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.

Is it “pour over” or “pore over”?

This is Worf. He is a Klingon. And he will help you learn about idioms.

Nancy pours over her Klingon textbook the night before the big test.
Nancy pores over her Klingon textbook the night before the big test.

This is an idiom that confuses many. So which is correct? Pour over or pore over?

Answer: pore over

Etymology
We can find the reason this idiom uses pore instead of pour by looking at the definition and etymology of the two words.

Merriam-Webster defines pore as “to read or study attentively.” Though this word is spelled the same as the word that means those little openings in your skin, it has a different history. It is believed that pore is a combination of two Old English words: spyrian, which means “to investigate,” and spor, which means “a trace.”[i]

Meanwhile, Merriam-Webster defines pour as “to dispense from a container.” As for its etymology, it is believed that pour comes from the Old French verb purer, which means “to sift (grain), pour out (water).” Purer comes from the Latin word purare, which means “to purify.”[ii]

When you look at these differences, you can tell that it should be pore over because this meaning of pore is “to read or study attentively.” If Nancy from our example pours over her textbook, the only thing she’s going to accomplish is getting a wet book. However, if she pores over her textbook, she’s going to accomplish some learning.

Quiz
Do you understand the difference between pour and pore? Test your skills with this quiz. Fill in either pours or pores in the blanks. The answers are at the bottom.

  1. Nancy really wants to learn the Klingon language, so she _______ over her Klingon – English dictionary every night.
  2. Nancy learned a Klingon ritual involving a glass of bloodwine that she _______ over a special basin.
  3. Once the rubbing alcohol _______ over the cut, Nancy’s Klingon battle scar will be disinfected.
  4. Once Nancy _______ over her lecture notes again, she will have a good understanding of the Klingon future tense.

Answers: 1. pores 2. pours 3. pours 4. pores