Word Origins? Are These Ones You’ve Used Incorrectly?



We had some great discussions on Facebook over the last patch of words I included in a post on word origins. Let us see if you find any of these appealing?

Escort – This is a late 16th Century word coming to us via French and from the Italian word “scorta,” which is the feminine past participle of scourger, which means to conduct or to guide. The word is based on the suffix “ex,” meaning “out of,” combined with the root “corrigere,” meaning “to set right.” In its original sense, the word meant  a body of armed men protecting travelers. The idea of keeping company with a woman is of U.S. origin dating to the end of the 19th Century. 

The word Cote is of Germanic origin. It comes to the language from Old English to indicate a “cottage.” The word transformed to mean a shelter for mammals or for birds, such as pigeons. 

Scapegoat is a mid 16th Century word. The word comes to us from the ritual of the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16: 7-10). 

7 And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. /8 And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat. /9 And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. /10 But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness. [King James Version of the Bible]

The idea of escaping death did not come into the language until the early 19th Century. 

Espouse – This is a late Middle English word coming to us from the Old French espouser, which came into the language from the Latin sponsare to be “betroth.” The context of “to make one’s own, adopt, or embrace” when thinking of a cause, a doctrine, or a way of life, etc., dates to the early 17th Century. In William Wordsworth’s “The White Doe of Rylstone,” we read in Canto II… 

All prayers for this cause, or for that I/ Weep, if that aid thee; but depend/ Upon no help of outward friend;/ Espouse they doom at once, and cleave/ To fortitude without reprieve.

Also from Wordsworth’s poem, we have Couchant. This is a late Middle English word coming from the late 1400s. It is of Middle French origin, the present participle of coucher meaning “to lay or lie.” It means “lying down or crouching.” In Heraldry, we often see an animal (customarily a lion) lying on its stomach with its hind legs and forelegs pointed forward and its head up.  

Of facts divulged, wherein appear
Substantial motive, reason clear,
Why thus the milk-white Doe is found
Couchant beside that lonely mound;
And why she duly loves to pace 

Emolument, which currently means “a salary, fee, or profit from employment or office,” is a late Middle English word coming to the language from the Latin [from the verb emolere] emolumentum, which was a payment made to a miller for grinding corn. 

A closely connected word to emolument is the word Salary. This one comes to us from the Anglo-Norman French word of salade, which comes from the Latin salarium. It originally came into the language to indicate the allowance provided to Roman soldiers to purchase salt. From [approximately] 1390 to 1520, people applied the word to the stipend afforded to a priest. 

Also related is the word Wage. It is an Anglo-Norman French and Old Northern French word of Germanic origin. It is related to the Middle English word gage, meaning “pledge or warrant,” and the Scottish word wed, meaning a “pledge.”  Early on the word wage came to used in terms of “payment for services rendered.” The word is sometimes used in the sense of “waging war.” Surprisingly, this phrase has its roots in Middle English, meaning to “offer promises that something would be fulfilled.” 

Scandal is a Middle English word, coming to the English language from the Old French scandale, from the ecclesiastical Latin scandalum, meaning “cause of offence,” from Greek skandalon, meaning “snare or stumbling block.” It originally meant “discredit to religion, especially in reference to the poor behavior of a cleric.” In Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors (Act 5, Scene 1), we find…

Angelo. ‘Tis so; and that self chain about his neck
Which he forswore most monstrously to have. 1435
Good sir, draw near to me, I’ll speak to him.
Signior Antipholus, I wonder much
That you would put me to this shame and trouble;
And, not without some scandal to yourself,
With circumstance and oaths so to deny 1440
This chain which now you wear so openly:
Beside the charge, the shame, imprisonment,
You have done wrong to this my honest friend,
Who, but for staying on our controversy,
Had hoisted sail and put to sea to-day: 1445
This chain you had of me; can you deny it?

Combe is an Old English word, entering the language as cwm, a Celtic word referring to a rounded hollow in the Welsh mountains. It is found in charters dating from the period late 16th Century, appearing as the word cumb, meaning a small valley or hollow. The word survives, especially in southern England) to mean a short valley or hollow on a hillside or coastline. 

Scamp comes to the language via Middle Dutch schampen, meaning “slip away,” via Old French eschamper. In the mid 18th Century, the word meant “highwayman.” It comes from obsolete scamp meaning “to rob on the highway.” It was a derogatory term whose early usage was found in West Indian English. The term is thought to be more “playful” than “vicious” in tone in the current usage. 

Many of the definitions and examples provided above can be found in The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories (edited by Glynnis Chantrell, Oxford University Press, 2002).

About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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