Etymology – the origin and meaning of words

BC: ‘Before soul-less computers,’ had – metaphorically speaking – usurped Jesus, I spent a fascinating afternoon in the public library, studying the derivative of names. As you do. Well, this one did….

Such surnames as Green, Fleur, and Farmer were easy peasy to interpret and trace, but more modern ones like Jelley, Gotobed, and Brokenbra (genuine, discovered in the local – Romford – telephone directory) were a tad more difficult to search out or comprehend, despite the blatant message their names implied. ‘Jelley’ was a wobbly one, ‘Gotobed’ pretty obvious, as was ‘Brokenbra,’ but mildly weird. However the coincidences of kinship between names and occupations was mind boggling. A Mr Heaven was a preacher, the Misses Rook and Crow worked for a Bird Protection Society and the surname Phibbs featured in a group of lawyers; the latter fact unbelievable. I spent so many hours riveted there, I was late to cook dinner and the family would have revolted (an old joke there about agricultural workers) had it not been for the cooking trilogy of garlic, onions and ginger, noodles and a wok. But, I digress. Nothing unusual.

My interest in words and their meanings grew and led to many lengthy library sessions – no Google then – which brings me neatly, if rather confusingly – to my present, unquenchable, quest for word derivative explanations. Take ‘GEEK’ for example. Oh that’s modern slang…you may well mutter. Wrong! I recently read it was another name for ‘A Court jester in the 13th (15th?) century.’ Or was it? Nowadays, it means ‘A socially inept person, unfashionable, eccentric and maybe devoted to a particular interest’ (like train spotters, being hooked on computer games, playing marbles after dark, or collecting used straws). Way back when, it meant ‘A circus side-show freak:’ a bearded woman or a person with three arms – a genius on the piano and adept picking pockets. Another oddball had the appalling habit of biting off live chickens’ heads. How foul was that! It was suggested by another source that Geeks were ‘intelligent,’ while a final departure of the meaning stated: ‘From an old German word geck – basically a stupid person.’ Confusion reigns.

The word ‘SWASTIKA’ now sits in the limelight, and if ever a word embodied all that is evil – after 1932, when Hitler decreed it represented ‘The struggle for the victory of the Aryan race,‘ – Swastika was it! And so, the very antithesis of its original meaning, it became the symbol of the Nazi party. Much preferred is the other derivative of Swastika. From Svastika in the Sanskrit language, it translates to ‘being fortunate, well being and good luck.’ It originated in the Indo-Aryan region, particularly around India and appears in Buddhism and Hinduism, encompassing eternity. To Hindus it represents the God Ganesha.

My third attempt at ferreting out word histories, falls on ‘BLATANT.’ Its modern meaning states: ‘Lacking in subtlety, very obvious.’ The old one: ‘A thousand-tongued beast from hell.’ (Hardly welcome as a dinner guest.) It was penned in the 1600’s, invented by Edmund Spencer in his fantasy story ‘The Faerie Queen’ (try as I might, while a devotee of ballet, thoughts of which the story evoked, I too often have visions of the Monty Python team hamming it up in tutus). The story was an allegory for 16th century English religion. Characters symbolized a person or ideal in the real world, such as Queen Liz the First. The ‘Blatant’ beast represented slander and wickedness, and became an insult to loud persons. Personally, I’d rather watch Coronation Street and I’m not a fan.