Why slogans are Irish, muscles are mice and monkeys are monks

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The word slogan, as in the advertising slogan, is an ancient Irish word. Long ago, noble Gaelic warriors gathered for battle on a misty moor. The two armies faced each other, unsheathed their ancient swords and charged, while shouting their army cry or slua-gairm over and over again.

This slua-gairm could be the name of the clan, or some sort of motto. It became customary for nobles and chiefs to put this motto on their coat of arms, and so, in heraldry, these words written on the ribbon under the shield became known as the slogan. From there, the word began to mean the motto of a particular, usually political, group. And from there he was drawn into the world of advertising, where he became debased and familiar. But once you know that history and origin, you can still imagine these ancient warriors bravely charging to the death screaming over and over again “I should have gone to Specsavers!” I should have gone to Specsavers! “

You don’t really learn anything useful from etymology. There is nothing in the subject that will qualify you for a job, earn you money, or save you in an emergency. This is why it is very rarely taught in schools, because schools are subject to the tyranny of the useful. But the etymology makes the world a funnier and more beautiful place. An epic story can be hidden behind a terribly mundane word that you use every day and never thought twice about it. Take bluetooth. why is it called like that? Why, when you desperately try not to connect your speakers to your phone, are you trying to activate the blue teeth?

The answer is that it is named after Harald Bluetooth, the 10th century Viking king of Denmark, who had blue teeth, for reasons lost to both history and dentistry. Harald Bluetooth united the warring provinces of Denmark into one nation. It turns out that a thousand years later, in 1996, a computer programmer by the name of Jim Kardach was reading a historical novel set during his reign, while designing a system to unite different areas of technology. As a joke, he gave the project the working title of Bluetooth.

Bluetooth was never intended for official use. The management had already decided to call the product Pan when it was released. But at the last moment, they found out that another company had just launched a product with that name. So they panicked and posted it with the working title. And that’s why a high-tech piece is named after a funny-smiling Viking.

The language is strange although it is familiar, and familiarity often hides the strangeness. Sometimes the origin of a word is obvious the moment you think about it: if something is familiar, it’s like family. And sometimes it’s obvious by the time you’re told: why do pop singers have fans? This is because fan is only a fanatic shortening, just as van is a trailer shortening or the wilco radio signature is a shortening of will conform.

But sometimes the explanation needs a little more. If I told you that buff in cinephile is short for buffalo, you’d probably be left a little confused as to why. If I added that the phrases in buff, look buff and buff up were also all short for buffalo, the confusion would not be alleviated at all.

Once upon a time, in the 19th century, buffalo leather was very popular. It wasn’t from American buffaloes (which are, technically, bison), but from European oxen (which are, technically, buffaloes). A Victorian housekeeper always used a buffalo leather cloth to polish furniture. This has been shortened to polish the leather, and therefore you polish something, until it is nice and shiny. When the cleaning lady had finished her work, everything was beautiful 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 healthy, you look really buff.

You could also make clothes out of buff leather, but it was a bit strange doing it because buff leather is roughly the color of skin. So, a costume made of this material would make you look naked, at least at first glance. This is why in buff always means naked – to put it mildly, Victorian.

One group of people who wore buff leather clothing was the New York Fire Department. The buffalo leather was pretty good at protecting them from the flames. The New York firefighters are, obviously, heroes to New Yorkers; but they were even more idolized at the end of the 19th century. The little boys would collect their autographs and as soon as a fire broke out they would rush across town to cheer on their favorites. Firefighters were known as Buffs, due to their protective clothing, and slowly their loyal followers began to be called buffs as well. Then the term spread and there were music buffs and movie buffs and etymology buffs. And so the buffalo spread silently around the English language.

There is a labyrinth under the tongue: weird 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, it means the dinosaur with a finger on its wing, the pterodactyl, and for the airplane whose wings move in a spiral, the helicopter. Most people miss the latter because they think it’s sort of a helicopter and helicopter compound; but it’s that old greek pt that does all the work.

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

But I get carried away. The point is, there is always another connection. There is always a strange way that one word is formed from another. And it’s completely messy, completely crazy. There is no big system. The only way to appreciate the labyrinth is to walk around it laughing as you go. Because the connections are so ridiculous, so absurd, and so unexpected that all you can really do is laugh.

A publisher once challenged me to write a book that just connects word to word, to another, and to another. It was easy. I started with the wordbook and continued for 60,000 words until I ended up in the wordbook. Along the way, I went from California to the Caliphate, from spam to spam, from monks to monkeys, and from heroes to heroine.

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

The language is filled with fantastic images, as long as you know where to look for them. Every muscle is just a little mouse, because that’s what the Romans thought your biceps looked like, a little mouse running under your skin. Apes are named after monks, because in medieval times monks had such a terrible reputation for sin and debauchery, that these ugly little humanoids found in the tropics looked like nothing but them. (It’s about picking up bad habits). And the cappuccinos are named after the Capuchin monks, because of their beautiful cream-colored dresses.

Seen like this, the language is a zoo, it is a church, it is a kitchen, it is all human history that flows from our language every day, and we hardly see it. The book I wrote, The Illustrated Etymologicon, is just a small attempt to unmask what is already there, to allow you to clearly see the wonders of the language that are so often a little obscured, a little blurry. .

As the tagline says: I should have gone to Specsavers.
The Illustrated Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth is now available in hardback (Icon Books, £ 20)


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