Break a Leg

Today’s phrase up for consideration is one from the back catalogue in honour of my friend, blogger and director, and the performance of her new show. So for the cast and crew and everyone involved in Frozen, break a leg!

It’s an odd superstition that before any sort of theatrical or arts performance we think it’s unlucky to utter a good luck. Especially when you consider that we would happily say those words before important exams, driving tests or a job interview. We all know that the correct thing to say is break a leg, but you would think that breaking a leg would actually be a pretty unlucky thing, so where does this phrase come from?

The truth is we’re not quite sure. There are a few false etymologies that seem quite unlikely. One suggests that the curtain pulls were once called legs which would eventually break after lots of wear and tear. So to break a leg would be a good thing, meaning that you had had lots of popular and successful performances.

Another false etymology comes from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Allegedly, John Wilkes Booth, actor-come-assassin, jumped onto the Ford’s Theatre stage after murdering Lincoln and broke his leg. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence of the phrase before the 19th century and it’s difficult to see how Lincoln’s assassination would tie in with good luck.

The most likely explanation is that the phrase is simple superstition. The Italians have a comparable phrase, bocca al lupo, and the Germans have a particularly similar expression, Hals- und Beinbruch, which means ‘break your neck and leg’ or literally ‘neck and leg break’. It might be that we get the phrase from this since there is an example of the same structure from 1954 in the News of Fredrick, Maryland.

Among the many sayings for “good luck,” you can hear actors whisper “neck and leg break” to each other as the footlights dim and the curtain rises each opening night. Although “neck and leg break” sounds more like a call for a wrestling arena, theatrically it means, “good luck”.

Still, there is the possibility that the German and English expressions appeared simultaneously, without the former being the origin of the latter, since Japanese has a similar phrase as well. Some people claim the phrase has a British origin but the earliest recorded citations are all American. Supposedly it dates back to the 1930s but the first complete example comes from 1957 in the Associated Press in a story about an actress who literally broke her leg during the performance.

In the theater, they say “break a leg” to an actor just before he goes on stage, but it really means “good luck.”

All in all, it’s a bit of a mystery. Generally, it seems that the phrase is simply a way of stopping a jinx; if it is bad luck to wish for a good performance, you have to wish for a bad one instead.

Advertisements

Mortgage

A couple of days ago, Word Stories looked at a word which is different in English from almost every other language: while we say pineapple, most other tongues use some variation of ananas. This got me to thinking if there were any other such cases. Brains racked, I dredged up something I’d noticed many years ago: mortgage.

Studying languages in school might bring up hypothèque in French and hipoteca in Spanish but it’s no surprise that French and Spanish should have related words while the English equivalent is different; French and Spanish are Romance languages, descended from Latin, while English is Germanic with many words from the Anglo-Saxons.

It is surprising, however, that other Germanic languages should also use the latter term, such as Dutch, hypotheek, Swedish, hypotek, and German, Hypothek.

It’s also interesting that the word mortgage actually originates in French, yet the French prefer to use hypothèque. So what happened?

Mortgage was first recorded at the end of the 1300s and was a compound of two French words: mort, ‘dead’, and gage, ‘pledge’. The idea was that either the pledge ‘dies’ when the debt is paid or the property ‘dies’ for the borrower when he or she fails to pay and it reclaimed by the lender.

Hypothèque, on the other hand, comes from Greek, hypotheke, meaning a ‘deposit, pledge or mortgage’. This was also a compound, from hypo-, ‘down’, and tithenai, ‘to put’.

Eventually, hypothèque replaced mortgage in Modern French and now many other languages take the Greek word, including: Russian, Indonesian, Basque, Polish, Italian, Punjabi, Turkish, Bulgarian, Estonian, and Yiddish.

Unfortunately, internet-trawling and book-thumbing haven’t yielded any answers to why everyone else, it seems, uses a derivation of hypotheke while we’re still using the old mortgage version, why mortgage didn’t catch on anywhere else or why the French felt the need to exchange mortgage for hypothèque anyway. Perhaps it’s because we like to use swanky French words when it comes to the law or maybe it’s just because once we have a decent enough word to fit the bill, we might as well stick with it. We’ll probably discover what happened on the same day I’m actually able to buy a house and get a mortgage. This one might be a story we’ll never really know.

Pineapple

It’s finally starting to feel like summer; time for sipping fruit smoothies in the sunshine, generous factor 30-ing and complaining that it’s too hot. I, for one, have indulged in a spot of light European gallivanting this month, to Italy, Germany, back to the Netherlands and I’ll be moving to Oxford at the weekend. If you pick up anything from spending unhealthy amounts of time on the road, it’s the little oddities and discrepancies between languages that, geographically-speaking, aren’t so far apart.

One such curiosity is that quintessential summer fruit and obligatory piña colada ingredient: the pineapple. Looking at the map, it would appear that English missed a memo somewhere.

Of course, the pineapple is an exotic fruit and is indigenous to South America, originating from somewhere between southern Brazil and Paraguay. It spread across the continent and was cultivated by the Mayans and the Aztecs. When Columbus travelled to Guadaloupe in 1493, he came across the fruit and called it the piña de Indes, meaning ‘pineapple of the Indians’.

However, although Columbus brought the pineapple we recognise today back with him, the word pineapple was actually first recorded in 1398, some 100 years earlier. So had the fruit actually been in Britain all along?

Unsurprisingly, that’s not the case. This is a great example of how language change eventually makes the origins of many words opaque.

The word pineapple originally denoted the reproductive organs of conifer tress, what we call today pine cones. Except pine cone didn’t come into the language until the 1690s to replace pineapple. So when European explorers brought the fruit to Britain, everyone figured it looked pretty much like a pine cone and went on to name it as such.

The rest of the world, on the other hand, says ananas. This word stems from nanas, an indigenous Tupi term meaning ‘excellent fruit’.

I’ll leave you with this little joke that’s been popping up on the web:

– Sir, we’ve found this and we need you to name it.

– Pineapple.

– But we figured we might as well just call it ‘ananas’ since the majority of the world refers to it as-

– Pineapple.

– But sir-

– Pine. Apple.

Paparazzi

A few weeks ago, Word Stories looked at the interesting case of the usual suspects and how the origin of the phrase can be pinpointed to a very precise origin: the film Casablanca. Although being able to identify such an exact source is rare – the best we can do usually is to suppose that a word, say, derived from a certain foreign language in a certain century – it’s not exceptional. One film which gave English not just a catchphrase or an expression but a singular word is Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and that word is paparazzi.

Just by looking at the word you can guess it is of Italian origin and if you know anything about Italian plural marking you’ll also see that paparazzi is the plural of the singular paparazzo.

In La Dolce Vita, Paparazzo is the name of a character, a photographer who goes to great lengths to take snaps of American stars.

Paparazzo as a surname is common in Italy, particularly Calabria, but there are a couple of theories about why Fellini chose it.

It could have been borrowed from a travel book titled By the Ionian Sea, by George Gissing, in which appears an Italian hotel owner called Coriolano Paparazzo.  On the other hand, paparazzo, in the Abruzzi dialect, means ‘clam’ which perhaps alludes to the opening and closing of a camera lens. What’s more, the –azzo suffix has negative connotations in Italian.

Whatever the reasoning behind naming the character, something about the word stuck so there was obviously a need for it in our lexicon. Fellini himself said it suggests ‘a buzzing insect, hovering, darting, stinging’. In fact, the film was released in 1960 and just one year later it was being used in the sense we recognise today:

Kroscenko…is a paparazzo, one of a ravenous wolf pack of freelance photographers who stalk big names for a living and fire with flash guns at point-blank range.

Companion

By reading Word Stories, you might be lead to believe that every single word has a complex and fascinating history. Unfortunately that’s not always true; there are plenty of the words out there that have pretty run-of-the-mill origins and can be summed up in just a few words. It’s exciting that you can look at some words and notice immediately that they come from, say, Latin. It’s not so exciting that that’s as far as the story goes.

Take companion for example. On first inspection it looks like just another Latinate word, which possibly came into English via French.

This time, however, what first appeared to be another boring Latin-derived word turned out to be much more interesting.

Yes, it came into English via Old French compagnon in the 14th century, meaning ‘fellow, friend, partner’, but the Latin root companionem actually meant ‘bread fellow, messmate’ and was a compound of com and panis. What do com and panis mean? ‘With’ and ‘bread’. The idea being that someone you break bread with is your companion, your friend.

In a similar vein, lord looks like a pretty standard Old English word but the original form was hlaford, coming from the mid-13th century. Hlaford was actually a compound of hlaf and weard, which later evolved into loaf and ward. So a lord is actually a bread-guardian.

In fact, before companion became the dominant term, Old English had a synonym which comes from the same root as lord: gahlaiba. Gahlaiba also meant ‘friend, messmate’, the hlaib part being a variation of half, ‘loaf’.

So this leads us to two conclusions. Firstly, don’t judge a word by its dull Latinate appearance. Secondly, as much as we like talking to each other, its always the second best; food comes first.