Monday, September 10, 2007

Insurgent and Surge

We have been trained to view the insurgents in Iraq as the "bad guys," even though it's quite clear that our revolutionary heroes (G. Washington, T. Paine, & Company) were themselves insurgents, one and all. There is, then, nothing inherently wrong with "rising up in revolt." Jefferson even recommended it as a remedy against tyranny. We may conclude, therefore, that what determines our feelings about insurgents relates to who is revolting against whom.

The same government that has encouraged us to despise the insurgents has also urged us to support the surge, a temporary increase in the number of soldiers. So we surge against the insurgents.

At this point, you have probably guessed that "insurgent" and "surge" are etymologically linked, both coming from the Latin "surrigere" meaning "to rise." "Surrigere is a compound of "sub" and "regere "to keep straight," the source of many English words including "regulation" and "rectitude."

Thus, the Iraqi insurgents and the surging soldiers who oppose them are linked not only in battle but in linguistics.

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Friday, August 17, 2007


I've been "away" for a month, developing a new book: Engineering Your Life. The premise is that the same engineering processes that created wonders such as the Hoover Dam and the Apollo Space Mission can be used to solve everyday problems, and also to enhance creativity. I invite you to visit and click Forum. If you enjoy what you read, you can participate in the making of the book.

While working on the new book--with my coauthor Jonathan Caws-Elwitt--I've continued to job down words that interest me.

Today, if it's OK with you, I'm going to depart from this blog's routine of examining doublets--word pairs that may seem unrelated yet are connect etymologically, for example, cosmos & cosmetics, and rectitude & rectum. I want to focus on a single word: free. There are many uses for the word, but I'm thinking about it in the context of something given to someone without payment. When I was growing, marketers talked about "free samples," which allowed a potential customer to try a product without paying for it. On buses, information was dispensed from a container labeled "Free, take one."

These days, many companies have hijacked the word "free." For example, a certain credit-reporting company uses "free" in its title. The implication is that you can get your credit report free by going to a website. But you only get the "free" report if you purchase the service. You might think: "Well, sure, no one gives anything away without strings attached." Maybe now, but in the old days, they did. Why? Because the company believed that the person using the free sample would become a paying customer.

There are companies that now advertise they will give you a free supply of their product if you only will pay the shipping cost. To pay the cost, you need to sign up for the product and provide your credit card to pay the postage. But some of these companies then bill the person for the next supply even if the person who ordered the "free" sample doesn't want it.

Here's some free advice: When someone makes you a free offer, your first move should be to protect my wallet. Caveat emptor? Sure. But still I'm angry about the debasement of a perfectly good word.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Derive & Drift

While on holiday, my friend Jonathan Caws-Elwitt took the following linguistic excursion. Although he didn't hit paydirt, he dramatizes beautifully what it means to be an etymological speculator. As with others kinds of journeys, getting there--or not getting there--is half the fun. Speaking of fun, I recommend Jonathan's humorous article on do-it-yourself etymology available at

Jonathan, by the way, has joined me in writing a book—ENGINEERING YOUR LIFE. For more on this effort, please visit, where you too can get involved.

Now about "Derive & Drift," Jonathan writes:

In a small museum in New Brunswick, I noticed that the French version of a display about continental drift used the word "dérive" for "drift." I got a little bit excited about the possibility that "drift" and (the English word) "derive" might be words of a feather. But the Online Etymological Dictionary ( shows "derive" as coming from Latin (via French) and "drift" as coming instead from the Germanic side of the street, namely, from Old Norse or Middle Dutch (and being related to "drive").

The French use of "dérive" for "drift" seems to play on the concept of diversion (as in diverting a body of water--(or, in this case, a body of land). One can therefore think of aeons of continental drift as the planet's attempt at creating a diversion—perhaps so that we wouldn't notice that Magnetic North was not exactly North.

I hope you find this information diverting, assuming it's not old news—which, after all, is exactly what continental drift is.

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Turmoil & ?

Today I read yet another NY Times article on the turmoil in the Mideast. I knew that "turmoil" means "profound confusion" and "chaos." Then suddenly I found myself wondering: "What's the word's etymology?"

Given my habit of guessing whether or not a word is a doublet, I took a long hard look at "turmoil." I thought perhaps it shared its origin with "turbulent," whose definition-- "disorderly, tumultuous, runruly"--isn't that far from the sense of "turmoil."

Another possibiity would be "turbid," which includes the notion of something being "stirred up."

Unfortunately, The American Heritage Dictionary (Fourth Edition) took the position that the etymology of "turmoil" is "unknown." uses "perhaps" in its speculative etymology, which suggests that the word might be an anglicized version of the French "tremouille" meaning "mill hopper," a device that is in constant motion in a mill. This etymology might be valid, but that word "perhaps" doesn't make me confident.

Too bad because "turbid" traces back tothe Latin "turbidus," which is the source of "trouble" and "turbulence." (The"ur" sound--found in "turbid" became the "ru" sound in "trouble" by metathesis, the reversal of letters and sounds. The "o" in "trouble" may mask the connection, but no need to start a rant about English spelling not matching English pronunciation.)

What matters here is that we can't etymologically link "turmoil" to "turbulence" or "trouble." Sometimes etymology disappoints.

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Dope & Dupe

I'm writing a play about an atheist and a fundamentalist. The working title is "Dupe."

That title made me wonder if "dupe" is etymologically connected to "dope." Look at the similarity of spelling. Certainly someone who is duped feels like a dope, at least I feel that way.

Alas, there is no connection. "Dupe" is from the French phrase "de huppe," referencing the hoopoe, a bird that some people thought was stupid. (Makes me wonder what hoopoes think of people.) The name "hoopoe" itself is echoic; apparently the bird's cry sounds like that. I haven't heard it myself so I wouldn't know for sure.

But thanks to, I do know that "dope" comes from the Dutch "doop," a thick sauce.

All I can say is that the similar spelling of these two words duped me and made me feel like a dope. Maybe this experience will better prepare me to write the play. See you on Broadway.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Teach and Vindicate

The New York Times today published an editorial titled "Matthew's Vindication." The piece focused on the Matthew LaClair, a high school student who challenged a teacher's right to proclaim--in class that evolution is a false theory and that only Christians will be admitted to heaven.

At first, the school board backed the teacher and criticized the youth as did many of Matthew's classmates.

But the story ends happily for the young man and for those of us who value the separation of church and state. When threatened with a suit, the school board voted 6 to 1 against permitting teachers proselytizing their religion in class. Unfortunately, the editorial writer did not explain the rationale of the sole board member who voted the other way.

My concern here, however, is with "vindication." While the word today means "clearing from criticism, blame, or guilt," it traces to the Latin "vindicare," which has the darker meaning of "avenge" or "punish," as in "vindictive." Implicit is the idea of anger and even hatred. The Latin term itself goes back to an ancient root--"deik," with the meaning of "saying something sollemnly."

The problem is: Matthew wasn't being hateful in rejecting religious instruction in a public school class. Rather, he was providing a positive--if powerful--lesson in democracy. Perhaps the Times headline writer would have come closer to the truth had he titled the story "Matthew the Teacher." Ironically, "teacher" traces back to the same ancient root--"deik"--that gave us "vindication."

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Testicle & Testimony in the Mary Winkler Case

For some reason, I got hooked on the Mary Winkler case. She's the woman who killed her minister husband by shooting him in the back while he was sleeping. Perhaps it was the religious angle or the fact that I never figured out how Mary could afford an expensive defense.

At the end of her trial, the jury found Mary guilty of manslaughter, not murder. She faces a sentence of three to six years, but some experts say she'll be released. Currently, she's fighting to regain custody of her three young children.

Mary's jury consisted of 10 women and 2 men. One of the men later said that he felt she should have been conficted of a more serious crime than manslaughter.The number of women weighing the evidence caught my attention because throughout most of history, women did not serve on juries. The legal system was male dominated. We see this even in the term "testimony" which some etymologists link to "testicle," a word of Latin origin. The idea was that when a Roman gave evidence in court, he placed his hand on his testicles as a sign that he was telling the truth. Where a woman in court would have placed her hands is up for speculation.

Actually,, there is no evidence that Romans used their testicles this way. There is an Old Testament reference to Jews following the practice, but nothing connects the Biblical text to Roman culture.

Back to Mary, who testified that her husband had abused her mentally and sexually. This defense has some plausibility because one can't imagine a wife shooting her husband for no reason at all. But Mary also claimed that she had taken out the gun not to shoot her husband only to force him into having a conversation with her. Now, telling a story like that takes balls.

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