[Boswell] I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it…

[Johnson] That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.

Samuel Johnson. English poet, critic and lexicographer.

In Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson vol. 1 p392 (16 May 1763).



Emulsion: Word Origin

Emulsion now means a paint to most ears. The word specifically refers to a suspension of small droplets within another liquid, in such a way that they will not dilute. We use emulsifiers in food to help these immiscible liquids bind together.

But the word has not always meant paint or pesto, in English originally the word meant almonds crushed in water to produce a milky liquid. So the word derives from the Latin  mulgeō meaning I milk.

The English ‘milk’ has a similar origin to the Latin. The PIE root h₂melǵ- gives the Proto-Germanic melkaną, source for our milk, as well as Scots melk and German melken. From the PIE root we also get the Sanskrit marjati, meaning to wipe; the Greek αρμέγω (armégo) and Lithuanian melžti, which mean milk.

So next time you have almond milk, you are drinking the original English emulsion.

Word origins: Barista

Barista comes to English from Italian, where a barista is a bartender. The Italian word derives from the English bar and the suffix -ista which comes from the Latin prefix -ista meaning one who practices something. A little like describing a musician who plays the cello as a ‘cellist’. or a person who rides a bicycle as a cyclist. Any word like economist, sexist, dentist, activist is derived from this root.

This Latin suffix is derived from Ancient, -ιστής (-istḗs), from  -ίζω (-ízō) used to form verbs from nouns and adjectives, and the suffix τής (-tḗs) used to form agent nouns. Words in Ancient Greek that use this suffix include ἁγίζω (hagízō) meaning to make sacred or hallow, from the root ἅγιος (hágios) meaning holy, the origin of words such as hagiography, meaning writing to do with Saints. The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is the church of Holy Wisdom.

Picture: Word Origin

Picture in English comes from the Latin pingere meaning ‘to paint’, via the Latin pictus, past particple form of pingere. This comes to English via French.

Pingere descends from the PIE *peyḱ- meaning colour, which is also the source of the Sanskrit  पिंशति (piṃśati) and the Greek πῐκρός (pikrós), meaning ‘to carve’ and ‘pointed’ respectively. Other descendant words include Greek  ποικίλος (poikílos, ‘coloured’), Sanskrit  पिशङ्ग (piśáṅga, ‘reddish’) and Lithuanian piẽšti ‘to draw’ among many others.

With picture we in English get words such as depict, with the de- prefix here meaning completely, and deriving from the Latin depingere, which can be translated as ‘portray’, but also paint or colour. Depingere occurs for instance in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, at Book 6 chapter 29 in the form depictam.

A picture paints a thousands words, and dates to certainly 1927, and the Printer’s Ink magazine on December 8th, where that phrase appears as an ancient Chinese proverb. Some say the phrase originates from American Fred R. Barnard writing in that publication. Printers Ink also has the phrase appear in 1921 and 1927. Other examples include a newspaper quoting then editor Tess Flanders in 1911, and the Syracuse Advertising Club member Arthur Brisbane wrote in that same year ‘use a picture it’s worth a thousand words’. One instance of the phrase comes from a 1918 paper, and an advertisement for the San-Antonio Light newspaper.

Charlotte Brontë precedes them all, writing in Jane Eyre (1847) ‘the letter press I cared little for, each picture told a story’.

Freedom and Whisky gang thegither.

Robert Burns.

Scottish Poet.

‘The Author’s Earnest Cry and Prayer’ (1786) 1.185

If they [the Republicans] will stop telling lies about the Democrats, we will stop telling the truth about them.

Adlai Stevenson.

American Democratic Politician. 

Speech suring 1952 Presidential campaign; in J.B. Martin Adlai Stevenson and Illinois (1976) ch. 8

Any man who hates dogs and babies can’t be all bad.

Leo Rosten

American writer and social scientist.

Of W.C. Fields, and often attributed to Fields, in speech of Masquers’ Club dinner, 16 February 1939.

A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.

Thomas Jefferson. 

3rd President of the United States of America.

Letter to James Madison, 30 January 1787m in Papers of Thomas Jefferson vol. 11 (1955) p.49

The politicians of the left and centre of this country are frozen in an out-of-date mould which is bad for the political and economic health of Britain and increasingly inhibiting for those who live within the mould. Can it be broken?

Roy Jenkins.

British politician; co-founder of the Social Democratic Party, 1981.

Speech to Parliamentary Press Gallery, 9 June 1980, in The Times 10 June 1980.

Rampant: word origin

Something rampant is uncontrollable, though in heraldry it means something on its hind legs, such as a Lion Rampant, rearing up, as opposed to couchant, lying down for instance. The heraldric sense has existed since the 14th Century in English, while the rampage sense has only existed since the 17th Century.

The word has its origins in French, ramper, meaning to ‘creep’ or ‘climb. The –ant suffix of rampant is derived from French too, and is a common way of creating an adjective from a noun. Examples include: bouyant, flippant, coolant, lubricant, propellant, Protestant, triumphant, depressant, compliant and accountant.

Related to rampant is ramp, now meaning a slope, this sense of the word only originated in the 18th Century. In Middle English ‘ramp’ meant to ‘rear up’.

Unrelated to rampant is rampart, which is descended from a separate French word, remparer, meaning ‘to fortify’, from re- and emparer, meaning to take possession of, and that from the Latin ante- and parare, meaning to prepare.

The Old French ramper derives not from Latin, like much of French, but in fact from Frankish (*rampōn meaning to hook, or climb), and so ramper is actually Germanic in origin. The Frankish is descended from the Proto-Germanic *hrempaną (to curve, shrivel).

An interesting related word is ripple. Ripple is an alternative form of the Old English rimple, which was descended from the same Germanic root meaning ‘to curve’.