Murder mystery

Last weekend was ‘Agatha Christie Weekend’ here, the town where the much loved murder mystery writer spent most of her life and which is also the location of her grave. It seems only right to pay homage to the queen of crime by unravelling some of the word mysteries out there.

Firstly, mystery itself is quite mysterious. It originates from the Greek myein, which mean ‘to close, shut’ and comes from the same family as mute. It seems like a big step from this word to the current mystery, meaning ‘something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain’.

But the Greek term gave way to other Greek words: mystes, ‘one who has been initiated’, and mysterion, ‘secret rite or ceremony’. In a mysterion, a new priest would be initiated and become a mystes. He would have to keep his lips shut, that is, refrain from revealing the secrets of the initiation ceremony to others. From there, the word went through the usual journey of Latin and Old French before entering English in the 14th century. We also borrowed the word mystic from the same root.

Murder, on the other hand, is an open-and-shut case. It is of Germanic origin, with the original Old English term being morthor. It can be traced way back to an Indo-European root, whose descendents gave Sanskrit mará and Latin mors. Those who studied romance languages in school will recognise the cognates muerte in Spanish and mort in French. All of which mean ‘death’.

What’s more enigmatic is blue murder as in to cry blue murder, ‘to make an extravagant and noisy protest’. Why should murder have a colour? Does blue here refer to cold, as in murder in cold blood? Or is the crier screaming until they’re blue in the face?

There are a number of theories out there. One suggests that since another variant of the phrase is to cry bloody murder, blue here is a minced oath, a polite way of avoiding swearing by using another word that sounds quite similar.

Alternatively, in the 17th century, blue was used to describe someone who was terrified, so to cry blue murder would be to shout loudly with fear or make a terrified protest.

Another theory suggests that blue here refers to blue-blooded royals. Since to murder a royal would by an extremely grave – and difficult – crime, crying blue murder is to accuse someone of a very serious crime, leading to the idea of making a serious protest.

Then there’s the idea that blue can be used as an intensifier, as in blue blazes and blue funk. So the exclaimer is not only screaming about murder, but blue murder, hence the extravagance and noisiness of the protest.

But my favourite theory, whether it’s the right one or not, is that blue murder is a literal translation of the French minced oath: morbleu. When something terrible happened, the French could exclaim ‘mort Dieu!’, meaning ‘God’s death!’. (NB This might seem like a surprising form of blasphemy but it’s actually quite common – zounds, ‘sblood and gadzooks in English came from ‘God’s wounds’, ‘God’s blood’ and ‘God’s hooks’, ie nails on the cross, respectively.) The French avoided saying Dieu by using bleu as a minced oath, just as how sacré Dieu, ‘sacred God’, became sacré bleu. Thus mortbleu would be used as an exclamation of astonishment and English speakers thought it was a good enough phrase to adopt too.

Quintessential

A trip to the Oxford University Press museum a few weeks ago spurred on some thoughts about favourite words – surely a true lingthusiast has a good favourite word or two? The thing is there are just too many great words to choose from. When we’re pushed to choose, it does seem that the ones that make it to the top of the list are the ones that roll off the tongue the most, such as mellifluous or ubiquitous. But one great word suggestion that is not only fun to say but actually has an interesting word story too is quintessential.

You wouldn’t think there would be anything particularly remarkable about the origin of quintessential; looking at it, it looks quite French and you can see how it can break down into essential and then, presumably, essence. But what about the quint part?

Think quintet or quintuplets. Quintessence literally means the ‘fifth essence’. Going back (via Medieval French) to Latin, as quinta essentia, it was used in classical and medieval philosophy to refer to:

A fifth substance in addition to the four elements, thought to compose the heavenly bodies and to be latent in all things.

(oxforddictionaries.com)

It was introduced to philosophical theory by Aristotle and entered Latin via a loan translation (ie the literal construction of ‘fifth element’ was borrowed) of the Greek pempte ousia. The basic idea was that there are five elements that made up all matter: fire, earth, air, water and quintessence. The first four we’re already familiar with but quintessence, also known as aether, was thought to make up the heavenly bodies and the rest of the universe. It was used to explain several natural phenomena, including gravity and the motion of light.

Over time, our scientific knowledge evolved and the theory of the five elements was dismissed but quintessential stuck on in there by hanging on to that last part of its meaning – ‘latent in all things’ – so that it eventually came to mean ‘the intrinsic and central constituent of something’ or ‘the most perfect or typical example’.

Muse

If I’ve learnt anything in the last couple of weeks it’s that working a nine-to-five-thirty job doing writey typey things is not conducive to frequent blogging. That being said, I have had time to muse on a couple of interesting words here and there, including the word muse.

First of all, you might think that artistic inspiration would be linked to being absorbed in thought but actually the noun muse and the verb to muse are completely different, unrelated words, which just happen to be homonyms (words which are spelt the same but have different meanings).

Muse the noun came into English in the late 14th century from Latin via Old French. The original word was the Greek Mousa, which meant ‘the Muse’ as well as ‘music, song’. According to Greek legend, the nine Muses were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne and were each responsible for a different area of the arts and sciences.

The noun can be traced back even further to the PIE root *men- which meant ‘to think, remember’, which is similar in meaning to the modern verb to muse, although this is purely by coincidence. It is from this muse that we got the words museum, originally a ‘shrine for the Muses’; mosaic, which was ‘work of the Muses’; and music, ‘pertaining to the Muses’.

The verb to muse, on the other hand, means ‘to reflect, to be absorbed in thought’. It came into English at roughly the same time as the noun, in the 14th century, and through the same source language: French. The French word, muser, meant ‘to ponder, to dream’ and also ‘to loiter, to waste time’ but the medieval Latin word it came from, musum, meant ‘snout’ and relates to the modern English word muzzle. So what’s the connection? It could either be because a person who is musing is standing with their nose in the air or because they are sniffing about, like a dog that’s lost the scent. Since both words arrived in the language in the same period, it’s also possible that the noun had an influence on the meaning of the verb.

Now, there are two important words that come from to muse: amuse and bemuse. The a- prefix in amuse means ‘to cause’, which, in the late 15th century, lead to ‘to cause to muse, to divert’ and the primary meaning was ‘to deceive, to cheat’ well until the 18th century. From this, it became ‘to divert from serious business’ and then later ‘to entertain’. It is actually bemuse which has retained more of the original meaning of amuse: the be- prefix can equally mean ‘to cause’ as well as ‘thoroughly’, so someone who is bemused is utterly confused.

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.

Kiss

It’s National Kiss Day, which is especially convenient as Word Stories is onto the letter K for the Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

 Kiss comes from the Old English word coss and the verb to kiss was cyssan. Before that, Proto-Germanic had the word *kussjan which then became küssen in German, kysse in Norwegian and Danish, and kyssa in Swedish. The word probably came about because it is imitative of the sound made when kissing.

Kiss doesn’t seem to trace back any further than that; there is no common Indo-European root word. However, some linguists do suggest that *ku- could be a root, in line with the Greek kynein, the Hittite kuwash-anzi and the Sanskrit cumbati.

Perhaps the reason why there is no decisive common linguistic ancestor is because the symbol of affection is actually unknown in many cultures. In fact, kissing is a late developer with sniffing, licking and rubbing of noses being much older and more common customs.

Anthropologists as divided as to whether kissing is natural and instinctive or if it is something that has developed and been learned. Still, the Ancient Egyptians kissed and references are found to it in Sumerian texts which date back to around 5,000 years ago.

French kissing, on the other hand, is first attested in 1923. Kissing using tongues is said to be French because, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Gallic culture was known for being more passionate and romantically adventurous.

The practise of kissing can carry many different meanings in different cultures, whether it is an expression of love, friendship, passion or respect. Whatever the social message behind it, kissing can reduce stress and even lower cholesterol and burn calories by releasing adrenalin and increasing the heart rate. So happy National Kiss Day and pucker up, it’s good for you!