Tag Archives: etymology

About that patriotic stuff

The word “patriotic” is an adjective used to describe things that are patriot-like.  The word patriot was loaned into English from middle French patriote, but its lineage can be traced back to Latin and Greek words for father, making the meaning of the word less about being proud of one’s homeland (or patria), and more about it being a feeling one has in conjunction with others who are of one’s father.  It’s about human relationships, common history, shared identity.

It’s not the opposite of “terrorist,” “godless,” or “anarchist.”

For European Americans, the 4th of July is a celebration of their people’s victory over their oppressive colonial rulers.  For people of African and Native descent, it is, at best, meaningless.

That’s patriotic all around.

After the Declaration [of Independence] there is a long list of justification given for why the colonies were declaring their independence from the control of England. And the 7th justification reads:
“He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”

13 years prior, King George issued the Proclamation of 1763. In this proclamation a line was drawn down the Appalachian Mountains and the colonies were essentially told that they no longer had the right of discovery of the Indian Lands west of Appalachia. Only the crown could thereafter negotiate treaties and buy or sell those lands. This deeply upset the colonies. For they wanted those empty Indian lands and King George was “raising the conditions of new Appropriations of (their rightful) Lands.”

Justification 27, the final justification in the list, states:
“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

How can a declaration that begins by stating “All men are created equal” go on to include justifications that dehumanize the Indian tribes and peoples who were already living in this land? Clearly the founding Fathers had a very narrow definition of who qualified as human. Therefore they could state “ALL men are created equal” because they did not believe that the “merciless Indian Savages” who occupied the empty Indian lands west of the Appalachian Mountains were actually human.

— Mark Charles, Navajo scholar, “The Doctrine of Discovery: A Buried Apology and an Empty Chair


Given the current state of race relations in the US and the heatwave, I would like to remind people, especially white males and others with privilege, that there is much to criticize about this country, its history, and the conduct of its modern state.  Try to hear criticisms and anti-nationalist sentiments as an ally, or at least a neutral bystander.

The 4th of July isn’t for everyone, just as the Declaration of Independence wasn’t about the self-evident and inalienable rights of women, slaves, native peoples, and other marginalized people.  So don’t be an asshole to people who choose not to be excited about what is, in reality, a celebration for a small number of already privileged people that they worked up the courage to challenge a far-distant government for dominion over a vast and diversely-peopled continent none of them had any right to claim.

Have a safe weekend, everyone.

Head Full of Bees

I was helping Númenor with some phonics work today and realized that he didn’t know the word “spell” in the context of orthography.

So, like good unschoolers, we made a guess, and then we looked it up, first in a regular dictionary, then in an etymology dictionary.

“Spell” is a fairly interesting entry, and I recommend it if you’re into that kind of thing, but as Númenor went back to the normal 4-year-old puttering that is his main learning activity, I wandered off along a tangent from “spelling” to “spelling bee” and finally ended up reading about idiomatic uses of the word “bee“:

To have a bee in (one’s) bonnet (1825), said of one who is harebrained or has an intense new notion or fancy, is said in Jamieson to be Scottish, perhaps from earlier expressions such as head full of bees (1510s), denoting mad mental activity.
— Etymonline



Head.  Full.  Of.  Bees.

How did this phrase EVER go out of vogue?  Google Ngram has it appearing in about three hundred MILLIONTH percent of books at its most popular.  WHY?  Why would anyone not want to use this phrase?

HEAD full of BEES.

As in, “I was up until 3am with my head full of bees, but I finally cleared my thoughts and fell asleep.”

As in, “He doesn’t say much, but you can see he has a head full of bees.”

As in, “She came in here with a head full of bees and we couldn’t get one coherent word out of her until she’d had two pints, but it’s a brilliant idea.”

It’s evocative, it’s suitably agrarian, it sounds a little anachronistic and a little rustic, maybe even agrestic, and it describes something that happens to me all the time– my head is always full of bees!

Head.  Full.  Of.  Bees.

This is my new thing.  I’m going to say this all the time!  I might get it tattooed on my arm, I love it so much.

My head is full of bees. Perfect.

The Old Gate: A Lesson in Kinematics

Today my 3-year-old and my 4-year-old had physics class.

This isn’t remarkable– as children who are not yet in the concrete operational stage, they are constantly in motion, and that is the best practical illustration of physics one could possibly hope to have– but what was remarkable was the subject of today’s lesson.

I watched them play well into the dusk, until they couldn’t see their feet in front of them in the fading light.  First, Ithilien would find a rock about the size of a mango.  Then they would both climb up to the first terrace in our mountainside back yard, and Númenor would swing the old stick gate– a remnant, we think, of someone’s goat pen– into the “closed” position and hold it still.  The latch is broken, so something must hold it still, otherwise the natural slope of the yard swings the gate out over the wooden deck on the level below until its post stops it and it comes to rest, looking like the top of a Dutch door in a nonexistent wall.

Next, Ithilien would place the rock on top of the gate, balancing it carefully.  Finally, Númenor would give the gate a little push to send it on its way, and it would swing wide over the deck and be abruptly stopped by its post, whereupon the rock would be jarred off the top of the gate and continue forward and downward to the ground.  Both children positively screamed with laughter every time this happened, but eventually it became predictable– after perhaps two dozen trials, they began to vary the number and placement of the rocks.

I finally gave them notice that it was too dark to keep playing outside– one more trial and then they had to come in– and we talked about what they learned.

N: “We pushed the gate, then it stopped.  The air pushed the rock and made it jump.”

Me: “The air pushed it?  I don’t think so…”

N: “Actually, it is called in-ur-sha.  That is a French word for ‘it keeps going’.”

Me: “Yes, the rock did fall off the gate because of inertia, which is a Latin word meaning “lazy” or “inactive.”  Why didn’t the gate keep moving?”

I: “The gate– it hit the fence– and it just stopped– like this!” (mimes a cartoonish sudden stop and resulting vibration with hands)

Me: “That’s exactly right.  The gate hit the rest of the fence, and that stopped it, but nothing stopped the rock, so it kept going and fell off the gate.”

N:  “The rock only fell from the front from the gate.  It fell in front all ninety-eight times!” [sic erat dictum, but I think it was more like 50 times]

Me: “Yeah, that’s what I would guess– the rock kept moving the same way the gate swung.  What happened when the rock was close to the hinges?”

I: “When the rock– it was close to the hinges– and it did not fall off!  And Númenor pushed the gate– and then the rock– it did fall!”

Me: “Exactly!  When the rock was close to the hinges, the gate swinging by itself didn’t give it enough inertia to overcome friction, so it did not fall off the gate until you swung the gate with more force.”

N:  “Yeah!  It had friction because of the wood– it is not smooth, it is all scratchy.”

Me:  “Uh-huh.  And the rock is probably bumpy, too, and that adds friction.  What about when there were two rocks on the gate?”

N: “One on the end of the gate did fall, but one by the hinges did not fall.  It had too many friction and not enough pushing, because it was closer.”

Me: “They probably had basically the same friction, but the one by the hinges was not acted upon by sufficient force.”

I: “The rock– when it fall– it maked a big noise like CRACCCCKK!”

N: “When Ithilien pushed the gate like this– ” (mimes pushing hard) “– the rock made a big noise.  When I pushed it like this–” (mimes a tiny push) “– it made a same sound.”

Me: “What do you think that means?”

N: “Um.  I don’t know.  Maybe the rock falled the same?”

Me: “It always fell from the top of the gate, so it fell the same distance regardless of how hard you pushed the gate sideways.”

I: “Gravity is how things fall down!”

Me: “Right.  And gravity was the only force pulling down on the rock.  So the rock would have the same speed hitting the ground no matter how hard you push the gate.”

N: “Yeah.  Gravity is how things are pulled by heavier things.”

Me: “Hmm.  Well, technically it’s how things are pulled by more massive things.”

N: “More massive, yeah.  Like Earth pulled on us’s rock?”

Me: “Exactly.”

And there it is.  In less than two hours, left basically unattended with derelict farm infrastructure and rocks, my three and four year old children discovered that vertical and horizontal forces are independent, that forces on the end of a lever are amplified relative to forces at the fulcrum, and that inertia can be overcome by additional force.  They also reviewed gravity, inertia, and friction, which are concepts we’ve talked about (and they’ve seen on The Magic School Bus) before.  They made hypotheses and collected data and verbalized the significance of their results.

Which is to say nothing of all they learned about what lives under rocks and inhabits leaf piles on warm October evenings.

Cunt Reclaimed

I’m reclaiming the word “cunt“.

Yes, like in the Vagina Monologues.

Because it’s better than “vagina”.

We can discard out of hand the word pudenda, which literally means “things to be ashamed of”.  “Sex” is too vague, now that it’s the most common term for sexual intercourse and also for the biological concept of reproduction by more than one organism.  “Genitals” is borderline, but between the fact that I don’t identify with having more than one and the implied reproductive imperative, it’s not the best choice.

Vagina, in addition to being an awkward-sounding word that technically only applies to the vaginal canal and not to any other part of the body (like the vulva or the perineum), is a misogynist term.  It’s not a “sheath”; my parts are mine, and my so-called vagina is a thing unto itself, already complete without having to make reference to or use of anything else.  No part of my body is an accessory to the penetrative phallus.

Cunt, a dark and secretive word, a word with authority and power, is a word so old nobody knows what it means or where it came from.  It signifies the whole thing, potentially even the whole region, and has a rich undertone of mystery.  The Patriarchy is so afraid of the term that it’s been considered obscene ever since James Stuart succeeded Golden Bess.  Is it a coincidence that “cunt” was euphemized away into “the monosyllable” right around the same time that the last matriarchal societies in western Europe came under control of the patriarchal imperial powers?  Maybe.  But, maybe not.


Say it.

Gender Neutral in English

Oh, pronouns.

If you read a lot of social science books in English, you’ll undoubtedly find a statement about pronoun use in the front matter of some of them.  The dilemma seems to be that people feel uncomfortable choosing pronouns to use for gender-neutral purposes.  The everyday speech solution– to use the plural (they/their/them) as singular neutral– is inappropriately casual for writing.  Modern scholars have tried to artificially construct gender neutral pronouns for English, with mixed results.  Some authors alternate between masculine and feminine pronouns, and are then compelled to devise some system for making sure that the representation of the pronouns is balanced overall.  Some authors, especially in books about reproductive processes, assign a certain set of pronouns to all subjects of a certain description for clarity (e.g., in midwifery texts the baby usually takes the masculine pronouns because the person gestating/birthing/nursing the baby usually takes the feminine pronouns).  Very few modern scholars will defend the use of he/his/him as gender-neutral.

Feminist scholars have claimed that using he/his/him as neutral pronouns disappears people who take feminine pronouns because it creates the false impression that all these general persons are masculine, and that treating masculine as default and feminine as aberration is a form of misogyny.

Unfortunately, there’s an etymology problem with this line of reasoning– him and his aren’t simply masculine pronouns.

A proto-Germanic forbear of English created all of the masculine pronouns of modern English.  But, of course, it’s not that simple, because early English actually had a full neuter person.






nominative he hit heo (hio) hie (hi)
accusative hine hit hie (hi) hie (hi)
genitive his his hire hira (heora)
dative him him hire him (heom)

All these words are variations on the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root *ki-, meaning “this”, as opposed to “that”.  Over the course of time, the initial letter dropped from the neuter accusative and nominative to become “it”, which replaced all other cases for the neuter and became a way to differentiate between objects and people when English nouns lost their gender in the middle ages.  The assumption modern English makes is that things without gender are not people, so using the neuter pronouns that still exist to refer to people is offensive.*

In this space, when I need to use a gender-neutral pronoun,** I will use the traditional set of Old English neuter pronouns adapted for the modern English cases: “hit” for the subjective, “his” for the possessive, and “him” for the objective.



Chart adapted from here


*It occurs to me that this line of thinking conflates “being neither masculine nor feminine” with “being less than human”.  Is it necessary to fit into the gender binary in order to be human?  Is it necessary to have a gender in order to be human?  Obviously not, because unborn babies are humans totally without gender.  Is considering “it” to be a denigrating pronoun for humans in itself transphobic, because to think so accepts the assumption that if you aren’t masculine or feminine you aren’t human?

**I do use feminine pronouns for describing general case people who are pregnant, birthing, and nursing, because as a midwife, I have to hold sacred the feminine nature of childbearing.  I recognize that not everyone who is pregnant is a woman, and that some childbearing people prefer other pronouns, but for the general case, I will persist in feminine pronouns.