All this talk of the roots of words has, naturally, lead me to the word itself. So where does “root” come from?


Let’s start with Middle English, where we find various forms, such as roote, rote, rot. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, dating from 1390, in the Miller’s Tale, we find: the roote Of licorys.


(Sweet is the root of liquorice)


Here the modern word can be easily recognised, of course. But where did it come from? Can we find it in Old English?


Well, we can indeed, but only in late Old English, where it appears as rot. Now, this may have come from Old English wrótan, which meant “to dig up, root out”, as seen here in this extract from the Codex Exoniensis, or Exeter Book, from 1072:


Swín on bócwuda wrótende


(Swine root up beechwood)


However, it is thought more likely that it came from a Scandinavian source, probably Old Norse rot, meaning “root”.


Both the Old Norse word and the Old English would have come from the same earlier source – Proto-Germanic *wrot, meaning “root, herb, plant”. This, in turn, is likely to have come from Proto-Indo-European *wrad-, meaning “twig, root”. This would make “root” a cognate of “radish”, which makes perfect sense, considering that “radish” literally means, guess what, “root”! A radical idea? Not at all, considering that this other cognate, radical, comes from the Latin word for root, radix, which also developed from the Proto-Indo-European base.


We have, it would seem, been blaming each other since the dawn of time. People never change at heart. This modern word came into English in around 1200, and at that time it meant “to criticise, to find fault with” – the concept of blaming as in “accuse of being at fault, of being responsible for” developed over the next century, as can be seen in this example from 1325:


Yat yu on me hafs layt thys blam..Y led my lyf wit godis loue.


(Yet you have laid this blame on me. I led my life humbly)


(Middle English Humorous Tales in verse, the Interlude of the Clerk and the Girl, 1325)


It came from Old French blasmer, which meant “to criticise”, but was also used to mean “rebuke, tell off”. This has developed into blâmer in Modern French. In neither language has it come a long way since then, but let us take a look at where Old French took it from, to see the its earlier forms and meanings.


It derived from Late Latin, or Church Latin blasphemare, which meant “revile”. You may think the form looks familiar, and indeed this is where the word blaspheme comes from, making it a modern cognate of blame.


The Latin word does not start its story here – it came from Greek βλασφημώ (blasfimo/ vlasfimo), which meant “slander”or “speak evil of”. It is made of two elements joined together: βλάπτω (vlapto) and φημώ. The first part, βλάπτω, means “harm”, and it is the imperfect stem έβλαψ- (evlaps) that gives us the /s/. The second element, φημώ, meant “say”, thus making the compound word “speak-harm”. Interestingly, the English word fame comes from the same root as φημώ, via Latin fama.


So, from “speak-harm” to “blame”, “hold responsible for”. You might think that vestiges of this early meaning still remain, considering the harm that wrongful blame can do!

Rule of Thumb

Before going into the origin of this phrase, I should first refer to the popular folk etymology that claims that it originates from English law, supposed to have stated that a husband may beat his wife with a rod no thicker than a thumb, thus the “rule of thumb”. There has never been such a law, and there are no references whatsoever to it in any legal documents. Even with the much maligned Judge Sir Francis Buller, who was supposed to have issued such a ruling in 1792, there are no records of his ever making such a pronouncement, and the first suggestion that he did came a full year later in a cartoon.


However, the phrase “rule of thumb” long predates Buller’s alleged and elusive ruling.


We can find it in its present form from the 1600s. An early example in print, from 1685, is in Durham’s Heaven Upon Earth:


Many profest Christians are like to foolish builders, who build by guess, and by rule of thumb.


However, the phrase is much older than that, and is very likely linked to the use of the thumb as a unit of measurement. Indeed, in a number of languages, “thumb” has long been related to the word for “inch”, such as Italian pollice, which means both, Spanish pulgada, “inch”, which derives from pulgar, meaning “thumb”, or Slovenian palec, which also means both.


If we go back further in English history, to the ninth century and Old English, we can find a reference to this idea:


Swá greáte swá ðín þúma

(As large as a thumb)

This is from Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of early England, a collection of writings published in the 1800s, dating back to the late ninth century. Already at that time the thumb was being used as a means of comparing size, and it is no great leap from “as large as a thumb” to “the rule of thumb”.

Thumbs are conveniently attached to us and conveniently small – it seems natural that they should have been routinely used for measurement. And of course, as we have seen with “inch”, this is hardly restricted to English, and there are expressions with the same idea in other places too. Swedish, for example, has tumregel, also meaning “rule of thumb”, while Finnish uses a similar expression with nyrkkisääntö, which translates as  “rule of fist”. German uses the same image, with Faustregel; “fist-rule”. Welsh uses synnwyr y bawd – “rule of thumb”.

Spanish does not use a thumb or hand related word, and instead prefers regla general, “general rule”, or also regla de oro, which translates as “golden rule”.

This brings me back onto German, and the expression Pi mal Daumen, or “Pi by the thumb”, a parody of a real calculation, if you like, for rough estimates or approximations. I do hope this is not a reflection of your maths lessons!


You can read about the etymology of thumb here.


Dedicated to Lynn

This time I will jump in feet first! Although, I’m generally not much one for jumping in, especially not into swimming pools, but I have been known to jump in when people are discussing language. Not to jump on them, you understand, but to jump into the conversation! Admittedly, I do jump at the chance to talk about etymology.


It can be annoying when people jump the queue, but I don’t jump on them for it, and I have yet to jump down anyone’s throat! Mind you, it does make me jump when they just suddenly appear in front of me. But I don’t suppose they mean to jump out at me, and I am not so nervous that I jump out of my skin, although their rudeness does jump out at me.


Spring is here, with the prospect of summer just around the corner, and my children are jumping up and down at the thought of jumping into the sea for a refreshing swim, and they would jump through hoops just to get an ice-cream! Usually, however, they do no more than jump over a few sandcastles on their way to get them.


Ready for more jumping? Jump to it, then!


In honour of World Autism Awareness Day


There are so many people who have been diagnosed with a form of autism, and I am sure there are many more who are undiagnosed. I am sure that this is nothing new, but the word itself is a fairly recent coinage. It was invented in 1912 in German as Autismus, by Swiss psychiatrist Bleuler, who originally used it to refer to some symtoms of schizophrenia, and extended it to autistic patients, and soon after adopted into English.


Bleuler saw autism as a problem where the patient is possessed with an incapability to see past their own self, a problem of self-absorption, if you like. This influenced the formation of the word. It is made from Greek prefix auto- (αυτό- in Greek), which unsurprisingly means “self”, with the simple addition of the noun suffix –ismos.


Our understanding of and attitudes towards autism may have changed since Bleuler’s day, but the word has proved a convenient one and has remained the same.

Green and Growing

Green, a colour that is all around us, the colour of grass, the colour of leaves, of moss, of the stems of flowers, of so many things growing around us!


So it is hardly surprising that we have been using this word for a very long time, and it is natural that it should be linked to plants and foliage – a natural association for a natural colour.


In Middle English there were a variety of spellings, such as grein, griene, grine, grone, and grenne, but they are similar enough that the word does not appear to have been very different in the various dialects.


We find it in Old English as grene, where it is used to mean not just “green in colour”, but also “greenery, foliage”, as indeed it may be used today, but also “young, raw”, by association with the idea of a young plant, still fresh and green, not withered and turning yellow or brown.


Here is an example of grene in the Anglo-Saxon version of Genesis, dating to the first half of the ninth century:


Bróhte seó culufre elebeámes twig … gréne blǽde


(A dove brought him an olive twig with green leaves)


The word derives from a Germanic root – there are cognates in several other Germanic languages today, such as German grün, Dutch groen, Danish grøn, Swedish grön, etc.


It comes from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “grow”, and of course the colour has been linked from the very beginning with things that grow, the colour of growing plants. The root is *ghre-, and from here we take not just green, but also grass and the verb grow itself, a wonderful example of how, no matter how long ago and how far we may seem to have come, some things remain the same at heart and do not change.


This is for Christi


Here is a fairly easy word to trace, but that does not make it any the less interesting. It came into English fairly late, only arriving in the late 14th century. At that time it was used in the singular – mathematic. It wasn’t until around two centuries later that the plural form mathematics came to be preferred.


English took it from Latin mathematica, which is a plural form in Latin, and this fact does explain the shift towards the plural in English, but not why the singular form was initially used. The word did not start off in Latin, it came from Greek μαθηματική τέχνη (mathematiki techni), which means “mathematical art”, or “science”, if you prefer.


The term μαθηματικά (mathematika) was already in use in Greek in around 450 BC. We know this from references found in Aristotle to (now lost) work by Democritus, cited as μαθηματικά (mathematika).


It comes from μάθημα (mathima), a noun meaning “lesson, science”, or even more literally “what is learnt”, as it derives from the verb μανθάνω (manthano), meaning “to learn”. This has stayed very close in modern Greek, where it is now μαθαίνω (mathaino).


The story does not end here. We can further trace the root to Proto-Indo-European *men- or *mendh, probably meaning “think”, a stem that has given rise to a whole host of vocabulary, in a number of languages, generally related to the mind. From here comes Latin mens, meaning “mind”, which is where English word mental derives from, as well as Spanish and Italian mente. Not only that, but it has even left its traces in Welsh, where we find mynnu; “insist” or “persist” – just the attitude you need when tackling a difficult task from its distant cousin mathematics!