" and ultimately from the root word "labi," which the etymonline site says only is of unknown etymology.  In other words, a lapse is not only a hiatus or a lacuna in the sense of something missing but also contains the implication that the missing item is missing due to some error.  This raises the concept of a subject that’s come up on BJOL before, the lumping together of several unlike items in the single category of "error." We have "team errors" (or rather we don’t have them) and we have balks, which aren’t called "errors" but which serve that same purpose of advancing a runner, and we have "wild pitches," which are indistinguishable from "passed balls," making them a good candidate for a category called "shared errors" or something of the sort. Bill has decried the lapse in designating types of errors, particularly balks, due to the terminology of baseball having been invented when the game was young and only very reluctantly been updated over the course of the past century and more.  If we were making up terms today, there might be a half-dozen specific terms to cover various types of errors, throwing errors, catching errors, juggling errors, tagging errors, mental errors, errors of omission, errors in judgment, and so on. "Lapse" began in the early 14th century to mean not just a physical slip but a moral transgression or sin, and by the 1520s included a "slip of the memory."  By the 1650s, it also included "a falling away from one's faith," which is still with us, as in "a lapsed Catholic," of whom there are a few on BJOL.

"Mutable" means "changeable"  but it’s also, I realized from looking at its etymology, closely related to the words "mutual" and "mutate," all of which derive from the Latin root  "mutabilis"  meaning "changeable," and "mutare" meaning "to change," and ultimately  from the PIE root mei-  This is an entirely different PIE root from "meue-" that gives us the term "mute." But "mutability" makes me wonder, nonetheless, about mutes with the ability to play MLB, and why we don’t see deaf MLB players nearly as much as we used to, as in the less polite 19th century when players nicknamed "Dummy" had major league careers. I’m not sure what playing baseball has to do, really, with the ability to hear. (Or to speak, though I’m equally not sure if the "mute" part in "deaf-mute," another term too impolite to use any more, actually meant that they couldn’t physically form words as much as they had no motivation in mastering speech because they would only be able to play one part in a two-part conversation anyway. Is "muteness" actually a thing, apart from "deafness" or is it just a characteristic of deafness?)  If deafnesss and muteness would form a handicap (not hearing which base a teammate wants you to throw a bunt to, say) it would also form an advantage in that crowd noise would be blocked out, enabling such players to concentrate better. I always liked the fact that baseball at its purest was a totally non-verbal activity—I could go out on the field and, for two straight hours, not say or hear a word, concentrating on the purely physical. It was like a short vacation from words, and I wonder why more recent players haven’t been deaf.

 "Mortals" is a very common word, but it’s sort of strange in that its meaning is basically "living people," but its root (PIE "mr-to") means "dead."  The one thing all of us people have in common is that we all will die. "Mr-to" is a very far–reaching root word, forming the term for "dead" in many different languages, from Sanskrit to Russian to Welsh.  Without knowing anything about the subject, I wonder if this elemental, very early linguistic formation "mr-to" goes back to one of the crucial formative steps in human consciousness, that of death itself.  Our awareness that we will all die, it seems to me, is a very difficult one for young children to grasp fully, and a very difficult one for our species as well. As advanced as we are, the entire subject of death is one that we still cling to a primitive taboo about, choosing not to speak or even to think about it, in personal terms, whenever possible. But as in the word "mortals" itself, it’s always lurking somewhere close to being expressed.  We speak of "baseball immortals," as well, which is strange, as if Babe Ruth will live forever, just not literally, because of his greatness as a baseball player. Who was it who mis-spoke about "the immoral Babe Ruth"? I think it was one of his teammates, maybe Jumpin’ Joe Dugan?

"Thwarted" is such a great Anglo-Saxon word, isn’t it? Them Anglo-Saxons sure could pack a whole lot of phonemes into a single syllable, couldn’t they? THWART! It sounds like a good whack across the head, maybe in a comic-book, splashed across a panel in which someone is getting his head split open. I was not disappointed, upon looking it up, to have my instincts confirmed, that "thwart" does indeed come from a Scandinavian root-word meaning "across" or "transverse."  I’d print the word for you, except I don’t think this font has the letter to start the word, a letter that in Old English is called a "thorn" (itself a great Anglo-Saxon word, I’m pretty sure) , pronounced like "th" and looking kinda like a trumpet resting with the mouthpiece in the air.  You see all sorts of pissed-off words in in every Germanic language: "perverse, angry, cross" in Old English, "cross-grained, contrary" in Dutch, and going back to PIE, the root word is actually a variant of "twerk," meaning "to cut." And here you thought twerking was just invented yesterday!

The immediate derivation of "vestigial" is from the French "vestige," meaning a mark or a trace,  which is how we use it, to mean something that isn’t there anymore but we can see faint signs that it used to be there.  The etymology only goes back as far as Latin ("vestigium"), where it meant "a footprint," a perfect example of what vestigial means. Once you have "footprint" in your head, you’ll understand completely what a vestige is.  A lot of my interest in this etymology stuff comes from reading Emerson, by the way.  RWE had an almost religious faith in etymology’s capacity for revealing hidden truths contained in language.  In his essays, he would sometimes pare down language to its essentials (at a time when etymology was less scientific than it has become in the century and a half since Emerson was writing) and find deep truths buried there.  Emerson was a kind of a Deist, who turned away from the ministry because he could no longer accept Christian dogma (after being trained at Harvard Divinity School, mind you, and having a congregation of his own to preach to) and discovered in the natural world all sorts of meaning and significance that he had formerly found in Christianity.

"Staunch" is another Anglo-Saxon beauty:  we use it purely metaphorically, as I used it in my loyalty polemic, to mean "steadfast" or "reliable," but it actually comes from a literal meaning of "water-proof." ("Etanche" in Modern French, "estanco" in Spanish, ultimately from the PIE root "stā," "to stand.") It must have literally meant "something that stands up to water-damage."  The metaphorical sense of "strong, substantial" first appears in English in 1400s, and in the 1600s as "standing firm and true to one's principles," just about the time the Puritans and pilgrims and separatists were staunchly declaring their independence from the Church of England. I count four separate consonant sounds (plus two vowel-sounds squeezed together, a dipthong) in the single syllable in "staunch," tying it with "thwart." Anglo-Saxons, as a rule, loved fitting many consonant sounds into one phoneme, and while Latin, the other main source of English, distributed its consonants much more sparingly.  This stuff was a required course in grad school, though it was completely marginal to the degree I took in Creative Writing. I really loved studying "The History of the English Language." For that course, I wrote a long and somewhat original paper on the linguistic origins of Brooklynese, using pop fiction (Evan Hunter, Norman Mailer, Dashiell Hammett and others) and baseball history, to show how that dialect has been represented and mis-represented in print. One of my best examples came from an apocryphal rendering of a Dodger fan’s cry when a line drive struck Waite Hoyt: "Hert’s hoyt!" was the supposed cry, but I demonstrated how that was a comical (and probably fictional) exaggeration of the Brooklynese. I also used the Baseball Encyclopedia as evidence that "Big Poison" and "Little Poison" for the Waner brothers couldn’t, as legend had it,  have referred to their sizes (and thus being a mispronunciation of "big person" and "little person") since Lloyd Waner (Little Poison) actually stood an inch taller than Big Poison did.  I’m sure that was the only academic essay ever written that footnoted my Bensonhurst neighbor Buddy Hackett, in that I referenced his use of the word "poison" ("Some people hate Howard Cosell like poison, and others hate him just regular") as my basis for the Brooklynite distinction between the Waner brothers.

"Utterly" comes from the same root as "utmost,"  that root basically equating "ut" with "out,"  "utter" meaning "outer," in the sense that we now use it of "complete" or "total," as in "going as far as you can go."  You can hear "out" in the modern German cognate term "ausserlich," meaning "externally."  I jokingly equated "utterly" with "Utley," and, who knows, I may have been on to something there: certainly Mets’ fans found Chase Utley to have been both out on the basepaths in the 2015 post-season and completely out of line in sliding where he did.  I’ll certainly think of him from this point forward as "Chase Outley."

OK, I managed to free-associate a baseball reference, however tangential, into every one of these except "fervid," "thwarted," and "vestigial." If you can shoehorn a reference into one of these, your mind is more skilled than mine at coming up with a baseball reference for any random term you see.



COMMENTS (11 Comments, most recent shown first)

Bill!!! Help !!! New content needed !!! Steve's resorted to reading the dictionary in his tin foil hat!!​
11:37 AM Jan 15th
Actually I do think that.
10:35 AM Jan 15th
Steven Goldleaf
SteveN--that's clever. No one ever thought of that, far as I know. HOTEL--I like that a lot.
9:21 AM Jan 15th

I can't believe that you referred to a History of the
English Language course without making it into an acronym. (HOTEL).
7:01 AM Jan 15th
Steven Goldleaf
MarisFan, you don't think "Big Poison" actually began with a Dodgers' fan trying to call Paul Waner a 'big person', do you? You're only explaining how it COULD have happened if it did happen that way, right? Very unlikely, IMO, for anyone (much less a Brooklynite) to refer to anyone as any kind of "person"--can you picture a Dodger fan referring to Hack Wilson as "that short person"? Or Josh Gibson as "that colored person"? "Person" is a delicate, formal substitute for a specific noun, which would almost never be used in a baseball context, and is for that reason alone, highly unlikely. Much more likely is that the whole person/poison mixup is a kind of comical back-formation, thunk up by some sportswriter looking for an angle on a slow news day. You're right about the s/z distinction, which is another tip-off that the two words didn't get confused for one another.
4:24 AM Jan 15th
P.S. Wiki thinks that "Hook and Ladder" is the mistaken version.
I'm saying it's the other way around.
4:32 PM Jan 14th
Steven: Indeed "Poison" was never any Brooklynite pronunciation of person. But I think you're being too concrete about it.

It's like this.....actually I don't mean "is" like this, because I don't know; I mean this is what would be the story if it is so:

The Brooklynite pronunciation in question is "poyson" -- i.e. with the 's' being an actual 's' sound, not a 'z' sound like in poison.

Big Poyson
Little Poyson

........which would then have been picked up by others, who didn't realize what was going on, as Big Poison and Little Poison -- i.e. making the phrases into something that was familiar to them, which is what people often do. CHILDREN do it much more * but people of all ages do it sometimes. A good example is "for all intents and purposes," which many people make into "all intensive purposes." I think another example, although somewhat questionable, is the football play "Hook and Ladder," which is often said as "Hook and Lateral" -- which also works quite well, for obvious reasons, but I think it came about as a mis-hearing of the other phrase, which I think was the original one.

* Here's an actual example of the children thing, from a friend of mine: When she was a kid and first saw those "Welcome" mats in front of people's doors, she thought it said "William" and that all those places had someone named William living there. You see, she knew the word William but not the word welcome, so when she saw welcome, she made it into the familiar word.

That's what I'm saying happened with poy-son and poison.
4:16 PM Jan 14th
Thanks, Steven. Do you subscribe to Anu Garg's Word a Day? It's free, although he does occasionally ask for small contributions. "Thwart" meaning "across" still is in use today in the word "athwart." It is used mainly in nautical contexts, meaning across, or "athwartships. The same meaning is found in the noun "thwart," a seat. According Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition it is a seat "extending athwart a boat," and it is in common use among sailors to this day.

A fine way to get into an endless argument is to assign meanings to words based on their etymology. Doing so, of course, denies the evolution of language, as the Académie française (French Academy) has futilely tried to do for so long. What is the proper role of a lexicographer, defined so amusingly and inaccurately by Johnson as "a harmless drudge"? I tend to side with Sidney Landau (Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography) and Philip Gove, the Editor in Chief of the initially very controversial Webster's Third New International Dictionary, that it's mainly descriptive (how is the language being used?) rather than prescriptive (show should the language be used?). But it's deliciously complicated.
2:52 PM Jan 14th
As you can guess, Steven, I really enjoyed this, especially the first three paragraphs. The following specific investigations of the origins of some words was good, but I think you might have another article in there based on the opening.

I do all the stuff you wrote about in those first paragraphs. I suspect we all do. This tells us something about how we communicate, and may also tell us something about 'how to write effectively.'

When I read and find myself skimming, I wonder if the author is doing something wrong, or if I am just not interested. That would help my own writing in the first place, except that I don't remember my lessons any more.
12:19 PM Jan 14th
Steven Goldleaf
Teach me to sum up an entire essay in one paragraph, but I was arguing that whoever came up with "Big Poison" and "Little Poison" (not necessarily a Brooklynite--I found no evidence that it originated in Brooklyn at all) was saying that Paul was Big Poison, meaning he was a very harmful opponent, etc. It's merely fanciful that it was a Brooklynese pronunciation of "Big Person," which (I maintain) is not really how "person" was pronounced in Brooklyn, just a colorful shorthand for describing Brooklynese. In any event, if it DID begin in Brooklyn, I have my neighbor Buddy to cite "Poison" as a juicy Brooklyn epithet for an enemy, but I have my doubts that it's even a Brooklyn invention.
12:16 PM Jan 14th
Pardon, I didn't read the whole article, just skimmed...... :-) :-)

About the Waners and their nicknames:

-- Didn't know that Paul was actually the smaller one!! (I see that they were both pretty small.)

-- That said, what you point out doesn't argue against the noted basic origin of the nicknames, because they didn't necessarily refer to the guys' physical sizes. In fact, I never thought that they did!

What I always guessed, and sort of assumed, was that it started with Paul being called "Big Person" by that Dodger fan (or some group of Dodger fans), because of what a great and devastating player he was; and then Lloyd (the lesser Waner) being called Little Person by back-formation.
11:53 AM Jan 14th
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