Monthly Archives: August 2009

owl /aʊl/

One of my favorite bands at the moment is called Owl City, a project from a young guy from Owatonna, Minnesota, called Adam Young. Best described as bright, breezy synth-pop, Owl City’s current album release, Ocean Eyes, is downloading a storm at iTunes and playing regularly on my iPod.

The band name is not, as I originally hypothesized, the nickname for Owatonna (a reasonable guess, I think, considering the common /aʊ/ sound at the beginning of owl and Owatonna) but from an incident in Adam’s second grade when a pet owl got loose on his classroom.

Followers of the Word Guy on Twitter will have noticed that for some months, the web-based version of my page uses a icon of an owl rather than a real-life image of me. This is in part because I can’t find a really good picture of me that makes me look suave, sophisticated, and debonair; most seem to catch me either half-asleep or looking like an accident at a plastic surgery clinic.

Twitter Owl

Twitter Owl

The owl, therefore, plays a vital role in propping up my ego and providing a symbolic representation of my persona. There will be those folks out there who understand the relationship between the owl, the goddess Athena, and wisdom, whereas others might be more inclined to go with the more mundane “he likes Owl City” hypothesis. Hey, whatever floats your symbolic boat!

The word owl is very old and used in many cultures. The OED traces records of its use back to 725 CE where it appears in the form ule, which has many forms over the years such as oule (4th-6th CE), owele, (5th CE), owlle, (5th-6th CE), owle (5th-7th CE), oole (7th CE), up to the modern owl.

The Old English ule is thought to have derived from the Proto-Germanic *uwwalon, which is suggested to be an onomatopoeic word after the sound made by owls.

Glancing back at Athena’s owl, the Greeks used the word γλαύξ (glaux) for little owl, and one of Athena’s many epithets is γλαυκώπις, glaukopis, which means “bright-eyed” or “shining eyes,” which clearly references one of the defining features of the owl – its eyes.

I have an Athenian owl. It sits on my desk at home and has done for many years. I picked it up from a market in Athens – that and a small statuette of the Disk of Phaistos, a strange artifact that is covered on both sides by symbols that have not been found anywhere else except on this one item. The word underneath the owl, ΑΘΕ, is the Greek for Athena.

Athenia Owl Statuette

Athenia Owl Statuette

Mythologically speaking, the owl took on a more sinister role in England. The Barn Owl became associated with death, with William Wordsworth being quite happy to use it as an icon for doom. Screech owls were also seen as harbingers of death, and there was a custom of nailing owls to barn doors to ward off evil. Tough for owls, eh?


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ketchup /ˈkɛtʃəp/

My friend, Jane Odom, has a son, Chase, with an inquiring mind or perhaps an inquiring stomach. He wondered where the word ketchup came from, which suggests it’s in his lexicon and possibly a current high frequency item.

Ketchup in a tub

Ketchup in a tub

For most of us, ketchup is the tomato paste stuff that we buy in bottles and squeeze liberally over hot-dogs, French fries (chips to my UK readers), or into our spaghetti sauce. In fact, ketchup and steak sauce are possibly food staples for the majority of the population.

However, it seems that ketchup was originally used in a much more generic sense and you had to use a modifier to identity the specific ketchup under discussion, which means that I should really talk about tomato ketchup to describe more accurately the sense of ketchup with which we are familiar.

Before we dig into the origin of the word, it’s worth side-tracking a little to take a peek at the variations on ketchup.

When I first moved to the US in 1995, some friends gave my wife and I a gift; the classic Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker. This was originally published in 1931 and mine is the First Scribner Edition dated 1995, which means the language is about 75 years old. But there in the index is a reference to catsup, not ketchup, with three specific recipes; tomato catsup, grape catsup, and walnut catsup. The accompanying text says, “This condiment originated in Malaya, and its name derives from the native word for ‘taste.’ No other food so familiar to Americans seems to have so many variations in spelling.” (p.847).

And it does have some variations, although I’m not convinced there are “many.” Webster’s Dictionary includes catchup, as does the OED, and ketsup does occur across the Internet, but four variations hardly strikes me as prolific.

The Malayan derivation, kechap, was adopted as ketjap in Dutch, and this seems to be the origin that the Rombauers were alluding to. But it is more likely that this was derived from an earlier Chinese word, koechiap or ke-tsiap, a word used for the brine of pickled fish or shellfish.

Charles Payson Gurley Scott first mentioned the Malayan etymology in his 1986 article entitled The Malayan Words in English. But the word appears earlier than this in Charles Lockyer’s An account of the trade in India (1711) where he says, “Soy comes in Tubbs from Jappan, and the best Ketchup from Tonquin; yet good of both sorts are mae and sold very cheap in China.”

And if we accept the alternative, catchup, then this appears even earlier in E.B. Gent’s A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew (1690) with the definition, “Catchup – a high East-India sauce.”

Heinz Ketchup was introduced to the public in 1876 with the tag line “Blessed relief for Mother and the other women in the household!”According to Heinz’s own web site, over 650 million bottles of Heinz Ketchup are sold around the world in more than 140 countries, with annual sales of more than $1.5 billion.

Heinz's Mr. Ketchup

Heinz's Mr. Ketchup

And some more fascinating ketchup trivia:

  1. One tablespoon has 16 calories and no fat
  2. Four tablespoons have the nutritional value of a medium ripe tomato
  3. Ketchup works well for restoring the shine to tarnished copper.
  4. Found in 97% of U.S. kitchens

Check back next week to “ketchup” on the next Word Guy posting!

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guy /gaɪ/

Reader Jason recently asked, “What is the root of the word ‘guy‘?” I appreciate punsters and asking “The Word Guy” about “the word ‘guy'” is just too precious!

With this one, I decided to work backwards, starting with the more common meaning of guy as referring simply to a man. It’s older than dude – which I like better – but less Californian. The OED suggests that this sense of the word appeared in the US in the 19th century, with an example from Swell’s Night Guide (1847) that says, “I can’t tonight because I am going to be seduced by some rich, old Guy.” However, by 1863, the word had made its way across the pond to the UK as Charles Reade wrote in his Hard Cash, “I wouldn’t speak to you in the street for fear of disgracing you; I am such a poor little guy to be addressing a gentleman like you.”

Charles Reade author of Hard Cash

Charles Reade author of Hard Cash

But at the beginning of the 1800’s, a guy referred to someone of grotesque appearance, especially in relation to dress. This seems to have originated from the English practice of creating an effigy of Guy Fawkes, a 17th century Restorationist involved in what was called the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Fawkes was a Roman Catholic who, along with a small cabal, wanted to restore a Catholic to the Protestant throne by blowing up the Houses of Parliament while King James I was in attendence. The plot was foiled and Fawkes was executed, although not in the manner actually prescribed. Being guilty of treason, he was supposed to be hung, drawn, and quartered, but he managed to jump off the gallows just as the noose was put on, and he broke his neck, thus avoiding the drawing and quartering.

Guy Fawkes

Guy Fawkes

In remembrance of the defeat of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators, the government instituted what became known as Bonfire Night, a celebration of the deliverance of the Crown. Part of this involved the creation of an effigy of Guy Fawkes (called, not surprisingly, a guy) to burn on a fire. With the addition of fireworks, both public and private, this became an annual event but is now no longer a national activity of any significance.

But the word is much older than 1605 and the name Guy itself is an old one in English history. The ultimate origin seems to be from the word guide, meaning “one who leads.” The Old French verb guider meant “to lead,” and the Italian guido/guida (masculine and feminine forms respectively) refer to leaders. Given that “leaders” tended to be men, the use of the shortened form guy (or gye, gy, guye, or even guie) to mean a male seems to make sense.

In the 17th century, the word guy was used nautically to describe a rope used to guide or steady something being hoisted or lowered. The role was literally a “guide line” and, by extension, became guy-line or guy-rope to describe a piece of line used to keep a tent upright.

The use of guy as a verb dates back to the 14th century and guider. In 1374, Chaucer wrote; “Yow fiers god of arms…Be present and my song contynne and guy.” It also took on the meaning of leading an army or governing a country: “A kyng…moot don his diligence, His peple for to gye by prudence.” (Hoccleve, 1420).

And in the nautical arena, you would guy your your ship at the harbor or guy your sails to keep them under control.

In the mid-19th century, an interesting use of guy sprang up in the world of theatre. The word was used as slang to make something an object of ridicule of derisive wit. In his 1872 Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain wrote, “The Roman street-boy who guyed the gladiators from the gallery.” And even in the 1970’s, Germaine Greer said in The Female Eunuch (1970)  that “Vociferous women are guyed in the press.”

Finally, guy has also been used to mean “to go off; to run away.” (OED, Vol. VI, p. 976.)

OK, guys, that’s it for this posting. Keep the requests coming.


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