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Stories That Words Tell Us By Elizabeth O'Neill Characters: 14362

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

We have already seen something of the stories which the names of places, old and new, can tell us. But the names of places themselves often give us new words, and from these, too, we can learn many interesting facts.

Many manufactured things, and especially woven cloths, silks, etc., are called by the name of the place from which they come, or from which they first came. Cashmere, a favourite smooth woollen material, is called after Cashmir, in India. Damask, the material of which table linen is generally made, takes its name from Damascus; as does holland, the light brownish cotton stuff used so much for children's frocks and overalls, from Holland, and the rough woollen material known as frieze from Friesland. Cambric, the fine white material often used for handkerchiefs, takes its name from Cambrai in France, the place where it was first made. The word cambric, however, came into English from Kamerijk, the Dutch name for Cambrai. So the other fine material known as lawn got its name from Laon, another French town. Another fine material of this kind, muslin, takes its name from Mussolo, a town in Mesopotamia, from which this kind of material first came.

Another commoner kind of stuff is fustian, made of cotton, but thick, with a short nap, and generally dyed a dark colour. The word fustian has also come to be used figuratively to describe a showy manner of speaking or writing, or anything which tries to appear better than it is. The word comes from Fustat, a suburb of Cairo.

A more substantial material, tweed, which is largely made in Scotland, really takes its name from people pronouncing twill badly; but the form tweed spread more quickly because people associated the material with the country beyond the river Tweed.

Another kind of stuff which we generally associate with Scotland is tartan, because this woollen stuff, with its crossed stripes of different colours, is chiefly used for Scottish plaids and kilts, especially of the Highland regiments. But the word tartan does not seem to be a Scottish word, and probably comes from Tartar, which was formerly used to describe almost any Eastern people. Perhaps the fact that Eastern peoples love bright colours caused this name to be given to these bright materials, though there is nothing at all Eastern in the designs of the Scottish tartans. Another material with an Eastern name is sarcenet, or sarsenet, a soft, silky stuff now chiefly used for linings.

Often in tales of olden times we read of people hiding behind the "arras." This was a wall covering of tapestry, often hung sufficiently far from the wall to leave room for a person to pass. The word arras comes from Arras, a town in France, which was famous for its beautiful tapestries.

We know the word tabby chiefly as the name of a kind of striped cat, but this use of the word came from the Old French word tabis, and described a material with marks which the markings on a "tabby" cat resemble. The French word came from the Arab word utabi, which perhaps came from the name of a suburb of the famous city of Baghdad.

Worsted, the name of a certain kind of knitting-wool, comes from the name of the town of Worstead, in Norfolk. The close-fitting woollen garments worn by sailors and often by children are known as jerseys-a word which is taken from the name of one of the Channel Islands, Jersey. Sometimes, but not so commonly, they are called guernseys, from the name of the chief of the other Channel Islands, Guernsey. Another piece of wearing apparel, the Turkish cap known as a fez, gets its name, perhaps, from Fez, a town in Morocco.

Besides woven stuffs, many other things are called by the names of the places from which they come. China, the general name for very fine earthenware, is the same name as that of the great Eastern country which is famous for its beautiful pottery. Another kind of ornamented earthenware is the Italian majolica, and this probably gets its name from the island of Majorca; while delf is the name of the glazed earthenware made at Delft (which in earlier times was called "Delf"), in Holland.

The beautiful leather much used for the bindings of books, morocco, takes its name from Morocco, where it was first made by tanning goatskins. It is now made in several countries of Europe, but it keeps its old name. Another old kind of leather, but whose name is no longer used, was cordwain, a Spanish leather for the making of shoes, which took its name from Cordova in Spain. Cordwainer was the old name for "shoemaker," and is still kept in the names of shoemakers' guilds and societies.

Many wines are simply called by the names (sometimes altered a little through people mispronouncing them) of the places from which they come. Champagne is the wine of Champagne, Burgundy of Burgundy, Sauterne of Sauterne, Chablis of Chablis-all French wines. Port takes its name from Oporto, in Portugal; and sherry, which used to be called "sherris," comes from the name of Xeres, a Spanish town.

Many less well-known wines have merely the name of the place where they are produced printed on the label, and they tend to be called by these names-such as Capri bianco Vesuvio, etc. Malmsey, the old wine in which the Duke of Clarence was supposed to have been drowned when his murder was ordered by his brother, and which is also called malvoisie, got its name from Monemvasia, a town in the peninsula of Morea.

Not only wine but other liquids are sometimes called after the places from which they come. The oil known as macassar comes from Maugkasara, the name of a district in the island of Celebes. This oil was at one time very much used as a dressing for the hair, and from this we get the name antimacassar for the coverings which used to be (and are sometimes still) thrown over the backs of easy-chairs and couches to prevent their being soiled by such aids to beauty. Antimacassar means literally a "protection against macassar oil," anti being the Latin word for "against."

The tobacco known as Latakia takes its name from the town called by the Turks Latakia, the old town of Laodicea. (Laodicea also gives us another common expression. We describe an indifferent person who has no enthusiasm for anything as "a Laodicean," from the reproach to the Church of the Laodiceans, in the Book of Revelation in the Bible, that they were "neither cold nor hot" in their religion.)

Both the words bronze and copper come from the names of places. Bronze is from Brundusium, the ancient name of the South Italian town which we now call Brindisi. The Latin name for this metal was aes Brundusinum, or "brass of Brindisi." Copper was in Latin aes Cyprium, or "brass of Cyprus."

Some coins take their names from the names of places. The florin, or two-shilling piece, takes its name from Florence. Dollar is the same word as the German thaler, the name of a silver coin which was formerly called a Joachimstaler, from the silver-mine of Joachimstal, or "Joachim's Dale," in Bohemia. The ducat, a gold coin which was used in nearly all the countries of Europe in the Middle Ages, and which was worth about nine shillings, got its name from the duchy (in Italia

n, ducato) of Apulia, where it was first coined in the twelfth century.

It was an Italian town, Milan, which gave us our word milliner. This came from the fact that many fancy materials and ornaments used in millinery were imported from Milan.

Many old dances take their names from places. We hear a great deal nowadays of the "morris dances" which used to be danced in England in olden times. But morris comes from morys, an old word for "Moorish." In the Middle Ages this word was used, like "Turk" or "Tartar," to describe almost any Eastern people, and the name came, perhaps, from the fact that in these dances people dressed up, and so looked strange and foreign. The name of a very well-known dance, the polka, really means "Polish woman." Mazurka, the name of another dance, means "woman of Masovia." The old-fashioned slow dance known as the polonaise took its name from Poland, and was really a Polish dance. The well-known Italian dance called the tarantella took its name from the South Italian town Tarento.

The word canter, which describes another kind of movement, comes from Canterbury. Canter is only the short for "Canterbury gallop," an expression which was used to describe the slow jogging pace at which many pilgrims in the Middle Ages rode along the Canterbury road to pray at the famous shrine of St. Thomas Becket in that city.

Several fruits take their names from places. The damson, which used in the Middle Ages to be called the "damascene," was called in Latin prunum damascenum, or "plum of Damascus." The name peach comes to us from the Late Latin word pessica, which was a bad way of saying "Persica." Currants used to be known as "raisins of Corauntz," or Corinth raisins.

Parchment gets its name from Pergamum, a city in Asia Minor. Pistol came into English from the Old French word pistole, and this came from an Italian word, pistolese, which meant "made at Pistoja." We do not think of spaniels as foreign dogs; but the name means "Spanish," having come into English from the Old French word espagneul, with that meaning.

A derivation which it would be even harder to guess is that of the word spruce. We now use this word to describe a kind of leather, a kind of ginger beer, and a variety of the fir tree, and also in the same sense as "spick and span." The word used to be pruce, and meant "Prussia."

The name of the famous London fish-market, Billingsgate, has long been used to mean very violent and abusive language supposed to resemble the scoldings of the fishwomen in the market.

Another word describing a certain kind of speaking, and which also comes from the name of a place, is bunkum. When a person tells a story which we feel sure is not true, or tells a long tale to excuse himself from doing something, we often say it is all "bunkum." This word comes from the name of the American town of Buncombe, in North Carolina, and came into use through the member for Buncombe in the House of Representatives insisting on making a speech just when every one else wanted to proceed with the voting on a bill. He knew that he had nothing of importance to say, but explained that he must make a speech "for Buncombe"-that is, so that the people of Buncombe, who had elected him, might know that he was doing his duty by them. And so the expression bunkum came into use.

Another word which may go with these, because it also begins with the letter b, is bedlam. We describe a scene of great noise and confusion, as when a number of children insist on talking all together, as a "perfect bedlam." The word bedlam comes from Bethlehem. In the Middle Ages there was a hospital in London kept by monks of the Order of St. Mary of Bethlehem. In time this house came to be known as "Bedlam," and as after a while the hospital came to be an asylum for mad people, this name came to be used for any lunatic asylum. From that it came to have its modern use of any great noise or confusion.

The sport of shooting pheasants is very English, and few people think that the pheasant is a foreign bird, introduced into England, just as in fact the turkey, which seems to belong especially to the English Christmas, came to us from America. The pheasant gets its name from the river Phasis, in the Eastern country of Pontus. It may seem peculiar that a bird coming from America should be called a turkey; but we saw in an earlier chapter how vague the people of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were about America. When Columbus reached the shore of that continent, people thought he had sailed round by another way to the "Indies." In nearly all European countries the turkey got names which show that most people thought it came from India, or at least from some part of the "Indies." Even in England it was called for a time "cok off Inde." In Italy it was gallina d'India (or "Indian hen"). The modern French words for male and female turkeys come from this mistake. In French the bird was at first known as pouille d'Inde (or "Indian fowl"). The name came to be shortened into the one word dinde, and then, as people thought this must mean the female turkey, they made a new word for the male, dindon.

But though so many words come from the names of places, and some of these would not seem to do so at first sight, there are other words which seem to come from place-names which do not do so at all. Brazil wood is found in large quantities in Brazil, but the wood is not called after the country. On the contrary, the country is called after the wood. This kind of wood was already used in Europe in the twelfth century, and its name is found in several European languages. When the Portuguese adventurers found such large quantities in this part of South America they gave it the name of Brazil from the wood. The island of Madeira got its name in the same way, this being the word for "timber," from the Latin word materia.

Again, guinea-pigs do not come from Guinea, on the west coast of Africa, though guinea-fowls do so. Guinea-pigs really come from Brazil. The name guinea-pig was given to these little animals because, when the sailors brought them home, people thought they had come from Africa. But in the seventeenth century a common voyage for ships was to sail from English or other European ports to the west coast of Africa, where bands of poor negroes were seized or bought, and carried over the Atlantic to be sold as slaves in the American "plantations." The ships naturally did not come home empty, but often people were not very clear as to whether the articles they brought back came from Africa or America.

Again, India ink comes, not from India, but from China. Indian corn comes from America. Sedan chairs had nothing to do with Sedan in France, but probably take their name from the Latin verb sedere, "to sit."

In these words, as in many others, we can see that it is never safe to guess the derivation of words. Many of the old philologists used to do this, and then write down their guesses as facts. This caused a great deal of extra work for modern scholars, who will not, of course, accept any "derivation" for a word until they have clear proof that it is true.

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