English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Some ‘randy’ thoughts

Q: I was looking up some Hindi words and noticed that “randi” is a derogatory term for a “woman of ill repute.” I assume it’s the source of the English word “randy,” probably as a result of Britain’s involvement in India.

A: English has borrowed many words from Hindi (“bungalow,” “cot,” “dinghy,” “loot,” “shampoo,” “thug,” and others), but “randy” isn’t one of them.

Simply because the Hindi word रंडी and the English word “randy” are pronounced similarly and both have sexual senses doesn’t mean they’re related etymologically.

Two words that are etymologically related are called “cognates,” while two words that seem to be related but aren’t (like रंडी and “randy”) are referred to as “false cognates.”

For instance, the anatomical “ear” and the “ear” of corn are false cognates derived from different Old English words. The first comes from ære (the organ of hearing) and the second from æhher (the seed-bearing head of cereal grasses).

We haven’t seen a single authoritative etymological reference that suggests the Hindi term रंडी in the source of the English adjective “randy.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, the most authoritative English etymological reference, says “randy” is probably derived from the verb “rant,” which used to have the variant spelling “rand.”

In addition to its sense of speaking wildly, the OED says, “rant”/“rand” once meant “to lead a riotous or dissolute life.”

That riotous or dissolute sense of “rant” is now obsolete, except in Scottish English, where “randy” first appeared, according to the dictionary.

The earliest OED citation for “rant” used in its riotous sense, which we’ve expanded, is from the 1623 Folio of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor:

“Look where my ranting host of the Garter comes: there is either liquor in his pate or money in his purse when he looks so merrily.”

The dictionary says “randy” first appeared in Scottish English with the sense of “having a rude, aggressive manner; loud-mouthed and coarsely spoken.”

The earliest citation is from a 1665 letter by the Earl of Argyll: “Profane randy beggars” (Letters From Archibald, Earl of Argyll, to John, Duke of Lauderdale, 1829, edited by George Sinclair and Charles K. Sharpe).

In the early 18th century, “randy” came to mean “boisterous, riotous, disorderly; wild, unruly, unmanageable” in Scottish English and regional English dialects.

The first OED citation is from “The Knight,” a 1723 poem by the Scottish writer William Meston: “A rambling, randy Errant Knight.”

In Scottish and regional English of the late 18th century, “randy” took on its usual modern sense of “lustful; eager for sexual gratification; sexually aroused.” The earliest OED example is from The Curate of Coventry (1771), a novel by the English writer John Potter:

“A pox on these old maids, they’re as randy as a he goat.” (The comment is by the local squire, who uses many colloquialisms. The author includes a footnote defining “randy” as “lascivious.”)

We’ve seen no evidence that “randy” comes from Hindi. By evidence, we mean something like its use in a letter from an English trader or the log of an English ship that visited India in the 17th or 18th century.

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English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin Writing

A note to our readers

Because of the holiday, we’re publishing our usual Monday post on Wednesday. In case you missed it, check out our Dec. 4, 2023 post about the origins of the terms “Hanukkah” and “Christmas.”

Merry Christmas,

Pat and Stewart

English English language Etymology Expression Language Linguistics Usage Word origin Writing

Something wicked this way comes

Q: “Wicked,” which used to mean evil only a few decades ago, now also seems to mean cool, mischievous, or so bad it’s good. How did it get these polar opposite connotations?

A: This phenomenon you’re noticing is an example of the loss or reduction of meaning in a word, but the weakening of “wicked” isn’t a recent phenomenon—it dates back to Shakespeare.

When “wicked” appeared in the 12th century, the Oxford English Dictionary says, it referred to people “bad in moral character, disposition, or conduct; inclined or addicted to wilful wrongdoing; practising or disposed to practise evil; morally depraved.”

As if that’s not strong enough, the OED adds that “wicked” in its original sense is a “term of wide application, but always of strong reprobation, implying a high degree of evil quality.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from Layamon’s Brut, a chronicle of Britain written in Middle English sometime before 1200. In this passage, Rowena is about to poison her stepson, King Vortimer:

Herne ou ȝeo tock an; þes wickede wifman.
In hire bosome ȝeo bar bi-neoþe hire tyttes.
one ampulle; of hatter ifulled.

(Harken, take heed of this wicked woman.
In her bosom, she carried beneath her tits
an ampoule filled with poison.)

In the late 16th century, the OED says, the adjective took on a “weakened or lighter sense” that was “usually more or less jocular” and could mean “malicious; mischievous, sly.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the weakened sense is from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, believed to have been performed in 1599 but not published until the First Folio of 1623. In this expanded passage, Rosalind describes Cupid as wicked:

“No, that same wicked Bastard of Venus, that was begot of thought, conceiu’d of spleene, and borne of madnesse, that blinde rascally boy, that abuses euery ones eyes, because his owne are out, let him bee iudge, how deepe I am in loue.”

In the early 20th century, the OED says, “wicked” took on the sense of  “excellent, splendid; remarkable.” This expanded citation is from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 novel This Sde of Paradise:

“ ‘Tell ’em to play “Admiration”!’ shouted Sloane. ‘You two order; Phoebe  and I are going to shake a wicked calf.’ ”

As we noted in a  2021 post, it’s not uncommon for the sense of a usage to weaken over time, a development that linguists might refer to as “semantic weakening,” “semantic bleaching,” “semantic loss,” or “semantic reduction.”

As for the word’s earlier etymology, the OED says “wicked” is apparently an expanded form of the now-obsolete adjective “wick,” which was apparently an adjectival use of the Old English noun wicca (wizard), the masculine version of wicce (witch).

We’ll end with a few wicked words from the Second Witch in Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

By the pricking of my Thumbes,
Something wicked this way comes:
Open Lockes, who euer knockes.

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Dog days: Are you pooped?

Q: How did the expression “dog days” change from meaning the hottest time of the year to a period of sluggishness or stagnation?

A: When “dog days” first appeared in English in the 16th century, it referred to the hottest part of summer in the Northern hemisphere, a period once considered unhealthy and evil.

Because of the lethargy caused by the heat or fears of malignant influences, the term came to mean a period of stagnation and inactivity. Here’s the story.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “dog days” as “the hottest part of the summer, associated in ancient times with the heliacal rising of the Dog Star in the Mediterranean area, and formerly considered to be the most unhealthy period of the year and a time of ill omen.”

The expression has its roots in Greek mythology, where Sirius is the name of the hunter Orion’s dog. In the Iliad (Book XXII), Homer refers to the star as κύν᾽ Ὠρίωνος (kun Orionos, Orion’s dog).

English borrowed the phrase from the post-classical Latin caniculares dies (dog days), which was borrowed in turn from the Hellenistic Greek κυνάδες ἡμέραι (kunades hemerai, dog days).

When the phrase first appeared in English the 16th century, it referred to the hottest days of summer. The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from The Dictionary of Syr Thomas Eliot Knyght (1538):

“Canicula, a lyttell dogge or bytche. Also a sterre, wherof canicular or dogge days be named Dies caniculares.”

The dictionary says the phrase soon took on the figurative sense of “an evil time; a period in which malignant influences prevail.” The earliest citation for this sense is from a letter by a Protestant clergyman (and later martyr) to a fellow inmate at Newgate Prison in London:

“Neither that any giddy head in these dog-days might take an ensample [example] by you to dissent from Christ’s true church” (from a 1555 letter by John Philpot in The Examinations and Writings of John Philpot, 1842, edited by Robert Eden).

The OED says the evil figurative usage is seen “now (in weakened sense): a period of inactivity or decline.”

It’s not uncommon for the sense of a usage to strengthen or weaken over time, as we note in a 2021 post. A linguist might refer to weakening as “semantic loss” or “semantic reduction.”

It’s unclear when the weakened sense of “dog days” first appeared in English, though this Oxford citation may be an early sighting or a perhaps an indication of things to come:

“What then shall wee now expect in these dogge-dayes of the worlds declining age?” (Achitophel; or, the Picture of a Wicked Politician, 1629, three sermons by the philosopher and Anglican clergyman Nathanael Carpenter).

The dictionary’s first clear example of the weakened sense, which we’ve expanded, is from a July 12, 1992, article in The New York Times about mid-level bosses being laid off in troubled economic times:

“One possibly beneficial byproduct of the managerial dog days may be that it will prepare younger people for the job- and career-jumping likely to be their lot.”

And here’s the OED’s most recent example: “In the dog-days of The Beatles, one of Paul’s plans for holding it all together had been for the world’s most fabled band to just go out and play” (“The Beatles: Stoned, sloppy—shelved!” Mojo, February 2002).

Oxford notes that “the dog days have been variously reckoned, as depending on either the Greater Dog Star (Sirius) or the Lesser Dog Star (Procyon), and on either the heliacal rising or the cosmical rising (which occurs at an earlier date).”

The heliacal rising of a star occurs when it first becomes visible above the eastern horizon at dawn just before sunrise. The cosmical rising occurs when it rises in the morning at the same time as the sun.

“The timing of these risings depends on latitude, and they do not occur at all in most of southern hemisphere,” the OED says, adding that “very different dates have been assigned for the dog days,” with their beginning “ranging from 3 July to 15 August, and their duration varying from 30 to 61 days.”

In the Calendar of the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, the dog days run from July 7 to Sept. 5. In current calendars, Oxford says, “they are often said to begin on 3 July and end on 11 August (i.e. the 40 days preceding the cosmical rising of Sirius at the latitude of Greenwich).”

The dictionary says the usage “arose from the pernicious qualities of the season being attributed to the ‘influence’ of the Dog Star; but it has long been popularly associated with the belief that at this season dogs are most liable to go mad.”

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Christmas English English language Etymology Expression Hanukkah Language Spelling Usage Word origin Writing

Happy Chanucha & Merry Xpes mæsse

Q: Why don’t we spell it “Honica” instead of “Hanukkah”? When a word is adopted into English from a non-Latin language, wouldn’t the change be toward the closest pronunciation? What else would influence the re-spelling?

A: The English name for Hanukkah has been spelled many ways over the years, just as the English name for Christmas has had many spellings.

The Oxford English Dictionary has these spellings for Hanukkah since it first  appeared in English in the 17th century: Chanucha, Chanuchah, Hanuca, Hanucka, Chanuca, Chanucah, Chanucca, Chanuccah, Chanuka, Chanukah, Chanukka, Chanukkah, Hanucah, Hanucca, Hanuccah, Hanucha, Hanuckah, Hanuka, Hanukah, Hanukka, Hanukkah, Khanukah, Khanukka, and Khanukkah.

The OED has even more spellings for Christmas since it showed up in Old English in the 10th century, but here’s a very abbreviated list: Cristesmæsse,  Xpes mæsse, Cristesmas, Crystesmasse, Kyrstemas, Kyrstemasse, Kyrstemaste, Kyrstemes, Cristmas, Crestmas, Crystmasse, Curstmas, Christmasse, Chrystmas, Christmass, and Christmas.

The two most common English spellings now for the Jewish holiday are “Hanukkah” and “Chanukah.” The only English spelling now for the Christian holiday is of course “Christmas,” though the short form “Xmas” is often seen and has been for hundreds of years. We’ll have more on “Christmas” and “Xmas” later in this post.

So why does the name for the Jewish holiday sometimes begin with “h” and sometimes with “ch,” and why does it sometimes have one “k” and sometimes two?

Those variations reflect the difficulty of rendering חנוכה, the Hebrew word for the holiday, in English. The letters ח (chet) and כ (kaf) are the problems, since they represent sounds not found in the English alphabet. (Hebrew is read right to left, so the ח is the first letter of חנוכה.)

In ancient times, the chet was likely pronounced as a throaty “h” (technically, a voiceless pharyngeal fricative), though it’s now usually pronounced like the “ch” in the German Bach, Scottish loch, and English interjection “yech” (a voiceless uvular or velar fricative).

The majority Ashkenazic Jews (those with roots in Eastern and Central Europe) generally use the newer pronunciation in speaking Hebrew. Sephardic Jews (those who  were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century and settled in North Africa, the Middle East, southern Europe, and elsewhere) tend to use the older pronunciation.

As for the Hebrew letter kaf, it was apparently pronounced in ancient times as a doubled (or geminate) “k,” similar to the sound of the “kk” in the English word “bookkeeping.”

The kaf is usually pronounced now in Hebrew as a simple “k,” though the “kk” spelling in English has survived as a reminder of the word’s history.

Of the two usual English spellings of the holiday, “Hanukkah” is probably closer to the original Hebrew pronunciation while “Chanukah” is more like the modern Hebrew pronunciation.

Most of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult list “Hanukkah” as the usual English spelling of the holiday and “Chanukah” as a common variant. Standard dictionaries indicate how a language is used now. A search with Google’s Ngram Viewer of digitized books confirms that “Hanukkah” is more popular than “Chanukah.”

As for the etymology, the Hebrew word for the holiday, חנוכה, literally means dedication; it’s derived from חנך (hanak), a verb meaning to dedicate. The holiday marks the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Jewish Maccabees wrested control of it from the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire in the second century BCE.

The OED says the Hebrew term was first recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of Jewish teaching believed to date from as early as the third century CE. In Shabbat 21a of the Talmud, rabbis discuss which wicks and oils can be used for Sabbath and Hanukkah lights. Here’s an excerpt; we’ll underline בחנוכה (b’hanukkah, “on Hanukkah”):

אמר רב הונא פתילות ושמנים שאמרו חכמים אין מדליקין בהן בשבת אין מדליקין בהן בחנוכה בין בשבת בין בחול

(“Rav Huna said: Those wicks and oils that the Sages said one may not use to light the lamp on Shabbat, one may not use to light the lamp on Hanukkah either—whether it falls on Shabbat or during the week.”)

The OED says the English term for the holiday is derived from both the Hebrew חנוכה and the Latin word for the holiday, chanuca. The dictionary’s earliest English example is from a translation of an Italian book about Jewish rituals:

“Of the Feast of Lights, called also Chanucha.” From The History of the Rites, Customes, and Manner of Life, of the Present Jews, Throughout the World (1650), Edmund Chilmead’s translation of a work by Leo Modena, a Venetian rabbi.

As for the various spellings of Christmas, the holiday marking the birth of Jesus, the earliest recorded example in the OED appeared in Old English as Cristesmæssan:

“Leohtgescot gelæste man be wite to Cristesmæssan and to candelmæssan and to eastron” (“The light fee should be paid at Christmas and at Candlemas and at Easter”). From Be Cristendome (“About Christianity”), a 10th-century homily by Wulfstan, Archbishop of York. The fee was for church candles.

The term is spelled Xpes mæsse (“Christ’s mass”) in the OED’s next example, an Old English entry for the year 1021 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

“And se eorl Rodbeard her oð Xpes mæsse forneal mid pam cynge wunode” (“And Earl Robert stayed here [in Westminster] with the king [William II, son of William the Conqueror] almost until Christmas”).

The “Xp” at the beginning of Xpes mæsse comes from the Greek letters Χ (chi) and ρ (rho), the first letters of the word for “Christ” in ancient Greek, ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ or χριστoς (christos, anointed one).

Medieval scribes commonly abbreviated  “Christ” as “X” or “Xp” in copying religious manuscripts, a practice that led to the use of “Xmas” as a shortening for “Christmas,” as we wrote in a 2006 post.

Although the Greek χ was rendered as “ch” in classical Latin, the use of the “ch-” digraph in English for “Christ” and its derivatives was an etymological latecomer.

As the OED explains, “The spelling with initial ch- is comparatively infrequent” until the 1500s. The earliest OED example is from a 16th-century description of King Henry II’s celebration of the holiday in 1166. Here’s an expanded version:

“And after his returne he went to Windsore, where he made his abode and kept his Christmas, and the greatest part of all the Nobles of the realme were there with him.” From A Chronicle at Large and Meere History of the Affayres of Englande and Kinges of the Same (1569), by Richard Grafton.

Nevertheless, “X-” spellings continued to be used in English, as in  “X’temmas” (1551), “Xtmasse” (1660), and finally “Xmas.” The OED’s first example for “Xmas,” which we’ve expanded, is from an Oct. 17, 1721, letter from an English landowner to a son away at school:

“I hope you will eat at Xmas some roast beef out of the old kitchen.” From John Buxton, Norfolk Gentleman and Architect: Letters to His Son 1719-1729, edited by Alan Mackley and published by The Norfolk Record Society in 2005.

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