Alphabet

In a moment of genius or stupidity (open to debate), I have signed Word Stories up for the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. This means there will be a new post every day except Sunday throughout April, one for every letter of the alphabet. For an etymoloblog, it should be easy enough to pick out a word for each letter and write about it. The hard part will be keeping motivated to write every day. So to bring about some good karma before the grand départ, it seems apt to look at the story of the alphabet, in honour of the A to Z Challenge.

Alphabet as a word comes, unsurprisingly, from the Greek alphabetos which is a combination of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet: alpha and beta. What is surprising is that alphabet only entered English in the 1570s, via Late Latin. Before that, we used the Old English words stæfræw, meaning ‘row of letters’, or stæfrof ‘array of letters’.

alphabet

The word alpha precedes the Greek alphabetos as it comes from the Phoenician eleph which meant ‘ox’. One convincing theory is that the character A originated as a symbol of an ox head. Flip the A upside down and it looks similar enough.

Equally, beta also comes a Phoenician pictogram, this time from a house as viewed from above. In many Semitic languages, ‘house’ is beth or beyt which is what led to the Greek beta.

It’s hardly surprising that the Phoenicians should have given us the word alphabet, since they did invent it after all, sometime between 1200 and 1050 BC. The Phoenician alphabet is the oldest verified consonantal alphabet and the basis of our modern-day alphabet. We may call our alphabet the Latin alphabet and it may have evolved from a western variety of the Greek alphabet but actually we have the Phoenicians to thank for our ABCs.

The Phoenician alphabet quickly spread around the Med from around the 9th century BC. Part of its success was owed to the fact that one sound represented one symbol making the system far easier to lean than its contemporaries, such as Cuneiform or Egyptian hieroglyphs. Also, the Phoenicians were big maritime merchants so their writing system covered a lot of ground.

The fact that the Greeks then used the first two letters to create the word alphabet isn’t particularly novel. The same thing happens in Arabic using alif and baa; in Hebrew using aleph and bayt; and in the Old Norse runic futhark which used the first six letters put together. It seems like a fairly logical linguistic occurrence, especially considering how we refer to learning our ABCs.

So on April 1st, Word Stories will be starting the A to Z Challenge by exploring the origins of an alpha word. Bring on the ox.

 

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SOS

For most of us, SOS is probably as far as it goes for our Morse code knowledge. Those three letters have become a word in their own right and we could all probably tap them out if things got sufficiently sticky but what do they actually stand for in the first place?

The most widely-held misconceptions are ‘save our souls’, ‘save our ship’ and other variants. Another clever little suggestion is ‘si opus sit’ which comes from Latin and is used in medicine to mean ‘give relief where necessary’.

The truth is that SOS doesn’t actually stand for anything. The letters were simply chosen because they were easy to send in an emergency and difficult to mistake: three dots, three dashes, three dots.

From 1836 onwards, Samuel F. B. Morse and his colleagues Joseph Henry and Alfred Vail developed an electrical telegraph system which could send pulses of electrical current along a wire. Language could then be transmitted using the pulses and the silence between them. Morse code was developed over the next few years and, interestingly, Vail assigned each letter its dots and dashes based on usage. He determined the frequency of each letter in English by counting the movable type found in type-cases of a local newspaper. Therefore, e, being the most common letter, is simply one dot.

Originally, telegraphy was designed to make indentations onto a paper which operators could then read, however, it was later found that people were more proficient at receiving Morse code when it was taught as a language that is heard rather than read.

From the 1890s onwards, it was used extensively for radio communication, before it was possible to transmit the sound of a voice and it was vital in World War II for carrying messages between war ships and naval bases.

An alternative to SOS which was suggested when looking for a Morse code distress signal was CQD or CQ meaning ‘come quickly, distress’, which would have given a far less elegant  – · – · – – · – – · · But both were used for a time. In fact, during the sinking of HMS Titanic in 1912, operators used both SOS and CQD as distress calls.

SOS was first introduced in 1908 and remained the maritime distress signal until 1999.

Mummy

After three months of neglect, Word Stories is coming back from the dead. Feeling inspired to resurrect my first-born after starting a new sideline project compiling my TEFL Leson plans and visiting the disturbingly interesting mummy exhibition at Assen’s Drents Museum, I’ve been looking into the word mummy.

Mummy JokeEven though we use the same word for embalmed bodies as we do for our mothers, the two words are not at all related. The mummy we use for well-preserved cadavers actually comes from the Persian mumiya meaning ‘tar’ since the first mummies found were of a deep black colour, like tar. This transferred to Arabic as mumiyah and was used to refer to embalmed bodies. Mumiyah then entered Medieval Latin and then Middle English as mumia in around 1400 but the most widely-understood use of the term was actually as a medicine, since, gruesome as it seems now, between the 12th and the 17th century, pharmacists were doing a roaring trade in ground embalmed body powder. This miracle cure was used to treat everything from stomach ulcers to headaches and demand was so high that some disreputable salesmen took to digging up and grinding up any old body just to meet with supply.

Oddly enough, the penchant for mumia might have arisen from a simple linguistic misundrstanding. Remember that mumiya in Persian actually reffered to tar? In ancient times, it was the bitumen in tar that was a common miracle medicine, also prescribed for a wide range of ailments, such as arthritis or dysentry. Mumiya conveniently also referred to another black substance, used in the embalming process. This mumiya was not actually bitumen but it was used as an alternative when bitumen was in short supply. From there, it was just a few steps to the idea that it was the embalmed body itself and not the substance used to do the embalming, which would solve all your health problems.