The Etymology of “Tabby (Cat)”

The word “tabby” came to refer to cats in the 1690s due to their fur pattern, which resembles a striped silk taffeta also called tabby, originally (via French) from the name of the Baghdad neighborhood Attabiy, where rich silks were made. The area was named after the Umayyad prince Attab.

Tabis, the French word from which we get the English “tabby,” was part of a full phrase for “striped silk tafetta,” wherein tabis specifically referred to a rich watered silk. “Tabby” is also related to the Spanish word ataviar, meaning “to decorate or to dress or wear,” specifically regarding high-end luxury fabric or clothing.

Until the 1770s, it was uncommon to hear the sole English word “tabby” used for a feline, with most people using the full phrase “tabby cat.”

Evidently the word “tabby” was also occasionally used in reference to female cats due to an association with the woman’s name Tabitha—with the nickname Tabby—during the name’s peak popularity between 1718 and 1754. The gendered connotation is particularly interesting given the fact that about 80% of all orange tabby cats are male. (Because the gene for orange fur is on the X chromosome, female cats need to inherit that gene from both parents to be all orange, while a male only needs one from its mother. This also contributes to the fact that most calico and tortoiseshell cats are female, with the resulting patterns influenced by one orange gene combining with black, brown, etc. on the other X chromosome)

*Note that, as is often the case with Arabic-to-English, the spellings of Umayyad/Omayyad, Attabiy/’Attabiyah, and Attab/’Attab vary from source to source.

The Etymology of “Matador” … and “Checkmate” … “and Check” (I Swear They’re Related)

I wanted to know the origin of the word “matador,” so I looked it up and fell down a crazy etymological rabbit hole.

First of all, “matador” means “killer,” from matar, “to kill.” While it’s most likely from the Latin mactare “to kill,” it could be from the Arabic mata “he died,” from Persian, which also appears in the Arabic phrase shah mat “the king died”—the source of “checkmate.”

Cool, right?

BUT THEN I looked more into the word “checkmate” and found all sorts of weirdness, like the fact that every variation of the word “check” comes from the game of chess. Seriously.

But backing up a bit: The Persian word mat in the phrase shah mat was misunderstood as it moved into Arabic—it meant “be astonished” in Persian—while mata was the Persian for “to die” (although mat was the past tense “he died,” hence the confusion). So in Persian, shah mat meant “the king is left helpless, the king is stumped.” (Also I find it a bit hilarious that it basically means “the king literally can’t even.”)

So like I said, the word “check” comes the game of chess, which is ancient as heck. The English name of the game was adopted from the Old French esches, or “chessmen,” plural of eschec, the name of the game itself, which came (by way of Latin) from the Persian shah, “king.”

(The original name of the game was the Sanskrit chaturanga, which referred to the four categories of members in an army: elephants, horses, chariots, and foot soldiers. “Shah mat” was what you said when you won, just like today.)

The word eschequier was Old French for a check in chess, which obviously was adopted in English as “exchequer,” originally a word for a chessboard. Exchequer, and the word “check” or “cheque,” as in the slip of paper, evidently came to be associated with government and finance because under Norman reign in England, accounting of revenue was calculated on a cloth divided into squares, like a chessboard. Both the sense of checking something off a list and a restaurant check also appears to have come from this process because counters were placed in squares on the cloth to note that items had been counted or verified.

How crazy is all that?

The Etymology of “Moonshine”

“Moonshine” (unaged spirits illicitly distilled “by the light of the moon”) is thought to be inspired by “moonrakers,” a name for apocryphal English brandy smugglers who raked up kegs from ponds. When caught, they pretended to be fools attempting to rake cheese from the reflection of the moon.

Moonshine, obviously, first referred to the literal light of the moon, arising around the 15th century. It was also used figuratively in poetry and prose to refer to “appearance without substance.”

From the late 18th century onward, the word’s colloquial use in reference to illegally-produced spirits — primarily unaged corn-mash whiskey produced in Appalachia — invokes both the clear color of the liquid and the fact that it was distilled and smuggled at night. While production of moonshine was illegal until 2010, largely due to the fact that producers would distill their own spirits in order to avoid the high taxes on liquor production (and also because it has historically been produced unsafely), the term became especially ubiquitous during the period after the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act initiated Prohibition in 1920 until 1933.

“Moonraker,” which is thought to have inspired the words “moonshine” and “moonshiner,” has stuck around as a nickname for people from the rural English county of Wiltshire thanks to the folk tale mentioned in the title. Wiltshire was situated along the secret routes of a booming brandy smuggling business in the mid- to late-1700s. According to the folk tale, the locals hid contraband barrels of French brandy in ponds from customs officers (or revenue men, which would influence the Appalachian variation “revenooers”). When they were caught attempting to retrieve the brandy with rakes at night, they played dumb, pointing at the reflection of the moon in the pond and saying they were trying to rake in a wheel of cheese. The revenue men laughed at their supposed ignorance and went on their way.

The Etymology of “Moxie”

“Moxie,” used generally from 1930, comes from the brand name of a bitter syrup first marketed as the medicine “Moxie Nerve Food” in 1876, then sold as a soft drink starting in 1884. The brand may be from a Native American Abenaki word for “dark water,” from Maine lake and river names.

The beverage Moxie, originally patented as medicine, is still sold today by the Moxie Beverage Company in Bedford, NH. It was one of the first mass-produced soft drinks in the US, arising during a boom in soda brands that included Dr. Pepper (which was notably served at the 1885 Louisiana Purchase Exposition), as well as other now-defunct ginger ale and root beer brands.

Moxie’s creator, Dr. Augustin Thompson, sought to create a medicine that did not contain then-common but potentially harmful drug ingredients such as cocaine and alcohol. Moxie was sold as the “nerve food” syrup first, marketed as a remedy for “paralysis, softening of the brain, nervousness, and insomnia,” and later the syrup would be sold for use in soda fountains.

At the time he developed Moxie, Thompson claimed that the bitter extract used to make the syrup was from a rare and unnamed South American plant, but it was later determined to be gentian root extract, a fairly common substance that has been used in tonics since at least 170 BC during the reign of Gentius, namesake of the plant’s genus gentiana and the last king of the powerful Ardiaei tribe in Illyria.

Thompson also claimed that he named Moxie after his friend Lieutenant Moxie, who discovered the plant and its extract, but it’s likely that no such person existed and that he drew the name from a few rivers and lakes in Maine, where Thompson was born. These bodies of water included variations of the word “moxie,” meaning “dark water” in Eastern Abenaki languages, which was and is spoken by the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot people of coastal Maine.

The current, most common usage of the word, referring to bold determination and spunk, comes from the gist of the marketing for the medicine (and then beverage), which said that it would “build up your nerve.”


The Etymology of “Dandelion”

In the early 14th century, “dandelion” was spelled dent-de-lioun, a direct loan from French, but over time, colloquial use morphed it into the current spelling. Here’s an image of the leaf-shape to which the name refers.

Regarding some of its other English names:

Tell-time refers to the practice of determining the time by picking mature white dandelions—called “blowballs” or, in the same vein, “clocks”—and blowing on the heads to see how easily the achenes (from Greek chainein, “to gape,” referring to the way the flower expands) or seeded fruits, will come off and float away. According to some folklore, it was thought that the number of puffs required to blow off all of the seeds would be the number of the hour.

Piss-a-bed (also pee-a-bed, wet-a-bed) is also a concept borrowed from French pissenlit. While dandelions do have some beneficial components—vitamins, iron, potassium and zinc—and have historically been used in various parts of the world as a diuretic (as well as a treatment for liver and gallbladder problems, kidney disease, upset stomach, skin problems, appendicitis, boils, fever, low appetite, and more), they are generally used more as an herbal supplement, and research into their medical uses hasn’t yielded firm conclusions. In some Italian dialects, the plant is also called pisacan, or “dog pisses,” because they are yellow and found along the edge of pavement where a dog might relieve itself.

Cankerwort refers to the way it spreads as a weed, similar to crabgrass. “Canker,” which now refers to spreading ulcers/sores, was originally a common English word for a tumor, from the Latin cancer, which also referred to tumors but literally meant “crab.” And “wort,” meaning “plant,” comes from the Old English wyrt (PIE root wrād- “branch, root”) and also appears in the names of the plants “ragwort” (ragweed), St. John’s wort, liverwort, mugwort, hogwort, etc.

Milk witch refers to the white liquid that’s produced when the plant’s stem is cut, plus the witchy claw-like leaves. It was also known as witch’s gowan, where gowan is a word for a marigold.

Irish daisy draws upon the mocking English use of the word “Irish” to mean “poor man’s [something]”, e.g., “Irish apricot” = potato.

Taraxacum officinale is the scientific name of the plant. Taraxacum perhaps comes from translations of medieval Person pharmacological texts by the scientist el Razi (or al-Razi) c. 900, and later scientist/philosopher Ibn Sīnā, who both called it tarashaquq. It also could be originally from the older Greek taraxos, “disorder” + akos“remedy,” but the earliest record of the term was a Latin translation of those Arabic texts in 1170 by Gerard of Cremona, so it was likely influenced by both. Officinale in this context meant “from the pharmacy.”

Additional English names include doon-head-clock, yellow-gowan, monks-head, priest’s-crown, faceclock, swine’s snout, white endive and wild endive.

Bonus: Here is an illustration of a dandy lion from an artist known as IguanaMouth.

The Etymology of “Hysteria”

Derived from the Greek and Latin words for uterus, hysteria was an extremely common, catch-all medical diagnosis that more or less meant that the patient had a case of the Lady Crazies. But as the news has taught us, mass hysteria isn’t limited to people with uteri anymore.

Feeling a bit too sane today? Me too! I didn’t feel much like reading the news for my daily dose of what-the-fuckery, so instead I elected to delve into the frenzied world of human neuroses with the compelling history of the term “hysteria.” (Excuse the length here; this word has a boatload of intriguing history to unpack.)

These days, as we all know, hysteria usually refers to “exaggerated or uncontrollable emotion or excitement, especially among a group of people.” In an antiquated sense, it can also refer to a general category of psychological disorders. Although hysteria was once a very common diagnosis, medical professionals no longer use the term “hysteria” in this sense, instead using more specific and recently-coined names for disorders. And for good reason.

“Hysteric” and “hysterical” were the most common uses when it surfaced in English in the very early 1600s from the Latin hystericus, or “of the womb,” which in turn came from the Greek hysterikos, meaning either “of the womb” or “suffering in the womb,” and the base noun hystera, or “womb” (i.e., uterus).

As you might expect from the origin, the medical Latin term “hysteria” was used to diagnose neuroses that were almost entirely specific to women—and that were believed to be caused by the uterus. Over the centuries, its perplexingly vast array of symptoms included heartburn, vertigo, headaches, choking, depression, poor attention span, jealousy, problems with the veins in the nose, anxiety, and death, among many others. (In the mid-19th century, the American physician George Miller Beard cataloged 75 pages of possible symptoms of hysteria, a list he claimed was still incomplete.)

The notion of hysteria as the cause of pretty much anything that could ever be wrong with a woman is attributed to Hippocratic-era Greek medical teachings about the oddly disturbing theory of the “Wandering Womb,” which suggested that many diseases women suffered from were caused by the uterus moving of its own accord — and I’m not talking about a little bit of shifting here. Just to illustrate how far-fetched this concept seems today, here’s an /r/badwomensanatomy-worthy description of the Wandering Womb theory by the 2nd-century physician Aretaeus:

In the middle of the flanks of women lies the womb, a female viscus, closely resembling an animal; for it is moved of itself hither and thither in the flanks, also upwards in a direct line to below the cartilage of the thorax, and also obliquely to the right or to the left, either to the liver or the spleen, and it likewise is subject to prolapsus downwards, and in a word, it is altogether erratic. It delights also in fragrant smells, and advances towards them; and it has an aversion to fetid smells, and flees from them; and, on the whole, the womb is like an animal within an animal.

Despite the fact that more widely-renowned Greek physicians including Galen understood that this was Dr. Spaceman-level balderdash, the concept of the Wandering Womb and its ties to hysteria remained a plague on the medical field for centuries, lingering like a bad case of chlamydia almost until the Enlightenment.

Another humorous theory about hysteria was that it was caused by the retention of “female semen,” which was thought to be stored in the uterus and to mingle with male semen during sex. If female semen wasn’t exposed to male semen often enough, said the primarily male physicians of the time, stored female semen could become venomous, which is why hysteria was believed to be particularly common among widows (to the extent that it was sometimes known as “the widow’s disease”).

By the mid- to late 19th century, hysteria referred almost exclusively to what we consider sexual dysfunction (but only among women), and treatment often involved doctors inducing orgasms in their patients. For science.

While more orgasms probably did go a long way toward helping many sexually-repressed women of the day, attributing so many ailments — psychological and otherwise — to the mysteries of the uterus was (obviously) problematic because it necessarily reduced hundreds of diseases to what was ostensibly “the lady crazies.”

Not until our old pal Sigmund Freud (influenced by French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot) published several articles on hysteria in the 1890s were stress-related symptoms of that nature widely attributed to psychological causes. Further developments in this area, as well as the nuances of psychology as a whole, were prompted not only by advances in gynecology and an increasing number of women in the medical field, but also by the study of shell shock and (what we now know as) PTSD following World War I, which helped doctors better understand psychological trauma in general.

Although today we consider the concept of “mass hysteria” to be non gender-specific, and have since the term surfaced around 1839, that phrase was also once attributed exclusively to women—or collective nuttiness caused by women. One of the earliest documented cases or “hysteria” in a group of people occurred during the Middle Ages, when a convent of French nuns all began meowing like cats and would do so together for hours at a time, until soldiers from the surrounding town threatened to intervene if they did not stop. (Being nuns, they probably had too much venomous female semen stored up in their Wandering Wombs, eh?)

Also, as you probably know, in a more informal sense, the adjective “hysterical” can mean “extremely funny,” a sense that arose in 1939, appearing shortly thereafter in novels such as The Walsh Girls (1943) and a 1959 autobiography by Vincent Price. Does that mean uteri are especially funny? Aside from the Wandering Womb theory and the delightful fact that “uteri” is a grammatically correct pluralization of the word, probably not. (Uteruses is also correct, but that’s less fun.) Instead, it earned that sense because fits of uncontrollable laughter were among the extensive list of hysteria symptoms.

The Etymology of “Geyser”

The English word “geyser” was adopted from “Geysir,” meaning “the gusher,” originally the proper name of a specific hot spring in Iceland. With time and general lack of understanding by English-speaking visitors, it became a general word for spouting hot springs.

The English word geyser was adopted from the Icelandic word Geysir, the name of one specific hot spring in the valley of Haukadal (or Haukadalur). One of the earliest English accounts of the word was in The Annual Register, a publication originally edited by Irish philosopher and political theorist Edmund Burke, in the 1760s. In that account, “Geyser” appears as the proper name of that specific hot spring, but with time and general lack of understanding by English-speaking visitors, it became a general word for spouting hot springs.

The name “Geysir” means “the gusher,” from the Old Norse geysa “to gush,” from the PIE root gheu- “to pour,” which is also part or all of the origin of other interesting words including alchemy (suggesting “that which is poured”), confuse (suggesting something mixed), and font (as in typography, and which I wrote a bit about here as it pertains to molten metal being poured into moulds for printing presses).

Etymonline says the general Icelandic words for spouting hot springs are hverr, “a cauldron,” and laug, “a hot bath,” though I do not speak Icelandic, so if anyone here does, I’d be interested to know how common each of those words is and the distinction between them.