Words of a Feather: An Etymological Explanation of Astonishing Word Pairs

Words of a Feather: An Etymological Explanation of Astonishing Word Pairs

by Graeme Donald


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Words of a Feather: An Etymological Explanation of Astonishing Word Pairs by Graeme Donald

In this quirky and humorous volume, Graeme Donald explores the fascinating links and curious connections between words. While at first these word pairs may appear to have very little in common, owing to years of linguistic shift, their origins can be traced back to the same root. In exploring these etymological twins, Words of a Feather reveals the oddities of the English language and the fascinating stories that have made our vocabulary so rich. The perfect gift for language lovers and history buffs alike, this beautiful book contains over 200 word pairs with a common ancestry.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781784188146
Publisher: John Blake Publishing, Limited
Publication date: 04/01/2016
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Graeme Donald is the author of a number of books on the meaning and origins of words, and on scientific and historical misconceptions. He has written for many newspapers and had a column about word origins in the Today newspaper for more than 10 years.

Read an Excerpt

Words of a Feather

An Etymological Exploration of Astonishing Word Pairs

By Graeme Donald

John Blake Publishing Ltd

Copyright © 2015 Graeme Donald
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78418-926-6




Gladiators were the superstars of their day and death in the arena not anything like as frequent or inevitable as depicted in sword-and-sandal epics. The gladiator was simply too valuable an asset to be squandered in such manner; any school that lost half of its fighters at every games would soon have been out of business. That said, the debate as to the precise nature of thumb-signals used by the crowd at gladiatorial games continues but the general presumption that thumbs up meant 'let him live' and that thumbs down called for the vanquished to be killed is almost certainly wide of the mark.

There are ancient references to 'pollice verso', turned thumb, but no indication as to the direction. The bulk of opinion today seems to favour the notion that thumbs down meant drop the weapon and let him live as did the gesture of hiding the right thumb in the clenched fist of the left; death would be called for by a self-stabbing with the thumb to the chest.

What is known is that the mob would bay, 'Ad caput (venire)', literally 'bring it to a head' but used in the sense of 'finish it off'. With death in the arena regarded by the mob as the most entertaining outcome, Early French, building on its own 'chef', meaning head, took this original Latin expression to create the verb 'aschever', to bring matters to a successful conclusion, and then invented the antonym 'meschever', which basically meant 'to make a mess of things'. English adopted these two in the forms of 'achieve' and 'mischief', with the former still retaining its original gladiatorial overtones in certain contexts, as seen in Shakespeare's Henry V, in which the eponymous character says, 'Bid them achieve me and then sell my bones' (Act 4, Scene 3).

Now swept to obscurity by disposables, the humble 'hankie' began life as an ornate head covering – not unlike the Spanish mantilla – carried by women wishing to indicate a modest demeanour. First called in French a 'couvre-chef', or head covering, this entered English in the late 1200s as 'kerchief', but within a hundred years men too were wafting increasingly ornate lace kerchiefs in displays of flamboyance and ostentation, which attracted the inclusion of 'hand'. Far too expensive to blow your nose on, the handkerchief was the must-have iPad of its day, with Henry IV paying over 2,000 francs for one gold-embroidered hankie for his mistress.

Outlandish styles and shapes were curtailed in 1785, when King Louis XVI of France banned the production of anything but square hankies. It took the introduction of snuff to simplify the accessory and bring it to its modern use: as people jackknifed about the court in paroxysms of sneezing after shoving the new powder up their noses, the folly of blowing tobacco-stained mucus onto something so expensive started the drive towards increasingly plain and sturdy forms.

Incidentally, the practised snuff-taker only ever faked having to sneeze, in order to excuse himself from an embarrassing or boring situation, hence 'not to be sneezed at', as said about anything of genuine interest.


It is strange that 'aftermath' is now only used with negative overtones – the aftermath of war, or whatever – for it originally presented as 'aftermowth', a cognate of 'mow', and described the fresh growth that sprang up after the initial cutting of a meadow.


The Middle English 'char' or 'charr' denoted a turn, so the door that stands neither open nor shut but halfway through its turn, is 'achar' or 'ajar'. The 'charlady' does a turn of work, concentrating on her 'chores', and wood that is burnt to such a state that it looks like it has been turned into coal is 'charcoal'.

Charing Cross in London is said to come from the French 'Chère Reine', or Dear Queen, after Edward I erected a cross there in the early 1290s to honour his departed wife, Eleanor of Castile. But although he was undoubtedly French-speaking – our first English-speaking king was Henry IV – the area was already known as Charing for its location on a bend, or turn, in the Thames.


The relationship between these two terms involves a chain of misunderstanding and error leading back to the Arabic 'al qadus', water bucket. This term was originally used of the pelican in reference to its capacious pouch, but when it moved into Spanish and Portuguese as 'alcatraz' it was applied indiscriminately to the pelican, the albatross, the cormorant and the frigate bird. When the term arrived in 1680s English as 'algatrosse' it was misdirected at the large wandering bird, and, due to an assumption that the Latin 'albus', white, must somehow be involved, the spelling was altered to 'albatross'. When early Spanish explorers came across the now-infamous island in San Francisco Bay, they named it Alcatraz due to its flourishing colony of pelicans.

One cannot leave the subject of Alcatraz and birds without stating that Robert Stroud, the so-called Birdman of Alcatraz, never kept a single bird throughout his entire time on The Rock.


The three common but disparate senses of 'Amazon' – a Xena-like warrior of Greek mythology, a mighty river, and the online trader – all are inexorably linked.

When applied to lusty-limbed female warriors, the term has excited all forms of conjecture, as one might imagine, with various scholars favouring the notion that the term was born of the Greek 'a mazos', without breast, as female offspring might have had the right breast cauterised at birth to make for more efficient archery in later life. However, women today excel at archery without recourse to such drastic measures, and no ancient image of the Amazons shows them to be thus mutilated.

There have been other suggestions but, as pointed out by the eminent etymologist Eric Partridge, there seems little reason to look beyond the Old Persian 'hamazon', a warrior. The Greeks and the Persians were forever at each other's throats and there is plenty of evidence of female Persian warriors on whom the Greeks could have built their legend. The female cavalry of Sassanid Persia (226–651) was widely and rightly feared, and, although they were around too late in the day to form the foundation of Amazons per se, these units could well have been followers of earlier female brigades. Who knows?

The Spanish expedition into South America in 1541, led by Gonzalo Pizarro and Francisco de Orellana, laboured under two linguistic misunderstandings. Inspired by the tales of El Dorado brought back by the 1500 expedition under Pinzón, Orellana went in search of what he imagined to be a golden city, whereas El Dorado had in a fact been a man covered in gold dust as part of a religious ritual. When Orellana reached the river referred to as the Amassona (Boat-Smasher) by the local Tupi, his mind immediately filled with images of naked female warriors along its banks, prompting him to alter the spelling.

In 1994, and inspired by 'abracadabra', Jeff Bezos founded his online trading company, Cadabra, but, tired of jokes and the pun on 'cadaver', he changed its name to Amazon the following year, imagining (with great perspicacity as it turned out) a mighty outpouring of merchandise.


The prejudice against left-handed people is ancient: in Latin 'dexter' meant of or pertaining to the right-hand side while 'sinister' meant to the left. 'Ambidextrous' was coined for those with equal 'dexterity' in both hands, and dextrose got its name because it always polarises light to the right in spectroscopy. This theme continues through the French 'adroit', to the right, which English adopted to mean capable, clever and able, and 'maladroit', that prefix meaning wrongly or badly, to denote those considered clumsy or inept. The straightforward French 'gauche', left, was also adopted for those considered socially inept.

The use of left and right in the political context was established by the seating arrangements of the French Estates General, which opened in 1789, with the nobility supporting the monarch being seated to the right with the rabble determined to wrest control from the elite being relegated to the left; the addition of 'wing' would be made in the nineteenth century. 'Sinister' likely took on its dark overtones through right-handed swordsmen having to face a 'southpaw' who, presenting every move in reverse, made for a 'sinister' opponent. The open stone staircases in castles and keeps traditionally spiralled up anti-clockwise so that invaders, likely to be right-handed, would have their sword arm impeded by the wall while the defenders had full sweep. The only exception to this rule is seen in Ferniehirst Castle near Jedburgh in Scotland, ancient home of the predominantly left-handed Kerr clan, whose spiral stairs run clockwise.


Both ultimately derive from the Latin 'ambulare', to walk, this in turn producing a second Latin term, 'ambitus', to walk around in a circle; 'ambient', as descriptive of the encircling environment, is therefore an allied term.

It was Baron Larrey, Napoleon's surgeon-in-chief, who invented the 'hospital ambulant', or walking hospital: medical teams with hooded litters, who walked about the battlefield, doing what they could on site and removing the more seriously wounded. By 1796, during Napoleon's Italian campaign, these walking units had been replaced by a more comprehensive deployment of horse-drawn carriages that were given the nonsensical name of 'ambulants volants', or flying walkers. Ignorant of the fact that the first element of that construction was in fact a plural, English adopted it in the form of 'ambulance'.

As for 'ambition', this was born of aspiring Roman politicians putting themselves about in the forum, pressing the flesh in an effort to drum up votes. The colour of the hem of one's toga indicated one's rank or station in society, so, to show the people he was 'one of them', the ambitious aspirant went 'candidatus', or dressed in white, hence 'candidate'. And we still fall for that one! It was no better in Ancient Greece, where 'idiotes' described a private individual – a voter, in other words.


The Ancient Egyptians revered a deity called Ammon, Amon or Amun, whose temple at Siwa in what is now the Libyan Desert attracted droves of pilgrims. Staying for days at a time, the pilgrims tethered their transport in the nearby 'camel park'. Over the centuries, thousands of gallons of camel urine soaked into the sand; when the Romans turned up in 106 BC to dig out the foundations for a new fort, they uncovered large and foul-smelling crystals that were sent back to Rome for examination. The new discovery was named 'ammonia' for the place where it had been found. Once alerted to the cleansing power of ammonia, the Roman Empire began collecting urine – human and animal – for use in laundry and, believe it or not, oral hygiene; allowed to 'ferment' in large jars, urine was the first 'toothpaste'.

As for King Tut, his name meant 'The Living Image of Amon'; contrary to the popular presentation of the name, the accepted form in Egypt during his brief reign was Ammon-tut-Ankh, as the name of the god had to take precedence. To dispel another myth about the pharaoh, stories of a curse that befell those who desecrated his tomb are but press-fuelled fantasy. There was no curse inscribed anywhere on or in the tomb, and all involved in the plundering of the tomb under Egyptologist Howard Carter in 1922 lived, on average, for a further twenty-five years.


The shared root here is the Greek 'apokaluptein', to uncover or reveal, and the antonymic 'kaluptein', to hide or conceal.

A close cognate of 'apocryphal', denoting tales with hidden moral points, 'Apocalypse' first saw service in English as an alternative name for the last book of the New Testament, formally entitled the Revelation of St John the Divine. Penned by John of Patmos, this contains some pretty gruesome images – including the Four Horsemen who appear as harbingers of the Last Judgement – and fire-and-brimstone preachers ranting about the Armageddon of which the text made so much caused the term to shift to its present meaning.

As for 'calypso', the word was for many centuries primarily known as the name of the nymph-queen of the hidden island of Ogygia, who bewitched Odysseus to delay his return home from the Trojan Wars in Homer's Odyssey. Or at least that's what he told his wife. In more recent times it was applied to the songs of seventeenth-century slaves in the Caribbean, who, singing in a mixture of Creole and their own native tongues, hid in their songs bawdy and ridiculing references to their oppressors.

The 'crypt', in which the occupant is hidden from view, and the 'cryptic' crossword are also allied terms, as is the more remote relative 'grotto'.


Sometime around 1080, Hassan ibn-al-Sabbah, the 'Old Man of the Mountains', a childhood friend of Omar Khayyam, began sending forth his demented minions from his mountain fortress at Alamut in Persia to kill any Muslims opposed to his own version of 'the truth'. So no change in that neck of the woods over the last thousand years, then.

Eight years later the First Crusade landed on Hassan's doorstep, providing him with an endless supply of infidels to slay. Those who survived his attentions brought home tales of Muslim fanatics called the Hashisheen, or the hashish-eaters, who, allegedly out of their heads on said drug, would embark on frenzied killing sprees. That 'assassin' is derived from 'Hashisheen' is beyond dispute but not so the killers' use of the drug.

First mention of Hassan's minions using drugs comes from that old charlatan Marco Polo, who claimed to have visited Alamut in 1273 and come out alive. He tells of an induction ceremony during which recruits were given a sneak preview of the paradise that supposedly awaits all martyrs. They were, according to Polo, drugged up to the eyeballs and led to a dressed scene, complete with the scanty-pantied houri, or doe-eyed virgins, who allegedly stand ready to attend to all the needs and desires of dead martyrs. Trouble is that Polo writes of a potion that knocks the recruits senseless for days, which sounds nothing like hashish. But Polo cannot be regarded as a reliable source in that he likely got no further than Turkey, where he picked other travellers' brains about China. For one thing, he knew nothing of the Great Wall of China, which would have been a bit difficult for him to miss, if, as he claimed, he was dispatched hither and yon on the orders of Kublai Khan, who, in keeping with all other contemporary accounts, records nothing of any Venetian at his court.

'Hashisheen' has for centuries been employed metaphorically in Arab slang for any troublemaker or disruptive person, whether they take drugs or not. And it must be said that the followers of Hassan, although murderous terrorists, were Muslim fundamentalists and thus unlikely in the extreme to have taken drugs of any kind. In Edward Burman's The Assassins: Holy Killers of Islam (1987) the author explains that scholastic investigation into the cult has established that the attribution of the epithet 'hashish-eater' or 'hashish-taker' to Hassan's followers is a misnomer cooked up by the enemies of the Isma'ilis and, shunned by most Moslem chroniclers of the day, was only ever applied in the pejorative sense of 'enemies' or 'disreputable people'. He goes on to state that there is no mention of hashish in any contemporary chronicles, not even in the library at Alamut.


Early navigators had a problem: while their charts showed the earth as flat, their ships were in fact moving across a sphere, which called for complicated correctional calculations. Finally, in 1569, the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator produced maps presenting the world as a flat plane, with the meridians parallel, but avoiding distortions to navigational routes. This made the navigator's job 'plane sailing' (not 'plain sailing').

Determined to have a suitably impressive frontispiece for his first book of these new-format maps, Mercator opted for the popular image of the Titan, Atlas, supporting the world on his back, after which the demi-god's name was applied to any collection of charts or maps. Unfortunately Mercator had misremembered his Greek mythology; Atlas's punishment for waging war on Olympus was not to carry the world but to support the heavens for eternity. He was transformed into rock so that he could perform this feat, and the Atlas Mountains were believed to be his petrified remains; the waters they overlook were called the 'Atlantic' Ocean.


The Latin 'tornare', to turn, moved into French as 'tourner', which produced 'tourney', the forerunner of the knightly 'tournament'. With his weapon in one hand and a shield in the other, the rider could not hold the reins, so paramount was his ability to turn or manoeuvre his horse with signals from the knees. The 'attorney' is simply the person to whom you turn over your affairs.


Excerpted from Words of a Feather by Graeme Donald. Copyright © 2015 Graeme Donald. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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