Weird word origins: Why slogans are Irish, muscles are mice and monkeys are monks

There is a labyrinth beneath language, explains The Illustrated Etymologicon author

Mark Forsyth: etymology does make the world a funnier and more beautiful place. Photograph: Scott Wishart

Mark Forsyth: etymology does make the world a funnier and more beautiful place. Photograph: Scott Wishart

 

The word slogan, as in advertising slogan, is an ancient Irish word. Once upon a very long time ago, noble Gaelic warriors would muster for battle on some misty moor. The two armies would face each other, draw their ancient swords, and charge, whilst shouting over and over again their army-cry or slua-gairm.

This slua-gairm could be the name of the clan, or some sort of motto. It became customary for nobles and chieftains to put this motto on their coat of arms, and so, in heraldry, those words written on the ribbony thing under the shield became known as the slogan. From there the word started to mean the motto of any particular group, usually political. And from there it got dragged off into the world of advertising, where it has become debased and familiar. But once you know this history, and know this origin, you can still imagine those ancient warriors charging bravely to their deaths shouting again and again “Should’ve gone to Specsavers! Should’ve gone to Specsavers!”

You don’t really learn anything useful from etymology. There’s nothing in the subject that will qualify you for a job, or make you money, or save you in an emergency. That’s why it’s very rarely taught in schools, as schools are subject to the Tyranny of the Useful. But etymology does make the world a funnier and more beautiful place. An epic history can lie behind some terribly mundane word that you use every day and never thought twice about. Take Bluetooth. Why is it called that? Why when you desperately try and fail to connect your speakers to your phone, do you try to activate blue teeth?

The answer is that it’s named after Harald Bluetooth the 10th-century Viking king of Denmark, who did actually have blue teeth, for reasons lost to both history and dentistry. Harald Bluetooth united the warring provinces of Denmark into a single nation. It so happened that a thousand years later, in 1996, a computer programmer called Jim Kardach was reading a historical novel set during his reign, while also devising a system to unite various different realms of technology. As a joke, he gave the project the working title of Bluetooth.

Bluetooth was never meant to be used officially. Management had already decided to call the product Pan when it was released. But at the last moment they discovered that another company had just launched a product with that name. So they panicked and released it with the working title. And that is why a piece of high-tech is named after a Viking with a funny smile.

Language is strange despite being familiar, and often the familiarity hides the strangeness. Sometimes, the origin of a word is obvious the moment that you think of: if something is familiar, it’s like family. And sometimes it’s obvious the moment that you are told: Why do pop singers have fans? It’s because fan is just a shortening of fanatic, just as van is a shortening of caravan or the radio sign-off wilco is a shortening of will comply.

But sometimes the explanation needs a little bit more. If I told you that the buff in film buff is short for buffalo, you would probably remain a little confused as to why. If I added that the phrases in the buff, looking buff, and buff up were all also short for buffalo, the confusion would not alleviated at all.

Once upon a time, in the 19th century, buffalo leather was very popular. This didn’t come from American buffalo (which are, technically, bison), but from European oxen (which are, technically, buffalo). A Victorian housemaid would always use a buffalo leather cloth to polish the furniture. This got shortened to buff leather, and hence you buff something up, until it looks beautiful and shiny. When the housemaid had finished her work everything would look good and shiny and was therefore called buff. That’s why if you go to the gym a little too much and end up looking muscular and bursting with health, you look really buff.

You could also make clothes out of buff leather, but it was a little odd to do so as buff leather is pretty much skin-coloured. So a suit made of the material would make you look naked, at least at first glance. That’s why in the buff still means naked – it was a Victorian euphemism.

One group of people who did wear buff leather clothing was the New York Fire Department. Buffalo leather was rather good at protecting them from the flames. The New York firefighters are, obviously, heroes to the New Yorkers; but they were even more idolised back in the late 19th century. Small boys would collect their autographs, and the moment a fire broke out they would rush across town to cheer on their favourites. The firefighters were known as the Buffs, because of their protective clothing, and slowly their devoted followers started to be called buffs as well. Then the term spread and there were music buffs and film buffs and etymology buffs. And that is how the buffalo spread silently around the English language.

There is a labyrinth beneath the language: strange connections and tunnels, secret doors that connect absurd things. Take, for example, the hidden passage between pterodactyls and helicopters. Ptero was the Greek word for wing, this allows for the dinosaur with a finger on its wing, the pterodactyl, and for the aircraft whose wings move in a spiral, the helico-pter. Most people miss that latter one because they think that it’s somehow a compound of heli and copter; but it’s that old Greek pt doing all the lifting.

And of course you can go further. Butterflies and moths are lepido-ptery because they have wings that are like the scales of fishes. And did you know that farfalle is the Italian word for butterfly because that’s what the pasta looks like? And butterflies were the symbol of the goddess psyche, so psychoanalysis really means the release of the butterfly? And…

But I’m getting carried away. The point is that there is always another connection. There’s always some strange way that one word forms from another. And it’s utterly disorderly, utterly crazy. There is no grand system. The only way to appreciate the labyrinth is to wander around it, laughing as you go. Because the connections are so ridiculous, so absurd, and so unexpected that all you can really do is giggle.

I was once challenged by a publisher to write a book that just connected from one word to another, to another and to another. It was easy. I started with the word book and kept going for 60,000 words until I ended up back at the word book. Along the way I went from California to the Caliphate, from tinned spam to spam emails, from monks to monkeys and from heroes to heroin.

There are few things more fun in life than seeing the utterly familiar in a new way. It’s like finding out about your boring work colleague’s criminal record.

The language is filled with fantastic images, so long as you know where to look for them. Every muscle is just a little mouse, because that’s what the Romans thought your bicep looked like, a little mouse running around under your skin. Monkeys are named after monks, because back in medieval times monks had such a terrible reputation for sin and debauchery, that these naughty little humanoids found in the tropics resembled nothing so much as them. (This is a case of getting into bad habits). And cappuccinos are named after the Capuchin monks, because of their lovely cream-brown coloured robes.

Viewed like this the language is a zoo, it’s a church, it’s a kitchen, it is all human history running off our tongue every day, and we barely see it. The book I wrote, The Illustrated Etymologicon, is just a small attempt to unmask what is already there, to let you see clearly the wonders of the language that are so often just a little bit obscured, just a little bit out of focus.

As the slogan goes: Should’ve gone to Specsavers.
The Illustrated Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth is out now in hardback (Icon Books, £20)

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