A favorite little book, “Why Do We Say It? The Stories Behind the Words, Expressions, and Clichés We Use,” reminds me that language results from many sources, also the theme for the website “A.Word.A.Day” at wordsmith.org which this week focuses on “People who have had multiple words coined after them.”
Socratic method, for example, takes its name or eponym from the Greek philosopher and teacher Socrates (c. 470-399), who used a series of questions to guide his students to answers. Midas touch, equally familiar, means the easy ability to make anything profitable. The earliest documented use of this phrase was 1652, and it derived from the legend of King Midas to whom the god Dionysus gave the power of turning anything he touched into gold. Disadvantages and tragedy resulted when Midas couldn’t eat if he touched his food. When he embraced his daughter, turning her into gold, he regretted his power and greed.
A lesser known word, philippic, derives from bitter speeches the orator Demosthenes gave urging the Athenians in 338 B.C. to rebel against Philip II of Macedon. Having its roots in the Greek word philippikpos, its first documented use was in 1550.
In “Why Do We Say It?” we meet the word abracadabra, said to be the name of the supreme deity of the Assyrians. A Roman physician and scholar, Quintus Serenus Sammonicus (c. second century), advised using this word as a charm against ague (malaria) and flux (abnormal bleeding) by writing it on a piece of paper and hanging it from one’s neck.
How did the word assassin originate? During the Crusades in 1090 A.D., a Persian ruler, Hasan ibn-al-Sabbath, formed a secret sect which terrorized Christians by systematically murdering them while under the influence of hashish. The Arabian word for hashish eater — hashshashin — evolved to assassins, members under the absolute power of “The Old Man of the Mountain,” a ruler who made his headquarters on Mount Lebanon.
The story behind the word bazooka begins with a vaudeville performer, Bob Burns, who invented a kind of kazoo that had a long sounding-horn. He named it a bazooka from the Dutch word bazu, meaning “trumpet.” During World War II, because the American-made two-man rocket gun looked like Burns’ musical instrument, it was named after it.
Boondoggle began as the name for the braided leather lanyard Boy Scouts wore, named by scoutmaster Robert H. Link, who possibly joined “Daniel Boone” and “joggle.” The lanyard had no real purpose, and during the 1930s Depression, the name for this useless piece transferred to the many futile tasks men performed on “make-work” projects of the federal government.
Men’s undergarments called BVDs take their name from the manufacturers, Bradley, Voorhees & Day, that used the members’ names as their trademark. Later Erlanger Brothers bought the trademark, and today BVD Corp. still produces underwear and swim wear.
When we eat chicken à la king, chicken cooked in a creamy sauce of mushrooms, peas, sherry and other ingredients, then served over noodles or rice, we may not know that we are consuming a dish King Edward VII invented. Edward also gave us tuxedo, sometimes the garb in this month of weddings. First worn at Tuxedo Park, the tuxedo, according to legend, came from a design by the king when he was still Prince of Wales and an avid card player. Being rather stout, Edward found his coattails in the way as he played long into the night. He asked his tailor to cut off the tails, creating the tuxedo.
With all the recent commemorations of the anniversary of D-Day, you may have learned that the “D” just stands for “day,” any given day. For security purposes, the day of the invasion was never written as a definite day but only as “D.” The hour was designated “H,” and related days and hours were labeled “D+” or “D—” and “H+” and “H—.”
My friend Marian recently said she played devil’s advocate, the opposite of God’s advocate, the titles of those involved in canonization in the Roman Catholic church. When a name is proposed for canonization, the person appointed to be God’s advocate speaks in support of the potential saint while the devil’s advocate says all he can against the proposal.
Why are a person’s fists called his dukes? Because the Duke of Wellington, greatly admired British soldier, statesman and prime minister, had a very large nose, men with large noses were nicknamed “dukes.” A hand doubled into a fist was therefore a “duke buster”; eventually the “buster” was dropped, and fists became “dukes.”
Does your home have a Mansard roof? The French architect Francois Mansard circumvented an 11th-century law that limited the number of floors to a building by lifting parts of the roof and giving a house an extra story.
The adjective that describes an overly sentimental person — maudlin — derives from an impious reference to Mary Magdalene, this surname being pronounced “maudlin” in British use. Medieval painters represented Mary Magdalene with a sad face and eyes swollen from weeping.
And last, we look at Uncle Sam, that goateed, twinkling-eyed symbol of America. The original Samuel Wilson was born in West Cambridge, Massachusetts, but moved with his brother to Troy, New York, where they had a meat-packing business. They supplied the Army with beef and pork during the War of 1812, labeling their shipping barrels with “U.S.” Soldiers called the meat “Uncle Sam’s,” and one of them drew a caricature of Sam Wilson with a goatee and flowing hair. He labeled the painting “Uncle Sam of the U.S.A.”