Tag

etymology

On dinosaurs, widows and badly named pubs

By Sarah Holper, guest blogger 

The first dinosaur fossil ever found was named ‘Scrotum humanum’, owing to its resemblance to a petrified scrotum. Some thought it was a Roman war elephant’s thigh, or that of a biblical giant. It was, in fact, a Megalosaur’s femur.

Some cultural relativism ought to be applied to this laughable blunder. Before dinosaurs were known to science, giants and dragons were the natural explanations for impossibly hefty unearthed bones. Presumably with much eye rolling, biologist Richard Owen suggested that these bones belonged to an extinct group of reptiles. He coined the name ‘dinosaur’ in 1841, Latinised from the Greek ‘deinos’ meaning ‘terrible’ and ‘saurus’ meaning ‘lizard’. Incidentally, the word ‘dire’ stems from the same terrible root.

On terrible roots, let’s exhume some dismaying English artefacts. According to 1500s mindsets, a woman after her husband’s death became a dusty fossilised relict. Alas, our word ‘relict’ is from the Latin ‘relicta’ meaning ‘widow’. Further abandonment-flavoured words like ‘relinquish’ and ‘derelict’ derive from the Latin verb form ‘relinquere’ – to leave behind. Before deserting this etymological tangent, a dip into maritime lingo. ‘Derelict’, now synonymous with a state of neglect, technically refers to cargo irretrievably sunk at sea. Accidentally lost but still floating cargo is flotsam (both ‘f’ words are from the Germanic ‘floter’, meaning ‘to float’). Jetsam is cargo deliberately thrown (‘jettisoned’, from the same Old French root ‘getaison’, meaning ‘a throwing’) overboard to stabilise a ship in crisis. Hence ‘flotsam and jetsam’ has become a phrase to describe miscellaneous worthless trash (much like a widow in the 16th century, apparently).

Far from flotsam and jetsam is fossilised tree resin. Not only can it fossilise other creatures in a gloopy tomb, it can form a fossil per se: amber. Amber has a curious quality of acquiring an electric charge when rubbed with certain materials. Some 1640s amber-rubbing escapades led polymath Sir Thomas Browne to dub this attractive property ‘electric’. The leap from ‘amber’ to ‘electric’? Our old friend Latin, in which amber is called ‘electrum’.

Finally, an alphabetical fossil. Old English was written in runes. Christian missionaries arriving in the 9th century soon imposed not only their religion on the Anglo-Saxons, but the Latin alphabet too. The rune ‘thorn’, pronounced ‘th’, looked most similar to the Latin ‘Y’. Thus ‘Y’ took thorn’s place as the ‘th’-sounding symbol, while thorn was jettisoned into an alphabetical mass grave.

It follows then that pseudo-historical venues named ‘Ye Olde’ so-and-so ought to be pronounced ‘the old’, not ‘ye old’. A world-view flipping bombshell, I know. Now you know how the benighted masses felt when their ‘dragons and giants’ turned out to be dinosaurs.