A villainous etymology

villain: a character in a story, movie, etc., who does bad things
Merriam-Webster

I’ve been on a major Shakespeare kick lately. One thing I noticed in my devouring of his plays is how many times the bard used the word villain. I mean, it’s a lot. If you turned it into a drinking game, taking a sip every time he used it (which you shouldn’t do because that’s dangerous), you’d in a sad state by act II.

This got me thinking about the etymology of villain. By its spelling, I assumed it came from French (it does), but I didn’t expect it would have much of a story after that. I was wrong. The Online Etymology Dictionary gave me the details.

Villain comes from the Old French word vilain, which does not mean “a bad guy in a cape lurking in the shadows.” It originally meant, in the twelfth century, a “peasant, farmer, commoner, churl, yokel.” In other words, a villain was just a regular guy who was unfamiliar with the trappings of high society.

Before Old French, villain had roots in the Medieval Latin villanus, meaning “farmhand.” Before that was the Latin villa, meaning “country house, farm.”

So, is it really so bad to be a villain? Shakespeare still thought so:

O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down,
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.
Hamlet: Act 1, Scene 5

 

 

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Solstice

Today is the summer solstice, the day that starts the summer season, which also happens to be the day in which we have the most hours of sunlight. Merriam-Webster defines solstice as: one of the two points on the ecliptic at which its distance from the celestial equator is greatest and which is reached by the sun each year about June 22nd and December 22nd.

So, basically, what I said before. (Way to complicate things, M-W.)

Etymology
English adopted solstice from the Old French word of the same spelling. The word originally came from Latin as a combination of sol, which means sun, and sistere, which means “to come to a stop.” Related is the Latin word solstitium, which means “point at which the sun seems to stand still.” (Much thanks to the Online Etymology Dictionary for that information.)

Erbs and herbs

British people call those green things you keep in your spice rack herbs, pronouncing the H. Here in America, We call ‘em erbs, without the H sound. Is one way more correct than the other? Well, no. Different pronunciations happen within different dialects of one language. But, how we got to our different pronunciations is pretty interesting.

The word herb began being used in the 1300s. It came from the Old French word erbe, which came from the Latin word, herba. When herb came into being, Latin had lost its H sound, and it also was not pronounced in French. So, originally, herb didn’t have the H sound. (Point one, Americans.)

Move ahead to the nineteenth century. Britons decided to go with a technique called “spelling pronunciation,” which means they pronounce the H in herbs because, as Eddie Izzard explains, “there’s a fucking H in it.” (Point one, Brits.)

According to The American Heritage Dictionary’s usage note on herb, this means British people also pronounce these related words with an H: herbaceous, herbal, herbicide, and herbivore. However, this is not the same for Americans. We pronounce herb and herbal without the H sound; but, we pronounce herbaceous, herbicide, and herbivore with the H. Even stranger, we pronounce the male name Herb with the H.

So, if we were to pronounce herb as history had it originally, the American pronunciation would be on target. Yet, at least the British people are consistent with their hard H pronunciations. Bully for them.

What decimate really means

If you are reading this from your underground doomsday bunker, I thank you for taking the time from your end-of-the-world preparations to read my humble blog. Yes, today is the day some people decided the ancient Mayans predicted would be the end of the world. So, in the spirit of all things apocalyptic, I thought we should talk about epic disasters—more specifically, the word decimate.

What do you think when you hear the word decimate? Bridge-swallowing earthquakes? Nuclear wastelands? Robot overlords?

Decimate has come to mean near-total destruction, but that’s not the technical definition of the word. Decimate comes from the Latin word decem, which means ten. Thus, decimate means to reduce something by a tenth. Merriam-Webster lists the first definition of decimate as: “to select by lot and kill every tenth man of.”

Destroying a tenth of something is still some serious carnage, but I doubt it matches the type of destruction most people now identify with the word. However, that’s okay. The meaning has changed over time, where it now can mean anything from a storm knocking down every tenth tree to robot overlords exterminating all of humankind.

And just in case this is my last post, I’ll leave you with this—an introduction to your new leaders. Good luck in the apocalypse, suckers.

Peel vs. peal

peel (verb): to strip off an outer layer of
Example: Lawrence peeled the skin off of his apple.

peel (noun): the skin or rind of a fruit
Example: Becky threw her potato peels in the trash.

peal (noun): the loud ringing of bells; a loud sound or succession of sounds
Examples:
Gina heard the peal of the church bells from across town.
Ryan let out peals of laughter at his buddy’s lunch room antics.

Etymology
Peel comes from the Latin word pilare, which means to remove the hair from. It came into English in the 13th century.

Peal is short for appeal, which in Middle English meant a summons to church service. It came into the English language in the 14th century.

Quiz:
Fill in the blanks with either peel or peal. The answers are below.

1. Grace slipped on a banana _______ and broke her nose.
2. Stan grew excited when he heard the _______ of the day’s last school bell.
3. Grandma _______ed eight pears for the pie.
4. ____s of loud sobs escaped from Sammy when he learned a dragon ate his cat.
5. Sammy’s mean sister told him the dragon _______ed the skin off of his cat before he ate her.

Answers:
1. peel (noun) 2. peal 3. peel (verb) 4. peal 5. peel (verb)