Speaking of Words: Fossilized Culture in Our Language

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Michael Ferber

                 By MICHAEL FERBER, Speaking of Words

        When I was a boy I was puzzled by the term “horsepower” as applied to the engine of an automobile.

  I knew that the auto was a recent invention, and that for thousands of years horses and other beasts were used to pull wagons or carriages, but it still seemed unbelievable that a car with an engine rated at 370 hp could outpull 369 horses in a tug-of-war, as I imagined it.

  I now know that “horsepower” was coined by James Watt in the 18th century as a unit to measure the lifting power of his steam engines.  It had nothing to do with cars.  But things called “cars” did exist in Watts’s day, and much earlier: the word referred to horse-drawn wagons, carts, and carriages.  The word is even found in the King James Bible.

  In poetry a “car” was a chariot, as we see in Shakespeare’s lines “The weary sun . . . / . . . by the bright track of his fiery car / Gives token of a goodly day tomorrow” (Richard III).  The source of “car” is Latin carrus, usually a two-wheeled wagon, itself borrowed from Gaulish, the ancient Celtic language of Gaul (now France); the native Latin word currus, obviously kin to carrus, meant “chariot.”  Our word “chariot” comes via French from carrus, as do “carriage” and “carry,” though not “cart.”  Latin currus is from the root of curro, “run,” from which we also directly get “curriculum” (a little race-course) and “cursor” (a runner), and, indirectly via French, “course” and “courier.”  The root of curro in Proto-Indo-European, which was something like korso, also gave rise to Germanic words for that greatest of runners, the horse, including “horse” itself.

 Where was I?  It’s easy to get lost in the maze of etymologies.  Oh yes, my subject is the way words and phrases often preserve much earlier stages of culture; they are etymological fossils.  Of course some people still ride horses and attach them to wheeled vehicles, but for many of us they represent an earlier time.  The very word “automobile” attests to the (at first) surprising fact that cars needed no horses: a Daily News article in 1895 referred to an “automobile carriage” as a new and striking thing.  More than a century later we still metaphorically spur someone on, or we bridle at an order from someone in the saddle, and so on, without thinking of a horse.  Teamsters drive trucks these days, not teams of horses.  So horses are still with us, quietly cantering through our language.

 So are ships and sailors, though we may live hundreds of miles from the shore.  When we ship something these days it is more likely to go onto a plane or truck than a ship; in 1881 the Chicago Times used the phrase “to ship their freight by rail,” and we’ve been using that extended sense ever since.  In the nineteenth century a “liner” was a vessel belonging to a line or regularly scheduled set of packets, which were boats that originally carried packets of government mail or dispatches.  “Liner” was expanded to include oceanliners such as those belonging to the Cunard Line, and now we have airline, airliner, and (since 1946) jetliner.  We now also speak of spaceships, and perhaps one of them will sail with a solar wind through the sea of space.  On board there may be astronauts, which is Greek for “star-sailors”; –naut is from nautes, “sailor,” from naus, “ship.”  The same root through Latin gave us “navy” and “navigate.”  Today we use the GPS in space to navigate our car on land.

A word whose etymology is one of the most revealing, or damning, is “manufacturer,” which now means the owner of a factory.  It began to acquire that sense in the late seventeenth century, but its earlier meaning was a worker in a factory, an artisan or craftsman.  For the word comes from Latin manu, the ablative case of manus “hand,” and the root fac– “make.” 

A manufacturer was someone who makes things by hand.  I doubt if there are many manufacturers today who use their hands to make things except as a hobby.  Factories, we should add, are often still called “mills,” as in “steel mills,” though nothing very much like milling goes on in them.  A mill was originally a building used for grinding grain into flour, as in “flour mill,” or “windmill.”  “Mill” has an ancient ancestry: it is related to “meal,” the ground grain, as in “oatmeal” or “cornmeal.”  The same root in Latin gave us “molar,” the grinding tooth, and in Greek, “mylodon,” a prehistoric sloth with good molars.  When we eat a meal today we may well eat some ground grain, but that’s not usually what we have in mind when we order a meal of steak or lobster.  In Japan, one word for “meal” as repast, gohan, also means “rice.”

 The time may not be far off when the only meanings we know for “file,” “folder,” “inbox,” “page,” “paste,” and “bookmark” are operations on our laptop.  I was glad to learn there is an Early Office Museum that might preserve the older meanings of these words, not to mention “uppercase” and “lowercase,” but this Museum is only virtual, a website, and seems inactive.  A real museum of office things in Wilmington, Delaware, has closed.  Our language is itself a museum, but these places would have helped explain some of its fossils.

 I will end with one more curious little etymological fact.  If you think of the word “oil” out of context, you will probably think of petroleum, the rock oil, the fossil fuel that still powers much of the world while it heats the world’s atmosphere to deadly effect.  But “oil” once meant a particular kind of oil and it certainly wasn’t petroleum.  The word came to English via French from Latin olea, the plural of oleum, which meant “olive oil”; indeed “olive” (Latin oliva) has the same source, Greek elaia, earlier elaiwa, “olive tree” and elaiwon, “olive oil.”  They had entered Greek by 1400 BCE, but they are not traceable to Proto-Indo-European.  They must have come from a Mediterranean language, now lost.  Back then it was just about the only oil there was.  So this fossil word reminds us that fossil oil is a new thing to us, and we haven’t used it very responsibly.

I am happy to hear from readers with questions or comments: mferber@unh.edu.

            Michael Ferber moved to New Hampshire in 1987 to join the English Department at UNH, from which he is now retired.  Before that he earned his BA in Ancient Greek at Swarthmore College and his doctorate in English at Harvard, taught at Yale, and served on the staff of the Coalition for a New Foreign Policy in Washington, DC.  In 1968 he stood trial in Federal Court in Boston for conspiracy to violate the draft law, with the pediatrician Benjamin Spock and three other men.  He has published many books and articles on literature, and has a deep interest in linguistics.  He is married to Susan Arnold; they have a daughter in San Francisco.

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