Is That Really What It Means?
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In this section we present a selection of everyday words with their original meanings and muse on the possibilites of still using them today with those original meanings. We hope you find the results both amusing and intriguing. Feel free to quote anything from here at your next dinner party. Oh, and don't forget to drop in for more from time to time.

alarm/alert: Do you sleep with a gun or a club under your bed? Perhaps it’s for fear of burglars breaking in and attacking you. Maybe you live in a rough area. Or just maybe you can’t stand getting up in the morning. So when the alarm clock goes off at 7.00 to summon you once more to the abject boredom of another day at the office, you finally lose it and blast or pummel it into tiny scraps of plastic and metal. For that’s what "alarm" actually means, “to arms!”, from the Italian "all’arme" through French. Then there’s its cousin "alert", which is evidenced in Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”. If you’re truly alert that’s where you need to be. The Italian "erta", “lookout, watchtower”, comes from the same Latin verb which gives us "erect". Soldiers were called to the watch by the call "all’erta", which comes to us again through French.

bankrupt: It's the credit crunch. You're sitting in the garden of your lovely suburban house, thinking that now you've lost your business and had to sell all your assets to cover your debts, you'll barely have two pennies left to rub together. Still, you can sell the house and buy something smaller. And many of your possessions are still in good condition so you can sell them and use the money to help you get by in the future. Why, the bench that you're sitting on is still quite new and worth a bit of money and - what the hell! Someone's just thrown you off your lovely garden bench and has proceded to smash it to pieces with a huge sledgehammer! Who the hell is this guy? Oh, it's one of your major creditors. And here comes another one, and another one, all wielding sledgehammers, and before long they've reduced your lovely bench to firewood. Well, what else do you expect? Originally, Medieval moneylenders used a bench or a table, known as a "banca" in Italian, to conduct their business. These bench tables eventually lent their names directly to the business, and banks were born. If a bank or indeed any other business was unable to pay its creditors and went out of business, it was broken up to pay them, hence "banca rotta" in Italian, literally "broken bank". This was rendered "bankrupt" after it was borrowed into English. So while the idea of bankruptcy simply refers to a business being broken up, I think you'll agree that the idea of the bench being smashed up with sledgehammers tickles the imagination far more.

bless: The next time someone sneezes, just make sure that you have a vial of animal blood in your pocket so that you can sprinkle it on them. Why, you may ask? Simple: "bless" is from the Old English "bloedsian", which referred to the act of sanctifying something by marking it with sacrificial blood. When Christianity arrived in England, the meaning was transferred to the Christian idea of benediction, literally "speaking well". The idea of saying "bless you" comes from the belief that the devil could enter your body at the moment you sneezed. The jury's still out on the question of whether flinging copious quantities of animal gore over someone will block Satan's entry into their body (if anybody still believes it anyway). So, next time someone says to you "Ah, bless!" you have complete licence to do a total "Carrie" on them. See you down the pig farm!

bust: Ever wondered how you could get from “burning” to “breasts” in a few easy steps? Just read on. The original Latin word was "ambustus", literally “burned around”, referring to a funeral pyre and related to the modern combustion. In ancient times, the Etruscans, neighbours of the early Romans, had the practice of placing a person’s ashes in an urn shaped like their upper body, hence a "bust". The Romans copied this and the Italians continued the practice of placing a figurine of the departed on the grave. Eventually, the link with the departed was lost and it simply referred to a statue of the upper body. In English it went further in also referring solely to the most prominent part of a woman’s anatomy. It would help to explain why a "busty" woman can inflame men's passions before reducing them to ashes.

camp: If you plan a sporting campaign and you end up the champion, then the whole of your camp will drink champagne. The Latin word "campus" meant "flat ground, plain, field" and gives us all the above derivations. If you are a soldier, you stay out in the field in a "camp", and the time you spend out in the field, usually the summer, is the "campaign", though it came to refer to the activity rather than the time. Another activity in the field in Medieval times was one-to-one combat, and someone who took the field to fight was known as a "champion", which more recently came to refer only to the winner of the competition. What of the drink? Well, it originated in a part of France called by the Romans "Campania" in view of its open, flat landscape. But one question remains: who drinks champagne on campus?

candidate: It's election time again. The leaders of each party are stumping the election trail, blaring out their messages and promising the earth, while telling you that they are honest, upright, reliable and sincere. In essence they want to come over to you as candid candidates. An oxymoron, perhaps. So, how did it start? The Latin word "candere" meant "burn brightly", giving us "candle" and "incandescent". It also gave us "candid", literally "bright burning, white", with the meaning extending to "open" and "honest". In Roman times, during elections, those seeking the vote had to appear in public in white dress, which literally denoted them as candidates, hence the transference of meaning from the colour of the clothes to the status of the person. So, now the great chase is on, to find the first planet in the universe other than the Earth that can support intelligent life, or to find a truly candid candidate. I know what my money is on!

country: "You city folk! You think you can come out here with your city ways, trespassing on my land, scaring the cows, buying second homes and pushing prices up for all of us! You're nothing but thieves and robbers! Why don't you clear off to that city of yours and leave us country folk to hunt foxes in peace and quiet? Go on! Get out before I set the dogs on you!" Spoken like a true country dweller. Well, what do you expect? He has to be against everything you stand for. Being contrary is his nature. After all, he's from the country. Eh? Well, "country" comes from the Latin "contrata regio", literally "region opposite" from where you're standing and looking, hence the region in front of you. It was passed on through Old French and came to refer to a tract of land and then the whole land as we understand it today. So be nice to him. It's not his fault. And he might not set the dogs on you.

curfew: So there you are, out on the street in a city in the grip of a crisis situation. You know that soon at 7.00pm the alarm will go up telling you it's time to get yourself safely in your home with the doors locked and bolted, as the army roam the streets outside. Well, that's what you should do. But instead you decide to build a fire in the middle of the road and stand there with a blanket, waiting for the soldiers to approach. As they point their guns at you and scream at you to put the blanket down, you calmly and casually inform them that you are simply following a time-honoured custom. Then you fling the blanket on the fire and proceed to extinguish it. With a bit of luck, they might let you go unharmed if you can explain this to them: "curfew" comes from the Old French "covrefeu", literally "cover-fire", and refers to the Medieval practice of covering housefires when a bell was rung in observance of local rules and regulations. Later, while the practice of covering fires died out, the practice of ringing the bell remained, and was extended to warning people to clear the streets in times of civil unrest. So this is your chance to revive an ancient tradition next time a curfew is declared, as long as you can avoid the pitched battles between the riot police and the revolutionaries.

delirious: Let's say you're on a solo camel safari across the desert. You come across someone staggering around, dehydrated, incoherent, eyes rolling, limbs flailing around. You jump off your camel as he slumps, mumbling and panting, to the ground and reach for your water bottle to revive the poor soul. But, before you give him the precious, life-saving liquid, surely you need to be absolutely certain of his condition? He may be pretending, with the aim of depriving you of your dwindling stocks. What test can you use to make sure his condition is genuine? Easy. Find some oxen yoked to a plough, stand him up on it and tell him to plough a straight furrow for a hundred metres or so. If he genuinely can't keep a straight line and keeps winding around here and there and falling over, then he is truly delirious and qualifies for a share of your water. How do we know this is the right course of action? The Latin "lira" meant "furrow", so being delirious means literally going "off the furrow", and hence "mad, crazy, raving". So if you're a specialist in tropical diseases, ask your hospital to purchase a plough and two oxen to keep in the field behind the hospital to help you with your diagnoses. Think of all the savings in surgical equipment. You won't regret it!

file: I went for a job interview once (honest!). They talked through my skills, education and experience with me, but decided that although they wouldn’t give me the job, they would like to hang me up on a piece of string in case they needed me in the future. I asked them what they thought they were doing and they said that it was normal practice to keep unsuccessful applicants on "file" for occasional work future positions, as I saw from the lines of other applicants hanging from the ceiling. The medieval practice of "filing" papers, from the Latin "filum", "thread", was originally connecting papers with a string or thread so that they could be organised properly. The root also gives us "file" in the sense of "line of people" and "filament".

infantry: How would you feel if you saw toddlers marching around the parade ground and standing to attention in their nappies, with their rifles and uniforms gleaming, saying "goo-goo, ga-ga?" Well, that's what they should be doing according to history. Let's go back to Latin. The word for "speak" was "fari". From this root came the word " infans", literally "not speaking". The only time in our lives when we can't speak is when we are babies, hence the meaning, which evolved into "young child unable to speak", and then just "young child". In fact, "enfant" came to refer to any young person in French. In Medieval times, two of the main elements of an army were the cavalry and infantry, which comes from Italian "infanteria". The cavalry was composed of well-trained horsemen, individually of far greater value than the more numerous infantry, which was composed of young men whose loss in battle was more easily borne. So there it is - from not speaking to footslogging over hill and dale, and back to the barracks to clean your rifle and change your nappy, before the Sargeant Major feeds you your dinner from a plastic bowl, puts you to bed and tells you a story while you drift off to sleep, sucking on your dummy.

metro: You're enjoying a nice weekend in Paris. You want to travel across the city, so you enter the nearest station and descend to the platform. The train pulls up. You get on and suddenly, you have a warm, peaceful, soothing feeling that you haven't experienced since you were born - as if you were back in your mother's womb. After all, you're sitting in the metro, which comes from the Greek word for "mother". But how can one's mother turn into a train carriage? In ancient Greek times, city states, like Athens, Thebes and Corinth, started to become overcrowded. This led to some of their inhabitants leaving to found new colonies on the coast of Asia Minor (present day Turkey), in Southern Italy and Sicily, North Africa, and even as far as the Black Sea and the coasts of Gaul (France) and Spain. These colonists still regarded themselves as "children" of their city of origin, which they called the "metropolis", literally "mother city". Naturally, the metropolis was larger and had a higher population, so over time the meaning extended to "large city" or "chief city". "Metro" is short for "metropolitan train", that is, one which runs through the city. So, just let the ride in the dark confines of the metro be a revisiting to the womb, and let your re-emergence into the bright summer sun at the end of your journey be a rebirth. Or something.

nice: It's one of those things which you might never guess about a word - that a meaning can travel linguistic light years away from its original roots. The Latin word "scire" (pronounced something like ski-ray) meant "know", and gives us "science", literally "knowledge". The derivation "nescius" meant "ignorant", which was also the first meaning when it came into Middle English. It evolved through a number of meanings, including "timid", "fussy", "dainty", "fastidious" and "lascivious" to "precise, careful". Eventually it arrived at "delightful" and "kind, thoughtful". So, next time you call someone nice, which of these do you really mean? Now you can call someone nice, while harbouring the satisfying secret that you really think they're dumb, with both of them being true! Incidentally, the French city of Nice may be nice, but it's actually the modern form of the Ancient Greek city of "Nikaia", from "nike" (pronounced something like "ni-kay") meaning "victory", which gives us the name "Nicolaos", "victory of the people", and which has in turn been borrowed by a certain sports clothing firm which is not based in Nice. How nice!

ocean: What's an ocean? We all know that it's a huge expanse of water between land masses. We think of its vast width and frequently still, tranquil depths. However, that's quite different from the way the ancients thought about it. The original Greek word "okeanos" literally means "swift-flowing" and referred to the river that they believed flowed around the disc of the flat world they inhabited. Well, like many things they were wrong about, the world isn't flat and it doesn't have a river flowing around it, but you can see what they mean when you're surfing in the middle of a huge oceanic wave crashing on to a beach. That really is "swift-flowing".

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